- “What Use Is Althusser?”
Louis Althusser spent much of 1968 hospitalized in a Paris suburb for a bout of depression.1 Perhaps it was his removal from the events of that May that sent him into a manic period of some weeks during which he wrote a book-length sequence of essays.2 We know only that these essays preserve that moment as one that afforded him new insight into how it was that political societies govern best when they appear not to be governing at all. It struck him that on both sides of the Atlantic something had happened to university education that opened up a gulf so deep between those who made political decisions and those who had to live and die by them that the educational apparatus could never be restored to a state quite as that which it was before. A generation of university students had seen for themselves that political authority was especially powerful when it appeared to be neither political nor authoritative—when, in other words, it came in the guise of free choice, or their education. As parties to the grand deception, these future scholars and teachers had to figure out how reading literature had once disposed them to imagine their relation to the same institution with which they were now engaged in open warfare. Convinced that an inquiry into the politics of a humanities education is more important now than ever, I want to use the insights Althusser wrote up in the weeks following the 1968 uprisings to cast light on what is an otherwise inexplicable attack on his reading method by some of today’s most prominent literary critics.
What did he see from his hospital room? Althusser saw that those who left their classrooms to protest in the streets, alongside disgruntled workers, minorities, and women, were doing something more consequential than assaulting “the scholastic apparatus,” which was, in his view, the “dominant state ideological apparatus” of capitalist societies (144, 142). By throwing the promise of their education to the winds, [End Page 13] those students rejected “the ‘scientific culture’ or ‘literary culture’” that would qualify them for various roles in production—as technicians, engineers, senior managers, as well as teachers and scholars. When they rejected their position “in the order established by class domination,” he concluded, an entire generation of students refused to reproduce that order in the next generation (italics his, 50–51).
It took only a decade or two for the sensational excesses of 1968 to transform campus life and to infiltrate various levels of mainstream consumer culture. Meanwhile, theories that translated that event into a new political awareness were smuggled into the United States and sequestered in a few departments of French and Comparative Literature. In collaboration with several enlightened presses and a handful of upstart scholarly journals, Cultural Critique among them, these departments quickly rose to prominence on the ideas born of that moment and the body of Continental philosophy that lent them logical rigor, a place in the history of ideas, and a means of international dissemination. By contrast to the near ubiquity of the counterculture, I am suggesting, the imported theory that sought to overthrow the common-sense philosophy of that day had notably limited impact. Even among those who continue that work, and despite Althusser’s enormous influence on the other legendary theorists of the post-1968 epoch, both the Left and the Right still find it relatively easy to dismiss him, if not for his apparent lack of support for the protests and fraught relation to Marxism, then for the murder of his wife, Marta Harnecker. But, as the philosopher who first spelled out the ideology that informed the teaching and the production of scholarship, Althusser is nevertheless the one whose insights I still find especially useful.
It so happened that before he succumbed to depression in 1968, Althusser and a group of his students had been engaged in research that would explain the role of the school system in capitalist societies.3 The fact that students brought the university’s business to a screeching halt—not only in Paris but also across the United States, the UK...