Saturday, May 14, 2016

Althusser Part I: "On the Young Marx" & The Study of Problematics

This post is the first in a projected series on Althusser. This summer I aim to read For Marx (currently underway; for the second time), Reading Capital, and On the Reproduction of Capitalism, with some essays sprinkled in between. This will hopefully prepare me sufficiently to better tackle Badiou's early work, starting with some of his youthful essays and then The Concept of Model, which has already influenced me greatly simply due to Fraser's masterful introduction.

This post will be on For Marx, from the beginning through the chapter “On the Young Marx”.

Immediately upon beginning the book (which I have not read in over 4 years), I noticed the deep similarities between Althusser's talk of problematics and my own theory of formalysis. Just what is a problematic? Arche-tecture (my term for problematic) is rather strictly defined due to its formal nature – it encompasses the formal architecture of a theory, philosophy, or other type of conceptual system. An arche-tecture is the result of taking a particular formal ontology as intelligible on its own terms and without reference to its adequacy of inadequacy with regard to the Real. But a problematic, at least in the chapters I have read so far, seems to be rather more ill-defined.

Althusser gives a few principles for the scientific study of ideology/problematics (on page 23):
  1. Every ideology should be taken as a real whole, internally unified (by its problematic); “problematic” here seems to function as an indicator of wholeness, a unification from the inside and not necessarily from the outside (i.e. from a different problematic).
  2. The meaning of an ideology is determined (whether necessarily or contingently) not by its own internal principles but by its relation to what is outside it, in reality, i.e. by its relation to the field of ideology in general (more on this term later) and on its relation to the social structure (and problems of that structure); in other words the meaning of ideology stands in its reference to reality, as if it were meant to model said reality.
  3. The developmental motor of an ideology is consequently outside or external to an ideology, and not internal to it; this implies that as reality develops, so must ideology (just like a good model changes in tandem with what it is modeling).

On page 25, we get an excellent quote that sums up this project: “This is the relationship that has to be thought: the relation between the (internal) unity of a single thought (at each moment of its development) and the existing ideological field (at each moment of its development). But if this relationship must be thought, so, in the same movement, must its terms.”

Now, the term “ideological field” is obviously of great importance, but in the essay we unfortunately do not get a clear or direct definition of it. If we understand “ideological field” as something like “the set of all ideologies within some set of specifying parameters”, then we can adequately distinguish “ideological field” from “social structure/reality/problems”. Therefore the hierarchy goes something like this: the social structure is all-encompassing; within it there is an ideological field the development of which is determined by social reality; within the ideological field we have a number of different particular ideologies. The “relationship that has to be thought” is therefore not a relationship between social reality and an ideology, but in this case the relationship between one particular ideology and the set of all ideologies within a given society.

While of course the meaning of an ideology is determined both by ideological field and by social reality, Althusser seems to view the intra-ideological relationship as worthy of study, in particular for the following reason: “This interrelationship of the particular problematic of the thought of the individual under consideration with the particular problematics of the thoughts belonging to the ideological field allows for a decision as to its author's specific difference, i.e., whether a new meaning has emerged” (31).

This thought has distinct echoes with my own desire for a proper theory of “conceptual work” as I have called it. Althusser's criticism of Feuerbach for using words without having new concepts behind them (in particular, declarations of “materialism”) only makes the connection deeper and the (heretofore unconscious) influence of Althusser upon me even more obvious.

On the other hand, Althusser also seems to critique ideology (in particular the German ideology of the 1840s) as being inadequate to social reality. In other words, pre-Marxist German philosophy transformed real problems (of society) into philosophical ones, not through a direct theorization or making-theoretical of real non-theoretical objects (for this would presumably be a good modeling), but through a convoluted mystification whereby the problems posed in philosophy had no correspondence in the non-philosophical realm. Althusser is therefore critiquing that philosophy due to its having the wrong problematic, in other words for its bad modeling; the definitions and terms of this philosophy had no referents in the social reality in which they were thought (here he gives the example of the State, which was absolutely not “liberty in action”, as the philosophy would have it).

Formalysis, in contrast, has really nothing to do with modeling or with theoretical representations (which amount to the same thing).

So here we can propose an interesting point of difference: Althusser's scientific study of problematics is a study of non-formal, representational conceptual systems, and therefore cannot study them on their own formal terms, in their own radical internality and sovereignty. Formalysis studies not problematics but non-representational formal ontologies, though the first method of formanalytical thinking is to transform problematics into formal ontologies. So a study of problematics is an indispensible first step towards their singularization.

One final note: Althusser writes that we must adopt a “logic of actual existence and real emergence, one that would put an end to the illusions of ideological immanence; in short, [we must] adopt a logic of the irruption of real history in ideology itself” (44).  

This seems to be equivalent to asserting that no ideology has within it its own principle of intelligibility - a phrase actually used by Althusser on page 17). A difference from Badiou would be the intelligibility of that irruption and its source itself, the belief in the possibility of a relatively unproblematic science of irruptions. For Badiou, this irruption is from the void, not from an objective set of objects and relations called "real". The connection to and difference from formalysis is obvious.

Part II coming soon!

1 comment:

  1. E,

    I enjoy the connection you make on Althusser's engagement with ideology. In particular the connection to define Althusser's concept of the problematic (as you list the term above). What I find interests me is Althusser's discourse over the ways of knowing Marx. What appropriate method shall readers use to interpret and understand the philosopher; what is the correct method to understand his philosophy, anthropology, history, etc, as part of knowing Marx? As I read your post I think the use of the problematic, to explain the composition of Marx, and you develop valuable insight. The problematic describes the historical situatedness of Marx himself (as a man of his time). The internal debate between Feuerbach, Hegel, and Marx appears in Marx's work -- and thank God Althusser discerns that the interdependence of these thinkers as not mere allusion but part of the ideological unity of Marxist thought! In Anthropology, holism is a common concept present within the discipline and commonly develops within the field as a capstone to empirical research in the field... and perhaps anthropology attempts to view the historical individual, such as Marx, in similar ways Althusser constructs a reader's way of knowing Marx?