Seeing the End in the Beginning III: The Point Is Always the Present, Research Time, 24/06/2016

Continued from last post . . . Or the post before, because you can skip the middle. Because here’s the real cliffhanger of this series. 
“The human relationship with time. That relationship is a matter of how we understand the way we relate to our own history, and how our history relates to us.Althusser made his reputation as a philosophy scholar with a series of essays that changed how people read Marx. It used to be there were two general takes on how Marx’s ideas developed. One camp saw a radical break between more idealist early works and a purely materialistic approach after the 1840s. Another read the early books and essays as preparatory material for his real culmination in CapitalNeither is right. The reason why lies in the nature of time, development, and change. . . .”
Here's a sketch of that reason, a schizz* between our conceptions of history as a narrative and the real nature of history as contingent collisions of processes. This example of Louis Althusser’s argument on how to read Marx will be one important illustration of this schizz and the problems it creates.

* What’s a schizz? Aside from an underrated Alan Moore project, it’s a term I’m taking from Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s work. When two or more processes that seem as though they should go together smoothly, but actually jar and grate into an intense tension – when an expected harmony becomes a cruel juxtaposition and possibly even an explosion – that’s a schizz.

Choosing one story in all of history erases billions of
Those two camps of Marxist scholarship seem quite different. The Breakers saw the early works as defined by a heavy Hegel influence – the early Marx was an idealist Marx, in other words, and they talked among themselves about how much and how quickly Marx’s more materialist way of seeing the world manifested in his early life.

The Culmination interpretation was compatible with the Break perspective, but not necessarily. To the Break interpretation, a serious phase transition in Marx’s thinking occurred after the 1840s happened, but those early works are still part of a continuum of development.

All the works of Marx were laying the groundwork for Capital. That was the masterwork. Not just the masterwork, but the cumulative achievement of everything that had come before. And the general attitude in the scholarship community was that the literal purpose of each of those earlier books was to make the writing of Capital possible.

Althusser deflated that attitude like a popped balloon. It was by making a very simple point: understanding a writer’s entire body of work as leading up to a single ending capstone is only possible retroactively. Only by looking back after the fact can you understand a life as a narrative.

Aristotle made this point back in ancient Greece. It was the idea that you can only know the value of a life, whether a person achieved a worthwhile existence, once that person has passed and you can examine it as a whole. 

Narrative concepts are, on this view, the central ethical tools to understand people. It’s a judgement of what purpose our lives have, and how successful we are in achieving that purpose. Or how far we’ve fallen short.

But narratives aren’t how we actually live. Our actual lives are much messier. We have many purposes, much smaller than our whole lives. From achieving success in a decade-long career plan, producing some project, raising a family, buying a home and selling it later for a general profit, or just getting through the day without losing your temper.

Karl Marx wasn't always old.
Or in this case, Marx didn’t publish The German Ideology or write any of the articles and manuscripts he produced in the 1840s so they’d be building blocks for the epic masterpiece he’d compose decades later. 

Althusser wrote, "To imagine life in advance is beyond human intelligence."

Karl Marx was a poor labour activist and anti-monarchist revolutionary in the mid-19th century. He might not have considered it possible that he’d live nearly as long as he did. He wouldn’t have acted with these plans.

Marx’s works – each of them, individually – were conceived as being worth producing on their own terms. Each one had its own purpose at the time. 

That they contributed to a decades-long progression of thinking to produce one big career-summarizing work was a matter of Marx himself perhaps thinking back over all he’d done as he developed this massive work Capital in the last years of his own life.

His revisionist narrative of his own history. All narrative is revisionist, as the perspective of the current moment papers over what was immanent to the past as you lived it. So the narrative meaning of a history isn’t true – It erases whatever contingent elements of in a given moment don't contribute or actively schizz with what you want to make of that history.

The open question is whether truth is all we want from history.

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