True/False & What Else? III: Terror in Powerlessness, Research Time, 09/08/2016

Continued from last post . . . Louis Althusser is the first author I came across to have discussed that undercurrent tradition of political thinking. The materialist democrats – Baruch Spinoza, Niccolo Machiavelli, and Karl Marx.

Now, I discovered this not in one of his books of philosophy, but in his autobiography, The Future Lasts Forever. This is in many ways a very disturbing book – I recommend it highly. 

Althusser wrote two autobiographies. The first was a fairly straightforward description of his life up to his general retirement from teaching in the mid-1970s. The next was The Future Lasts Forever, a blur of memories, traumatic terror, fragmentary recollections of the collapse of his subjectivity, and philosophical reflection on society and individuality.

One major concept of horror is that unspeakable terrors
exist under the comforting fabric of ordinary life. I've
been thinking a bit about horror tropes lately.
He was prompted to write that second, much more fascinating, autobiography by a need to set the record straight. See, Althusser had a catastrophic mental breakdown in 1980 and murdered his wife Helene Rytmann, strangling her. He was in such a state at the time that the French courts declared him unfit to stand trial. 

So not only did Althusser never face punishment for the killing, but there wasn’t even a detailed investigation into the causes of the act. He was remanded to a psychiatric institution and stayed there for about four years. 

When he was released, he wrote The Future Lasts Forever to set the record as straight as he could, and at least take some of the power over his public image back from the tabloid press. 

It wasn’t a matter of mounting a counter-argument to the press’ allegations that Althusser was a killer who got away with it. You can't really take that book as anything but an unfolding portrait of a broken mind. It was a demonstration that Althusser as a subject was in a far different, more disturbing world than the terms of sensationalist hackery could understand.

Some of his claims I can’t take seriously. I can’t consider his claim that he never finished reading Capital, never really studied much Marx in the first place, as a straightforward confession. He writes and interprets with too much creativity to plagiarize or spin his wheels. 

The Althusser of The Future Lasts Forever is a collapsed person, shattered completely. You don’t read that book looking for facts – you read it looking for the moments of lucidity. 

What kind of horror does a person experience when they
try to reckon with their own mental breakdown? When
that breakdown was so intense that he strangled his
wife and lifelong companion to death?
Their emergence is the most terrifying tragedy in the story, the moments when he realizes the magnitude of what he did, even if he’s talking about something else entirely.

One of the many terrifying threads in that autobiography was his devotion to that tradition of political philosophy – materialist democrats. In this tradition, the world was incredibly complicated, unable to be reduced to any simple schema and have your ideas remain at all adequate. Politics was rough and gritty. 

Society could be transformed, but it would mean literally revolutionizing the terms in which that whole society lived and understood their own lives. 

And what was Althusser’s contribution to that? To me, he makes for a profound challenge. By removing agency from individuals, he made each person a function of their society. 

He presents a conundrum that I don’t really see any way out of, unless you simply reject his terms. If individuals are functions of their societies – expressions of an ideology – then you can’t really be a revolutionary. Even though he was a communist activist his entire life. 

When he’s talking about the structure of an ideology – the social imaginary and moral framework of a people – Althusser provides some valuable insights. I'm going to get into that next post. 

But the paradoxes of his thinking – when you look at them on the large scale of his entire corpus and life – are all vicious. Such a deterministic structuralism – macro determining the activity of the meso – just can’t fit with being a revolutionary. You can't think that changing the world is possible if you think that the world always has agency over you.

Even with being a philosopher. It's an individual's conceptual creativity that lets us understand events and processes of universal importance. Individuality as an organism can't be denied without a kind of willful ignorance of real life.

The parts have to shape the whole just as the whole shapes the parts. Activity is a feedback loop among all constituents. Either everything is active, or there’s no activity at all. Passivity – being the object of an action – is only relative to the action itself. Not determining, but overpowering. 

Individuality can’t be escaped. The belief itself would be a false ideology. But what does that even really mean? False ideology from true ideology? Or is it more complex than that? Of course it is. . . . To Be Continued

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