Continued from last post . . . As much as I opened up Louis Althusser’s theoretical works for enlightenment, I’m more than a little disappointed. There are a few reasons why, but a I found a distinction of ideas that will probably be useful.
Thinking about his structuralism, I don’t think it works well as a framework for the more ecological priorities that I want my philosophical writing* to pursue. Reality is assembled from feedback loops – mutual affectivity. That makes no sense in the strong structural determinism of Althusser’s thinking about the nature of reality.
|Today's post is about the mental health problems of|
professional academics, with one prominent example.
* And human civilization more generally, if I can sound more than a little pretentious.
Then there's the reputational damage. Even though Althusser is generally acknowledged as an insightful and influential figure in left-wing and marxist political philosophy, some pretty terrible clouds hang over his career and thought. Literal and metaphorical.
For one, as I wrote about yesterday, he murdered his wife in the depths of a bizarre psychotic-manic-depressive-bipolar-maybe-schizophrenic episode. We can separate the artist from the work however much we like, but ultimately, character does inform ideas – if only implicitly and contextually.
Then there are the allegations of fraud. The ones he brought on himself, that is. In his autobiography The Future Lasts Forever, Althusser admits to having read very little of the history of philosophy. I’ve read more of the canonical texts at age 33 than he had by his late 60s and retirement from a lifelong career as a professor and lecturer.
While I don’t truly believe that his fraud was complete, his collapse makes it difficult to draw on. After killing Helene Rytmann, he collapsed into a profoundly intense neurotic state. Althusser was a neurotic for most of his life, lacking self-esteem and plagued by sexual hangups and doubt.
Consumed by self-hatred and self-doubt, I can see how the hazy memories of a life before the total shattering of his personality can transform the impostor syndrome common in academia into a full-on delusion of intellectual fraud.
|I don't believe he was a fraud. Just an immensely troubled|
man. Who murdered his wife. Let's not forget that. He
also killed the woman who'd been his companion for
literally half his life.
I’ve experienced life with a close family member whose personality had been shattered by a powerful mental-neurological trauma. Such people are detached from reality, socially isolated by continuing mental derangement even when in regular contact with people.
They believe their own delusions about the present and past because they can no longer process the present as factual. For the severely traumatized, the world becomes immaterial, and only the personality – narrative memory constantly rewritten, edited, rearranged – is real.
Nonetheless, I find Althusser too dangerous a thinker to adapt as a fellow-traveller, whether for Utopias or wider political activism and writing. Althusser so deeply gave in to the horror of his life and political compromises that it infects his writing – from his structuralism to his lifelong defence of Stalinism.
You can have a mental collapse without it tainting the rest of your life’s work, as Nietzsche did, becoming an organic mannequin for his proto-nazi sister. You can be ridiculously neurotic but still develop a philosophy of joy and creativity, as Deleuze did with his six inch fingernails, unwashed hair, and maddeningly boring personal life.
Oh, were you surprised that Althusser defended Stalinism? Well, even though he devoted long, technically dense essays like “Overdeterminism” to a defence of communist thinking against accusations of Stalinism, he regularly defended the USSR and even the Stalinist regime throughout his life.
The entire last section of his essay “Marxism and Humanism” is a full-throated defence of the USSR in 1963 as an emerging utopia where there would be no want and all would be free. Where the “dictatorship of the proletariat” and the “cult of personality” necessary to maintain it were quickly transitioning to the paradise of full communism.
Yeah, not so much.
So what did I ultimately gain from reading Althusser’s For Marx? I’ve rambled in my preamble too long, so I’ll have to save it for tomorrow. . . . To Be Continued
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