True/False & What Else? V: Thought Conditions Life, Research Time, 11/08/2016

Continued from last post . . . If you'll grant me a little interpretive leeway, the notion that Louis Althusser’s personality could have influenced his philosophical thinking is a twisted mirror-image of his own theory of ideology.

The external and global – society’s ideological-ethical-moral structures – appear from inside an individual personality as psychosis, neurosis, horror, and utter madness. It’s very Freudian in a way, but not the bad kind of Freudian that reduces every psychological problem to Œdipal family dynamics. 

The external and global express themselves internally and psychologically. Also very Jungian, but not the bad kind of Jungian that gets tripped up on making a set of recurring mythological symbols into a mystical collective unconscious. 

Despite the strongly deterministic nature of his structuralist framework for thinking about reality, there’s a path to make our world better as individual actors. At different points in those essays of For Marx, Althusser discusses how ideology can change.

Because it does change. Societies change radically over time – just contrast how different human society is today from three centuries ago. Even fifty centuries ago, social and ethical values and discourses could change. The engine of that change is the interaction of life’s material reality and practice with how we think and speak about that practice.

We can act to tweak that interaction, shift it in some directions over others. This is the pragmatic radicalism I’ve been discussing – shifting the limits and boundaries of what society considers possible. Pushing more and more people to think what was previously inconceivable.

Maybe we can have a government without a king – Democracy. Morality without the underwriting authority of a god – Kindness. A conception of our nationhood that excludes no one – Brotherhood. 

Yet beyond this idea that I’ve already pretty much figured out, there is more in Althusser that I can pilfer for my own philosophical work. For example, there’s a grid.

Well, he doesn’t actually lay it out as a grid. Althusser’s For Marx is the produce of a French academic writing essays about marxist theory in the early 1960s. So he lays it out in immensely long and over-wordy arguments with sentences more than seven lines long.

But you can make a grid. It has four squares. It lays out the concrete and the abstract versions of thought and material or life.

Theory is thought that keeps its focus on understanding the concrete, concepts that have real, worldly power to change lives and social structures. They can be as elaborate and derive into all kinds of wild structures if the problem in view demands it. But its focus is always thought that increases and augments your power.

Practice is concrete material, the lived reality of daily life in all its drudgery and majesty. This is the tough work of getting shit done. This doesn’t reduce to the dusty old dualism of theory vs practice, airy-fairy thoughts and real work. Too often, that dichotomy is just used as a tool or a trick to denigrate intelligence or critical thought. 

Speaking of tricks to denigrate critical thought and protest, ideology. Ideology is, on Althusser’s thinking, abstract thought. It’s speculation without an interest or focus on our powers. Thinking disconnected from what we can do, distractions from developing our real potentials to focus on imaginary dream worlds instead. 

We can still act on the principles derived from ideology. But it makes no sense to. Quite literally. When we examine any of the moral principles that are based in thought entirely abstracted from our real powers, their logic falls apart. There’s no reason to believe in any of these principles beyond the fact that you believe in them. 

“It’s always been done this way.” “That’s just not right!” “Why would anyone do anything different?”

That’s why Althusser calls those principles dogma. Dogma – material life made abstract. So if I’ve learned anything from reading this very flawed thinker, it’s this quite useful way of distinguishing productive from self-destructive thinking. Thanks, Louis, you mad old commie murderer.

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