Biography is destiny

Anne Boyer on Althusser

Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, once infamously asserted that “biology is destiny.” (What he actually wrote was “anatomy is destiny,” but this is a trivial distinction. Either way, the statement was clearly intended as a provocation). Of course, Freud made this remark in connection with the subject of female genitality, with a sideways glance cast toward “the feministic demand for equal rights” — which he held “[did] not carry far here.”[1] It should thus hardly come as any surprise that the milquetoast lefty Kulturzeitschrift New Inquiry would reject this formulation. By all accounts, however, if Anne Boyer’s recent “review” of On the Reproduction of Capitalism by the late Louis Althusser is any evidence, the online journal has embraced an opposite but equally dubious dictum. According to this view, it would seem that “biography is destiny.” Her examination of this text, the first translation of Althusser’s writings to be published in years, serves as a mere pretext for her bizarre tirade against philosophers’ incorrigible habit of reproducing “patriarchy,” here nebulously conceived as a kind of timeless or perennial entity or institution.

Normally I’d be the last person to mount a serious defense of Althusser. Theoretical antihumanism, the outcome of Althusser’s misguided structuralist approach to Marxism, has proved deeply problematic in its subsequent influence on the Left. His notion of a sharp “epistemic break” dividing the Young Marx from the Old, laid the groundwork for a whole generation of bad scholarship. Even more ironic is the fact that Althusser would propose such a drastic rereading of Marx’s mature works, especially Capital, so soon after the rediscovery of the Grundrisse in the 1950s, which all but confirmed the persistent Hegelian underpinnings not just of the early works (The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, The German Ideology, etc.), but his broader investigations into political economy more than a decade later. Althusser could scarcely have chosen a worse time, Marxologically speaking, to advance such a hypothesis. Besides this, there are any number of objections one might legitimately raise: his ahistorical notion of ideology, his rejection of historico-critical self-consciousness as the foundation for both individual and group subjectivity, or his botched anti-Hegelian interpretation of Lenin (who’d written that “[i]t is completely impossible to understand Marx’s Capital, especially its opening chapter, without having thoroughly studied and understood the whole of Hegel’s Logic!”). One could go on.

Unfortunately, Boyer adopts a somewhat different strategy for criticizing Althusser. She cites his disapproval of the slogan “Kill the cop in your head!”, widespread in 1968, ostensibly derived from the metaphor of interpellation used to explain ideology a few years prior. In Althusser’s metaphor, a policeman who stops someone on the street shouts “Hey, you there!”

As he puts it:

[i]deology “acts” or “functions” in such a way that it “recruits” subjects among individuals (it recruits them all), or “transforms” individuals into subjects (it transforms them all) by that very precise operation which I have called interpellation or hailing, and which can be imagined along the lines of the most commonplace everyday police (or other) hailing.[2]

Boyer explains that the real problem with Althusser was that he secretly wanted to remain a philosopher, unlike Marx. Or that’s one of his problems, at least. The other we’ll see soon enough. Philosophy’s relationship to Marxism is a more complex matter than Boyer would like to admit, one that has been treated by thinkers far more subtle than Althusser. Karl Korsch and Joseph Dietzgen come to mind, among others — Anton Pannekoek, for example. “Althusserianism has always been a Marxism for those who prefer the class struggle as philosophy,” Boyer thus blithely asserts. For someone like Althusser, whose head was always in the clouds, Boyer’s solution is clear. “Kill the philosopher in your head,” she advises.

As for his other problem, you may well have already guessed it. Looming over the total corpus of his thought is the corpse of his wife, Hélène Rytmann. It’s difficult to ignore the overwhelming biographical fact of her murder at Althusser’s hands. Or “by” his hands, rather: the official cause of death was asphyxiation, the result of manual strangulation by cher Louis. He later claimed that he had just been trying to administer a neck massage. Who really knows? That Althusser had a long and troubled psychiatric history is well established, not that this necessarily exonerates him. Either way, Boyer still finds it “useful to draw a line from ‘the problem with Althusser’ (his thinking) to ‘the problem with Althusser’ (strangling his wife).” She cites a polemical essay by the Derridean feminist Geraldine Finn from 1981, entitled “Why Althusser Killed His Wife,” with approval:

The truth is that the Althusser who killed his wife is Althusser, the revolutionary. His philosophical and intellectual practice can’t be separated from his personal and emotional practice: they are rooted in the same soil and have the same material, social, historical and ideological conditions of possibility and determinacy. Philosophers and political scientists have always killed their wives, literally or figuratively, by reproducing the violent patriarchal social relation.[3]

Wingnuttery seldom appears in such pure or condensed form. On the surface, however, it seems to be consistent with the adage that “the personal is political,” long associated with feminism. A cursory look at the history of philosophy is enough to refute this nonsense, which Boyer somehow manages to quote unironically. Yes — “philosophers and political scientists have always killed their wives.” Socrates? Killed his wife. Aristotle? Him too. René  Descartes? Gottfried Leibniz? Immanuel Kant? Wife-killers all of them. Hannah Arendt and Simone de Beauvoir? The former was a political scientist, the latter a philosopher. So it follows that they, too, killed their wives. Nevermind that only one of these figures ever married, or that philosophers down through history rarely marry in general. As for Arendt, the one who did end up getting hitched (twice), her matrimonial title was clearly that of the “wife.” Sure, Aristotle wrote some stuff about women that was pretty fucked up — something the Melina Mercouri character in Never on Sunday (1960) never failed to point out — and Kant gave some terrible advice to one of his female admirers, Maria von Herbert, who wound up committing suicide years later. But none of this amounts to uxoricide, or anything close.

I’m aware that women are perfectly capable of “reproducing the violent patriarchal social relation,” too. An objection such as this could be raised with respect to the remark I made earlier about de Beauvoir and Arendt, which might be taken to suggest that I think they can’t. Let’s not be facile here. Christine Delphy points out, in any case, that “one of the first slogans of [the women’s] movement was ‘get rid of the phallus/man in your head’,”[4] a sentiment that closely parallels “kill the cop in your head.”

Hard though it may be to maintain credulity after sitting through this tour de farce, a few more observations can be made before passing on to the final judgment. For it deserves to be said that Boyer never actually gets around to the text in question, On the Reproduction of Capitalism, except maybe in a paragraph or two near the end. The rest of Boyer’s review is an exercise in hack psychologism, attributing Althusser’s various theoretical errors to intellectual dishonesty. Most of his shortcomings can be traced back to an insufficient education in the very topics on which he commented the most: Marxism & philosophy. What leads her to pass such a damning verdict? It’s not anything in the book she is ostensibly reviewing. Rather than derive this conclusion from the actual arguments Althusser makes, Boyer instead looks to some of the gnawing doubts he expressed in his memoir written years later, The Future Lasts Forever, while imprisoned for the murder of his wife. Like any good Maoist professor teaching in the West, Althusser was a regular practitioner of ritualistic autocritique, or public self-criticism. He’d even released a collection of Essays in Self-Criticism during the early 1970s. So it’s not as if hyperbolic mea culpas were unknown to Althusser. At any rate, it is a mark of profound laziness that Boyer allows such statements — where he goes on about his fear of being exposed as a “charlatan,” or not having read enough philosophy or Marx — to stand in for the hard work of immanent critique.

But wait! Boyer has an expert witness: Jacques Rancière, one of Althusser’s students, no less. M. Rancière confirms his master’s self-doubt. Nothing frightened Althusser more than the prospect that he’d be outed as just “a trickster and deceiver and nothing more, a philosopher who knew almost nothing about the history of philosophy or about Marx.” This would be more convincing if it weren’t simple hearsay, gossip passed on by another former protégé who imagines that he’s surpassed his old mentor. Or if I respected Rancière in the least, which I don’t. He’s been giving anti-intellectualism an intellectual alibi for years now; his entire career is built on it. E.P. Thompson receives a brief mention by Boyer, who pops in for a moment just to say that Althusser’s “Ideology & Ideological State Apparatuses” essay is “the ugliest thing he ever did.”[5] Still, though this gestures in the direction of an argument, Boyer leaves it hanging, unelaborated upon. It’s never entirely clear why he thought it was “the ugliest thing” Althusser ever wrote. What a waste of a perfectly good quote.

Might have all been worth it, sort of, had the review’s punchline not been so banal. After presenting the standard image of the philosopher, i.e. “the stock figure who goes around with his head in the clouds or in abstraction and ‘falls down wells’…because he keeps his eyes trained on the heaven of ideas rather than on the ground,”[6] Boyer proposes “action” as a means of escaping the quandaries and navel-gazing impasses of philosophical thought. The first example comes from Aristophanes’ sendup of Socrates in The Clouds; the second reprises in essence the popular legend about the Milesian philosopher Thales — as told by Plato, Cicero, and others. Boyer leans on the latter caricature toward the close of her review. She aphoristically concludes: “Philosophy can land you in a hole, but only action will get you out of it.” Of course it is correct to say that action is required to get out of a ditch, but not just any action will produce this result. Indeed, one course of action would be to dig the hole deeper. Keep on doing what you have been, no matter how ineffectual or even counterproductive. What Boyer is actually looking for is a guidebook for overturning society as it presently exists, as earlier she complains: “On the Reproduction of Capitalism provides no instruction for revolution, but is a messy, contradictory first draft full of unkept promises, maddening inconsistencies, bold but unsupported claims, a priori argument, amusing tirades, some Marxishly mystified Platonism, a sprinkling of praise for Stalin,” etc. Next time she might want to pick up a copy of The Coming Insurrection or something of the sort, an immediately actionable how-to guide for fomenting revolution (perhaps Nechaev’s Catechism of a Revolutionary).

A brief postscript here.


[1] Freud, Sigmund. “The Passing of the Oedipal Complex.” Translated by James Strachey. Papers on Sexuality and the Psychology of Love. (Touchstone Books. New York, NY: 1997). Pg. 170.
[2] Althusser, Louis. “Ideology & Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes toward an Investigation).” Translated by Ben Brewster. On Ideology. (Verso Books. New York, NY: 2008). Pg. 48.
[3] Finn, Geraldine. Why Althusser Killed His Wife. (Humanities Press. Princeton, NJ: 1996). Pg. 7.
[4] Delphy, Christine. Close to Home: A Materialist Analysis of Women’s Oppression. Translated by Diana Leonard. (The University of Massachusetts Press. Amherst, MA: 1984). Pg. 163.
[5] Thompson, E.P. The Poverty of Theory. (Merlin Press. London, England: 1995). Pg. 234.
[6] Althusser, Louis. On the Reproduction of Capitalism. Translated by G.M. Goshgarian. (Verso Books. New York, NY: 2014). Pg. 11.

8 thoughts on “Biography is destiny

  1. Pingback: Marxism and the unfinished business of philosophy | The Charnel-House

  2. Althusser was in fact not imprisoned for the murder of his wife. He was ruled to have diminished responsibility and was confined to a mental hospital.

    I enjoy the way modern feminists use words to mean different things from the rest of us. “Violent” is a good example. Institutionalised sexism is clearly not violent in any normal sense, but to them somehow it was.

  3. bros fall back…
    ……………………kill the bro in yr head…

    — Jonathan Munis
    (Nov. 8, 2013)

    This is a misattribution. I only posted the cover of the pamphlet to highlight moonbat excesses; I certainly did not author it.

    Jonathan Munis

  4. Ross:

    “His notion of a sharp “epistemic break” dividing the Young Marx from the Old, laid the groundwork for a whole generation of bad scholarship.”

    Far be it from me to agree with Althusser, but he was right: Marx has abandoned Hegel (upside won, or the ‘right way up’) by the time he came to write ‘Das Kapital’.

    Except, Althusser didn’t go far enough; he (1) continued to use useless Hegelian jargon (such as ‘contradiction’), and (2) he was happy to indulge in a traditional, dogmatic approach to philosophy — which, as I have shown, is both non-sensical and incoherent:

    • How would you explain the fact that toward the end of his life (1881) Marx was working on Mathematical Manuscripts that still clearly and openly attested to Hegel’s influence? Or maybe he abandoned Hegel when he wrote Capital, only to return to Hegel later on? You wrote of Marx’s notebooks on mathematics as follows:

      [T]he publication of Marx’s Mathematical Manuscripts [Marx (1983)] has revealed the spectacle of a first-rate mind vainly attempting to shoehorn an interpretation of the Calculus into a dialectical boot it will not fit.

      Why would Marx be “vainly attempting to shoehorn an interpretation of the Calculus into a dialectical boot it will not fit” if he’d “abandoned Hegel…by the time he came to write Das Kapital“?

      • Rosa has only one topic du jour and this is it because Rosa is mystified by dialectics. Read the comments thread at Leninology on Althusser to see what Rosa hopes to rehearse here. The “argument” becomes increasingly circular.

  5. Pingback: Et tu, Slavoj? Must Žižek really be “destroyed”? | The Charnel-House

  6. Pingback: Althusser’s reading of Marx in the eyes of three contemporaries: George Lichtheim, Alain Badiou, and Henri Lefebvre | The Charnel-House

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