Althusser’s reading of Marx in the eyes of three of his contemporaries: George Lichtheim, Alain Badiou, and Henri Lefebvre

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It has been fifty years since the publication of Louis Althusser’s influential collaboration with his students, Reading Capital. Verso has already announced that it will be publishing, for the first time, a complete English translation of the French original. For forty years, the abridged rendering by Ben Brewster has been available. But this version contains only the portions written by Althusser and Étienne Balibar, and omits the contributions of Pierre Macherey, Roger Establet, and Jacques Rancière (though Brewster did translate Rancière’s essay on value in another publication). The new edition of Reading Capital will compile all of these sections.

Commemorating this anniversary, the new Marxist theory journal Crisis & Critique has moreover dedicated an entire issue to providing a retrospective evaluation of the book. Many celebrated theorists of the past few decades are featured here: Adrian Johnston, Jacques Bidet, and Vittorio Morfino. Establet wrote a rare reflection on his former master, and the literary critic Macherey granted an interview to the editors, Frank Ruda and Agon Hamza. Panagiotis Sotiris has an article on Althusserianism and value-form theory, a subject that interests me greatly despite my obvious preference for the New Marx Reading of Helmut Reichelt, Hans-Georg Backhaus, Werner Bonefeld, Michael Heinrich, and Ingo Elbe. You can download Crisis & Critique, 2.2: Reading Capital, 50 Years Later by clicking on the link.

When Reading Capital came out in 1965, it had an immediate incendiary effect. Numerous polemics were written against it, from practically every corner of the Marxist theoretical universe. Lucien Sève and Roger Garaudy, both prominent members of the PCF, attacked it from a more or less “orthodox” angle. Henri Lefebvre, Lucien Goldmann, and Jean-Paul Sartre approached it from a perspective more independent of the official party. Soon even Rancière would turn on his former master, in his vitriolic work Althusser’s Lesson (1974), which reflected his conversion to a more militant strain of Maoism. In Britain, where the abridged translation mentioned above appeared in the early 1970s, the book elicited some initial excitement, especially in the New Left Review crowd. E.P. Thompson eventually came out against it, however, throwing down the gauntlet in his The Poverty of Theory: An Orrery of Errors.

Below you will find three more immediate reactions to the Althusserian reading of Marx. George Lichtheim’s generally unfavorable overview appeared in January 1969. Alain Badiou published his much longer, generally favorable review of Reading Capital in May 1967. Finally, an extract from Lefebvre’s 1971 book on structuralism, later condensed into a critique of The Ideology of Structuralism in 1975, is included as well. Of the three, I am most disposed to Lichtheim’s appraisal. It can be a bit dismissive and its tone is rancorous, but still it gives a good summary of the major weaknesses of Althusserianism. An incisive public intellectual and gifted scholar of the Frankfurt School, as well as of Marxism and socialism as a whole, Lichtheim in another essay on “Dialectical Methodology” heaped scorn upon “the quasi-Marxism of Louis Althusser, for whom a genuinely scientific theory of society remains to be worked out after the unfortunate Hegelian heritage has been shed.” He continued:

Anyone who imagines that [Althusser’s] standpoint is compatible with Marx’s own interpretation of historical materialism is advised to read Alfred Schmidt’s essay “Der strukturalistische Angriff auf die Geschichte” in Beiträge zur marxistischen Erkenntnistheorie (which ought to be translated for the benefit of British and American students of the subject who in their enthusiasm for Lévi-Strauss may have missed Sartre’s and Lefebvre’s devastating attacks on Althusser and his school). What we have here is a discussion whose significance far transcends the silly dispute between Western empiricists and Soviet Marxists: a quarrel which has now gone on long enough and should be quietly terminated before the audience dies of fatigue.

Lefebvre, whose early rejoinders against Althusser are cited approvingly by Lichtheim, evidently agreed a few years later when he wrote that “the elimination of Marxism goes hand in hand with the elimination of the dialectic.” This is unsurprising considering Lefebvre had been, along with the translator Norbert Gutermann and the phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, among the first French Marxists to read the Hegelian Marxist texts of Karl Korsch and Georg Lukács. Nowadays Lefebvre is mostly known for his writings on space and everyday life, while his earlier work on mystification, false consciousness, Romanticism, and dialectic are not as familiar.

I’ve included Badiou’s review here in order to offer a more balanced range of interpretations. Badiou was broadly sympathetic to Althusser’s project, despite having been a student of Sartre in the early 1960s. He rejected the Hegelian Marxist notion of “totality” as metaphysical and confounding, and went even further than Althusser in rejecting terminology like “contradiction” as an unscientific, vestigial holdover of idealism. Evidently, Badiou welcomed Reading Capital as an opportunity for the renewal of Marxist theory, now disburdened of its embarrassing nineteenth-century inheritance.

Anyway, I hope this selection of pieces reacting to Althusser’s For Marx and Reading Capital will grant some sense of the early reception of this work. Lichtheim is especially worth checking out, in my view, as his fate is almost directly the reverse of someone like Badiou’s. Whereas Badiou made some slight waves in the 1960s and 1970s, fading into obscurity in the 1980s and 1990s before enjoying a massive renaissance during the 2000s, Lichtheim’s erudite historical and critical studies of the development of Marxism, socialism, European history, geopolitical conflicts, and philosophy were well known during his lifetime but have since faded into obscurity. Following his suicide in 1973, a series of conferences honored the memory of Lichtheim, the German-born son of Zionists who came to distance himself from liberalism, official Marxism, and Israeli nationalism. Yet today, very little remains of this legacy. Some of his books can be downloaded here:

  1. Marxism: An Historical and Critical Study
  2. From Marx to Hegel
  3. Imperialism
  4. Europe in the Twentieth Century
  5. “The Concept of Ideology”

My own estimation of Althusser is not very high. Though it is a seductive method, reading for “symptomatic silences” and filling in the blanks, even applying Marx’s own approach in reading Smith to subsequent readings of Marx, Althusser resorted to this mostly for want of textual support for his claims. His attempt to read structuralist motifs back into Marx’s work was fundamentally misguided. Plus, he made far too much use of metaphors of production: “production of knowledge,” “production of discourse,” etc. Nevertheless, Althusser represents one of the most serious challenges to the Hegelian reading of Marx to date. I will readily defend this seriousness against what I think are unfair or reductive critiques, as in my response to Anne Boyer’s review of the most recent translation of unpublished notebooks by Althusser, “Biography is Destiny.”

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The historical project

Manfredo Tafuri
The Sphere and the
Labyrinth
(1979)
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There comes a moment (though not always) in research when all the pieces begin to fall into place, as in a jigsaw puzzle. But unlike the jigsaw puzzle, where all the pieces are near at hand and only one figure can be assembled (and thus the correctness of each move be determined immediately), in research only some of the pieces are available, and theoretically more than one figure can be made from them. In fact, there is always the risk of using, more or less consciously, the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle as blocks in a construction game. For this reason, the fact that everything falls into place is an ambiguous sign: either one is completely right or completely wrong. When wrong, we mistake for objective verification the selection and solicitation (more or less deliberate) of the evidence, which is forced to confirm the presuppositions (more or less explicit) of the research itself. The dog thinks it is biting the bone and is instead biting its own tail.[1]

In this way Carlo Ginzburg and Adriano Prosperi synthesize the labyrinthine path of historical analysis and the dangers with which it is fraught, in one of the few recent volumes that have had the courage to describe, not the Olympian and definitive results of research, but rather its tortuous and complex iter. But why should we propose, at the beginning of a volume dedicated to the adventures of architectural language, the problem of the “jigsaw puzzles” characteristic of historical research? In the first place, we could answer that our intention is to follow an indirect path. Contrary to those who pose the theme of architectural writing — the term “language” should, it seems to us, be adopted only as a metaphor[2] — we shall present the theme of critical writing: is it not the function of criticism to constitute the historical (and thus the real) specificity of artistic writings? Does not historical work possess a language that, entering perpetually into conflict with the multiple techniques of environmental formation, can function like litmus paper to verify the correctness of discourses on architecture?

Only in appearance, then, will we speak of something else. For how often, when probing what is on the fringes of a given problem, do we discover the most useful keys for dealing with the problem itself — particularly if it is as equivocal as the one that we are about to examine.

Let us further define our theme. Architecture, language, techniques, institutions, historical space: are we simply lining up on a wire stretched over a void a series of problems, each with its own intrinsic characteristics, or can we legitimately contest the “terms” used here to trace these problems back to an underlying or hidden structure, in which these words can find a common meaning on which to rest? It is no accident that we have reduced to “words” the density of historically stratified disciplines. Every time, in fact, that the critic’s zeal causes his guilty conscience to erupt, constructing linear routes that force architecture to migrate into language, language into institutions, and institutions into the all-encompassing universality of history, one feels the need to ask how such a totally illegitimate simplification could gain currency.

After the persuasive demonstrations of the untranslatability of architecture into linguistic terms, after Saussure’s discovery that language itself is a “system of differences,” after the calling into question of the conspicuous features of institutions, historical space appears to dissolve, to disintegrate, to become a justification for disordered and elusive multiplicity, a space of domination. Is this not the final outcome reached by a good part of the “Lacanian left” or by an epistemology of pure registration? And after all, is not architectural writing (this phantasm that we now recognize as divided and multiplied into techniques incommunicable among one another) itself an institution, a signifying practice — an ensemble of signifying practices — a multiplicity of projects of domination?

Is it possible to make a history from such “projects” without breaking away from them, without abandoning the multiple perspectives of history itself, and without inquiring into that which permits the very existence of history? Is it still necessary to remember that the totality of the capitalist means of production is a condition for both the cohesion and the diffraction of techniques, that the “mystical character of the commodity” breaks up and multiplies the relationships that are at the base of its own reproduction?

A series of questions confronts the historian who discovers the dishomogeneity of the materials of his work. These questions go to the very roots of historiographical work, uniting indissolubly the question of languages, of techniques, of sciences, of architecture, with that of the languages of history. But which history? Toward what productive ends? With what long-term objectives?

The questions that we are posing arise from a precise assumption. History is viewed as a “production,” in all senses of the term: the production of meanings, beginning with the “signifying traces” of events; an analytical construction that is never definite and always provisional; an instrument of deconstruction of ascertainable realities. As such, history is both determined and determining: it is determined by its own traditions, by the objects that it analyzes, by the methods that it adopts; it determines its own transformations and those of the reality that it deconstructs. The language of history therefore implies and assumes the languages and the techniques that act and produce the real: it “contaminates” those languages and those techniques and, in turn, is “contaminated” by them. With the fading away of the dream of knowledge as a means to power, the constant struggle between the analysis and its objects — their irreducible tension — remains. Precisely this tension is “productive”: the historical “project” is always the “project of a crisis.”[3] Franco Rella writes:

Interpretive knowledge has a conventional character and is a production, a positing of a meaning-in-relation and not an uncovering of the meaning. But what is the limit of this operari, of this activity? What is the locus of this relationship? What lies behind the Fiktion of the subject, of the thing, of the cause, of the being? What, then, can bear this “awful plurality”? The body. “The phenomenon of the body is the richest, the most significant [deutlichere], the most tangible phenomenon: to be discussed first [voranzustellen] methodologically, without coming to any decision about its ultimate meaning.”[4] This, then, is the limit of interpretation, that is to say the locus of the description… In fact, through criticism and the “plurality of interpretation” we have acquired the strength “not to want to contest the world’s restless and enigmatic character,” and in this way genealogy has proved itself to be a critique of values, for it has discovered the material origin of them, the body.[5]

Thus emerges the problem of the “construction” of the object — disciplines, techniques, analytical instruments, long-term structures — to be put in crisis. Immediately the historian is confronted with the problem of the “origins” of the cycles and phenomena that are the objects of his study. But is it not precisely in the study of long-term phenomena that the theme of the origin seems mythological? However much Weber’s “ideal types” or Panofsky’s conceptual structures appear to be instrumental abstractions, is it not precisely in them that the fundamental difference between beginning and origin is posed? And why a beginning? Is it not more “productive” to multiply the “beginnings,” recognizing that where everything conspires to make one recognize the transparency of a unitary cycle there lies hidden an intertwining of phenomena that demands to be recognized as such?

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Et tu, Slavoj? Must Žižek really be “destroyed”?

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Continuing its proud tradition of accepting literally every panel proposal submitted to it, no matter how poorly written or conceived, this year’s Left Forum at Pace University brings you “Žižek delenda est” [Latin for “Žižek must be destroyed”]. I’m not kidding. Here’s the panel description, with solecisms left in for dramatic effect:

Abstract:
Is Slavoj Zizek a US propaganda psyop? I want to ask my comrades on the left to consider the possibility. After years of research, I have come to the conclusion that Zizek is a charlatan posing as a “Stalinist” to both discredit communists by performing a caricature Bolshevik and simultaneously, to smuggle fascist ideas including old fashioned Aryan supremacism and 19th century race theory, back into public discourse disguised as radical left critique of liberalism. I will focus on how he exploits his radical left image to spread imperialist propaganda and disinformation. I’ll trace the origins of the Zizek Industry to his first anointing by the New Left Review, then edited by Quentin Hoare and Branka Magas, Croatian Nationalists and Tudjman supporters and founders of the Bosnian Institute, as the Balkan Leftist who would initiate, in 1990, the dominant strain of imperialist propaganda about Yugoslavia, and yet further back to his career as an antiMarxist, antiCommunist “dissident” and Slovene ethnic nationalist. I will discuss the way he has influenced a generation to the point where now right wing and reactionary ideas as well as pure white house disinformation and propaganda are routinely packaged as hip “lefty” and “radical” thought.

My god, pure idiocy.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not as if this lunacy tarnishes the Left Forum’s good name, if only for the fact that there’s no good name to tarnish. The annual gathering already has the character of a circus — a “Renaissance fair of the Left,” as a comrade once put it — so this is really just one more scene in its extended slapstick routine. All the old corpses come out for this fin de semana de los muertos: aging hippies, dinosaur sects barely clinging to life, the Friends of the People of the Soviet Union. So in a way, panels like “Žižek delenda est” are strangely refreshing. It’s a fresh flavor of paranoid fantasy, our generation’s version of the show trials. Finally, a new term of reproach to replace those great epithets of old. Used to be “Trotskyist wreckers” or “British imperialist agents,” then later COINTELPRO. Now it’s Slavoj Žižek, deep cover CIA operative. Continue reading

The tasks of criticism

Manfredo Tafuri on
architecture criticism

Untitled.
Image: Still from Marcel L’Herbier’s
silent film classic L’Inhumaine (1924)
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Introduction

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This post follows up on the recent series that gave advice to critics and sketched out criticism after utopian politics. Since these were more or less confined to art criticism, and did not cover the peculiar situation of architecture critics and historians, I’m posting Manfredo Tafuri’s excellent 1967 essay “The Tasks of Criticism.”
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The tasks of criticism

Manfredo Tafuri

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In trying to clarify the function of some instruments of critical and historiographical analysis, we have intentionally avoided the problem of outlining a theory of architectural syntax and grammar. In defining the architectural codes as a bundle of relationships linking a complex series of “systems,” we were attempting to stress something that seems to us typical of architecture as compared with other means of visual communication: the fact, that is, that the typologies, the techniques, the production relations, the relations with nature and with the city, can in the architectural context, assume symbolic dimensions, charge themselves with meaning and force the limits within which every one of these components plays its own role in the historical context.

Clearly, then, architectural language is polysemic: and not only as an analogy with painting, but in the specific sense. When EI Lissitzky on the one hand and Van Doesburg on the other theorized the experimental function of the new linguistic systems within the field of art, and established the constructive use in industrial production as the specific task of visual art, they had very much in mind the close link between artistic communications, the new methods of production, and the new systems of reception of the communications themselves.

The only way to describe the structures of architectural language seems to be through historical synthesis. All the naïve attempts to single out a component from the complex heap of architecture and elect it as a parameter of architectural language, are bound to fail before the impossibility of outlining a complete history of architecture in this way. Neither the functions nor the space of the tectonic elements can beat the base of a semiological analysis of planning. In the very moment in which we stress the term project in order to designate architecture, it becomes clear that, each time, we should evaluate which new materials have become part of the universe of discourse of architecture itself, what are the new relations between the traditional materials, and which of these materials has a prominent role.

A younger Manfredo Tafuri, before the beard

A younger Manfredo Tafuri, early 1960s, before the beard

One cannot evaluate Laon Cathedral, the Pazzi Chapel, and Berlin’s Siemensstadt within the same linguistic parameters: if one chose purely formal criteria, the symbolic dimension of the first two works would escape completely, while one would miss the intimate contradiction of the third; if one chose the traditional iconological method, one would have to remain mute before Berlin’s Siedlungen; and if one were to trust the analysis of space, one would find no terms of comparison between the spatial narrative of the first, the anti-narrative rigor of the second and the leaving behind of the concept of “space” itself on the part of the third.

The language of architecture is formed, defined and left behind in history, together with the very idea of architecture. In this sense the establishment of a “general grammar” of architecture is a utopia. Continue reading

Man and Nature, Parts I-IV (Complete)

For those who would like to read my series of articles on Man and Nature, here they are, presented as a continuous text.  Also, for a detailed response to the fourth installment of my series on Man and Nature, please visit the Oroborous Self-Sufficient Community.  Its founder, the scientist Allister Cucksey, is a Robert Owens of sorts, and his counter-critique is welcome.

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