Louis Althusser, or, the Impure Purity of the Concept

Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal 25 (1):137-159 (2004)

Abstract
Today, Louis Althusser’s work knows a singular destiny. Relatively unknown until the 1992 publication of his autobiography, The Future Lasts Forever, his work has since been enriched by several volumes of previously unpublished texts, and the re-edition of works that have long been unavailable. All the conditions therefore, as suggested by the numerous works, articles and conferences dedicated to Althusser, seem to be in place for a critical reexamination of his thought. For many reasons, however, this has not been the result at all. Beyond the slightly sterile polemics concerning the respective status of the “legitimate work” and the posthumous work, beyond the particularly sensitive question of the relation between biography and theory, beyond the quarrels of inheritance and the resentment towards both the man and the master, beyond the detours of a psychiatric commentary as little indifferent to the reality of the texts as of the “case,” we must admit a well-established fact: today, the field of Althusserian studies has not yet been constituted. Within the field of French philosophy, one cannot find a single profound study on the place of Althusser in the history of Marxism, the history of philosophy or epistemology. This is because this type of study more or less implicitly supposes a certain global evaluation of the kind that the work of Althusser seems particularly designed to discourage. How do we evaluate works that have not ceased to destroy themselves? How do we evaluate works so heterogeneous, in which flashes of brilliance inhabit the same space as shocking theoretical indignities? How do we bring together texts as stimulating as the celebrated, “Ideology and the Ideological Apparatus of the State,” with the rather unsettling, “On the Reproduction of the Relations of Production,” of which it is in certain details but a fragment? If the form of academic commentary seems impossible from the start, perhaps one can say the same of the project of separating the wheat from the chaff, of distinguishing “what is living and what is dead” in the work of Louis Althusser. Difficult to inscribe within the continuity of history, Althusser’s work is, in fact, irremediably enigmatic. All that passes this way, behind such fiercely proclaimed revelations, has itself formed a profoundly aporetic structure marked by the general uncertainty of any attempt at reading. For Althusser progressively destroys the theories that he could have advanced. Already troubling by itself, this phenomenon hides another even more disturbing one: there is without a doubt not a single Althusserian concept that, in its foundation, is not immediately affected by its opposite. Here we seek to show, through several limited examples, that such is the fundamental gesture of Althusser, and that it is in principle indistinguishable from his grandeur and misery.
Keywords Contemporary Philosophy  Continental Philosophy  History of Philosophy
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ISBN(s) 0093-4240
DOI 10.5840/gfpj20042512
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