Althusser and Spinoza. Reading Capital as Marx's Theologico-political Treatise
If one had to single out two favorite themes in Althusser, the first would certainly be reading and the second and very closely related one would be structural causality. Reading Capital, first the title of a seminar which took place 50 years ago, then of a seminal collective book, makes reading a name for philosophy, or at least for some particular practice of philosophy. One can safely assume that from the very beginning, reading has been for Althusser the core practice of his own philosophy. But reading is problematic, it is not a simple and transparent act as assumed by a naive consciousness. Reading involves a stage and several actors. There is a text, an author and a reader. According to a naive reading of reading, reading would be about recognizing the thought of an author in his text. Two subjects would then be involved in reading: the writer and the reader.
In this scheme, reading becomes interpreting a revelation, just as a believer interprets a Holy Script, be it the Bible or Quran or even Marx's Capital. As Marx discovered the mystical and theological dimension of such common things as commodities, Althusser exposed the religious character of a common daily practice like reading. In this naive, commonsensical context, reading becomes an hermeneutical practice, a practice of interpretation based on the “hermeneutical circle” by which a text is interpreted through the projection of the reader's preconceptions, which takes the form of the “natural” supposition of an author to the text. If I can understand a text, it's because the text has been written by another subject whose intention I can discover in and through his text. Sigmund Freud described this circle in The Future of an illusion as the main structure of religious discourse, according to which the Script was supposed true, because its truth is revealed by God and we know it has been revealed by God through the text of the Script itself 1. Religion, like any other discourse based on revelation, just begs the question.
Althusser will challenge this both mystical and naive conception in his introduction to Reading Capital, titled “From Capital to Marx's Philosophy”. Althusser’s criticism of reading as revelation will be inaugural for his epoch, but at the same time it inscribes itself in a tradition in the margins of philosophy including Freud and Lacan, Nietzsche, but also and most importantly, Spinoza. In this short talk, we will limit us to Spinoza. This is not only the result of a lack of time, but tries to highlight the strategical importance of Spinoza for Althusser and, conversely, of Althusser for the Spinoza “renaissance” taking place in the French thought of the late sixties and the seventies and still the the drive for many important philosophical and social researches.
According to a traditional interpretation, Spinoza has a particular relation with writing. Leo Strauss presented us Spinoza as a master of the art of writing between the lines, as a clandestine writer who like Maimonides or the author of the book Cuzary dissimulated a rationalist thought wrapping it in a theological language. Contrary to this assumption, Althusser will present us Spinoza more as a reader than as a writer. There is a huge difference between a reader and a writer: both indeed engage with texts, but the latter is supposed to produce a new text, to be a creator, while the former has to act on an already existing text. The writer is consequently considered as a free subject expressing his thoughts in a text, while the reader would rather be constrained by the existing text he is facing. For Althusser, the position of the reader will prevail upon the position of the writer. The materialist philosopher, like the reader is always already confronted with a structured and complex reality: the text. There is for the reader, contrary to the writer, no white page in which to inscribe a novel text, but always an already written page. Every act of writing begins from an already existing text, even though this fact is seldom recognized. We write a text from an already existing text, reading it and, by reading, modifying it.
As Althusser assumed in all his works, the question of the beginning of philosophy cannot simply be answered like in Aristotle by a mere reference to the “astonishment” of a subject before reality. There is never a pure and originary consciousness facing reality, but a reading and already written body, an affected body, marked by signifiers and affirming its own power in a text. Does this text have a meaning once you don't presume it is originated in an author seen as its absolute beginning? What is for a text to have a meaning?
Althusser will try to answer these questions through a reference to Spinoza. As we know, Spinoza was declared by Althusser in Reading Capital “Marx's only philosophical predecessor”, moreover and more precisely, we know from Althusser's own account of a conversation with Waldeck Rochet, the then secretary general of the Pcf, that Althusser compared Spinoza's Theologico-political treatise with Marx's Capital: according to this analogy, the TTP would be Spinoza's Capital 2. This means that, conversely, Capital would be Marx's TTP! A book, like the TTP, practicing interpretation and reading and involving some theory of interpretation and reading. This assumption becomes very productive, since it gives us a clue to what kind of practice of theory and more specifically of philosophy is involved in a book like Capital which presents itself as a Critique, namely the Critique of political economy as its subtitle goes. In some way, this Critique has something to do with Kant’s Critique, but also, and more relevantly, with Spinoza’s historico-critical method of interpretation.
We assume here, basing ourselves on some unpublished notes by Althusser on the TTP, that Althusser identified as very close methods the one used by Spinoza in TTP and the method Marx uses in Capital. Both are based on the same assumption: no subject must be supposed to the text, the text should consequently be taken as a natural reality, not bearing a given meaning in itself, but capable of being known by a human intellect through its properties. Texts, like any other parts of nature, have no particular complicity with men, they don’t “speak” to men, they are not made for men to know their meaning, just as teeth are not made to eat or fish or birds to be eaten and in general nothing in nature acts according to a finality.
Althusser will explain in a short text how he understands Spinoza's main thesis on the interpretation of the Holy Script. Chapter VII of the TTP, states that the Script should be interpreted by itself. In this it compares the Holy Script to Nature, that is to a whole without any exteriority. Knowing Nature is not about trying to guess it's supposed meaning, but producing it from the very materiality of its elements, observing and comparing them in order to get some common properties, the base of common notions. The same holds for the signifiers composing the text. No living prophet, no ecclesiastical tradition, no transcendent God will reveal us the truth of the text, we have hence to produce a knowledge about the meaning of the text through our own means. Texts, like Nature itself are taken by Spinoza to be dumb to man’s desire of knowledge.
Althusser will compare this vision of the Holy Script as the analogon of Nature in Spinoza with the "lived world" of an intentional consciousness:
“(crucial and linked to the principle of explaining the Script only through itself. Taking it as an immanent whole, an imaginary whole having a meaning, like any other imagination, without putting the problem of its cause...like something “lived” in the immanent sense of lived. Intentional analysis of an essence. The same topic will be taken by Feuerbach. The problem of its causal, or mechanic or transcendent causes is not put here.” (Louis Althusser, archive IMEC, ALT2-A60-08)
By stating this, he is assimilating the imaginary knowledge of the Script to ideology, seen as the “lived world” or the world as we live it. Ideology is not an error on the world, a false consciousness, but the very fact that we see our relation to the world as based on a consciousness 4. Ideology is the world, but our world, the world as we see an experience it. To be sure, a consciousness is a closure of the individual as a knowing reality in a set of imaginary representations, that is on representations based on the passiveness of the individual in front of other individuals which affect him. In ideology, we don't consequently know the world as it is, but as it affects us. Certainly, every knowledge takes its departure from this initial passiveness, but for Spinoza, consciousness and passiveness are not the last world. There is more, there also exists an adequate knowledge, the one based on the individual's own intellectual capacities, which are able to seize common nations inside the very realm of imagination.
This means that an intellect -the power to know and to produce knowledge of a human mind- can discover, better, can produce, in the Holy Script which is a corpus of imaginary signifiers, common notions. And it does, since Spinoza is able to single out some very simple teachings of the Script, which can be known by imagination, but also by reason. Justice and charity are then singled out from the text of the Script as its main teachings. Not only these teachings are extracted from the Script, but also a simple system of theology, an universal doctrine, supporting the imperatives of justice and charity. The same lessons learned through reason in the Ethics, are learned from imagination in the Script.
The work of the TTP on the Script is the same work human intellect does on any other imaginary material, namely on any other category of signifiers, like for instance, the ones of scholastics and cartesian philosophy in the Ethics. If one is aware of the fact that reason proceeds from and through imaginary representations, it is easy to understand how closely related the TTP and the Ethics are. Imagination is not the other of reason, but its element, the matter from which reason proceeds and evolves and which always remains, being the witness of our insurmountable finiteness. Imagination is consequently not a lower, false degree of knowledge, but human condition itself. That's what Althusser will incorporate in his theory of ideology in which ideology is not described as vulgar marxism does as a false consciousness, but as consciousness in general, as the insuperable relatively passive condition of a finite mode of an infinite nature.
There is however a difference between Spinoza's main works. It consists in the fact that the TTP has as its main goal not only to produce rational truth from an imaginary material and to develop by this a philosophy, but to operate a reverse engineering of ideology. That's what Althusser will explain in another short note:
“ Spinoza: Draft of a theory of ideology the other way around: 1) taking into account the whole of the Script in order to draw its meaning from it, 2) explaining this meaning through the opinions of their authors -ot their public. The other way round has only to do with the fact that this meaning come from God and that God Himself is submitted in his revelation to the theory of the conditions of ideology.”1
In TTP, God, instead of being supposed the subject and the author of the Script is himself submitted to the theory of ideology and appears as an effect of the text conceived as an overdetermined reality. The text is, to be sure, no isolated reality, since it is included in a material world which produced it and still bears it and in which it, in turn, produces its own effects.
Since ideology is a positive reality, the result of a chain of causal processes in nature, it can be described in its working, for instance, as a useful method to produce obedience to the law of a sovereign through the affects of fear and hope. What explains the functioning of a society or a political system is never human reason. A society and a government are based on human passions. Every political or social regime is a historically overdetermined combination of such passions. There is no idea in Spinoza of an ideal rational regime like the republican government in Kant. Only the interplay of passions, sad or joyful, makes a regime more or less favourable to reason, but no political regime can be rational in itself, since real men are much more led by imagination and passions than through reason.
The solid anchorage of human reason in imagination and of human practice in passion is the point of departure of a non evaluative theory of imagination/ideology. Imagination and passions are no sins or defects of nature, but actual dimensions of it. Better than any other marxist thinker, Antonio Gramsci understood this deep continuity of imagination and reason when stating that every man is a philosopher. Nevertheless,this didn't mean, as Althusser would underline in Reading Capital that reason is the truth contained in imagination, but that reason has to be produced from imagination. Once we assume that imagination -or ideology- is our human condition, we can act upon it as we act upon any other natural reality. Actually we must know any other natural reality from ideology, from the very passive knowledge we necessarily have as affected individuals. To be sure, this knowledge is never immediate nor spontaneous, but the result of the labour of the human intellect, of our own power or activity as knowing individuals.
Through this theory of imagination-ideology, Althusser, on the footsteps of Spinoza, will debunk any theologico-political legitimacy of political power. No power, be it the power of a religious hierarchy or the power of a political leadership is based on a revealed truth. Truth is never revealed, but produced. This production, based as it is in a work on a stuff available to everybody cannot be monopolized by a caste, but must remain a process open to the public. Every attempt to go counter to this dynamic of public production of the truth based on the common of men has resulted in obscurantism and political catastrophe.
1. Freud, S. (1927). The Future of an Illusion. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XXI (1927-1931): The Future of an Illusion, Civilization and its Discontents, and Other Works, 1-56, p.26 :” The proofs they have left us are set down in writings which themselves bear every mark of untrustworthiness. They are full of contradictions, revisions and falsifications, and where they speak of factual confirmations they are themselves unconfirmed. It does not help much to have it asserted that their wording, or even their content only, originates from divine revelation; for this assertion is itself one of the doctrines whose authenticity is under examination, and no proposition can be a proof of itself.”
2. "Je lui dis que l'Éthique porte étroite, que plus facile par le Traité théologico-politique qui est Le Capital de Spinoza, car Spinoza se préoccupe avant tout d'histoire et de politique. W. Manifestement étonné; Je dis que Spinoza est le seul ancêtre philosophique de Marx." Louis Althusser, Entretien avec Waldeck Rochet, 2 juillet 1966, in. Aragon et le Comité Central d'Argenteuil, inédits de L. Aragon et de L. Althusser, Annales de la société des amis de Louis Aragon et Elsa Triolet, n°2, Rambouillet, 2000, p. 181
3.""L'imaginaire ne serait plus chez Spinoza une fonction psychologique, mais serait presque, au sens hégélien du terme, un élément, c'est à dire une totalité dans laquelle s'insèrent les fonctions psychologiques, et à partir de laquelle elles sont constituées. Ce serait là le sens de la distinction spinoziste des genres de connaissance: l'imagination n'est pas une faculté de l'âme, n'est pas une faculté du sujet psychologique, l'imagination est un monde." Louis Althusser, Psychanalyse et sciences humaines. Deux conférences, Paris, Le livre de poche, 1996, p. 114.
4. “But what do we mean, then, when we say that ideology is a matter of men's 'consciousness'? First, that ideology is distinct from other social instances, but also that men live their actions, usually referred to freedom and 'consciousness' by the classical tradition, in ideology, by and through ideology; in short, that the 'lived ' relation between men and the world, including History (in political action or inaction), passes through' ideology, or better, is ideology itself.” L. Althusser, For Marx, London, Verso, 2005, p. 233
5. Althusser’s marxism is not so “imaginary” as Aron stated, since this particular method of reverse-engineering ideology was also practiced by Marx. According to a radical version of Spinoza’s motto: “Verum, index sui et falsi”, he produces in Capital the world of ideology as an effect of real relations. He states, for instance in a letter to Engels on the method of Capital: “At last we have arrived at the forms of manifestation which serve as the starting point in the vulgar conception: rent, coming from the land; profit (interest), from capital; wages, from labour. But from our standpoint things now look different. The apparent movement is explained. Furthermore, A. Smith’s nonsense, which has become the main pillar of all political economy hitherto, the contention that the price of the commodity consists of those three revenues, i.e. only of variable capital (wages) and surplus value (rent, profit (interest)), is overthrown. The entire movement in this apparent form. Finally, since those 3 items (wages, rent, profit (interest)) constitute the sources of income of the 3 classes of landowners, capitalists and wage labourers, we have the class struggle, as the conclusion in which the movement and disintegration of the whole shit resolves itself.” F. Engels, 30 April 1868. in MEW, 32, p. 74.
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