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Reading Capital (Radical Thinkers) Paperback – June 9, 2009
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This, alongside his momentous For Marx, has always been my favorite text from Althusser. It is so rigorous, so precise and so keen that one is often astonished by the attention devoted to seemingly trivial minutiae. Yet these subtleties make all the difference when reading Marx, and Althusser makes one feel like a bit of an idiot for being so careless in one's reading habits. What makes this text so stunning is the fact that it never veers into pedantry, despite its stringent meticulousness. Hobsbawm remarks on the back cover that "one reads him with excitement", and I would have to concur- if you have struggled through Das Kapital as many times as I have, marveling at its stirring lyricism and Promethean poetry, it is likely that you have missed the `epistemological break' that distinguishes it from its Western heritage. The understated elegance of Althusser's exposition contrasts with the impact that it registers upon even the most seasoned readers of Marx. In classically French style, the iconoclastic force of its content is dissimulated by its sober, clinical language.
Of course, the weaknesses of Althusserian Marxism have been revealed by luminaries like Badiou (in his earliest essays, in the Theory of the Subject and in Metapolitics), Laclau/Mouffe and Zizek (Sublime Object of Ideology). Laclau and Mouffe are, perhaps, right in saying that Althusser is incapable of taking his leave of economistic idealism altogether, holding as he does to his hypothesis of `economic in the last instance'. This lacuna prevents Althusser from elaborating a truly materialist dialectic (yet is it really the case that the Marxist fixation on 'political economy' should be dismissed as a retrograde essentialism? Read Zizek's fiery defense of Althusser in his 'In Defense Of Lost Causes'). Still, the innovations of these thinkers would be unthinkable without Althusser- he transposed the study of Marx onto a different ground, `changing elements' and devising a new problematic for philosophical practice. To get a tentative grasp on Althusser, I would suggest that you read, as preliminary preparation, the entirety of For Marx, especially his discussions on overdetermined contradiction and the Marxist dialectic. Badiou's typology of situations, which attempts to break with every sort of naturalism and metaphysics altogether (even the Spinozist vitalism of Deleuze), would be altogether unthinkable without Althusser's retrieval of Mao and Lenin. Althusser's greatest contribution to Marxism, I think was his concerted, unflinching effort to purge it of every trace of idealism and historicism. More importantly, he tried to develop a consummately materialist dialectic, one that would require unsparing scientific effort and analysis on the part of militant intellectuals. We may not agree with Althusser's conclusions, but we cannot help but thank him for his conscientiousness.
Oh, Balibar's section is brilliant too, and of great import for sociology in particular. However, I wanted to dedicate this review to Louis Althusser, one of the great thinkers of the 20th Century.
Much of Reading Capital relates to a spirited attack by Althusser on the empiricist epistemology of those contemporaries of Marx who sought to place an explanation for the emergence of the means of production in a humanist framework. Althusser writes of a Marx who simultaneously foresaw and then overcame structuralist-based paradigms that touted humanism as a key component in centering the worker within the larger framework of the means of production. In order to depose humanism as the cornerstone of pre-Marxist thought, Althusser describes what he terms a "structure in dominance" which roughly means that a capitalist society must not be seen as an interdependent totalizing entity composed of a smoothly integrated series of interlocking elements. Rather these elements must be classified as both autonomous and reciprocal. The dominant part of Marx's superstructure would be mostly economic with the political and ideological aspects competing in a fluid hierarchy for that dominance. Marx re-defined ideology from its previous connotation of "false consciousness" to the novel view that ideology is inherent from birth and includes all aspects of a worker's life. There would be then nothing outside of ideology. Althusser's essay on ideological state apparatuses permitted society to re-shape an individual into any shape desired. It is this subtle yet all pervasive aspect of mind control that imbues Reading Capital with the same relevance that it had on its original publication.