Louis Althusser and Materialist Reading – online seminar, 18 January, 6-9pm

Louis Althusser and Materialist Reading – online seminar, 18 January, 6-9pm

This seminar provides an opportunity to review contemporary critical studies inspired by the philosophy and theory of Louis Althusser

This seminar comprises three papers: 

1. Alya Ansari, In Excess of The Text: The Logics of Capital and Literary Form

Literary attempts to represent production and surplus-value inevitably grapple with the fundamental difficulty of typifying the mechanisms of an exploitative economic system that always presents an image distinct from its actual operation, appearing in a partial and concealed way. These literary representations of production and surplus-value are autographic—that is, their representation is mimetic, and inevitably so given the considerable rift between capital’s representation and its reality—but rarely allographic, rarely moving the reader to animate the revolutionary idea. This essay elaborates Althusser’s conception of “symptomatic reading” in order to demystify the literary archform that forecloses adequate knowledge of capital’s governing logics within the literary mode of production. Animating symptomatic reading using Deleuze’s notion of expression, I respond to Pierre Macherey’s call for a properly literary philosophy by centering the formal distinction between autographic and allographic literary forms as integral to the intellectual production of adequate knowledge about capital. As such, this paper interrogates how and why philosophy and its attendant revelations offer such a special kind of resistance to being presented in popular literary form. 

2. T. L. McGlone, Décalage as Subterranean Concept in Reading Capital 

In Reading Capital, Louis Althusser and his students generated a series of concepts which now possess some renown in Marxist circles: overdetermination, structural causality, symptomatic reading. The term décalage (variably translated as “discrepancy” and “dislocation,” though it can be rendered as “gap” or “lag”) has received only a fraction of the attention of other major terms of Reading Capital. In this presentation, I argue that décalage functions as a ‘subterranean concept’ in Reading Capital, a notion integral to the text’s argument even though its full meaning is never explicitly outlined. Focusing on the contributions of Macherey and Balibar, I highlight how décalage is crucial for explaining Reading Capital’s implicit methodology—a methodology essential to the text’s attempts to present a non-teleological account of conceptual development. More crucially for the present political moment, in Balibar’s essay especially the notion of décalage undergirds a flexible but conceptually rigorous theory of social change responsive to contemporary changes in the state, mass movement organizing, and global regimes of capitalist accumulation. Décalage provides Marxist thinkers and militants with a basis for analyzing apparent ‘exceptions’ to the rules of capitalist economic and state development, maintaining a crucial balance between conceptual rigor and intellectual fluidity.

3. Dr. Samuel J.R. Mercer, ‘The Ideology of Work’ between the Writings of Louis Althusser

In his text On the Reproduction of Capitalism, Louis Althusser references an appendix to the text, which remains either lost or unfinished: an appendix titled ‘The Ideology of Work.’ Inspired by the potential contents of this appendix, this paper discusses how Althusser has – and might have – considered the relationship between ideology and work within his writings and what the consequences of this consideration may be for the Marxist sociology of work today. The paper suggests the co-existence of two discussions of the ‘ideology of work’ between Althusser’s writings, constructed at similar times: one grounded in an analysis of ideology as the product of state apparatus (found in On the Reproduction of Capitalism); another grounded in ideology as an epistemological obstacle (found in The Humanist Controversy). The paper argues that the sociology of work has implicitly reproduced a harmful separation of these two analyses in its own thinking about the relationship between work and ideology, productive of economistic and humanist deviations of which it cannot make sense. The paper concludes with a call to revisit the tensions present in Althusser’s understandings of ‘the ideology of work’, with a view to reconstructing a method useful for the Marxist sociology of work.

The speakers are: 

Alya Ansari is a PhD candidate in the program in Comparative Literature at the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities, with a graduate minor in Moving Image, Media, and Sound Studies. Her dissertation asks after the self-effacing operation of the capitalist mode of production as understood through the comparative narrative semiotics of 19th and 21st century labor/social/historical novels. Her research mobilizes Gilles Deleuze’s concept of “expression” in order to chart the deconstructive logic already at work in the capitalist mode of production, drawing from the philosophy of Baruch Spinoza to develop an immanent understanding of the value-form in the lineage of Étienne Balibar, Pierre Macherey, John Milios, and Panagiotis Sotiris.

T. L. McGlone is a PhD student in the Philosophy graduate program at Villanova University. His work focuses on political concepts of historical change from a Marxist perspective, drawing primarily on recent thinkers such as Louis Althusser, Étienne Balibar, and Paulin Hountondji, as well as philosophers of modernity including Baruch Spinoza, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and G. W. F. Hegel. He is an editor at Negation Magazine.

Samuel Mercer is a lecturer in social policy at Liverpool Hope University, researching at the intersection between Marxist epistemology and sociology. His current research tracks the effects of theoretical humanism within the sociology of work and employment. His most recent publications include ‘The Ideology of Work and the Pandemic in Britain’ (Rethinking Marxism, http://rethinkingmarxism.org/Dossier2020/) and ‘Humanism and the Sociology of Post-Work’ (Economy & Society, https://doi.org/10.1080/03085147.2021.1938881).

The session is chaired and introduced by Dhruv Jain

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