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You are here: Platypus /The Idea of Communism: Badiou, Althusser and Lacan (Chicago, 4/12/11): audio

The Idea of Communism: Badiou, Althusser and Lacan (Chicago, 4/12/11): audio

A teach-in by Chris Cutrone

Tuesday, April 12, 2011
4:30 - 6:00 PM
School of the Art Institute of Chicago
112 S. Michigan Ave. room 601

Alain Badiou’s recent book (2010) is titled with the phrase promoted by his and Slavoj Zizek’s work for the last few years, “the communist hypothesis.” Zizek has spoken of “the Badiou event” as opening new horizons for both philosophy and communism. Badiou and Zizek share a background in Lacanian and Althusserian “post-structuralist” French thought, in common with other prominent post-New Left thinkers — and former students of Louis Althusser — such as Etienne Balibar and Jacques Rancière. Althusser found, in the Russian and Chinese Revolutions, a salutary challenge to the notion of the Hegelian “logic of history,” that revolutionary change could and indeed did happen as a matter of contingency. For Badiou, this means that emancipation must be conceived of as an “event,” which involves a fundamental reconsideration of ontology.

Audio recording

Write-up of first part of the presentation, "Badiou's 'communism' -- a gerontic disorder"

Suggested background readings:

Cutrone, “The Marxist Hypothesis: A Response to Badiou's 'Communist Hypothesis'” (2010)
Badiou, “The Communist Hypothesis” (2008)
Cutrone, “Chinoiserie: A Critique of the RCP, USA on Badiou” (2010)
Badiou, “Tunisia, Egypt: The Universal Reach of Popular Uprisings” (2011)
Wal Suchting, "Althusser's Late Thinking about Materialism" (2004)


  • Posted 6 years ago

    Some corrective notes on Althusser and Lacan:

    The relationship between these two is pretty complicated; there is certainly no way to talk about Althusser without reference to Freud and Lacan (in many ways, more Freud than Lacan), but we have inherited a conception of their relationship which implies that Althusser was a kind of loyal disciple. This in turn leads the Lacanians (and others, such as Terry Eagleton) to argue that Althusser has simply misunderstood the Lacanian concept of the subject, where in fact he criticises it and comes up with another.

    What has to be said at the outset, however, that the period in which Althusser is most heavily indebted to Lacan (broadly, 1960-1978) is the period *before* the ‘materialism of the encounter’; in this period, the focus of his work is not very much at all on the traditional problem of being in philosophy that you identify. Althusser is absolutely obsessed with the conditions of possibility of knowledge; the bulk of his contribution to Reading Capital, as well as some pretty fat sections of For Marx, is dedicated to the elaboration of a Spinozist-Marxist theory of scientific knowledge.

    Lacan, in this regard, is pretty similar. He does not have an ontology. Indeed, the ‘founding myth’ of Badiou’s Being and Event is the parable of Jacques-Alain Miller’s question to Lacan at his seminar – “what is your ontology?” in Badiou’s reading, Lacan just dodges the subject. The relevant text is Seminar 11 (The four fundamental concepts of psychoanalysis), and Lacan does indeed dodge the question, and then quietly forget it. He does not have an ontology; the obsession with ‘the event’ and being in Badiou is part of a considerable anti-Lacanian bias in parts of his work (see various commentaries on him by Zizek). Aleatory materialism, likewise, coincides with Althusser’s final break with Lacan (upon the foundation of La Cause Freudienne as effectively an obedience-cult).

    The difference on the question of the subject can be put quite precisely. For Lacan, ‘a signifier represents a subject for another signifier’; the subject is a non-thing, an empty minimal connection that holds the signifying chain together. (As such, it is wholly assimilable to the Symbolic.) The proliferation of diagrams, mathemes and schemas of subject positions in Lacan reflects the fact that the subject can be seized by pretty much anything, and play any role in the analytic scene. For Althusser, the definition is more traditional – that coherent sense of selfhood, such that one can look in a mirror and say, ‘that’s me!’

    This corresponds broadly to the ego in Lacan; indeed, the obsession with mirrors in Ideology and ISAs obviously calls to mind the Mirror Stage. But that latter paper, remember, was about the constitution of the ego, NOT the subject. Althusser is interested (by this point, anyway) in how it is that people can become social actors, and be subject to forces outside the particular situations of Freudian psychoanalysis; the choice of the imaginary/ego-subject over the symbolic subject of language is a *political* choice. Unfortunately, the relevant material remained unpublished until the 90s, and untranslated until 2003, so we have lived with the misunderstandings a lot longer than the truth of the matter. (See Three Notes on the Theory of Discourses, in The Humanist Controversy, if you’re interested – also the collection of Writings on Psychoanalysis which has come out.)

    As for the opposition between the ‘traditional’ problem of being and matter, and the modern/’critical’ problem of knowledge, the latter does not abolish the former at all. Materialism is axiomatic for Marx, Engels, Lenin, most ‘traditional’ Marxists and indeed Althusser, because it has radically different implications for what knowledge is and how to get it than idealist interpretations. The ‘two great camps’ division between materialism and idealism is something I would very much uphold; of course, with any given ‘actually-existing philosophy’ things are likely to be more complicated, but Marxism must exist at the pole for which there *is* a material world, which will proceed in blissful indifference to our attitude to it, unless we make material efforts to transform it. Let us be Badiouvians about it, and call it ‘the materialist hypothesis’.

    Blurring the distinction seems to be a hobby of Hegelian Marxists, but keeping it in place need not mean ditching Hegel (or Kant), still less the totality of the traditions that stem from them. Even the late Althusser, up to his neck in swerving atoms, was happy to call Hegel “a great continent in himself” and “the starting point for all of us”…

    by Harley Filben on November 21, 2011 9:10 am
  • Posted 6 years ago

    There’s a problem here with the idea that Kant didn’t demolish, for good, the need to assert that “there *is* a material world” out there. That’s not the point, at all. For such is an ontological claim. The “philosophical” basis for understanding the world is beside the point. To quote Marx, “the point is to change it.” “Materialism” is a confession of faith when divorced from actual political practice. This is the nature of Althusser’s influence: principally *academic* — (alongside sectarianism) the rightful final resting place for such pseudo-“Marxism.”

    It was not merely Althusser’s “late” interests, but indeed his earliest interests that motivated such naive (pre-critical) “ontological materialism.” Althusser admitted that, though he had long needed to hide it, *all* of his work had been motivated by his interest in pre-Socratic philosophy — an interest that Lacan shared, despite any differences between them. The name that needs to be mentioned here is Heidegger. Lacan and Althusser shared a Heideggerian background, to the extent that pre-Socratism in the 20th century has as its primary “teacher” Heidegger.

    What distinguishes the Kantian aftermath (including Hegel and Marx) is that there is a grounding of categories of the “understanding”/use of “concepts,” the a priori categories of subjectivity, in *practices*. See Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysics — and the rest of Kant’s “critical” philosophy. This is what makes Kant’s work *modern* philosophy.

    There aren’t “2 camps,” “idealist” and “materialist.” Kant and those who followed his “philosophical revolution” (i.e., Hegel and Marx) transcended the (entirely traditional metaphysical) “materialism” vs. “idealism” antinomy. (This is why Kant has been able to be so influential for modern physical science.) It isn’t a “blurring.” Though there has been much confusion, and perhaps even confused admiration (e.g., for Hegel, which even Heidegger was able to muster). “Marxist materialism” has regressed not merely to a pre-Marxian or pre-Hegelian perspective, but a pre-Kantian one.

    The Procrustean bed to which the entire question of Marxism’s “philosophical” content has been subject for far too long needs to be abandoned — or, Theseus’s justice needs to be meted out! Then, it would be apparent that Althusser and Lacan were philosophical amateurs. As is Badiou. Long after they’re forgotten, Kant and Hegel – and Marx — will be remembered.

    by Chris Cutrone on November 21, 2011 7:01 pm
  • Posted 6 years ago

    There are many problems with all that. Firstly: on the strictly biographical level, Althusser’s background is in Hegel. He came to read Heidegger only in the 1980s, as far as I can tell. The presocratics come into it earlier (1977 at the latest), but in any case that is a slightly peculiar line to take, since Hegel had plenty of things to say about the presocratics himself. The inescapable conclusion, in any case, is that – if Althusser *is*, as you say, in hock to the pre-Kantian ‘traditional’ problem of being – he has taken the peculiar step of attacking it overwhelmingly through an epistemology which straddles the pre/post-Kantian divide (Spinoza, Bachelard/Canguilhem and so forth), and indeed grounds things initially in the idea that philosophy and science are precisely *practices*…before criticising his theory of practices for not being practical enough.

    As for Lacan, the case is a little more complicated – there *is* a Heideggerian influence, particularly in the terminology, but it is the smaller part of his philosophical heritage compared to Levi-Strauss’s structuralism and Kojeve’s lectures on Hegel. Zizek’s the Ticklish Subject has some interesting things to say about Heidegger and Lacan, although that irritating Zizekian attention-deficit problem is present and correct. Nonetheless, it is a gross simplification of his work to assimilate it wholly to that tradition.

    As for the nature of Althusser’s influence being principally academic…surely this goes for the Frankfurt School pretty much equally? OK, the anti-deutsch worship adorno, but there are a couple of Althusserian far-left groups in Greece, I am told…people in glass houses, and all that.

    by Harley Filben on November 22, 2011 8:31 am
  • Posted 6 years ago

    Kojeve was a Heideggerian, so the same problem recurs. There is no assimilation, “wholly” or otherwise. It is simply a (to my mind, mistaken) tradition: nothing more, nothing less. I prefer the Frankfurt School’s approach. At least the Frankfurters didn’t pretend to be anything but theoretical/academic; they admitted that their work was divorced in certain key respects from practice, inevitably so, to the detriment of their theory. But they were also admirably *unoriginal* in their aspirations: the *recovery* of Marx, Hegel — and Kant — under regressive conditions remained their self-conscious project, especially Adorno’s. Their “messages in a bottle” might finally influence practice — but not directly. Whereas, by contrast, the Althusserian-Badiouian impulse doesn’t (feel any need to) reckon with that dilemma (of the relation of theory and practice), preferring “truth.” It’s bad politics and bad philosophy.

    by Chris Cutrone on November 22, 2011 9:47 am
  • Posted 6 years ago

    Also, in general, I would recommend, for orientation, the Hegel scholar Robert Pippin’s short response to the journal Critical Inquiry’s 2003 symposium on the state and future of critical theory (despite its misunderstandings of Marx, Benjamin and Adorno!): /wp-content/uploads/2010/09/pippin_criticaltheorynonbeing2004.pdf. As Pippin concludes, “Perhaps [philosophy] exists to remind us that we haven’t gotten anywhere.” — But that is an Adorno-style (Hegelian) thought: that philosophy (in modernity) is itself *symptomatic* and not the answer. This is something Badiou (along with the rest of the neo-Stoics, such as Heidegger, Lacan, and Althusser) forgot.

    by Chris Cutrone on November 22, 2011 10:12 am

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