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Thursday, October 16, 2014


Ian Seda-Irizarry, Professor of Economics at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City and one of a number of fine young scholars educated in the University of Massachusetts Amherst Economics Department, poses a rather technical question grounded in the approach to Marx of Louis Althusser, and follows it up with an e-mail request that I say something about my take on Althusserian Marxism.  In keeping with my long-established practice of offering my opinions on matters about which I know next to nothing, I shall strive to accommodate the request.  First let me reproduce his comment so that it is before us:

“Professor now that I read your post, and after recently reading your book on "Money Bags must be so Lucky" I wonder if it is not more precise to speak of "essence vs appearance" instead of "reality vs appearance" given that the latter implies that appearance is not true or real. My understanding is that these terms have very precise philosophical meanings, something that implies that they go beyond the mere literal sense. And well, this of course happens with other concepts that Marx deploys like the concept of "abstract"...If one doesn't understand that he is using it following Hegel's deployment then, for example, reading the German Ideology would probably not make much sense.”

When one is about to risk making a fool of oneself, confession is good for the soul, so let me explain that I have not read anything by Althusser in roughly thirty-five years.  I can date the event because it coincided with a trip I took with my two young sons to DisneyWorld in Orlando, Florida.  I brought along Althusser’s best known work, Reading Capital.  In the evenings, after a full day of rides and such, I would put my two young sons to bed in the Howard Johnson motel room and then sit under the light over the washbasin outside the bathroom reading Althusser.  I think I may be the only person in the world with a copy of Reading Capital that has a Porky Pig sticker on the cover.

Back in Amherst I attended a graduate course for a while taught by Richard Wolff, a brilliant, charismatic Althusserian Marxist who was one of the leading lights of the UMass Economics Department.  After several classes in which I got into arguments with Rick about “overdetermination” [a favorite Althusserian category], I stopped going because I feared I was simply being disruptive.

I will confess that I found Althusser obscure and unhelpful in my quest to understand Marx and stopped reading him.  This, as I have explained several times, has been my practice all my life.  When I find a text that seizes me, enlightens me, opens ideas for me, I read it with a ferocious intensity, ripping from it by main force whatever can help me in my intellectual quests.  But when I find a text that does not seize me, as indeed most do not, I cast it aside and forget about it.  I am thus deeply but very haphazardly or spottily educated.  For example, I have a modest reputation as a Kant scholar, but there are books by Kant I have not read because one look was enough to tell me that they contained nothing I really needed to know.  I make no apology for this habit of mind, and am quite happy to forego whatever recognition I might thereby sacrifice.

Althusser simply did not interest me when I read him, so I stopped.  Let me expand on this just a bit by responding to Professor Seda-Irizarry’s comment about essence and appearance versus reality and appearance, and then call up from the bowels of my memory my dispute with Rick Wolff about overdetermination.  I borrow the Appearance/Reality distinction from Plato, of course, who originated it in Western Philosophy [though the distinction must surely have been around long before Plato wrote.]  As my little book, Moneybags, makes quite clear, I understand Marx to be saying that the surface appearances of Capitalism are powerful and capable of distorting and indeed destroying our lives, for all that they exist at the level of Appearance.  I bring my book to a close with an extended analysis of Marx’s puzzling statement that “The categories of bourgeois economy … are socially valid, hence objective forms of thought” despite having just said that they are verr├╝kt.  This is a very deep utterance by Marx and requires an elaborate explication [which I give it.]  I can see absolutely nothing to be gained by substituting “essence” for “reality” in my discussion, nothing at all.  I am afraid [and I realize that I risk giving offence here] that I am sympathetic to the scathing evaluation of Althusser offered by Leszek Kolakowski, who wrote, as quoted on Wikipedia:  I will argue that the whole of Althusser's theory is made up of the following elements: 1. common sense banalities expressed with the help of unnecessarily complicated neologisms; 2. traditional Marxist concepts that are vague and ambiguous in Marx himself (or in Engels) and which remain, after Althusser's explanation, exactly as vague and ambiguous as they were before; 3. some striking historical inexactitudes.”

My dispute with Rick Wolff about overdetermination is a good case in point.  The term “overdetermination” has two well-established meanings.  The first is from mathematics, where a system of n linear equations in m unknowns is said to be overdetermined if n>m.  An easy way to think about this is to imagine each linear equation as defining a line in a space.  Two such lines in two-dimensional space will intersect somewhere if they are linearly independent [otherwise they will be parallel and never intersect, in which case one equation is actually a scalar multiple of the other.]  Each pair of three lines in three-dimensional space will define a plane, assuming once again that no two of the lines are parallel to one another.  Each pair of planes intersect to define a line, and the intersection of all three will identify a point.  The point of intersection in each case is the solution to the set of equations – the point whose coordinates satisfy all n equations simultaneously.  When there are three lines in two-dimensional space, in general they will not meet at a single point [instead they will define a triangle, with each pair of lines intersecting at one of the vertices.]  So when three lines meet at a point in two-space, their equations do not determine a point, they overdetermine it.

The other meaning of “overdetermine’ is to be found in Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams.  In attempting to arrive at an interpretation of a patient’s dream, Freud would have the patient free associate to each element of the dream until the flow of associations played out, thereby discovering the meaning of the dream element in the dream.  But as Freud engaged in this therapeutic practice, he made a striking discovery.  Sometimes, the process of association would yield a completely adequate interpretation of a dream element, and yet by continuing the associations to that very same element, Freud would come upon a quite different, but also completely adequate interpretation of the element.  It was not at all the case that the first stream of associations had explained some of the aspects of the dream element while the second stream had explained other aspects, nor was it the case that both streams of association were needed to make sense of any single aspect of the dream element.  Each process of association was fully adequate to the explanation of the entire dream element.  Freud called this curious phenomenon “overdetermination.”  Althusser claimed to derive his notion of overdetermination from Freud.

In his lectures, rick Wolff seemed to me to be using the term “overdetermination” for something totally different, namely multiple determination, which is to say determination of a multiplicity of causes rather than by one cause alone. And he was invoking this of multiple determination – quite legitimately in my opinion – to counteract the tendency of some readers of Marx to think that Marx was saying something simplistic and wrong, namely that the law or religion of a society had one single simple cause, namely that it was a reflection of the social relations of production in the society, rather than being a complex phenomenon with many causes, principle among which but by no means alone, were the social relations of production.

I tried without any success whatsoever to get Rick to see that he was misusing the term “overdetermined’ when what he really meant was “multiply determined.”  After a while I gave up and stopped bothering him and his class.

Well, that is about as much as I know about Althusser.  I hope someone found it interesting.  Ian, if you see Rick, give him my regards.  He is a class act.


Utopian Yuri said...

richard wolff has a popular weekly radio show/podcast, "economic update," in which he discusses news items and economic topics from a marxist perspective, in a very accessible way. some episodes are available here:

Ian J. Seda Irizarry said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
classtruggle said...

I never thought that he was worth studying either, and I have not spent much time reading him. But he deserves some credit, I think, for shifting Marxism out of the Stalinist mold.

Important to remember that in the 1950s and early 60s, Marxism was as vulgar and as Stalinist as one can imagine, and completely stuck within the confines of the Stalinist CPs.

Althusser's notions of relative autonomy and overdetermination were key to the de-Stalinization that takes place in Marxist studies in the 60s. Neo-Marxism after WWI has a lot going for it but the CP clamped down on this as Stalin put his imprint on the theory. His notion of the 'early' humanist Marx and the later 'scientific' Marx was a load of rubbish. But good to have it articulated so as to address it.

Interesting enough, Althusser also admitted that his academic success was based more on gossiping and memorisation (some may consider this plagiarism), and that his understanding of Marx was quite limited.

Here's one of the famous quotes in Althusser's autobiographical statements:

"In fact my philosophical knowledge of texts was rather limited. I was very familiar with Descartes and Malebranche, knew a little Spinoza, nothing about Aristotle, the Sophists and the Stoics, quite a lot about Plato and Pascal, nothing about Kant, a bit about Hegel, and finally a few passages of Marx which I had studied closely. My way of picking up and then really getting to know philosophy was legendary: I used to enjoy saying it was all done by 'hearsay' (the first confused form of knowledge according to Spinoza). I learnt from Jacques Martin who was cleverer than me by gleaning certain phrases in passing from my friends, and lastly from the seminar papers and essays of my own students. In the end, I naturally made it a point of honour and boasted that 'I learnt by hearsay'. This distinguished me quite markedly from all my university friends who were much better informed than me, and I used to repeat it by way of paradox and provocation, to arouse astonishment, incredulity, and admiration (!) in other people, to my great embarrassment and pride."

Louis Althusser, The future lasts forever: a memoir. New York: The New Press, 1992, pp. 165-166.