And here is Rick Wolff's response. Note, the discrepancy in dates is probably my later error.
seriously, we appreciate the evident time and energy and care contributed to the
letter you sent to us last month. It "engages" our work in a manner
directly useful in working out our formulations toward greater precision and
clarity. We only wish other graduate students and faculty would do likewise;
that would, of course, help us enormously.
letter addresses itself to the first and longer portion of your letter, that
pertaining to our usage of the Althusserian term,
"overdetermination." I hope that before too long, we will have some
thoughts down on paper regarding the second portion. I believe that it would be
best to begin by specifying what exact points in your letter and in Freud serve
me in replying to your letter; the following list should, then, serve as
reference points in the argument developed below.
paragraph, 5th and 6th lines: the two sciences business is not secondary or in
any way non-essential to our whole formulation. Your bracketing of that epistemological/methodological
position will, I intend to show, reappear as a constant problem within your arguments
over the interpretation of "overdetermination."
paragraph, page 2: I do not agree at all with your rendering of Freud's meaning
by the term "overdetermination': Thus I will follow a very different,
opposed view of Freud’s meaning along a chain of reasoning eventuating in
further disagreements over Althusser's intent in developing the term “overdetermination";
over what a psychoanalysis does for a patient, and, perhaps most importantly,
over what I understand to be Marx's particular method of socio-economic
analysis which, I believe, may be usefully and accurately designated by the
summary term, "overdetermination."
references to Freud are still taken - as in our paper - from the Brill/modern
Library edition of Works)
opening pages of the chapter on "The Dream Work," and especially
pages 323-4, distinguish most importantly between the elements" of the
"dream content" and the "dream thoughts" which are
ascertained, as Freud puts it, after the dream has occurred by means of
psychoanalytically guided free association. The "elements" are nodal
points of interaction ("meeting" says Freud) among the ascertained
dream thoughts. I will argue that [it is?] just this point you have missed or
misinterpreted in your letter.
page 341: “it is left to the interpretation of the dream to restore the coherence
which the dream-work (condensation, displacement, censorship, etc.) has destroyed." To be frustratingly
brief, my reading of Freud rules out any notion that one or another or any
sequentially considered set of dream thoughts could explain, let alone cause, a
particular dream content or any of its constituent elements. What is crucial is
the "meeting" of any 'n' dream thoughts in so particular a manner as
to precipitate - in a constructed interpretation - a correspondingly particular
nodal point or element of actual dream content. One dream thought thus could
not possibly serve to explain why one and not the other of its (the dream
thought s) elements surfaces within the dream content as an element of it. As I
read them, neither Freud nor Althusser operate with a notion of
overdetermination as articulated in your second paragraph, page two, i.e.,
several individually sufficient explanations.
To get at
this point in a different way, consider that any dream content is first
"ascertained" or remembered by the patient - certainly a process
involving some selectivity based in turn upon some generally defined mental
orientation of the patient. Similarly, dream thoughts are ascertained by the
subsequent speech -of the patient - a process involving again the general mental
orientation of the patient and the conditions obtaining during the interval
between dream and speech. What we have, then, to deal with are fragments of
dreams and fragments of thoughts elicited after and about those dreams.
Confronting this fragmentary collection of mental events, Freud proposes to
elements to dream thoughts in a precise manner which is not at all that
presented in your cited paragraph on page 2. It is a manner that assumes
multiple causality (or explanatory variables)—but goes well beyond multiplicity
to put the emphasis on the interaction between, the "meeting,” the
relationships among dream thoughts that produce or explain a dream element or
elements. Freud specifically says that several elements of dream thoughts
appear in a dream while others do not; thus, again, that one dream thought can
not explain either the dream in toto or the presence within it of some and not other
elements of the dream thoughts.
interpret a dream, to “explain” it, then, involves a complex interaction
between patient and psychoanalyst involving several levels of selectivity. The
patient selectively rem-embers dream content and selectively articulates dream
thoughts: The psychoanalyst selectively elicits and encourages the
articulations and probably also the remembrances of the patient. Together, patient
and doctor construct, according to Freud's proposed method, an interpretation
of dreams, i.e. together they construct a “coherent” dream content. (I do not
take seriously Freud's idea that interpretation “restores” coherence, since
there is no way to demonstrate or prove some original coherence.
are no doubt several or-perhaps many different “coherent” dream contents, i.e.
interpretations, that a patient with or without an analyst might construct
along the lines of Freud's proposed method. Presumably, an analyst can either
minimize or maximize the degree to which the analyst’s own preferred
construction is impressed upon the patient in the course of the patient’s own
effort at the construction of a coherence. At least formally, I believe psychoanalysis
aims at facilitating the patient's construction of a coherent dream content so
as to make the patient aware of his/her own manner of thinking (in the broadest
possible sense). This is how I understand Freud: constructing a coherent dream
content out of fragmentary dream elements and dream thoughts involves
principles of selectivity (what remembered, what is freely associated in speech,
what is thought “important" among remembrances and articulations of dream
thoughts) and a methodological principle, namely, linking dream contents to
dream thoughts via overdetermination.
is preface to what, I think, really matters here. Althusser is interested in
Freud's methodological principle for two reasons. The first and less important
lies in its usefulness to combat the crude and reductionist economic
materialism that has become so pervasive among many elements in the Marxian
tradition. The more important reason lies in its usefulness in permitting
Althusser to formulate his notion of the distinctiveness of Marxian science.
Thus, for Althusser, social events are like dream contents in their immediate
lack of “coherence.” Historically considered conditions and developments within
the ideological and political, as well as economic, realms of social life are
like dream thoughts. The interaction, then, of these realms overdetermines social
events giving history a “coherence” much as interpretation gives “coherence” to
dreams. But, of course, no one realm can by itself give “coherence” (shades of
the rejected economism).
Althusser goes well beyond Freud; it is only the latter's general idea he
absorbs. As you quite rightly noted, Althusser makes reciprocity among socially
causal realms or variables or forces central to his argument. He goes even
further to insist that each realm within the social totality is completely
constituted by as well as constitutive of every other designated realm. Thus
Althusser's overdetermination is a very significantly modified, extended, and,
I believe, deepened version of Freud's formulation vis a vis dreams.
Now to the
punch-line of all this: Althusser is most interested in the fact that, in
general, several "coherences" are constructible in either dream interpretation
or social analysis. The patient who with the analyst eventually constructs a
complex interaction of dream thoughts so as to produce a "coherent"
dream content gains from this process an insight into the basic methods of
his/her own mental processes: basic concepts, anxieties, fears, needs, etc. The
fruit of the analysis of the dream, its interpretation, is not some restored
coherence, but rather self-consciousness about ones own mental processes, i.e,
thinking broadly considered. A different patient, confronting quite similar
dreams contents and/or thoughts might well produce a quite different
construction expressing correspondingly different mental processes.
social-analytical area [arena?], Althusser identifies Marxism as, simultaneously
and necessarily, a particular way of thinking about society (a social science)
and a correspondingly particular construction of what the "coherence"
of any place and time in history is. Operating within such a Marxism, Althusser
–identifies coherences and their constitutive sciences other than Marxism and
offers a Marxian scientific explanation for why and how these alternative
sciences exist, i.e. their overdetermination.
this, I hope the following brief responses to certain particular points you raised
will not be too unclear. Yes, Althusser's argument that Marxism approaches the
explanation (bringing “coherence” to) of any social event via overdetermination
asserts that the latter comprises an epistemological/methodological foundation
of distinctively Marxian science. Your concern with completeness I do not
understand. Neither the Interpretation of dreams nor of social events can ever
be complete because the constituent elements of the process of interpretation
are always changing, because the object of interpretation is always altered
(enhanced) self-consciousness which in turn works changes.in actions which
react back upon the thinking process and so on. Completeness would imply something
like Freud's notion of restoring coherence, which Althusser rejects for reasons
I indicated above as my own as well.
In any case,
Althusser certainly does support the notion that two or more well-developed
(never complete) sciences can and do offer alternative coherent explanations
for events. They do this operating out of different conceptual frameworks or
processes of thinking (including what is "seen” and "selected"
among infinitely fragmentary givens).
important distinction between a cause and an explanation is a huge issue of
central importance. We agree on that. Let me here simply say that Althusser
uses overdetermination as a method of explaining, all causes and effects
including the causes and effects of using overdetermination as a method for
social theory. At the same time, Althusser insists unwaveringly that a final
distinction always remains between an event (cause or effect) and the various
human explanations offered by it. (Here is perhaps a faint thread linking Marx
back to Kant).
As to your
idea of Althusser being interested in some parallel notion to free association,
I very much doubt it. The effort to draw such parallels lies rather with Althusser's
theoretical opponents within the Marxian-tradition, i.e. the Frankfurt school's
“critical” theorists and most evidently in the work of Habermas on knowledge
vis-a-vis human interests.
insists that sciences deal with alternatively constructed meanings orr
coherences, that between all of these and “the real totality” there verneine [?] both a gap and a fundamental,
ceaseless-mutual determination: changing sciences (knowledges, understandings)
are a constituent element of the totality-they seek to grasp and thus the
changes in the real impact upon knowledges of the real and vice versa.
Althusser’s concept of Marx's dialectics focuses on the argument that
overdetermination implies/defines contradiction. But this letter will never
stop other than abruptly, given the many
points you raised explicitly and implicitly in your letter. Know much of what
I've written here must appear at best too dense. Well, we might continue to
exchange thoughts. Certainly I will go much further in specifying our meaning
in the term over-determination in future writings thanks to your letter and the
reflections it has stimulated. I very much hope this letter is of interest to