Let me just say that I am reproducing this to show you what the intellectual climate was at UMass forty years ago. Notice that none of us had an endowed chair, none of this was supported by a grant, this did not emerge from a Center named after a rich business alum. It was simply the kind of exchange that occurred all the time, and that happened to be captured in my files. UMass in those days was one of the liveliest colege campuses in America, for all that it was beset by seemingly innumerable budget crises. Needless to say, while Rick Wolff and Steve Resnick were doing their thing, Sam Bowles and Herb Gintis were doing their different thing, I was gearing up to write two books on Marx, and across the campus exciting ideas were percolating.
Professor Robert Paul Wolff
Very seriously, we appreciate the evident time and energy and
care contributed to the letter you sent to us last month. lt "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.
This letter addresses itself to the first and longer portion
of your letter, that pertaining to our usage of the Althusserian
term, "overdetermination." 1 hope that before too long, we will
have some thoughts down on paper regarding the second portion.
1 believe that it would be best to begin by specifying what
exaet 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 argumcnt developed below.
1. First paragraph, 5th and 6th lines: the two seienges business is not secondary or in any way non-essential to our whole formulation. Your bracketing of that epitemological/methodological position will, 1 intend to show, reappear as a constant problem within your arquments over the interpretation of "overdetermination."
2. Second paragraph, page 2: 1 do not agree at all with your rendering of Freud's meaning by the term "overdetermination': Thus 1 will follow a very different, opposed view of Freudfs meaning along a chain of reasoning eventuating in further disagreements over Althusser's intent in developing the term navordetermination"; over what a psychoanalysis does for a patient, and, perhaps most importantly, over what 1 understand to be Marx's particular method of socio-economic analysis which, 1 believe, may be usefully and accurately designated by the summary term, "overdetermination."
0. (My references to Freud are still taken - as in our paper -
from the Brill/modern Library edition of Works)
The opening pages of the Chapter on "The DrPam Work,"
and especially pages 323-4, distinguish most importantly between the elements" of the "dream content" and the "dream thoughts" which are ascertained,-es Freud puts lt, after the dream has occurred by means of psychoanalytically guided free essociation. The "eleMents" are
noda1 points of interaction ("meeting" says Freud) amOng the
escertained dream thoughts. 1 will ergue that just. this point you have missed or misinterpreted in your letter.
4. Freud, page 341: 'bit is left to. the interpretation of the dream to restore the.coherence which the dream-work (condensation, displacement, censorshi_p, etc.) hes-destroyed."
To be fruutratingly 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 particuler dream content er any of its constituent elements. What is crucial is the "meetlng" of any 'n' dream thoughtS in so particular a manner as to precipitate - in a constructed Interpretation - a correpondingly 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 es an element of it. As 1 read them, neither. Freud nor Althusser operate with a notion of overdbtermination es articulated in your second paragreph, page two, 1.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 generelly defined mental orientetion of the patient. Similarly, dream thoughts are ascertalned by the subsequent speech -of the pntient - 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 thouEhts elicited after and about those dreams. ConfrOnting this fregmentary collection of mental events, Freud proroSes to link
dream elements to dream thoughts in a precise manner which is not at all that presented in your cited paragraph on page 2. lt
is a manner that assumes multiple causality (or explanatory variables) -but goss well beyond mUltiplicity to put the eMphasis on the — interaction between, the "meeting,u the relationships among dream thouFhts that produce or explain a dream element or elements. Freud specificelly says that several elements of dream thoughts aprear in a dream while othersj do not; thus, again, that one dream thought can not explain either the dream in toto or the presence within lt of some and not er elements of the dream thoughtä.
To interpret a dream, to nexpleinu lt, 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 remebrances of the patient. Together, retient and doctor construct, according to Freud's proposed method, an interpretation of dreams, i.e. together they construct a ncoherent° dream content. (1 do not take seriously Freud's idea that Interpretation urestores° coherence, since there is no way to demonstrato or prove some original coherence.
NOW, there are no doubt several or-perhaps many different. ecoherent" dream contents, i.e. interpretations, that a patient with er without an analySt might construct along the linse of Freud's prOposed method. FresuMably, an analyst can either minimize or maximize the degree to which the analystl own preferred construction
is e ieressed upon the patient in the-course Of the latierls•own effort at the construction of a coherence. At least formally, 1 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 marner of thinking (in the brondest possible sense). This is how 1 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 sreech, what is thought
importent" among rememberences and articulations of dream thoughts) and a methodological principle, nnmely, linking dream contents to dream thoughts via overdeterr2ination.
All this is preface to what, 1 think, really matters here. Althusser is interested in Freud's methodological princirle for two reasons. Th=3 first and less important lies in.its usefullness to comhat the crude and reductionist economic materialism that has become so pervasive among many elements in the Marxian tradition. The more important renson lies in its usefulness in permitting Althusser to formulate his notion of the distinctiveness of Marxinn science. Thus, for Althusser, social events are like dream contents in their immediate lack of ucoherence." 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 ncoherence" rauch as interpretation gives ncoherence" to dreems. But, of course, no one realm can by itself give Vcoherence" (shades of the rejected economism).
However, Althusser goes weil beyond Freud; lt 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 coTpletely constituted by es well es constitutive of every other designated realm. Thus Althusser's overdetermination is a very significantly modified, extended, and, 1 believe, deepned version of Freud's formulation vis a vis dreams.
Now to the punch-line of all this Althus.ser is most interested
in the fact that, in general, severa3A"coberences" are constructible
in either dream Interpretation or social analysis. The patient who with the analyst eventuaily constructs a complex interaction of dream thoughts so es to produce n "coherent" dream content gains fron this process an insight into the basic methods of his/her own mental processes: basic concepts, anxleties, fears, needs, etc. The fruit of the aralysis of the dream, its interpretation, is not
some Urestored coherence but rather self-consciousness about ones own mental processes, i.e, thinkin5 broadly considered. A different patient, confronting quite similar drepms contents and/or thoughts miht well produce a quite different construction expressing correspondngly different mental processes.
In the social-analytical nrea, Althusser identifies Marxism es, simultaneeusly and neccessarily, a perticular way of thinking about sociiety ( a social science) and a correspondingly particular construction of what the "coherence" of any place and time in history is. Crerafing within such s 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.
Glven all this, I hope the following brief responses to certein partioular points you ralsed will not be too unclear. Yes, Althusser's arEument that Marxism approaches the explanation (bringing nochereneen to) .of any soclal event via.overdetermination asserts that the_ latter - comprises an epistemological/methodological foundation of distinctively Marxian science. Your concern with completeness 1 do not understand.
Neither the Interpretation of dreams nor of social events can ever --be complete - because the constituent elements of the process of interpretetion are always changing, because the object of interpreättion 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 somethn like Freud's notion of
restorin4z coherence, which Althusser rejects for. reasons 1 indicated above es my own es well.
In any C2SC. Althusser certainly does support the notion that two or more well-developed (never comolete) sciences cen and da offer alternative coherent explanations for events. They do this operating out of different conceptual framewroks or processes of thinking (including what is "seenu and "selected" among infinitely fraEemntary givens).
The important distinctiqn 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 overdeterril.ination es a method of explainIng, all causes and effects including the causes and effects of using overdetermination es a method for social theory. At the same time, Althusser insists unwaveringly that a final distinction always remains between en event (cauee or effect) and the various human explanstions offered bü it. (Here is perhaps a faint thread
linking Marx back to Kant).
As to your Idee of Althusser being interested in some pareTlel notion to free essociation-, 1 very much douht it. The effort to draw such parallels lies rather with Uthusser's theoretical opponents within the Marxian-tradition, i.e. the
Frankfurt school's ucritical" theorists and most evidently in the werk of Hebermes oh knowledge vis a vis 11humen,interests2
Althusser insists that sciences deal with alternetively constructed meenings er coherences, thet_between all of these and uthe real totality" there verneine both 9 gap and a fundamental, ceaseless-mutual determinetion: changing sciences (knowledges, understendings) • are a constitutnt element.of the totality-they sack to grasp and
thüs the changes in the real impact upon knowledges of the real
and vice versa.: Althusser'S concept of Marx's dielectics focuses on the argument that overdeterminetion dmplies/defines contrediction. But this letter will never stop other than ebruptly,given
· the many points you raised ex-elicitly and imPlicitly in your letter. know-mueh of whet I've written here must appear at best too dense. Well, we might continue to exchange thoughts. Certainly 1 will go much further in spepifying our meaning in the term over-determination in future writingz thanks to your letter and the reflections lt has
stimulated. 1 very much hope this letter is of interest to you.