Monday, February 9, 2009

Badiou on Althusser: "Subjectivity without a Subject"

To complicate matters more, here is another critical account of Althusser's Marxism and the role of 'the Subject' within it. I will forgo any introduction of Alain Badiou, first of all because I feel totally unqualified to do so (I know nothing of his 'philosophy' proper, only of his concretely 'political' writings (on Sarkozy, for example) and his radical/activist personal history and his involvement with Maoist organizations). This critique of Althusser appears in Metapolitics (2006) put out in English by Verso. Don't ask me what the title of the chapter "subjectivity without a subject" is supposed to mean.

On Badiou's account, in Althusser no theory of the subject is possible, nor could there ever be one. He summarizes the point:
"For Althusser, all theory proceeds by way of concepts. But 'subject' is not a concept. This theme is developed with utmost clarity in his work. For example: the concept 'process' is scientific, the concept 'subject' is ideological. 'Subject' is not the name of a concept, but that of a notion, that is, the mark of an inexistence. There is no subject since there are only processes."
For Badiou, the question we should ask of Althusser is: What does eliminating the subject from theory mean for politics?

The danger is that politics collapses into ideology, because in Althusser there is always a hard and fast distinction between science and ideology. For Althusser, (social) science is the project of parsing out ideology from objective features of political, social and economic processes. Yet this conception of science, as Badiou emphasizes, is only about 'processes', not 'subjects'. But if we're only left with analysis of the 'processes' by which economic/political structures overdetermine the social field, where does this leave the possibility of purposive political action?

Now Althusser is a self-proclaimed Marxist, that is, a radical committed to changing the world, not merely interpreting it. But what room is there for political action in the anti-humanist Althusserian framework?

Of course, Althusser doesn't want to commit himself to leaving no room for political action. He, after all, conceives of philosophy itself as only properly undertaken as part of the 'class struggle in theory'. But I'm not interested in merely what he said or in what conclusions he deigned to avoid: I'm interested here in how his theory actually functions with respect to politics.

Althusser says on many occasions that politics is neither science nor ideology. As Badiou charts it: "In 1965 Althusser distinguished political practice from scientific and ideological practice. In 1968, he explained that every process is 'in relations'... Finally Althusser posits that only the 'militants of the revolutionary class struggle' really grasp the thought of 'the process'... that is, only those engaged in political practice genuinely understand the 'processes' by which the social/political field operates."

But who are these militants? I'm not sure I understand.

For Althusser, Bourgeois ideology is characterized by "the notion of the subject whose matrix is legal and which subjects the individual to the ideological State apparatuses: this is the theme of subjective interpellation." Thus, Badiou concludes, in Althusser's sense the subject is a function of the State (where 'State' is construed broadly to include 'Ideological State Apparatuses' (e.g. Churches, Schools, media institutions, etc.) that extend beyond of the coercive State proper).

But if subjectivity is itself a function of the state, there cannot be a political subject for Althusser, because any properly revolutionary politics ipso facto cannot be a function of the state since it consists of a commitment to the overthrowing of the State altogether.

But if there aren't any political subjects (since 'subjects' are ideological), then where does this leave politics in relation to the science/ideology distinction? Science, as we've seen, consists entirely in uncovering what is objective (the concrete functioning of ISAs, the processes by which ideology clouds the reality of the economic/social field). But politics, Althusser says, is not about objectivity; which is to say, politics is not a science. Where then, in the Althusserian universe, is politics?

Althusser uses terms like 'partisanship', 'choice', 'decision', 'revolutionary militant', etc. which all lead in the direction of subjectivity. They all presuppose or indicate that there is someone for whom 'partisanship' and 'militancy' inhere as predicates or actions. Badiou asks here, somewhat enigmatically, whether we should attempt to read Althusser as trying to 'think subjectivity without a subject'. I'm not sure I understand what that means.

Badiou ends the chapter abruptly by making some remarks indicating some of Althusser's worthwhile contributions to radical political theory while trying to salvage some of his insights. For example, Badiou argues that we read "overdetermination" in Althusser as a limitation on the politically possible. But possible for whom? I'm again unsure what to make of any of Althusser's insights at all unless we risk reinstating some conception of the subject. After all, who is it that authors texts that are purportedly scientific, that aim to show the functioning of ideology? I don't want to say that either subjects are located within ideological structures or they are completely outside them. Nonetheless, we must be careful not to close off the possibility within our theorization of ideology of explaining how it is that we, as subjects, came to theorize about it in the first place.

It seems to me to be a serious problem that Althusser's project cannot account for its own conditions of possibility. Moreover it seems obvious that the choice between homo-economicus and the ultra-functionalism of Althusser's approach are not exhaustive possibilities. Yet since
Claude Lévi-Strauss and subsequent 'structuralists' in social science introduced the idea of the subject, as such, as a product of determinate social processes, this problem has persisted in French thought. My limited engagement with some recent French theory suggests to me that the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction, such that vague invocations of 'subjectivity' or 'singularity' are taken to be obviously good.


Arvilla said...

I'm trying to be as fair to Althusser and Butler as possible on this one, I think because it seems so fundamentally absurd to deny the existence of the subject, independent of an ideology, while relying on the subject for liberation. And it's hard for me to imagine something fundamentally absurd coming out of minds like theirs.

So, (aside from the Macro), let's see how I can weigh in and search for that third way you hesitate to attempt to find (and which I am probably better off resisting as well). I think politics based on identity (and the politics of representation and protectionism that go along with it) will fail. It doesn't have to be because of the subjectivity/structure theory. Maybe identity politics just fail because identity is fluid, not fixed, indescribable, because the categories are so silly and so artificial, not because there aren't actual subjects.

Ok, but maybe I'm going to accept that subjects don't exist except as they are called into being by oppressive ideologies. I don't understand why that means we can't use the subjectivity that has been interpellated upon us as a tool of our own liberation (assuming we can find a way to do so).

What if we can only construct a new ideology, one we agree is less oppressive than the existing ideology? Do we have such little faith in politicking that this idea is completely unimaginable? Why do we have to keep saying things like "You owe me a government that does this because I am a--(human, born with natural rights; woman, which is just as good as a man; a person in love with someone of my same sex, which is just as valuable as a heterosexual person etc.)" instead of saying "Let's do things this way instead, because it's a better way to live and allows a lot more freedom and happiness." What if instead of doing away with the subject we just recreate the subject of focus as society, instead of as the individual.

This is all off-the-cuff brainstorming, of course. But why does the rejection of identity politics require the destruction of the subject? Or why does aknowledgement that ideology creates subjects require the destruction of ideology instead of the construction of a new and kinder one? Sociality seems to necessitate some subjectitivy. And I don't wish for any end to sociality, even in my most outlandish utopian visions. What if the subjectless blank slate is less desirable than the subject-filled society?

Is there any way we could be at peace knowing we lived amid ideology, knowing we had constructed an ideology even with the knowledge that it is a construction? I think I could be perfectly happy in those circumstances...does that make me an un-self-reflexive tool of the ISAs?

t said...

Althusser is definitely extreme in his anti-humanist stance, and he is not ambiguous about his position on this point. Butler is far more nuanced, but I am tempted to read her attack on Monique Wittig, who I would like to post on soon, as a kind of attack on humanism ala Althusser. But perhaps I am misreading, perhaps she is only taking aim at a particular conception of the self/the subject.

To the extent that Althusser, Foucault, Butler, et. al want to reject the liberal (homo economicus) ahistorical rational chooser conception of the self, I am in agreement with this impulse. There is much of critical import here, particularly with respect to Butler's deconstruction and problematization of the notion of a pre-given 'woman' underlying any feminist politics. She is right to say that analysis must not only focus on the 'choices' that individuals understood as women make, but also on the social structures that actually shape and produce gendered subjects in the first place.

To the extent that she might verge on a selfless/subjectless theory of feminist politics, I am almost inclined to say: who cares? Why not focus on the material here that does make sense, that does have critical import, that does seem to pave the way for political action?