Thursday, May 04, 2023

The Spinoza Effect: on Matthys' Althusser Lecteur de Spinoza

In the last year or so there have been two books published on Althusser and Spinoza. Juan Domingo Sánchez Estop's Althusser et Spinoza: Detours et Retours and now Jean Matthys Althusser lecteur de Spinoza: Genèse et enjeux d'une éthico-politique de la théorie. This is perhaps not surprising, after all Althusser confessed to being a Spinozist famously in 1972, but I would argue that there are still some surprises to be found in terms of this combination. First, and most fundamentally, it is surprising to see two full length studies on Althusser and Spinoza since as much as the name and concepts of Spinoza played fundamental or pivotal roles in Althusser's thought, underlying his own concepts of structural, or immanent, causality, symptomatic reading, and ideology, Althusser wrote very little on Spinoza. I have often thought that the Althusser Spinoza connection exists more in its effects, in what it made possible in the writing of  Macherey and Balibar, to name just two proximate effects, rather than in Althusser's thought. Estop and Matthys both contest such an interpretation, arguing for a Spinozism that is more immanent and more consistent in Althusser's works than the few times he is mentioned by name. 

That is not the only surprise. As I mentioned in my review of Estop's book, it is perhaps surprising that Althusser once stated in an interview that "the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus is the Capital of Spinoza, because Spinoza is preoccupied above all with history and politics." One would think that Althusser, who drew from the Ethics in terms of his theory of ideology and immanent causality, would focus more on the Ethics and Capital, two works that are systematic and complete. However, Althusser's invocation of the TTP suggests that it is less Spinoza's system than his particular intervention in a specific conjuncture that matters. To this point Matthys adds another somewhat surprising, even paradoxical consideration, that Spinoza is less a foundation of Althusser's thought than the critical destruction of any such foundation. As Matthys writes, 

"With respect to Althusser the principle political virtue of spinozism is found paradoxically in its radical critique of any foundation, of any purity of knowledge, and of any originary and transcendental position which supposed to guarantee political action in its course, its end and means, and to reassure its subjects of a form of self-identity in action, supported by an instance of definitive and overwhelming truth. The paradox is doubled in that, if is precisely in not founding, in not delimiting a priori a philosophical guarantee of a true politics that spinozism can produce its properly political effects, it only seems to be able to free political practice from its imaginary guarantees by investing in the most literally "dogmatic" position in the kampflatz which is the fortress of metaphysics."

For Althusser Spinoza is a question of theory of its conditions and limits. Matthys argues that this not only makes it possible to read a trajectory through Althusser's thought in which the question of theoretical practice is central, but it also distinguishes Althusser from the two primary orientations to Spinoza today, a rationalist and structuralist orientation in Lordon and a vitalist and ontological orientation that can be found in Deleuze and Negri. Althusser (and to some extent Macherey and Balibar) would represent a third orientation. It might be easy to call this orientation epistemological, since it would seem to be primarily concerned with knowledge, and the division between ideology and science, but I think that misses the way in which the question of knowledge is thoroughly implicated with that of practice in the works of Althusser. Matthys uses the phrase the "ethico-political of theory" to express this third orientation. 

With respect to the former, the trajectory of Althusser's thought, the formulation "without origin or end" is familiar to any reader of Althusser, and he made this idea central to his understanding of not only Marx's idea of history, as a process without origin or end, but his understanding of philosophy. Origin and end remained for Althusser fundamentally theological questions taken up by philosophy, but fundamentally alien to it. As Althusser writes in Philosophy for Nonphilosophers, "Philosophy inherited this question of questions, the question of the Origin of the World, which is the question of the World, humanity and God." This is a latter text, written in the late sixties and early seventies, but published posthumously. Matthys demonstrates that the question of the origin can be found at the origin of Althusser's thought, from his early text on Hegel onward. Althusser is not so much searching for an origin, a foundation, in the sense of an archimedean point, but trying to think without origin and guarantee. 

Spinoza in some sense resolves the question of origin by splitting it into two. We begin at once with imagination, with our immediate knowledge, which is necessarily distorted and inadequate. This immediate knowledge is necessary ideological. However, as Matthys argues, the illusions of ideology are also allusions, they always allude to the very social conditions that they conceal and efface, which is to say that there is the condition of knowledge in our misrecognition. Or as Spinoza puts it, habemus enim ideam veram, we have a true idea. For Althusser this true idea is tied to practice, which is to say that truth must be produced from ideological conditions. We are always at once in our imaginary and ideological apprehension of the world and in our practical engagement with it. The question of knowledge is how to turn the latter against the former, to locate the orientation of a practical dimension in ideology. As Spinoza describes such a production in the Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect, 

"But just as men, in the beginning, were able to make the easiest things with the tools they were born with (however laboriously and imperfectly), and once these had been made, made other, more difficult things with less labor and more perfectly, and so, proceeding gradually from the simplest works to tools, and from tools to other works and tools, reached the point where they accomplished so many and so difficult things with little labor, in the same way the intellect, by its inborn power, makes intellectual tools for itself, by which it acquires other powers ... until it reaches the pinnacle of wisdom." (This is a passage that is essential to Macherey's reading, I also write about it here)

This probably won't be the cover but speaking of Spinoza
and tools, Spinoza and Marx. I thought I would throw in a plug 

As Matthys argues this idea of knowledge as a kind of production is what connects Marx and Spinoza. As Matthys writes, "That to read, to know, is always to produce: this is the first lesson that Althusser retains from Spinoza, projecting it to Marx and applying it to his own reading of Marx." Althusser's "symptomatic reading" is situated in between the theory of reading put forward by Spinoza in the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus and Marx's practice of reading political economy. Matthys juxtaposes this practice of producing knowledge, a practice that always begins with its specific and determined position, with ideology that begins with the subject. Reading, the production of knowledge, what Althusser calls science, is infinitely productive, capable of new knowledge because it begins from its finite position; in contrast to this ideology is infinitely repetitive and limited because it believes that it can immediately grasp everything. 

Two things are most striking about Matthys book. First, even though it is exhaustive in its survey of Althusser's writing, begin with the thesis on Hegel from 1947, it is unapologetically a book about what could be considered "peak" Althusser, the period between 1965-1972 when the concepts of symptomatic reading, structural causality, theoretical practice, and ideological interpellation where developed. This is the period in which Althusser is most influenced by Spinoza, thinking through in his own way, the Spinoza/Marx conjunction. This is also the period that came under the most criticism, as ahistorical, functionalist, determinist, etc., or, in terms of Althusser's own self-criticism, as theoreticist. Theoreticism as Althusser defined is reducing all  of the demarcations between Marxism and political economy, as well as between Marx and the young Marx to a distinction between "truth and error," overlooking the social, historical, and political dimensions of Marx's transformation. This brings us to the second aspect of Matthys book, Matthys argues that what Althusser dismissed as too rational and theoretical has, at its core, a hidden ethico-political dimension. This is perhaps surprising. What does the critic of humanism have to say about ethics, that human, all too human of disciplines. Althusser's interest in Spinoza never seemed to touch on the title of his most important book. As André Tosel argued in his Du Matérialisme de Spinoza, "the Althusser of Spinoza has lost all ethico-political dimensions." It is hard to see immediately what the ethical dimension to Althusser's theoretical interventions are, and it is hard not to agree with Tosel. Tosel proves to be quite important to the final section of the book, however, not in terms of his criticism but in terms of important points of overlap between Althusser and Tosel. (Matthys is also the also the author of a great series of essays on Tosel). In some sense it is Tosel who provides the concepts to make sense of the ethical dimension of Althusser's theoretical interventions. As I have argued, here, and elsewhere, Tosel argues for a "finite communism," that is in sharp contrast to capital's dreams of endless accumulation as well as Marxist ideas of a thoroughly rational mastery of the productive forces.  

Matthys argues that Althusser can be understood as a thinker of finitude. That the very idea of theoretical practice was to think the limited efficacy of theory as practice, to situate  it within other practices. As Matthys writes, "Practice in the Althusserian sense would be from this point of view analogous to the Spinozist mode, in the sense that it cannot be conceived by itself, but it can only exist, produce effect and be known in that it is articulated differently with different instances of the field." Finitude is understood here not as some particular relation to death, an all too human definition, but to be finite is to exist in and through relations with other finite things. Similarly, Althusser's famous statement about the lonely hour of the last instance is a statement about the finitude of Marxism as a theory. It will always be necessary to think the causality of the structure through its effects, to recognize the overdetermination of any essence or any essential contradiction. As Matthys writes,"Thinker of the limit, certainly, but if one prefers: a thinker of finitude. Because if Althusser tries to think the limit between marxism and its outside, between science and ideology, between materialism and idealism, it means that this line of demarcation necessarily through the heart of Marxism itself." Althusser's demarcations are not divisions accomplished once and for all, as in the epistemic break, but are produced again and again, and that finitude, that incomplete status, is precisely what makes them productive, creating new knowledge. 

I feel like I could go on and on about this book, but blogposts are definitely finite and limited in what they can do, so it seems necessary to conclude. The merits of Matthys book are multiple. To begin with the last, Matthys puts two of the most important Marxist philosophers of the second half of the twentieth century, Althusser and Tosel, in dialogue, using one to expand the insights of the other. Second, it is a thorough study of the "Spinoza effect" in Althusser's thought, how much Althusser was transformed by his engagement with Spinoza. Spinoza cannot be reduced to the few citations in Lire le Capital and Elements of Self-Criticism, but is immanent in its effects throughout Althusser. Matthys, like Estop referred to above, as well as Morfino, Montag, Sharp, Stolze, etc. recognizes that Althusser is as much a Spinozist as a Marxist. Thus, all of Althusser's deviations of the sixties, deviations labelled "theoreticism," "structuralism," "functionalism," have to be understood as not just fidelity to Marx and Spinoza, but ultimately as conditions for new theoretical production. 

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