Levi Bryant has posted a thought-provoking review of the recent English translation of Rancière’s classic dismantling of the Althusserian system here. I add here some personal observations and reflections.


I was educated in philosophy in the Department of General Philosophy (or “GP”) at the University of Sydney, which was formed in 1974 specifically to permit the creation and continued existence of courses in Marxism and Feminism alongside other more traditional courses. Unfortunately instead of respecting the democratic pluralist impulse presiding over its formation, the leading lights of the department of GP substituted the dogmatic project of forming Marxist intellectuals under the aegis of Althusserian science, where the Lacanian feminists had an equally important, although initially subordinate, role.


Those who were not in accord with the Althussero-Lacanian hegemony were encouraged to keep silent about their doubts or objections, or to leave as soon as possible. Despite this predictable betrayal of the struggle that led to the department’s formation and despite the dogmatic climate that reigned I chose to study philosophy in GP because it took French Continental Philosophy and its problematics very seriously, despite giving intellectual hegemony to Althusser and, to a lesser degree Lacan. While finding Althusser and Lacan very interesting, I was even more fascinated by later developments (Kristeva, Foucault, Irigaray, Baudrillard, Derrida, and later on Lyotard, Deleuze and Guattari).

Despite my intellectually marginalised position in the department, I felt that it provided me with enough information and stimulation to pursue my own problematics.


I shall never forget the democratic élan that mobilised hundreds of university students to go on strike for the simple right of philosophy teachers to teach classes on Marxism and Feminism. Unfortunately, the analytic philosophers were horrified and seceded, forming a separate department.

The new department of General Philosophy was “democratic” in intention, organising combined student and staff meetings to vote on fundamental decisions. At the beginning these meetings were packed, with over a hundred students. But very quickly the number of participants declined, as the experienced militants heckled, ridiculed, and silenced those who did not agree with them. They sarcastically, with overweening  arrogance, demolished any opinion that did not correspond to the ruling Althusserian party line decided on by a small number of mutually supporting and rhetorically virulent staff and disciples.

FREEDOM OF THOUGHT: sacrificed to party-lines

I was horrified at the betrayal of those students who had gone on strike against a dogmatic dominating hierarchy of professors and their administrative relays and support, in the name of freedom of thought and pedagogical liberty. The new department became even more dogmatic and oppressive than the old analytically dominated department. The Althusserians were male masters and disciples, whereas the feminists regrouped into a subordinate but oppressively organised subgroup based initially around a reading of Freud and Lacan, while paying provisional tribute to Althusser.

All the multiplicity and heterogeneity that had served to mobilise people and to found the department was squeezed into these currents, or discouraged i.e. encouraged to leave.


I came from a poor family, and so I was at first impressed by the possibility of studying Marxism in a philosophy department. However I could not understand the arrogant, dogmatic, contemptuous attitude of the “Althusserians”. The feminists who remained and gained power after the restructuration shared an equally dogmatic attitude concerning Lacan.Students quickly learned that to critique such party lines led to lower marks and to exclusion.


I maintained an intellectual dialogue with these “master thinkers”, but I preferred to explore other paths, and I became engaged with a counter-current composed of Paul Feyerabend, James Hillman (the post-jungian analyst), and Gilles Deleuze. All of whom were treated with contempt and ridicule by the Althusserian and feminist élite of the department.

TENACITY: follow your hypothesis

My B.A. Honours thesis (1975) was devoted to a critique of Althusser’s epistemology and ontology, as I refused to obey the order-word of “conform your thoughts to Althusser and Lacan or leave, drop out, disappear, or fail”. This order-word had eliminated many friends, allies, or just nice intelligent interested people that I liked. Unlike them, I was stubborn, I stayed.I also had a big mouth, so I made no secret of my disagreement with the hegemonic line, and was quite vocal in my refutation of Althusser. I followed my own hypothesis.

I wrote an internal critique of Althusser’s epistemology and ontology, from a “secretly” (but everyone knew) Feyerabendian perspective, without ever mentioning the name of Feyerabend. Then, when I had almost finished my thesis, Radical Philosophy published a long article by Rancière (this was in 1975) that was a summary of the ideas that went into the book ALTHUSSER’S LESSON.


I was overjoyed on reading this article. Rancière could not be dismissed as a Feyerabendian wild man, as he was a former student and collaborator of Althusser. At the same time I was demoralised. I wanted to abandon my thesis, as Rancière had “said it all”. Fortunately, my thesis supervisor, Alan Chalmers, who had patiently listened to me for four years and had encouraged me to stay in the department and to express my point of view, suggested the solution that I was too “humble”, and too humiliated, because marginalised, isolated, and ignored, to come up with by myself.


Alan Chalmers told me that I should not abandon my original ideas and point of view, but That I should incorporate references to Rancière’s analyses into my thesis, in terms of my own sensibility and work, which had begun long before becoming cognizant of Rancière’s convergent work.

This is why I cannot separate “ALTHUSSER’S LESSON” from “Chalmers’ Lesson”, which was to stay and resist, and to stick to my own ideas and speak in my own name. This is also why I decided to read Jung and to undertake a Jungian analysis, as Lacan was associated in my intellectual life-world with the majoritarian figures of dogmatic Althusserians and Althussero-feminists.


Everything that one can say about the “uniqueness” of Lacanian analysis (the dogmatic and mimetic uses of Lacanian “theory” are something else entirely), one can also say about Jungian analysis: there is no master supposed to know, no subordination of the analysand to the analyst as that of a pupil to a master, it is the unconscious that knows.


I was so fed up with knowing masters that I fled to France, attended the classes of Deleuze, Lyotard, Serres, and Foucault, and decided to stay and make my home here in what seemed to be “the city of pure difference” (Paris), as one dream I had at the time expressed it.

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33 Responses to ALTHUSSER’S LESSON

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  3. This is interesting. Having completed degrees in Mathematics (which taught me not to bullshit, on pain of talking nonsense), I, too, studied in the General Philosophy Department at Sydney University from 1975 on, having full exposure to Althusserian Marxism and French feminism. The Althusserian structuralist reading of Marx, however, struck me as too schematic, hence arbitrary, and a visiting German lecturer on Marx, Mike Roth, showed me an alternative, more Hegelian-phenomenological way of reading Das Kapital. My PhD dissertation is such a phenomenological ‘value-form analytic’ reconstruction and extension of Marx’s Capital. So I ended up in Germany, where inter alia I did a Jungian analysis with an American, E. Field Horine, who had worked in the Binswanger clinic in Kreuzlingen, Switzerland, and then had his private practice across the border in Konstanz, Germany. Lots of writing down of dreams for my sessions. By the way, I even attended one Feyerabend lecture in Zürich around 1980, but Marx, Hegel, and then Heidegger and back to the Greeks (first Plato and Aristotle, followed by Anaximander, Parmenides and Herakleitos) plotted my path in philosophy, which has been a learning to see what I already see.


  4. terenceblake says:

    Hello Michael, this is very interesting indeed. I was enrolled in Philosophy at Sydney Uni from 1972 to 1981, so I participated in the events that led to the formation of GP in 1974, where I taught as a tutor for 5 years (till I left fot France at the end of 1981). So our paths must have crossed. You are lucky to have seen Feyerabend and attended one of his lectures. My path went via Lyotard and Deleuze to Latour, Stiegler, and Laruelle. Learning to see what I already see is a good description of the path in philosophy, although I prefer the Deleuzian learning to talk in one’s own name. I think they say the same thing, that philosophy is part of our individuation or else it is an alienation one must free oneself from.


    • Dear Terence, I do recall the name, Terry Blake, through the mists of time. I was still doing maths when you enrolled in GP. I did my first year in Philosophy in 1970, hearing lectures from David Armstrong on Descartes. I returned to GP-Philosophy in 1975. Learning to talk in one’s own name for me means risking to speak from the phenomena themselves, without hiding in mere scholarship, which is mostly pusillanimous. Only in this way do you “become, learning who you are” (Pindar 2nd Pyth. Ode 72). :


  5. terenceblake says:

    Yes, sometimes I need one formulation more than another, to bring out one aspect in a specific situation. For me migrating to a foreign country was synonymous with getting closer to the phenomena themselves, learning and becoming who I am. This is why I began this blog, to speak in my own name. I would add the term of estrangement, used to describe science fiction, but also capturing what I value in philosophy and analysis. There is a pulsation between alienation and estrangement, thinking and being like the others and acknowledging and embracing the differences.

    Mere scholarship has always meant too much alienation for me, not to mention that such intellectual positioning is inseparable from playing the academic game of thrones, seeking a secure institutional position by trampling on the phenomena inside and outside ourselves that do not square with such ambition.


    • I went into self-exile from Australia because I found the intellectual-philosophical climate there wanting, indeed, deadening. Moving to Germany also broke my identity. To be free, I think, you need a broken identity to prevent yourself from getting too comfortably at home in the world. I was very bad at playing the academic game, wholly naive and helpless. That was one motive that moved me to develop a phenomenology of whoness in which the power plays among whos are given socio-ontological concepts. That helped me to see these ongoing struggles over who-status to which I had been previously naively blind. Others know how to play these who-games from the start, and don’t need any deeper philosophy to play. They just play, often very successfully, and become, apparently, life’s winners. But to see whoness as a manifold of modes of presencing and absencing in a power play of evaluation played among free players, you need a deeper, phenomenological hermeneutic.


  6. terenceblake says:

    A cracked identity. I am permanently and irremediably cracked, so my whoness is forever uncertain, at least to myself and a few others. Others seem to know who I am better than me, but there very insistence to show me to my identity suggests that they are dimly aware of the cracks in their knowledge.

    I wrote my Honours thesis in 1975 criticising Althusser’s epistemology and ontology, at a time when not a single other dissenting voice was to be heard in the department. This got me first class honours but amounted to career hara-kiri, which I sort of knew, but I could not shut up about what I thought, unlike others who went on to have well-shaped careers. I was suffocating so I moved to Paris and to what I knew would be poverty and anonymity, but also inspiration.

    I worked on my pluralism. My first philosophical love after Nietzsche was Feyerabend, and he too was cracked, or what others called “counter-suggestible”, which to me sounds like pro-singularity, something like your free whoness.


    • Singularity is an important concept for me, too. It is often confused with particularity, being used as a synonym. My critique of Hegel hangs on showing that singularity (Einzelheit) cannot be closed together (con-cluded, in einem Schluss zusammen geschlossen) with universality (Allgemeinheit) via particularization (Besonderung). The mediating middle is broken, so no identity. Only in singularity is there a ghost of a chance for freedom of those courageous enough to risk it. Pluralism I see as the (Protagorean) splintering of truth into multiple perspectives at play with each other. In the niches and crevices left by the non-identical closure between singularity and universality resides (the potential for) freedom. Any politics striving for a closure into identity are necessarily totalitarian. Like today’s social welfare state pursuing its (unrealizable) ideal of totally caring for an obedient populace (Nietzsche’s “letzter Mensch”)..


  7. terenceblake says:

    Particularity is the synchronic or de-temporalised equivalent of singularity imprisoned in a fixed and demarcated (or closed) identity. Singularity for me goes with the diachronic, ontogenesis and individuation. So I would tend to say that the dispersion of singularities comes first, and is not the result of a splintering, but it is hard to find words that have no connotations of monistic closure. And the dispersion, or splintering, is ontological just as much as epistemological. So non-closure, non-identity, non-One, or as Laruelle says (non-)One, are the element of freedom, without guaranteeing it. Totally caring is bad politics, meaning total control. But caring is good, solidary caring or contributive caring – the opposite of competing and mimetic desiring.


    • Particularity (Besonderheit), or better, particularization (Besonderung) is the partitioning of universality (Allgemeinheit), but singularity escapes such com-part-mentalization. On synchronic/diachronic I go back with Heidegger to Parmenides and the time-clearing that is the opening for all presencing and absencing of occurrents. So in this sense the time-clearing is _hen_, one, but disparate in its play of presencing and absencing, its play of revealing, concealing and deluding, and its three-dimensionality of beenness, present and future. The age-old traditional metaphysical distinction, of course, has been, and still is, between being and becoming, but I see the task as getting over that in a step back to see what is always already pre-given, granted: the time-clearing itself. This is hard to see because it is so simple. So it is overlooked.

      And yes, (commutative) caring for each other is very different from (distributive) caring-for through some kind of doling-out from on high.


  8. Pingback: CARING, SINGULARITY, AND INDIVIDUATION: from a conversation with Michael Eldred | AGENT SWARM

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  10. Hi Terry. I was at GP from 74 -77 & came to view Althusser & his acolytes there pretty much as charlatans. I remember a cold night in the winter of 77 when we were picketing a shipment of uranium ore at Rozelle Container Terminal. Close to midnight, Wal Suchting’s student girlfriend, Jean Pender comes walking down from the main road with a pot of hot soup to lift our spirits. Wal had driven her down, but remained seated in his car some 300 metres away seeming unwilling to be seen anywhere near us & assiduously avoiding eye contact. I never got to ask him how his actions sat with his stress on what he termed “material practice”. Of course it has been argued that his actions only mirrored those of his guru Big Louie back in Paris in 68.

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  11. terenceblake says:

    Hello Stephen, thanks for your true life story. I think any philosopher treated as a “knowing master” is indistinguishable from a charlatan. However, with a good philosopher other, more productive, treatments are possible. So I still think that there is some good to be found in Althusser’s texts as a stepping-stone towards something more satisfying. Wal Suchting was an intellectual dead-end. His stress on material practice was purely theoretical, as compared with George Molnar, who left academia and actually tried to do something.


  12. Actually I nearly mentioned George earlier. Here he was, supposedly a lazy anarchist, who ran rings around the “praxis” guys. I can remember seeing film of George being literally picked up & thrown in the back of a paddy wagon by three big coppers. George was also a good organiser during the Political Economy strike (76). He had a wide range of union contacts & was happy to address all & sundry for the cause.
    I left after term in 77 & was overseas till mid 81. Life would have changed when Marcus joined the Dept. I was lead to believe he saw more of a continuity in Marx’s thought from the early stuff & didn’t support Althusser’s ‘epistemological break’.
    Bye the way, was it you who gave me your copy of ‘Against Method’ to read? I thought PKF half made his point but I defend Science as a more rational activity than he mades out. Knowing a few science academics, my own view these days these days are probably closer to Kuhn.


    • terenceblake says:

      George Molnar was an amazing teacher , mentor, and exemplar. I have talked about my memories of him here:
      and here:

      The presence of Markus did change things, he had a cult following, but I found him dogmatic and overbearing.

      I may well have given you my copy of AGAINST METHOD, as I did everything to encourage interest in alternatives to the dominant point of view in the Department.

      Feyerabend is in no way “anti-science”, and I find him still relevant to todays debates and discussions.


      • My perspective on GP is different, since I was a member of the Marxist Caucus in GP for a time, while never adhering to Althusserian Marxism. One also must not underestimate the political influence of the Feminist bloc around Liz Grosz in GP, who was a superbly devious political tactician and true careerist. She almost successfully torpedoed my First Class Honours in Philosophy when I completed my M.A. Preliminary in GP in 1977. Will never forget the duplicity of this ‘friend’. I knew George Molnar, too, of course, and his anarchism appealed to me, although I had more to do with the anarcho-syndicalist, Michael Matteson, working with him for a short while in group called Link which produced a newsletter within a section of the Metal Workers’ Union. But I was totally out of place, always thinking too much to be anything like a political activist, of whom I knew quite a few in that politically active time. In the broad stream of left students around Sydney Uni. living ‘the personal is poitical’ there were many engaged political activists with whom I was on friendly terms, but who were averse to reading, to thinking too much, which was labelled “theoreticist”. For a couple of years in the late 1970s I organized Capital reading- groups outside uni. I was astounded that those who identified themselves as Marxists couldn’t be bothered to carefully and critically work through Marx’s main work, a critique of capitalism. They were satisfied with having an ideologically left stance, ‘knowing’ that the working class is ‘exploited’ by capital, advocating revolution, their political conviction trumping any thinking that could ground a political stance. On that point, it’s no different today.

        George Markus was formally my PhD supervisor, but I was really working together with Mike Roth in Konstanz on our own Marx reconstruction project, whose radicality, of course, was broadly and roundly rejected by Marxists, orthodox or New Left or whatever. At first Markus praised my PhD project, but later on he hated it. Dunno why he changed his mind.

        As far as I am concerned, philosophical thinking that goes back to the roots to re-vise these root casts of thinking (= casts of world) that still have a grip on our most fundamental and self-evident ways of thinking today, is the most radical force in history.


  13. In the period 1975-1977 I attended at least two courses given by Wal Suchting, one on Lenin & Revolution and another, an introduction to Historical Materialism of the Althusserian-structuralist kind based on Marta Harnecker’s intro. I quickly became dissatisfied with the schematic nature of structuralist HM. A German guest lecturer, Mike Roth, visiting GP in 1976, gave a course, Reading Capital, with a phenomenological approach entirely different from Althusser’s & Balibar’s Reading Capital. So I ended up reading Das Kapital in the original, followed by first attempts to read Hegel likewise, and left Australia for Germany, where I ended up staying. Wal, of course, stuck to his structuralist HM, but he did stay at Mike Roth’s place in Konstanz, Germany a couple of times.


    • terenceblake says:

      I was a regular attender for Suchting’s Recent Epistemology seminar. As it was all done from an Althusserian perspective, I constantly defended a Feyerabendian point of view, and was able to sharpen my arguments thanks to the hostility of everyone else who spoke in the seminar. To Suchting’s credit he did not chase me away, and tried to parry my arguments. So it was an educative experience, and reinforced my contrariness and independence of spirit.

      I liked Mike Roth, but I was not a Marxist, so he had no influence on my ideas. It was my tenacity over pluralism that led me to seek out other pluralist thinkers and come to France.


      • This brings back memories too! I can recall certain people in the Dept GP using the word pluralist as a term of abuse. Alan Chalmers gave me Wal & Jean’s reply to PKF. He was extremely reticent to criticise it, but plainly didn’t seem too impressed. Of course they were re-stating the ‘party line’…an implicit warning against deviation to staff & students perhaps(?) I criticised it in one of Milo Roxon’s tutorials & can recall him looking at me & quietly saying “the walls have ears”. Wal & Jean’s paper struck me as overlong but slight & replete with unnecessary footnoting. I can’t remembering them landing a punch, so to speak.
        I didn’t say PKF was ‘anti-science’ as such, but I don’t think that he fully establishes his thesis except in the case of Galileo. In this respect he is unlike Kuhn & Lakatos who give numerous examples & in Kuhn’s case not just from Astronomy & Physics. And what are we to make of PKF playing down the distinction between Astrology & Astronomy?
        The essential thing is that all these people, unlike Althusser, write with clarity & know their stuff. I find myself in agreement with Michael Eldred (above) in finding the latter’s thought schematic & imposed from above.


      • I find it an interesting tit-bit that Mike Roth came to GP in 1976 only through accidentally meeting Liz Grosz on a beach on a Greek island the previous year. Both were holidaying there; Mike finishing writing his Habilitationsschrift for the Uni. Konstanz in the sand. Liz recommended Mike for a guest lectureship on returning to Sydney, and Mike and his wife, Grit, lived with Liz and her lover, Jackie, in Rose Bay initially on coming to Sydney For a time, until it all fell apart through internecine struggle over lectureships becoming available in GP, there was a sense of camaraderie and a family feeling between and among widely diverse and ultimately incompatible tendencies in thinking and political convictions.

        As Stephen points out, epistemology was a central focus of GP, and ‘we’ all spoke of Laktos, Kuhn, Popper. Feyerabend, &c. Alan Chalmers taught an extremely popular, draw-card introduction to epistemology to first-year students. Starting to read Marx in a phenomenological way, then on to the hard stuff of Hegel’s speculative-dialectical thinking itself, and finally coming upon Heidegger’s question, moved my thinking beyond epistemology to ontology and, via Marx & Aristotle, to socio-ontology. Kuhn’s conception of epistemological paradigm-shifts is derivative of the deeper Heideggerian conception of historically changing, epochal casts of the very being of beings. Such casts of being have a certain correspondence to Hegel’s conception of the mind (Geist) attaining certain ‘ideas’ in the course of history. Neither the Heideggerian nor the Hegelian conception should be historicized, however, as several commentators such as Lukács or Markus inter alia propose. Historical Materialism, too, is an historicism, collapsing the socio-ontology of an epoch, the capitalist one, into a story.


    • terenceblake says:

      I was in a Grundrisse reading group with Mike Matteson for a while, with Graham Templeman, Bill O’Toole and a few others. Later we moved on to Heidegger, but Matteson was not involved. There was John Young, Ray Wing Lun, Graham Forsyth, and a few others – most of them habitués of General Philosophy. Also a guy compiling his own complete index to the works of Nietzsche, in the days before personal computers. His name was Gary.

      The Lacanian feminists were a powerful force in those days. They too are part of the reason that I was glad to discover Deleuze and to move to France. ANTI-OEDIPUS put an end to the depression I fell into at the incredible theoretical and interpretative narrowness that prevailed then. Viviane Johnson liked Jung, but refused to talk about his ideas, claiming that the context was not ready for taking him seriously. The Althusserians and the Lacanian feminists maintained an image of thought that excluded too much, and reduced too many to silence. Staff meetings, supposedly “democratic” very quickly became and remained stacked, and attendance dropped from a large assembly to a small bi-partisan ingroup.


      • The Grundrisse are a rich source for insights into the socio-ontology of capital and capitalist Vergesellschaftung (sociation) via reified value. I remember Graham Templeton vaguely, but the other names you mention don’t ring a bell.
        I do well remember Vivienne/Viviane? Johnson presenting a paper at a conference in the Merewether Building in 1976 or 1977 with the thesis that all heterosexual sex was rape, presumably playing to the lesbians, some of whom had founded a lesbian colony in the bush somewhere north of Sydney and debated whether one of their number could bring her toddler son into this colony. This is quite a hoot considering how (heterosexual ) women (along with the men, ‘naturally’) really enjoyed the ‘free love’ practised and experimented with in those student, ‘the-personal-is-political’, circles around Sydney Uni. at the time. Discretion forbids me from naming the lovers of the male figures mentioned today and the intricate intercopulations, but there was a free & easy circulation of libertarian desire criss-crossing the scene.


      • terenceblake says:

        I think you may be talking about the boy who was brought up to declare to all and sundry “I am a lesbian”. I wonder what has become of him today.

        This was a period when many ideas and fantasies could be pathologically acted out in an extraverted manner instead of being psychically contained and worked on, as long as you had the requisite power group behind you. Some people were demolished in and by this context, some used it as a launching pad to success, others (like you and me) traced our line of flight, found less destructive spaces and got closer to the source of real thought, which was in us all the time.


  14. In 1974-1975 I was in a men’s consciousness-raising group with Peter Stevens et al. which was an important experience for me to look at who I had become as a young man. The context, of course, was the feminist atmosphere at the time, the slogan ‘the personal is political’ and the attempt to cast a form of freer living as an alternative to the nuclear family. Michael Matteson joined us only late in the day of this group and didn’t go through the experience of opening up to other men on an intimate, personal basis. He remained his quiet self. At the same time, there was another men’s CR group running parallel to ours around George Molnar which, it was said, was not such a success in ‘opening up’. One of George’s lovers told me that intimately he was not at all the liberated person he so wanted to be. Nor was Wal with his ‘authoritarian personality structure’. But both tried their own kinds of personal liberation in that brief liberating interlude starting at the end of the 1960s. The influence of the libertarian John Anderson, the Bohemian Rock’s Push in the 1950s-1960s, of which George was a member, and then on into the free-lovin’ 1960s and 1970s should not be underestimated in its broad cultural impact, most noticeably in the rise of feminism as a strong cultural force in Australia which emanated very strongly first of all from GP — despite the weird Lacanianism propagated there. Feminism had many strands, several different leading figures, and also adapted itself quickly to local conditions in Sydney. It was actually the issue of teaching feminism that split the philosophy department; Marxism began to be taught before the split. Both were tough struggles, though, and both achievements for the time, considering the entrenched British Empiricism that poor George and Wal and John Burnheim et al. all had to imbibe. Today, Sydney Uni. Philosophy Department has regained its poise with the solid hegemony of Analytic Philosophy.


  15. terenceblake says:

    I have partially rewritten the original post, to highlight some of the most important themes that I still retain from that period of my life. I spent a long time in the Department of General Philosophy, and that experience was a major influence in my life and in the formation of my intellectual character and philosophical perspective. It was a very exciting and stimulating phase of my life, but it was not always a happy one. I enrolled in Philosophy in 1972, and so I participated in the student strike in 1973 that led to the formation of GP in 1974. I enrolled then as a third year student in GP and stayed there, both as a student and later as a tutor, till 1981. Nine years is a long time in anyone’s life.

    I was the first to speak out openly against the Althusserian dogmatism, and my Honours thesis was entitled CRITIQUE OF ALTHUSSER’S SCIENCE/IDEOLOGY DISTINCTION. It was an all out attack on Althusserian epistemology, for which, surprisingly enough, I was awarded First Class Honours. I followed this up with a long article that I published in 1977, THE DISCOR(P)SE OF ALTHUSSER which was the extension of my thesis results into a total refutation of Wal Suchting’s various propaganda documents on Althusserian epistemology. This was at a time when noone in the department dared to criticise Althusser, and even my friends were writing on thesis topics like Althusser and Wittgenstein, or Althusser and Merleau-Ponty, bowing to the obligation to legitimate any personal philosophical concern by relating it positively to Althusserian doctrine.

    When the Althusserians set up there “Critique of Ideology” Programme with tutorials devoted to critiquing the ideological presuppositions of each discipline in the University I was put in charge of the “Critique of Science” tutorials for several years, despite me being a philosophical enemy. It was generally agreed that I had followed all the courses and done all the reading, and that I had thought through the problematics enough to teach them. More generally, I was a tutor in GP for four and a half years, from t1977 to 1981. So I was not considered entirely disreputable during my time in the department, just not orthodox enough in my conclusions and overall perspective.

    I was also entrusted with the creation of a second or third year course on “Eastern Philosophy”, along with Viviane Johnson. This must have been in 1979 or 1980, as I remember giving a paper on the relation between Deleuze and Guattari’s ANTI-OEDIPUS and Tibetan Buddhism. It was an amazing experience as we were totally free to talk about anything, and we invited experts in and representatives of Hindu and Buddhist traditions, and of various yoga and meditation practices, to come and talk to our students.

    I participated in a small Lacan reading group headed by Liz Grosz in 1978, and later in 1979 in an even smaller group where Liz was trying to go beyond Lacan. We read Anthony Wilden, Julia Kristeva, Michelle Le Doeuff, Luce Irigaray, and several others. I think it was this group that indirectly led me to discover Deleuze, and ultimately to emigrate to Paris. Liz was quite hostile to Deleuze at first, and It took her quite a few years to come to a positive appreciation.

    So I was in GP for a long time, and I played a significant role in breaking up the Althusserian consensus, at least in epistemology. I was employed as a useful resource person, I participated in pivotal reading groups, and in many, many discussions, I met many people, but I was nowhere near the center of the action. I was more of a participant-observer, and was actively kept from playing a more important role.

    These were exciting times intellectually, but unfortunately it was not just about the ideas. There was a competition for grades, thesis ranking, jobs, status, and career. Not everyone could win in this game, and some people were well aware of the stakes from the beginning and ready to band together and to do anything to cumulate all the advantages. Careers were made or broken in that effervescence, probably in a more uncontrolled way than would be the case today.


    • Terence, you write, “When the Althusserians set up there “Critique of Ideology” Programme with tutorials devoted to critiquing the ideological presuppositions of each discipline in the University I was put in charge of the “Critique of Science” tutorials for several years, despite me being a philosophical enemy.” Who were “the Althusserians”? Wal Suchting, Jean Curthoys and Ted Sadler? Seem like a liberal lot, putting you in charge of the Critique of Science, the core of epistemology.
      And what was the “Althusserian consensus”? Among whom? How come you weren’t axed? How come you were appointed in the first place? The Critique of Ideology program, for all its simplistic faults and hubris, was nevertheless a breath of fresh air on the campus of Sydney University that struck fear into the hearts of the other, ubiquitously deeply conservative departments and stimulated lots of discussion campus-wide. I know about this personally from being a Tutor in Pure Mathematics in 1975, being brutally axed after one year because of my association with the “red rabble-rousers” in GP.although I did not try to infiltrate my tutorials with ‘ideology critique’, It was enough for me to have perused a copy of the Commuinist newspaper, The Tribune, while the students were doing their exercises in a tutorial. A fairly innocent act, not aimed at provocation, but rather ill-advised and stupid in hindsight. A student complained about this. I did not receive simply a rap on the knuckles, but was immediately thrown out without any discussion whatsoever.

      I remember well Lloyd Reinhardt, a recently appointed lecturer in GP (along with Paul Crittenden) of the more conservative, traditional, analytic-empiricist kind, arguing that Liz Grosz should be appointed to a lectureship simply on the grounds of fair play, because she’d already given a number of feminism courses in previous years. Apart from that, I don’t think Lloyd was at all impressed or persuaded by feminism as a discourse. Liz got her job.

      I first experienced severe academic repression in Germany at Konstanz Uni., both personally and among many philosophical friends and acquaintances, whose job opportunities were systematically axed. The conservative professors (you really have to experience a conservative German professor!) achieved a complete roll-back. Germany’s the place to go if you want to experience repression, unfreedom and the total lack of liberal fair-dealing (liberal thinking has never taken root in Germany and was bloodily suppressed already in 1848). Compared to that, GP was nirvana, a kindergarten sand-box. The Analytic Philosophers in the other department, Traditional & Modern, at Sydney Uni. led by the authoritarian-patriarchal libertarian, David Armstrong, were much more unscrupulous and savage in their power struggle to re-establish the conservative status quo ante against GP. They finally succeeded.


      • Another of the Althusserians was Richard Archer who was one of the markers of my honours thesis ‘Bayle’s Paradox & Enlightenment Social Theory’ which he criticised for being ‘idealist’. The Althusserians regarded people such as Quine & David Armstrong(!) as idealists; any non-Althusserian in fact.
        Its interesting to read Terry’s comment about topics such as ‘Althusser & Merleau-Ponty’ being chosen by students for honours theses. I had originally decided to do something along the lines of Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology being a re-situationing of Sartre’s hazy metaphysics in lived experience (or something of the sort). I had to abandon the project when I lost my entire year’s work (including my four major essays) six weeks before the end of term & was forced to re-cycle & enlarge earlier work to meet the deadline. One wonders what Althusser would have made of Merleau’s criticisms of Gestalt Psychology & his citing of clinical studies of Aphasia in building his thesis.


      • terenceblake says:

        Michael, I am sad to hear of this academic repression in your life, and glad to see that your passion for philosophy has continued to be so strong to this day. Resilience, to use a fashionable word, is an essential character trait, along with tenacity. One needs sensitivity, but one must not be over-sensitive, as I regret being on more than one occasion. Reviewing these memories from a later and hopefully more mature point of view is a good experience, and I am grateful for the widened context and perspective that you and Stephen have brought to this conversation.


  16. terenceblake says:

    On the more conceptual question of the relation between epistemology and ontology:

    After my Honours year (1975), I took a year off from University, considering that I had spent all my life being schooled and that I needed to experience something else. I got a job in the Public Service, but I was not satisfied. I felt that I had come to a point of intellectual “paralysis” as I termed it, and that I had become adept at replying to criticisms of my pluralism, always stuck in the posture of repetitive defence, rather than going on to develop my ideas further. After earning enough money to last out the year I stopped work and began to read systematically all of Feyerabend’s published work. All this time I was attending Wal Suchting’s graduate seminar on “Recent Epistemology”. Some “year off university” that was!

    I became convinced that the problem was not so much epistemology as the particular way that it was being done, that blocked off any but the most simplistic ontological ideas. In particular, I felt that Feyerabend’s work was being incorrectly read as solely epistemological, when a large part of that epistemology was based on ontological ideas.. However, I could find no intellectual resources to help me develop this intuition. This is why I turned to the post-Althusserian tradition, as I was convinced that Foucault, Lyotard, and Deleuze provided sketches of ontological pluralism rich enough to help understand what was going on in Feyerabend’s work. This was in 1977-79, long before Feyerabend himself became clear on these ontological questions in his work published during the 90s, and collected partially in the posthumous book CONQUEST OF ABUNDANCE.

    So my voyage from Sydney to Paris was a materialisation of my passage from epistemology to ontology.


  17. terenceblake says:

    I am trying to describe GP as a complex and ambiguous assemblage. I am not trying to “settle my accounts” with the people from my past, nor do I have any scoops to offer. This was all a long time ago, and I have moved on since. Yet these nine years were a key period of my life, and had an important role in the formation and direction of my philosophical becoming.

    I have no more names to set forth, nor anecdotes to recount, that is not my purpose. GP was ambiguous, a “pharmakon”, both benefic and toxic. It was a pluralist assemblage of differences, and sometimes that aspect was foremost. That is why I had a place there, and I am grateful for the welcome, the friendship, the stimulation, and the validation it gave me.

    GP was also an hegemony (not a dictatorship), and that aspect came to dominate for me. The hegemony was intellectual (Althusser-Lacan), social (bourgeois, careerist marxists and feminists), and micro-political (Suchting et al. appointing allies and favorites to the more lucrative positions).

    I was treated with wary respect by the most important people in the department, as I was in my turn a pharmakon for the dominant tendencies. I was seen both as benefic, regarded as very competent in epistemology and philosophy of science, and as toxic as I was unorthodox in my perspective and undesirable in my conclusions.

    This is no origin story, there are no origins. I already had a long and complex relation to philosophy when I enrolled at the age of 17. Those nine years were formative, but they were also traumatic. This was a place where my passion for philosophy could be given full sway, a pluralist laboratory for my philosophical (and existential) experimentations.

    All this took place long ago in my past, over 30 years ago. It has become a building block of memory, yet it is still active for me. My goal is anamnesis, not judgement, or testimony. These memories, both utopic and traumatic, are important for my individuation today.


    • I appreciate your even-handed anamnesis, Terence, and its jogging my own memories from long ago. One could say, I think, that GP was practised pluralism and diversity of views, despite the brief hegemony of Althusserian Marxism under Wal Suchting and Lacanian Feminism under Liz Grosz. When I think of how quickly Ted Sadler, originally Althusserian-oriented, changed his philosophical proclivities! Or how flimsy Liz Grosz`s grasp of Lacan was (her courses delivered slogans rather than well-founded insight)! Althusser in Sydney would not have recognized himself, his theoretical stance having derived from his position within an orthodox PCF. The CPA was perhaps one of the most liberal, inclusive left parties worldwide — after the Stalinist Socialist Party split off through the bitter controversy over the Soviet troops’ invasion of Prague — with a strong feminist voice.

      Stephen’s mentioning that Althusser was combined with Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology indicates just how freely and naively students played intellectually with the influx of all those exotic Continental influences. In the final year of my M.A. Preliminary in 1977, I attended a Lacan course with Liz, writing a paper, I recall vaguely, drawing some parallels (structural homologies) between Lacan’s psychoanalytic theory of the psyche and Althusser’s theory of ideology. When I handed it in before leaving for my first trip to Germany, Liz told me it was “brilliant”. At the end of the year, she marked it down. Only my premature return from Germany and remarking of the paper by Janet Vaux saved my First Class Honours necessary to get a scholarship. I recall there were three of us with First Class Honours who tied for first place in the year:

      Rod O’Donnell, Paul Redding and myself. The mature Rod sensibly went to Cambridge, got himself a PhD and returned to a lectureship at Macquarie Uni. Paul was furthered from within GP (I think), ending up as professor within the department attempting the impossible straddling of the chasm between Hegel and Analytic Philosophy. I went off into untrodden territory for an Australian post-grad to study philosophy (Marx and Hegel) in Germany with a philosopher whose further career had already been bluntly stopped by the professors in the four chairs. Mike Roth became a Privatdozent without any prospects for a professorship and branched out to become a language therapist specializing in aphasia. I was tolerated at Konstanz Uni as a scholarship-holder (DAAD and Sydney Uni Research Scholarship) without any career prospects. While completing my PhD (which both Markus and John Burnheim hated, but let it go through for the sake of even-handedness) I struck on Heidegger whom I started reading avidly Anyone in Germany associated with both Marx and Heidegger at the time (and also today) is a dead duck. The exclusion from the Academy turned out for me to be a blessing in disguise. In retrospect it was a boon for furthering my thinking, as I had no academic strictures. My first post-PhD project was to write a gender-ontology over several years by taking up the aspect of whoness (Wersein) in Heidegger. This is my contribution to feminist philosophy, no matter that it has been entirely ignored so far. Whoness is also the key to a genuine socio-ontology — ditto on its being totally ignored to date.

      Liked by 1 person

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