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.
FROM KNOWING MASTERS TO PURE DIFFERENCE
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.