ON EXITING ALTHUSSER BY MEANS OF LACAN: Against the demi-post-structuralists

The most important step is to get out of the idea of ideology as mere superstructure, as a passive reflection of what goes on in the economic base. Even if this simple picture can be complexified by supplementing it with notions of relative autonomy, non-expressive totalities, different sorts of contradictions, uneven development and heterogeneous phases co-present in the same structure, this more sophisticated picture still leads to trouble as long as we are stuck in the definition of ideology as (1) a system of ideas that (2) is the Other of science.

This Althusserian dualism can’t work because there is no magic criterion of demarcation to discern and attribute the status of scientificity or not. However, if we take ideology in some wider sense than merely ideas, such as the unawareness of the material (political, economic and technological) origins and/or conditions of our ideas, then it becomes a more plausible notion, but it can no longer be the Other of science, and we have left the space of structuralist epistemology.

This is what Bernard Stiegler is proposing under the name of “organology”, and he finds only fragmentary examples of it in intellectual history. His idea is that with the advent and dissemination of digital technologies we are at a point where the technical condition (here too in a wide sense, as he recards the invention and spread of alphabetic writing as one major form of technical conditioning) is being transformed in depth and so we may be able to become more aware of it, and if not control it, as this is not possible, at least inflect it in a favorable direction (as its influence is conditioning but not determining), and orient it towards a more curative and less toxic bifurcation.

Having taken this step outside structuralist epistemology the poststructuralists began to work on overcoming the tension between the psychoanalytic and structuralist strands of thought. Structuralism was scientistic, and structuralists tended to read Lacan from a rationalist perspective. But Lacan’s vision of misrecognition as a universal feature led the poststructuralists to see that even science contained “ideological” features, hence the decomposition of the notion of ideology into sub-components, that are then conserved under other names, except for the treatment of ideology as the other of science.

But poststructuralist French theory balked at a barrier that had been breached in other countries by Science and Technology Studies (STS). Foucault did genealogies of human sciences, but did not touch the natural sciences (except biology). Lyotard briefly toyed with relativising the authority of the sciences but eventually limited it to the cognitive domain, where he gave this authority unrivalled hegemony. Deleuze talked of “nomad” vs “sedentary” science, but this constituted a distinction at the level of the content of science (fluids vs solids) and its procedures (problematic vs theorematic) rather than involving a heuristic analysis of the processes of construction of scientific results.

The Althusserian conception has certain advantages as it situates ideology not just in ideas but as a structuring principle in practices and institutions e.g. in the definition of the roles and functions available within a social formation. It also contributes the notion of a sort of systemic cognitive bias, or blindness, concerning the factors that structure the very type of subjectivity pervading a society.

These two other strands (psychoanalytical and structural) are far more radical than the epistemological (ideology is the “Other of science”) strand, which makes alchemy for example a case of ideology and chemistry a science, situating them in radically different categories separated by an epistemological rupture. The problem is that by rejecting the crude binary demarcations of the epistemological strand many theorists threw the baby out with the bathwater and lost sight of, or expressed cryptically, the positive aspects of the two other strands of ideology as structuration of embodied practice and of ideology as misrecognition or cognitive blindness.

Certain theoretical figures have emerged that are situated halfway between structuralism and post-structuralism. One could call them “demi-post-structuralists”. Badiou is a good example, with his scientism intact. Still stuck in the problematic of the conceptual space opened up by the Althusser-Lacan conjuncture, they privilege Lacan as an alternative way out of structuralism yet they try to “rationalise” their problematic by appeals to notions of scientificity based on methodological rigour.

The problem with the primacy of method is that it is not content neutral. A formal method has substantive assumptions about its domain coded into it. The opponents of “method” are not crazy spontaneity-addicted narcissists but people like Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein who claimed that explicit scientific method was a bottom up, post hoc clarification, not an a priori top-down imperative. The stakes are not blindly insisting on the priority of creation but maintaining a place open for the possibility of novelty and creation versus closing off in advance some possible developments, often without even noticing.

The status of mathematics, is a totally different affair, and the question of the research heuristics of mathematics is not well discussed. For it is heuristics we must look at when we talk about maths, not “eternal” content. Cantor had some very strange ideas fueling his research. That such philosophies are not always detachable from the technical aspects can be seen in that intuitionist maths is not the same as formalist maths.

Lacan would consign most ideas about method and methodological rigour to the binaries (or dualisms) of the imaginary, the domain of constitution of the narcissistic ego. So it is amusing to hear the imaginary “anti-methodists” being called narcissistic, when they are a spectre constructed precisely to comfort the narcissism of the methodological rigorists.

It is only by concentrating on the end-product, i.e. scientific results, that one can have the impression that methods are somehow detachable from the concrete processes they are embedded in, in some absolute way. It is no use trying to retreat to a detached context of justification or to a separate “space of implications”. Such a separate methodical space is just as bad in the formal mode as OOO’s retreat to a separate space of objects is in the material mode.

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4 Responses to ON EXITING ALTHUSSER BY MEANS OF LACAN: Against the demi-post-structuralists

  1. kb says:

    foucault didn’t touch the life sciences? what?


  2. terenceblake says:

    Yes, you’re right. I was thinking physics and chemistry, but that is no excuse.


  3. arranjames says:

    Isn’t part of the point of Foucault’s entire attempt to rethink power also the attempt to decompose ideology, not in order to make it available at the micro-level but to show how it assumes that there is a subject that ideology could operate on? If he didn’t touch the natural sciences it is because they had nothing to say about the production of the subject. On the idea of Marxism’s “scientific socialism” Foucault claimed that

    ‘when I see you straining to establish the scientificity of Marxism I don’t really think that you are demonstrating once and for all that Marxism has a rational structure and therefore its prepositions are the outcome of verifiable procedures; for me you are doing something altogether different, you are investing Marxist discourses and those who uphold them with the effects of a power which the West since Medieval times has attributed to science and has reserved for those engaged in scientific discourse’ (power/knowledge, p.85).

    Here Foucault says that the Marxist think he is showing that Marxism has a “rational structure” that is directly measurable in terms of “verifiable procedures”. We might argue that science doesn’t really have a rational structure in theory or in practice, but the idea of a rational structure is important to the making science a worthwhile practice. If one didn’t think that cause led to effect then experimentation would be Humean nonsense.

    Foucault isn’t interested in the position of science as science but in its relationship to power. Science understood as practices of finding things out about the world don’t even interest him, all he cares about is how knowledge carves the world up and how carving it up makes certain forms of knowledge, and further operations of carving, possible. If he doesn’t care about (for instance) the neurological substrates of consciousness then this is a problem, undoubtedly. At the same time though, I can easily imagine Foucault being around today to say “well, regardless of the veracity of all this, what effect does such and such a discourse have on subjectivity when it makes use of these claims”. In the above Marxism quote it seems pretty clear that Foucault thinks science is verifiable at least…which is really all a scientist can ever claim, right?

    I think, as a final point, that while Foucault didn’t engage directly with natural science (I wish he had), he nonetheless engaged with many of the processes, distinctions, and procedures that make the distinction human/natural science possible. In this way he was opening up the path that Latour would follow.

    I hope I haven’t missed the point entirely with this reply.


    • terenceblake says:

      Michel Serres in his HERMES books does try to extend to the physical sciences the homologies that Foucault finds across disciplines, and in the way that power works. He argues that a certain underlying structural privileging of a central instance or of giving primacy to order over disorder was shared across disciplines, only to be reconfigured or abandoned in a later episteme. In a private conversation (in 1980) Serres declared this neglect of physical science was widespread in French philosophy. He cited Sartre and Foucault as leading thinkers whose work was fundamentally incomplete or flawed because of their lack of familiarity with mathematics and the physical sciences. He attributed this to institutional failing, remarking that formerly Normaliens majoring in philosophy were required to take as a minor subject one of the human sciences, most usually psychology.
      I agree that Foucault opened the way to Latour’s engagement with the natural sciences, but I would add that Michel Serres was an important mediating influence. Unfortunately the quote from Foucault shows that his idea of science was not up to par with the Anglo-American epistemological discussions of that period, where the idea of “verifiability” as a criterion of scientificity had been subject to serious deconstruction.


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