As I have discussed before Althusser is far more methodologically sophisticated than he is usually given credit for. Despite his popularity in some circles, Althusser’s complexity of thought has still not been sufficiently recognized, and even less assimilated on a wide scale.
I myself am no follower of Althusser, but I find that contemporary thinkers who have not been through the Althusserian conceptual mill seem mostly flat and uninteresting. Althusser is so often wildly wrong-headed in his positive claims but his work operates as an essential portal to the concept and to conceptual creation.
Althusser has a double-sided influence. Read for the theses Althusser inspires disciples, read for the concepts and for the very practice of the concept he inspires critique and a freedom to diverge, a fecund conceptual soil for new bifurcations.
Many French thinkers were decisively influenced by Althusser, even when they thought very differently: Derrida, Deleuze, Foucault.
These two sides of Althusser’s influence (doctrinal followers, conceptual creators) come from his position as Master (« caiman ») rather than University professor. As Master his dogmatic thetic style always contains a conceptual surplus.
This leads to a paradoxical injunction in Althusser’s work: believe and follow versus: be inspired to speak and theorise in your own name. There is a conceptual surplus at work in Althusser’s master signifiers, in that he teaches both what to think and how to think. Hence his divided influence.
I think that reading and talking about Zizek favours free-wheeling discussion because he does not just presuppose familiarity with the thinkers and movements with whom he is in dialogue (Deleuze, Lacan, Badiou, Schelling, Heidegger – but also Buddhism and Christianity), but dialogue.
Zizek signposts these influences explicitly in his texts, and so in a way emulates the sort of dialogue that we can begin to have in our heads and with partisans of these different ways of thought.
Lyotard theorised this sort of freedom of movement in dialogue, as did Feyerabend in his notion of « free exchange ». It involves a mode of being and of thinking permitting one to move back and forth between various understandings of being.
This mode of thinking is according to me the most promising direction for thought to go in today. Zizek’s work exemplifies this sort of thinking, but only partially in that he still maintains a preferred interpretation (Lacan), and one that does not really stand up well today in all its ramifications.
Zizek does manage to extract an interesting metaphysical heuristic core from Lacanism by means of his Hegelian methodology (which may in some ways symbolise the sorts of movements that Lyotard’s « sveltesse » and Feyerabend’s « free exchange » designate) but he remains strangely one-sided.
For me Zizek’s refusal of Buddhism, Taoism, Jung, and Deleuze amount to more than just failures of the interpretative imagination. One cannot know everything, but one need not so blithely and persistently get the same list of things wrong.
This obdurate wrong-headedness corresponds to Zizek’s fear that his Hegelian formal methodology could undermine his Lacanian substantive content and leave him without the sort of foundations that he disclaims but still seems to need. However, his Hegelian method and enunciative point us in the right distinction towards even greater freedom of conceptual content and imaginative exchange.