Over at Agent Swarm Terence Blake has a fantastic post recounting his experience in a graduate program in Australia dominated by Althusserians and Lacanians. Responding to my post on Ranciere’s Althuusser’s Lesson, Blake discusses what happened in his Althusser dominated department. This post is an absolute must read. Here, I think, it’s always worth recalling that theoretical positions are never just ideas, but are always also institutional apparatuses or dispotifs that relate people together in particular ways.
In my view, every philosophy and theory must be approached at four distinct levels. First, of course, there’s the gnomic dimension of texts as deterritorialized ideas that often are the focus of our analysis as workers in the humanities. Here the text and theory consists of a body of claims, arguments, and concepts; as a constellation that has its own internal consistency. This level of theory breaks down, I believe, into two dimensions: the theory and the meta-theory. In my experience, theory and meta-theory are constantly conflated with one another. The meta-theory of a theory– here one should think of De Man’s model of reading –consists of the thinkers theory of his or her theory or account of what they are trying to do in the theory. Blake does a nice job alluding to the dimension of meta-theory in Althusser. The Althusserian meta-theory presents its theory as radically democratic and egalitarian. The theory of the thinker, by contrast, can be deeply at odds with the meta-theory. This is what allows for the possibility of surprising and unexpected readings and deployments of thought in further domains. Take the example of Heidegger as Harman reads him. At the level of Heidegger’s meta-theory of his own work, Heidegger understands his account of withdrawal or aletheia to be restricted to the manner in which Dasein opens the world. At the level of theory— against the grain of the thinkers own intentions –however, Harman tries to show how Heidegger’s aletheia exceeds all constraints and restrictions to Dasein, escaping the limitations of Heidegger’s meta-theory, opening the way towards a generalized post-correlationist ontology. Likewise, Althusser is a master of reading for the tension between meta-theory and theory in Marx’s work, just as Lacan constantly exploited this tension in Freud.
At another level– one which many people in the humanities seem to resist –there is the level of thought as dispotifs. Here the inflection isn’t on the ideational or conceptual content of a thought, but rather on how the thought is also a material dispotif lodged in material institutions, organizing relations between persons in particular ways, structuring curriculum in certain ways, etc. This is what Ranciere is getting at in his critique of Althusser, and what Blake brings out so well in his discussion of how the Althusserian-Lacanianism of his department marginalized feminist thought (even while giving it lip service at the level of its meta-theory of itself, and marginalized other vectors of Continental thought. Here we get thought not as a set of ideas, concepts, sequences of argument and claims, but as a disciplinary network embodied in institutions. This dimension of thought, I think, is often ignored.
Finally, the fourth way of approaching a sequence of thought is in terms of its effects on the world. Here theory is approached in terms of questions of who its audience is (too many of us seem to only conceive our audience as other academics) and what effects, if any, the sequence of thought produces on the world outside of its disciplinary dispotif and the systems of training, journals, presses, and conferences.
All of this aside, for me the true spirit of Marxism resides in radical democracy or egalitarianism… Indeed, not just for humans but for nonhumans as well (see Bellamy’s work on Marx’s ecological thought). This entails that at heart Marxist thought must be premised on the belief in the capacity of the masses. Any orientation of Marxist thought that betrays this radical egalitarianism in either the content, form, or material practice of its thought (ie., dispotifs) betrays all that’s valiable in Marx.