Continuing on in reading For Marx, so also continuing on from my notes here and here. (Marx quoted Spinoza (much beloved of Althusser) in the Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, writing that the identity of production and consumption is an expression of the dictum that determination is negation. Althusser’s labor of determining was also a labor of negation: producing the new (an epistemological break) from a location in the old, an old which was itself once the new and is the product of a prior determination or negation. Making is unmaking is remaking.)

Althusser writes that “this procedure” of treating Marx’s thought – particularly the early Marx – as having both materialist and idealist elements “enables us to find materialist elements in all Marx’s early tests” making it “very difficult to decide when Marx can be regarded as materialist, or rther, when he could not have been!” Althusser laments, “if an idealist element is an idealist element and a materialist element is a materialist element, who can really decide what meaning they constitute once they are assembled together in the effective living unity of a text?” (59.)

As I said before though maybe not as directly, it strikes me that if Althusser’s attack on early Marx, Hegelian Marxism, and so forth in this essay stands then the late Althusser is just as much subject to and damaged by the early Althusser’s critique. The later Althusser of Philosophy of the Encounter seems less different from the Hegelian Marxists and their readings of the early Marx than the early Althusser of this essay. (Note to self, get the very early Althusser collection out the library, with the Hegelian stuff in it.) I’m much more keen on the later Althusser and this earlier stuff with its attack on the early Marx and Hegelian oriented folk who like the early Marx seems less interesting and rather off base.

Changing gears, other stuff in this essay is great and can be read in a way which bolsters the later stuff.

Althusser writes: “it is impossible to choose one’s beginnings”(64), adding later that “we all have to be born some day, somewhere, and begin thinking and writing in a given world. For a thinker, this world is immediately the world of the living thoughts of his time, the ideological world where he is born into thought. For Marx, this world was the world of the German ideology of the 1830s and 1840s, dominated by the problems of German idealism” (74).

This offers a possible qualification of the later Althusser on encounter. Later Althusser uses the analogy of the ancient atomist picture of the world’s origin: atoms falling in a void encounter one another after deviating from their lines of fall parallel to each other. Encounters don’t happen in a void, however. They happen in a world. Or, if encounters happen in a void, the void is a product produced in a world. This is the sense in which Althusser writes that philosophy makes a void [look up and quote, ‘faire le vide’ in POE]. Philosophy is a labor (a Generality 2, in Althusser’s rather awkward terminology elsewhere) which works on something which it takes – which it treats ‘as if’ – given, in the sense of treating it as a raw material (a Generality 1, which is not actually given but is a product) in order to produce a new product (a Generality 3; the conjunction or series of the 3 generalities defines theoretical practice as a mode of production).

“The contingency of Marx’s beginning was this enormous layer of ideology beneath which he was born, this crushing layer which he succeeded in breaking through, Precisely because he did deliver himself, we tend too easily to believe that the freedom he achieved at the cost of such prodigious efforts and decisive encounters was already inscribed in this world, and that the only problem was to reflect.” (74-75.) Doing so is a case of writing the history of philosophy in the future anterior, about which Althusser polemicizes repeatedly. The point here is that Marx’s discovery – the epistemological break, which characterizes all decisive theoretical production, not only Marx’s – is in a sense supernumerary, it is not already present in a given (ac)count or field. It is also aleatory, in the sense of not being given or determined in advance. The break reconfigures the terrain in/from which it occurs. (Passage from freedom to nature, the setting up of causal chains by the I?) “[N]o great discovery has ever been made without bringing to light a new object or a new domain, without a new horizon of meaning appearing, a new land in which the old images and myths have been abolished – but at the same time the inventor of this new world must of absolute necessity have prepared his intelligence in the old forms themselves;” without familiarity with these forms “he could never have conceived new ones with which to think the new object” produced within the old field (the new within the shell of the old!). (85.)

At some later date I’d like to compare this in more depth with Hegel and Schelling. I’m away from home now though so I have to proceed without my books. As I remember it, in the early bits of the Science of Logic Hegel talks about how pure being is the starting point for thought. Pure being for Hegel, being insofar as it is being, has no qualities at all and is thus much like nothing. Schelling criticize Hegel on this. It’s not actually the case that thinking begins with pure being. Or, if it does, then there is a prior mental operation, before thinking. Pure being is a product of that mental operation (or, a product of thinking). This product is the result of a mental act of subtracting out all the content of being except for its being, well, just being. For this subtraction to take place there must first be a world encountered, which is full of all kinds of contents in addition to being pure-being.