Sunday, October 16, 2011

Reading Althusser

On this day, in 1918, Louis Althusser came into the world. And on this day, today, in 2011, I will finish reading his last book, The Future Lasts Forever. It’s hard out there for Althusserians, because others seem to find it nearly impossible to focus on what you are working rigorously to articulate, concentrating instead on when they will get their opening to make a remark about his strangling his wife to death. Thus, a petty posturing as insider, only slightly less sad than those who insist on announcing out loud “There’s Hitch’s cameo” when they see Hitchcock enter the screen, as if he were trying to slip it past the audience (Thanks to D.A. Miller for this point—he’s got a fantastic piece in the Autumn 2010 Critical Inquiry on this…).

Having encountered this mechanism in response to the very name Althusser, I decided a week ago to read this last book, written after that devastating day. There are certain charms within these pages: memories of youth and beautiful girls who caught his eye; anecdotes of his personal interactions with Lacan; his encounter with Jacques-Allain Miller’s possessiveness of theoretical concepts and the tradition of science and literature intersecting with intellectual property, etc. But the book also disturbs me, to the point I’ve had to put it down several times, thus not finishing it in any less than a week.

What makes The Future Lasts Forever so disturbing is that it’s like reading a co-authored production of Fyodor Dostoevski and Bret Easton Ellis. Althusser writes with the structural precision of Crime and Punishment, and, like American Psycho, he writes the mind of a man who mostly appears sane because he is so oblivious to the madness. But today I press on to the finish further to fill in my picture of Althusser as the person who developed structural causality, what is still the most sophisticated and operational notion of ideology, and who, with a work like Reading Capital, provided a nearly insurmountable example of close reading in general and close reading in the Marxist tradition. The close reading is especially dear to me because whenever I hear "theory" being disparaged, I feel compelled to bring up the astonishing close reading capacities that comprise much of what is considered among the most "abstract" and/or "theoretical" of theory. Really, who does better, more rigorous, more intense close reading than Althusser or Derrida? Resistance to theory is a form of resistance to doing close reading where that close reading means actual intimacy with the text and all that has been drawn into it. Resistance to theory close reading ends up being a Romantic sublime brand of close reading, in which the text is best encountered at some proper remove, safe from danger.

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