Stuart Hall on Althusser

A few select quotations from the late Stuart Hall:

“By enabling us to think about different levels and different kinds of determination, For Marx gave us what Reading Capital did not: the ability to theorize about real historical events, or particular texts (The German Ideology, Marx & Engels, 1970), or particular ideological formations (humanism) as determined by more than one structure (i.e., to think the process of overdetermination). I think ‘contradiction’ and ‘overdetermination’ are very rich theoretical concepts—one of Althusser’s happier ‘loans’ from Freud and Marx; it is not the case, in my view, that their richness has been exhausted by the ways in which they were applied by Althusser himself.

Stuart Hall“The articulation of difference and unity involves a different way of trying to conceptualize the key Marxist concept of determination. Some of the classical formulations of base/superstructure which have dominated Marxist theories of ideology, represent ways of thinking about determination which are essentially based on the idea of a necessary correspondence between one level of a social formation and another. With or without immediate identity, sooner or later, political, legal, and ideological practices—they suppose—will conform to and therefore be brought into a necessary correspondence with what is—mistakenly—called ‘the economic.’ Now, as is by now de rigueur in advanced post-structuralist theorizing, in the retreat from ‘necessary correspondence’ there has been the usual unstoppable philosophical slide all the way over to the opposite side; that is to say, the elision into what sounds almost the same but is in substance radically different—the declaration that there is ‘necessarily no correspondence.’ Paul Hirst, one of the most sophisticated of the post-Marxist theorists, lent his considerable weight and authority to that damaging slippage. ‘Necessarily no correspondence’ expresses exactly the notion essential to discourse theory—that nothing really connects with anything else. Even when the analysis of particular discursive formations constantly reveals the overlay or the sliding of one set of discourses over another, everything seems to hang on the polemical reiteration of the principle that there is, of necessity, no correspondence.

“I do not accept that simple inversion. I think what we have discovered is that there is no necessary correspondence, which is different; and this formulation represents a third position. This means that there is no law which guarantees that the ideology of a class is already and unequivocally given in or corresponds to the position which that class holds in the economic relations of capitalist production. The claim of ‘no guarantee—which breaks with teleology—also implies that there is no necessary non-correspondence. That is, there is no guarantee that, under all circumstances, ideology and class can never be articulated together in any way or produce a social force capable for a time of self-conscious ‘unity in action,’ in a class struggle. A theoretical position founded on the open-endedness of practice and struggle must have as one of its possible results, an articulation in terms of effects which does not necessarily correspond to its origins. To put that more concretely: an effective intervention by particular social forces in, say, events in Russia in 1917, does not require us to say either that the Russian revolution was the product of the whole Russian proletariat, united behind a single revolutionary ideology (it clearly was not); nor that the decisive character of the alliance (articulation together) of workers, peasants, soldiers and intellectuals who did constitute the social basis of that intervention was guaranteed by their ascribed place and position in the Russian social structure and the necessary forms of revolutionary consciousness attached to them. Nevertheless 1917 did happen—and, as Lenin surprisingly observed, when ‘as a result of an extremely unique historical situation, absolutely dissimilar currents, absolutely heterogeneous class interests, absolutely contrary political and social strivings…merged…in a strikingly harmonious manner.’ This points, as Althusser’s comment on this passage in For Marx reminds us, to the fact that, if a contradiction is to become ‘active in the strongest sense, to become a ruptural principle, there must be an accumulation of circumstances and currents so that whatever their origin and sense…they ‘fuse’ into a ruptural unity’ (Althusser, 1965/1969, p. 99). The aim of a theoretically-informed political practice must surely be to bring about or construct the articulation between social or economic forces and those forms of politics and ideology which might lead them in practice to intervene in history in a progressive way—an articulation which has to be constructed through practice precisely because it is not guaranteed by how those forces are constituted in the first place.

“That leaves the model much more indeterminate, open-ended and contingent than the classical position. It suggests that you cannot ‘read off’ the ideology of a class (or even sectors of a class) from its original position in the structure of socio-economic relations. But it refuses to say that it is impossible to bring classes or fractions of classes, or indeed other kinds of social movements, through a developing practice of struggle, into articulation with those forms of politics and ideology which allow them to become historically effective as collective social agents. The principal theoretical reversal accomplished by ‘no necessary correspondence’ is that determinacy is transferred from the genetic origins of class or other social forces in a structure to the effects or results of a practice. So I would want to stand with those parts of Althusser that I read as retaining the double articulation between ’structure’ and ‘practice,’ rather than the full structuralist causality of Reading Capital or of the opening sections of Poulantzas’ Political Power and Social Classes (1968/1975). By ‘double articulation’ I mean that the structure—the given conditions of existence, the structure of determinations in any situation—can also be understood, from another point of view, as simply the result of previous practices. We may say that a structure is what previously structured practices have produced as a result. These then constitute the ‘given conditions,’ the necessary starting point, for new generations of practice. In neither case should ‘practice’ be treated as transparently intentional: we make history, but on the basis of anterior conditions which are not of our making. Practice is how a structure is actively reproduced. Nevertheless, we need both terms if we are to avoid the trap of treating history as nothing but the outcome of an internally self-propelling structuralist machine. The structuralist dichotomy between ’structure’ and ‘practice’—like the related one between ’synchrony’ and ‘diachrony’—serves a useful analytic purpose but should not be fetishized into a rigid, mutually exclusive distinction.

“Let us try to think a little further the question, not of the necessity, but of the possibility of the articulations between social groups, political practices and ideological formations which could create, as a result, those historical breaks or shifts which we no longer find already inscribed and guaranteed in the very structures and laws of the capitalist mode of production. This must not be read as arguing that there are no tendencies which arise from our positioning within the structures of social relations. We must not allow ourselves to slip from an acknowledgement of the relative autonomy of practice (in terms of its effects), to fetishizing Practice—the slip which made many post-structuralists Maoists for a brief moment before they became subscribers to the ‘New Philosophy’ of the fashionable French Right. Structures exhibit tendencies—lines of force, openings and closures which constrain, shape, channel and in that sense, ‘determine.’ But they cannot determine in the harder sense of fix absolutely, guarantee. People are not irrevocably and indelibly inscribed with the ideas that they ought to think; the politics that they ought to have are not, as it were, already imprinted in their sociological genes. The question is not the unfolding of some inevitable law but rather the linkages which, although they can be made, need not necessarily be. There is no guarantee that classes will appear in their appointed political places, as Poulantzas so vividly described it, with their number plates on their backs. By developing practices which articulate differences into a collective will, or by generating discourses which condense a range of different connotations, the dispersed conditions of practice of different social groups can be effectively drawn together in ways which make those social forces not simply a class ‘in itself,’ positioned by some other relations over which it has no control, but also capable of intervening as a historical force, a class ‘for itself,’ capable of establishing new collective projects.

“These now appear to me to be the generative advances which Althusser’s work set in motion. I regard this reversal of basic concepts as of much greater value than many of the other features of his work which, at the time of their appearance, so riveted Althusserian discipleship: for example, the question of whether the implicit traces of structuralist thought in Marx could be systematically transformed into a full blown structuralism by means of the skilful application to it of a structuralist combinatory of the Levi-Straussean variety—the problematic of Reading Capital; or the clearly idealist attempt to isolate a so-called autonomous ‘theoretical practice’; or the disastrous conflation of historicism with ‘the historical’ which licensed a deluge of anti-historical theoreticist speculation by his epigoni; or even the ill-fated enterprise of substituting Spinoza for the ghost of Hegel in the Marxist machine. The principal flaw in E. P. Thompson’s (1978) anti-Althusserean diatribe, The Poverty of Theory, is not the cataloguing of these and other fundamental errors of direction in Althusser’s project—which Thompson was by no means the first to do—but rather the inability to recognize, at the same time, what real advances were, nevertheless, being generated by Althusser’s work. This yielded an undialectical assessment of Althusser, and incidentally, of theoretical work in general. Hence the necessity, here, of stating simply again what, despite his many weaknesses, Althusser accomplished which establishes a threshold behind which we cannot allow ourselves to fall. After ‘Contradiction and Overdetermination,’ the debate about the social formation and determinacy in Marxism will never again be the same. That in itself constitutes ‘an immense theoretical revolution.’”

— Stuart Hall, Signification, Representation, Ideology: Althusser and the Post-structural Debates, Critical Studies in Mass Communication vol.2. no.2 June 1985, pp..95-97

“Note that Althusser says ’systems,’ not ’system.’ The important thing about systems of representation is that they are not singular. There are numbers of them in any social formation. They are plural. Ideologies do not operate through single ideas; they operate, in discursive chains, in clusters, in semantic fields, in discursive formations. As you enter an ideological field and pick out any one nodal representation or idea, you immediately trigger off a whole chain of connotative associations. Ideological representations connote—summon—one another. So a variety of different ideological systems or logics are available in any social formation. The notion of the dominant ideology and the subordinated ideology is an inadequate way of representing the complex interplay of different ideological discourses and formations in any modern developed society. Nor is the terrain of ideology constituted as a field of mutually exclusive and internally self- sustaining discursive chains. They contest one another, often drawing on a common, shared repertoire of concepts, rearticulating and disarticulating them within different systems of difference or equivalence.”

ibid., p.104

“There is ‘no necessary correspondence’ between the conditions of a social relation or practice and the number of different ways in which it can be represented. It does not follow that, as some neo-Kantians in discourse theory have assumed, because we cannot know or experience a social relation except ‘within ideology,’ therefore it has no existence independent of the machinery of representation: a point already well clarified by Marx in the ‘1857 Introduction’ but woefully misinterpreted by Althusser himself.”

ibid., p.105

Louis Althusser“[T]here is no experiencing outside of the categories of representation or ideology. The notion that our heads are full of false ideas which can, however, be totally dispersed when we throw ourselves open to ‘the real’ as a moment of absolute authentication, is probably the most ideological conception of all. This is exactly that moment of ‘recognition’ when the fact that meaning depends on the intervention of systems of representation disappears and we seem secure within the naturalistic attitude. It is a moment of extreme ideological closure. Here we are most under the sway of the highly ideological structures of all—common sense, the regime of the ‘taken for granted.’ The point at which we lose sight of the fact that sense is a production of our systems of representation is the point at which we fall, not into Nature but into the naturalistic illusion: the height (or depth) of ideology. Consequently, when we contrast ideology to experience, or illusion to authentic truth, we are failing to recognize that there is no way of experiencing the ‘real relations’ of a particular society outside of its cultural and ideological categories. That is not to say that all knowledge is simply the product of our will-to-power; there may be some ideological categories which give us a more adequate or more profound knowledge of particular relations than others.”

ibid., p.105

“Because there is no one to one relationship between the conditions of social existence we are living and how we experience them, it is necessary for Althusser to call these relationships ‘imaginary.’ That is, they must on no account be confused with the real. It is only later in his work that this domain becomes the ‘Imaginary’ in a proper Lacanian5 sense. It may be that he already had Lacan in mind in this earlier essay, but he is not yet concerned to affirm that knowing and experiencing are only possible through the particular psychoanalytic process which Lacan has posited.”

ibid., p.105

“[L]et us consider Althusser’s use of this phrase, ‘the real conditions of existence—scandalous (within contemporary cultural theory) because here Althusser commits himself to the notion that social relations actually exist apart from their ideological representations or experiences. Social relations do exist. We are born into them. They exist independent of our will. They are real in their structure and tendency. We cannot develop a social practice without representing those conditions to ourselves in one way or another; but the representations do not exhaust their effect. Social relations exist, independent of mind, independent of thought. And yet they can only be conceptualized in thought, in the head. That is how Marx (1953/1973) put it in the ‘1857 Introduction’ to the Grundrisse. It is important that Althusser affirms the objective character of the real relations that constitute modes of production in social formations, though his later work provided the warrant for a quite different theorization. Althusser here is closer to a ‘realist’ philosophical position than his later Kantian or Spinozean manifestations.”

ibid., p.105

“In Jamaica, where I spent my youth and adolescence, I was constantly hailed as ‘coloured.’ The way that term was articulated with other terms in the syntaxes of race and ethnicity was such as to produce the meaning, in effect: ‘not black.’ The ‘blacks’ were the rest—the vast majority of the people, the ordinary folk. To be ‘coloured’ was to belong to the ‘mixed’ ranks of the brown middle class, a cut above the rest—in aspiration if not in reality. My family attached great weight to these finely-graded classificatory distinctions and, because of what it signified in terms of distinctions of class, status, race, color, insisted on the inscription. Indeed, they clung to it through thick and thin, like the ultimate ideological lifeline it was. You can imagine how mortified they were to discover that, when I came to England, I was hailed as ‘coloured’ by the natives there precisely because, as far as they could see, I was ‘black,’ for all practical purposes! The same term, in short, carried quite different connotations because it operated within different ’systems of differences and equivalences.’ It is the position within the different signifying chains which ‘means,’ not the literal, fixed correspondence between an isolated term and some denotated position in the color spectrum.

“The Caribbean system was organized through the finely graded classification systems of the colonial discourses of race, arranged on an ascending scale up to the ultimate ‘white’ term—the latter always out of reach, the impossible, ‘absent’ term, whose absent-presence structured the whole chain. In the bitter struggle for place and position which characterizes dependent societies, every notch on the scale mattered profoundly. The English system, by contrast, was organized around a simpler binary dichotomy, more appropriate to the colonizing order: ‘white/not-white.’ Meaning is not a transparent reflection of the world in language but arises through the differences between the terms and categories, the systems of reference, which classify out the world and allow it to be in this way appropriated into social thought, common sense.”

ibid., 108

The full essay is available to download here: stuart_hall_on_althusser.pdf

Three quick thoughts on Mimesis

Posted on facebook recently, this early 1990s ‘Viz.’ parody of the red-top / tabloid hatred of benefits recipients during the last Tory recession leads me to make several points. In fact I think that realistically I could write all day and possibly all week about it, but I will limit myself to just three:

Firstly, it’s hard to shake off the overwhelming impression that today’s newspapers, when seen in the light of this historical context, are nothing if not comics that have become autonomous and unmoored, in the popular consciousness, from their connection with some form of entertainment. Startlingly, it’s as if they were originally put there to ‘send up’ a certain attitude, but became alienated from this function and ended up expressing the very thing they were intended to satirically mimic. Maybe this appearance can tell us something much more general about the level of cultural awareness, and how it has been progressively assaulted, stunned, and traumatised by the mediations and insertions of late capitalism, to the point of developing as a defence a schizophrenic disconnection with discursive level, a severe atonality that does not distinguish between different qualities of information. This atonia is also symptomatic of an always-on digital age, since the internet is most certainly guilty of presenting qualitatively different sources as if they were equally weighted or modally homogeneous. This peculiarity of the online plays into that ‘fair world’ level playing-field fallacy which supports the emergence of reactionary and counter-revolutionary groups like men’s rights activists and the economic-freedom-is-also-freedom market libertarians. The always-already skewed and distorted frame in which social antagonisms are even approached or engaged with is obscured by the frame of the mediating device and the discursive apparatus. The reality of various social asymmetries, inequalities, and axes of oppression is elided in advance of any interaction, yet it is just such realities which were to be discussed.

Secondly, during the Big Benefits Row, Annabel Giles mocking Hopkins’ puerility (‘shhh, the adults are talking’) got the audience clapping vigorously whereas argued refutations based on statistical and empirical information alone generally fell flat. Maybe there’s a lesson in that about the cultural mythologies created by ideology, and how, while being resistant to argumentation alone, they are nonetheless susceptible to more ‘formalist’ tactics of interruption. In such a ‘bear pit’, as Owen Jones called it, defamiliarizing and foregrounding the level of discourse and the unspoken rules about how to approach and engage with an issue seems more effective than argumentation on the level offered. This apparently worked for Viz in the early 1990s, and to some extent it worked for Annabel Giles last week. The long-term argument of the Left, its economic and political rationalisation, on the other hand, generally falls on deaf ears or is only heard by those who already subscribe to it. Perhaps we need to process this realisation a bit more thoroughly. Can propitious tactical interruptions create the occasions for more weighty strategic interventions?

Thirdly, today’s Edwina Curry, Katie Hopkins and a host of yellow press hacks must not have realised they were satirical figures in themselves. They make me want to dig out my old Fast Show and Harry Enfield episodes and view those Tim-nice-but-dim and Loadsamoney caricatures. How is it possible for modern, educated people to so perfectly coincide with the stock figure of the dim, opinionated and bigoted Right-winger without any cognizance of this? The fact that what is said and done today in all (apparent) earnestness by the Right wing has already been done and said thirty years ago as farce should, in any sane world, give us pause for thought. Is there some kind of limit at which stereotype and reality converge in a hyper-real semblance that undermines the distinction? These are very weird times. However, I’ve said that such commentary originates only in apparent earnestness, irrespective of the sincerity of those who only propagate and reproduce the message — largely those with petite-bourgeois aspirations, anxious about their own position within a social hierarchy. I say this because partly I am of the suspicion that dumbing down to a level that doesn’t really exist, in the hope of actually creating that level as the practical and popular standard, is something like a regulative ideal of the Tory. It’s not that all right-wingers are anti-intellectual, more that the reproduction of an anti-intellectual political climate is strategically expedient. People must never realise the true value of the abstract labour they collectively generate through intellectual activity or they will compose the dreaded thing: a self-conscious class, an agent with the ability to change history. Instead value must only ever be realised through the channels already expropriated by capital and regulated by state imposition of markets.