little book constitutes a theoretical intervention
in a specific conjuncture when Althussers work
is neglected, arguing the relevance of his work. Althusser
once said that there is no such thing as an innocent
reading, and Warren Montags book is no exception.
What is presented as a general monography on Althusser
is in fact centered on his contributions to literary
theory. Montag attempts a new reading of Althussers
work and applies its theoretical insights to Joseph
Conrads In the Heart of Darkness, Robinson
Crusoe and Althussers own autobiography.
Montag is both sympathetic and knowledgeable about
his subject. However, there is something misleading
about presenting Althusser as a literary theorist.
While the author validly insists on the significance
of Althussers pieces on theater or art, the
overall accuracy of his presentation of Althussers
work is more questionable as he neglects central texts
such as the essay Contradiction and Overdetermination.
attempts to read Althussers work in a new way.
How can we produce a reading which is genuinely new?
Through reading Althussers work "to the
letter", in the same manner Althusser read Marx.
Althusser's work remains unexplored territory in so
far as nobody paid attention to the text in its literal,
read his work carefully, to the letter as he liked
to say, is to retrace voyages on waterways that,
however promising their beginnings, proved finally
to be impassable; it is also however to rediscover
rivers still open and unexplored before us, perhaps
leading to seas still to be found."
originality is his orientation towards the materiality
of the Althusserian texts rather than the ideas or
arguments abstracted from his writings. Reading Althusser
in a materialist way is first to recognize
that texts in their historical existence are irreductibly
real. They are a surface without depth
irreductible to anything else, internal or external
such as the intentions of the author, the worldview
of a social class etc. They do not express, reflect
or represent something more real. This irreductibility
precisely constitutes the material existence of the
work. Secondly, it is to recognize the essential contradictory
nature of the text. Far from finding a 'system' of
Althusserianism, with the predicates of order, coherence
and homogeneity of meaning and style postulated by
both admirers and detractors alike, Montag is interested
in lacunae , inconsistencies and contradictions in
his work. He says of Althussers work what Marx
could point about Adam Smiths work: "the
text does not see all that it does", every literary
texts or philosophical text says more than it wants
or knows that it says. A symptomatic reading presupposes
the existence of two texts, one of which becomes visible
only when we notice the gaps of the first. To produce
a knowledge of a text is to grasp not only what it
says, but what it does not and cannot say:
absent conjunctions that divide the work from itself,
that separate it into a multiplicity. The silences,
these empty spaces are the signs of the work's incompleteness,
the signs of its relation to history."
the text's incompleteness, discrepancies and absences,
is not only what Althusser says, but the way that
conflicting tendencies of thought coexist without
the conflict being adressed or even acknowledged,
that constitutes the dramatic experience of reading
a materialist reading insists that the text is incomplete
and unfinishable. A text is not reductible to the
historical conditions of its emergence and can never
be explained once and for all.
new reading of Althusser is in fact the
thinkers own practice of symptomatic reading,
which is also, according to Montag, his major contribution
to literary studies. However, Althusser's thought
is at the same time valorised and displaced in Montags
book. Althusser's originality was to extract a number
of ideas present in the classical Marxist tradition
such as the "relative autonomy" of superstructures,
"differential temporality", the "overdetermination"
of historical conjunctures, the distinction between
the "real objects" and the "objects
of knowledge", the permanence of ideology etc,
and to construct from them a distinctive problematic
for historical materialism which would enable it to
produce new knowledge, both theoretical and empirical.
The problem is that if Montag correctly shows the
similarities between Althussers approach and
Spinozas reading of the Scriptures, at worse
he neglects and at best he does not insist enough
on the organic links of Althussers writings
with Marxism, both at the level of theory and practice.
Althusser's theoretical intervention 'for Marx' was
framed within the specific debates of the world communist
movement. If insisting on the reality or materiality
of texts and their contradictory and incomplete nature
produces a new concept of literature and identifies
many of the theoretical obstacles which block the
way of knowledge, it is not clear how this is intrinsically
related to the problematic of historical materialism.
Althusser was not simply a materialist, he was a Leninist.
One can only make sense of his work if placed within
the critique of the capitalist mode of production
from the point of view of labor, however the only
labor in Montags book seems to be the labor
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