The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

'The Labor of Reading'

Warren Montag, Louis Althusser
(London and New York: Transitions Series - Palgrave Macmillan), 2003. 192pp. ISBN: 0333918991 (Pbk)

Book Review

Liam O Ruairc • (first published in Radical Philosophy, Issue 125 May/June 2004)

This little book constitutes a theoretical intervention in a specific conjuncture when Althusser’s work is neglected, arguing the relevance of his work. Althusser once said that there is no such thing as an innocent reading, and Warren Montag’s 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 Althusser’s work and applies its theoretical insights to Joseph Conrad’s In the Heart of Darkness, Robinson Crusoe and Althusser’s 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 Althusser’s pieces on theater or art, the overall accuracy of his presentation of Althusser’s work is more questionable as he neglects central texts such as the essay Contradiction and Overdetermination.

Montag attempts to read Althusser’s work in a new way. How can we produce a reading which is genuinely new? Through reading Althusser’s 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, material existence.

"To 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."

Montag's 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 Althusser’s work what Marx could point about Adam Smith’s 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:

"the 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."

Of the text's incompleteness, discrepancies and absences, Montag concludes:

"it 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 Althusser."

Finally, 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.

This ‘new reading’ of Althusser is in fact the thinker’s 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 Montag’s 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 Althusser’s approach and Spinoza’s reading of the Scriptures, at worse he neglects and at best he does not insist enough on the organic links of Althusser’s 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 Montag’s book seems to be the ‘labor of reading’.







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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.
- George Bernard Shaw

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translated by Toni Solo



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