Volume 7, Issue 18, Fall 2012
History and the Traumatic Narrative of Desire and Enjoyment in Althusser
Among Marxists and Communists, Louis Althusser has long had a reputation for theoreticism and scientism, the factors most often cited to explain the eclipse of his work since the 1960’s. According to the standard account, the distinguishing characteristic and major flaw of his work is that it brings everything back to knowledge. In this essay, I interrogate this understanding of Althusser by reconsidering two cornerstones of Althusserian theory that seem most to exemplify his extreme privileging of epistemology: the symptom and the interpellation theory of ideology. I argue not that taking them to work on the epistemological level is wrong but rather incomplete; there exists a not quite acknowledged beyond of knowledge and interpellation in Althusser, which takes the form of a traumatic
narrative of history, enjoyment, and desire. The production of knowledge in Althusser unfolds as a pathos-laden story, which on one level gestures toward the turbulent world history in which he developed his theory: primarily WW II and the post-war Stalinist revelations, along with the conflicts it provoked in the Communist Party, and the French Communist Party in particular. Although not the subject of extended analysis, these events haunt Althusser’s texts in the form of allusions and the surprisingly violent figurative language with which Althusser discusses theoretical labor. I contend that they call to be analyzed as a kind of return of the repressed, best approached through Slavoj Žižek’s psychoanalytically inflected theory of ideology.