Thinking at the Limits

25 years have passed since Louis Althusser went over the edge of sanity. Scott McLemee wonders what keeps drawing scholars into his orbit.

December 7, 2005

The curtain rises on a domestic scene –- though not, the audience soon learns, a tranquil one. It is the apartment of the philosopher Louis Althusser and his wife Hélène Rytman, on an evening in November, a quarter century ago. The play in question, which opened last month in Paris, is called The Caïman. That’s an old bit of university slang referring to Althusser's job as the “director of studies” -- an instructor who helps students prepare for the final exam at the École Normale Supérieure, part of what might be called the French Ivy League.

The caïman whose apartment the audience has entered was, in his prime, one of the “master thinkers” of the day. In the mid-1960s, Althusser conducted an incredibly influential seminar that unleashed structuralist Marxism on the world. He played a somewhat pestiferous role within the French Communist Party, where he was spokesman for Mao-minded student radicals. And he served as tutor and advisor for generations of philosophers-in-training.

At Althusser’s funeral in 1990, Jacques Derrida recalled how, “beginning in 1952 ... the caïman received in his office the young student I then was.” One of the biographers of Michel Foucault (another of his pupils) describes Althusser as an aloof and mysterious figure, but also one known for his gentleness and tact. When a student turned in an essay, Althusser wrote his comments on a separate sheet of paper -- feeling that there would be something humiliating about defacing the original with his criticisms.

But everyone in the audience knows how Althusser’s evening at home with his wife in November 1980 will end. How could they not? And even if you know the story, it is still horrifying to read Althusser’s own account of it. In a memoir that appeared posthumously, he recalls coming out of a groggy state the next morning, and finding himself massaging Hélène’s neck, just as he had countless times in the course of their long marriage.

“Suddenly, I was terror-struck,” he wrote. “Her eyes stared interminably, and I noticed the tip of her tongue was showing between her teeth and lips, strange and still.” He ran to the École, screaming, “I’ve strangled Hélène!”

He was whisked away for psychiatric evaluation, which can’t have taken long: Althusser’s entire career had been conducted between spells of hospitalization for manic-depression. In one autobiographical fragment from the late 1970s –- presumably written while on a manic high –- he brags about sneaking aboard a nuclear submarine and taking it for a joy-ride when no one was looking. If ever there were reason to question legal guilt on grounds of insanity, the murder of Hélène Rytman would seem to qualify.

He underwent a long spell of psychiatric incarceration -- a plunge, as he later wrote, back into the darkness from which he had awakened that morning. In the late 1980s, after he was released, the philosopher could be seen wandering in the streets, announcing “I am the great Althusser!” to startled pedestrians.

It became the stuff of legend. In the early 1980s, as a student at the University of Texas at Austin, I heard what turns out to have been an apocryphal account of that morning. A small crowd of Althusser’s students, it was said, routinely gathered outside his apartment to greet him each day. When he emerged, disheveled and shrieking that he was a murderer, everyone laughed and clapped their hands. They thought (so the story went) that Althusser was clowning around.

That rumor probably says more about American attitudes towards French thinkers than it does about Althusser himself, of course. The murder has become a standard reference in some of the lesser skirmishes of the culture wars – with Hélène Rytman’s fate a sort of morbid punch-line.

Althusser’s philosophical work took as its starting point the need to question, and ultimately to dissolve, any notion that social structures and historical changes are the result of some basic human essence. Somewhat like Foucault, at least in this regard, he regards the idea of “man” as a kind of myth. Instead, Althusser conceived of history as a “a process without a subject” – something operating in ways not quite available to consciousness. Various economic and linguistic structures interacted to “articulate” the various levels of life and experience.

Althusser called this perspective “theoretical anti-humanism.” And for anyone who loathes such thinking, the standard quip is that he practiced his anti-humanism at home.

That strikes me as being neither funny nor fair. At the risk of sounding like a pretty old-fashioned bourgeois humanist, I think you have to treat his ideas as ... well, ideas. Not necessarily as good ones, of course. (In his seminar, Althusser and his students undertook a laborious and ultimately preposterous effort to figure out when and how Marx became a Marxist, only to conclude that only a few of his works really qualified.)  But however you judge his writings, they make sense as part of a conversation that started long before Althusser entered the room -- one that will continue long after we are all dead.

One way to see his “theoretical anti-humanism,” for example, is as a retort to Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Existentialism is a Humanism” –- the lecture that drew standing-room only crowds in 1945, at just about the time Althusser was resuming an academic career interrupted by the war. (The Germans held him as a POW for most of it.) It was the breeziest of Sartre’s introductions to his basic themes: We are free – deep down, and for good. That freedom may be unbearable at times. But it never goes away. No matter what, each individual is always radically responsible for whatever action and meaning is possible in a given circumstance.

“Man,” Sartre told his listeners, “is nothing else but what he makes of himself.” But that “nothing” is, after all, everything. “There is no universe other than a human universe, a universe of human subjectivity.”

For Althusser, this is all completely off track. It rests on the idea that individuals are atoms who create their own meaning – and that somehow then link up to form a society. A very different conception is evident in “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” a paper from 1970 that is about as close to a smash-hit, era-defining performance as Althusser ever got. Which is to say, not that close at all. But extracts are available in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, and passages have turned up in countless thousands of course packets in lit-crit and cultural studies, over the years.

For Althusser, it’s exactly backwards to start from the individual as a basic unit capable, through its own imagination and endeavor, to create a world of meaning. On the contrary, there are societies that seek to reproduce themselves over time, not just by producing material goods (that too) but through imposing and enforcing order.

The police, military, and penal systems have an obvious role. Althusser calls them the Repressive State Apparatuses. But he’s much more interested in what he calls the Ideological State Apparatuses – the complex array of religious institutions, legal processes, communication systems, schools, etc. that surround us. And, in effect, create us. They give us the tools to make sense of the world. Most of all, the ISAs convey what the social order demands of us. And for anyone who doesn’t go along....Well, that’s when the Repressive State Apparatuses might just step in to put you in line.

Why has this idea been so appealing to so many academics –- and for such a long time? Well, at the time, it tended to confirm the sense that you could effect radical social change via “the long march through the institutions.” By challenging how the Ideological State Apparatuses operated, it might be possible to shift the whole culture’s center of gravity. And Althusser placed special emphasis on educational institutions as among the most important ISA's in capitalist society.

Such was the theory. In practice, of course, the social order tends to push back –- and not necessarily through repression. A handful of non-academic activists became interested in Althusser for a while; perhaps some still are. But for the most part, his work ended up as a fairly nonthreatening commodity within the grand supermarket of American academic life.

The brand is so well-established, in fact, that the thinker’s later misfortunes are often dismissed with a quick change of subject. The effect is sometimes bizarre.

In 1996, Columbia University Press issued a volume by Althusser called Writings on Psychoanalysis: Freud and Lacan. Surely an appropriate occasion for some thoughtful essays on how the theorist’s own experience of mental illness might have come into play in his work, right? Evidently not: The book contains only a few very perfunctory references to “temporary insanity” and psychiatric care. Presumably Althusser’s editors will be forthcoming next summer, with the publication by Verso of Philosophy of the Encounter: Later Writings, 1978-1987. The catalog text for the book refers to it as “his most prolific period.” But it was also one when much of his writing was done while hospitalized.

Is it possible to say anything about his work and his illness that doesn’t amount to a roundabout denunciation of Althusser? I think perhaps there is.

On one level, his theory about the Ideological State Apparatuses looks....maybe not optimistic, exactly, but like a guide to transforming things. From this point of view, each individual is a point of convergence among several ISAs. In other words, each of us has assimilated various codes and rules about how things are supposed to be. And if there are movements underway challenging how the different ISAs operate, that might have a cumulative effect. If, say, feminists and gay rights activists are transforming the rules about how gender is constructed, that creates new ways of life. (Though not necessarily a social revolution, as Althusser wanted. Capitalism is plenty flexible if there’s a buck to be extracted.)

But that notion of the individual as the intersection of rules and messages also has a melancholy side. It somewhat resembles the experience of depression. If a person suffering from depression is aware of anything, it is this: The self is a product of established patterns....fixed structures.... forces in the outside world that are definitive, and sometimes crushing.

Any Sartrean talk of “radical freedom” makes no sense whatever to anyone in that condition – which is, rather, a state of radical loss. And as the German poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger puts it in a recent essay, the most extreme “radical loser” may find the only transcendence in an act of violence.

“He can explode at any moment,” writes Enzensberger. “This is the only solution to his problem that he can imagine: a worsening of the evil conditions under which he suffers.... At last, he is master over life and death.”

Is that what happened in Althusser’s apartment, 25 years ago? That, or something like it. 


Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs each week. Suggestions and ideas for future columns are welcome.


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