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  • Better Read Than Dead: Althusser and the Fetish of IdeologyAuthor(s): Ellen RooneyReviewed work(s):Source: Yale French Studies, No. 88, Depositions: Althusser, Balibar, Macherey, and the Laborof Reading (1995), pp. 183-200Published by: Yale University PressStable URL: .Accessed: 08/01/2012 23:47

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    Better Read Than Dead: Althusser and the Fetish of Ideology*

    Who fails here to call to mind our good friend, Dogberry, who informs neighbour Seacoal, that, "To be a well-favoured man is the gift of fortune; but reading and writing comes by Nature."

    -Karl Marx, "The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof "

    The polemical form of my argument contends that the reception of Louis Althusser's work has fetishized his theory of ideology and vir- tually overlooked, left unread, his theory and his practice of reading. The essay "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses" and the oppo- sition between ideology and science, as it emerges in the course of Reading "Capital,"' have dominated our response to Althusser's en- tire oeuvre in a remarkable and unproductive way, while the crucial place of reading has been obscured, even disavowed. The relative ne- glect of this aspect of Althusser's work is puzzling, not to say perverse, insofar as his theory of reading actually helps to resolve some of the very theoretical and political difficulties that many commentators on his theory of ideology find so troubling. I will argue that the emphasis on the theory of ideology in Althusser's work is in fact a form of resis- tance to reading as such. The debate about ideology not only takes the place of any debate about reading, but actually enables the relative

    *This essay was initially written for a 1991 MLA panel, "Ideology III: For Althusser, " and I have retained its polemical quality as an objection or question put to the panel's identification of Althusser with a theory of ideology as much as possible. I would like to thank Andrzej Warminski, who organized the panel, and Geraldine Friedman, who chaired it, as well as Jacques Lezra, for bringing it to print. I would also like to thank Khachig Tololyan, Susan Bernstein, Christina Crosby, Mary Ann Doane, Coppdlia Kahn, and Karen Newman, for their comments and criticisms.

    1. Louis Althusser and Etienne Balibar, Reading "Capital," trans. Ben Brewster (New York: Verso, 1979). All references to Marx's Capital in the text are to Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, ed. Frederick Engels, trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling (New York: International Publishers, 1967).

    YFS 88, Depositions, ed. Lezra, ? 1995 by Yale University.


  • 184 Yale French Studies silence on the question of reading, and thus has contributed in a crucial way to the consensus (in many circles) that Althusser's work (and/or something called "Althusserianism") is dead.2 Ironically, or, rather, with what we once called "poetic justice," the refusal to read Al- thusser's theory of reading seems entwined with a refusal to read his text at all, that is to say, with a stubborn refusal "to abandon the mirror myths of immediate vision and reading, and conceive knowledge as a production," that is, as a product of reading (RC, 24). It is, in other words, profoundly ideological.

    Marx's account of fetishism in Capital provides the best descrip- tion of the position Althusser's theory of ideology has in the hege- monic reading of his work. (I should say that I read the "Commodities" chapter "after" Althusser, if not "for" Althusser.) To speak schemat- ically, in much contemporary critical work the correct theory of ideol- ogy stands in for a correct political position vis a vis the exploited, oppressed, and potentially revolutionary classes. (The most imme- diately relevant "class" is the proletariat, of course, but in a period of "post-Marxisms, " any one of the new social movements can serve as a substitute. What is crucial is that the political project or position of the "other" be adequately represented/theorized/known in advance by means of ideology critique; this preference for a theory of ideology over a theoretical practice of reading is certainly not limited to Marxism or Marxists.) The heady pursuit of a "correct" theory of ideology permits a disavowal of the elusiveness of this "correct" political position, si- multaneously affirming and denying political engagement and en- abling an evasion of the absolutely unavoidable risk entailed in "read- ing," where reading is recognized as a relation among readers, a productive relation, but one that allows for no theoretical guarantee.3

    2. The observation that "in France today, Althusser is, as Hegel once was, treated like a 'dead dog,"' is fairly commonplace, perhaps especially in the work of those who protest against this dismissal. See Alain Lipietz, "From Althusserianism to 'Regulation Theory,"' in The Althusserian Legacy, ed. E. Ann Kaplan and Michael Sprinker (London: Verso, 1993), 134, whose phrase I cite above, and Gregory Elliott, Althusser: The Detour of Theory (London: Verso, 1987), 1. Alex Callinicos turns this figure against itself in "What Is Living and What is Dead in the Philosophy of Althusser," in Kaplan and Sprinker, 39-49.

    3. I echo Stuart Hall's essay, "The Problem of Ideology-Marxism Without Guaran- tees" (in Marx 100 Years On, ed. B. Matthews [London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1984]), in part because Hall has avoided the temptation to fetishize, even as he takes up the theory of ideology and Althusser, whether in this essay, or in a work like "Signification, Repre- sentation, Ideology: Althusser and the Post-Structuralist Debates," Critical Studies in Mass Communication 2/2 (June 1985): 19-114. In "Marxism Without Guarantees,"


    ("Unlike the 'theory of knowledge' of ideological philosophy, I am not trying to pronounce some de jure (or de facto) guarantee which will assure us that we really do know what we know, and that we can relate this harmony to a certain connection between Subject and Object, Consciousness and World" [RC, 69].) To fetishize the theory of ideol- ogy, and thus to disavow the theory of reading, is implicitly to seek such a guarantee. The theory of ideology that could render transparent to the critical intelligence any (and every) ideological operation might also protect us from the uncertain work of reading.

    To read, for Althusser, is to undertake a political task, that of seek- ing (producing) alignments and marking exclusions, through close at- tention to the form of a text's "problematic." Explicitly rejecting what he calls "fetishism," Althusser proposes an account of reading as a guilty, dynamic, flawed, open-ended, historically contingent, and wholly political practice of displacements: reading as antifetishism. Finally, in his model, reading is the activity that keeps "science" alive, where science is understood as the continuous and "endless" project of disrupting ideologies.4 Insofar as ideology is immortal and ideologies are eternally rewritten, all the forms of resistance and displacement must also be constantly repeated, renewed (revolutionized). "A science that repeats itself without discovering anything is a dead science, is no longer a science, but a frozen dogma. A science only lives from its development, i.e., from its discoveries."5

    Hall explicitly "foreground[s], not so much the theory as the problem of ideology" (29), and he proceeds by means of what he calls "rereading" (36) to "establish the open horizon of Marxist theorizing-determinacy without guaranteed closures" (43). His seems to me an exemplary instance of taking the force of Althusser's theory of reading and reading it back into the problem of ideology. Etienne Balibar has also been at pains, in "The Non-Contemporaneity of Althusser" (in The Althusserian Legacy), to argue that Althusser's theory of ideology offers "absolutely no guarantee" that the revolutionary impulse of the exploited classes will triumph over their "normal behavior in the Ideolog- ical State Apparatuses" (13). This kind of work is the exception to the fetishizing rule. Another exceptional reading of Althusser that takes reading into account is Michael Sprinker's Imaginary Relations: Aesthetics and Ideology in the Theory of Historical Materialism (London: Verso, 1987).

    4. As Althusser observes, in his Essays in Self-Criticism (trans. Grahame Locke [London: New Left Books, 1976]), theory/science emerges from its ideological prehistory not once, at its inception, but repeatedly, and it "continues endlessly to do so (its prehistory remains always contemporary)" (114). See my discussion in Seductive Rea- soning: Pluralism as the Problematic of Contemporary Literary Theory (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989), 12-13.

    5. Althusser, "Theory, Theoretical Practice and Theoretical Formation: Ideology and Ideological Struggle," in Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scien-

  • 186 Yale French Studies Reading is the only way to produce such discoveries; that is Al-

    thusser's point when he argues that "we must completely reorganize the idea we have of knowledge, we must abandon the mirror