Douailler, S.  (2011) 'The patient cannot last long'. Translated by Emiliano Battista.  Radical Philosophy 170: 32--4

Dave Harris

The very titles of the contributions to the debates between Althusser (Reply…) and Rancière (...Lesson) mislead about the nature of the debate.  There is already a theatrical note in the Reply, referring to the medical analogy to refer to Lewis' critique of Althusser - examining the patient, and predicting severe dogmatism and imminent demise.  It is both playful, and a reminder of Althusser's actual illness.  It represents what Althusser saw as a long series of dramatized philosophical and political struggles.  However, it is also a way of using Althusser's great authority, and ending the long wait for his reply, 'this mix of expectation and frustration'(32), produced, apparently by Althusser spending a lot of time publishing his students' works with few contributions for himself.

We see depicted 'the political imaginary of an entire period', with growing hostility towards Althusser.  There was emerging criticism, but it was not unified.  Some wanted new theory to end the long silence of the Party about current events, or to see some signs of progress instead of the constant requirement to just keep going.  Althusser's metaphor offered a 'falsely pathetic scene' to stage his return.  It was aimed at winning sympathy, but it also sidestepped 'the real issues at stake' (33), the new mass movements, the new developments in knowledge: Lewis could be particularly depicted as cut off from these, while the Party could show itself to be still actively involved, at least in publishing theoretical controversies in Marxism Today.

However, disappointment ensued.  R saw it as a mere reenactment, an example of a frozen 'dispositif', revived to meet the 'plainly political' needs to address 1968 and to stave off any emergent left wing movements, especially those in universities.  R addressed this '"positivity of the functioning"'of Althusser's intervention, its 'simple and practical gestures', and this is why he used the term lesson.  [I thought there was some other reason, a reference to a Marxist text as well?].  Instead of a great renewal, we were left with a lesson.  The notion of the autonomy of theory in particular was depicted through 'the relationship of the learned to the ignorant, to the exclusivity of expertise', with a typical pedagogue's 'policing of words and phrases'.

The power of the Party became fused with the power of the university, and that was the only source of theory.  Thus ideas became mere academic theses, and words became concepts, with the affects of being able 'to disqualify the overblown prattle and disorder of free revolts' (33).  R demonstrates the effects by reviving many other texts of social theory, as well as the writings of workers in the 1830s and in the Lip occupation, which suggests quite a different and more rich programme.  May '68 had enabled voices to proliferate; Foucault had shown how to incorporate diversity in works of philosophy.  Althusser himself had shown that he was capable of extending his interests by writing the ISAs Essay.

R added a supplement in the form of 'Althusser, Don Quixote, and the Stage of the Text' (in The Flesh of Words 1993) .  This returned to the issue of symptomatic reading which traces the answers in the text to questions which do not arise in it.  Apparently, Althusser's own students were encouraged to use this technique, and practiced it on Lacan, responding to his formal invitation for questions after a lecture by insisting that he addressed unasked questions in his own thoughts, offering to make them explicit if Lacan wanted to ask them about them [!] (34).  Althusser found these both amazing and amusing.

R' own chapter in Reading Capital also showed the technique as he subsequently explained, addressing the epistemological break,  still with pedagogic intent.  Certain concepts are lacking, as in the work of the student, but these are known to the scholarly community who have mastered the necessary 'seeing and knowing (the episteme)'.  So symptomatic reading is another way of managing 'the great disorder and unruly chatter of the world', a substitute for discussion.

In this text, R announces that he no longer needs to address the work opened up by terms such as ISA, or any other Althusserian concept.  Instead, the Althusserian text can be clearly seen for what it is, not something addressed to particular audiences [to correct errors and galvanise political action].  R 'finds a way of allowing it to exist, at last, as literature'.

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