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Reading Althusser: An Essay on Structural Marxism
With the perspective afforded by the mass of posthumous writingspublished since the 1990s, it has become clear that Althusser wasperennially concerned with important issues in metaphysics,epistemology, philosophy of science, historiography, hermeneutics, andpolitical philosophy. However, it is also true that the primary mediumAlthusser employed for thinking through problems in these areas wasMarxist philosophy. This is especially true of the period between 1961and 1966 when the majority of his published and unpublished workconcerned itself with how to read Marx, the definition of Marxistphilosophy, and how to understand and apply Marxian concepts. Inaddition, if we are to take Althusser's retrospective word forit, the pieces he published during this period were intended aspolitical-theoretical acts, polemics meant to respond to contemporaryopinions and policies and to shift the terms of these arguments as wellas the actions which were their results. For these reasons, it isnatural when discussing these texts to focus upon the contexts thatengendered them and upon the positions within Marxist philosophy thatAlthusser stakes out by their means. Alternatively, as Althusserindicates in many of these pieces his debts to contemporaneoustheorists and to philosophical predecessors such as Spinoza, there isthe temptation to understand his thought as a combination of theinsights contributed by these thinkers with Marxist philosophy. Whileeach is a useful approach to understanding and explainingAlthusser's philosophy, when excessive attention is paid to oneor another of them, one risks historicizing his contributions orsuggesting that they are merely derivative. Seeking to avoid eitherresult, even though the following discussion will note the context forAlthusser's work, its relation to Marxist philosophy, and thenon-Marxist philosophical insights that contribute to its method andconclusions, this account will also suggest the uniqueness of hiscontributions to hermeneutics, metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy ofscience, historiography, and political philosophy.
For Althusser, it is not necessary that this process of distinctionand clarification be accomplished before a specific theoreticalpractice can generate scientific knowledge. In fact, scientificactivity often proceeds without a clear understanding of the conceptsthat allow it to produce its knowledge. Indeed, Althusser maintainedthat this was Marx's lot when he was writing Capital:scientific knowledge of the capitalist economic system was beingproduced, but Marx did not possess a full awareness of the conceptsallowing this production. According to this definition of philosophy asthe Theory of theoretical practice, Althusser's re-reading ofCapital and other texts was philosophical insofar as it wasable to name and distinguish the concepts that allowed Marx'sscientific analysis of history to proceed.
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This “theory of the break,” which held that Marx's earlywork was Hegelian and ideological and that, after a decisive rupturein 1845 and then a long period of transition between 1845–1857,his work became recognizably Marxist and scientific, would seem toindicate that all one has to do to understand Marx's philosophy is toread this mature work. However, the actual case is not sosimple. While reading Capital and other late works isnecessary for understanding Marx's philosophy, it is notsufficient. It is not sufficient, Althusser argued, because, even inhis post-1857 writings, Marx provides no systematic exposition of hisepistemology or his ideas about social structure, history, and humannature, all of which were necessary for Marxist philosophy'sconsistent and continuing existence.
Readers will find other gaps, but the inconsistency of this text is perhaps, in a paradoxical way, characteristically Althusserian. Michael Sprinker defined Althusserianism as a “research program,” an attempt to identify the theoretical protocols proper to Marxism “that would enable it to continue producing new knowledges.”
Reading Althusser: An Essay on Structural Marxism …
12. Note the language: "dustbin," "residue," "tossing into the abyss." The function of this language is to show how Marxism is violent and exclusionary. This position is in turn reinforced by Robinson's repeated references to Marxism as a "theory" imposing itself via its "preformed categories" (read a priori) onto recalcitrant phenomena--like nationalism, or "black social movements," the implication being that Marxism, itself an excrescence of Western civilization, wants to dominate black people. Another function of this rhetoric is to naturalize nationalism, especially the black radical tradition, while associating Marxism with the external, the extrinsic, the dead. Marxism imposes its dead categories on the vitality of the black radical tradition, and on the naturally non-violent African people: as Robinson notes, the persistence of racial domination over African peoples results in part from the fact that "violence did not come naturally to African peoples," the inescapable implication being that it does come naturally to "European peoples" [Robinson, p. 309]. Another way in which Robinson's rhetoric helps to position Marxism as inflexible comes by virtue of his structuralist metaphors--suggesting the relative stasis or stagnation of the Marxian tradition, trapped as it is in the racial architectonic. Thus Marxism is not literally a prioristic (not subject to the dictates of experience) so much as a form of an older, profound collective experience shaped by the racial architectonic, an experience which renders Marxism blind and deaf to the experience of the other.
6. In my view, and this is surely controversial, but it also puts Marxism on its strongest footing, the primacy of class means not only that class is the primary determinant of oppression and exploitation but the "Race" and gender (this essay focuses on racism but has implications for gender) are not structural determinants. There is racist and sexist ideology. And there is a racial and gendered division of labor, whose severity and function vary depending on where one works in the capitalist global economy. Both ideology and the division of labor are understood here to be functional for class rule--facilitating profit making and social control. Class rule is itself a form of class struggle. This latter point is crucial. Class rule is never automatic or easy, and there is constant resistance, both to class rule itself and its symptoms. This essay thus strongly rejects that part of the Althusserian thesis on social reproduction that explains class rule as a function of interpellation.
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“Reading Althusser: An Essay on Structural Marxism ..
The latent concepts rendered explicit by the practice of symptomaticreading were said by Althusser to constitute the theory of DialecticalMaterialism, or what is the same thing, Marx's philosophy. Withthese concepts made explicit, Althusser believed that Marxist science,or Historical Materialism, could employ them in order to achieve betteranalyses of specific modes of production and better understandings ofthe opportunities that specific modes of production presented forpolitical change. Some of these concepts have already been articulatedin the discussion of the mode of production above, but without beingnamed. To label these concepts and then to add some more, the idea thateach individual productive process or element stands in relation to andplays a part of a complexly structured whole, none of which isreducible to being the simple or essential cause of the others, is whatAlthusser terms the idea of “structural causality.”This concept, in turn, is closely related to the idea of“overdetermination” or the theory that every element in thetotal productive process constituting a historical moment is determinedby all the others.
Reading Althusser: An Essay on Structural Marxism.
From the time of its initial dissemination, Althusser'sre-reading of Marx was met by almost equal amounts of enthusiasm andcastigation. For every reader who found in his prose an explanation ofMarx's philosophy and science that rendered Marx philosophicallyrespectable and offered renewed hope for Marxist theory, there werecritics who judged his work to be idealist, Stalinist, dogmatist, orexcessively structuralist, among myriad other charges. Though many ofthe initial reactions were contradictory and evidencedmisunderstandings of what Althusser was up to, compelling criticismswere also offered. One was that Althusser was only able to offer hisreading by ignoring much of what Marx actually wrote about his logicand about the concepts important to his analysis. Another criticism,and one voiced to Althusser by leaders of the French Communist Party,was that Althusser's reading of Marx offered little on therelationship between Marxist theory and Marxist political practice.
Gregory Meyerson: "Rethinking Black Marxism: …
Montag argues that in the first essay he composed for publication, “The International of Decent Feelings,” Althusser critiqued the eschatological tendencies that would return in the later text. “The International of Decent Feelings,” composed in 1946 when Althusser was influenced by both Catholicism and Marxism, targets an apocalyptic sensibility prevalent among certain Cold War European intellectuals like André Malraux, Albert Camus and Arthur Koestler.
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