Indication as Concept: Althusser, Spinoza, and the Logic of the “Groupes Althussériens” (1965-1968)

From John Berger, Bento’s Sketch­book (New York: Pan­theon Books, 2011).

The prob­lems raised by the Althusse­rian the­ory of the “break” between sci­ence and ide­ol­ogy have been crit­i­cized count­less times. In his Ele­ments of Self-Crit­i­cism (1974), Althusser acknowl­edges that it might have con­tributed to what he calls his “the­o­reti­cist devi­a­tion,” start­ing with a speci­fic ratio­nal­ist inter­pre­ta­tion of the break pre­sented in For Marx (1965) and Read­ing Cap­i­tal (1965).1 In the self-crit­i­cal texts of the 1970s, Althusser at least par­tially blames his Spin­ozism for being the “cause” of his the­o­reti­cism, and hav­ing led him to “for­get” pol­i­tics: there must be a cri­tique, then, of the “the science/ideology antithe­sis, and the epis­te­mo­log­i­cal break, which Spin­oza, long before Bachelard, inserted between his first and sec­ond lev­els of knowl­edge.”2

I would like to bracket, as it were, the ret­ro­spec­tive view Althusser pro­vides of his rela­tion to Spin­oza, so as to grasp Althusser’s Spin­ozism from the traces of its implicit influ­ence in For Marx. This involves an inquiry into the Spin­ozism under­pin­ning Althusser’s think­ing, but also his rela­tion to his own prac­tice. We can under­stand this rela­tion accord­ing to the Sec­ond Corol­lary of Propo­si­tion 16 in Book II of the Ethics, where Spin­oza affirms:

the ideas which we have of exter­nal bod­ies indi­cate the con­sti­tu­tion of our own body more than the nature of exter­nal bod­ies. This I have explained with many exam­ples in Appen­dix, Part I.3

For Spin­oza, the con­cept of indi­ca­tion plays a key role in the the­ory of the pas­sage from the first to the sec­ond type of knowl­edge. I will seek here to under­stand the way in which it is also at work, if implic­itly, in Althusser’s think­ing of the rela­tion between sci­ence and ide­ol­ogy. In For Marx, the adjec­tive indica­tive is repeated – sig­nif­i­cantly – on a num­ber of occa­sions, des­ig­nat­ing both the incom­plete char­ac­ter of some of Marx’s ide­o­log­i­cal for­mu­la­tions and the pos­i­tive func­tion they can effect in the process of knowl­edge.4 From this dou­ble func­tion of indi­ca­tion, we will be able to recon­sider the divi­sion between sci­ence and ide­ol­ogy. But the inter­est the notion of indi­ca­tion holds is also con­nected to the term’s recur­rence at the very places in his texts where Althusser com­ments on his own the­o­ret­i­cal work. I wager, in fact, that this con­cept – whose the­o­riza­tion is only out­lined in For Marx – can be used to clar­ify the way in which phi­los­o­phy was prac­ticed within Althusse­ri­an­ism: namely, as a prac­tice of col­lec­tive research. Althusser’s Spin­ozism would con­tain, to some degree, the means for the­o­riz­ing the appa­ra­tus of col­lec­tive think­ing the “Althusse­ri­ans” tried to put in place by striv­ing to con­tin­u­ously orga­nize new research groups.

I will refer to Deleuze’s read­ing of Spin­oza through­out this text. Deleuze’s analy­sis is a pri­ori rad­i­cally opposed to that of Althusser: while the lat­ter, fas­ci­nated by the sys­tem­atic­ity and dog­ma­tism of Spinoza’s thought, is almost exclu­sively inter­ested in the “epis­te­mo­log­i­cal Spin­oza,” Deleuze is known for hav­ing empha­sized the eman­ci­pa­tory poten­tials con­tained within the “eth­i­cal Spin­oza.”5 And while the Deleuzian inter­pre­ta­tion, by insist­ing on the fact that “nobody can undergo for us the slow expe­ri­ence of learn­ing what agrees with our nature,” leads to a refusal of a ped­a­gog­i­cal solu­tion, Althusse­ri­an­ism was on the con­trary accused of plac­ing of the Marx­ist philoso­pher in the role of “philoso­pher-edu­ca­tor.”6 The per­spec­tive advanced in this arti­cle allows us to read the gap between Deleuzian Spin­ozism and Althusse­rian Spin­ozism with fresh eyes. The notion of indi­ca­tion, impor­tant for both of these read­ers of Spin­oza, in effect allows for a mutual dia­logue, if not a rap­proche­ment. In pro­vid­ing a sketch of this encoun­ter with Deleuze’s read­ing, the focus on indi­ca­tion will ulti­mately be a mat­ter of ask­ing whether Althusser’s recourse to Spin­oza effec­tively rein­forces the “Aufk­lärer” dimen­sion of his own thought, lead­ing him to the­o­rize a rigid break between sci­ence and ide­ol­ogy, or whether in fact it ren­ders it pos­si­ble to unseat the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Althusse­ri­an­ism as a “ped­a­gogism.”7

Indication: From Spinoza to For Marx

What does Spinoza’s notion of indi­ca­tion refer to in Book II of the Ethics? When, in the imag­i­na­tion, the human mind per­ceives through the affec­tions of the body, that is, through the affec­tions on the body of the encoun­ter of exter­nal bod­ies, the ideas that it pro­duces con­fus­edly envelop the indi­ca­tions on that body and on the exter­nal bod­ies which affect it. In Expres­sion­ism in Phi­los­o­phy: Spin­oza, Deleuze the­ma­tizes the Spin­ozist notion of indi­ca­tion as fol­lows:

[O]ur ideas of affec­tions indi­cate a state of our body, but do not explain the nature or essence of the exter­nal body. This is to say, the ideas we have are signs, indica­tive images impressed in us, rather than expres­sive ideas formed by us: per­cep­tion or imag­i­na­tion, rather than comprehension…[T]he pri­mary “thing indi­cated” is never our essence, but always a momen­tary state of our chang­ing con­sti­tu­tion; the sec­ondary (or indi­rect) thing indi­cated is never the nature or essence of some exter­nal thing, but is rather an appear­ance that only allows us to rec­og­nize a thing by its effect, to rightly or wrongly assert its mere pres­ence. The fruits of chance and of encoun­ters, serv­ing for recog­ni­tion, purely indica­tive, the ideas we have are inex­pres­sive, that is to say, inad­e­quate.8

Nev­er­the­less, although indica­tive ideas are inad­e­quate, indi­ca­tion does not solely involve a “pri­va­tion” of knowl­edge:

[The inad­e­quate idea] con­tains some­thing pos­i­tive, and so some­thing true…a sort of indi­ca­tion that we can grasp clearly.This is, in fact, how we are able to have some idea of its cause: hav­ing clearly grasped the con­di­tions in which we see the sun, we can clearly infer that it is an object far enough away to appear small, rather than a small object seen at close range.9

In the ratio­nal knowl­edge that com­mon notions allow us access to, the world is no longer appre­hended from its effects but from its causes. By only being inter­ested in com­mon things and not in sin­gu­lar things, com­mon notions allow us to avoid the con­fu­sion present in the ideas of affec­tions, and to pos­i­tively uti­lize the indi­ca­tions that are enveloped there.10 From then on, the idea of affec­tion not only has a speci­fic pos­i­tiv­ity which makes it not sim­ply a pri­va­tion, but more­over this con­sis­tency can be taken as the point of depar­ture for the process of ratio­nal knowl­edge, and takes on a pos­i­tive func­tion for knowl­edge.11 While in the imag­i­na­tion, where the ideas of affec­tions are con­sid­ered as attrib­utes of the exter­nal object, the “pos­i­tive func­tion” of ideas of affec­tions can­not be acti­vated, com­mon notions use ideas of affec­tions as indi­ca­tions of the state of the human body and the exter­nal body – indi­ca­tions allow­ing one to ratio­nally know a prop­erty com­mon to both the affected body and the affect­ing body, or an aspect of the rela­tion between them. The ideas of affec­tions, there­fore, only effec­tively become indi­ca­tions the moment when they are appre­hended through com­mon notions, the sec­ond type of knowl­edge. This ratio­nal appre­hen­sion is inscribed in another process of knowl­edge, which takes for an object not the exte­rior world as it presents itself to us, but the exter­nal world inso­far as we are a part of it and it con­sti­tutes the cause of our affec­tions and affects. As Deleuze has cogently shown, in this process of knowl­edge – whose object is the total­ity of joy­ful and sad affects, good and bad encoun­ters of a body, that is, the sin­gu­lar essence that is the idea of a body and which alone pro­vides access to the third type of knowl­edge – the indi­ca­tions of our body find a dif­fer­ent sense and usage.

These Spin­ozist char­ac­ter­is­tics of indi­ca­tion, fore­grounded by Deleuze, will make it pos­si­ble to con­cep­tu­al­ize how Althusser makes use of the notion of indi­ca­tion in For Marx. In texts like “On the Mate­ri­al­ist Dialec­tic” and “A Com­ple­men­tary Note on ‘Real Human­ism,’” but also “Con­tra­dic­tion and Overde­ter­mi­na­tion,” the notion of indi­ca­tion appears over and over.12 While in the “Note on ‘Real Human­ism’” indi­ca­tions are ide­o­log­i­cal con­cepts that inter­vene in the Marx­ian process of knowl­edge – just before or dur­ing the break they are said to be indi­ca­tions of – in the two other arti­cles they are knowl­edges in the prac­ti­cal state present in Marx’s sci­en­tific works.13 Recall that the aim of “Con­tra­dic­tion and Overde­ter­mi­na­tion” and “On The Mate­ri­al­ist Dialec­tic” is to state in an explicit and the­o­ret­i­cal form the prob­lem of the the dif­fer­ence between the mate­ri­al­ist dialec­tic and the Hegelian dialec­tic. Althusser’s argues that the solu­tion to this prob­lem exists in a prac­ti­cal state in Marx­ian texts:

So to pose and resolve our the­o­ret­i­cal prob­lem ulti­mately means to express the­o­ret­i­cally the “solu­tionexist­ing in the prac­ti­cal state, that Marx­ist prac­tice has found for a real dif­fi­culty it has encoun­tered in its devel­op­ment, whose exis­tence it has noted, and, accord­ing to its own sub­mis­sion, set­tled.14

From this per­spec­tive [cadre], an indi­ca­tion is not a form of true knowl­edge: “For the (prac­ti­cal) recog­ni­tion of an exis­tence can­not pass for a knowl­edge (that is, for the­ory) except in the impre­ci­sion of a con­fused thought.”15 Knowl­edges in the prac­ti­cal state are thus for the most part defined neg­a­tively. They refer to notions that are not yet sys­tem­at­i­cally reflected in a gen­eral the­ory, and arise implic­itly in Marx’s the­o­ret­i­cal prac­tice or Marx­ist polit­i­cal prac­tice.

How­ever, these knowl­edges are not defined solely through their lim­i­ta­tion; they also con­tain a cer­tain pos­i­tive func­tion inso­far as they con­sti­tute an indi­ca­tion for knowl­edge speci­fic to the The­ory that Althusser is attempt­ing to elab­o­rate. This The­ory is Marx­ist phi­los­o­phy defined as the mate­ri­al­ist dialec­tic, or the

The­ory (with a cap­i­tal T)… of prac­tice in gen­eral, itself elab­o­rated on the basis of the The­ory of exist­ing the­o­ret­i­cal prac­tices (of the sci­ences), which trans­forms into ‘knowl­edges’ (sci­en­tific truths) the ide­o­log­i­cal pro­duct of exist­ing ‘empir­i­cal’ prac­tices (the con­crete activ­ity of men).16

This involves pro­duc­ing the the­ory of the break that Marx ini­ti­ated by trans­form­ing a speci­fic ide­o­log­i­cal prob­lem­atic into a sci­en­tific prob­lem­atic. Thus, even if knowl­edges in their prac­ti­cal state miss the object that they are intended for, in that they do not provide an ade­quate knowl­edge of it, they can con­sti­tute an indi­ca­tion for another object than what was ini­tially intended. This def­i­n­i­tion of the indica­tive func­tion finds an echo in the ninth the­sis of Phi­los­o­phy and the Spon­ta­neous Phi­los­o­phy of the Sci­en­tists: “An ide­o­log­i­cal propo­si­tion is a propo­si­tion that, while it is the symp­tom of a real­ity other than that of which it speaks, is a false propo­si­tion to the extent that it con­cerns the object of which it speaks.”17 The term symp­tom evokes the symp­to­matic read­ing of Marx’s texts that Althusser prac­ticed since For Marx, whose role is pre­cisely to view par­tic­u­lar con­cepts as signs of prob­lems and spaces of dis­course, as indi­ca­tions for a pro­gram­matic The­ory that would always be in the process of begin­ning. On the other hand, beyond con­tain­ing lessons for a process of knowl­edge yet to come or in the course of being con­structed, indi­ca­tion has another func­tion: “Marx’s indi­ca­tions can and must pro­voke us into the­ory: into as rig­or­ous as pos­si­ble an expres­sion of the prac­ti­cal solu­tion whose exis­tence they indi­cate.”18 Indi­ca­tion can thus be under­stood as the vir­tual trig­ger of the process of knowl­edge, in which it finds a new usage. In terms of its indi­ca­tion, a con­cept has two mean­ings: one for the process through which it emerges, and another for what allows for a cer­tain form of engage­ment. These two “senses” or “mean­ings” cor­re­spond to two dif­fer­ent usages. When it was in the process of its emer­gence, which was thus the means by which the true effec­tu­ated itself, the con­cept is con­sid­ered as an ade­quate knowl­edge of the object to which it refers or des­ig­nates. After the pas­sage to another prob­lem­atic, the con­cept is no longer the ade­quate knowl­edge of an object; but if it func­tions as an indi­ca­tion, it nonethe­less con­tains a par­tial truth.

The ide­o­log­i­cal con­cepts of “Com­ple­men­tary Note on ‘Real Human­ism’” have a cer­tain pos­i­tive func­tion despite their inad­e­quate nature:

[In the phrase “real human­ism”] the adjec­tive real is indica­tive; it points out that to find the con­tent of this new human­ism you must look in real­ity – in soci­ety, the State, etc. So the con­cept of real-human­ism is linked to the con­cept of human­ism as its the­o­ret­i­cal ref­er­ence, but it is opposed to it through its rejec­tion of the latter’s abstract object – and by pro­vid­ing a con­crete, real, object. The word real plays a dual role. It shows up the ide­al­ism and abstrac­tion in the old human­ism (neg­a­tive func­tion of the con­cept of real­ity); and at the same time it des­ig­nates the exter­nal real­ity (exter­nal to the old human­ism) in which the new human­ism will find its con­tent (pos­i­tive func­tion of the con­cept of real­ity). How­ever, this pos­i­tive func­tion of the word ‘real’ is not a pos­i­tive func­tion of knowl­edge, it is a pos­i­tive func­tion of prac­ti­cal indi­ca­tion.19

Indi­ca­tions des­ig­nate unbal­anced ide­o­log­i­cal con­cepts that can set the mech­a­nism of the break in motion. Whereas knowl­edges in the prac­ti­cal state pro­voke in order to for­mu­late a Marx­ist phi­los­o­phy, unsta­ble ide­o­log­i­cal con­cepts drive the pas­sage from ide­ol­ogy to sci­ence. An unsta­ble ide­o­log­i­cal con­cept is a con­cept that most often played the role of a “trig­ger” for Marx’s own process of knowl­edge; it des­ig­nates the remain­ing dis­tance before exit­ing from the ide­o­log­i­cal prob­lem­atic, as the direc­tion towards which it leads:

This inad­e­quacy man­i­festly des­ig­nates an action to be achieved, a dis­place­ment to be put into effect. It means that to find the real­ity alluded to by seek­ing abstract man no longer but real man instead, it is nec­es­sary to turn to soci­ety, and to under­take an analy­sis of the ensem­ble of the social rela­tions. In the phrase real-human­ism, in my opin­ion, the con­cept “real” is a prac­ti­cal con­cept, the equiv­a­lent of a sig­nal, of a notice-board [pan­neau indi­ca­teur] that ‘indi­cates’ what move­ment is to be put into effect and in what direc­tion, to what place, must there be dis­place­ment to reach the real earth rather than the heaven of abstrac­tion. “The real this way!” We fol­low this guide and we come out into soci­ety, the social rela­tions, and the con­di­tions of their real pos­si­bil­ity.20

For Althusser, the ide­o­log­i­cal con­cepts of the young Marx should not be con­sid­ered as prin­ci­ples which clar­ify his sci­en­tific works, but as traces of a process of thought or knowl­edge, show­ing that he started with ide­ol­ogy and indica­tive that this was an ide­o­log­i­cally deter­mined milieu. In this frame­work, ide­o­log­i­cal con­cepts – mainly those dat­ing from the period of the break, where the move­ment of extrac­tion is set in motion – are evi­dence of the fact that thought does not take place in the imme­di­acy of a bring­ing to light or a tak­ing-hold of con­science; before pro­duc­ing the sci­en­tific con­cepts of dialec­ti­cal mate­ri­al­ism, Marx had to make a detour through the “false.” Indi­ca­tion has a dou­ble func­tion for ide­o­log­i­cal con­cepts. As con­stituent traces of Marx’s process of knowl­edge, they are indi­ca­tions of the task Althusser sets for him­self; as inad­e­quate and unsta­ble con­cepts, they were prac­ti­cal indi­ca­tions for Marx him­self. Nev­er­the­less, although the inad­e­quacy of ide­o­log­i­cal con­cepts causes Marx to change ter­rain, all the rea­sons for the trig­ger­ing of the break are not found in the insta­bil­ity of ide­o­log­i­cal notions. Here, they con­sti­tute an occa­sion to know, an occa­sion to set a process of knowl­edge in motion; but at this moment, the process of sci­ence can­not take place yet, the occa­sion can­not be seized: “You can stay indef­i­nitely at the fron­tier line, cease­lessly repeat­ing con­crete! con­crete! real! real! This is what Feuer­bach did, and Feuer­bach too, spoke of soci­ety and State[.]”21 The begin­ning of the sci­en­tific process always remains nec­es­sar­ily con­tin­gent – which, accord­ing to Althusser, is sim­i­lar to the pas­sage from the first to sec­ond kind of knowl­edge.22

If there are unsta­ble ide­o­log­i­cal con­cepts, it is because the exit from ide­ol­ogy is forced to be expressed in an ide­o­log­i­cal lan­guage. Sci­ence is con­structed in a lan­guage that is not con­ve­nient, which con­tin­u­ously risks mak­ing it indi­cate some­thing other than its objects.

In the gen­eral con­text of the human devel­op­ment which may be said to make urgent, if not inevitable, all great his­tor­i­cal dis­cov­er­ies, the indi­vid­ual who makes him­self the author of one of them is of neces­sity in the para­dox­i­cal sit­u­a­tion of hav­ing to learn the way of say­ing what he is going to dis­cover in the very way he must for­get. Per­haps, too, it is this sit­u­a­tion which gives Marx’s Early Works that tragic immi­nence and per­ma­nence, that extreme ten­sion between a begin­ning and an end, between a lan­guage and a mean­ing.23

Whence the prob­lems, dis­crep­an­cies, and imbal­ances of the Marx­ian process of knowl­edge. If these are under­stood through a cer­tain prob­lem­atic, these prob­lems and imbal­ances, which can even­tu­ally func­tion as “notice-boards” in Marx, can also be indi­ca­tions for the for­mu­la­tion of Marx­ist phi­los­o­phy.

This ques­tion of the inad­e­quacy of ide­o­log­i­cal lan­guage for express­ing the inven­tion of new con­cepts can find an echo in the Ethics. In the pref­ace to Part IV, Spin­oza returns to his approach and the way in which he is forced to adopt the lan­guage of the imag­i­na­tion, even if this vocab­u­lary is tied to sev­eral prej­u­dices and illu­sions:

As for the terms “good” and “bad,” they like­wise indi­cate noth­ing pos­i­tive in things con­sid­ered in them­selves, and are noth­ing but modes of think­ing, or notions which we form from com­par­ing things with one another…However, although this is so, these terms ought to be retained. For since we desire to form the idea of a man which we may look to as a model of human nature, we shall find it use­ful to keep these terms in the sense I have indi­cated.24

By incor­po­rat­ing them into an extremely rig­or­ous sys­tem of the­ses, propo­si­tions, and demon­stra­tions, Spin­oza pro­vided an incom­plete mean­ing to the­o­log­i­cal or Carte­sian notions such as “God,” “sub­stance,” “attrib­utes,” “free­dom,” “good,” or “bad.” Uti­liz­ing the “gen­eral notions” of the imag­i­na­tion in a sense deter­mined by his project, Spin­oza redi­rects the usage of the exist­ing terms within the ide­o­log­i­cal milieu in which he con­structed his thought, in order to alter their mean­ing.25 Defin­ing good and bad start­ing from an exist­ing model, he sets in place mech­a­nisms of détourne­ment estab­lished start­ing from his own prob­lem­atic. Con­se­quently, more geo­met­rico – the way in which the Spin­ozist sys­tem is con­structed – can be con­sid­ered as the means by which Spin­oza tries to pro­duce a sys­tem­atic enter­prise or project of détourne­ment of ide­o­log­i­cal terms. Each of the propo­si­tions dis­cov­ers its mean­ing in rela­tion to oth­ers, the under­stand­ing of each term as well as their usage is grad­u­ally rede­fined as the reader pro­gresses through the text. The geo­met­ri­cal order thus would have the task of mak­ing the reader real­ize the detour by which the author must pro­ceed in order to pro­duce these con­cepts. Not that we, the reader, exactly repro­duce Spinoza’s path; rather it entails set­ting in motion a detour through the false, through the unin­tel­li­gi­ble, in order to grad­u­ally arrive at under­stand­ing. And pro­gres­sively, ide­o­log­i­cal terms no longer indi­cate what they indi­cated, but some­thing else entirely.

Althusser, in his fas­ci­na­tion with the great dog­matic sys­tems like those of Spin­oza and Hegel, paid close atten­tion to the the­o­ret­i­cal and polit­i­cal effects that such a the­o­ret­i­cal appa­ra­tus [dis­posi­tif] could pro­duce:

In Spinoza’s antic­i­pa­tion of Hegel we tried to see, and thought that we had suc­ceeded in find­ing out, under what con­di­tions a phi­los­o­phy might, in what it said or did not say, and in spite of its form – or on the con­trary, just because of its form, that is, because of the the­o­ret­i­cal appa­ra­tus of its the­ses, in short because of its posi­tions – pro­duce effects use­ful to mate­ri­al­ism.26

Under these con­di­tions, sys­tem­atic expo­si­tion in no way con­tra­dicts the philo­soph­i­cal effects pro­duced; on the con­trary, it can, through the rigor of the chain of its rea­sons, not only con­strict more tightly the space it intends to open, but make the con­sis­tency of its own pro­duc­tion infinitely more rig­or­ous and more sen­si­ble and fruit­ful (in the strong sense) to the free­dom of the mind.27

Can we not say, then, that Althusser tried in his own way to set up a dog­matic and sys­tem­atic the­o­ret­i­cal appa­ra­tus? For exam­ple, in Phi­los­o­phy and the Spon­ta­neous Phi­los­o­phy of the Sci­en­tists, or “Notes on Phi­los­o­phy” (1967-1968), Althusser pro­nounces his the­o­ret­i­cal inter­ven­tions in the form of a dog­matic “sys­tem” of the­ses: one can observe here a means by which to make cer­tain terms indi­cate some­thing other than their ini­tial or usual mean­ing – in short, a means of acti­vat­ing their “indica­tive func­tion.”

Neither Aufklärer, Nor Philosopher-King

When describ­ing his own work, Althusser repeat­edly deploys the notion of indi­ca­tion:

We must rest con­tent with these schematic ges­tures and not enter into the dialec­tic of this the­o­ret­i­cal labor.28

[O]ur expo­si­tion so far has been merely indica­tive.29

But if this is the case, the fol­low­ing ques­tion is bound to be asked, even in the very sum­mary state of my sug­ges­tions [indi­ca­tions].30

As I have given some very hasty indi­ca­tions of this, through the con­cept of encroach­ment, in my note “Sur la psy­ch­analyse.”31

As an index [indice] which gives a neg­a­tive fore­taste of this absence, a sim­ple remark will do[.]32

The choice of this term does not seem to arise from mere chance, or the feign­ing of pru­dent mod­esty on Althusser’s part, but makes clear ref­er­ence to the con­cept of indi­ca­tion as it func­tioned in For Marx. View­ing these texts or par­tic­u­lar pas­sages as indi­ca­tions leads us to con­sider them as marked by a cer­tain incom­plete­ness, and to judge their inter­est not solely on what these frag­ments cur­rently hold, but on the mean­ing they could have taken on through other processes of knowl­edge and other the­o­ret­i­cal inter­ven­tions, and thus start­ing from the effects they can pro­duce.

But we can, I believe, take a step fur­ther. By view­ing his the­o­ret­i­cal inter­ven­tions as indi­ca­tions, Althusser sig­nals that he under­stands them as moments of a larger process, com­posed of other other researchers, forms of research, and other processes:

I have not indi­cated these ref­er­ence points because I think I can answer this ques­tion; but because they may per­haps make pos­si­ble, sub­ject to cer­tain sci­en­tific stud­ies in pro­gress, a def­i­n­i­tion of what might have been the role of the Ger­man Ide­ol­ogy and even of Ger­man ‘spec­u­la­tive phi­los­o­phy’ in Marx’s for­ma­tion.33

[Philo­soph­i­cal] The­ses open the way to a cor­rect posi­tion on the prob­lems of sci­en­tific and polit­i­cal prac­tice, etc. These for­mu­lae remain schematic and much work will be nec­es­sary to com­plete them and ren­der them more pre­cise. But at least they indi­cate an order of research the trace of which may be found in sub­se­quent works.34

All of this already could lead to clar­i­fi­ca­tions, but I do not cur­rently have the time to develop them, and they can be indi­cated and fur­ther devel­oped by oth­ers besides myself, in more favor­able con­di­tions.35

In these pas­sages, Althusser seems to make ref­er­ence to an exist­ing research group.36 One thus gets a sense of what Althusser means by indi­ca­tions: he addresses this group with the goal of out­lin­ing ori­en­ta­tions, sug­gest­ing direc­tions for research, or even set­ting other processes of knowl­edge in motion. Addi­tion­ally, the other “pro­voked” researchers have the task of pro­duc­ing indi­ca­tions them­selves, that can in their turn trig­ger other processes. Thus, a struc­ture of research would be estab­lished, which would func­tion through a net­work of researchers that ori­ent each other through a sort of unfold­ing sequence of indi­ca­tions.

The func­tion of indi­ca­tion, then, seems able to work best only when it is sup­ported by the exis­tence of an effec­tively active research group. There­fore, in order for the­o­ret­i­cal inter­ven­tions to be able act as indi­ca­tions, they must enter into a struc­ture that is not only the­o­ret­i­cal, but also mate­rial and orga­ni­za­tional; a more expan­sive sys­tem con­structed around com­mon prob­lems, a struc­ture of research in which a research group devel­ops and orga­nizes a col­lec­tive form of think­ing.37 Start­ing from this prac­tice of research in com­mon, which has indi­ca­tion as one of its tools, it is pos­si­ble to out­line the demand for a form of the trans­mis­sion of knowl­edge where the sep­a­ra­tion between the one who knows and the one who pas­sively receives knowl­edge tends to dis­ap­pear. This would there­fore enable us to over­come the educa­tive model wherein the teacher, sep­a­rated from the stu­dents, is the only one to be in the posi­tion of a crit­i­cal rela­tion to ide­ol­ogy and thus truly active. This model of “edu­ca­tion” which pro­ceeds by indi­ca­tions and not expli­ca­tions can antic­i­pate or res­onate with with Jacques Rancière’s The Igno­rant School­mas­ter, in which the teacher who pro­ceeds by expla­na­tions as a nec­es­sary inter­me­di­ary between the text and its read­ers is con­trasted with the “igno­rant school­mas­ter” who is con­tent to com­pel a stu­dent to think – or if one likes, pro­voke to think – through a rela­tion of one will to another will.38 In my view, the con­cept of indi­ca­tion con­tains resources for think­ing another model of the trans­mis­sion of knowl­edge, one very dif­fer­ent than the one often attrib­uted to Althusser – in short, a form of trans­mis­sion fol­low­ing from a Kaut­sky­ist-Lenin­ist con­cep­tion of ide­ol­ogy. This other model nev­er­the­less remains prob­lem­atic inso­far as it pri­mar­ily con­cerns intel­lec­tu­als – since it can only func­tion within a the­o­ret­i­cal and mate­rial struc­ture of research – and does not seem to offer a solu­tion to the ques­tion about the inclu­sion of the masses in the process of knowl­edge.

It is only start­ing in the 1970s that Althusser inquires as to how the­ory can pro­duce effects for the masses with­out, how­ever, enter­ing into an educa­tive rela­tion which would repro­duce the divi­sion between lead­ers and led. In “Is it Sim­ple to Be a Marx­ist in Phi­los­o­phy?,” Althusser aims to elab­o­rate a Marx­ist and mate­ri­al­ist the­ory of the effi­cacy of the true, rely­ing on the Lenin­ist for­mu­la­tion of bend­ing the stick: in order to cor­rect false idea, a coun­ter-force must be applied. This con­cep­tion of the effi­cacy of the true is opposed to that of the Enlight­en­ment:

It fol­lows that if you want to change his­tor­i­cally exist­ing ideas, even in the appar­ently abstract domain called phi­los­o­phy, you can­not con­tent your­self with sim­ply preach­ing the naked truth, and wait­ing for its anatom­i­cal obvi­ous­ness to “enlighten” minds, as our eigh­teenth-cen­tury ances­tors used to say: you are forced, since you want to force a change in ideas, to rec­og­nize the force which is keep­ing them bent, by apply­ing a coun­ter­force capa­ble of destroy­ing this power and bend­ing the stick in the oppo­site direc­tion so as to put the ideas right.39

For Althusser, the­ory “left to itself” has lit­tle effi­cacy since false ideas are anchored in the mate­ri­al­ity of social rela­tions – that is to say, in the mate­ri­al­ity of ide­ol­ogy (with Spin­oza). At the end of the 1970s, this reflec­tion will end up giv­ing rise to the the­ory of dou­ble inscrip­tion in the topog­ra­phy, whereby in order for ideas to have an effi­cacy, they must be sit­u­ated not only in the space of the­ory, but also among the “ide­o­log­i­cal forms in which men become con­scious of [class] con­flict and fight it out,” among the “mass ide­o­log­i­cal forms.”40 And these ide­o­log­i­cal forms can only exist if they are sup­ported by mass orga­ni­za­tions. The effi­cacy of ideas on the masses there­fore depends on the exis­tence of mass orga­ni­za­tions which, con­trary to the Lenin­ist party, does not repro­duce the divi­sion between lead­ers and led.

In The Future Lasts Forever, Althusser approaches the theme of the effi­cacy of the true from the per­spec­tive of the mate­ri­al­ity of ide­ol­ogy, itself under­stood through the The­o­log­i­cal-Polit­i­cal Trea­tise:

The extra­or­di­nary thing is that the peo­ple them­selves, with their self-con­scious­ness and knowl­edge, then explained to these deaf, blind prophets the mean­ing of God’s mes­sage! They explained it to all of them, except that idiot Daniel who not only failed to under­stand what God said to him (the lot of all prophets) but even the expla­na­tion pro­vided for him! This sim­ply proves that ide­ol­ogy can, in cer­tain cases, and maybe nat­u­rally does, remain totally impen­e­tra­ble to those sub­jected to it.41

Even if he relates the ques­tion of the effi­cacy of the true more through the “polit­i­cal Spin­oza” or to a greater extent, Machi­avelli and Lenin, than to the “eth­i­cal Spin­oza,” when Althusser talks about the resis­tance of ide­ol­ogy to its clar­i­fi­ca­tion, one can­not help but think of Books III, IV, and V of the Ethics, and specif­i­cally the first propo­si­tion of Book IV, where “No pos­i­tive qual­ity pos­sessed by a false idea is removed by the pres­ence of what is true, in virtue of its being true,” and then in its scholium:

This propo­si­tion is more clearly under­stood from II. xvi. Coroll. ii. For imag­i­na­tion is an idea, which indi­cates rather the present dis­po­si­tion of the human body than the nature of the exter­nal body; not indeed dis­tinctly, but con­fus­edly; whence it comes to pass, that the mind is said to err…and sim­i­larly other imag­i­na­tions, wherein the mind is deceived, whether they indi­cate the nat­u­ral dis­po­si­tion of the body, or that its power of activ­ity is increased or dimin­ished, are not con­trary to the truth, and do not van­ish at its presence…thus imag­i­na­tions do not van­ish at the pres­ence of the truth, in virtue of its being true, but because other imag­i­na­tions, stronger than the first, super­vene and exclude the present exis­tence of that which we imag­ined[.]42

For Spin­oza, imag­i­na­tions can only van­ish or dimin­ish when they are opposed to other stronger imag­i­na­tions. Con­se­quently, if a the­o­ret­i­cal inter­ven­tion is to pro­duce effects, it is not enough to say the truth or the true: it must mobi­lize imag­i­na­tions. Now, in this pas­sage, imag­i­na­tions are pre­cisely “indi­ca­tions,” that is to say, the pos­i­tiv­ity of inad­e­quate ideas that is able to be uti­lized in a process of knowl­edge. From this point, we can bet­ter under­stand why for Althusser, as for Spin­oza, indica­tive con­cepts play a key role in the trans­mis­sion of knowl­edge.43 But could we not con­sider that by qual­i­fy­ing his own the­o­ret­i­cal inter­ven­tions as indi­ca­tions, in his own prac­tice Althusser seems to antic­i­pate, in a cer­tain way, the the­ory of the topo­log­i­cal dou­ble inscrip­tion that is made explicit only in “Marx­ism Today” (1978) – even though in the Althusse­rian prac­tice of phi­los­o­phy ini­ti­ated in For Marx, this “dou­ble inscrip­tion” would not hap­pen in dif­fer­ent “places,” but oper­ates within the same the­o­ret­i­cal inter­ven­tion?44

It is not, how­ever, a mat­ter of using indica­tive or metaphor­i­cal for­mu­las in order to vul­gar­ize or ren­der sci­ence and phi­los­o­phy more com­pre­hen­si­ble. Indi­ca­tions are, rather, incom­pre­hen­si­ble for­mu­las, whose lack of expli­ca­tion and frag­men­tary char­ac­ter can pro­voke thought or think­ing. In “Trans­fer­ence and Coun­ter-Trans­fer­ence,” Althusser returns to Spinoza’s the­o­ret­i­cal dis­pos­i­tive [dis­posi­tif]:

To enlighten the reader, that is, to ren­der the task more dif­fi­cult for him, we adopted an order of expo­si­tion that con­forms, at least in its dis­po­si­tion, to the geo­met­ric order (more geo­met­rico), bor­rowed from the only philoso­pher who did so: Spin­oza. This order makes its own proofs. It ren­ders the thought of its author prac­ti­cally unin­tel­li­gi­ble, and at the same time pro­duces sig­nif­i­cant the­o­ret­i­cal (Marx, Mon­tesquieu) and polit­i­cal (anti-reli­gious, rev­o­lu­tion­ary) effects in his­tory.45

The reader thus does not look to be enlight­ened through expli­ca­tions, but rather pro­voked to think and even, indi­rectly, to act through con­cepts and for­mu­lae whose incom­pre­hen­si­ble char­ac­ter sets out a prob­lem. This way of con­ceiv­ing the effects of a the­o­ret­i­cal inter­ven­tion can be traced back to indi­ca­tion, to the extent that the lat­ter is pre­cisely a form of knowl­edge or con­cept that poses a prob­lem. This could poten­tially res­onate with the Deleuzian Spin­ozism, and its maxim that “nobody can undergo for us the slow expe­ri­ence of learn­ing what agrees with our nature, the slow effort of dis­cov­er­ing our joys.”46 This makes it impos­si­ble to con­ceive the exit from the imag­i­na­tion as a seiz­ing of con­scious­ness brought in from the out­side by a third party. The use of indica­tive for­mu­lae could then be under­stood as an attempt at giv­ing the reader the pos­si­bil­ity of think­ing for them­selves, to form their own expe­ri­ence – in the man­ner of the Spin­ozist who effec­tu­ates the expe­ri­ence of his own joys – of the detours that thought causes to take place and prob­lems posed by the pro­duc­tion of the true. In light of this pas­sage, it is not a ques­tion of direct provo­ca­tion to action, but rather a trig­ger­ing of a process of knowl­edge that can then pro­duce, in an indi­rect man­ner and in a direc­tion the “trans­mit­ter of the indi­ca­tion” can­not con­trol, polit­i­cal, even rev­o­lu­tion­ary, effects. Because the trig­ger­ing of polit­i­cal action requires a detour through a kind of process of knowl­edge, the usage of indica­tive for­mu­lae or the con­sid­er­a­tion of inter­ven­tions as indi­ca­tions does not seek to have the same effect as a “polit­i­cal man­i­festo.” This indi­rect dimen­sion, which causes the polit­i­cal effi­cacy of the the­o­ret­i­cal inter­ven­tion to be quite frag­ile – improb­a­ble, even – hence­forth elim­i­nates the pos­si­bil­ity of a “philoso­pher-king” using such an inscrip­tion of sci­ence in ide­ol­ogy in order to lead the masses.

How­ever, in order for Althusser’s texts to have any effi­cacy as indi­ca­tions for any reader what­so­ever, and thus poten­tially for the masses, the process trig­gered by the indica­tive con­cept needs to have time to be put into effect – seiz­ing the occa­sion is not suf­fi­cient. Read­ers must have the time to them­selves undergo this process anal­o­gous to “the slow expe­ri­ence of learn­ing what agrees with our nature , the slow effort of dis­cov­er­ing our joys.” By repeat­ing the adjec­tive slow, Deleuze insists on the extended tem­po­ral­ity of the process by which an indi­vid­ual begins to know. For Spin­oza, the mind does not pass from pas­siv­ity to activ­ity all at once, but becomes more and more active to the extent that it pro­duces ade­quate ideas. With this con­cep­tion, where the rais­ing of aware­ness or con­scious­ness is not enough, the trans­mis­sion unfolds in a tem­po­ral process that must con­tinue through the reflec­tion of the reader – in the after­ef­fect of the trans­mis­sion. Sim­ple indica­tive or metaphor­i­cal for­mu­lae, even if they con­sti­tute “stronger imag­i­na­tions than inad­e­quate ideas,” can­not be imme­di­ately clar­i­fy­ing, but only indi­rectly, to the extent that they enable a trig­ger­ing of a process of knowl­edge. There­fore, the receivers of indi­ca­tions can “seize the occa­sion,” but never really enter this process as long as it is the pas­sive recep­tion from an “enlight­ened mas­ter”; to speak in terms of indi­ca­tions or metaphors is thus not enough to make the masses enter into a process of knowl­edge. The ques­tion of free time, which non-know­ers lack, is a clas­sic prob­lem in Marx­ism. To show that the exit from ide­ol­ogy or the process of knowl­edge needs time comes back to express the neces­sity of cre­at­ing a com­mu­nist orga­ni­za­tion of labor, in order for each per­son to be able to undergo their own learn­ing expe­ri­ence. For Ran­cière, an insis­tence on the time required for intel­lec­tual activ­ity almost inevitably leads to the rea­son­ing that sees the masses as not hav­ing time to expe­ri­ence for them­selves this long detour through thought, and that they must be edu­cated by the Party and its intel­lec­tu­als.47 Thus, if the deploy­ment of “incom­pre­hen­si­ble” indi­ca­tions makes it pos­si­ble to estab­lish a rela­tion of trans­mis­sion wherein the edu­cated are active from the first, it does not allow for the imme­di­ate for­ma­tion of such a rela­tion with the masses of work­ers.

Toward An Alternative Althusserian Spinozism

In Spin­oza, the process of knowl­edge forms or cre­ates the index sui et falsi: the false is revealed at the same time as the true.48 We can under­stand what it means to be in ide­ol­ogy – the mech­a­nisms that pre­vent us from think­ing – only once we have eman­ci­pated our­selves from it. In Essays in Self-Crit­i­cism, Althusser empha­sizes the influ­ence this aspect of Spin­ozism had on his con­cep­tion of the process of knowl­edge.49 How can we inter­pret this in light of our prob­lem? In the Trea­tise on the Emen­da­tion of the Intel­lect, the method which allows for dis­tin­guish­ing the true from the false is the reflex­ive idea. Because it always comes after the process of knowl­edge has taken place, the method is never defined a pri­ori. The idea of the true idea is above all an expe­ri­ence: the expe­ri­ence of the cer­tainty whereby once I know, I know that I know. Because an indi­vid­ual has expe­ri­enced and prac­ticed the process of pro­duc­ing the true, they can pro­duce other true ideas as well as dis­tin­guish between an idea that was actively pro­duced by the intel­lect and an idea pas­sively received via the mech­a­nisms of the imag­i­na­tion. In one of his lec­ture courses, Deleuze alludes to this “expe­ri­ence” by which the true pro­duces both its own norm and that of the false:

Every­one, every­one, even the most wretched of the wretched has had this expe­ri­ence, even the most idi­otic of morons has missed some­thing that led him to say: but wouldn’t I, wouldn’t I have spent my whole life being mis­taken? So we always exit some­what from the first kind of knowl­edge, that is, in Spin­ozist terms, he will have under­stood even this tiny [minis­cule] point; he will have had this intu­ition of some­thing essen­tial, or indeed the intu­ition of an essence, or indeed the under­stand­ing of a rela­tion. We can be very gen­er­ous, there are very few peo­ple who are total idiots. There is always one thing they under­stand. We all have our one small thing.50

In Deleuze’s inter­pre­ta­tion, the kinds or “gen­res” of knowl­edge are not sep­a­rated by a clean break, which only sci­ence could effec­tu­ate. Against this, in the Althusse­rian ver­sion of Spin­ozism – if we fol­low André Tosel – the verum does not cor­re­spond to any kind of idea pro­duced out­side of ide­ol­ogy, but to Sci­ence, and more exactly, Marx­ist Sci­ence.51 The method, or the idea of the idea, would then con­sist in stat­ing, begin­ning from Marx’s the­o­ret­i­cal prac­tice, the pro­ce­dures and dis­pos­i­tives that trans­form Cap­i­tal into a sci­ence. The pro­duc­tion of the true idea, and the idea of the true idea, are not the fact of a sin­gle or same indi­vid­ual. The reflex­ive idea is no longer the expe­ri­ence that can effec­tu­ate an indi­vid­ual when, return­ing to the course of the process through which a true idea is pro­duced, all the ideas that have been pro­duced to that point are declared false. Since only sci­ence pro­duces new con­cepts, the philoso­pher him­self does not pro­duce the true, but is con­tent to declare the break and its con­se­quence; that is, what must be rejected in the false and what must be deemed true.52 Because Marx did not state the method by which he pro­duced his­tor­i­cal mate­ri­al­ism and rejected the con­cepts pre­vi­ously pro­duced within ide­ol­ogy, it is up the “Marx­ist researchers” fol­low­ing him to ren­der this prac­ti­cal expe­ri­ence explicit in the form of a method. But by above all iden­ti­fy­ing the Spin­ozist method with the The­ory through which the sci­en­tificity of Cap­i­tal is defined and mea­sured, Althusser seems to neglect the notion of expe­ri­ence. The lat­ter cat­e­gory no doubt obscures the bor­der between sci­ence and ide­ol­ogy too much for Althusser to agree to deploy it. There is indeed, then, a cer­tain intel­lec­tu­al­ist or the­o­reti­cist ten­dency in Althusse­rian Spin­ozism.

This raises the prob­lem of the sta­tus of Althusser’s method, the The­ory of the­o­ret­i­cal prac­tice. By fix­ing the expe­ri­ence of cer­tainty in a the­ory, does not Althusser con­sider method as a means of guar­an­tee­ing a pri­ori the truth of future Marx­ist prac­tices? When Althusser affirms that he wants to artic­u­late Marx­ist phi­los­o­phy because researchers seek­ing to extend the scope of Marx­ism are in need of a “The­ory, that is, the mate­ri­al­ist dialec­tic, as the sole method that can antic­i­pate their the­o­ret­i­cal prac­tice by draw­ing up its for­mal con­di­tions,” we would tend to believe him.53 The fol­low­ing pas­sage also seems to move in the same direc­tion:

The exact the­o­ret­i­cal expres­sion of the dialec­tic is rel­e­vant first of all to those prac­tices in which the Marx­ist dialec­tic is active; for these prac­tices (Marx­ist “the­ory” and pol­i­tics) need the con­cept of their prac­tice (of the dialec­tic) in their devel­op­ment, if they are not to find them­selves defense­less in the face of qual­i­ta­tively new forms of this devel­op­ment (new sit­u­a­tions, new “prob­lems”) – or to lapse, or relapse, into the var­i­ous forms of oppor­tunism, the­o­ret­i­cal or prac­ti­cal. These “sur­prises” and devi­a­tions, attrib­ut­able in the last resort to “ide­o­log­i­cal errors,” that is, to a the­o­ret­i­cal defi­ciency, are always costly, and may be very costly.54

These cita­tions could leave one think­ing that the aim of espous­ing Marx­ist phi­los­o­phy is to provide a guar­an­tee for Marx­ist prac­tices. The The­ory of the­o­ret­i­cal prac­tice would thus be viewed as the “sci­ence of sci­ence,” that is, as a sci­en­tific method whose duty is to con­trol and guar­an­tee the pro­duc­tion of the true as well as the divide between sci­ence and ide­ol­ogy.55 How­ever, to view the The­ory expressed in the wake of Marx’s sci­en­tific process as the a pri­ori method of new processes of knowl­edge, of which Marx­ist researchers are the bear­ers, enters into con­tra­dic­tion with the Spin­ozist prin­ci­ple – very impor­tant for Althusser – that sees the true as being impos­si­ble guar­an­tee a pri­ori. There are, then, in Spinoza’s own think­ing and Althusser’s inter­pre­ta­tion, argu­ments which for­bid such a con­cep­tion of phi­los­o­phy as an a pri­ori method, serv­ing as a guar­an­tee for the thought-processes of Marx­ist researchers:

No the­ory of knowl­edge (that is, no the­ory of an a pri­ori guar­an­tee of truth and its sci­en­tific, social, moral, and polit­i­cal effects) in Spin­oza, no the­ory of knowl­edge in Hegel, either, whereas Descartes presents in the form of a divine guar­an­tee a the­ory of the guar­an­tee of every truth and, there­fore, of every knowl­edge.56

The pas­sages from For Marx need to be read in a dif­fer­ent light, where it is a ques­tion of the rela­tion­ship between phi­los­o­phy and Marx­ist researchers. In my view, the notion of indi­ca­tion can play a role in pro­vid­ing a dif­fer­ent mean­ing. In Spin­oza, although the con­di­tions for the process of knowl­edge are col­lec­tive – to the extent that the more a mode is affected by other modes, the more it pro­duces ideas – the process lead­ing toward the third type of knowl­edge is still indi­vid­ual. If one con­sid­ers the process of knowl­edge as an indi­vid­ual, then the lat­ter – hav­ing expe­ri­enced cer­tainty firsthand and the verum index sui et falsi – has no need to express the method allow­ing for the pro­duc­tion of the true: if it has pro­duced the true, then it already is mak­ing use of it. The indi­vid­ual can then con­tinue the process of knowl­edge with­out pass­ing to the stage of ren­der­ing its method explicit. That Althusser wants to express phi­los­o­phy as method could thus sig­nal, not that he turns sci­ence into a dogma that indi­vid­u­als pas­sively receive through a third party, but rather that he tries to “over­come” or “sur­pass” the indi­vid­ual nature of the Spin­ozist process of knowl­edge. If we con­sider, with Althusser, Marx’s approach to not be that of an indi­vid­ual, but that of sci­ence as a “process with­out a sub­ject,” then Marx­ist researchers, hav­ing as a goal the expres­sion of Marx­ist phi­los­o­phy, will not make Marx’s The­ory of the­o­ret­i­cal prac­tice into the a pri­ori method of their par­tic­u­lar indi­vid­ual processes, but pro­long the asub­jec­tive process of sci­ence. And since this “process with­out a sub­ject” becomes an effec­tively col­lec­tive process, research must be col­lec­tively orga­nized through set­ting in place speci­fic struc­tures and appa­ra­tuses.

On the other hand, in light of the role that the notion of indi­ca­tion plays in Althusser’s work, we can say that for him, express­ing a method does not con­sist in set­ting rules to fol­low in order to pro­duce the truth with­out risk of error, but rather in con­struct­ing the sys­tem in which indi­ca­tions pro­duced by dif­fer­ent “Marx­ist researchers” find their mean­ing and func­tion; the struc­ture in which prob­lems can serve as “notice-boards,” trig­gers, and points of ref­er­ence. Estab­lish­ing this method would mean putting the con­di­tions in place for trig­ger­ing a rup­ture with ide­ol­ogy with­out at the same time guar­an­tee­ing the impos­si­bil­ity of a “fall-back” into it. Phi­los­o­phy would not be a guide inso­far as it pro­vides ref­er­ence points. It is not a sci­en­tific method but one which, in declar­ing the rup­ture or break, pro­vides indi­ca­tions. On this point, it seems pos­si­ble to give a polit­i­cal direc­tion or sense to the almost exclu­sively gnose­o­log­i­cal char­ac­ter of Althusser’s Spin­ozism, and demon­strate that this lat­ter is not hope­lessly dated by its loca­tion in a past con­junc­ture. I have indeed tried to sug­gest here that Althusser’s Spin­ozism, to the extent that it allows, through the con­cept of indi­ca­tion, to relay, bring together, and com­mu­ni­cate between texts so as to make them part of a larger struc­ture of research, makes it pos­si­ble to out­line a the­ory of appa­ra­tuses of research [dis­posi­tifs de recherche]. And as long as one still sees the ques­tion of the orga­ni­za­tion of col­lec­tive research to be a tan­gi­ble demand in the present, Althusser’s Spin­oza evinces a cer­tain actu­al­ity, indeed a polit­i­cal actu­al­ity.

– Trans­lated by Patrick King

This arti­cle is part of a dossier enti­tled “A Strug­gle With­out End”: Althusser’s Inter­ven­tions.

  1. Louis Althusser, For Marx, trans. Ben Brew­ster (New York: New Left Books, 1970); Louis Althusser and Éti­enne Bal­ibar, Read­ing Cap­i­tal, trans. Ben Brew­ster (New York: Verso, 2009 [1970]). Ele­ments of Self-Crit­i­cism (Elé­ments d’Autocritique), orig­i­nally released as a book in France, was trans­lated into Eng­lish as part of the 1976 col­lec­tion, Essays in Self-Crit­i­cism;:see Louis Althusser, “Ele­ments of Self-Crit­i­cism,” trans. Gra­hame Lock, in Essays in Self-Crit­i­cism (Lon­don: New Left Books, 1976), 105-50. 

  2. Louis Althusser, “Is It Sim­ple to Be a Marx­ist in Phi­los­o­phy?,” trans. Gra­hame Lock, in Essays in Self-Crit­i­cism, 190. 

  3. Ethics, IIP16, C2. The trans­la­tion is from Baruch Spin­oza, The Ethics and Selected Let­ters, trans. Samuel Shirley, ed. Sey­mour Feld­man (Indi­anapolis: Hack­ett, 1982). 

  4. Translator’s note: In his author­i­ta­tive trans­la­tions of Althusser, but espe­cially in For Marx, Brew­ster has ren­dered the French indi­ca­tion or indi­catif as ges­ture or ges­tu­ral, respec­tively. In cer­tain places, like in note 12 but also in the main body of the text, I have slightly mod­i­fied Brewster’s trans­la­tion to align with Mancuso’s care­ful trac­ing of this Spin­ozist con­cep­tual vocab­u­lary. 

  5. Cf. in par­tic­u­lar the way in which André Tosel con­trasts Deleuze and Alexan­dre Matheron’s Spin­oza with that of Althusser: “Althusser’s Spin­oza lost any sort of ethico-polit­i­cal dimension…It is symp­to­matic that the pos­i­tive aspect of Spin­oza, the “pars con­stru­ens,” the the­ory of the process of eth­i­cal­iza­tion [procès d’éthisation], the lib­er­a­tion of the joy­ful pas­sions, the demo­c­ra­tic com­po­si­tion of mul­ti­ple cona­tus, empha­sized by French his­to­ri­ans and philoso­phers – Math­eron, Deleuze – is never men­tioned.” André Tosel, Du matéri­al­isme de Spin­oza (Paris: Kimé, 1994), 210. 

  6. Gilles Deleuze, Expres­sion­ism in Phi­los­o­phy: Spin­oza, trans. Mar­tin Jouphin (New York: Zone Books, 1992), 262; Jacques Rancière, Althusser’s Lesson, trans. Emil­iano Bat­tista (New York: Con­tin­uum Books, 2011). 

  7. Translator’s note: this terms refer to Rancière’s basic cri­tique of Althusser in his Althusser’s Lesson, that the latter’s under­stand­ing of the­ory – and ide­ol­ogy – implied a strict divi­sion between between intel­lec­tu­als and work­ers (as well as stu­dents), and thus rein­forced hier­ar­chi­cal forms of the trans­mis­sion of knowl­edge. The “ped­a­gogic rela­tion” was thus framed in a top-down man­ner, and polit­i­cal prac­tice, con­trary to other places in Althusser’s work, became depen­dent on the con­tent of instruc­tion and the dis­pen­sa­tion of cor­rect the­ory. For more on this point, cf. War­ren Mon­tag, “Intro­duc­tion to Althusser’s ‘Stu­dent Prob­lems,’” Rad­i­cal Phi­los­o­phy 170 (Novem­ber 2011), 8-10; also Peter Hall­ward, “Intro­duc­tion: The­o­ret­i­cal Train­ing,” in Con­cept and Form: Key Texts from the Cahiers pour l’Analyse, Vol­ume One, ed. Peter Hall­ward and Knox Peden (New York: Verso, 2011), 1-55. 

  8. Deleuze, Expres­sion­ism in Phi­los­o­phy: Spin­oza, 147-48. 

  9. Ibid., 149-50. 

  10. In his Intro­duc­tion à l’Ethique, Pierre Macherey explains that “by not relat­ing to any par­tic­u­lar thing, such an idea, a com­mon notion, by virtue of its very nature, does not in any way cur­tail the risk to indi­cate or con­sider another thing than that of which it is the idea.” Pierre Macherey, Intro­duc­tion à l’Ethique de Spin­oza, la deux­ième par­tie: la réal­ité men­tale (Paris: PUF, 1997), 287 (my empha­sis). 

  11. Spin­oza effec­tively allows Althusser to con­ceive ide­ol­ogy in its mate­rial dimen­sions, and not merely as an effect of a mate­rial struc­ture. Accord­ing to Althusser in Essays in Self-Crit­i­cism, the Spin­ozist the­ory of the imag­i­na­tion cor­re­sponds to the the­ory of ide­ol­ogy Marx tried to estab­lish in The Ger­man Ide­ol­ogy with­out fully doing so, remain­ing caught in a ratio­nal­ist con­cep­tion and turn­ing it into the Marx­ist under­stand­ing of ide­ol­ogy as error, a sim­ple illu­sion to be destroyed. “Spinoza’s ‘the­ory’ rejected every illu­sion about ide­ol­ogy, and espe­cially about the num­ber one ide­ol­ogy of that time, reli­gion, by iden­ti­fy­ing it as imag­i­nary. But at the same time it refused to treat ide­ol­ogy as a sim­ple error, or as naked igno­rance, because it based the sys­tem of this imag­i­nary phe­nom­e­non on the rela­tion of men to the world ‘expressed’ by the state of their bod­ies. This mate­ri­al­ism of the imag­i­nary opened the way to a sur­pris­ing con­cep­tion of the First Level of Knowl­edge: not at all, in fact, as a ‘piece of knowl­edge,’ but as the mate­rial world of men as they live it, that of their con­crete and his­tor­i­cal exis­tence.” See Althusser, “Ele­ments of Self-Crit­i­cism,” 136. The con­cep­tion of ide­ol­ogy sketched in For Marx owes much to Althusser’s inter­pre­ta­tion of the Spin­ozist con­cep­tion of the imag­i­na­tion as con­crete exis­tence. See also Louis Althusser, Psy­ch­analyse et sci­ences humaines (Paris: LGF, 1996),114. 

  12. Some exam­ples: “this “turn­ing right side up again” is merely indica­tive, even metaphor­i­cal,” from “Con­tra­dic­tion and Overde­ter­mi­na­tion,” in For Marx, 89-90; “Of course, even this impre­ci­sion may cor­re­spond to a cer­tain degree of real­ity and as such be endowed with a cer­tain prac­ti­cal mean­ing, serv­ing as a ref­er­ence point or indi­ca­tion,” from “On the Mate­ri­al­ist Dialec­tic,” in For Marx, 172; “So they did not, could not – except in extremely gen­eral expo­si­tions or in his­tor­i­cally defined sit­u­a­tions of the­o­ret­i­cal urgency – con­fuse the indi­ca­tion with which Marx sig­nalled that he had set­tled his rela­tions with Hegel with the knowl­edge of this solu­tion, that is, with the the­ory of this solu­tion,” from “On the Mate­ri­al­ist Dialec­tic,” 175; “Marx’s “indi­ca­tions” as to the “inver­sion” might well serve as ref­er­ence points whereby we can sit­u­ate and ori­ent our­selves in the ide­o­log­i­cal domain: they do rep­re­sent an indi­ca­tion towards, a prac­ti­cal recog­ni­tion of the exis­tence of the solu­tion, but they do not rep­re­sent a rig­or­ous knowl­edge of it,” from “on the Mate­ri­al­ist Dialec­tic,” 175; “That is why Marx’s indi­ca­tions can and must pro­voke us into the­ory: into as rig­or­ous as pos­si­ble an expres­sion of the prac­ti­cal solu­tion whose exis­tence they indi­cate, “ from “On the Mate­ri­al­ist Dialec­tic,” 175; “The adjec­tive real is indica­tive; it points out that to find the con­tent of this new human­ism you must look in real­ity – in soci­ety, the State, etc.,” from “Marx­ism and Human­ism,” in For Marx, 242; “How­ever, this pos­i­tive func­tion of the word ‘real’ is not a pos­i­tive func­tion of knowl­edge, it is a pos­i­tive func­tion of prac­ti­cal indi­ca­tion,” from “Marx­ism and Human­ism,” 242; “Real human­ism may today be…in the best of cases a prac­ti­cal signal…the indi­ca­tion towards a beyond, a real­ity which is still beyond, which is not yet truly real­ized, but only hoped for, the pro­gramme of an aspi­ra­tion to be brought to life,” from “Marx­ism and Human­ism,” 247. 

  13. The con­cept of the break appeared for the first time in “On the Mate­ri­al­ist Dialec­tic”: “The the­o­ret­i­cal prac­tice of a sci­ence is always com­pletely dis­tinct from the ide­o­log­i­cal the­o­ret­i­cal prac­tice of its pre­his­tory: this dis­tinc­tion takes the form of a ‘qual­i­ta­tive’ the­o­ret­i­cal and his­tor­i­cal dis­con­ti­nu­ity which I shall fol­low Bachelard in call­ing an ‘epis­te­mo­log­i­cal break’”; see Althusser, “On the Mate­ri­al­ist Dialec­tic,” 167. In the pref­ace to For Marx, Althusser deploys the con­cept of the “break” in order to divide Marx’s work into sev­eral peri­ods. The chief dis­tinc­tion sep­a­rates “the ‘ide­o­log­i­cal’ period before, and the sci­en­tific period after, the break in 1845.” Cf. “Intro­duc­tion: Today,” in For Marx, 31-39. 

  14. Althusser, “On the Mate­ri­al­ist Dialec­tic,” 165. 

  15. Ibid., 166. Deleuze, when com­par­ing Spin­oza and Descartes, also explains the Spin­ozist con­cept of indi­ca­tion as a sim­ple recog­ni­tion, dis­tin­guish­able from true knowl­edge. 

  16. Ibid., 169. 

  17. Louis Althusser, “Phi­los­o­phy and the Spon­ta­neous Phi­los­o­phy of the Sci­en­tists,” trans. James Kavanagh, in Phi­los­o­phy and the Spon­ta­neous Phi­los­o­phy of the Sci­en­tists and Other Essays. ed. Gre­gory Elliott, (Lon­don: Verso. 1990), 79. 

  18. Althusser, “On the Mate­ri­al­ist Dialec­tic,” 175. 

  19. Althusser, “Marx­ism and Human­ism,” 242. This text, added to For Marx as an appen­dix to the arti­cle “Marx­ism and Human­ism,” ana­lyzes the role played by the con­cept of “Real Human­ism” in Marx­ist the­o­ret­i­cal prac­tice. This expres­sion comes from an arti­cle by Jorge Sem­prún, which out­li­nes this con­cept bor­rowed from Marx’s early writ­ings. See Jorge Sem­prún, “L’humanisme social­iste en ques­tion,” Clarté, no. 58, Jan­u­ary 1965, reprinted in La Nou­velle Cri­tique, no. 164 (March 1965): 122-31. See “Marx­ism and Human­ism,” 242-47. 

  20. Ibid., 243. 

  21. Ibid., 244. 

  22. Cf. Althusser in his 1982 unfin­ished man­u­script, “The Under­ground Cur­rent of the Mate­ri­al­ism of the Encoun­ter”: “for man could well remain at the level of hearsay, and the thoughts of the first kind might not ‘take hold’ with those of the second…That is just how it is. One can remain at the level of the first kind or not. There is not, as there is in Descartes, an imma­nent neces­sity that brings about the tran­si­tion from con­fused think­ing to clear and dis­tinct think­ing. There is no sub­ject, no cog­ito, no nec­es­sary moment of reflec­tion guar­an­tee­ing this tran­si­tion. It may take place or it may not. And expe­ri­ence shows that, as a gen­eral rule, it does not, except in a phi­los­o­phy which is aware that it is noth­ing.” Louis Althusser, “The Under­ground Cur­rent of the Mate­ri­al­ism of the Encoun­ter,” in The Phi­los­o­phy of the Encoun­ter: Later Writ­ings; 1978-1987, trans. G.M. Gosh­gar­ian, ed. Olivier Cor­pet and François Math­eron (New York: Verso, 2006), 178. 

  23. Althusser “On the Young Marx,” in For Marx, 83. 

  24. Spin­oza, Ethics, IV Pref. 

  25. Éti­enne Bal­ibar alludes to this process in Spin­oza and Pol­i­tics: “The ratio­nal knowl­edge pro­vided by the last two gen­res does not, how­ever, lead us away from this com­mon ele­ment of lan­guage and into an incom­mu­ni­ca­ble ‘vision,’ though Spin­oza still uses the old term intu­itive knowl­edge to refer to the expla­na­tion of sin­gu­lar objects by their imma­nent causes. Rather, a form of intel­lec­tual work enables pri­mary usage to be cor­rected, so that the sequence of words accu­rately reflects rela­tion­ships of nat­u­ral neces­sity (IIP18S; VP1). By this process, words come to refer to com­mon notions.” Éti­enne Bal­ibar, Spin­oza and Pol­i­tics, trans. Peter Snow­den (New York: Verso, 1998), 97-98. 

  26. Althusser, “Ele­ments of Self-Crit­i­cism,” 134-35. 

  27. Louis Althusser, “The Only Mate­ri­al­ist Tra­di­tion, Part I: Spin­oza,” trans. Ted Stolze in The New Spin­oza, ed. War­ren Mon­tag and Ted Stolze (Min­neapolis: Uni­ver­sity of Min­nesota Press, 2008), 4-5. 

  28. Althusser, “On the Mate­ri­al­ist Dialec­tic,” 185. 

  29. Althusser, “Con­tra­dic­tion and Overde­ter­mi­na­tion,” 113. 

  30. Louis Althusser, “Ide­ol­ogy and Ide­o­log­i­cal State Appa­ra­tuses,” trans. Ben Brew­ster, in Lenin and Phi­los­o­phy and Other Essays (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971), 148. 

  31. Louis Althusser, “Trans­fert et con­tre-trans­fert,” in Écrits sur la psy­ch­analyse: Freud et Lacan (Paris: Stock/IMEC, 1996), 165. 

  32. Althusser and Bal­ibar, Read­ing Cap­i­tal, 88. 

  33. Althusser, For Marx, 85. 

  34. Althusser, “The Spon­ta­neous Phi­los­o­phy of the Sci­en­tists,” 72. 

  35. Althusser, “Trans­fert et con­tre-trans­fert,” 117-18. 

  36. One that cer­tainly cor­re­sponds to the group formed by Althusser and sev­eral of his stu­dents, includ­ing Pierre Macherey, Éti­enne Bal­ibar, Yves Duroux, and Alain Badiou, and which resulted in the Read­ing Cap­i­tal sem­i­nar, as well as “Three Notes on the The­ory of Dis­courses,” and “Notes on Phi­los­o­phy.” We know in fact that Althusser orga­nized sev­eral research groups dur­ing the 1960s, mainly with his (for­mer) stu­dents but also with Badiou, who was never his stu­dent. The first research group, which included Pierre Macherey, Yves Duroux, and Éti­enne Bal­ibar, was in charge of the col­lec­tive orga­ni­za­tion of the Read­ing Cap­i­tal sem­i­nar at the ENS in 1965. We also find the trace of these col­lec­tive exper­i­men­ta­tions in Althusser’s “Three Notes on the The­ory of Dis­courses” (1966) and “Notes on Phi­los­o­phy” (1967-68), which started through a series of cor­re­spon­dences with Badiou, Macherey, Bal­ibar, and Duroux. It is also known that in 1967 Althusser orga­nized a secret the­o­ret­i­cal for­ma­tion, com­posed of more or less of the same mem­bers: the “Groupe Spin­oza.” 

  37. This con­cep­tion finds an echo in Bour­dieu: “The logic of research is this inter­mesh­ing of prob­lems in which the researcher is caught up and which drags him along, often despite him­self. Leib­niz con­stantly com­plained to Descartes in his Ani­mad­ver­siones that he expected too much of intu­ition, insight and intel­li­gence and did not rely enough on the automa­tisms of ‘blind thought’ (he was think­ing of alge­bra, which would make up for the inter­mis­sions of intel­li­gence). What is not under­stood in France, the land of the bril­liant essay, the cult of orig­i­nal­ity and intel­li­gence, is that method and the col­lec­tive orga­ni­za­tion of research work can pro­duce intel­li­gence, inter­mesh­ings of prob­lems and meth­ods that are more intel­li­gent than the researchers…To be sci­en­tif­i­cally intel­li­gent is to place one­self in a sit­u­a­tion that gen­er­ates real prob­lems and real dif­fi­cul­ties. That is what I have tried to do with the research group that I run. A research group that works is a socially insti­tuted inter­lock­ing of prob­lems and ways of solv­ing them, a net­work of cross­checks, and, at the same time, a whole set of pro­duc­tions which, with­out any impo­si­tion of norms or any the­o­ret­i­cal or polit­i­cal ortho­doxy, have a fam­ily resem­blance.” Pierre Bour­dieu, Soci­ol­ogy in Ques­tion, trans. Richard Nice (Lon­don: Sage, 1995), 29-30. Bour­dieu refers to Leib­niz, but a “blind thought that is more intel­li­gent than the researchers” could also con­nect to Spin­oza and the ques­tion of spir­i­tual automa­tism so impor­tant to Deleuze. 

  38. This rela­tion of will to will is a rela­tion of sub­jec­tion sep­a­rat­ing “dirigeant from exé­cu­tant,” but it only exists at the level of will and not of intel­li­gences. If we want to link them together, this rela­tion of will to will can be traced back to the struc­ture of research put in place by Althusser. As any rela­tion of will, the col­lec­tive struc­ture which sup­ports or under­girds indi­ca­tion is that which pushes, forces, or pro­vokes think­ing. 

  39. Louis Althusser, “Is it Sim­ple to be a Marx­ist in Phi­los­o­phy?,” 171. 

  40. Ibid. 

  41. Louis Althusser, The Future Lasts Forever, ed. Olivier Cor­pet and Yann Moulier Boutang, trans. Richard Veasey (New York: The New Press, 1993), 216-17. 

  42. Spin­oza, Ethics. IVP1S. 

  43. It can be duly noted that in “Con­tra­dic­tion and Overde­ter­mi­na­tion” – where he tries to expand his­tor­i­cal mate­ri­al­ism (sci­ence) as well as for­mu­late dialec­ti­cal mate­ri­al­ism (phi­los­o­phy) – Althusser, while want­ing to “over­come” the metaphor of the rever­sal, mobi­lizes another indica­tive, even metaphor­i­cal, for­mula: that of the last instance. 

  44. Louis Althusser, “Marx­ism Today,” trans. James H. Kavanagh, in The Spon­ta­neous Phi­los­o­phy of the Sci­ences and Other Essays, 267-80. 

  45. Louis Althusser, “Trans­fert et con­tre-trans­fert,” 177. 

  46. Deleuze, Expres­sion­ism in Phi­los­o­phy: Spin­oza, 262. 

  47. In The Philoso­pher and His Poor, Ran­cière denounces the “arti­fice of the absence of time” char­ac­ter­is­tic of a “Pla­ton­ism denied, that is, soci­ol­o­gized,” and keeps the worker in his place because of the eter­nal fatigue con­sti­tu­tive of his being (131). He cri­tiques the rea­son­ing, par­tic­u­larly present in Sartre, which pre­sup­poses that work­ers do not speak because, since they are “too tired,” they “do not have the time,” lead­ing to the con­clu­sion: “Fatigue demands that the work­ers be repre­sented by a party.” Jacques Ran­cière, The Philoso­pher and His Poor, trans. Andrew Parker, Corinne Oster, and John Drury (Durham, NC: Duke Uni­ver­sity Press, 2004), 131, 140. In Pro­le­tar­ian Nights, Ran­cière stud­ies, through the per­spec­tive of his archival work on 19th cen­tury labor his­tory, the moments of “stolen time” taken in the evening hours, dur­ing which work­ers decide to learn them­selves, to write prose, poems, and jour­nals, or orga­nize labor insti­tu­tions that they would not nor­mally have had the time to keep run­ning. Jacques Ran­cière, Pro­le­tar­ian Nights: The Work­ers’ Dream in Nine­teenth-Cen­tury France, trans. John Drury (Lon­don: Verso, 2012). 

  48. “For truth reveals both itself and the false.” Baruch Spin­oza, Ep76 [Spin­oza to Burgh, Decem­ber 1675], in The Let­ters, trans. Samuel Shirley (Indi­anapolis: Hack­ett, 1995), 342. Truth could also be ren­dered as the true here. 

  49. Althusser, “Ele­ments of Self-Crit­i­cism,” 121-22, 132-42. 

  50. Gilles Deleuze, “Cours de 17/3/81.” 

  51. The true idea des­ig­nates here the the­o­ret­i­cal con­struc­tion of the con­cept ade­quate to the con­cept of knowl­edge, which can be rep­re­sented by the struc­ture of Cap­i­tal itself. It is a mat­ter of reflect­ing it, of form­ing an idea of it, the idea of the idea, against two inad­e­quate rep­re­sen­ta­tions, spec­u­larly inverse to each other [inverses spécu­laires l’une de l’autre], empiricism/idealism.” Tosel, Du matéri­al­isme de Spin­oza, op. cit., 206. 

  52. “[P]hilosophy does not pro­duce knowl­edges but states The­ses, etc.” Althusser, The Spon­ta­neous Phi­los­o­phy of the Sci­en­tists,” 72. 

  53. Althusser, “On the Mate­ri­al­ist Dialec­tic,” 170. 

  54. Ibid. 

  55. Ran­cière, Althusser’s Lesson, 23. 

  56. Althusser, “The Only Mate­ri­al­ist Tra­di­tion,” 5. 

Author of the article

is a doctoral student in Philosophy at the University of Liège.