Listening to Reading Capital


The Louis Althusser archives at L’Institut Mémoires de l’édition con­tem­po­raine (IMEC) in Caen can be a bit intim­i­dat­ing to a first time vis­i­tor. In addi­tion to hold­ing every­thing from high school aca­d­e­mic awards, to dream nar­ra­tives, to funeral notices, it encom­passes vir­tu­ally every let­ter writ­ten by Althusser as well as every draft of every book and paper that he authored.

And Althusser wrote a lot. Though the archive reveals fal­low spells when he hardly wrote – times that usu­ally cor­re­sponded with bouts of depres­sion and ill­ness – these peri­ods are more than bal­anced out by pro­tracted stints where Althusser was philo­soph­i­cally and polit­i­cally ener­gized, and where he almost seems struck by grapho­ma­nia. At these moments, the act of set­ting to paper his thoughts about Marx­ist phi­los­o­phy and about the cur­rent con­junc­ture resulted in volu­mi­nous cor­re­spon­dence with such faith­ful inter­locu­tors as Franca Mado­nia, Éti­enne Bal­ibar, and Michel Ver­ret. It also resulted in the draft­ing of book after book and arti­cle after arti­cle, many of which were never offered for pub­li­ca­tion.1 Some of these texts remain frag­men­tary, but there are also com­plete books in the archive, a few of which have recently seen the light of day or have only recently been trans­lated into Eng­lish. These include Ini­ti­a­tion à la philoso­phie pour les non-philosophes, Être marx­iste en philoso­phie and On the Repro­duc­tion of Cap­i­tal. Other books are forth­com­ing. In addi­tion to the recently released cor­re­spon­dence with Lucien Sève and sem­i­nar notes, each of these pub­li­ca­tions will provide a much fuller pic­ture of Althusser’s philo­soph­i­cal devel­op­ment and the depth of his activ­ity, engage­ment, and reflec­tion.

With 2015 hav­ing been the 50th anniver­sary of Read­ing Cap­i­tal’s pub­li­ca­tion, the new edi­tions are not the only pieces in Althusser’s oeu­vre that are cur­rently attract­ing atten­tion. Indeed, anniver­sary con­fer­ences and sem­i­nars have been held in Sao Paolo, Buenos Aires, Prince­ton, Paris, and many other cities. Spe­cial issues of Cri­sis & Cri­tique, dia­crit­ics, Les Cahiers du GRM, and a forum in the LA Review of Books have also been released. Finally, newly edited edi­tions of the col­lec­tive work, which include the con­tri­bu­tions of Roger Establet, Pierre Macherey, and Jacques Ran­cière and that note the vari­a­tions between the first and sub­se­quent edi­tions, have been or will soon be pub­lished by PUF and Verso.

With all the activ­ity around Read­ing Cap­i­tal, it is stim­u­lat­ing to report that one of the sur­prises of the Althusser archive is that audio­tapes of the 1964-65 sem­i­nar on Marx’s Cap­i­tal are pre­served therein and that they have sur­vived. Fur­ther, these record­ings are in the process of being dig­i­tal­ized so that researchers might prof­itably con­sult them. Now, the curi­ous can lis­ten in on the pre­sen­ta­tions of Althusser, Bal­ibar, Macherey, and Ran­cière (Establet appears to be M.I.A.) and see how much truth there is in Althusser’s state­ment that the writ­ten con­tri­bu­tions con­tained in Read­ing Cap­i­tal “bear the mark of these cir­cum­stances: not only in their con­struc­tion, their rhythm, their didac­tic or oral style, but also and above all in their dis­crep­an­cies, the rep­e­ti­tions, hes­i­ta­tions and uncer­tain steps in their inves­ti­ga­tions.”2

After lis­ten­ing to a few of the ses­sions that have been dig­i­tized, the author of this piece can con­firm that, at least in the pre­pared remarks, there is lit­tle vari­a­tion between that which was read in the sem­i­nar room at the École Nor­male Supéri­ore and that which was pub­lished by Édi­tions Maspero a few months later. How­ever, even if this sam­ple accu­rately rep­re­sents the whole, the tapes are worth attend­ing to for at least four rea­sons. The first is that, along with the writ­ten drafts of the con­tri­bu­tions to the sem­i­nar that are held in Althusser’s archives, these record­ings will allow for the most accu­rate geneal­ogy of one of the most impor­tant texts in 20th cen­tury Marx­ist phi­los­o­phy. The sec­ond rea­son is that these cas­settes may con­tain addi­tional infor­ma­tion and dis­cus­sions that will allow the his­to­rian or other inter­ested par­ties to see how the first audi­tors of the mate­rial received the archly the­o­ret­i­cal and star­tlingly orig­i­nal read­ings of Marx pre­sented at the sem­i­nar. The third rea­son, and this may only apply to Althusser’s con­tri­bu­tions, is that the record­ings reveal Althusser as a mas­ter teacher. One can hear his com­pelling speak­ing voice and feel the rhetor­i­cal rhythms which indi­cate when an impor­tant point is being made or when he is unsure of a claim. In addi­tion, some of the asides, tan­gents, and exam­ples that he gives orally and that did not make their way into the final book provide much more lucid illus­tra­tions of the con­cepts and ideas that he was in the course of devel­op­ing than does the writ­ten work itself.3 Finally, lis­ten­ing to the tapes is a great aes­thetic expe­ri­ence – the atmos­phere of the sem­i­nar is ren­dered tan­gi­ble.4 After what must have been heaps of work on the part of IMEC’s tech­ni­cians to bake, trans­fer, and clean up fifty-year-old analog source mate­rial, the dig­i­tized sem­i­nars give you a feel­ing of being on the Rue d’Ulm and sit­ting around the sem­i­nar table. On one tape, for instance, the sound of a French National Police siren breaks up the flow of Althusser’s pre­sen­ta­tion and the lis­tener pauses with him, just as par­tic­i­pants in the win­ter sem­i­nar did fifty years ago.

For those inter­ested in audi­tion­ing these record­ings, the surest bet is to con­tact IMEC and to obtain per­mis­sion as a researcher to con­sult the archives. There is a chance that the record­ings will be put online and made dig­i­tally avail­able to the pub­lic but this has not yet been announced. Once there, one can find the sem­i­nars listed in the Althusser cat­a­log under the head­ing: Lire Le Cap­i­tal. Séminaire sur Le Cap­i­tal (1964-1965). The indi­vid­ual record­ings are enu­mer­ated accord­ing to a sys­tem that per­haps made sense to their orig­i­nal cat­a­loguer but that give lit­tle clue about the date or order of indi­vid­ual pre­sen­ta­tions. Set­ting the record­ings in order and estab­lish­ing these dates might be the first work for any­one who wants to work seri­ously with the tapes. For that future researcher’s con­ve­nience, here are the ref­er­ences listed on each of the now dig­i­tized cas­settes.

Below is an index of recorded talks at the “Séminaire sur Le Cap­i­tal” in the archives de Louis Althusser at IMEC:

N°2/F; 2/G      Exposé de Bal­ibar

N°4/A; 4/B      Exposé d’Althusser (début)

N°4/C               Exposé d’Althusser (suite)

N°5/A               Exposé de Macherey (début)

N°5/B               Exposé de Macherey (suite)

N°9/A; 4/B      Exposé de Ran­cière (suite)

N°15/B             Exposé d’Althusser (L’objet du Cap­i­tal), p. 9-26

N°15/C             Exposé d’Althusser (L’objet du Cap­i­tal), p. 26-54

N°15/A             Exposé d’Althusser (L’objet du Cap­i­tal), p. 55-71

N°2/B; 2/C       Exposé d’Althusser (L’objet du Cap­i­tal), p. 101-162

N°2/D; 2/E       Exposé d’Althusser (L’objet du Cap­i­tal), p. 162-177

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

  1. G.M. Gosh­gar­ian, “Phi­los­o­phy and Rev­o­lu­tion: An Inter­view With G.M. Gosh­gar­ian,” in this View­point dossier. 

  2. Louis Althusser and Éti­enne Bal­ibar, Read­ing Cap­i­tal, trans. Ben Brew­ster (Lon­don: NLB, 1970), 13. 

  3. Note that one can hear Althusser’s voice – from por­tions of an older taped inter­view – on the recent France cul­ture radio pro­gram, “Louis Althusser, un marx­iste imag­i­naire,” 5/12/15. The orig­i­nal taped pro­gram, appar­ently from 1963, is avail­able here

  4. See the com­ments made by Bal­ibar and Ran­cière about the pro­ceed­ings and gen­eral cli­mate of the sem­i­nar in inter­views with Aliocha Wald Laskowski for Le mag­a­zine lit­téraire, now col­lected in a book: Althusser et nous (Paris: PUF, 2016). 

Author of the article

is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Chair of Philosophy and Religion at Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs (New York). He is the author of Louis Althusser and the Traditions of French Marxism (Lexington Books, 2005). He has published widely on Social and Political Philosophy, American Pragmatism, and in the Philosophy of the Social Sciences.