Machiavelli and Althusser: Atheism and Anti-Humanism Pushed To Their Most Radical Extremes

Below is a letter I wrote to a friend, on the subject of what contemporary French philosopher Jacques Derrida calls “White Mythologies”. I’m posting it here because of its relation to you. Not all of you will care to read this, I know. Not all of you will understand it. But perhaps at least one or two of you will.

Dear S,

I’m glad you’re still teaching Althusser. I won’t even go so far as to say that he was unjustly maligned, but I nevertheless think he has much to offer, if only because he’s doing something different. As you’ve seen, right now I teach medieval theology, and certainly the medieval Church has much not to be proud of.

And yet each day I’m finding myself more and more impressed with the love of learning, as well as the disregard for popularity and indifference to danger, evinced by the writers we’re examining.

I think we’re pretty much in agreement on the function of the compromise third-term as a performing a naturalizing function. My class has examined this, though not necessarily from the perspective of critique, in the writing of Augustine: his attempt to invalidate heretical readings of the Scripture, as either too literal (Cyprian and Origen) or too capricious and symbolic (Tychonius) or too base (The Gnostics).

It seems that the Augustinian compromise formation results from a necessary ground operation: liberating the text from any necessary tie to history: i.e., from any “motivation”. Literality in Augustine (and of course this is merely my reading of him) means not what actually happened, but rather what the book, once the text has been properly established, actually says.

Augustine carries us from readings to Reading. I believe you can see how this shift from the literal to Literality, from the text to Textuality, from the many to the one; is tied up with an entire ideological project based in the narcissistic moment of recognizing oneself as a soul, as Human.

Once a “Human” middle term has been established as “natural” one then is at liberty to wander into allegorical readings, or to speculate as to the historical veracity of certain Old Testament narratives. But these relative freedoms are always based upon the possibility of returning to the normalcy and security of the Letter. (Or as Lacan would say, L’Être.)

And I think it is preciesly this almost inescapably seductive ecstacy, or euphoria, of the Self recognizing itself in the Word, i.e., finding itself in the Field of the Other, which is the main target of Althusser’s devastating critique of Marxist Humanism. I admire Althusser because his work allows me to see how ideological apparatuses operate at the most elementary (phonological) levels of everyday life, turning the mundane practice of reading (even the newspaper or the tabloids) into the Moral Act of Reading (and it’s this sense of the quotidian as morally uplifting which I think is everywhere attacked in the Mythologies of Barthes).

From a purely critical perspective, it’s nauseating to witness the self-satisfied and self-congratulatory middle-brow smugness I associate with consumers of the History-Channel and other equally banal mass-media representations. Yet perhaps, from time to time, we have to accept, and even envy, the childlike euphoria of the ideological proselyte. Perhaps, if we are willing to forestall the conclusion that they are in fact the same thing, this simplicity almost seems preferable to the generalized apathy by which we’re surrounded. Perhaps it might be tempting to hope for some moment of conversion of one’s own, to willfully cling to a naïve belief that not every initial burst of joy must soon give way to a banal happiness; a happiness which in turn gives way to a malaise whose only cure is to be found in converting one’s neighbor or some other stranger so that the narcissistic Self can enjoy the captivating spectacle of watching it’s own conception and birth re-staged for it by another.

William Holman Hunt
The Awakening Conscience, 1853
Tate Gallery, London

As for Althusser, I believe he is taught so little because, like Bernard of Clairvaux, or, even more, Eckhart, his arguments, when properly read and understood, wounds our ego and shatters our narcissism.

Your friend,

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