Towards a Realism of the Abstract
Session1. Towards a Realism of the Abstract
Saturday, April 17th @ 9am PST
Alberto Toscano, 'Materialism Without Matter: Abstraction, Absence and Social Form', Textual Practice, 28.7 (2014): 1221-1240
In light of the contemporary theoretical infatuation with ‘new’ materialisms, matter and materiality, this essay revisits the heterodox Marxian thesis according to which materialism may, in E ́tienne Balibar’s formulation, have ‘nothing to do with a reference to matter’. The article explores variants of this materialism without matter: Antonio Gramsci’s objections to Bukharin’s ‘Marxist sociology’, Theodor W. Adorno and Alfred Sohn-Rethel’s critiques of epistemology, and Isaak Illich Rubin’s elucidation of the categories of Marx’s value-analysis. It foregrounds a shift in this counter-intuitive materialism from subjective praxis to the categories of capital, in which ‘not one atom of matter enters’ (Marx). This recovery of an understanding of materialism as the critical analysis of real, social abstractions concludes with a reconsideration of Louis Althusser’s ‘aesthetic’ reflections on the materialism of absence, as featured in his philosophical appreciation of the paintings of Leonardo Cremonini.
Alberto Toscano: ‘Last Philosophy: The Metaphysics of Capital from Sohn-Rethel to Žižek’, Historical Materialism 27.2 (2019): 289-306.
Beginning with his engagement with Alfred Sohn-Rethel’s seminal treatment of ‘real abstraction’, Intellectual and Manual Labour, Slavoj Žižek has repeatedly thematised and excavated the proposition that capitalism is innervated by a kind of actually existing metaphysics, the scandal of an abstract form external to human cognition.
This essay investigates Žižek’s use and criticism of Sohn-Rethel and outlines some of the developments and contradictions in his effort to confront capital’s challenge to philosophy’s self-sufficiency. It problematizes Žižek’s tendency to elide a model of abstraction as a hollowing-out or evacuation of social content (rooted in The Communist Manifesto) with a much more promising conception of real abstraction as its re-articulation or re-functioning, while querying Žižek’s recent efforts to transcend the purported limitations of Marx’s conceptualization of capital in the direction of a (‘Lacanised’) Hegel.
Louis Althusser, “Cremonini, Painter of the Abstract.” In Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, translated by Ben Brewster, 209–20. London: NLB, 1971.
Session 2. Real Abstraction and the Critique of Juridical Ideology
April 24th @ 9am PST
Alberto Toscano, 'The Detour of Abstraction', Diacritics, special issue on Louis Althusser, 43. 2 (2015): 68-90
There is a melancholy irony in the fact that Louis Althusser, a thinker much castigated in his own time for the abstract character of his Marxism, should have consigned his most pellucid reflections on the practical roots of abstraction to a manual of sorts that would never reach its imagined “popular” audience. Expertly edited by G. M. Goshgarian and insightfully introduced by Guillaume Sibertin-Blanc, Initiation à la philosophie pour les non-philosophes (1978, published in 2014) belongs to a series of book-length manuscripts unpublished in Althusser’s lifetime.1 As we learn from Goshgarian’s editorial notes, it is an integral redrafting of Être marxiste en philosophie (1976, published in 2015), which in turn can be regarded as the virtual second tome of Sur la reproduction (now published in English as On the Reproduction of Capitalism). That book had employed Althusser’s cherished image of the “detour” to explicate how correctly posing the question “What is philosophy?” from a Marxist standpoint necessarily required reconstructing a historical-materialist theory of ideology within which idealist philosophy could find its place and materialist philosophy its point of attack. The paradoxes and fetters of Althusser’s own philosophical practice are evident in the fact that what went unpublished were not abstruse speculative works or private aphorisms but didactic theoretical and political interventions, which include some of the French thinker’s most limpid as well as most playful prose.2 Their publication today, besides suggesting revisions to our image of Althusser, to how we periodize that inveterate periodizer, inserts itself into a vastly different political and intellectual conjuncture, one in which debates about the nature of abstraction intersect with a partial resurgence in
Alberto Toscano, ‘A Just People, or Just the People? Althusser, Foucault and Juridical Ideology’, Consecutio Rerum. Rivista critica della postmodernità, V.8 (2020): 163-183
The return of the figure of the people to the forefront of radical theorizing in France can be contextualized and complicated by contrasting it with the relative hostility or indifference to it in the ambit of la pensée soixante-huit. For a spell, the people was largely displaced by collective formations that sought to escape the nation-state cage of political modernity, not
just antagonistic conceptions of class, but all kinds of groups, movements, multiplicities, minorities, etc. This essay probes two theoretical episodes that can contribute to a critical archaeology of the people, namely Louis Althusser’s reading of Rousseau in the mid-1960s and Michel Foucault’s problematization of popular justice in the early 1970s. In both we see how a critique of the modern (and Republican) figure of the people is accompanied by a militant anatomy of juridical ideology, and an effort to think forms of group formation and
conflict irreducible to the dominant paradigms of political modernity.
Keywords: Louis Althusser; Michel Foucault; Juridical Ideology; People; Popular Justice.
Louis Althusser, Philosophy for Non-Philosophers, ed. and trans. G.M. Goshgarian, London: Bloomsbury.
Alberto Toscano is Reader in Critical Theory in the Department of Sociology and Co-Director of the Centre for Philosophy and Critical Theory at Goldsmiths, University of London, and Visiting Associate Professor at the School of Communications at Simon Fraser University, where he is also a visiting scholar at the Digital Democracies Institute. He is the author of The Theatre of Production: Philosophy and Individuation Between Kant and Deleuze (Palgrave, 2006), Fanaticism: On the Uses of an Idea (Verso, 2010; 2017, 2nd ed.), Cartographies of the Absolute (with Jeff Kinkle, Zero Books, 2015), Una visión compleja. Hacía una estética de la economía (Meier Ramirez, 2021), La abstracción real. Filosofia, estética y capital (Palinodia, 2021), and the co-editor of The Italian Difference: Between Nihilism and Biopolitics (with Lorenzo Chiesa, re.press, 2009), the 3-volume Handbook of Marxism (with Sara Farris, Bev Skeggs and Svenja Bromberg, SAGE, 2021), and Ruth Wilson Gilmore's Abolition Geography: Essays in Liberation (with Brenna Bhandar, Verso, 2022).