Althusser and Random Materialism

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By LUCAS RUÍZ BALCONI*

Commentary on the recently released book by Alysson Leandro Mascaro & Vittorio Morfino

“Time has several dimensions; time has a thickness. It only appears as continuous thanks to the superimposition of many independent times. Reciprocally, any unified temporal psychology is necessarily lacunar, necessarily dialectical” (BACHELARD, 1994, p. 87).

Philosophical problems, like those of science, are (over)posed in a way rooted in sociability and are the result of complex knowledge that cannot be naively approached. Likewise, the journey of the dialectic of knowledge demands, in an imposing way, the permanent re-approach of the oldest questions and concepts as if the answers should be (re)invented.

However, such statements do not support the idea that philosophy and science, in general, can deny or reject the past. On the contrary, even if not all previous doubts have been resolved, when many of the relevant questions have not even been formulated, it unexpectedly appears as a random wave that devastates established knowledge, a flow of new questions erected by the old categories.[I].

It is in this sense that Louis Althusser restores the terms of Marxist philosophy by (re)affirming Marxism as a science[ii].Marxism calls for a scientific reading of capitalist society: it is Althusser who will bring this demand to its peak. Althusser's effort to focus on the interior of the philosophical activity that seeks to recompose scientific materialism emerges. This will be the core of a whole theorization that, in an unavoidable way, builds a philosophy that is coherent and adequate to the epistemological principles of contemporary science. But not just any science, not as an ideal object, but one that reveals its role through concrete and real history, establishing scientific knowledge as something that seeks to appropriate – conceptually – material reality. It is a process marked, first of all, by determinations and causalities[iii].

It happens that this whole process of knowledge of the real, of the apprehension of the concrete by the thought that tries to take hold of it, that is, of the representation of the concrete by the thought, is far from being direct, simple and transparent, since the real pre-exists is, in a summarized, inexhaustible and highly complex form. It is also necessary, in this sense, to overcome a naive materialism so that answers are sought about determinations and mediations, complex and obscure, which are in constant operation in the dynamic process of sociability.

Furthermore, this thought makes it necessary to understand the ambiguity of the concept of determinism (and causality)[iv]. This is because, of course, man is capable, through thought – rational or not, including –, of changing the external, material, concrete reality, but the determination of the laws of the mode of (re)production of the social form is marked by remarkable trending and predictive capacity. Furthermore, Althusser shows us that the capacity for transformation is domesticated, trapped within a series of limitations of possibility. It is in this sense that Alysson Leandro Mascaro, in her masterpiece, Philosophy of law, in a brilliant systematization of the “new” Marxism and of Althusser in this context,[v]argues that politics can only be understood starting not from its isolated agents or their wills or their declarations, but from the relational social forms in the set of social reproduction[vi].

The book by Alysson Leandro Mascaro and Vittorio Morfino, Althusser and Random Materialism, recently published by Editora Contracurrent (2020), is, without a doubt, a fundamental introduction to the thought of the “last Althusser” and an important writing about the critical reflection of a realistic materialism that understands that the current problem of philosophy (and of science) is not the “crisis of determinism” (or of humanism[vii]) for which Althusser was accused, but of the very representation of reality as a whole. The purpose of this magnificent book is, therefore, to bring the highest and most advanced philosophical reflection of Marxism so that one can understand the current structure and conjuncture of present capitalism.

Althusser is the starting point of what comes to be called “new” Marxism[viii]. It can be stated, with all clarity, that this book is, therefore, unavoidable to begin to understand the most advanced critical theory of contemporaneity and for the renewal of Marxism. In this sense, three points are fundamental: (i) the critique of theoretical humanism, (ii) the critique of economism and teleological historicism and, finally, (iii) the critique of vulgar and naive materialism. Which makes it necessary, as explained above, to resume the categories that assume Marxism as a true science. Mainly, but not only, a science of history against the theological vision, of totality against fragmentations and determinations of the mode of production against political and subjective voluntarism[ix].

The text by Alysson Leandro Mascaro, which opens the book and creates a historic milestone for the conceptual inauguration of the theses of random materialism in Brazil for the field of politics and law, systematizes, in a unique way, how the category of the encounter and the category of social determination present themselves at the same moment and historical time, but in different ways, that is, how the determination of the social form is correlated, albeit in an apparently paradoxical way, with randomness itself. Therefore, in this book, Mascaro and later Vittorio Morfino (re)establish the theoretical frameworks that Althusser himself established.

Alysson Mascaro uses two themes not so directly explored by scholars – politics and law – to demonstrate how, on certain occasions, what is social determination “opens up” to new possibilities, within a specific conjuncture and dynamic, at the moment when the mode of production loses the cohesion and coercion of forms and, in this (possible) transition, erects other modes of production. It will be in the instability contained in the contradictions (of the structure) that the strongest possibilities of social transformation are conducted. Mascaro also exposes that the unpredictability, volatility and variety of events of these antagonisms within the historical context that make them random.

Thus, there is only the development of a new form of sociability when there is a "handle" of several elements - apparently random[X] – materials and concrete. The significance of random materialism is that it allows for a non-deterministic concept of historical and social change.

Finally, Mascaro shows how the most decisive relational and ideological material element of contemporary societies is the legal form, because it is capable of traversing and mediating the structures of capitalism. It explains: since the appropriation of the means of production is linked to the legal institutes of private property and how the exploitation of workers – subjects of law – is also done through contractual legal bonds. So, the law proved to be the central element of the “handle” of capitalism, after centuries of open transition from feudalism; the ideology of law will support the constitutive ideas and basic relations of the capitalist mode of production itself.

One of the high points of Mascaro's thesis exposed in this new book is precisely that of modernity as a long moment of transitions that do not definitively “take” between feudalism after its medieval heyday and capitalism, which then “takes” as a form of in the Contemporary Age. Mascaro highlights the fact that Althusser, in The undercurrent of encounter materialism[xi], focuses especially on a debate with authors of the Modern Age – Machiavelli, Spinoza, Hobbes, Rousseau.

Based on this symptom of Althusser's text, Mascaro's philosophical proposal is to read Absolutism as a meeting of forms and social determinations that do not definitively “take” but which, at the same time, are the basis for which later capitalism “ take it". Thus, says Mascaro, it is through Absolutism but it is at the same time against Absolutism that bourgeois revolutions finally find the political form and the juridical form that are cohesive with the commodity form and the process of accumulation.

In short, it is in this process of conformation, not symmetrical, between the legal form and the state form, which structurally derive from the commodity form in the contemporary historical process, and establish the complex legal-state phenomenon, which ensures the core conditions of capitalist social relations. In this sense, Alysson explains that “conformation is the adaptation process that gives more specific contours to social forms”[xii]. Already in his well-known work State and political form, says: “the nuclear limits of the two forms are necessarily maintained in their specificity, as fundamental structures of the reproduction of capital”[xiii].

Mascaro's thesis on the conformation of social forms establishes that the forms are derived and are formed by concrete interactions, not being totally superimposed nor being ideally identical, as claimed by legal positivists. Deriving both from the commodity, law and the State are two specific forms that remain as such and begin to interact, but in a process that is not sculpted prior to the interaction itself. Hence, already in State and political form, Mascaro's great proposal on conformation, which is always carried out in a relatively open interaction, anticipates what he then exposes about the encounter and social forms in his most recent book.

Vittorio Morfino, in turn, confirms the thesis that there is a complementarity and continuity of Althusserian theses within his own work (without considering the last phase a rupture with the previous phases), as well as demonstrating, in a brilliant, that Althusser rejects the notion of genesis in favor of that of encounter and that, regarding this, there are two possible theoretical keys within previous Althusserian books and texts: one “Lucrecian” and the other “eschatological”.

Morfino works with the idea that the categories used by Althusser in random materialism combine with his thesis that there is social determination, thus showing how structure and conjuncture are linked. Althusser's concept of random materialism should be used as a bridge between structural totalities and conjunctures. In the same vein, the Althusserian formulation of politics as “struggle” is the key to bringing about social change.[xiv].

After the posthumous publication of the last texts written by Louis Althusser, which, for the most part, deal with the theme of random materialism – or, as the philosophy developed in these writings is also known, of encounter materialism –, the number of interested parties has increased. and critics of Althusserian thought. Nevertheless, in order to show that the reading of this “last” Althusser finds shelter in his previous writings, such as Mascaro, Morfino emphasizes this continuity especially in the investigation of the complexity of the structure of the social form[xv].

All of Althusser's theoretical contribution always moves towards understanding the structural elements of the social form, but, more specifically, the interaction between these elements and their mediations, as well as their relationship with the subjects and their actions, investing in a renunciation of the classic ideal of determination and causality, as well as a radical revision of the Marxist position with the problem of the material reality of capitalist sociability.

The difficulties of conceiving a more complex and incompatible reality with mechanistic or theological thinking led many philosophers to propose instrumentalist and idealist interpretations of sociability. These anti-realist theories continue to be more usual, but Mascaro and Vittorio, relying on Althusser, manage to demonstrate, in a unique way, that there is another way. Hence, it can be said that they took, in this book, an original step on the frontier of contemporary philosophy.

*Lucas Ruiz Balconi is a doctoral candidate in Philosophy and General Theory of Law at the Faculty of Law of the University of São Paulo (USP). Book author Law and politics in Deleuze (Ideas & Letters).

References


Alysson Leandro Mascaro, & Vittorio Morfino. Althusser and Random Materialism. São Paulo: Countercurrent, 2020 (https://amzn.to/3QH9v8s).

ALTHUSSER, Louis. “The Undercurrent of Encounter Materialism”. in Marxist critique. Rio de Janeiro, Revan, v. 20, 2005.

_________. Introduction to philosophy for non-philosophers. São Paulo: Martins Fontes, 2019 (https://amzn.to/47yR3EP).

BACHELARD, Gaston. The Dialectic of Duration. São Paulo: Ática, 1994 (https://amzn.to/3KGnpne).

_________. Rational Materialism. Lisbon: Editions 70, s/d (https://amzn.to/3KG9Hkd).

BILHARINHO, Márcio (Org.) Althusser's Presence. Campinas: UNICAMPI/IFCH, 2010.

DAVOGLIO, Peter. Althusser and the law. São Paulo: Ideas & Letters, 2018 (https://amzn.to/3KFXWKM).

FREIRE JR., Olival. The Quantum Dissidents. Berlin: Springer, 2015 (https://amzn.to/3KI5dK9).

FREIRE JR., Olival; LEHNER, Christoph. 'Dialectical Materialism and Modern Physics', An unpublished text by Max Born. In The Royal Society, v. 64, pp. 155–162, 2010.

GROFF, Ruth (Ed.). Revitalizing causality: realism about causality in philosophy and social science. New York: Routledge, 2008 (https://amzn.to/3sf5qxZ);

JACOBSEN, Anja Skaar. Léon Rosenfeld's Marxist defense of complementarity. In HSPS, vol. 37, supplement, p. 3–34, 2007.

_________. Léon Rosenfeld: Physics, Philosophy, and Politics in the Twentieth Century. Singapore: World Scientific Publishing, 2012 (https://amzn.to/3QWP07V).

MAGALHÃES, Juliana Paula. Marxism, humanism and law: Atlhusser and Garaudy. São Paulo: Ideas & Letters, 2018 (https://amzn.to/3qF7JtD).

MASCARO, Alysson Leandro. Philosophy of law. São Paulo: GEN-Atlas, 2019 (https://amzn.to/3KBGYxe).

_________. State and political form. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2013 (https://amzn.to/3DWuWKZ).

_________. “Social forms, derivation and conformation”. in Debates. Porto Alegre: UFRGS, v. 13, no. 1, pp. 05-16, 2019.

MORFINO, Vittorio. “Structural causality in Althusser”. in Social Struggles, São Paulo, Vol. 18, nº 33, 2014.

MORFINO, Vittorio. Althusser's materialism. Santiago: Palinodia, 2014 (https://amzn.to/3OUp23k).

PATY, Michel. “The notion of determinism in physics and its limits”. in Scientiae Study. Sao Paulo, vs. 2, no. 4, 2004.

RUSSO, Frederica. Causality and Causal Modeling in the Social Sciences. Berlin: Springer, 2009 (https://amzn.to/44bYmj1).

TURCHETTO, Maria. “What does 'science of history' mean”. In NAVES, Márcio Bilharinho (Org.) Althusser's Presence. Campinas: IFCH/UNICAMP.

WEINERT, Friedel. The Scientist as Philosopher: Philosophical Consequences of Great Scientific Discoveries. New York: Springer, 2005 (https://amzn.to/3QFk5wt).

Notes


[I]As an example, we cite some works that (re)discuss themes that are central to science and philosophy, namely:GROFF, Ruth (Ed.). Revitalizing causality: realism about causality in philosophy and social science. New York: Routledge, 2008; RUSSO, Frederica. Causality and CausalModelling in the Social Sciences. Berlin: Springer, 2009. FREIRE JR., Olival. The Quantum Dissidents. Berlin: Springer, 2015.

[ii] See more in:ALTHUSSER, Louis. Introduction to philosophy for non-philosophers. São Paulo: Martins Fontes, 2019, Chap. 10.

[iii] For an illustrative analysis of the relationship between materialism and science, we highlight: FREIRE, Olival; LEHNER, Christoph. 'Dialectical Materialism and Modern Physics', An unpublished text by Max Born. In The Royal Society, v. 64, pp 155–162, 2010. Cf. also JACOBSEN, Anja Skaar. Léon Rosenfeld's Marxist defense of complementarity. In HSPS, vol. 37, supplement, pp. 3–34, 2007; and also, Idem, Léon Rosenfeld: Physics, Philosophy, and Politics in the Twentieth Century. Singapore: World ScientificPublishing, 2012.Also, BACHELARD, Gaston. Rational Materialism. Lisbon: Editions 70, s/d.

[iv]See more at WEINERT, Friedel.The Scientist as Philosopher: Philosophical Consequences of Great Scientific Discoveries. New York: Springer, 2005, pp. 36-42. PATY, Michel. The notion of determinism in physics and its limits. In ScientiæStudia.Sao Paulo, v. 2, no. 4, 2004, pp. 465-492. MORFINO, Vittorio. Althusser's structural causality. In Social Struggles, São Paulo, vol. 18, nº 33, 2014, pp. 102-116.

[v] MASCARO, Alysson Leandro. Philosophy of law. São Paulo: GEN-Atlas, 2019, pp. 508-510.

[vi]See more in: DAVOGLIO, Pedro. Althusser and the law. São Paulo: Ideas & Letters, 2018.

[vii] To learn more about this debate, see the excellent book by MAGALHÃES, Juliana Paula. Marxism, humanism and law: Atlhusser and Garaudy. São Paulo: Ideas & Letters, 2018.

[viii]MASCARO, Alysson Leandro. “Encounter and form: politics and law”. In MASCARO, Alysson Leandro; MORFINO, Vittorio. Althusser and Random Materialism. São Paulo: Contracurrent, 2020, pp. 14-16.

[ix] See about history science in TURCHETTO, Maria. “What does 'science of history' mean”. In NAVES, Márcio Bilharinho (Org.) Althusser's Presence. Campinas: IFCH/UNICAMP, 2010. pp. 77-88.

[X] I say apparently random because, at the time of the “take”, they were neither necessarily (in terms of necessary causality) nor logically linked (multicausal), but they appear, a posteriori, as something, especially in historical terms, connected.

[xi] ALTHUSSER, Louis. “The Undercurrent of Encounter Materialism”. in Marxist critique. Rio de Janeiro, Revan, v. 20, 2005, pp. 9-48.

[xii] MASCARO, Alysson Leandro. “Social forms, derivation and conformation”. in Debates. Porto Alegre: UFRGS, v. 13, nº 1, 2019, pp. 05-16.

[xiii]MASCARO, Alysson Leandro. State and political form. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2013. p. 41.

[xiv] See more in MORFINO, Vittorio. Althusser's materialism. Santiago: Palinodia, 2014.

[xv]MORFINO, Vittorio. “One or two random materialisms?”. In MASCARO; MORPHINE, on. cit., pp. 39-47.

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