Adam Morton responds to my brief account of Althusser’s Machiavelli and Us with a fairly lengthy blog post on “Machiavelli, Gramsci, Althusser, and Us”. But he doesn’t so much respond to my reading itself; what he intends is a more comprehensive swipe at the notion of posthegemony as a whole. Which is fair enough, but a bit of a leap.
Anyhow, on Althusser… Morton asks “whose reading” this is that detects in Althusser “a posthegemonic reading of Machiavelli,” to which I unapologetically confirm that it is indeed my reading. Whose would it be otherwise? But it’s a reading that, I hope, is attentive to some salient aspects of the text, not least its ambiguities, product in part of fairly constant revisions over a long period. Morton reiterates what I call a hegemonic reading of Machiavelli and Us, a reading that I point out myself; it is admittedly pretty obvious. My own interest is in the tensions between that aspect of the text and another that is in sync with the late Althusser’s aleatory materialism of the encounter, which I term posthegemonic. Morton’s interest is in consolidating and underlining only the first of these two readings so as to show Althusser’s resonances with Gramsci. Again, fair enough in its own way, but it’s no less an “appropriation” than my focus on the tensions within the text.
Indeed, compared to conventional readings of Althusser, Morton’s take is perhaps even more idiosyncratic, as neo-Gramscian theories of hegemony were quite explicitly opposed to an Althusserianism understood in terms of over-determination, history as a process without a subject, and the like. Another way of putting this is that Machiavelli and Us is interesting and problematic precisely because it points to two possible ways out of canonical Althusserianism: both towards the concept of hegemony and radically away from it. As such, it anticipates the contemporary dilemma of cultural studies. Morton likes the first path; I acknowledge it’s there, but prefer the second.
Morton then jumps to a lightly revised series of quotations from his book on post-revolutionary Mexico. There’s a certain tension here, as whereas on the blog the claim that “calls, then, to analytically displace hegemony and move towards a posthegemonic politics should be resisted” is presented as following on from the discussion of Althusser (“then”), in the book the rather similar claim that “calls for a wholesale retreat from the logic of hegemony and the move towards a posthegemonic politics should be resisted” comes merely as the start of the second of three discussions of critiques of hegemony. And the subsequent sentence, that “A posthegemonic condition [. . .] refers to the presumption that ideology critique is now superfluous in an age where affective relations or bodily dispositions are regnant” is sourced in the book to my 2003 article “On Posthegemony” (as well as to an article by Benjamin Arditi) while on the blog it’s apparently derived from my 2010 book, Posthegemony. On the blog, Morton then refers directly to his own book, but Revolution and State in Modern Mexico is hardly much more “detailed” on this point than the blog post: both contain almost exactly the same assertion that (in the book’s words) “this extremist take on hegemony theory and its attempt to decentre analysis from the strategic field of the state, however, merely collapses into a ‘pluralism of micropowers’, conceiving ever more microcosms of meaning within a world of individuated actors (Poulantzas 1978: 44)” (10). Despite the invocation of his student Poulantzas, we’re now far removed from Althusser, even though we are oddly enough still dealing with what, in discussing Machiavelli and Us, I described as “a strange, tortured text that bears all the marks of its” revisions.
What’s more, then Morton shifts to quoting an article of his from 2007 that is a critique of Randall Germain, and which never mentions posthegemony in the slightest. In that article, it is Germain’s notion of a “collective ‘us’” that prompts the comment: “I am troubled in IPE by something Raymond Williams (1980, p. 3) long ago articulated: the acceptance of total contingency when attempting to assess forces in struggle over hegemony” (“Unquestioned Answers / Unanswered Questions” 135). I’m not entirely sure how what we can only call Morton’s “appropriation” of his own critique of Germain relates to my blog post, my book, or posthegemony in general–though I would note that questions about determination are indeed properly Althusserian, if not (of course) the concern of Machiavelli and Us.
In Althusser’s interpretation of Machiavelli, there is no “struggle over hegemony” at all, in that he observes that The Prince and the Discourses alike are books about beginnings: they are about the leap, always under-determined if never entirely contingent, that establishes a new political regime. It is its under-determination, its element of contingency, that opens up a space for politics–and for Althusser, Machiavelli’s work is fully political, fully inscribed in a political space that cannot be determined in advance. Whether or not you feel that what is to be instituted is a form of hegemonic politics (Morton will probably say it is; I stress rather Althusser’s ambivalence and increasing hesitance), there’s no doubt that the leap itself has nothing to do with hegemony. As with all the many ruptures that mark Althusser’s thought (from the famous “epistemological break” he claims to detect in Marx’s work, to the “lightning flash” in his discussion of the “Piccolo Teatro”), the real political moment is this posthegemonic fracture that his texts themselves re-enact. Perhaps Morton’s blog post, too, is trying for a similar leap?