a bit of a leap

Adam MortonAdam 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?

Machiavelli and Us

Louis Althusser, Machiavelli and UsLouis Althusser’s Machiavelli and Us is a strange, tortured text that bears all the marks of its long germination. It originates in a lecture course given in 1962, which was cut short by Althusser’s nervous breakdown and hospitalization. The notes for that course were apparently lost, and rewritten from scratch, we are told, “very probably after 1968” (vii). These led to a new course, given in 1972, but Althusser continued to work on the manuscript “on and off up to the mid 1980s” (vii), although he never published it in his lifetime. It finally saw the light of day in 1995, five years after his death. Hence the version we have (in the translation by Gregory Elliott) has numerous footnotes indicating some of the major handwritten revisions, correction, and addenda, often of very uncertain date. One can only suspect that there is a reason for this difficult history, and perhaps also a reason why Althusser kept on returning to Machiavelli, seemingly obsessed but at the same time dissatisfied with his analysis. As he himself notes, “Machiavelli grips us. But if by chance we want to grasp him, he evades us: he is elusive” (4).

On the one hand, the book does its darnedest to present Machiavelli as a theorist of hegemony. No wonder, in that Althusser takes much of his inspiration from Antonio Gramsci’s reading of The Prince. Machiavelli, Gramsci and Althusser argue, is not so much a thinker of the principality, of the many principalities that dotted the Italian peninsula: he is a theorist of the nation state. More particularly, Althusser grants “Gramsci’s master theme,” that Machiavelli is a theorist of “the political question of Italian unity–that is to say, the political problem of the Italian nation’s constitution by means of a national state” (11). So the prince’s task is to found a state that will both expand and endure: it has to expand until it is coterminous with the limits of the Italian nation; and it can only endure so long as it wins the “friendship” of the people, siding with them against the nobility to overturn the legacy of feudalism. The successful prince, Althusser argues, employs both coercion and consent to fashion a people who fear but do not hate him. Hence the role of ideology, both “a basic ideology” and particular ideologies; it is religion that takes on the role of basic ideology, “a general, constant ideology,” while particular ideologies relate to the specific attributes of the prince himself, expressed “in the form of the representation of the Prince in popular opinion” (92). Althusser therefore concludes that “to appreciate this policy of ‘fear without hatred’ properly, it must be called by its name: it is an ideological politics, politics in ideology” (101).

On the other hand, many of Althusser’s revisions reveal another side to the book. Here, instead of the telos of the nation state, the historical destiny of Italian unification, what is stressed is rather the conjuncture defined by its “aleatory” singularity and unpredictability: “Machiavelli is the first theorist of the conjuncture or the first thinker [. . .] to think in the conjuncture: that is to say in its concept of an aleatory, singular case” (18; the phrase “aleatory, singular case” is a late addition); “There comes a moment when Machiavelli can no longer ‘gamble on’ classical theory, or play it off against another, to open up his own space: he must leap into the void” (42; “into the void” is a late addition). Systematically, Althusser shifts the emphasis of what he had previously written such that what begins to emerge is what he elsewhere terms “a materialism of the encounter, hence of the aleatory and of contingency” (qtd. xiii). Here what counts are not so much the means by which the prince binds the people to himself by “establish[ing] Italian unity from the standpoint of the ’populare’ [. . .] gaining the people’s friendship–that is, to speak plainly, an alliance with the people against the nobility” (129). Rather, what’s at stake are “the forms of the encounter between fortuna and virtù” and the undecidability of the tension between concrete actuality and an aleatory future, “the discrepancy between the definite and indefinite, the necessary and the unforeseeable” (80). From this perspective we might turn from thinking about ideology in terms of representation to a consideration of how the army, for instance, acts more like what we might call (drawing on Althusser’s famous “Ideological State Apparatuses” essay) “ideology in general” by interpellating and constituting subjects through habit and affect. Rather than taking the “people” (and its hostility to the nobility) for granted, we would then turn instead to the prior process of “the becoming-people of the people” (102).

In short, there is a posthegemonic reading of Machiavelli that is constantly escaping and perhaps threatening to overwhelm Althusser’s otherwise Gramscian insistence on hegemony. There is, we might even add, an ontological dimension that undermines Althusser’s contention that Machiavelli’s singularity is his insistence on “the primacy of politics tout court” (99). Or rather, there is a “primitive political accumulation” (125) that precedes the establishment of any space or institutions onto which hegemony can be projected as though it were politics, and as though politics were hegemony.