My current project is looking at school funding from a socialist perspective. Before that project I wanted to figure out what ‘socialist perspective’ means in education, and to do that I reconstructed Louis Althusser’s theory of education and how it was critiqued, applied, and extended in educational research in the years leading up to his scandalous and scary fall from grace in the 1980s (he had a psychotic break and murdered his wife).
I’m finishing up that project in the form of a big technical book, part philosophy and part intellectual history, that I imagine very few will be interested in. But it was on my bucket list to write that kind of book and I’m pretty happy with it. The idea isn’t to rehabilitate Althusser as a person or even his philosophy writ large, but to get the story straight about what his theory was, how important it was for socialist education thinking, and how it inspired an important international /intersectional tradition of structuralist perspectives on education, influencing many left scholars and organizers. This structural tradition of education is a resource for us today when thinking about things like school funding.
Part of the project was to write a primer on Althusser’s philosophy generally. That primer was aimed at educators and organizers who have little to no background in marxism or philosophy. The primer is a short book called The Gold and the Dross: Althusser for Educators and Brill published it last year.
The book has gotten kind notes from Asad Haider, G. M. Goshgarian, and Jonathan Turcotte-Summers & Sam Rocha. Richard Hudson-Miles of Kingston College, London also wrote a detailed, insightful, and engaging review of The Gold and the Dross. It appeared in Pedagogy, Culture, and Society.
Backer’s book is intended as a short-form introduction to Althusser for those who have never encountered his thought before (Backer 2019, xii). It also is written in a style which deliberately tries to engage these unfamiliar readers, using anecdotal recollections to explain key Althusserian concepts. For example, the author’s childhood classroom admonishments and barroom romances in adulthood are invoked to explain ‘interpellation’. As the readers of this journal will recognise, relating complicated concepts to students’ socio-cultural spheres is a tried and tested method of pedagogy. Outside of the classroom, the orality of this style will engage and alienate in equal measure. However, a strength of Backer’s book is that each of these anecdotes is juxtaposed with unedited excerpts from Althusser’s texts, allowing the reader to test Backer’s subjectivist interpretations against the evidence of the text.
In addition to this praise (by which I’m quite honored) Hudson-Miles raises several important points about the primer that I’d like to address here, particularly since I’m in the final stages of that more technical manuscript on Althusser and education. He points to three ways my book is problematic: baggage, style, and confused Althusserianism. I take each in turn.
In terms of baggage, Hudson-Miles recognizes my intention with G&D was not to do an exhaustive and in-depth study of Althusser’s legacy.
It should be highlighted that Backer promises a ‘longer, more technical manuscript on Althusser’s influence on educational thinking’ (Ibid.) in 2020, which should complement the present volume well. Given this, perhaps it is beyond the remit of this book to engage with the Althusserian legacy in depth, and unfair to criticise the author for this absence.
Indeed, that was my intent: not to weigh down readers with the important but circuitous and ultimately hard-to-understand historical conditions around Althusser’s thinking. Of course this context is important. But I’ve found that it proves a significant barrier to entry when engaging with the ideas themselves. Gold tries to ease that barrier.
But Hudson-Miles is clear-eyed about this very presumption. It is highly problematic to engage with Althusserian ideas ‘themselves’ without acknowledging the context. Indeed, I recognize the importance of studying this context in the book but, to Hudson-Miles, in the primer, I only “briefly discuss this problematic inheritance in the introduction (xiii–xvi). The result is that the author’s enthusiastic metaphorical explanations could be interpreted as uncritically pro-Althusserian.”
Being ‘uncritically Althusserian’ is a bad idea for many reasons. Althusser murdered his wife and comrade Helene Rytman. He was a member of the French Communist Party, which lost support for sticking with the Soviet Union throughout the postwar period and not backing the actions of May 1968. Intellectually, the theory has been somewhat debunked by several generations of intellectuals on these and other grounds.
Hudson-Miles’s brief but extensive overview of these arguments and historical points is helpful for me as I prepare my manuscript, since I deal with many of these issues in my book. I lay out my thinking on how to read Althusser given the murder. I examine the intellectual history of Ranciere and Thompson’s critiques, with an eye towards understanding how Althusser was taken up in American critical education via British sociology and cultural theory. I also examine their arguments and put forward my position on them (a preview of which appear in a forthcoming Critical Education essay).
In advance of the book, here are some reflections on the project as a kind of teaser but also in response to Hudson-Miles.
Hudson-Miles elaborates these historical and intellectual vectors in the typical style of scholars of French and left thinking from this period. A dense series of interdisciplinary citations, phrases, and references are arrayed into large block paragraphs with just as much punctuation as words. The style is scholarly, but in the medieval as well as the academic sense. There is an attempt to cover everything, to put everything together, to make sure no detail of theory or its context or the various positions at play gets left unmentioned.
This style is typical of Althusser scholarship in particular. I’m not entirely sure why. There’s the influence of Althusser himself, both in terms of his actual style (dense) but also the commentaries on Althusser that emerged in England and elsewhere at the height of his influence. Those commentaries sought to delve into the problematic of Althusser’s writing, its historical context and its argumentation, with a kind of frenetically exhaustive precision–as if the fate of the Left depended on whether an author revealed the right sliver of thinking or history.
While it may very well have been true for leftists in that moment, their time has long passed. So I use a different style when writing and talking about Althusser.
In brief, I think one thing that philosophy of education can offer the wider world is a pedagogical approach to philosophical arguments and concepts. We can cover philosophies in ways that make them more conducive to people actually learning them and studying them rather than being intimidated and browbeaten by those that pretend to understand them. I do that with Althusser. Even in my technical book I do not go into every nook and cranny of context and commentary, but rather limit analysis to my project., which is both intellectual and political. Again, I detail this more in the book (particularly in the conclusion).
In fact, Hudson-Miles is so preoccupied with the ‘baggage’ and ‘style’ of my book, that he doesn’t engage with my rendering of Althusser’s actual philosophy! This is perhaps the most disappointing part of his review, as I would love to know what he thinks about my understanding of the laws of dislocation, uneven development, and social formations–which are the cornerstones of Althusser’s thinking. Like so much scholarship on Althusser, the concepts get lost/overlooked in the tangled performance of elaborating them in their context. I’d still like to know if Hudson-Miles agrees with my rendering of the theory for educators, which was the purpose of G&D in the first place.
There’s an Althusserian case to be made for doing this as well, which is to say that concepts and philosophy are relatively autonomous from their historical context. They have their own temporality and it is possible to write in a mode of that temporality that shifts more towards the concepts without fully betraying or ignoring that context.
Of course these ideas emerge and are embedded in their problematics. But I think Althusserian scholarship has shifted more towards that embeddedness and in the process lost focus on the power of the concepts. Hudson-Miles thinks this isn’t quite Althusserian (though notes encouragingly that my style might be infinitely more preferable to the other scholarly approach).
Again, Hudson-Miles is right to point out that this is problematic. It could be seen as uncritically pro-Althusser, not in the sense of concepts, but in the sense of letting Althusser off the hook for murdering Helene and bad politics.
As I say in my forthcoming book, I take a dialogical-internal approach to this question following William S. Lewis. The personal and political context matter but the ideas also have led a kind of life of their own in education that get lost when only focusing on the external conditions in which they were produced.
This is a slippery slope and maybe lets criminals and systems of oppression off the hook. I have tried to navigate this tension. For me the decision to engage with Althusser’s ideas in their relatively autonomous temporality has been worth it. I have found that these ideas have been helpful in the clarificatory project of critical education, helped in uncovering a tradition of international and diverse educational research that Althusser inspired, and has also been a touchstone for me as I organize in socialist and socialist feminist movements.
I do not let Althusser off the hook, but I do not keep him on it exactly–at least to the extent that his concepts are helpful for understanding the history of critical education, the lost tradition of structural education, and organizing against exploitation and oppression in the 21st century. I leave it careful and thoughtful readers like Hudson-Miles to decide whether I’m successful.