MARXIST AESTHETICS: On Macherey & Althusser


by E. SAN JUAN, Jr.

Almost three decades have now passed since the 1966 publication of Pierre Macherey’s Pour une theorie de la production litteraire (A Theory of Literary Production, English translation published in 1978), a pathbreaking theoretical achievement in literary and aesthetic theory within the overarching tradition of Western Marxism. This advance, however, remains hitherto unacknowledged. Except for Terry Eagleton’s Criticism and Ideology and a passing reference to it in the guidebooks, Macherey’s labor has been to a large extent neglected although there is some presumption that it has already been appropriated and even surpassed. The seminal importance of Macherey’s reflections, its heuristic and pedagogical value, can be appreciated by its resonance in such works as diverse as Catherine Belsey’s Critical Practice, Michael Sprinker’s Imaginary Relations, Ellen Rooney’s Seductive Reasoning, and Eileen Sypher’s Wisps of Violence. Macherey and Etienne Balibar’s essay, “On Literature as an Ideological Form,” promises to be the definitive if controversial manifesto of the Althusserian revolution in the cultural politics of the last quarter of this century.
My purpose in this brief survey is not to eulogize one thinker’s accomplishment–Macherey is only one of the many insightful critics inspired by Althusser’s “structuralist” rethinking of classical Marxist doctrines–but to arouse anyone concerned in what is at stake in the contemporary debate on global cultural politics–questions pertaining to the subject in postmodernism; of the ethical/political implications of discourses on race, class, gender; the contextual pressures of global realignments on reading, interpretation, and the current revision of canons and disciplines. Ultimately, what underlies this attempt is my continuing project to rethink and perhaps renew an authentically creative, materialist critical practice in the zone where Third World popular-democratic struggles connect with the preoccupations of Western Marxism. This “return” to a Marxist practice in this domain of what I would call “world cultural studies,” a field so far only intuited by students of Frantz Fanon and C.L. R. James, is being consciously attempted on the face of the current vogue (especially in elite intellectual circles) of skeptical relativism, pragmatic fundamentalism, and various forms of modish, obscurantist thinking that have grown to exercise a de facto hegemony in the wake of the collapse of “actually existing socialism” and the persisting weakness of resistance movements in the First World. The publication of The Althusserian Legacy, edited by E. Ann Kaplan and Michael Sprinker, as well as the continuing debates on the structuralist/poststructuralist transition, betoken an imminent “return of the repressed” even when both seem to be anachronistic in an age of surfaces and repetitions.

One way of presenting the originality of Macherey’s work is by pointing to what is traditional in it. The cardinal principle in Marx and Engel’s materialist conception of history inheres in the centrality of labor (practice, in general) around which the narrative of the revolutionary transformation of society pivots. In the 1857 Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Marx foregrounds the decisive role of social production in shaping human nature and collective life. Engel’s essay, “Labor in the Transition from Ape to Man,” posits labor as “the prime basic condition for all human existence.” Labor mediates consciousness and nature, thought and the physical environment. It generates culture and the condition required for actualizing human “species-being” in history. Though degraded by the alienation and reification in class societies, labor as self-activity, or sensuous critical practice (see “Theses on Feuerbach”), is the fundamental axiom of Marx’s philosophy. Marx writes in Capital: “Labor is, in the first place, a process in which both man and Nature participate, and in which man of his own accord starts, regulates, and controls the material re-actions between himself and Nature…. By thus acting on the external world and changing it, he at the same time changes his own nature” (Solomon 1973, 22). The germinal insight privileging art as one kind of production was enunciated by Marx in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844:

Conscious life-activity directly distinguishes man from animal life-activity…. In creating an objective world by his practical activity, in working-up inorganic nature, man proves himself a conscious species being, i.e., as a being that treats the species as its own essential being, or that treats itself as a species being.  Admittedly animals also produce…But an animal only produces what it immediately needs for itself or its young. It produces one-sidedly, whilst man produces universally.  It produces only under the dominion of immediate physical need, whilst man produces even when he is free from physical need and only truly produces in freedom therefrom. An animal produces only itself, whilst man reproduces the whole of nature. An animal’s product belongs immediately to its physical body, whilst man freely confronts his product.  An animal forms things in accordance with the standard and the need of the species to which it belongs, whilst man knows how to produce in accordance with the standard of every species, and knows how to apply everywhere the inherent standard to the object.  Man therefore also forms things in accordance with the laws of beauty (Solomon 1973, 25-26).
Consubstantial then with all transformative labor is an artistic impulse, a practice of fashioning beautiful artifices, that distinguishes the expenditure of energy by humans from that of animals.
Orthodox Marxism has habitually considered art as a superstructural phenomenon arising from its base in production relations, to use the familiar jargon. The two are associated in terms of correspondence, representation, homology or mechanical duplication. In this framework, art expresses a “definite form of social consciousness,” a class-oriented ideology. This canonical proposition, vulgarized to “economic determinism” or positivist “reflectionism,” has served as the foundational idea for all subsequent conceptualization of art in the Marxist archive. Both Plekhanov and Lukacs applied Engel’s criterion of the “typical” in their aesthetic judgment. Meanwhile, Christopher Caudwell stressed the utopian phantasy-work of poetry in his anthropological speculations in Illusion and Reality; and Lucien Goldmann focused on the homology between genres and collective world-views. Althusser broke away from tradition by postulating the object of knowledge, art in this case, as a product that cannot be conflated with reality nor with the subject. The “relative autonomy” of the ideological level needs to be upheld.
Macherey follows Althusser in conceiving art as a form of production with its own materials and means, a view that has been argued most forcefully by Walter Benjamin, Bertolt Brecht, and Ernst Bloch in their debate with the advocates of official “social realism.”
A summary of Althusser’s theoretical intervention is required in order to grasp the import and serviceableness of Macherey’s contribution. It is also necessary in order to remind the reader that the still prevalent Cold War distortion of Marxism as a species of economic determinism and totalitarian terrorism–propagated by textbooks like Literary Criticism by William K. Wimsatt, Jr. and Cleanth Brooks, or Critical Approaches to Literature by David Daiches–still enjoys currency. Meanwhile, the deconstructionists are still trying to reduce “Marxist ideology” to a matter of tropes (anamorphosis), an error of a homogenized reading (Derrida 1981).
While the significance and validity of Althusser’s recovery of the “authentic” Marx is still a topic of controversy, there prevails a consensus (Callinicos 1976, McLennan 1977, Hirst 1979, Geras 1986) that his key ideas–society as a complex differentiated whole structured in dominance; overdetermination, problematic, epistemological break,  symptomatic reading–have clarified if not refuted to some degree certain distortions of Marxism. What empiricism (humanism, idealism) and essentialism (economism, historicism) have in common is their adherence to the notion of “expressive causality”: one element in the system can account for everything.  Empiricism refers to the view that knowledge is derived by the subject abstracting the essence from the real object; thought encounters reality without any mediation and derives from that the external guarantee of its truth. Knowledge is here conceived as vision, a perception and possession of the essence of an immediately given object. There is no separation of the object grasped in thought (concrete-in-thought) and the object in reality (real-concrete). Empiricism underlies a theory of artistic realism which presupposes that reality can be immediately expressed or captured in the mirror of art provided the artist selects the essential elements of what is reflected.
Essentialism, on the other hand, holds that all phenomena in the linear continuum of history can be reduced to an original essence, a totalizing Spirit/Mind, or a telos such as Freedom or Progress. The Hegelian dialectic of consciousness where various moments are conceived as externalizations of one internal principle (for example, Rome expresses the abstract legal personality) can be illustrated by various historicisms which reduce the knowledge of history to the self-consciousness of a subject, or by varieties of formalist criticism where a rhetorical mechanism (irony, paradox, aporia), or a universal episteme, is held to be the organizing principle of the work. A recent version of this instantiation model is the categorization of postmodern art as pastiche, “incredulity to metanarratives,” or preponderance of the simulacra. By confusing the object of knowledge with the real object and thus negating the differences in specific practices that constitute the complexity of any social formation, empiricism and essentialism have prevented any genuine understanding of society as a decentered structure, a complex articulated whole with mutually determining levels or instances, each a necessary condition for the others. It has misconstrued the place of science and ideology (culture in general) within the concrete social formation.
Althusser’s project of defining the specificity of Marxist philosophy as the theory of historical materialism that specifically deals with social formations and their history–that is, the theory of the history of the production of knowledge, the theory and history of science–hinges on the fundamental concept of practice. Knowledge, for Althusser, is not obtained through vision but through production, specifically in the form of theoretical practice occurring in the domain of thought. For Macherey, criticism as theoretical practice moves beyond ideology (unprocessed lived experience) in order to approximate the status of a science. “All levels of social existence are the sites of distinct practices,” Althusser argues (1969, 229), with their specific effectivities that are mutually determining of each other and the whole configuration. This is an idea attributed to Marx’s discovery of “a historico-dialectical materialism of praxis,…a theory of different specific levels of human practice” (economic, political, ideological, scientific) interacting with one another and with the totality they constitute.
“By practice in general,” Althusser writes, “I shall mean any process of transformation of a determinate given raw material into a determinate product, a transformation effected by a determinate human labour using determinate means (of ‘production’).  In any practice thus conceived, the determinant moment (or element) is neither the raw material nor the product, but the practice in the narrow sense: the moment of the labour of transformation itself, which sets to work, in a specific structure, men, means and a technical method of utilizing the means” (1969, 166-67). Each practice embodies the “structure of a production.” Where art consists of the transformation of a given raw material (ideologically saturated experience) into a specific product (text, art work) by means of a labor process and means/instruments of production (forms of linguistic practice, conventions), then art is properly understood as a mode of production with its distinctive processes, rhythms, and regularities. Macherey rejects the humanist conception of art as organic creation by an autonomous subject in favor of the view that art is a product shaped “in determinate conditions.”
Althusserian Marxism then revolves around this theorizing of distinct practices and modes of production as the core of its epistemology and ontology. In the realm of epistemology, Althusser postulates three categories: Generality I designates the concepts, intuitions, and abstractions that serve as the raw material of theoretical practice; Generality II refers to the theory of science at a given moment (the problematic), the conceptual means for the production of knowledge brought to bear on the raw materials aforementioned and that sets limits to the posing of problems and their resolutions, in short, a distinct production process; Generality III refers to the product of the process described, a transformed theoretical entity: concrete scientific concepts embodying knowledge. What needs emphasis is the problematic associated with Generality II: the theoretical framework (paradigm) that correlates the basic concepts and presupposition, specifies the nature and significance of each concept by its place and function in the system of relationships, and also enables the positing of certain propositions and the omission of others. The problematic in Marx’s writings before 1857, according to Althusser, is the drama of human alienation and self-realization conditioned by the flawed ideology of humanism; the later Marx abandoned that problematic and so inaugurated the new, unprecedented science called “historical materialism.”
One should not mistake the problematic with a world-view or episteme. This analytic organon cannot be equated with the essence of a thought, the “true kernel” extracted by an empirical reading of texts, since “it is centered on the absence of problems and concepts within the problematic as much as by their presence” (1970, 316). By determining what is to be included in a discourse, the problematic also thereby chooses what is to be excluded; hence the absences, lacunae, ruptures, silence. These elided questions, as well as those problems that are prematurely or not adequately posed (signalled by lapses, catechresis, fallacies), constitute the problematic as much as those questions and concepts present. Given the nature of the problematic as the “unconscious” structure of theoretical discourse, a literal or empirical reading cannot apprehend it. A problematic can only be grasped by a symptomatic reading, not by an empiricist or idealist hermeneutics grounded on a myth of direct communication or identification with the Logos. A symptomatic reading is peculiarly sensitive not only to the “sightings” but to the oversights, omissions, occlusions, interruptions; it analyzes, not merely records, the textual mechanisms that produce the oversights, omissions, and erasures.
In describing the differential and uneven structure of the social formation, Althusser (1970) deploys concepts derived from Freudian psychoanalysis, such as displacement, condensation, and overdetermination. They operate to characterize the effects of multiple contradictions in each practice and on the formation as a whole, and vice versa. A symptomatic reading would be precisely attuned to register those intricate process of mutual determinations–the pattern of dominance and subordination, antagonism and non-antagonism of the contradictions in the structure in dominance (all elements are asymmetrically related but autonomous and contradictory, though one level of the social formation–either political, economic, ideological, or theoretical–acts as dominant, with the economic functioning as an absent determinant “in the last instance,” its causality only grasped in its effects) at any given historical conjuncture. To avoid reductionism, it is imperative to grasp society in its full complex mutations, as a decentered historical process–“a process without a subject.” In this “ever pre-given complexly structured whole,” individual subjects serve as supports or “bearers” of the structures and relations of the social formation.
Aside from this theory of specific practices inscribed in a multilayered dynamic whole (the synchronic dimension interfaced with the diachronic axis), Althusser’s notion of symptomatic reading, which is partly modelled after the psychoanalytic deciphering of the patient’s utterances, provides the rationale for Macherey’s refusal of empiricist hermeneutics and normative criticism, its idealist sublimation. Macherey contends that interpretation, explication, ‘pure’ or slow reading, is inadequate because the text which is overdetermined by multiple contradictions cannot spontaneously yield the object of cognition:
We should speak of the work by moving it beyond itself, by establishing it in the knowledge of its limits.  The question is then no longer one of commentary…but one of explanation–explanation which dislodges the work internally, just as it was obliged to deviate from its intentions in order to realize them…. What is the principle of the work’s disparity? …It is this differential relation which will define the area of the problematic; and it is this which will enable us to present the work simultaneously in its reality and in its limits, taking into account the conditions of possibility and impossibility which make it visible (1978, 161-62).
Macherey argues that the critic’s obligatory task is to explain the principle of diversity caused by the work’s relation to ideology (Eagleton 1983). Lacking any postulated unity deducible from it, the work is characterized by insufficiency, gaps, incompleteness “betokened by the confrontation of separate meanings, which is the true reason for its composition”; this incoherence demarcates the locus of the work. And this determinate complexity, the dissonant structure of the text born from the internally excluded determinations, can only be explained by a symptomatic reading:
The structure of the work, which makes it available to knowledge, is this internal displacement, this caesura, by which it corresponds to a reality that is also incomplete, which it shows without reflecting. The literary work gives the measure of a difference, reveals a determinate absence, resorts to an eloquent silence…. What begs to be explained in the work is not that false simplicity…but the presence of a relation, or an opposition, between elements of the exposition or levels of the composition, those disparities which point to a conflict of meaning [and] reveals the inscription of an otherness in the work…. To explain the work is to show that, contrary to appearances, it is not independent, but bears in its material substance the imprint of a determinate absence which is also the principle of its identity (1978, 79-80).

By disclosing the problematic of the text (the semantic and historical conditions of its possibility), the critic uncovers the presence of ideology that prohibits certain things from being said or represented. Therefore the critic must make those ruptures and absences speak in much the same way as the writing itself already exhibits the limits of ideology (what it cannot say) by figuration, by distancing and objectifying it through generic conventions and other devices.
In his nuanced reading of Balzac’s Les Paysans and Verne’s The Mysterious Island, Macherey demonstrates a theoretical practice of reading: the text is deciphered as a mode of transforming ideological materials into the objective figuration of fiction (compare Lukacs’ thematic exegesis of this same novel [1964]). This fictionalization is a distanciation of ideology from within, a demystification of its power by marking its limits. After sifting the raw materials–linguistic practices, generic and stylistic techniques of characterization, the conflict between the ideological project of representation and the figurative mode which thematizes it–the critic subjects them to a process of critical labor. Labor power is expended in the task of unfolding the unconscious of the text (the problematic) in order to produce Generality III: a special kind of cognition that art yields. What we know is not a reality fissured by contradictions and replicated in the text; our knowledge concerns the signifying enterprise of the text as it articulates the ideological and its operations.
Criticism achieves scientific rigor when it succeeds in explaining the work in terms of the ideological repression that constitutes it, elucidating in particular what connects and distanciates it from ideology. Criticism produces a knowledge of meaning-effect that “is an effect of those specific ideological-discursive strategies encoded in or produced as the text, being actively registered or productively consumed [“read”] according to, or as different ideological-discursive strategies” (Kavanagh 1982, 36). We thus attain a comprehension of the intricate and subtle mechanism of ideology, of the “imaginary relations” in which lived experience is mediated (Althusser 1971). Since the mediation of aesthetic codes and signifying conventions transforms the ideological raw materials (intuitions, beliefs, attitudes, feelings, rituals) in historically concrete ways, criticism needs to engage the two mutually constitutive moments of art as ideological form and as aesthetic/textual practice.
Given the novelty of this approach, crucial questions have been posed, among them: Is art ideology or truth? What role does this kind of critical practice play in elucidating the distinctions between art, ideology, and scientific knowledge? What are the political and ethical implications of these distinctions? Althusser’s inquiry into the confluence of epistemology and aesthetics may provide clues to a general response. In his essay “The ‘Piccolo Teatro’: Bertollazi and Brecht,” Althusser speculates on the idea of a materialist theater as a staging of an epistemological break with the ideological through various techniques of distanciation. In “A Letter on Art in Reply to Andre Daspre,” Althusser commends in particular Macherey’s reconstruction of Lenin’s symptomatic reading of Tolstoy’s writings. In this letter, Althusser enunciates cryptically his formula of what kind of knowledge or comprehension of society art affords through the intercession of criticism: “I believe that the peculiarity of art is to ‘make us see,’ ‘make us perceive,’ ‘make us feel’ something which alludes to reality….What art makes us see, and therefore gives to us in the form of ‘seeing,”perceiving’ and ‘feeling’ (which is not the form of knowing), is the ideology from which it is born, in which it bathes, from which it detaches itself as art, and to which it alludes” (1971, 204). Artistic practice then performs ideology, translates it into a vehicle capable of eventually producing concepts that would help construct a scientific knowledge of the lived experience refracted by ideology. Michael Sprinker succinctly encapsulates the rationale for Althusserian aesthetics: “The Althusserian science of art commences by giving the concept which would correspond to the phenomenon of the alienation-effect, since this effect is that which distinguishes the purely ideological from the aesthetic…. But the alienation-effect can also serve as a means for ideological interpellation, so that the work of art can therefore be said to function in two different ways: as the distantiation of ideological materials and as the production of a new ideology” (1987, 282).
Here I enter a parenthesis to call attention to the striking affinity between Althusser’s argument and Brecht’s program of inventing “alienation” effects that would destroy or displace the illusion of representation in bourgeois art. In plotting the strategy of the epic theater, Brecht aimed to destroy the fetishism (the imaginary coherence of the subject) in capitalist art and society that conceals the material structures (production process, institutions) underlying bourgeois legitimacy and the prevailing power relations. Inspired by the modes of juxtaposition and positioning in Chinese painting and theatrical performance, Brecht concentrated on the problem of how to achieve distanciation and displacement–what Stephen Heath (1992) designates as the “overturning movement between representation and production”–in order to promote a restructuring of perspective and induce revolutionary action. Althusser reads the Brechtian theater as an allegory of the critical practice he and Macherey are advocating:

The play itself is the spectator’s consciousness–for the essential reason that the spectator has no other consciousness than the content that unites him to the play in advance, and the development of this content in the play itself: the new result which the play produces from the self-recognition whose image and presence it is. Brecht was right: if the theater’s sole object were to be even a “dialectical” commentary on this eternal self-recognition and non-recognition–then the spectator would already know the tune, it is his own.  If, on the contrary, the theatre’s object is to destroy this intangible image, to set in motion the immobile, the eternal sphere of the illusory consciousnessness’s mythical world, then the play is really the development, the production of a new consciousness in the spectator–incomplete, like any other consciousness, but moved by this incompletion itself, this distance achieved, this inexhaustible work of criticism in action; the play is really the production of a new spectator, an actor who starts where the performance ends, who only starts so as to complete it, but in life (1969, 150-51).

In a prescient way, Brecht has formulated exactly what Althusser and Macherey intend to accomplish in their theory of criticism: “the dialectical transformation of the totality of subjects into a permanent crisis,” transforming “finished works into unfinished works” (Heath 1992, 255).
I return to Macherey and his exposition of Lenin’s attempt to put Tolstoy’s writing into a “crisis.” Here Macherey offers us clues on how one may arrive at a knowledge of the radical otherness of structure, its differential but determinate irregularity, through a series of displacements. When Lenin employs the metaphor of mirror to designate the “truthfulness” of Tolstoy’s rendering of historical reality, the metaphor functions not to copy or replicate (in facsimile) the real but to select from and even distort it. The reason lies in Tolstoy’s personal and ideological point of view, necessarily limited and spontaneous, a class position which does not know itself as such. Lenin then inserts the writer’s situation into the overdetermined totality of a revolutionary process which “is not a single conflict but a struggle articulated by a multiplicity of determinations” so that (following Althusser) “the historical process unfolds at several levels simultaneously” (1978, 121). This follows from the necessarily uneven development of the various practices in any society, with their unsynchronized tempo and rhythm. Circumscribed by the writer’s class position and his contradictory beliefs, Tolstoy’s work registers only partial glimpses of the whole revolutionary process; but in doing so, his art’s mirror paradoxically makes “visible its own blindness without actually seeing itself” and so cannot help but reveal the whole in which it is inscribed. Lenin as critic deciphers the problematic or the “unconscious” of the text by a symptomatic reading focused on the dissymmetry between the text and its ideology. The key conflict involves Tolstoy the writer’s impassioned protest against social injustice versus Tolstoy the landlord obsessed with Christ and quietist renunciation; the writer’s uncompromising realism countervails the preaching of passivity and nonviolence. While the first antithesis embraces the text and the contradictory site of its production, the second structures the content of the work itself: it places ideology in a relation of difference with itself, alluding to the “insufficiency” of the historical situation. In construing Tolstoy’s texts as “an indirect figuration which arises from the deficiencies of the reproduction,” given the incommensurable forces at play summarized by Lenin, Macherey contends that the disparities are not a reflection of the historical contradictions but rather “the consequences of the absence of this reflection.” Such absence arising from the dialectic between the texts and the historical process defines the singular architectonics of Tolstoy’s work.
Macherey discusses next how Lenin isolates Tolstoy’s ideology of the “patriarchal naive peasant” as the cause for such absence, rift, or lack in the text. Following Althusser’s thesis of ideology as the “imaginary relations” between humans and their world, the source of an imaginary unity that effaces all contradictions in actual life, Macherey points out how its presence in Tolstoy’s texts is interrogated in order to make it speak “its own absences”: “The text constructs a determinate image of the ideological, revealing it as an object rather than living it from within as though it were an inner conscience” (1978, 132). Tolstoy’s text deconstructs ideology, turns it inside out, breaks it apart, converts its myths and mystifications into “visible objects” in order to reveal their limits. “Even if the [specific] form of the text is itself ideological there is an internal displacement of ideology by virtue of this redoubling; this is not ideology contemplating itself, but the mirror-effect which exposes its insufficiency, revealing differences and discordances, or a significant incongruity… Science does away with ideology, obliterates it; literature challenges ideology by using it.  If ideology is thought of as a non-systematic ensemble of significations, the work proposes a reading of these significations by combining them as signs.  Criticism teaches us to read these signs” (133).
While the text is contextualized in a determinate network of relationships, this analysis does not eliminate any space for the reader’s (or writer’s) contestation, contrary to the notion that Althusserian structuralism rules out agency. In fact the opposite is true: the emphasis here is on active participation–production of a knowledge (aesthetic science) of the text as production of knowledge (transformative critique). The critic’s job is necessary and cannot be deferred if we want to transcend the seductive fetishism of the text and gain a scientific understanding of its historical conditions of possibility.
John Frow has summed up Macherey’s innovative procedure as the “displacement of the problematic of an expressive or representational relation between two disparate realms” (21): on one hand, the text is inscribed as a component in the general system of social production, its “institutional conditions of existence”; on the other, the text is conceived as “a distinct practice of signification which is related not to a nondiscursive truth but to other practices of signification” (1986, 21). On the whole, Macherey has cogently argued the case that literary production demands recognition as an autonomous mode of practice irreducible to an origin, ground or cause.
My purpose here is not to establish at this late date another sectarian orthodoxy but the humble one of trying to mark the frontier at which a scientific criticism initiated by Althusser’s “discoveries” has so far advanced. Macherey’s research program indicates a route for further exploration. Along this route, this pertinacious question often comes up: If the textual production of fiction, which unmasks by objectifying  ideological mirages, yields us knowledge through the mediation of criticism (symptomatic reading), what is the status of this knowledge compared to that attained in science? Note that this is a knowledge produced by critical practice or discourse, not by the literary text. David Forgacs observes that what we get from Macherey is a descriptive and non-evaluative theory because Macherey “does not see literary works as containing a knowledge of reality which the critic can judge as being either correct or not. He sees them rather as productions or workings of things in reality, and knowledge in his approach is something the critic brings to bear on them” (1982, 182). One way of responding to this is to echo Althusser’s assertion that symptomatic criticism is the enactment of class struggle in the field of literary criticism, an intervention whose ultimate political effects depend on the complex field of interacting practices. More challenging is the charge that Macherey’s theory is one more version of conventionalism (Terry Lovell [1980] indicts Althusser for this deviation in the context of reviewing the debates between Lukacs and modernists like Brecht).  Answers to these objections may be found in our effort to ascertain the “logic” of responsibility, even the ethics of conceptualizing agency, that informs Balibar and Macherey’s (1981) synthesis of Althusser, Freud, and Gramsci (I invoke the last thinker as the unacknowledged presiding spirit of their essay) in “On Literature as an Ideological Form.”
What Balibar and Macherey have set out to do here is precisely to supply the missing link between the scientific critical practice envisaged in A Theory of Literary Production and the arena of political mass struggle. They seek to clarify two questions integral to the articulation of first principles in aesthetics: first, how to explain the specific ideological mode of art (contradictory class positions of author and of text); and second, how to produce a scientific and historical analysis of aesthetic effects “within the ideological class struggle.” To understand the ideological mode of literature, its class position, what is required is “a theory of the history of literary effects,” their material condition of existence, their progressions and “tendential transformations.” Logically prior to the political appraisal is the preliminary groundwork of elucidating the aesthetic effectivity of the art work.
Before investigating the production of aesthetic effects in literature, however, Balibar and Macherey install their problematic within the materialist category of reflection. After upholding the ontological status of literature as material reflection of objective reality (reality existing independent of thought), they aver that the question of under what historical conditions can literature provide an accurate reflection hinges on “the relatively autonomous process of the history of science.” “Reflection,” in their construal, rejects empiricism by dispensing with the “mirror.” In order to avoid the false debate between “formalism” (which valorizes the form of reflection detached from its material determinants) and “realism” in its normative usage–this debate is resurrected in many anthologies (Lang and Williams 1972; Craig 1975; Adorno 1977)–it is necessary to adhere rigorously to the necessary constitutive order of the two successive problems addressed by Lenin in Materialism and EmpirioCriticism: first, the priority of the objectivity of reflection and the material reality of thought as reflection determined by the real which precedes and is irreducible to it; second, the exactitude of reflection or the form of reflection at issue that has a materialist implication only after the first problem, the objectivity of reflection, has been affirmed. The mistake of Lukacs and others is to subordinate the first problem (the material reality of the reflection) to the second (the form or exactitude of its “thought-content”), a reversal of the materialist order.  Consequently, we need to separate in a constitutive order the two aspects of (1) literature as an ideological form, and (2) the specific process of literary production.
In examining literature as an ideological form (not a system of ideas or mental reflections of external data), Balibar and Macherey invoke Althusser’s thesis in “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.” In that essay, Althusser (1971) anchors the materiality of ideology to concrete institutional practices. He argues that the conditions of capitalist production are reproduced through the mediation of forms of political-ethical subjection embodied in material practices/ideological apparatuses of the state (ISA): family, church, school, laws, parties, trade unions, and so on, all of which transform individuals into concrete subjects through interpellation. Ideology involves then not just ideas or beliefs but practices, action in time/space, the activity of institutions. Its primary motivation is practico-social: the reproduction of social relations of domination/subordination in class society (note that this idea differs from the epistemological status of ideology discussed earlier; see McLennan 1977; Therborn 1980).
Within this new framework, the material objectivity of literature and its ideological potency can be grasped only “through the workings and history of determinate practices in determinate social relations,” specifically through the workings of the ISAs. The ideological impact of literature can be spelled out through its linkage with an ensemble of social practices determining it: linguistic, pedagogic, and fictive. Literature’s status as a historic ideological form vis-a-vis the class struggle is revealed when it denies its objective base in, among others, “the contradictions of linguistic practice in schooling.” Balibar and Macherey underscore the centrality of the educational ISA in reproducing bourgeois hegemony. Within the mechanism of the schooling system, literary production is based on “the determinate processes and reproduction of the contradictory linguistic practices of the common tongue, in which the effectivity of the ideology of bourgeois education is realized” (86). Such contradictory practices are internalized through the labor of fiction, a mode of constitutive repression that reproduces bourgeois norms as dominant and thus testifies to class struggle pervading the structure of texts (for example, the  repression/resistance oscillation involving Midland dialect used by Nottingham miners and the formal English of the textual apparatus in D. H. Lawrence’s novels). When literature is presented as the work of individual genius, or the triumph of a homogenizing/synthesizing creativity and style (the axiomatic repertoire of formalist interpretation), we confront the “ideological form of literature” in this very process of distorting if not concealing altogether the political struggle inscribed in the linguistic, pedagogical, and fictive practices which determine its production.
We encounter finally the schema of a materialist analysis premised on the axiom that literature is “a practical, material process of transformation” (Macherey 1977, 3). Questions about “ideological form” cannot be divorced from an exploration of the specificity of ideological effects–not unifying effects but signs of historically determined contradictions generating these effects and “which appear as unevenly resolved conflicts in the text.” As noted earlier, the text is a reworking of the class contradictions manifest in linguistic, pedagogical and fictive practices; the last refers to the identification effect of interpellation. Here Balibar and Macherey deploy Althusser’s formulation (ideology = representation of the individual’s imaginary relationship to their actual conditions via social apparatuses) by defining texts as “imaginary” resolutions of irresolvable contradictions that constitute it. Using the mechanisms of symbolic figuration, displacement, condensation, and the like, the text displaces superimposed and discrepant ideological positions by redoubling or “substituting imaginary contradictions soluble within the ideological practice of religion, aesthetics, psychology” in a “language of compromise” (88-89). In this way the text stages the limits of an ideology in its inability to  subsume or erase completely an antagonistic ideology. “Style” (synonymous with F. R. Leavis’ “life” or Henry  James’s “thickness”) is the result of this displacement or compromise.
Since a Marxist science of criticism is not concerned with “realism” (a model and its representation) but with materialism, Balibar and Macherey define literature as a complex process or production of fiction-effects, more precisely “the provider of the material means for the production of fiction-effects.” Why “fiction effects”? Here is the crux of their argument. Granting that ideology (social practices attached to institutional apparatuses) functions as a mode of interpellating individuals into subjects (class subjects chiefly with rights, duties, etc.) “so that they perceive themselves as such,” literature as an ideological practice “produces simultaneously a reality effect and a fiction effect, emphasizing first one and then the other, interpreting each by each in turn but always on the basis of their dualism [complicity]” (91). The literary discourse itself “projects the presence of the ‘real’ in the manner of an hallucination” (in other words, an imaginary referent) but in doing so it unleashes a power of seduction sufficient to transform concrete individuals into subjects by endowing them with “a quasi-real hallucinatory individuality” (Belsey 1980). Bourgeois ideology requires the relation between a “subject” and objects outside it, the basis of the “reality effect” on which interpellation–the identification effect–pivots. Without the reality effect, it would appear that the fiction effect would degenerate into what Benjamin calls “aura,” a reflex of commodity fetishism and reification characterizing market-oriented society.
As a particular kind of ideological effect, the literary effect transpires within determinate social conditions; as a moment in the reproduction of the dominant ideology, it can be characterized as an ideological domination effect inserted within the reproduction of other effects: religious, juridical, political, etc. Proceeding from the textual labor expended to forge an imaginary resolution of lived contradictions, this domination effect (whereby subjects are engendered through interpellation by the textual apparatus) coincides with the process of literary consumption and other rituals such as interpretation, criticism, readings, and so on. The canonical text functions as one versatile agency for the reproduction of the dominant ideology in its ramifications. Through the domination effect, the text induces the proliferation of “new” discourses that reproduce the hegemonic consensus in its audience of readers; in this context, “subjection means domination and repression by the literary artifice of a discourse deemed ‘inarticulate’ and ‘faulty’ and inadequate for the expression of complex ideas and feelings” (96). With specific reference to liberal democratic society, Balibar and Macherey locate the basis of the production of the literary domination effect in the structure and historical role of the dominant ISA of schooling insofar as the text “moves tendentially via the effects of literary ‘style’ and linguistic forms of compromise.” In foregrounding the dialectical movement of contradictions in a complex articulated whole, Balibar and Macherey not only answer the ubiquitous question of form versus content but also locate the space for the critic’s political intervention. In this problematic, I think, one can find an analogy to the “weak link” discerned in the text, that “risk” of constantly negotiated compromise where a strategy for counterhegemonic resistance can be mounted: “The effect of domination realized by literary production presupposes the presence of the dominated ideology within the dominant ideology itself.  It implies the constant ‘activation’ of the contradiction and its attendant ideological risk–it thrives on this very risk which is the source of its power…. Class struggle is not abolished in the literary text and the literary effects which it produces” (97).
With this argument that one inescapable effect of a text is its constant activation of ideological conflict, the practice of critical analysis not only produces knowledge (of the text’s disruptive processing of its raw materials) but also gestures toward a distanciating judgment of the mystifying power of aesthetic experience–a twofold effect that can then interpellate individuals to be agents of a revolutionary rupture. Acts of transgression are always possible if this “activation of contradiction”–the agenda of Brecht’s theater of narrative “estrangement,” of Gramsci’s “organic” intellectuals–is seized by a historic bloc to mobilize the masses and transform the prevailing hierarchy of power. Otherwise, it will only induce a catharsis that reproduces the status quo.
Without foreclosing any options, we have yet to deal with the issue of whether the discrimination of aesthetic value forms an integral part of a materialist critique, a “science of the text” within historical materialism, which has been raised by several commentators (Eagleton 1976; Bennett 1979). This evokes again the contentious problem of the relation between theoretical  and political practice, that is, between the role of committed Marxist intellectuals in the West and the exigencies of a global revolutionary movement against capitalist domination.   Ultimately, the research program envisioned by Balibar and Macherey seeks to address not so much the appreciation of aesthetic value as the legitimacy of the normative order that privileges, among others, literary texts and works of art as enduring monuments of world civilization. Are questions like “Should the surplus value of socialized labor continue to be expropriated by the corporate elite?” put into crisis by texts or normalized?  We also cannot completely ignore the naive, unmediated query from our “spontaneous” and scandalized alter ego: Can a controversy over tropes, interpellation, or symptomatic reading trigger a crisis of systemic legitimation?
Seen from the perspective of traditional critical inquiry, Balibar and Macherey’s claims may seem outrageously ambitious.  But whether we like it or not, Althusser’s intervention has radically altered the terrain of contemporary critical theory. Given the continuing debate on the nature of ideology, textual structure, and kindred topics, Balibar and Macherey’s approach cannot be dismissed as ingeniously eclectic, a mere bricolage of elements gathered from the Enlightenment archive. Nonetheless I think what is needed–Balibar and Macherey implicitly recognize this in a 1982 interview–is the insertion of “theoretical practice” into the current world-system conjuncture so as to test and gauge its practical efficacy, its precise contribution to enhancing popular movements for radical transformation everywhere. This is probably what Fredric Jameson, the brilliant  practitioner of an unashamedly totalizing metacommentary which acknowledges the value of Althusser, had in mind when he wrote in The Political Unconscious:

…the Althusserian/Marxist conception of culture requires this multiplicity [of discrepant elements] to be reunified, if not at the level of the work itself, then at the level of its process of production, which is not random [like the semiotics of Barthes, for instance] but can be described as a coherent functional operation in its own right.  The current post-structural celebration of discontinuity and heterogeneity is therefore only an initial moment in Althusserian exegesis, which then requires the fragments, the incommensurable levels, the heterogeneous impulses, of the text to be once again related, but in the mode of structural difference and determinate contradiction” (1981, 56; see Dowling 1984).

Without this theorem of a differentiated and complex whole (which Althusser claims is Marx’s original discovery), it is difficult to theorize the reciprocal play of the specific effectivities of practices on one another and on the whole social totality, and in the same breath also identify the conjuncture in which cultural institutions, critical practice, and ethico-political calculation might converge. Such a convergence would of course witness the long-awaited revolutionary crisis that, to our postmodern sensibilities, appears only in the shape of the litterateur’s nostalgic desire for the millennial apocalypse.
For Gramsci, the study of language and literature served as an index of history, a testimony anticipating the advent of a genuine popular-democratic, emancipatory future. It can be a point of departure for a personal or collective “inventory” of differences, especially in the contemporary world where the universal reign of the commodity–liberal pluralism, computerized mass consumption, U.S.-ordained “New World Order”–threatens to reduce everything into an intolerably tedious repetition of the Same. Such a point of departure nonetheless will have to risk learning the lessons of the theoretical adventure begun by Althusser, Balibar, and Macherey.


The importance for Marx of this distinction between the real object and the object of knowledge as a guarantee against falling into nominalism (conventionalism) and idealism is stressed by Althusser (1990) in “Is it Simple to be a Marxist in Philosophy?”

One recalls how Balibar and Macherey (1982), interviewed by two American experts on Althusser, disavowed “Althusserianism” and appealed–in a revealing symptomatic gesture–for a return to Marx’s texts!

E. SAN JUAN, Jr.  will be 2009 Fellow of the WEB Du Bois Institute at Harvard University. His recent books are IN THE WAKE OF TERROR: CLASS, RACE, NATION AND ETHNICITY IN THE POSTMODERN WORLD (Lexington Books), US IMPERIALISM AND REVOLUTION IN THE PHILIPPINES (Palgrave), BALIKBAYANG SINTA: AN E. SAN JUAN READER (Ateneo University Press), and FROM GLOBALIZATION TO NATIONAL LIBERATION (University of the Philippines Press).


About philcsc

E.SAN JUAN, Jr. directs the Philippines Cultural Studies Center, Washington DC, USA and lectures at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines, Manila, Philippines.
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2 Responses to MARXIST AESTHETICS: On Macherey & Althusser

  1. Pingback: MARXIST AESTHETICS: On Macherey & Althusser | BayTech Research & Development

  2. vagabond67 says:

    An invaluable recent book on Althusser and Macherey (specifically on literature and art) is Warren Montag’s book “Louis Althusser” (Palgrave, 2003). You can download a sample chapter as a PDF at

    Please note that the index and contents page on the file are incorrect. The PDF does, however, include the entire first chapter of the book.

    If I may indulge in some self-promotion I would also recommend the special issue of borderlands e-journal on Althusser edited by myself, which you can access online free of charge at

    I would also suggest Warren Montag’s book on Spinoza (Bodies, Masses, Power) and collection of Macherey’s essays (In A Materialist Way), both of which were published by Verso in 1998-1999.

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