The Passion of the Concept

Peter Hallward & Knox Peden (eds.), Concept & Form, Volume One: Key Texts from the Cahiers pour l’Analyse

Verso, 272pp, £16.99, ISBN 9781844678723

reviewed by Matt Ellison

The essays collected in Concept and Form, Volume One, many of them appearing for the first time in English, mark the most fruitful period in 20th century French intellectual history. The Cahiers pour l’Analyse was a journal founded in 1966 and edited by Jacques-Alain Miller, Jean-Claude Milner, Alain Grosrichard and François Regnault, a group of Louis Althusser’s former students at the École Normale Supérieure (ENS) in Paris. The journal continued Althusser’s philosophical and political project, which during the 1950s had argued for a ‘return to science’ and involved an anti-humanist rejection of philosophies of consciousness and lived experience. Such modes of thought - influenced by Husserl and Heidegger and pre-eminently represented in France by Sartre - sought to interpret the world as it appeared to individual consciousness and, more problematically, sought to account for complex political and social reality in terms of individual responsibility and freely willed projects.

This humanistic-subjective approach, though avowedly Marxist, was for Althusser and his students radically inadequate to the tasks of describing objective economic and political relations and effecting revolutionary change. A simplistic appeal to the immediacy of lived experience, permeated as it is by ideological illusions which serve only to perpetuate the status quo, was at best misguided and unscientific and, at worst, ‘profoundly reactionary’. What was needed for any project aiming at genuine political change was rather a rigorously scientific form of ‘theoretical training [formation théorique]’, capable of patrolling the boundary between science and ideology and accounting for the profound - yet inaccessible in the world of sense - mechanisms which structure reality. The object of study could only be a strictly intelligible concept, produced as it were ex nihilo, and therefore uncontaminated by the ‘closure of ideology’ As Peter Hallward points out in his useful introduction to this volume, it was necessary to abandon the absurd passions and Sisyphean strivings of the individual and instead embrace what Michel Foucault had called ‘the passion of the concept’.

For Althusser and his students true scientific advancements come about not through the gradual accumulation of sense experiences, but through ruptures épistémologiques, openings that create these new concepts independently of experience. It is not therefore surprising that Althusser saw a great affinity between his theory and Lacanian psychoanalysis, which also considers the subject to be an effect of the structure, a mere misrecognition of the way things really are. Importantly, too, psychoanalysis constructs as its object of knowledge a primordial - if imperceptible - underlying structure. In Lacan’s discourse this is the unconscious, which, as is the case with Althusser’s theory of structure, is not intuitable, but inferred from its effects.

Much of the material in the Cahiers pour l’Analyse builds upon this conjunction of Althusserian and Lacanian theories of structure and subject. In fact, four of the eleven essays taken from the Cahiers that comprise this volume were originally given as papers at Lacan’s seminar, which, at Althusser’s invitation, had relocated to the ENS following Lacan’s expulsion from the International Psychoanalytic Association in 1963. The essays found in Concept and Form span the 10 volumes of the Cahiers, the last of which was published in the winter of 1969. Written by Miller, Milner, Grosrichard and Regnault, as well as Alain Badiou, Yves Duroux and Serge Leclaire, the texts engage with and offer structuralist readings of a dizzying range of subjects and thinkers: one finds, for example, expositions of Plato on being, appearance and science (Milner, Regnault); complex engagements with Frege’s theories of logic and arithmetic (Miller, Duroux, Leclaire and Badiou); a historical account of ‘Molyneux’s problem’, an 18th-century epistemological thought experiment (Grosrichard); and in ‘The Thought of the Prince’ an extraordinary reading of questions of politics, materialism and right in Machiavelli and Descartes (Regnault).

While there is, to be sure, much to be gained from reading these pieces individually, the single most important theme for the eleven essays here - perhaps for the Cahiers as a whole - is the relation between structure and subject, or what Althusser called ‘structural causality’, understood as that which ‘produces the various instances, dimensions and subjects of a society as its effects.’ Concept and Form in fact stages part of the debate on structure and subject that took place between the Cahiers’ contributors, and in certain respects, the debate was one between Althusserians and Lacanians.

Miller’s essays ‘Action of the Structure’ and ‘Suture (Elements of the Logic of the Signifier)’ - now classic texts in Lacanian thought - provide the starting point for this dialogue. With the aim of conjoining the discourses of Marxism and psychoanalysis, Miller argues that contra the relentless structuralism of Althusser, for whom the subject can only perform an ideological function, ‘an exact integration of the lived into the structural must now be made to operate’. In other words, Miller’s contributions in Concept and Form seek to reintroduce the subject into structuralism. Nonetheless, while the subject is for Miller ‘ineliminable’, a ‘structuralist subjectivity’ cannot be conceived along the lines of any self-sufficient ego. Rather, he insists, the subject must remain ‘subjected [assujetti]’ or constituted by the structure, and not constitutive of it.

In order to try to account for structural causality, or the ‘relation of the subject to the chain of its discourse’, Miller uses the term ‘suture’. Suture denotes the process, both particular and universal - by which the human being’s essential lack (the unconscious subject of desire) is covered over - or sutured - by an illusory subject position. Suture is, Miller argues, the very ‘action of the structure‘ itself, dissimulating the subject’s essential lack and producing him or her in the signifying structure. It names the conjunction of the imaginary and symbolic (language, discourse) orders, providing the subject with a false impression of plenitude or coherence, and is the precondition for saying “I”. Indeed, ‘anyone who says “I”’ sutures, and does so as a mere stand-in or ‘place-holder [lieu-tenant]’ within a structure. In ‘Suture (Elements of the Logic of the Signifier)’ Miller demonstrates his theory through recourse to notions of self-identity and non-self-identity in Frege’s theory of numbers.

Though suture names a kind of closure - the sewing up of the subject’s illusory place within ideology - Miller suggests that it is paradoxically also the site of an opening which may be exploitable for the purposes of changing the structure. In a vocabulary that will be familiar to readers of deconstructive thought, Miller writes:

‘Every structure, in our sense of the term...includes a lure or decoy [leurre] which takes the place of the lack, which is linked to what is perceived, but which is the weakest link of the given sequence, a vacillating point which belongs only in appearance to the plane of actuality: the whole virtual plane (the plane of the structuring space) crushes down at that point [s’y écrase].’

As the subject’s relation to the structure, the suture is at once the crucial point of every structure and its most vulnerable point. Scientific analysis of this place, Miller claims, may enable us to gain a better understanding of structural causality and therefore provide an opening for radical political change.

Two of the contributions which follow Miller’s critically respond to his articulation of suture. In the extremely dense ‘Mark and Lack: On Zero’, Badiou takes issue with Miller’s piece and argues, in a more Althusserian vein, that the concept of suture is of little use to genuine scientific investigation (and, for that matter, historical materialism), and is rather ‘the characteristic property of the signifying order wherein the subject comes to be barred - namely, ideology’. Badiou, who considers the right approach to science to be what he elsewhere terms an ‘idealising mathematism’, provocatively concludes that this form of ‘psychoanalysis has nothing to say about science, even if it can teach us great deal about the scientists who serve it’.

Leclaire, himself a practising analyst, offers a direct response to Miller in the short piece ‘The Analyst in his Place?’. Leclaire asks that if suture is both a universal and a particular concept, and if, therefore, ‘everyone who says “I”’ sutures (including the analyst himself), what implications does this have for the claims of psychoanalysis to be a strict science? Instead, he wants to secure a privileged place for the analyst. Leclaire insists, not unproblematically, that ‘the analyst does not suture’ and that consequently ‘the position of the psychoanalyst is irreducible to all others’ because he does not cover over the workings of the unconscious. The analyst must not occupy a sutured place and is in fact ‘more like the subject of the unconscious, which is to say he has has no place and cannot have one’. Leclaire concludes that ‘only one thing is sure: the day the analyst arrives in his place, there will no longer be any analysis’.

These debates are by no means exhausted by the texts translated in this volume, and the concept of suture would go on to provide a stimulus for much further debate on the position of the analyst and the status of science as such. Suture has also become a key issue in the field of cinema theory, where it has come to denote the techniques by which the viewer is produced as subject. The texts will therefore be of particular relevance to those interested in questions of cinema and subjectivity.

Though at times extremely dense, this collection of essays from the Cahiers pour l’Analyse offers a fascinating insight into what was a remarkably productive period in the history of European philosophy. It also has continuing significance for thought today; both because the Cahiers dealt with the timeless question of the status of science as distinct from ideology, and because their editors - especially Miller and Badiou - would go on to to become prominent intellectuals in their own right. This book clearly demonstrates their precociousness - Miller, for example, was just 21 when he presented his paper on the concept of suture at Lacan’s seminar.

This volume’s significance is not restricted to the domains of intellectual history and philosophy, however. Although Althusser’s approach to philosophy was harshly scientific, theoretical training was always delivered in with the aim of determining the means of action necessary for effecting revolutionary change. It is therefore necessary to pose the question of whether the texts collected in Concept and Form, Volume One can be of any use for radical political action today. Structuralism seemed to have faded by the end of the 1960s (recall the oft-quoted May 68 slogan ‘structures don’t take to the streets!’), and it is true that to today’s readers of critical theory, some of these essays may appear somewhat outmoded in their approach. Nevertheless, the general thrust of the Cahiers’ arguments - the necessity of focussing on structures and not subjective agency - still holds. Indeed, given that the world’s inequalities are now often naïvely blamed on individual greed, and given the current proliferation of moralising attacks which consider symbols of injustice - bankers, corporations - to be causes of the system rather than its effects, it would seem that the Cahiers pour l’Analyse are of critical relevance for us today.