[UPDATE 13 Jan 2012: Stuart Elden directs us to this interview with the translator, Susan Ruddick; see also this post on where to start in studying Macherey, and here for a sample chapter of Hegel or Spinoza.]
Beginnings without Ends. A review of Pierre Macherey, Hegel or Spinoza, translated by Susan M Ruddick. University of Minnesota Press, 2011.
By Jason Read
The recent translation into English of Pierre Macherey’s 1979 work, Hegel ou Spinoza, not only exposes a philosophical classic to a new group of readers, but also fills in a gap in understanding the history and legacy of those who gathered in the nineteen sixties to produce Lire le Capital alongside Louis Althusser -- Etienne Balibar, Pierre Macherey and Jacques Rancière, three scholars who are sometimes called “Althusserians.” The current translation thus belongs alongside that of Jacques Rancière’s La Leçon du Althusser, Althusser’s Lesson (Continuum, 2011). Whereas Rancière’s book could be read as a refutation of Althusser’s project, revealing the hierarchical conception of knowledge that subverted his commitment to radical politics, Macherey’s book introduces “subterranean” aspects, so that we now see that the project which gave us such concepts as “symptomatic reading” and “materialistic dialectic” was as much a transformation of philosophy as it was a reading of Marx. The translation of Hegel or Spinoza is thus not only the publication of an important text, but a restoration of a bit of intellectual history, and thereby the precondition for new futures.
This lag between writing and translation poses a particular problem when it is situated against the backdrop of Macherey’s subsequent writings. It is possible to argue that Macherey’s 1979 book was at least in part a reaction to Althusser’s provocative claim that “we made the detour via Spinoza in order to clarify our understanding of Marx's detour via Hegel”(Althusser 1976, 134). Marx, or the history of Marxism, here functions as a silent partner in the relationship between Hegel and Spinoza. The central opposition that Macherey locates between Hegel and Spinoza, that of teleology, a direction for history, is a problem for Marxist theory and politics, as well as being the central object of Althusser’s project to think of history as a process “without subjects or goals.” The task of thinking a Marxism without teleology, without a guaranteed succession of modes of production, seems to be only more pressing after the crises of actually existing socialism and capitalism, in which it is harder to imagine a definite direction for history. For many this collapse of metanarratives was a collapse of the Marxist project itself.
In the years following the publication of Hegel ou Spinoza, however, Macherey has deepened his understanding of Spinoza and broadened his engagement with Hegel and the early Marx. As the preface to the second edition makes clear, this has transformed Macherey’s position with respect to Spinoza and Hegel: the polemical exclusive disjunction “or” has been replaced with the inclusive disjunction “and,” or sive (Macherey 2011, p.5). The task is not to choose between Team Hegel and Team Spinoza, but to interrogate each by means of the other, to arrive at the point where the two philosophies are not reconciled into one, as a kind of dialectical sublation, but are intensified through their difference. Given the fact that opposition between Spinoza and Hegel, or between immanence and dialectics, has only continued in the thirty years since its publication, drawing a line of demarcation that divides neo-Hegelians such as Zizek against neo-Spinozists such as Negri, Macherey’s critical reading of their relation is perhaps even more timely. Paradoxically it is a book titled Hegel or Spinoza that makes it possible to move beyond the sterile opposition of camps. The translation of Macherey’s book is thus framed between the incomplete project of Althusserian philosophy that it continues, and the current conjuncture of its reception.
This bridge between past and future, between old projects and new antagonisms, can be seen by looking at two of the book’s central arguments, the critique of Hegel’s interpretation of Spinoza and the argument for what could be a dialectic, or at the very least a dynamic, internal to Spinoza’s thought. With respect to the former, Macherey’s book is primarily concerned with Hegel’s reading, or misreading, of Spinoza. As such it revives and continues the idea of symptomatic reading, articulated by Louis Althusser in his contribution to Reading Capital. In that text Althusser argued that Marx’s reading of classical political economy, the works of Adam Smith and David Ricardo, interrogated these texts for their “answers to questions not posed” and “questions without answers.” These gaps and lacunae are read not as simple subjective failings, but as the fundamental limitations of a given intellectual orientation: what it cannot see is understood to be a kind of constitutive blindness, the limitation of certain questions in its field. Althusser’s method has been cited in the years that follows as part of the decade that interrogated the “meaning of the ‘simplest’ acts of existence: seeing, listening, speaking—reading the acts which relate men to their works, and to those works thrown in their faces, their absence of works” (Althusser 2009, 16). However, many of the citations of Althusser’s method view the symptoms it reveals as simple failings, or as a kind of ideological critique in which the symptoms are symptoms of the external social situation. Macherey’s reading of Hegel not only brings this method to center of philosophy, but restores the project of symptomatic reading to an examination of the internal limits of a thought, rather than simply signs of its external context.
Hegel’s reading of Spinoza is well known. As much as Hegel asserts the prominence of Spinoza as the beginning point for any philosophy, as starting from absolute substance, it remains only a starting point, trapped its immediacy. From that point forward Hegel’s reading becomes even less kind, bordering on the macabre in viewing Spinoza’s death by consumption as a symptom of his philosophy in which all differences and determinations give away to one undifferentiated substance. Hegel’s reading provides the impetus for his own philosophy: the task is to think the absolute not just as substance but also as subject. Macherey argues that Hegel’s reading is not only flawed -- failing to grasp the internal dynamic of Spinoza’s thought, a dynamism based on the productivity of the causa sui and not the immediate givenness of the absolute -- but that what it fails to grasp is the proximity of Hegel to Spinoza. Macherey details this proximity in the chapter on Spinoza’s infamous “geometric method,” in which he argues that despite the supposed more geometrico, Hegel and Spinoza share a similar opposition to any instrumental idea of method. For both Spinoza and Hegel thought is not some method, exterior to the reality that it represents, but is part of the immanent unfolding of thought. This is well known with respect to Hegel, whose Phenomenology of Spirit opens with an trenchant critique of the futility of any method for securing truth, but is equally true of Spinoza for whom “method does not precede the development of knowledge, but it expresses it, or reflects it” (Macherey 2011, p. 43). This immanence of method to thought can clearly be seen in the Theological-Political Treatise, in which the method for interpreting scripture can only be produced through a reading of scripture, but it also calls for a rereading of the opening passages of the Ethics, which Macherey argues is less a matter of starting from the absolute than working through the rough logic of substance and attribute (Macherey 2011, p. 51).
The reason that Hegel cannot grasp the proximity of his thought to Spinoza, seeing him as nothing but a failed starting point of his own project, is that he cannot grasp Spinoza’s critical stance toward Hegel’s own position, for, according to Macherey, Spinoza is the ultimate critic of teleology and totality. Hegel’s misreading of the substance / attribute / mode relation as a failed dialectic, lacking negation and determination, fails to see what defines Spinoza’s thought, that of the infinite productivity of substance and the infinite causal relations that determine every mode. Substance can never become subject, interiorized and comprehended, because substance is nothing other than the name for the infinite determination and relation that defines every finite thing. Hegel’s demand that the true must be grasped “not only as substance, but as subject” fails to grasp the way in which Spinoza has moved beyond any philosophy of the subject, from man to his various stand-ins from God to history, to posit nature as the non-totalizable series of determinations. As Macherey writes, “The God of the Ethics is not a totality of determinations, arranged in a rational order by the logic of the their development of their system” (Macherey 2011, 183). To become subject, even as subject of history, is to subordinate this infinity of relations to interiority, reducing the multiplicity of determinations to a single direction.
Macherey continues the idea of symptomatic reading from Althusser; in each case the symptom, what is not seen, is the inherent limitation of the thinker in question. If Marx’s symptomatic reading demonstrated that Smith could not comprehend the value form, could not think the historicity of the concepts of economics, then Macherey’s reading of Hegel demonstrates how much his thought remains tied to the idealist categories of representation, subject, and telos. Spinoza then appears not as Hegel’s failed starting point, the substance that would need to become subject, but as the philosopher who saw in advance the limitations of Hegel’s idealism.
Thus Macherey shifts the symptomatic reading from the realm of political economy, where blindness and insight are mired in the politics of class struggle, to philosophy, in which the conflicts are less immediately tied to interests and politics. The restoration of the philosophical dimension of symptomatic reading has a cost, however, in that it positions Hegel and Spinoza as two different systems confronting each other only through the black lines and white spaces of the text itself. Aside from some interesting and suggestive remarks on their different positions with respect to the university -- Spinoza refused the very position at Heidelberg that Hegel would later accept -- Macherey reads each thinker as a “kingdom within a kingdom,” writing according to the necessities (and limits) of their respective philosophical systems. What is missing is not context, at least in its conventional sense, but precisely what Macherey argues links Spinoza (and Hegel’s) philosophical position. If the opening of the Ethics cannot be understood as a foundation, as starting from the absolute, because we have always already begun. As Macherey writes,
There is no introduction to understanding, no correct method to know, because it is only in its effective practice that thought can be considered, as a real activity of mind that puts to work, and submits to proof its own power, which it forms in its practice. (Macherey 2011, 50)
There is no starting place for philosophy precisely because “man thinks,” we are already within thought. Truth or knowledge must then be the result of the work that thought performs on itself.
This is a perspective shared by both Spinoza and Hegel, who both dispense with method as an external guarantee of thought in favor of thought’s immanent unfolding. However, this is not just something that Hegel and Spinoza state but also something demonstrated in the development of their works. The Phenomenology of Spirit is an engagement with the entire historicity of thought, from the ancient Greek city-state to empiricism and the enlightenment. The same engagement with what “man thinks,” with the historicity of thought can be seen in Spinoza’s work, not just the Theological-Political Treatise, which deals with Scripture as the basis for political and epistemological authority, but also the Ethics, which from the influential Appendix throughout the scholia engages with and dismantles the existing common sense of its time, the anthropomorphic concept of God and anthropocentric concept of nature.
The works of Spinoza and Hegel are situated in their history, and as much as they offer something that exceeds their conjuncture, something that fuels philosophical thought today, they do so by engaging with their historical conditions. It is at this point that historical hindsight becomes a factor. As I have already noted, Macherey’s later works are in some sense dedicated to working through the intersections of philosophy and history, an intersection that exceeds any easy demarcation of context and text, or ideology and philosophy, which makes the anachronism of the delayed translation of Hegel or Spinoza stand out even more. This is not so much a criticism, at least in any damning sense, as it is an indication that Hegel or Spinoza is as much a starting point for Macherey’s reflection as it is a response to certain provocations articulated by Althusser. In fact, Macherey’s later work on philosophy would develop Spinoza’s idea of the situated and productive nature of knowledge into both a reading of Spinoza and a theory of philosophical practice (Read 2007, p.516).
If Macherey’s later work reveals something of the limitations of Hegel or Spinoza’s approach, his conclusions better withstand the test of time. Macherey rejects Hegel’s conclusion that Spinoza’s thought lacks both determination and negation, but he also distances himself from readers such as Deleuze and Negri who see in Spinoza nothing other than a pure thought of affirmation. The question for Macherey is not to find in Spinoza a philosophy of affirmation opposed to negation, but, in the spirit of non opposite sed diversa (not opposed but different), to think through a materialist dialectic. As Macherey writes,
What is or what would be a dialectic that functioned in the absence of all guarantees, in absolute causal manner, without a prior orientation that would establish within it, from the beginning, the principle of absolute negativity, without the promise that all the contradictions in which it engages are by rights resolved, because they carry within them the conditions of their resolution? (Macherey 2011, p. 213)
It is this question that Macherey closes the book with, but the sketch of an answer is given in his discussion of determination within Spinoza’s thought. Determination in Spinoza is situated between two infinites: the conatus, the striving that is the essence of each thing, and the infinite series of causal relations that modify each thing. Every singular thing is situated in this relation between its striving and relation, a relation which is more than the relation between interior and exterior, affirmation and negation, and as such it is without the negation of negation, without a telos or resolution. This idea of a materialist dialectic was Althusser’s original project, and Macherey’s book has the merit of demonstrating how important this project is and how integral the work of Spinoza and Hegel is to it.
Althusser, Louis 1976, Essays in Self-Criticism, translated by Grahame Lock, London: New Left Books.
Althusser, Louis 2009, “From Capital to Marx’s Philosophy,” in Reading Capital, translated by Ben Brewster, London: Verso.
Macherey, Pierre 1998, In a Materialist Way: Selected Essays, Edited by Warren Montag, translated by Ted Stolze, London: Verso.
Macherey, Pierre 2011, Hegel or Spinoza, translated by Susan Ruddick, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota.
Read, Jason 2007, “The Order and Connection of Ideas: Theoretical Practice in Macherey’s Turn to Spinoza,” Rethinking Marxism 19, 500-20.