December 14, 2009

It's Irrefutable!

"Althusser informs us that 'it is an irrefutable fact that the Family is the most powerful State Ideological Apparatus'" (from Tony Judt's 1994 New Republic review article, reprinted in his recent book "Reappraisals"). I sometimes tend to think it's more like state ideology is the most powerful family apparatus, in all the engendered senses of that inversion, but that's just a detail, right? After all, Althusser's talking irrefutable fact here, so he can't be wrong, right?

Despite his obvious humourless totalitarian tendencies and socially unperceptive work (and life, for that matter), Althusser was once taken Very Seriously Indeed by people I knew and respected in Sydney, and I'm sure somewhere in the stash of books I left with my brother when I moved to London there's a dog-eared copy of "For Marx" or "Reading Capital" (probably both). Reading Althusser as an engineering student who was also doing a serious history and philosophy of science (HPS) second major was a transformative experience, but not in the way it probably was for most non-techie readers. More than the deliberately obtuse and jargon-laden prose (seemingly designed to do the familiar trick of being allusive without actually pinning Althusser down to anything you could test or criticise without him (or his acolytes) protesting that you'd misread or misunderstood him), I think it was his misuse of the words "science" and "scientific" that did it for me. It's that classic sleight-of-hand shell game equivocation where a hollowed-out version of "science" is used as a stand-in for something quite different, but still lends it the aura of objectivity (the dead giveaway with Althusser is that nothing non-trivial in science is an irrefutable fact). And I was left with the stark difference between the "show the work" and "evoke the metaphor" poles of my then-academic reading life….

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