Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Unordinary Rain

Louis Althusser’s elliptical and unfinished book project, “The Underground Current of the Materialism of the Encounter,” begins with a “semi-autobiographical” chapter, which I would just call it autobiographical, and then turns, at a later point, to rain. I am interested in this text for many reasons, not least among them its elusive autobiographical details, its fragmented and interrupted nature, and the end that it marks of a period of silence, at least of writerly silence. He begins in October 1982, writing “For, in November 1980, in the course of a severe, unforeseeable crisis that had left me in a state of mental confusion, I strangled my wife” (Philosophy of the Encounter: later writings, 1978-1987, 164). The essay that is included here as what the editors call the core of his ideas about the materialism of the encounter, “Portrait of the Materialist Philosopher,” was written during a period of rehospitalization, from June to July 1986. He begins:

"It is raining.

Let this book therefore be, before all else, a book about ordinary rain.

Malabranche wondered ‘why it rains upon sands, upon highways and seas’, since this water from the sky which, elsewhere, waters crops (and that is very good), adds nothing to the water of the sea, or goes to waste on the roads and beaches.

Our concern will not be with that kind of rain, providential or anti-providential.

Quite the contrary: this book is about another kind of rain, about a profound theme which runs through the whole history of philosophy, and was contested and repressed there as soon as it was stated: the ‘rain’ of Epicurus’ atoms that fall parallel to each other in the void…"

The rain that he goes on to detail is the rain of Lucretius’ atoms, the “’rain’ of the parallelism of the infinite attributes” (167). In particular, he is discussing the moment of breaking from this parallelism: the instance of the swerve, the presence of the clinamen, and the non-anteriority of meaning. It is only in the matter of a few lines that the book goes from being about ordinary rain to being about unordinary rain. “Before all else” it is “about” ordinary rain, but “quite the contrary,” it is also “about” another kind of rain. What indeed holds these rains in common? At first Althusser seems to dismiss from consideration the impact of the rain, that is, the meaning of the rain as it pertains to where it falls, i.e. “providential or anti-providential.” But in fact, this point returns in his discussion of the parallelism of atoms in a void, for it colors the impression of the void with this determination that falling lands upon something. His point is to foreground the role of contingency over necessity, and to counter the long history of the rewriting of the materialism of the encounter as the “ideal of freedom” (168). For Althusser, the materialism of the encounter, the “swerve,” contingency, has been “interpreted, repressed, and perverted” into a moment that requires, rather than produces, its opposite. The subordination of contingency to necessity always results in an idealization of freedom. The import of the dynamics at play in this moment—in the difference between Althusser’s mode and the mode that he finds elsewhere—is their relation to political activity. Everywhere it is implied that this is the stake. The production of the ideal of freedom is equal to depoliticization, and describes how acts of depoliticizing occur as acts of rewriting—how the contingent encounter becomes a necessity, in the process evacuating all of the particulars of the contingency of their political content. I am thinking of arguments about how, for example, the history of resistance literature has become rewritten as the history of prison literature, but there are many other ways to think about how discourses that take “freedom” as an ideal actively work against political activity. Althusser’s insistence on the originary and non-derivative nature of the swerve involves a figure of transformation that is non-compulsive, that mandates nothing, including change.

The introduction and retraction of “ordinary rain,” the figure which begins this fragment of his thought, resembles this operation. “Before all else,” he will go on to say, there is “nothing,” and nothing is also the whole, the entirety of all that there is (it is why Spinoza, for example, begins with god and not with the world or with man). Wishing to let the book be “before all else” about ordinary rain, about the “accomplished fact” of the rain, Althusser can only observe this rain, a sign of an world outside the hospital. The question that arises about ordinary rain, of whether it is “good” or “bad,” depending upon where it falls, is one that does not matter for the type of unordinary rain that Althusser goes on to say this book is really “about.” Still, this question which has first been raised only to be dismissed, lingers in the text. The question of providentiality becomes one of how fleeting encounters can become lasting, indeed how durability and perseverance can and cannot be assured simply by the “reality of the accomplished fact.” He writes, “Nothing guarantees that the reality of the accomplished fact is the guarantee of its durability.” The statement is not merely negative, that durability cannot be guaranteed by reality, by the fact that something has happened. The rain, for example, will stop. “Nothing,” “ordinary rain,” that which comes “before all else,” makes a guarantee; it establishes the relation between contingency and necessity, the non-equivalence between “reality” and “guarantee,” by making itself the subject. “Nothing” can only take place as the subject, however, by containing an internal difference between providentiality and anti-providentiality, one which announces the political being of the subject, its usefulness, its capacity to be used by others. Rain, raining.

picture: Patton Place, bien sur.

1 comment:

RT said...

I just re-encountered (so to speak) this text from another direction, through Miguel Vatter, "Machiavelli After Marx: the Self-Overcoming of Marxism in the Late Althusser" (Theory & Event 7:4). I'm impressed, with it, and also with Vatter's attempt to make late Althusser mean that Marx missed the co-construction of "revolution" and the "state machine." I.e., it's the perspective of the "state machine" that makes struggle appear as a repressed real. "This antithetical relation between the 'real' of the struggle and the 'symbolic' of the political is itself the result of the self-separating power of the political that at one and the same time bars the 'real movement' of social struggle by instituting it as the revolutionary basis of the state." This isn't pitched as a refutation of Lacan by Althusser, but it sounds like it.