Our co-editor Alfie Bown interviews philosopher Agon Hamza about his new book on the films of Pasolini and the philosophy of Althusser. They discuss how and why communism could be rehabilitated, why socialism is dead, and how Althusser can help the Left get out of its current impasse.
Agon Hamza, Althusser and Pasolini: Philosophy, Marxism and Film (London: Palgrave, 2016) 202pp.
Agon Hamza is a researcher at the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts in Ljubljana, co-editor in chief of the radical philosophical journal Crisis & Critique and the author of half a dozen books including several on the work and thought of Louis Althusser. Part of the Ljubljana school, probably the most interesting and radical group of philosophers working today, Hamza’s writing is innovative and throws into question much of what you think you know about both film and philosophy. Here we were able to ask him some brief questions about his latest project as part of the HKRB Interviews series with writers of new books in critical theory.
Alfie Bown: Agon, thanks for talking to us at the HKRB. I’d like to start by saying to our readers that this is a massive book in terms of the scope of what you tackle. There are no less than 28 short chapters which deal with different – though related – things. As such, rather than try to tackle the book as a whole, I’d like to approach just a few of its key ideas and leave the rest for the readers of the book itself. I’ll start with one of your early claims, that in Pasolini’s films ‘salvation’ (perhaps his major theme) is ‘the name for the political struggle of the poor and the oppressed against the reign of capital, corruption, and so forth.’ Could you say something about this reading of Pasolini and how it differs from other interpretations of his films and of salvation in his movies?
Agon Hamza: Pasolini was concerned with the most oppressed classes, but he was properly against fetishizising them, instead proposing what in Christianity can be called ‘love’. In a true Marxist gesture, he avoided the drive towards the “loving of the proletariat”, but instead he engaged in a love which is devoid of the idealization. In this regard, the question of salvation is very important throughout Pasolini’s work. But, I think it is crucial to understand it in a correct Pasolinian manner: that is, salvation stripped off of its theological meanings and connotations. I do not think that Pasolini was expecting to be freed or protected from earthly forms of sin and it’s consequences. In my understanding of Pasolini’s work, the Kingdom of God had a terrestrial existence and the word of God comes to us through the political and ideological struggle of the proletariat, the poor and other oppressed classes in their struggle against capitalism as such. To be more precise, salvation is that something which, once established in the world, protects and defends itself from the permanent corruptive forces, i.e. capitalism, democracy, opinions, et cetera.
Agon Hamza, by ChinHsin Esther Kao
AB: Chapter 10 is called ‘Antiphilosophy.’ I’ve read about notions of both Hegel and Lacan as writers of ‘antiphilosophy’ rather than ‘philosophy,’ but this is the first time that I have encountered Althusser in that context. Indeed, you relate Althusser to Lacan here via the idea of making suffering speak, and I wonder if you can say something about how you see the connection between the two. I read in Althusser’s autobiography that he never attended the seminars of Lacan because there was too much smoke in the room! Perhaps more importantly, can we relate this to suffering in the movies of Pasolini?
AH: I think that we should be profoundly mistrustful of Althusser’s biographical and other factual data’s in his autobiography. His personal relation to Lacan is very complicated and their friendship was short-lived. Their relationship began with Lacan’s exclusion from Sainte-Anne Hospital, where he was delivering his seminars from 1953 until 1964. It was Althusser’s invitation to École Normale Supériore that Lacan meant started to deliver his seminars at ENS. However, I think that the tension between Althusser and Lacan, and between Marxism and psychoanalysis in general should be located elsewhere, that is, in their different structures and methodologies, as well as their “objects”. In short, there are structural differences between the two, which should also be the premise of any attempt to read them together.
My interest in religion, and more specifically in Christianity, is very specific. I read Christianity as an atheist and what interests me there is how is it possible that something like religion, say all the three big monotheistic religions, which in principle can serve as a tool of collective emancipation, are appropriated by the popular conservative ideologies. Today, religion is one of the names of such enterprises. Just two examples: the populist left in Latin America would have had it much more difficult to emerge if it were not for the decades of militancy of the liberation theology people. At the same time, it suffices to recall Vatican or the Conservatives in the US and their recourse to Christianity to think of its two levels of appropriation. On the other hand, the contemporary form of Islam is the name of oppression, violations of all kinds, conservatism, et cetera. But, we should remember that The Prophet became the messenger of God after his wife Khadija proved to him that in his visions he was seeing the angel Gabriel and not the devil. Incidentally, Khadija was the first believer in him. Today religions fail in their primary task: offering a (new) vision of God. Since they are confronted with a point of their impossibility, they have degenerated religions in the level of compulsory forms of dietary and fashion.
I read Christianity as a antiphilosophical procedure. I do not read Althusser as an antiphilosopher – for me, he is the last Marxist philosopher in a classical sense. But, I think that through including a new period in his oeuvre, that is the early Catholic writings, a new perspective of Althusser opens up. Through inclusion of religion as the third condition of philosophy (together with science and politics), we are able to reconceptualise many of his concepts.
One of the things that Althusser and Pasolini have in common is their understanding of proletariat without identity, or the working class without the identity. This is a very important topic, especially today, when a good part of the left seems to embrace patriotism as a weapon against neoliberalism. Let us pause for a brief moment here: if we analyse the notion of neoliberalism, both from Pasolini’s as well as from Althusser’s position, we will see that both of them would condemn it as an ideological notion, and would not use it as a critical category. If Althusser were to write today, I very much doubt that he would have written against neoliberalism – instead, his critique would be directed towards capitalism as such.
Another level that binds together Althusser and Pasolini is the triad of Marxism, Christianity and politics. There is always an immanent tension between these three traditions. Let’s put forward the following thesis: in the last instance, deviation is constitutive element of both Marxism and religion/Christianity as such. For this reason, they both have to re-invent and re-conceptualise themselves.
Photograph by Orgesa Arifi
AB: My final two questions are about Chapters 16 and 27, which are dedicated to the politics of Althusser and Pasolini respectively. First: Althusser. Your question of whether it is possible to be an Althusserian today, and what this would mean, will be one that our readers are interested in. You say that ‘Althusserian politics is inconceivable in our theoretical conjuncture,’ so that, in a way, we are prevented from being true Althusserians today. Why is this? How does this relate to humanism?
AH: : I know this might sound like a paradoxical position both with regard to Althusser’s project, as well as with the idea of the book, which argues that socialism is really over and with that, the whole previous century socialism and other political experiments. The logical question, then, is why Althusser, who at best can be regarded as the philosopher of French Marxism from the previous century? Later in his life, Althusser came to understand the impossibility of socialism, going as far as calling it a ‘load of crap’. He is right on that point, as well as rejecting the entire Soviet model or state socialism as the future models of organization of our societies.
I think that against this background we can argue that the Althusserian politics is still inconceivable in our political and ideological situation. First, as I mention in the chapter you are referring to, the left today cannot overcome the Khruschevite-Trotskyite fantasy regarding Stalin and Stalinism. This is a very important problem of the contemporary left. Why? I think it is because in this mythical description of our failure in the 20th century we end up not making a ruthless critique of ourselves and our ideas, only of one man, so thus we cannot accept that “socialism is really over.” And Althusser is special in this since he produced categories to analyse conceptually the faults within Marxism itself. It seems to me that today we are in a very paradoxical position. To formulate this in Althusserian terms, the predominant groups, intellectuals, political parties, etc., on the left are neither Marxists nor Communists. The Leninist formula of “concrete analysis of the concrete situations”, that is to say, the concrete analysis of the concrete relations of class struggle, in its three levels, economic, political and ideological has been largely replaces with general descriptions, et cetera, which even if they are correct, they are profoundly insufficient. They are also insufficient because they leave the left out of the world it analyses.
AB: In the penultimate chapter on Pasolini’s politics, you build on the above. Here, you re-frame the question of how to re-organize politics as the question of how to re-organize Communism. Why is Communism ‘the right name for the politics of emancipation’ despite its negative connotations? Many of our readers here in Hong Kong immediately associate communism with China’s current political system. Of course, you are focused on a European context. Perhaps you could identify how the re-habilitation of Communism, in Europe at least, is necessary? I am particularly intrigued by the idea that ‘Communism is the name of uncertainty’ – but feel free to comment on that or leave it for our readers to buy your book!
AH: The organized-form of politics is another aspect that binds together Althusser and Pasolini. Their political militancy was different – Althusser was a long-life member of the French Communist Party, whereas Pasolini was expelled from the Italian Communist Party and continued his militancy outside of the party-form. But, despite this difference, it is very clear that for both of them, politics does exists only insofar as it is organized.
But, your question touches on a very complicated and difficult: how to defend Communism to an already ‘Communist’ country, or at least ruled by a Communist Party. I am not trying to criticize China here, but I am just trying to say that the problem of Stalinism which I mentioned before, the problem which turns bureaucracy into a taboo, in fact prevents us from developing critical tools to analyse and understand – from a Marxist point of view – the true situation of China today.
To answer your question, I think that it is important to preserve the name itself because I think that every politics which is emancipatory should be carried out under the general idea of Communism. It designates the collective “we”, and draws lines of demarcations between “us” and “them” – or, to formulate this in terms from the previous era (which still resonates today), it marks a sharp line of demarcation between the people and it’s enemies. A very problematic challenge appears when it comes to defining a practice which permeates us to call Communist any form of social organization whose orientation of its totality form the point of view of those who are not represented in it. From this perspective, we can call a Communist society the one in which the link between the parts and the whole is established by ‘the commons’ (and not by the majority, nor the minority, nor the vanguard, et cetera). The commons is something which can only appear if we confront the totality with that which exists, but doesn’t seem to “belong” there: the excluded, the poor, those that are not part of the political life. The term “communism” concerns the commons, more precisely what Žižek calls the proletarisation, or proletarian position, which is to say, the reduction of workers to the zero-level of the Cartesian cogito. Or in Marx’s own terms, it’s called the ‘subjectivity without a substance’. The problems of the commons can be resolved neither within the framework of the nation-state, nor within socialism. Based on all this, and many other factors, we are forced to rethink a much more radical form of social organization of societies – and this could be designated by the word communism.
Alfie Bown is an assistant professor of Literature in Hong Kong and co-editor of Everyday Analysis. He is the author of Enjoying It: Candy Crush and Capitalism (Zero Books) and The PlayStation Dreamworld (forthcoming, Polity) and writes for various publications. He lives in Hong Kong with his wife Kim and tiny daughter Lyra.
ChinHsin Esther Kao is the featured illustrator on this post. She is an undergraduate at Wheaton College (IL) and double majors in English and Philosophy. She was the Critical Essay Editor for the college’s independent magazine The Pub and the Art Editor for Kodon. Esther also writes for the online publication The Odyssey and is interning for Inheritance magazine under Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, California.