Reading Marx: A course description

Seem to be on a translation kick. Translating is good for me; it makes me read much more closely than I would otherwise.

I recently came across the very curious Europhilosophie, which seems to group together a number of philosophy working groups (on Kant, Nietzsche, Sartre, Bergson, Fichte, phenomenology, materialism, and psychoanalysis, among others). An acquaintance of mine, doing a thesis on the situationists, is part of the Groupe de Recherches Matérialistes. It turns out that members of this group offer seminars in various places. For your entertainment I therefore present the course description for a seminar on “Reading Marx/Readings of Marx” (Lecture(s) de Marx). It will be offered next fall at the (very philosophically prestigious) Ecole Normale Supérieure.

ecole normale superieure

Ecole Normale Supérieure Paris
Seminar 2009-10

Reading(s) of Marx

Place: Ecole Normale Supérieure – 45 rue d’Ulm, 75005 Paris
Contact: Guillaume Fondu

The idea for this seminar comes from a simple observation [constat] drawn from the development of last year’s university movement: that of the nonexistence, as far as students were concerned, of structures of collective reappropriation of philosophical discourse, or at least ones falling between professorial lectures and solitary meditations, which by themselves cannot constitute the horizon of a veritable philosophical engagement. Given this starting point, it seems sensible to us to constitute a reading group around a well-defined program, so as to learn to work together and to permit a labor of common theoretical elucidation. In so doing, the choice of Marx as a philosophical figure strikes us as decisive on account of the new discursive practice he set in motion: a science of the collective by the collective, and a theoretical practice inseparable from its own genesis and from its micro- as well as macro-social effects. We wish to set in motion such an enterprise, one which will devote itself above all to the study of canonical texts reassessed in their “actuality” [leur actualité, their contemporary significance] which we know does not correspond to a spatiotemporal interval but rather constitutes the untimely mark of every revolutionary project, inasmuch as it connects to the concrete not to describe it “purely and simply” (ideology) but to give it its only true political form.

Marxist discourse has not finished, neither with writing history, nor with inscribing itself in history; and no approach to Marx can ultimately economize on the successive readings and rewritings of a text that constantly wanted to reactualize itself [ré-actualiser, make itself contemporary again], according to the whims of the fluctuations of the epoch and of its immanent revolutionary potentials. Reading(s) of Marx will thus take several directions, united in the coherence of a rediscovery of the social both in theory and in practice, with Marx but sometimes also perhaps against him.

The seminar will meet weekly, and will be split in two parts, devoting alternate weeks to Marx’s early texts and to the study of Capital, so as to permit everyone to get involved at their own pace. The year will begin with a presentation and a discussion of the seminar’s practical details, and the first sessions will be organized by the conveners [les responsables], dedicated to a reading of Marx’s early Critique of Hegel’s Political Philosophy, and to an immediate start on Capital in the second week. One can only hope that the rest will follow.

The dates and the room for the seminar meetings will be announced at the start of the academic year.

At an earlier point I think I would have been interested in how a document like this incorporates a subtext of classroom power relations. So for instance one can observe that this document contains a tension between the desire to produce a collective of apparent equals and the obvious assumption of pedagogical agency and authority by the teacher. Not to mention that the intellectual subtext is in certain respects marked as secondary; bold text (in the original) is used to give practical directions about how to find out where to show up and whom to contact for more information, rather than to emphasize, say, some intellectual point.

Although these hidden dynamics and contradictions of authority are certainly active here (and the pedagogical contradictions of leftist philosophers have in fact been the object of explicit reflection by French students, which I will come back to sometime), this sort of analysis now seems to me a trifle predictable. (My paper on literary theory classrooms goes into some detail on this topic.) What seems now more interesting is the organizer’s intense sense of the relation between a philosophy – Marx’s work for example – and its presence in the present, its “actuality” as they put it.

Marxism is cast here in the temporal frame of a going concern, not of (say) a dead doctrine. It has the temporality of the “untimely” (intempestive), of the unfinished. That is, the temporality of constantly bringing itself back to the present, of constant reflexive re-involvement in its genesis and effects, in its fluctuating “revolutionary” potentials. The political horizons of the course appear to be both radically Marxist and also radically academic: although it proposes to delve into Marx in order to offer students a philosophical engagement with the present, it also proposes no concrete form of political practice beyond reading and seminar participation. For that matter, even its pedagogical form remains somewhat indeterminate. The unfinished nature of Marxism apparently corresponds to the unfinished nature of the proposed seminar: its details are left uncertain, filled for the present only by the “hope” that “the rest will follow.”

Have been reading Sartre lately, the Search for a Method (which so far seems to be a grumpy critique of Marxist orthodoxy), and I’ve been struck by his insistence on delving into the specifics of particular social forms, his insistence on sociological and psychoanalytic detail in the analysis of any particular historical phenomenon (petit bourgeois authors for example). I have often felt unsatisfied with what feels like a refusal, by sociologists of knowledge, to enter the interior of the intellectual worlds they analyze, by their privileging of social form over conceptual content. I’m hoping, in examining French philosophy courses this year, to avoid this kind of mistake; which means, among other things, thinking more closely about the urge to make philosophy, as in this course description, a means for a “veritable philosophical engagement” with the present. What kind of intellectual future is implied in a hope to make philosophy fully present at a time when it seems out of sync with its moment?