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Juan Carlos Rodríguez and Michel Foucault: Discourse, Ideology, and the Unconscious

Summary and Keywords

Louis Althusser bequeathed to his students and coworkers a rich but problematic legacy, not least of all with respect to his notion of the unconsciousness of ideology. Traditionally, even among Marxists, the latter had been associated with the conscious realm of ideas, thereby giving rise to the notion of a “false consciousness.” From the Althusserian standpoint, by way of contrast, ideology was profoundly unconscious in its operations. Two of Althusser’s students, Michel Foucault and Juan Carlos Rodríguez, rose to meet the challenge posed by this facet of their former master’s work, although to very antithetical effect. In Foucault, Althusser’s original insight underwent a radical transformation from which it emerged, stripped of its Marxist framework, as a discursive unconsciousness, materialized in the rules that governed discourse and, subsequently, in social institutions and practices. Rodríguez, on the other hand, reworked the notion of ideological unconsciousness into an ideological unconscious. Understandably, Foucault’s work found favor with a bourgeois academy that, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, increasingly abandoned Marxism to embrace conservative forms of postmodernism and neo-liberalism. During the same period, Rodríguez struggled to make his presence felt from the margins of the global academy. By a curious irony, however, his very location afforded a perfect vantage point from which to study the workings of ideological conflict. His notion of the ideological unconscious remains a seminal if still neglected concept.

Keywords: Louis Althusser, Michel Foucault, Juan Carlos Rodríguez, discourse, ideology, the unconscious, Marxism, power, exploitation, Don Quixote, Jorge Luis Borges, state/stage, communication and critical studies

From Paris to Granada

Juan Carlos Rodríguez and Michel Foucault have a number of things in common. To begin with, both were former students of Louis Althusser, to whose work their respective research programs constituted calculated responses; more importantly, these responses took the form of projects to explore unconsciousness or the unconscious, not in the Freudian sense of a region located within the psyche, but in the form of a primary social network that produces individuals. That said, the fanfare that greeted the appearance of Foucault’s Les mots et les choses (1966) contrasts strikingly with the muted reaction to Rodríguez’s Teoría e historia de la producción ideológica (1975). Reprints of Foucault’s text, to remind ourselves, quickly ran into their thousands and catapulted Foucault nationally into the academic stratosphere, and that was only the beginning of his success. Early works, which, until this point, had enjoyed only a limited circulation, were quickly reprinted; subsequent works, notably Surveiller et punir (1975), further garnered their author an international reputation; translations into the major European languages began to appear; and, last but not least, the commentaries quickly multiplied (e.g., Sheridan, 1980; Smart, 1983, 1985). Rodríguez, on the other hand, would remain a relatively unknown figure, even following the publication of La norma literaria (1984) and notwithstanding his continuing productivity across three decades; translations would be few and belated, and to date his work has been the object of only one full-length commentary (Caamaño, 2008).

Such disparities are not easy to explain, if, as is arguably the case, the relevant bodies of work are comparable in terms of their range and depth of analysis. Circumstances certainly played a large part. By Rodríguez’s own reckoning, the traditional maxim that “Spain is different” simply masks the historical reality that Spain failed to catch the capitalist train, from which it followed that the country’s bourgeois culture long remained cramped and confined. The consequences for the reception of Rodríguez’s own work are not to be underestimated: to write in Spanish, in provincial Granada, was not to write in French, in metropolitan Paris. Also to be taken into account was the Althusserian factor: while both Foucault and Rodríguez were deeply indebted to their former master, Foucault betrays from quite early on what Paul Resch has described as a “negative dependence” on Althusser and Structural Marxism (Resch, 1992, pp. 240, 242), whereas from the very outset Rodríguez professed a fundamental allegiance to a scholar who, he repeatedly confessed, had “changed his life.”1 There were inevitable ramifications: Foucault’s anti-Althusserian bias would eventually mutate into a rather vulgar anti-Marxism, focused upon “discourse” and “power” and, eventually, upon an aesthetics of the individual, whereas Rodríguez, having been nurtured under Francoist fascism, would continue to prioritize “ideology” and “exploitation,” within a Marxist framework. We will be returning to these issues later, but first let us assess Althusser’s views on ideology as an unconscious process.

Althusser and Ideological Unconsciousness

Notwithstanding his self-confessed exercises in “self-criticism,” Althusser remained committed throughout his career to certain identifiable themes. Prominent among these was the importance to be attached to the concept of society as a structured whole or “structure in dominance,” defined in terms of specific levels or “instances” (economic, political, and ideological). By the same token, at no point did he cease to contrast this concept with the subject–object opposition characteristic of bourgeois ideology or to cease to rail against the myth of a philosophy of origins that sustained it. “There is no longer any original essence, only an ever-pre-givenness, however far knowledge delves into its past. There is no longer any simple unity, only a structured, complex unity” (Althusser, 1990, pp. 198–199). It followed that emphasis was to be placed upon the effacement of the individual in the context of an existing ideological field, operative at an unconscious level. In this, as in other respects, Althusser sought legitimation, and claimed to have found it, in the actual texts of Marx.2

Still to be elaborated, theoretically, were the details of this complex social network and, specifically, of the causal mechanisms involved. In broad terms, these consisted of transitive effectivities, exercised by the individual instances, and the intransitive effectivity exerted upon these by the social totality (Althusser, 1990, pp. 111–113). Intransitive effectivity is characterized in terms of a structural causality, understood as the displacement effected by the structural matrix upon its elements. This matrix is invisible or, to be more exact, exists only in the form of its effects, rather in the manner of a gravitational force (Althusser & Balibar, 1970, pp. 181, 187–189). Its ontological status is never specified. While the processual function of ideology within this totality is left equally ambiguous, about one issue there can be no doubt: in contrast to the traditional association of ideology with the conscious realm of ideas and hence with “false consciousness,” ideology as theorized by Althusser has “very little” to do with consciousness, is indeed “profoundly unconscious” (Althusser & Balibar, 1970, p. 233). This was unconscious in a specifically impersonal sense: we are talking about a force without a subject, over which nobody has any control, from which it further followed that any explanatory lapse into “psychologism” was resolutely to be deplored.

The latter point—resistance to psychologism—helps to explain why Althusser refused to reconfigure his “ideological unconsciousness” more specifically as an “ideological unconscious.” Quite simply, the term “unconscious” was, in the philosopher’s view, irreparably contaminated through its association with the psyche. As he explains in a private letter to René Diatkine:

you will see that I too interpret what one might be tempted to call your ideologico-theoretical unconscious. I would have many reservations to make on those terms, since I believe that [it] is not possible to speak of an ideological unconscious. In any event, that “unconscious” (which I would call by a different name, but never mind) exists, and it should not be confused with the psychoanalytic unconscious.

(Althusser, 1996, p. 52)

An ideological unconscious exists, we are being told, but then again it does not. Such hesitancy is perfectly understandable: undoubtedly the concepts that Marxism, as a recently constituted problematic, was obliged to borrow from elsewhere invariably arrived laden with every kind of petit bourgeois freight. Specifically in the case of the unconscious, Althusser confronted a theoretical category that has already been “taken” by psychoanalysis, which understood it as the possession of an individual (bourgeois) subject. As such, it was incompatible with his notion of history as a process without a subject.

If it was one thing to discard the subject with respect to history, however, it was quite another to dispense with its services when it came to theorizing the relations between the real and thought about the real in the process of scientific production. Notwithstanding the primacy he accords to the real, Althusser also argues that the deepening of knowledge “takes place entirely in thought” (Althusser & Balibar, 1970, p. 54). While the “thought” in question is emphatically not that of a transcendental or psychological subject (Althusser & Balibar, 1970, p. 41), the prominence attached to it arguably has the effect of re-asserting the role of consciousness, which explains why Roy Bhaskar, along with other commentators, has accused Althusser of having succumbed to a species of Kantian idealism (Bhaskar, 1989, p. 143).3 What makes matters worse is that, as we have seen, a social formation that, allegedly, is visible only in terms of its effects has already, in large degree, surrendered its ontological presence. Nor does it help that Althusser will then proceed to reconfigure the distinction between essence and phenomenon as a difference internal to the concept (Althusser & Balibar, 1970, pp. 190–191). As we will see, the consequences for Foucault will be profound, and Rodríguez will not remain unaffected.

One final aspect of Althusser’s work that will have enduring consequences is the importance that it attaches to the notion of the epistemological break, a notion borrowed from Gaston Bachelard and Georges Canguilhem, but one that Althusser will redefine crucially in terms of the opposition between science and ideology. In his own words, the process of theoretical transformation “establishes a science by detaching it from the ideology of its past and by revealing this past as ideological” (Althusser, 1990, p. 168), even as science must thereafter continually struggle to free itself from the ideology which “occupies it, haunts it, or lies in wait for it” (p. 170). While Foucault will not be concerned with the ideology–science opposition in itself, the notion of an epistemological “break” is one that will prove central to his work, and it is to that work that we now turn.

Making the “Break”

The second part of Foucault’s Maladie mentale et personalité (1954), Sheridan reminds us (1980, p. 5), situates mental illness in its social and historical context, in a straightforwardly Marxist manner, and, along with Histoire de la Folie (1961), shared enough in common with the Althusserian project to earn its progenitor’s repeated plaudits. Principally, they attached the same importance to the notion of an epistemological rupture or break, of which Foucault discovered a classic instance in the radical shift in attitudes to madness that suddenly manifests itself at the end of the Middle Ages (Foucault, 1971, p. 13). Methodologically, Foucault measures his distance from the historical continuities upon which traditional historicism insists. Over a relatively brief period, we learn, madness is transposed from an externality into an inner experience (Foucault, 1971, p. 16), a process symptomatic of which was the abrupt appearance of the Fool and Madman at the center of the theatrical stage.

Let us note, with an eye to our discussion below, the singular difficulty that Foucault experiences in ceasing to view Don Quixote through the prism of “madness by romantic imagination” (Foucault, 1971, p. 28). The tenacity of the Romantic image is perfectly understandable: for generations scholars had contrasted Don Quixote, as the quintessence of the “imaginary,” with Sancho Panza, as the embodiment of the “real.” Nor is it at all surprising that Foucault should project the figure of the knight in universalist terms: Don Quixote, we are informed, is immortalized through his insanity (Foucault, 1971, p. 32). Such a position, after all, had long been a commonplace among traditional critics. But this is a legacy difficult to square with Foucault’s alternative project to locate the knight at a point of rupture between the “Renaissance” and the 18th century, when “[t]he classical experience of madness is born” (Foucault, 1971, p. 35). Difficult to square, by the same token, with the relativist notion that one set of values could be challenged and overturned, and in a relatively brief period of time, either side of 1656, the year in which a decree was passed that founded the General Hospital in Paris and the process of confinement began. “Behold [madness] moored now, made fast among things and men” (Foucault, 1971, p. 35).

That there is much in all of this to support the Althusserian program cannot be denied. Foucault views history as a process without a subject. The sciences dealing with “sanity” are determined in their development by discursive structures, otherwise by internal rules and restrictions that cannot be thought within the category subject. Already discernible, then, are the outlines of what will become a discursive unconsciousness of a systemic kind. At the same time, however, Foucault appears to be reducing discourse to social institutions and the economic forces that provide its material conditions of existence. “Throughout Europe, confinement had the same meaning, at least if we consider its origin. It constituted one of the answers the seventeenth century gave to an economic crisis that affected the entire Western world” (Foucault, 1971, p. 49). The insane, we are assured, were locked away in hospitals for the same reason as were the poor, the vagabonds and the unemployed, from whom they were barely distinguished. “In the classical age, for the first time, madness was perceived through a condemnation of idleness and in a social immanence guaranteed by the community of labour” (Foucault, 1971, p. 58). In a word, they were perceived as a source of cheap labor.

One understands, then, the enthusiasm with which Althusser greeted the appearance of Foucault’s work (Athusser & Balibar, 1970, p. 45). But whether this enthusiasm is entirely justified is another matter entirely. Where is the evidence for the “complex cultural formations” and “overdetermination” that the master believes he discerns in the work of his former pupil? Where is the evidence for the alleged attempt to theorize “the more general context of the economic, political, legal and ideological structures of the time”? Seemingly nowhere to be found. Althusser is guilty, we suggest, of projecting onto his former student his own notion of a social formation, with its distinct instances. The ideological instance, for sure, is conspicuous by its absence, which further alerts us to a more encompassing omission, namely that of social theory in general. For practical purposes, Foucault “makes do” with what happens to be available, such as “Middle Ages,” “Renaissance,” and “Enlightenment” or “Classicism,” period concepts of the kind that litter conventional historiography. That these now happen to be separated by epistemic breaks was likely to prove a minor inconvenience to bourgeois scholarship. The latter, after all, readily accepted the notion of radical transformations within an overarching Moving Spirit.

Similar observations apply to Foucault’s next work, The Birth of the Clinic (1963), which again deals with the discursive reconfigurations of psychiatry and medicine, but this time focused upon a relatively brief period at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century. Perforce, political considerations press for consideration: Foucault is dealing, after all, with the years preceding and immediately following the Revolution, in which social institutions were radically reconstructed. Attention focuses on the radical change in the ways in which, at an unconscious level, doctors viewed their object: “The gaze is no longer reductive, it is, rather, that which establishes the individual in his irreducible quality” (Foucault, 1973, p. xiv). Integral to such change is the structural relocation of medicine from the public to the private sphere of the family: the hospital doctor, we learn, sees diseases only in a distorted, altered guise, whereas the family doctor acquires true experience based on the natural phenomena (p. 17).

At this stage, Althusser remains firm in his support (Althusser & Balibar, 1970, p. 45), and understandably so: as much as its predecessor, The Birth of the Clinic promotes the notion of history without a subject, even as it captures every nuance of the relevant epistemological break. But if the commonality vis-à-vis Althusser survives, so too does the discontinuity: as in his earlier work, Foucault lives by the illusion that his historical investigations can make do without theory, at least in the strong sense of the term. And, as in the case of all illusions, the consequences prove serious. By discarding the Althusserian notion of structural causality, Foucault has deprived himself of the means of theorizing the relationship between discourse and society, hence his inability to explain the “deeply rooted convergence” between political ideology and medical technology (Foucault, 1973, p. 38) or the “profound law” that binds medical and poetic experience together (p. 198). For an alternative perspective on such difficulties and for a possible way of resolving them, let us turn to the work of Rodríguez.

Theorizing the Ideological Unconscious

Compared to Foucault’s early texts, Rodríguez’s Theory of Ideological Production exhibits a much closer allegiance to the Althussserian legacy, not least of all with respect to the notion of an epistemological break. Of the latter, the Spaniard’s actual research program provides a particularly vivid instance: quite literally, after becoming acquainted with the work of Althusser, he throws his prior scholarly efforts into the street (Rodríguez, 2002a, pp. 32–33). And when it came to theorizing the transition from feudalism to capitalism, similarly dismissed are such period concepts as the “Middle Ages” and the “Renaissance” (Rodríguez, 2002a, p. 104ff.), to be replaced by “social formations,” structured on the basis of a “mode of production” or, to be more precise, of two modes, each consisting of distinct levels or instances, namely the economic, political, and ideological (Rodríguez, 2002a, p. 35). The relations of production relative to each mode, Rodríguez elaborates (2002a, p. 54ff.), secrete their own specific ideological matrix, structured in terms of equally specific “notions,” the “serf/servant” and “lord,” in the case of feudalism, and the “Subject” and “subject,” in the case of capitalism.

From the outset, everything turns on the notion of the ideological unconscious: “The notion of the subject (and the whole problematic within which it is inscribed) is radically historical because . . . it derives directly (and exclusively) from the very matrix of the bourgeois ideological unconscious: the ‘serf’ can never be a ‘subject’, etc.” (Rodríguez, 2002a, p. 21). The respective matrices form the basis of their corresponding ideologies, substantialism or organicism, in the case of the still dominant feudalism; animism, in the case of an emergent mercantile capitalism. These ideologies interlock inextricably during the course of the Transition and the political struggle to control the newly created Absolutist State. To illustrate—also to be in a better position to draw a comparison with Foucault—let us see how the Spaniard handles Cervantes’s Don Quixote (1605, 1615) with respect to the subject of madness.

Foucault, we have seen, was unable to detach himself from a Romantic tradition that saw in the knight and his squire, Sancho Panza, representatives, respectively, of the transcendental, ideal subject and its empirical, worldly counterpart. Rodríguez, by way of contrast, experiences no such difficulty: the worst way to read such a classic as the Quixote, he argues, confessedly taking his cue from Althusser’s Reading Capital, is to identify it with one’s own unconscious categories (Rodríguez, 2003, pp. 69–70). A total change of critical terrain is called for. Objectively speaking, Don Quixote is the perfect example of a character torn between conflicting ideologies, namely substantialism and animism. On the one hand, he is a relic of a substantialist mode and hence compelled to read the world as a book; on the other hand, he exemplifies qualities associated with the proto-subject or beautiful soul promoted by animism. To undertake, in this latter capacity, to construct for himself a new identity, on the basis of his inalienable freedom, was necessarily to run terrible risks, not least of all in the context of a Counter-Reformation Spain. These risks included being stigmatized as a madman, which explains why, toward the end of Part One of the novel, the knight errant came to find himself confined within a cage and, subsequently, within the walls of his home.

Don Quixote’s crime, if so it be—and we need to be very clear on this point—is not that he believes in the world of chivalry—most of the people he comes across in his adventures also believe in it. Rather, it is simply that, for these same people, the chivalrous code has become an anachronism, which explains why Don Quixote’s original persecutors, namely the priest and the barber, are content to re-insert the knight into the dominant ideological system, which perforce is that of substantialism. The same cannot be said of the learned Sanson Carrasco, who, during the course of Part Two of the novel, will pursue the unfortunate knight with an anger and murderous desire for vengeance that, by a curious inversion, itself frankly borders on the insane. The internal, unconscious logic of the narrative, as Rodríguez persuasively argues (2003, p. 258), is unforgiving, and not simply with respect to Carrasco: if Don Quixote is mad to consider himself a “knight,” then equally mad are all those courtiers who believe themselves to be nobles on the basis of their “blood” and lineage. The implications, ideologically speaking, are potentially world-shattering, as becomes obvious at the Court of the Duke and Duchess, within whose confines Don Quixote and Sancho are forced to undertake what can only be described as a journey into madness (Rodríguez, 2003, p. 330).

Seemingly—and we are still following Rodríguez closely—there is no limit to the sadism that the aristocratic owners of the chivalrous code show to others. And how otherwise than in terms of sadism can one describe the dangers to which they expose their victims, dangers that are both physical—as when a horde of wild cats is loosed upon Don Quixote—and psychological—as when the Duchess casts doubts over the existence of Don Quixote’s Lady Dulcinea. Rodríguez elaborates in his commentary:

And perhaps for this reason it is important to understand the logic of the Duke and Duchess as involving not a pale, nebulous power (after the fashion of the late Foucault), but as something real and concrete, as happens in any dominant class with respect to the oppressed. A power whose only limits are those that the dominant groups decide upon between themselves. And in the present case the situation is somewhat absurd insofar as the law and code of the nobles allows them to consider themselves as absolute masters and lords of their vassals. (2003, pp. 346–347)4

The perversion even extends to the otherwise defenseless Teresa, Sancho’s wife, whom the Duchess does not hesitate to draw into the palace intrigue. Only Sancho, among her victims, offers any real resistance: “Let nobody dare to amuse themselves at my expense, because we are what we are” (Rodríguez, 2003, p. 354). At which point, according to Rodríguez, Cervantes can again be seen to be walking an ideological tightrope, an activity made doubly precarious when he proceeds to portray the Duchess, in her own substantialist terms, as literally ulcerous and physically rotten.

Such, in nuce, is Rodríguez’s theory and history of ideological production, cashed out in the context of Don Quixote’s madness. Its superiority over its Foucauldian equivalent, we suggest, is unquestionable—except that Foucault’s treatment of discursive structures in his early works was hardly his last word on the topic. Indeed, in the late 1960s, he undertook to spell out the theoretical basis of his research program, or, as he chose to call it, archaeology.

Theorizing the Discursive Unconscious

In his next work, The Order of Things (1966), Foucault continued to hold fast to some of his earlier formulations, notably the notion of the epistemological break, instances of which he now located more precisely in 1650, which allegedly marked the beginning of the Classical age, and 1800, which witnessed the onset of modernity. In other respects, however, the new work heralds a methodological break of its own, internal to Foucault’s own research program. The social institutions and non-discursive forces to which, in his earlier work, discourses were seemingly reducible were now displaced by a series of “epistemes,” understood as rules of formation or codes of discursive rationality. The result is an enhanced awareness of the “unconscious of science,” otherwise the unformulated thematics, the implicit philosophies, the unseen obstacles that positively condition the development of disciplines: “What was common to the natural history, the economics, and the grammar of the Classical period was certainly not present to the consciousness of the scientist; or that part of it that was conscious was superficial, limited, and almost fanciful” (Foucault, 1970, p. xi).

Foucault distinguishes between four epistemic epochs vis-à-vis the human sciences: the Renaissance, the Classical Age, the Modern Age, and the “post-Modern” Age. He chooses to preface his discussion, in the main body of his text, with illustrations drawn from Hispanic culture, in the form of a passage taken from the work of the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges; a picture, Las Meninas, by the painter Diego Velázquez; and, once more, Cervantes’s Don Quixote. We will return to Borges below. At the present juncture, let us consider the other two examples by way of further elucidating Foucault’s notion of the discursive unconscious.

Las Meninas, as is well known, is a painting by Veláquez that undertakes to represent representation itself by virtue of an intricate play of mirrors, reflections, imitations, and portraits. The aspect to which Foucault attaches particular importance is the invisibility of the person seeing, whose position corresponds with that of King Philip IV and his wife in the hidden foreground of the painting. That said, it is less to the absence of these figures in themselves, that is, these figures understood as independent subjects, that Foucault wishes to draw our attention but, more obscurely, to that of being in itself, insofar as this being correlates—the pictorial instance notwithstanding—with the order of language. While clearly modeled upon Hegel’s Geist or Moving Spirit, being as language departs from this Spirit in one crucial respect: it will always remain remote and unmoved, rather more in the image of a systemic space that “con-forms” empirical reality from without by prioritizing a particular epistemic figure.

Foucault explains the significance of Don Quixote along the lines already mapped out in Madness and Civilization by situating the text at the boundary between two epistemes. These correlate with the Renaissance, which prioritizes the resemblances between things, and with Classicism, which prioritizes order on the basis of the existence of differences. Don Quixote wanders through the world in quest of resemblances, insofar as these manifest themselves in the form of language. The knight’s whole being, Foucault’s argument runs, consists of language—he is comparable quite literally to a sign or letter or graphism. Hence his frustration at the wiles of the magicians who, at every turn, contrive to disturb the relationship between words and things and so between things and their appearances. Don Quixote’s problem, broadly posed, is that, by the beginning of the 17th century, under the onslaught of Cartesian rationalism, language had broken off its old kinship with things. While Descartes, it is true, sought to transcend skepticism and so rest knowledge upon firm foundations, his cogito necessarily gave rise to the Unthought, and increasingly so. In Foucault’s own words: “The modern cogito does not reduce the whole being of things to thought without ramifying the being of thought right down to the inert network of what does not think” (Foucault, 1970, p. 324).

Amidst all the talk about “life,” “work,” and “language,” there is one point that should not be missed, namely that, for Foucault, it is language itself that crucially determines the cultural space. By implication, life and work only enter into the equation through their capacity as discourses, discourses on life and work. On this basis, Foucault will proceed to argue that each episteme consists of an interpretation or diverse modality of language; that the successive transitions from one episteme to another presuppose at a deeper level a process of purification; and that through this process language progressively relinquishes its hold on a sensible world in order to assume the plenitude of its being in modernity. This plenitude, the argument concludes, is best captured by two specific disciplines: psychoanalysis and ethnology. “It was quite inevitable,” Foucault explains, “that they should both be sciences of the unconscious: not because they reach down to what is below consciousness in man, but because they are directed towards that which, outside of man, makes it possible to know, with a positive knowledge, that which is given to or eludes his consciousness” (1970, p. 378).

To so privilege the psychoanalytic unconscious is, inevitably, to fall victim to Bhaskar’s epistemic fallacy, to which, it has been argued, Althusser himself arguably succumbed. Was this one respect in which Foucault remained indebted to his master? Bhaskar implies as much: “I think in Foucault’s work . . . the failure to coherently thematise ontology and thematise the different ontologies that we know, the ontology of science, the ontology of the social world, results ultimately in an ontology of chance, of contingency, of accident” (2002, p. 63). If so, we need to allow for the existence in Foucault of a discursive variant of the basic fallacy, in which a deep ontology is ceded to epistemology under the guise of language.5

Since ontology is in fact irreducible to epistemology, the epistemic fallacy entails the generation of an implicit ontology, or, as Bhaskar refers to it, actualism, which equates the real with empirical reality. Accompanying the epistemic fallacy, then, like a ghostly shadow, is its counterpart, the ontic fallacy, which entails the collapsing of the transitive dimension into its intransitive counterpart (Bhaskar, 1993, p. 237). Symptomatically, the contradictions multiply: Foucault is undecided as to whether to talk in terms of surfaces, the domain of a flat ontology, or depths, the realm of discursive profundity. Archaeology, as a discipline, is to be emphatically distinguished from a phenomenological approach that prioritizes a transcendental consciousness (Foucault, 1970, p. xiv) and from a psychoanalytic tradition that reaches down “to what is below consciousness in man” (p. 378), while, at the same time, we are alerted as to the “immense density” of scientific discourse (p. xiii) and to a reality so “complex” that it needs to be approached “at different levels” (p. xiv).

Mirrors and Souls

In Spain, the bourgeois revolution was effectively blocked and reversed, as a consequence of which its Enlightenment proved to be a relatively muted affair, restricted to the circles of clerics.6 This raises the question as to why Foucault should choose to preface The Order of Things with a series of illustrations drawn from Hispanic culture. Their value, we suggest, is to be traced directly to Spain’s prolonged transition from the “Renaissance” to “Modernity,” in the context of which the production of cultural artefacts was played out in slow motion, thereby affording instructive insights into the mechanisms involved. That said, the insights to be gained from Foucault’s illustrations are limited precisely by the absence of their relevant cultural context. That absence is further compounded by Foucault’s failure to take into account the research of Spanish scholars.

These Spanish scholars, it should come as no surprise to discover, have a rather different take on their national culture. For them, the radical historicity of the latter is a force to be reckoned with. Nor are they permitted the privilege of institutional blindness, of the kind that scholars in the First World routinely exhibit toward their Second or Third World equivalents.7 Rodríguez, certainly, scrutinizes Foucault closely on the subject of Las Meninas. He also bridles at evidence of what he describes as a “vacuous obsession” with being (Rodríguez, 2008b, p. 348), preferring, by way of contrast, to focus upon the mirror that figures within the picture’s scenario:

Las Meninas fascinates, we are saying, as a mirror that reveals the vampiric undercurrent to the whole ideology of the private sphere, the ideology that sustains the bourgeois image of the picture—or the poem —from the 16th century onwards. As a concrete abstraction of this image of painting, the mirror does not provide a self-portrait—to repeat, necessarily an exercise in coarseness—but materializes the invisible—and impossible—structure that underlies the whole process. He who possesses the secret of limitless form—the artist—can never appear himself as a concrete form, without revealing the whole secret of his dark, hidden art: the secret, which is no secret, of the reflection in the mirror: the secret of the ideological unconscious that actually determines it: the construction of the space of limitless form.

(Rodríguez, 2008b, p. 349)

There is much here that needs to be unpacked. Count Dracula, his castle and feudal trappings notwithstanding, is no rebellious lord but a rebellious son, or so Rodríguez will argue, reconstituted within the private space of the bourgeois family. His correlate, therefore, is the image of Christ, except that Christ is a soul incarnate, who thereby reflects the Lord’s divinity. The vampire, by way of contrast, serves nobody, least of all the Lord, with the result that its body, unlimited by form, actually “dis-incarnates,” with the further, paradoxical result that it cannot be reflected in a mirror. Rodríguez is insistent: Las Meninas is the portrait of a body that is not there, that can be glimpsed only through the image of another image, namely that of the duchess, the dwarf, and other surrounding figures. The self-portrait, we are assured, is that of a body that simply “gets in the way.” Rodríguez elaborates: “The Christian tradition does not repress the flesh, rather produces it; it does not repress sex, but engenders it. And to repeat, it was not necessary for Foucault to remind us of the fact, as if he had made a great discovery” (2008b, p. 351). To further elucidate, let us return to the Quixote.

According to Rodríguez, Cervantes poses a fundamental problem in the novel’s opening words: “In a certain village in La Mancha, which I do not wish to name, there lived not long ago a gentleman . . .” (Cervantes Saavedra, 1950, p. 31). The authorial subject makes the briefest of appearances, only quickly to be overwhelmed by an editorial apparatus of manuscripts, discovered in strange circumstances, and of translators that mysteriously materialize out of nowhere. The continuity vis-á-vis the substantialist Book is too obvious to require elaboration. For the novel to appear—and we are following Rodríguez’s analysis closely (Rodríguez, 2003, p. 74ff.)—two conditions are required, namely, the discovery of daily life and the emergence of a “free subject.” Both are lacking in the “baroque,” which Rodríguez equates with the cultural manifestation of a resurgent feudalism. The still-dominant feudal mode—which, we saw above, secretes unconsciously an opposition between the serf/servant and a lord/Lord—knows only the dual, analogical text, whose literal message demands that it be “read” or decoded. The animist text, by way of contrast, discovers a new literalism—“It happened that . . .”—and equips itself with a version of the free subject that, however embryonic, still dares to make its presence felt.

To tease out some further implications of Rodríguez’s reading, let us briefly set the novel in motion. In his first adventure, to remind ourselves, Don Quixote is as yet unaccompanied.

He had not gone far when from a thicket on the right he heard a faint voice, raised, so it seemed to him, in complaint. . . .

(Cervantes Saavedra, 1950, p. 47)

The voice, it transpires, is that of a boy, who is being beaten by his master for his alleged negligence in guarding a flock of sheep. Don Quixote’s ideological unconscious is such that he is compelled to read the scene before him, and in dual terms. Hence, the literalism of the peasant, his mare, and his shepherd’s staff is immediately transposed:

“Discourteous knight, it is unseemly to attack a defenceless person. Mount your steed, and take your lance”—for the other also had a lance leaning against the oak to which his mare was tied.

(Cervantes Saavedra, 1950, p. 47)

Just as importantly, by virtue of his status as a knight, he is compelled to act upon his reading, in other words, to “prove” his worth.

Now it is easy to go wrong at this point. Incorrigible Kantian that he or she is, the modern reader identifies the knight as a (free) subject who fails to see what he has in front of him. According to Rodríguez, Foucault is such a reader. Viewed in such terms, Don Quixote is simply unable to match words with the things he sees. Rodríguez begs to differ.

The way resemblance actually works in the text is not as Foucault portrays it. The similarity between signatures is, admittedly, the key to a feudal world that imagines itself as written by the finger of God. But what this thereby implied is not a correlation between words and things (which would presuppose a prior distance between them) but rather a correlation between the writing of the book and the writing of the world.

(Rodríguez, 2003, pp. 431–432)

Cervantes, the argument runs, elaborates a substantialist or organicist text, in other words, the “Book of Chivalry,” in order to annul it. The mare/horse, peasant/knight, staff/lance, along with the windmills/giants, flocks/armies, basin/helmet, etc. that proliferate throughout his novel, serve to expose the hidden mechanism of the substantialist narrative from a literal, which is to say from an animist, standpoint.

Cervantes, then, is obliged, like any other author at the time, to locate himself and his hero in organicist terms, except that, in his case, these are being “corroded from within” by a new narrative literalism. This process perforce raises a fundamental difficulty: Who or what legitimates the law once the Lord/lord has been displaced? And it is raised with particular urgency in the case of the boy who is being so brutally manhandled. The boy, at least, knows a literal truth when he sees one: his master is emphatically not a knight errant but Juan Haldubo, “the rich man”; by the same token, he understands perfectly how the new “disorder” works and, more importantly, how its law is applied. His master’s promise to “settle accounts” can mean only one thing. Don Quixote, by way of contrast, struggles hopelessly to resolve the financial transactions between master and servant, and necessarily so: his only law is the code of chivalry, which has nothing to say on the subject of money. Predictably, he is dismissive of the boy’s suspicions regarding what his master plans to do once the knight’s back is turned. “ ‘He will do no such thing,’ replied Don Quixote, ‘I have only to lay my command on him, and he will respect it’ ” (Cervantes Saavedra, 1950, p. 48). His logic is impeccable, by chivalrous norms: the Lord is watching and His law will prevail.

And so Don Quixote continues on his way until, on coming to a fork in the road, he loosens the reins and allows his nag the free exercise of its will (Cervantes Saavedra, 1950, p. 50), which, needless to say, is to return to its stable. This seemingly trivial incident is deeply charged, ideologically speaking. A dominant organicist norm dictates that history is always pre-figured in the sense of pre-ordained, both individually and collectively, hence excludes the possibility of chance events. That Don Quixote should, at this moment, break with this tradition demonstrates practically what it means for substantialism to be subverted by an emergent animist norm. From the standpoint of the latter, history is not already written; on the contrary, it responds to the initiative of the free individual, even when that individual happens to be a horse!

A Borgesian Interlude: The Chinese Encyclopedia

Jorge Luis Borges, we saw above, was the third Hispanic source upon which Foucault drew, after Velázquez and Cervantes, through which to illustrate the workings of his discursive unconsciousness. The text in question is an essay by Borges entitled “El idioma analítico de John Wilkins,” contained in Otras Inquisiciones (1953). Foucault famously began his preface to The Order of Things with the following extract that addresses the existence of a Chinese encylopedia:

[In its remote pages] it is written that animals are divided into (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l), et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.

(Foucault, 1970, p. xv)

To Foucault’s intense amusement, the classification subverted the notions of order and difference upon which the whole Classical episteme rested. As is his habit, he makes no attempt to contextualize the statement, either historically, with respect to Hispanic culture, or, at a more local level, with respect to Borges’s own individual trajectory.

Rodríguez, who in this respect as in others continued to read Foucault’s work closely, predictably took exception to the neglect of history, or, as he phrased it, “the dust that time deposits” (Rodríguez, 2002b, p. 297). Unsurprisingly, therefore, the Spaniard will proceed to locate not only Borges’s essay but Borges himself within a delicate play of intertexuality that embraces Locke, Hume, Berkeley, Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche, among many others (Rodríguez, 2002b, p. 351ff.) before coming to focus upon the details of Borges’s own trajectory. By the early years of the 20th century, the narrative runs, animism had assumed the guise of a distinctively petit bourgeois ideology, otherwise, neo-idealism, mediated through Croce (Rodríguez, 2002b, p. 352), in which form it is re-absorbed by those avant-garde Hispanic movements currently in vogue, notably “ultraism,” in which Borges actively participated throughout the 1920s. In reaction to the extension of a second industrial revolution, Rodríguez concludes, artists began to emphasize the work of art in its objective independence of a spiritualized subject. And so to the appearance of the several collections of Borges’s classic stories and the essays contained in Otras Inquisiciones. To put these claims to the test, let us consider one of Borges’s short stories taken from Ficciones (1941), “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.”

The story, as is widely known, narrates how, on the occasion of a late-night supper, Borges and Bioy Casares share in the discovery of a fictional world, Tlön, traceable, it transpires, to an entry in an obscure encyclopedia. As the story proceeds, the fiction gradually takes over and absorbs material reality. Only particular details need concern us: first, the fact that, in the author’s own words: “I owe the discovery of Uqbar to the conjunction of a mirror and an encyclopedia. The mirror troubled the far end of a hallway in a large country house on Calle Gaona, in Ramos Mejía ” (Borges, 1999, p. 68). Symptomatically, the “ashen” editor-in-chief, Herbert Ashe, quickly fades away, together, incidently, with the narrator himself: “I began to leaf through [the encyclopedia] and suddenly I experienced a slight, astonished sense of dizziness that I shall not describe, since this is the story not of my emotions but of Uqbar and Tlön and Orbis Tertius” (Borges, 1999, p. 71). Not to be missed is the vampiric mirror and the lateness of the hour—“Guess who’s coming to supper?” (Rodríguez, 2008b, p. 340)—or the process by which the narrator is drawn into an ideal world:

The nations of that planet are, congenitally, idealistic. Their language and those things derived from their language—religion, literature, metaphysics—presuppose idealism. For the people of Tlön, the world is not an amalgam of objects in space; it is a heterogeneous series of independent acts—the world is successive, temporal, but not spatial. There are no nouns in the conjectural Ursprache of Tlön, from which its “present-day” language and dialects derive: there are impersonal verbs, modified by monosyllabic suffixes (or prefixes) functioning as adverbs. For example, there is no noun that corresponds to our word “moon,” but there is a verb which in English would be “to moonate” or “to enmoon.” “The moon rose above the river” is “hlör u fang axaxaxas mlö,” or, as Xul Solar succinctly translates: Upward, behind the onstreaming it mooned.

(Borges, 1999, pp. 72–73)

The parallels with the Chinese encyclopedia should not be lost, nor should the significance of the mirror. The latter’s very existence threatens the author with dissolution, particularly one precariously positioned within a transitional ideology. Rodríguez draws a comparison with Montaigne, whose favored medium was the essay, a genre to which, significantly, Borges was also attracted. The goal in each case was the same: the search for a non-fragmented subject. Rodríguez explains: “The principal enigma of Borges, then, is his writing on the subject of non-transparency, in other words, on the problem of individuation, the problem of not being able to say ‘I am’ other than through the mediation of the reflexion of the other, of one’s double or the enemy” (Rodríguez, 2002b, p. 298). It is a thematic the Argentinian writer will rehearse again and again, through a series of agonic conflicts between, for example, Red Scharlach and Lönnrot, Aureliano and Juan de Panonia, Emma Zunz and Loewenthal, Otto Dietrich sur Linde and David Jerusalem, and, above all, between himself and his alter ego: “It’s Borges, the other one, that things happen to. I walk through Buenos Aires and I pause—mechanically now, perhaps—to gaze at the arch of an entryway and its inner door; news of Borges reaches me by mail, or I see his name on a list of academics or in some biographical dictionary” (Borges, 1999, p. 324). In Lacanian terms, one might say, Borges is stuck at the “mirror stage.”

How, Rodríguez finally asks, is one to understand the sudden Parisian predilection for an Argentinian writer who had, until the late ’60s, led a relatively obscure existence? Against the backdrop, he replies, of a reaction on the part of the Parisian Left to a prevailing, rather crude realism. But that is only part of the picture. “Borges fixes on the objectification of the ‘I’—in this way his texts realize their full modernity, wherein . . . perhaps lies the reason for their overwhelming success” (Rodríguez, 2002b, p. 337). The implication is clear: by some curious historical optic, a still embryonic “subject” finds itself overlapping with the fragmented subject of late capitalism; or, alternatively framed, a marginalized culture, by virtue of its belated entry into modernity, finds itself speaking to the condition of a First World that is entering upon postmodernity. More recently, Rodríguez has further argued that the “death of man,” as promoted by Foucault, was itself rooted “in the residue of a seigneurial, feudalizing reaction of Protestant ideologues against the order of bourgeois classicism” (Rodríguez, 2015, p. 266). To pursue these issues in more detail, let us return to Foucault’s texts themselves.

Empowering Discursive Unconsciousness

As early as the appearance of the English translation of For Marx (1969), to which he contributed a “Letter to the Translator,” Althusser was already measuring his distance from Foucault: while “something” of his own ideas had passed into his former student, “under his pen and in his thought even the meanings he gives to formulations he has borrowed from me are transformed into another, quite different meaning than my own” (Althusser, 1990, p. 257). Just how close the ideas and how different the meanings became clearer when Foucault came further to expand upon the conceptual basis of his work in The Archaeology of Knowledge. Let us elaborate.

In addition to the notion of an epistemological break, which continues to enjoy a methodological pre-eminence in the new work, there exist a number of other parallels between key Foucauldian concepts, on the one hand, and their original, Althusserian counterparts, on the other—to be more specific, between the Foucauldian “general history” and the Althusserian “differential history”; between the Foucauldian critique of a unified spirit or worldview and the Althusserian critique of a Hegelian expressive causality; between the Foucauldian “object of discourse” and the Althusserian “object of thought”; between Foucault’s distinct, relatively autonomous social “levels” and Althusser’s “instances”; between the complexities that “traverse” Foucault’s “discursive formation” and the matrix effect of the Althusserian social formation; and between Foucault’s “discursive unconsciousness” and Althusser’s ideological unconsciousness. The final impression is that of a writer who has set out systematically to “out-Althusser Althusser” (Resch, 1992, p. 241)

On the existence of a discursive unconsciousness, Foucault is particularly forthcoming. His own estimate as to its cultural pervasiveness would, he concedes, doubtless come as a very unpleasant shock to a bourgeois society that takes for granted the existence of a self-possessed, fully responsible subject, and it is to be anticipated that some will inevitably take offense.

I understand the unease of all such people. They have probably found it difficult enough to recognize that their history, their economics, their social practices, the language (langue) that they speak, the mythology of their ancestors, even the stories that they were told in their childhood, are governed by rules that are not all given to their consciousness; they can hardly agree to being dispossessed in addition of that discourse in which they wish to be able to say immediately and directly what they think, believe, or imagine; they prefer to deny that discourse is a complex, differentiated practice, governed by analysable rules and transformations, rather than be deprived of that tender, consoling certainty of being able to change, if not the world, if not life, at least their “meaning.”

(Foucault, 1972, pp. 210–211)

And it was doubtless to offend such people as little as possible that the archaeologist chose to speak of “discourse,” as opposed to “ideology,” which he deploys only in a specialized context, notably when he is directly cribbing from Althusser with respect to ideology’s unconscious hold over science (Foucault, 1972, p. 185). That said, there is no gainsaying the fact that discursive unconsciousness, like its ideological counterpart, effectively marginalizes the knowing subject or psychological individual. Which raises the puzzling question as to how Foucault was able to reconcile this same unconsciousness with a humanist Left that was scandalized by Althusser’s “anti-humanism.”

Crucial, clearly, was the decision to locate unconsciousness in “discourse” or, to be more exact, in sets of discursive rules and codes at a level between the “thoughts of men” and that of institutions or social and economic relations. “These systems,” Foucault emphasized, “reside in discourse itself; or rather (since we are concerned not with its interiority and what it may contain, but with its specific existence and with its conditions) on its frontier, at that limit at which specific rules that enable it to exist as such are defined” (1972, p. 74). Bypassed in the wink of an eye were the key Althusserian notions of “social formation,” “modes of production,” “relations of production,” and so on. Understandably, the bourgeois academy was deeply appreciative and seemed not always to notice that a high price was being paid in exchange for the exclusive focus upon discursive systems. These systems can certainly be qualified as “prediscursive,” Foucault allows, “but only if one admits that this prediscursive is still discursive, that is, that they do not specify a thought, or a consciousness” (1972, p. 76). Which is precisely what Bhaskar meant when, as we saw above, he talked of a linguistic variation on his epistemic fallacy.

Perforce, the compromise proved difficult to sustain, on both sides. Until this moment, the free, richly internalized, private subject had always been indispensable to the capitalist system—without it, and therefore without the freedom to exploit and to be exploited, this system simply collapses. Similarly, when he came to unpack his notions a little further, Foucault found himself plagued by certain fundamental ambiguities built into his formulations. Specifically, as in his earlier work, he struggles to reconcile an emphasis upon externalities, otherwise the systems and codes that operate “at the most ‘superficial’ level (at a level of discourse)” (Foucault, 1972, p. 62), with the notion of discrete levels of events, “within the very density of discourse” (p. 171). One understands his dilemma: even as he emphasizes the autonomy of discourse and its specificity, extra-discursive processes and social relations press for consideration, and it was to cater for these that the archaeologist turned to address the question of institutional power.

As was often the case, the change came about partly in response to developments within Althusserianism, which Foucault obsessively shadowed. From an initial position that emphasized the unconsciousness of ideology, Althusser shifted in the late ’60s toward an investigation of the way in which the subject was “interpellated.” In the process, he transferred the focus of his attention from the social formation, envisaged as a complex unity, to the Ideological State Apparatus (Althusser, 1971). In response to such maneuvers and to meet what he perceived as a challenge, Foucault abruptly changed tack in his next work, Discipline and Punish, from a preoccupation with the dominating character of discourses, with respect to their internal organization, to an emphasis upon their social nature and, even more specifically, upon their respective apparatuses and institutions. The notion of a systemic unconsciousness underwent corresponding changes: no longer identified with codes and systems of classification, it now assumes the trappings of a Power that pervades social apparatuses:

It is rather a multiplicity of often minor processes, of different origin and scattered location, which overlap, repeat, or imitate one another, support one another, distinguish themselves from one another according to their domain of application, converge and gradually produce the blueprint of a general method. They were at work in secondary education at a very early date, later in primary schools; they slowly invested the space of the hospital; and in a few decades, they restructured the military organization.

(Foucault, 1979, p. 138)

Disciplinary power is not only imposed from above but also, perhaps principally, filters upward, with the result that, as in the case of ideology, it leaves no “zone of shade untouched,” even to the extent that it “constantly supervises the very individuals who are entrusted with the task of supervising” (Foucault, 1979, p. 177).

Foucault seemingly pushes beyond his master’s theory of interpellation by displacing the focus of attention from a socially inflected ideology onto the more basic, transhistorical level of Power: “The individual,” Foucault is careful to argue, “is no doubt the fictitious atom of an ‘ideological’ representation of society; but he is also a reality fabricated by this specific technology of power that I have called ‘discipline’ ” (1979, p. 194). Carried over, wholesale, from Althusser is the recognition of the individual as a social product. We are talking, in other words, of techniques for constituting individuals through exposure to the pressure exerted by knowledge and power, or, more simply, a knowledge/power. While individuals may believe themselves to be in control of its operations, they are in fact their resultant. “[I]t is not that the beautiful totality of the individual is amputated, repressed, altered by our social order, it is rather that the individual is carefully fabricated in it, according to a whole technique of forces and bodies” (Foucault, 1979 p. 216).

At first glance, Power thus conceived might seem to possess greater explanatory capacity than the traditional Marxist concept of exploitation. Crucially, Power regulates the body itself and not just the working day. What might seem a progressive step, however, when carefully considered, proves to be nothing of the kind. Power, it transpires, operates in the manner of a primal, telluric force that precedes society and, as such, resists explanation. Moreover, it functions as the protagonist of a narrative that, in broad outline, closely resembles its liberal counterpart, except that the story that unfolds tells not of the advance of civilization but of the individual’s increasing subjection to disciplinary control. The process is one of “ascending individualization,” which it behooves the individual to resist. Unsurprisingly, Foucault’s analysis calls a halt just at the point where more precision is called for. Thus, when it comes to disentangling the “microphysics of power,” we find these ambiguously located somewhere between, on the one hand, the great apparatuses and institutions and, on the other, “bodies themselves with their materiality and their forces” (Foucault, 1979, p. 26). In the absence of any causal nexus between the two, Foucault is excused from having to proceed further.

The liberal narrative, we deduce, has not been abandoned so much as inverted, which explains how it came about that, in the transformed circumstances of the late 1970s and 1980s, Foucault’s disciplinary unconsciousness gradually relinquishes its grip upon the individual, to be replaced by what became an “aesthetics of experience” (Foucault, 1988). The conjuncture was certainly one favorable to the kind of culturalist constructivism that this aesthetics promoted. In the heady climate of postmodernism, biology itself was ceding to discourse, notably with respect to women, blacks, and gays, at the same time that the last links between cultural products and economic structures were being severed. In Foucault’s hands, history itself was loosening its moorings in the real: “I am well aware that I have never written anything but fictions” (Foucault, 1980, p. 193). Such confessions only confirm one’s suspicion that, while there is no gainsaying the brilliance and breadth of his diverse histories, Foucault had never finally broken with the fundamental bourgeois allegiance to the subject/system dichotomy, nor, by same token, had he ever been able to detach his discursive unconsciousness from individual consciousness and hence from individual subjectivity.

Staging the State Apparatus

Although Foucault reacted immediately to Althusser’s dramatic shift of focus toward the institutions, Rodríguez, by way of contrast, discerned in the mechanisms of interpellation a covert regression to the notion of a transhistorical subject. To begin with, he argued, it presupposed in the Subject who interpellates the subject a consistency that is belied by the contradictions rampant throughout the social formation. Moreover, he elaborated, the very example with which the philosopher undertook to illustrate the relevant mechanism, namely the encounter between Yahweh and Moses, was flawed. Yahweh, after all, was no Subject but a Lord and Moses no subject but a servant (of his lord). But most damaging of all, in the Spaniard’s view, was the implication that an individuality existed prior to its subjection. “Something that logically presupposes an error of the gravest kind when it comes to conceptualizing the notion of what could be called the ideological unconscious” (Rodríguez, 2008a, p. 768). How, then, was the role of the State Apparatus to be accommodated?

In Theory and History Rodríguez had already responded forcefully to those Althusserians, notably Renée Balibar, Pierre Macherey, and France Vernier, who, by prioritizing the role of the school as a major ideological apparatus, had succumbed to a mechanistic “institutional sociologism.” It followed, according to the Spaniard, that the ideological function of literature was improperly framed. For example, the importance that was attached to the experience of social frustration in Camus’s The Stranger was conducive to a “vital experientialism” that covertly re-asserted the centrality of the bourgeois subject. “The key to Camus’ text,” Rodríguez argued, “does not lie here but rather in the following question: from the standpoint of which ideological unconscious is the experience of frustration assumed, lived and later ‘expressed’ in the novel?” (Rodríguez, 2002a, p. 30). The basic objection to such experientialism can be posed in the form of another question: Who educates the educators? Behind which lurks a presupposition: “it is not the school that ‘creates’ ideology, notwithstanding its function as a State Apparatus; the school only materializes and reproduces this ideology” (Rodríguez, 2002a, p. 30).

Rodríguez’s emphasis upon the material base failed to immunize him against the de-ontologization in evidence in Althusser, to judge at least from his refusal to accept that competing theories of literature shared objects in common (Rodríguez, 2002a, p. 126). To argue, furthermore, as the Spaniard does, that Marx’s concepts of “proletariat,” “surplus value,” and “social classes” are totally different from their bourgeois counterparts, that the two parties are addressing different “real objects,” is to raise insurmountable problems of incompatibility and, arguably, to succumb to an ideological fallacy every bit as damaging as its linguistic or discursive equivalent (see Read, 2015, pp. 477–478). Such fallacies, we have seen, are invariably stalked by their inversion, namely the ontic fallacy, which collapses the subject into the object. It should come as no surprise, therefore, to find Rodríguez asserting that ideological notions need first to be “produced” before they can be said to exist (Rodríguez, 2002a, p. 123). To conflate thus the mechanisms or laws that generate events with events themselves is necessarily to court an actualism that differs little from Foucault’s positivism (see Read, 2015, p. 475).

That said, Rodríguez’s insistence upon the role of the relations of production does arguably provide a materialist ballast that protected him against a full regression to the subject–object opposition. Such becomes apparent when he turns, in State, Stage, Language, to address further the role of the State Apparatus. The theorization of an ideological unconscious peculiar to a social system, his argument runs, involves a dual structure, consisting of a movement that “starts from the ideological unconscious proper, with the aim of thematizing and theorizing it” (Rodríguez, 2008b, p. 11). Responsibility for this aim falls to the philosophers, critics, writers, and so on, from within a class horizon. Ideology is then returned to the base relations via the State Apparatus, notably the school and the family, “so that, once theorized, it becomes (systemically, socially) an unconscious that is admitted and accepted by everyone as the very truth of nature, as being as natural as their own skin” (Rodríguez, 2008b, p. 11). The ideological unconscious, it follows, greases the social formation from below, through an effectivity exercised by the relations of production, before pervading the social formation institutionally from above. Such was the framework within which the Spaniard would proceed to theorize the role of the State. By way of illustration, let us consider his essay on the relationship between the state/stage.

Rodríguez will pose this relationship in terms of (1) the opposition between the nobility and the bourgeoisie and (2) struggles internal to the ideology of the latter. Feudal relations, we learn at the outset, do not, of themselves, secrete a theater, and for one simple reason: given the absence of a public/private distinction, the notion of a (public) stage was strictly inconceivable under feudalism. What is traditionally referred to as “medieval theatre,” Rodríguez explains (2008b, p. 113), was an integral part of Catholic liturgy, which necessarily precluded the existence of a “paying public.” Symptomatically, the Inquisition, as a quintessentially feudal apparatus, refused to recognize the existence of a private (religious) sphere. All of which is a prelude to the formulation of the 16th-century theater along public lines: the works of Calderón, like those of Shakespeare, consist of the public display of a public, which is to say political, thematic. Not to be missed is the fundamental contradiction upon which the classical theater rests: while being, like the Absolutist State itself, the result of pressure exerted by the bourgeoisie or, more strictly, by bourgeois relations, the stage, qua public space, will continue to be dominated, in Spain at least, by feudal notions of “blood,” “lineage,” and “honour” (Rodríguez, 2008b, pp. 113–114).

In the 18th century, things change dramatically, or so at least Rodríguez argues. “What happens is that with the triumph of bourgeois relations the public realm will be conceived as a ‘direct transcription’ of the private” (Rodríguez, 2008b, p. 117). This has inevitable consequences: the public space of the classical stage will be reduced to the three walls of the bourgeois drawing room, from which are excluded all matters relating directly to politics and, by extension, to religion. The process parallels the changes taking place in other state apparatuses, legal and otherwise, in the transition from absolutism to the liberal state. The logic that explains the shift from the classical theater to the family drama, in evidence in the plays of Diderot in France, and in those of Moratín in Spain, also explains, as Rodríguez duly observes (2008b, p. 118), why, at the time of the French Revolution, patients begin to be transferred from state hospitals to the private domain of the family.8 It is with the matrix effect of the social formations, insofar as this impacts the theater, that the Spaniard is principally concerned, and it is to this “scene” that he returns to theorize further the mechanisms of the ideological unconscious.

Even as, like any practicing Althusserian, he accepts the relative autonomy of the different social instances (economic, political, and ideological), Rodríguez lingers on the causal connections, mediated through the social formation, between the liberal state and the bourgeois stage. With respect to the former, it bears recalling, signatories to the social contract are able to identify with the operations of the state precisely on the grounds that nothing existed prior to the state. In other words, liberal theory in effect precludes the contrast between “nature” and “artifice.” The same logic, according to Rodríguez, dictates that the theater audience is able to identity with events on the stage (2008b, p. 120ff.). The only qualification to this logic concerns, in both cases, the nature of the relationship involved, which, while it should be direct, should also respect the illusion of distance. In other words, citizens should feel that their political leaders represent them, even while they accept the basic autonomy of the state, just as, in the same way, an audience must be able to identify with actors on the stage, even as its members recognize that they are separated from the latter by a “pit.” The same principle even determined acting styles: to act the part of a poor individual, for example, was not to behave as that individual might behave in reality: “private truth, represented by the subjects entering into contract, is not exactly equivalent to its public representation in the state or in the theatre” (Rodríguez, 2008b, pp. 121–122). In sum, at all points the same standard prevailed: the illusion of proximity but never to the point of transparency.

Qualifications are in order when, still following Rodríguez, we turn to the theater of the “passions,” which existed throughout the Enlightenment alongside the dominant family drama. In contrast to the latter, which was rooted in the classic bourgeois ideologies of rationalism and empiricism, this alternative theatrical tradition is secreted by the residual ideologies of the transition, notably, a substantialism now stripped of its sacralized elements and a re-emergent animism that was in the process of mutating into a recognizably petit bourgeois ideology. I refer the reader to the relevant pages of State, Stage, Subject for more detail (pp. 123–131). For our present purposes, it suffices to note the important respects in which this alternative theatrical tradition differs from its liberal counterpart. Principally, it demands of actors that they identify as much as possible with the parts they play, in defiance of a liberal tradition that, we have seen, insists on maintaining a certain distance. Dimly discernible are the outlines of an alternative theory of state, one that presupposes the existence of a natural, pre-social identity, from which the social individual is alienated (p. 140).

To all of this, Rodríguez would add one important proviso: the theater of the passions constitutes a development internal to the bourgeois tradition, in other words, is appropriately conceived not as a challenge to the Enlightenment but, on the contrary, as “the full revelation of the truth of rationalist order” (2008b, p. 127).

The Revenge of History

Althusser’s notion of the unconsciousness of ideology proved to be a problematic legacy, particularly when combined with his materialist thesis of the specificity of thought and the process of thought with respect to the real. It was doubtless his former master’s undertheorization of the latter that encouraged Foucault to detach his concept of a discursive unconsciousness from the domain of the extra-discursive, a maneuver that the break from an archaeology of knowledge to a genealogy of power did little to rectify. Once Althusser’s general framework of relatively autonomous social practices had been jettisoned, the impact of the real on language largely disappears in favor of the power of language to name, classify, and order the real. The theorization of Power effectively allowed Foucault to shift the focus from the rules of discourse to practices and institutions, whereby to capture the mechanics of a domination that circulates unconsciously through social formations. That said, insofar as power was always already present as a pre-social force, it did not lend itself to distinguishing between different practices—economic, political, and ideological. And that was not least of its drawbacks: power also proved to be an unstable basis on which to construct an effective politics of resistance, which explains, among other things, the reason for Foucault’s final absorption into a neo-liberal conformity.

Rodríguez, by way of contrast, was forced to watch from the margins of an academic culture increasingly hostile to Marxism, while what he understood as the “ideological unconscious” affirmed its hold under the umbrella of a globalizing financial capitalism. Capitalism’s great success, he continued to reiterate, was that it had been able to disguise the reality of an “infrastructure of exploitation” to the point at which the mechanisms of this exploitation had become invisible. Without our realizing it, we had come to accept, unconsciously, that “we are born free.” The process was one that Rodríguez charged Foucault with having facilitated, in conjunction with a “Cultural Studies” that would increasingly promote his texts. Obsessively he charted the spread of archeaeology and disciplinarity (e.g., Rodríguez, 2002b, p. 79ff), and when in 2008 the neo-liberal doctrines that Foucault had finally come to embrace entered into crisis, he attacked with a vengeance. “Where are they now?” he asked, “All those more or less phantasmagorical ramblings about social well-being, the rights of Man, full democracy and trans-national citizenship?” (Rodríguez, 2013, p. 340) Had he lived, the mockery ran, Foucault, for one, would have needed to do some serious re-thinking. “The fact is that nobody saw exactly what it meant to surrender oneself to a capitalism whose hands had been freed” (Rodríguez, 2013, p. 340). And doubtless, had he himself lived to witness the recent turn of historical events—he died in 2016—Rodríguez would have further expatiated on the connection between Foucault’s confessedly “fictional” narratives and the various exponents of “fake” news.

Further Reading

Bartolovich, C., & Lazarus, N. (Eds.). (2002). Marxism, modernity, and postcolonial studies. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

    Bhaskar, R. (1978). A realist theory of science (2nd ed.). Brighton, UK: Harvester Press.Find this resource:

      Bhaskar, R. (1989). Reclaiming reality: A critical introduction to contemporary philosophy. London: Verso.Find this resource:

        Bhaskar, R. (1993). Dialectic: The pulse of freedom. London: Verso.Find this resource:

          Bhaskar, R. (2002). From science to emancipation. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.Find this resource:

            Borges, J. L. (1999). Collected fictions. (A. Hurley, Trans.). London: Penguin.Find this resource:

              Borges, J. L. (2007). Otras inquisiciones. Barcelona: Destino.Find this resource:

                Caamaño, J. M. (2008). The literary theory of Juan Carlos Rodríguez. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellin.Find this resource:

                  Cervantes Saavedra, M. de. (1950). The adventures of Don Quixote. (J. M. Cohen, Trans.). Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin.Find this resource:

                    Kaplan, A. E., & Sprinker, M. (1993). The Althusserian legacy. London: Verso.Find this resource:

                      Read, M. K. (1990). Visions in exile: The body in Spanish literature and linguistics: 1500–1800. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.Find this resource:

                        Read, M. K. (1992). Language, text, subject: A critique of Hispanism. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press.Find this resource:

                          Read, M. K. (2015). The legacy of Althusser revisited and re-discovered: Juan Carlos Rodríguez. In M. A. García, A. O. Real, & A. S. Olmedo (Eds.), La literatura no ha existido siempre: Para Juan Carlos Rodríguez (pp. 465–480). Granada, Spain: University of Granada.Find this resource:

                            Resch, R. P. (1992). Althusser and the renewal of Marxist social theory. Berkeley: University of California Press.Find this resource:

                              Sheridan, A. (1980). Michel Foucault: The will to truth. London: Tavistock.Find this resource:

                                Smart, B. (1983). Foucault, Marxism and critique. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.Find this resource:

                                  Smart, B. (1985). Michel Foucault. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

                                    Sprinker, M. (1995). The legacies of Althusser. Yale French Studies, 88, 201–225.Find this resource:


                                      Althusser, L. (1971). Lenin and philosophy and other essays. (B. Brewster, Trans.). New York: Monthly Review Press.Find this resource:

                                        Althusser, L. (1990). For Marx. (B. Brewster, Trans.). London: Verso.Find this resource:

                                          Althusser, L. (1996). Writings on psychoanalysis: Freud and Lacan. (J. Mehlman, Trans.). O. Corpet & F. Matheron (Eds.). New York: Columbia University Press.Find this resource:

                                            Althusser, L., & Balibar, É. (1970). Reading Capital (B. Brewster, Trans.). London: NLB.Find this resource:

                                              Foucault, M. (1970). The order of things: An archaeology of the human sciences. London: Tavistock.Find this resource:

                                                Foucault, M. (1971). Madness and civilization: A history of insanity in the age of reason. (R. Howard, Trans.). London: Tavistock.Find this resource:

                                                  Foucault, M. (1972). The archaeology of knowledge. (A. M. Sheridan Smith, Trans.). London: Tavistock.Find this resource:

                                                    Foucault, M. (1973). The birth of the clinic: An archaeology of medical perception. (A. M. Sheridan, Trans.). London: Tavistock.Find this resource:

                                                      Foucault, M. (1979). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. (A. Sheridan, Trans.). Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin.Find this resource:

                                                        Foucault, M. (1980). Power/Knowledge: Selected interviews and other writings: 1972–1977. (C. Gordon, L. Marshall, J. Mepham, & K. Soper, Trans.). C. Gordon (Ed.). New York: Pantheon Books.Find this resource:

                                                          Foucault, M. (1981). The history of sexuality: Vol. 1: An Introduction (R. Hurley, Trans.). Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin.Find this resource:

                                                            Foucault, M. (1988). The care of the self. (R. Hurley, Trans.). New York: Vintage Books.Find this resource:

                                                              Marx, K. (1973). Grundrisse: Foundations of the critique of political economy. (M. Nicolaus, Trans.). Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin.Find this resource:

                                                                Rodríguez, J. C. (2002a). Theory and history of ideological production: The first bourgeois literature (the 16th century). (M. K. Read, Trans.). Newark: University of Delaware Press.Find this resource:

                                                                  Rodríguez, J. C. (2002b). De qué hablamos cuando hablamos de literatura. Granada, Spain: De guante blanco/Comares.Find this resource:

                                                                    Rodríguez, J. C. (2003). El escritor que compró su propio libro: para leer el Quijote. Barcelona: Debate.Find this resource:

                                                                      Rodríguez, J. C. (2008a). Althusser: Blowup (lineaments of a different thought). PMLA, 123(3), 762–779.Find this resource:

                                                                        Rodríguez, J. C. (2008b). State, Stage, Language: The Production of the Subject. (M. K. Read, Trans.). Newark: University of Delaware Press.Find this resource:

                                                                          Rodríguez, J. C. (2013). De qué hablamos cuando hablamos de Marxismo (teoría, literature y realidad histórica). Madrid: Akal.Find this resource:

                                                                            Rodríguez, J. C. (2015). Para una teoría de la literatura (40 años de Historia). Madrid: Marcial Pons.Find this resource:


                                                                              (1.) Resch (1992) compares Althusser unfavorably to Foucault. As a general rule, commentators on Foucault have been equally anti-Althusserian (e.g., Sheridan, 1980, pp. 214–215; Smart, 1983, 1985, pp. 18–19).

                                                                              (2.) Althusser points specifically to Marx’s intuition regarding the matrix effect of a social formation: “It is a general illumination which bathes all the other colours and modifies their particularity. It is a particular ether which determines the specific gravity of every being which has materialized within it” (Marx, 1973, p. 107).

                                                                              (3.) At the root of Althusser’s difficulties, Roy Bhaskar argues elsewhere, is a failure clearly to thematize ontology (Bhaskar, 2002, pp. 63–64). From the standpoint of the critical realist, such a failure is an instance of the epistemic fallacy, otherwise “the view that statements about being can be reduced to or analysed in terms of statements about knowledge” (Bhaskar, 1978, p. 36)

                                                                              (4.) Unless otherwise specified, translations are my own throughout.

                                                                              (5.) Bhaskar himself allows for the existence of a distinctively linguistic fallacy (Bhaskar, 2002, p. 72).

                                                                              (6.) For further details, see Read (1990, 1992).

                                                                              (7.) For further discussion, see Bartolovich and Lazarus (2002, pp. 10–14).

                                                                              (8.) For details of this second process, Rodríguez acknowledges the contribution of Foucault’s The Birth of the Clinic.