Listening to Reading Capital

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The Louis Althusser archives at L’Institut Mémoires de l’édition con­tem­po­raine (IMEC) in Caen can be a bit intim­i­dat­ing to a first time vis­i­tor. In addi­tion to hold­ing every­thing from high school aca­d­e­mic awards, to dream nar­ra­tives, to funer­al notices, it encom­pass­es vir­tu­al­ly every let­ter writ­ten by Althusser as well as every draft of every book and paper that he authored.

And Althusser wrote a lot. Though the archive reveals fal­low spells when he hard­ly wrote – times that usu­al­ly cor­re­spond­ed with bouts of depres­sion and ill­ness – the­se peri­ods are more than bal­anced out by pro­tract­ed stints where Althusser was philo­soph­i­cal­ly and polit­i­cal­ly ener­gized, and where he almost seems struck by grapho­ma­nia. At the­se moments, the act of set­ting to paper his thoughts about Marx­ist phi­los­o­phy and about the cur­rent con­junc­ture result­ed in volu­mi­nous cor­re­spon­dence with such faith­ful inter­locu­tors as Fran­ca Mado­nia, Éti­en­ne Bal­ibar, and Michel Ver­ret. It also result­ed in the draft­ing of book after book and arti­cle after arti­cle, many of which were nev­er offered for pub­li­ca­tion.1 Some of the­se texts remain frag­men­tary, but there are also com­plete books in the archive, a few of which have recent­ly seen the light of day or have only recent­ly been trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish. The­se include Ini­ti­a­tion à la philoso­phie pour les non-philosoph­es, Être marx­is­te en philoso­phie and On the Repro­duc­tion of Cap­i­tal. Oth­er books are forth­com­ing. In addi­tion to the recent­ly released cor­re­spon­dence with Lucien Sève and sem­i­nar notes, each of the­se pub­li­ca­tions will provide a much fuller pic­ture of Althusser’s philo­soph­i­cal devel­op­ment and the depth of his activ­i­ty, engage­ment, and reflec­tion.

With 2015 hav­ing been the 50th anniver­sary of Read­ing Cap­i­tal’s pub­li­ca­tion, the new edi­tions are not the only pieces in Althusser’s oeu­vre that are cur­rent­ly attract­ing atten­tion. Indeed, anniver­sary con­fer­ences and sem­i­nars have been held in Sao Paolo, Buenos Aires, Prince­ton, Paris, and many oth­er cities. Spe­cial issues of Cri­sis & Cri­tique, dia­crit­ics, Les Cahiers du GRM, and a forum in the LA Review of Books have also been released. Final­ly, new­ly edit­ed edi­tions of the col­lec­tive work, which include the con­tri­bu­tions of Roger Establet, Pier­re Macherey, and Jacques Ran­cière and that note the vari­a­tions between the first and sub­se­quent edi­tions, have been or will soon be pub­lished by PUF and Ver­so.

With all the activ­i­ty around Read­ing Cap­i­tal, it is stim­u­lat­ing to report that one of the sur­pris­es of the Althusser archive is that audio­tapes of the 1964-65 sem­i­nar on Marx’s Cap­i­tal are pre­served there­in and that they have sur­vived. Fur­ther, the­se record­ings are in the process of being dig­i­tal­ized so that researchers might prof­itably con­sult them. Now, the curi­ous can lis­ten in on the pre­sen­ta­tions of Althusser, Bal­ibar, Macherey, and Ran­cière (Establet appears to be M.I.A.) and see how much truth there is in Althusser’s state­ment that the writ­ten con­tri­bu­tions con­tained in Read­ing Cap­i­tal “bear the mark of the­se cir­cum­stances: not only in their con­struc­tion, their rhythm, their didac­tic or oral style, but also and above all in their dis­crep­an­cies, the rep­e­ti­tions, hes­i­ta­tions and uncer­tain steps in their inves­ti­ga­tions.”2

After lis­ten­ing to a few of the ses­sions that have been dig­i­tized, the author of this piece can con­firm that, at least in the pre­pared remarks, there is lit­tle vari­a­tion between that which was read in the sem­i­nar room at the École Nor­male Supéri­ore and that which was pub­lished by Édi­tions Maspero a few months lat­er. How­ev­er, even if this sam­ple accu­rate­ly rep­re­sents the whole, the tapes are worth attend­ing to for at least four rea­sons. The first is that, along with the writ­ten drafts of the con­tri­bu­tions to the sem­i­nar that are held in Althusser’s archives, the­se record­ings will allow for the most accu­rate geneal­o­gy of one of the most impor­tant texts in 20th cen­tu­ry Marx­ist phi­los­o­phy. The sec­ond rea­son is that the­se cas­settes may con­tain addi­tion­al infor­ma­tion and dis­cus­sions that will allow the his­to­ri­an or oth­er inter­est­ed par­ties to see how the first audi­tors of the mate­ri­al received the arch­ly the­o­ret­i­cal and star­tling­ly orig­i­nal read­ings of Marx pre­sent­ed at the sem­i­nar. The third rea­son, and this may only apply to Althusser’s con­tri­bu­tions, is that the record­ings reveal Althusser as a mas­ter teacher. One can hear his com­pelling speak­ing voice and feel the rhetor­i­cal rhythms which indi­cate when an impor­tant point is being made or when he is unsure of a claim. In addi­tion, some of the asides, tan­gents, and exam­ples that he gives oral­ly and that did not make their way into the final book provide much more lucid illus­tra­tions of the con­cepts and ideas that he was in the course of devel­op­ing than does the writ­ten work itself.3 Final­ly, lis­ten­ing to the tapes is a great aes­thet­ic expe­ri­ence – the atmos­phere of the sem­i­nar is ren­dered tan­gi­ble.4 After what must have been heaps of work on the part of IMEC’s tech­ni­cians to bake, trans­fer, and clean up fifty-year-old analog source mate­ri­al, the dig­i­tized sem­i­nars give you a feel­ing of being on the Rue d’Ulm and sit­ting around the sem­i­nar table. On one tape, for instance, the sound of a French Nation­al Police siren breaks up the flow of Althusser’s pre­sen­ta­tion and the lis­ten­er paus­es with him, just as par­tic­i­pants in the win­ter sem­i­nar did fifty years ago.

For those inter­est­ed in audi­tion­ing the­se record­ings, the surest bet is to con­tact IMEC and to obtain per­mis­sion as a researcher to con­sult the archives. There is a chance that the record­ings will be put online and made dig­i­tal­ly avail­able to the pub­lic but this has not yet been announced. Once there, one can find the sem­i­nars list­ed in the Althusser cat­a­log under the head­ing: Lire Le Cap­i­tal. Séminaire sur Le Cap­i­tal (1964-1965). The indi­vid­u­al record­ings are enu­mer­at­ed accord­ing to a sys­tem that per­haps made sense to their orig­i­nal cat­a­loguer but that give lit­tle clue about the date or order of indi­vid­u­al pre­sen­ta­tions. Set­ting the record­ings in order and estab­lish­ing the­se dates might be the first work for any­one who wants to work seri­ous­ly with the tapes. For that future researcher’s con­ve­nience, here are the ref­er­ences list­ed on each of the now dig­i­tized cas­settes.

Below is an index of record­ed talks at the “Séminaire sur Le Cap­i­tal” in the archives de Louis Althusser at IMEC:

N°2/F; 2/G      Exposé de Bal­ibar

N°4/A; 4/B      Exposé d’Althusser (début)

N°4/C               Exposé d’Althusser (suite)

N°5/A               Exposé de Macherey (début)

N°5/B               Exposé de Macherey (suite)

N°9/A; 4/B      Exposé de Ran­cière (suite)

N°15/B             Exposé d’Althusser (L’objet du Cap­i­tal), p. 9-26

N°15/C             Exposé d’Althusser (L’objet du Cap­i­tal), p. 26-54

N°15/A             Exposé d’Althusser (L’objet du Cap­i­tal), p. 55-71

N°2/B; 2/C       Exposé d’Althusser (L’objet du Cap­i­tal), p. 101-162

N°2/D; 2/E       Exposé d’Althusser (L’objet du Cap­i­tal), p. 162-177


This arti­cle is part of a dossier enti­tled “A Strug­gle With­out End”: Althusser’s Inter­ven­tions.


  1. G.M. Gosh­gar­i­an, “Phi­los­o­phy and Rev­o­lu­tion: An Inter­view With G.M. Gosh­gar­i­an,” in this View­point dossier. 

  2. Louis Althusser and Éti­en­ne Bal­ibar, Read­ing Cap­i­tal, trans. Ben Brew­ster (Lon­don: NLB, 1970), 13. 

  3. Note that one can hear Althusser’s voice – from por­tions of an old­er taped inter­view – on the recent France cul­ture radio pro­gram, “Louis Althusser, un marx­is­te imag­i­naire,” 5/12/15. The orig­i­nal taped pro­gram, appar­ent­ly from 1963, is avail­able here

  4. See the com­ments made by Bal­ibar and Ran­cière about the pro­ceed­ings and gen­er­al cli­mate of the sem­i­nar in inter­views with Aliocha Wald Laskowski for Le mag­a­zine lit­téraire, now col­lect­ed in a book: Althusser et nous (Paris: PUF, 2016). 

Author of the article

is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Chair of Philosophy and Religion at Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs (New York). He is the author of Louis Althusser and the Traditions of French Marxism (Lexington Books, 2005). He has published widely on Social and Political Philosophy, American Pragmatism, and in the Philosophy of the Social Sciences.