Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Encyclopedias, the Politics of

“Aren’t encyclopedias those things that we don’t need anymore because the internet?”

-My friend, Jimmy

I just sent editors a draft of an encyclopedia entry that I volunteered to write because a) it addresses a topic (well, a person) that I am writing about anyway and, therefore, I can turn it into b) the almighty “c.v. line” - a succinct indication that there exists tangible evidence that I have produced a thing. This entry is on Louis Althusser – a thinker that I have lectured on and assigned for years but is always problematic because he strangled his wife, Helene Rytman, to death.

Unsurprisingly, this causes a [possibly insurmountable] tension when discussing Althusser between his ideas/influence and the circumstances of his life (a tension characteristic to many canonized authors/historical figures). There’s also the fact that Marxist thought, and philosophy more generally, has moved away from Althusser’s moment in the sun, but a/the central problematic is reconciling the fact that he was an influential thinker and murderer.

Which brings me to this encyclopedia entry. Ignoring for a moment that Wikipedia is a thing, a print encyclopedia represents the end of several processes taken to be authoritative – the editors are well-trained in whichever field the work addresses and so their decisions on inclusion/exclusion carry the authority of their training; the publisher has determined that there is a market for such a product so the invisible hand of the economy is giving a big thumbs up; the authors of entries have been vetted, and the entries themselves have been subjected to review. All of this authority-production leads to the appearance of a necessary work with a coherent purpose.

This appearance of necessity and coherence cloaked in scholarly authority often goes hand in hand with objectivity – encyclopedias present a collection of information. Just facts. No more. No less. But facts are tricky.  In the interest of brevity, I’ll list two problematic treatments of Althusser: the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry about him (free, online, why did I try to re-invent the wheel…*I can’t hear you, la la la la la*) and a posthumous review of Althusser’s autobiography, L’avenir Dure Longtemps (Althusser’s autobiography opens with a brief firsthand account of Helene’s murder).  

The Stanford Encyclopedia, in my opinion, inadequately treats the murder, stating that Althusser was able to focus on metaphysics in his later works after being “freed by his ignoble status” from political obligations (this type of wording is present elsewhere in secondary literature as well).  Surely there’s a better way to address the murder of Helene than to state that Althusser was freed from political leadership and therefore better suited to elaborate a metaphysical system…but facts are facts: he did write about metaphysics in the decade between her death and his, but these writings can be presented as the unencumbered thought of a well-known philosopher or the final writings of a murderer spending his last years in solitude or institutionalized after being declared mentally unfit for trial.  Facts are facts, but they require interpretation.
Secondly, The Independent’s review states that works by thinkers like Althusser who take social constructionism very seriously are undercut by revelations about their personal life.

I think that there needs to be a way to address a person’s fallibility alongside her or his thought and influence – philosophers aren’t pure thinkers…but neither are they solely biographies apart from their work and its influence. To emphasize one at the expense of the other – dismiss personal actions due to a historical figure’s importance or to dismiss her or his importance due to their personal life seems equally wrongheaded, but, then, perhaps, there are thinkers or historical figures whose actions cause (or should cause) such a drastic re-thinking of their legacies that little remains of their influence.

All this is to say that encyclopedia entries, biographies, authoritative accounts of a life are never value-free or objective. They stake a claim (probably many claims, usually not explicitly stated) about how a particular person or idea ought to be understood and, and more generally, how one ought to conceive of people, history, canons, authority, agency, contingency, and society. When presented in an authoritative fashion, all of these claims may subtly shift from the result of many contingent processes to natural, objective fact. 

We should certainly pay attention to facts, but also to their production.

Thanks for reading.