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YOU are THE Master Text (Prophets of Narcissism: Louis Althusser, 1960s, SIAS-CIAPS Lecture)

Uploaded 12/31/2020, approx. 27 minute read

Back again. This is the second lecture in the cycle, The Prophets of Narcissism. It is intended for the psychology track of CIAPS, the Outreach Program, Centre for International Advanced and Professional Studies. This is not meant for Southern Federal University.

My name is Sam Vaknin, I'm the author of Malignant Self-Love, Narcissism Revisited, and of course, a professor of psychology.


So today we are going to discuss Louis Althusser.

The first video had dealt with an American thinker, Christopher Lash, who was in every possible way the intellectual father of Jordan Peterson.

And today we are going to discuss Louis Althusser.

Louis Althusser is an amazing phenomenon and an amazing story.

With the exception of Nietzsche, no other madman had contributed so much to human sanity as had Louis Althusser.

And yes, he ended up in a mental asylum exactly like Friedrich Nietzsche.

It seems that we derive a lot of wisdom from totally crazy people, which bodes well for me.

Anyhow, Louis Althusser is mentioned twice in the Encyclopedia Britannica. In both cases, as someone's teacher, there could be no greater omission and oversight.

For two important decades, the 1960s and the 1970s, Louis Althusser was the eye at the core, at the center of all the important cultural debates and storms.

Althusser fathered quite a few of these currents in modern intellectual history.

And this newly found obscurity forces me to summarise Althusser's work before I suggest a few minor modifications to it without due lack of modesty.


Well, let's start with reviewing his work.

Althusser says that society consists of what he calls practices, economic practice, political practice, ideological practice.

And Althusser defines practice as any process of transformation of a determinate product affected by a determinate human labor using determinate means of production.

Pretty straightforward.

So the economic practice, the historically specific mode of production, transforms raw materials to finished products using human labor and other means of production, all organized within defined webs of interrelations known as factories in many cases.

The political practice does the same. It uses social relations as the raw material.

And finally, ideology is the transformation of the way that a subject relates to his real life conditions of existence.

This is Althusser rejects the mechanistic worldview replete with basis and superstructures. It's a rejection in effect of the Marxist theorization of ideology.

And it's pretty ironic that he's considered to be a post-Marxist or a kind of extension of Marxism.

He rejects Marxism. It's a rejection of the Hegelian fascist social totality. It is a dynamic, revealing modern day way of thinking and model of existence.

So in Althusser's intellectual world, the very existence and reproduction of the social base, not merely its expression, all these are dependent upon the social superstructure.

The superstructure is relatively autonomous and ideology is a central part of it.

Althusser is arguably one of the two or three most important thinkers about ideology.

The economic structure is determinant, but another structure would be dominant depending on the historical conjuncture.

Now called overdetermination. Determination specifies the form of economic production upon which the dominant practice depends and rests.

Let's put it otherwise.

The economic is determinant, not because the practices of the social formation, political practices, ideological practices, are the social formations' expressive epiphenomenon.

It is determinant because it determines which of these practices, which of these expressions becomes dominant.

In other words, the economic side, the economic practice is the arbiter, arbitrates, mediates, decides, channels both the practice of society and its expression.

And in this sense, of course, it is in some ways a continuation of Marx, but it's also a continuation of Adam Smith. It's not unique to Marx or to Hegel.


Next thing that Althusser says is that people relate to the conditions of existence through the practice of ideology. They filter reality through ideology. Contradictions are smoothed over. Real problems are offered false, though seemingly true, solutions.

And so ideology has a realistic dimension and a dimension of representations like myths, concepts, ideas, images. There is harsh conflicting reality and there is the way that we represent reality to ourselves and to other people via ideology.

To achieve the above, ideology must not be seen to err. It must be perceived as infallible, error-free, and it must never remain speechless. Ideology must have something to say about everything. Ideology, therefore, confronts and poses to itself only questions it can answer, only answerable questions and decidable statements. Ideology, therefore, limits the space of discourse to realms of life, issues, topics, conundrums, dilemmas that it can offer an answer to.

And this answer is ipso facto deemed error-free, by definition, always true and correct.

This way, ideology remains confined to a fabulous, legendary, contradiction-free domain. It's a fable and it ignores all other questions. It ignores them altogether.

And Althusser introduced the concept of the problematic. As he puts it, the problematic is the objective internal reference, the system of questions, commanding the answers given. The problematic is the question, set of questions that ideology poses to itself.

It determines which problems, the problematic, determines which problems, which questions and answers are part of the game and which should be blacklisted and never as much as mentioned. It is a structure of theory, ideology, framework, and the repertoire of discourses which ultimately yield a text or a practice.

And all the rest is excluded.

Ideology, therefore, the problematic, therefore, becomes clear within the ideology. It becomes clear that what is omitted, what is excluded, what is ignored, what is repressed and denied and suppressed is of no less importance than what is included in any text, in any discourse, in any debate, in any explanation, hermeneutic, exegetic principle.

So what we don't hear being discussed is as important as what we hear.

The problematic of a text relates to its historical context, what Althusser calls moment, by incorporating both inclusions as well as omissions, presences as much as absences.

The problematic of the text fosters the generation of answers to posed questions and of defective answers to excluded questions.

As you begin to see, it has a lot to do with narcissism.

Narcissism is an absence, an ideology, and has its own problematic set of allowed questions, the permitted discourse.

According to Althusser, the task of scientific, for example, Marxist discourse of Althusserian critical practice, the task of this is to deconstruct the problematic, to read through, between the lines, to see through the ideology and evidence the real conditions of existence.

And this is what he calls symptomatic readings or symptomatic reading of two texts.

Whenever you're confronted with a text, with an ideology, with propaganda, with a speech, with a piece of advertising, with a message, there's a hidden one. Each text has a hidden text.

And in order to get to reality, to evince what's really happening, existence, you must have access to both texts, both texts, and you must read them in a specific way, what Althusser calls symptomatic reading, and possibly deconstruction.

It's similarities.

So he says that symptomatic reading of the two texts divulges the undevolved event in the text that it reads.

So when you read the text symptomatically, you suddenly discover things that are not mentioned in the text.

And in the same movement, relates to it a different text, present as a necessary absence in the first.

So when you read, when you're confronted with a message, a speech act, a statement, an appeal, or day-to-day conversation, you must read it symptomatically. You must ask yourself, what's missing? What are the parts that are missing from the text?

And then when you do this, you discover a different text, and that different text is a necessary absence.

It's exactly like, let's say, figure and background. The background defines the figure.

It's very critical, although the background is absence, is the absence of the figure, but it's still very critical to the figure.

Contrast.

Marx reading, for example, Adam Smith presupposes the existence of two texts, and the measurement of the first against the second.

But what distinguishes this new reading from the old is the fact that in the new type of reading, the second text is articulated with the lapses in the first text.

Marx measures the problematic contained in the paradox of an answer which does not correspond to any questions posed.

Althusser is contrasting the manifest text with a latent text, which is a result of the lapses, distortions, silences, absences, repressions, denials in the manifest text.

The latent text is the diary of the struggle of the posed questions to be posed, to be answered, to be considered.

These repressed speech acts, these repressed topics and questions, they want to erupt, they want to explode.

That's a fight between the true self and the false self in the narcissist. The false self is the manifest text.

The true self is the latent text.


Adiologists, says Althusser, is a practice with lived and material dimensions. It has costumes, rituals, behavior patterns, ways of thinking.

The state employs ideological apparatuses, ISAs, to reproduce ideology through practices and through productions. So the state uses organized religion, the education system, the family, organized politics, the media, the industries of culture.

Althusser would have abhorred Jordan Peterson's message. He would have considered him a witting or unwitting tool of this Orwellian word.

All ideologies, says Althusser, has the function, which defines it, of constructing concrete individuals as subjects, subject to what?

The answer according to Althusser, subject to the material practices of the ideology.

So the ideology takes people and converts them into homo-economics, for example, into consumers.

And this, the creation of the subjects, is done by the acts of hailing, or as Althusser call it, interpolation.

Interpolation says, hey you, come over here. Hey you, come over here? That's interpolation.

These are acts of attracting attention, hailing, forcing individuals to generate meaning, interpretation, forcing them, coercing them to participate in the practice, the economic practice, and the social practice.

These theoretical tools were widely used to analyze, for example, the advertising and the cinema industries.

So the ideology of consumption, which is undeniably the most material of all practices, it uses advertising to transform individuals into subjects, into consumers.

It uses advertising to interpolate individuals, to hail them, to hold them. The advertisements attract attention. They force people to introduce meaning into the text and as a result to consume.

The most famous example is the use of people like you by this or that in advertisements. The reader or the viewer is interpolated both as an individual, people like you, and as a member of a group, people like you.

The individual occupies the empty imaginary space of the you in the ad. This is, it's like chair work in therapy.

This is ideological misrecognition.

First, many others misrecognize themselves as that you, any possibility in the real world.

And secondly, the misrecognized you exists only in the advertisement because it was created by the advertisement. It has no real world correlate. It's a piece of fiction.

Social practices such as advertising, propaganda, cinema, culture and art, generally, religion, of course, they convert you into a piece of fiction. They impose on you a narrative, a text, which is not you.

And you're struggling to find meaning in this. And when you're struggling to find meaning in this, you collude, you conspire with the text to subjugate you, to force you to practice in a certain way.

This is gaslighting in effect if you want to apply it to narcissism and psychopathy. It's confabulation, it's gaslighting.

The reader or viewer of the ad is transformed into the subject of and is subjected to the material practice of the ideology consumption, for example.

There's no denying that Althusser was heavily influenced by Marx. The dominant mode of production in his days, and even more so today, was capitalism. The implied criticism of the material dimensions of ideological practices should be taken with more than a grain of salt. Interpolated by the ideology of Marxism himself, Althusser generalized on his personal experience and described ideologies as infallible, omnipotent, ever successful.

Ideologies to Althusser were impeccably functioning machines, which can always be relied upon to reproduce subjects with all the habits and thought patterns required by the dominant mode of production.

That, of course, is manifestly untrue, especially after 1989, when we saw all systems crumbling, all ideologies crumbling, actually since the 1940s, when Nazism crumbled, fascism crumbled, communism crumbled. If anything, ideologies are the least successful ways of interpolating people. Religion was much more successful.

And this is where Althusser fails, trapped by dogmatism and more than a touch of paranoia. He neglects to treat two important questions.

His problematic maybe didn't allow. I mean, the questions were excluded by his own problematic, because ironically, his problematic, his theory, his work, it's a text. It's also an ideology. It also omits, represses, denies, ignores certain questions.


So the first question is, what do ideologies look for? Why do they engage in their practice? What is the ultimate goal of ideologies?

And the second question is, what happens in a pluralistic, diverse environment, rich in competing ideologies?

Althusser stipulates the existence of two texts, manifest and hidden or latent. The hidden text co-exists with the open or manifest text, very much as a black figure defines the white background. The background is also a figure. And it is only arbitrarily the result of historical conditioning that we bestow a preferred status upon the figure, not the background.

The latent text can be extracted from the manifest text by listening to the absences, the lapses and the silences in the manifest text itself.

But what dictates these laws of extraction? How do we know that the latent text that we expose is the right latent text? Surely, there must exist a procedure of comparison, authentication and verification of the latent textor is it a free for all? If it is a free for all, we would all come with competing latent text, because the universe of what's left out of an ideology is infinite.

A comparison of the resulting latent text to the manifest text from which it was extracted would be futile because it would be recursive, self-referential. This is not even a process of iteration. It is tautological. There must exist a third master text, a privileged text, historically invariant, reliable, unequivocal, unambiguous, indifferent to interpretation frameworks, universally accessible, atemporal, non-spatial, third text, which of course incorporates all possible texts, the manifest and all the latent text. The third text is complete in the sense that it includes both the manifest and the latent as I just said. Actually, it should include all the possible text. It should function as a complete library.

The historical moment will determine which of these texts will be manifest and which will be latent according to the needs of the mode of production and the various practices.

I agree with that. Not all these texts will be conscious and accessible to the individual, but such a third text would embody and dictate the rules of comparison between the manifest text itself and the complete text so as to derive the latent text.

Only through a comparison between a partial text and a complete text can the deficiencies of the partial text be exposed. It makes its sense to reason.

A comparison between partial texts, the latent and the manifest, will yield no absolute or certain results. A comparison between the text and itself, as Althusser suggests to do, is absolutely meaningless. It's tautology.

And this third text, what is it?

It's the human psyche. It's psychology or, if you wish, personality.

We constantly compare texts, texts that we come across, visual texts, I don't know, YouTube videos, written texts, other texts, behaviors around us, people around us are texts. Our workplace is a form of text. Text is simply how things are organized, to make meaning, to generate meaning.

So we constantly compare the texts that we come across to this third text, a copy of which we all carry with us, and it's called being human.

We are unaware of most of the texts incorporated in this master text of ours. We are unaware of what it means to be human in the fullest sense of the word. A lot of it is obscured by resistances, defense mechanisms, traumas, dissociation, etc.

When we are faced with a manifest text which is new to us, we first download the rules of comparison, the rules of engagement from our master text, from inside our heads.

We sift through the manifest text. We compare it to our own complete master text, our psychology, our personality, and see which parts are missing.

And these constitutes our idiosyncratic, latent text.

The manifest text is universal. The latent text is individual. Individual, idiosyncratic, unique to each and every one of us.

The manifest text serves as a trigger which brings to our consciousness appropriate and relevant portions of our own third complete text.

It also generates the latent text that is unique to us and inside us.

If this sounds familiar, it's because it's a pattern of confronting the manifest text and comparing it with our master text and storing the results, latent text and manifest text that are brought to consciousness.

This pattern, I repeat, confronting the manifest text, comparing the manifest text to our psychology, which is the master text, the third text, and then storing the results of the comparison, the latent text generated and the manifest text, and both of them are now in consciousness.

This is used by Mother Nature itself. Take, for example, DNA. DNA is a master third text. DNA includes all the genetic biological texts, and Jung said it includes also collective unconscious, whatever that means. So the DNA includes all the genetic biological texts ever written. Some of these texts become manifest.

We are the manifest text. Most of these texts actually remains latent. So a tiny minority of our genetic material is expressed. The rest is latent, hidden.

Only stimuli in the environment can provoke the third text, the DNA, to generate its own hitherto latent other texts and make them manifest.

And the same applies, of course, to computer applications.

Use a tiny minority of the functions of your software.

The rest is latent, but you can trigger it.

The third text, therefore, has an invariant nature.

It includes all possible texts, and yet it is changeable by interacting with manifest texts.

This contradiction is only apparent, though.

The third text does not change.

Only different parts of it are brought to our awareness as a result of the interaction with the manifest text.

So there's an ever-calatoscopic, ever-shifting river-like flux in our third text, in the complete text, where parts of it emerge into consciousness and become the manifest text.

Then they submerge and become a conscious or shadow. Then they emerge again and submerge and emerge.

It's a constant vortex, constant whirlpool, constant flow.

And so the third text as a totality never changes. It's immutable.

But which parts of it are manifest and which parts of it are latent, this is determined by us and our environment, especially our environment.

And awareness is the lens, the projector, the flashlight, the torch, which identifies the manifest text.

That is an excellent definition of consciousness.

We can also safely say that one does not need to be an Al-Tusarian critic or engage in scientific discourse to deconstruct a problematic.

Every reader of texts, of any text, whenever you come across a text, a text would be another person, remember? Whenever you come across a text, you immediately and always deconstruct the text.

The very act of reading, watching, talking, having sex, loving, these acts involve comparison with the third text, which you are, and inevitably lead to the generation of latent texts or your unique latent text.

And this is precisely why some interpolations actually fail.

Ideologies are not fail-proof, as Al-Tusar wanted to convince us.

Many interpolations fail.

The subject deconstructs every message, even if he is not trained in critical practice, even if he doesn't know how to do symptomatic reading. He still does.

It's reflexive. It's instinctual. The subject is interpolated or fails to be interpolated, depending on what latent message, what latent text was generated through his comparison of the manifest text with his own third text.

Every person is a third text, and the subject is a third text.

And the third text has an engine, embedded engine, probably from birth, what Kant may be called categories. I don't know, analytical categories. I'm not sure, but there is an engine in the third text which every single person is.

And this engine is slightly paranoid, slightly hypervigilant, slightly suspicious, and tries to read between the lines of every manifest text.

So we generate latent text automatically, instinctually.

And because a third text includes all possible texts, the subject is given to numerous competing interpolations offered by many ideologies, mostly at odds with each other.

The subject is in an environment of competing interpolations, especially at this day and age of information glass.

The failure of one interpolation normally means the success of another interpolation.

Someone else, some other manifest text whose interpolation is based on the latent text generated in comparison process.

So when you confront a text, the manifest text, you use your own third text to generate a latent text.

And if there's a match, you're interpolated.

And sometimes you have a manifest text of your own, or you have a latent text generated by a mother text.

I mean, there are numerous possibilities here.

So I wouldn't be so linear, like manifest text, interpolation, action. I don't think it's true.

I think there are several other stages in manifest text, attempted interpolation.

Third text in the recipient, in the subject, the psychology of the subject, a generation of a latent text, comparison of the latent text to the manifest text.

And then if there's a match, interpolation works. If not, then the subject exposes himself or herself to another interpolation, another ideology, there's a competition going on.

The failure of one interpolation normally means the success of another interpolation whose interpolation is based on the latent text generated in the comparison process, or on a manifest text of its own, or in a latent text generated by another text.

You see how many possibilities there are. There are competing ideologies, even the most severe authoritarian regimes, even in Nazi Germany. Sometimes the states use these mechanisms within the same social formations. And these mechanisms offer competing ideologies.

So you have the political party, you have the church, you have the family, you have the army, you have the media, you have the civilian regime, you have the bureaucracy, and they all compete because they all give you an ideology.

Ideology is a way to organize your access to reality, your perception, and to assume that interpolations are offered to the potential subjects successively and not in parallel.

This is not true. It defies experience. It's counterfactual. It simplifies that the thought system simplifies the theory, but it's nonsense.

We are exposed daily to hundreds of competing ideologies, many of them with latent text, actually. They don't even come with manifest text.

Clarifying that how, though, does not shed light on the why.


Advertising leads to the interpolation of the subject to affect the material practice of consumption. Put it more simply, there is money here. There's money involved.

So, you know, we understand this. We advertise to interpolate you to buy my product. I get this.

But other ideologies propagated through organized religions, for example, why do they do what they do?

The output of organized religion is prayer, and a lot of money, in the case of the Catholic Church, for example. So, is this a reason? Could this be the material practice that they're looking for? I don't know. Prayer? Seriously? Money, prayer, the very ability to interpolate? Are they representations of power? Is it all about power, ultimately? Are we all power crazy?

The business concern, the church, the political party, the family, the media, the culture industries, are they all looking for the same thing? Influence? Power? Might? Is this the only explanation of why we interpolate?

Absurdly, interpolation is used to secure one paramount thing, the ability to interpolate. So, interpolation is circular. We interpolate so that we have the power to interpolate.

Behind every material practice, there's a psychological practice, very much as the third text. Your own personality stands behind every text, latent and manifest.

The media could be different, especially social media. There's money involved. There's spiritual prowess, physical brutality, there's subtle messages, there's influence.

But everyone, even individuals in their private lives, everyone is looking to hail and to interpolate other people, to manipulate them, to succumb to material practices.

Social media is the greatest proof of this. When we were given the choice, when we were given the opportunity, when we were provided the technology, we all started to produce text, manifest text, and we all tried to interpolate people, to give us likes, to buy our products.

A short-sighted view would say that the business manager interpolates in order to make money, but the important question is, what ever for? What drives ideologies to establish material practices and to interpolate people, to participate in these material practices, to become subjects?

Ultimately, the will to power. Adler, Adlerian view, the will to power.

Frankl would have disagreed. He would have said it's the will to meaning. Freud would have disagreed. He would have said the will to pleasure.

But meaning gives us power, at the very least over ourselves. And pleasure is a manifestation of power, a derivative of power.

The wish to power, the wish to be able to interpolate, is critical. It is the cyclical nature of Althusser's teachings, ideologies interpolate in order to be able to interpolate. And then they become ideologies.

It is his dogmatic approach. Ideologies never fail. I think these are the reasons that his brilliant observations were doomed to oblivion. They simply have nothing to do with reality.

And so in Althusser's writings, Marx's determination remains as over determination. This is a structured articulation of a number of contradictions and determinations between the practices.

This is very reminiscent of Freud's dream theory and of the concept of superposition in quantum mechanics.


The third text is not like the human psyche. It is the human psyche.

The third text is the complete text. It produces a latent text by interacting with the manifest texts. There are as many third texts as there are sentient intelligent beings. The completeness of third text is only in relation to the individual whose psyche it is.

And so there can be no universal third text, no reality out there. We have 7.7 billion third texts and they are all equally valid, but valid for one individual.

This is known in philosophy as the intersubjectivity problem. It puts in grave doubt the very possibility for empathy.

My solution essentially is solipsistic. We all live in bubbles of meaning. Our problematics are idiosyncratic and really non-communicable, hermetic. There is no universal or global master text.

So we can never communicate truthfully or access the mind of another person. Each individual has his or her own master text. And this master text inevitably reflects his or her cultural, social values, histories, preferences, traumas, you name it. Even dissociated material is relevant here. It's a part of the latent text.

Ideologies are complex, all pervasive, all encompassing, narratives. The main role of ideologies is to reconcile and smooth over the gaps between observed reality and constructed reality. Ideologies use numerous mechanisms to help us to collude in the suppression of ugly and uncomfortable truths or questions that cannot be answered. Cognitive dissonance is often employed. Ideology teaches the interpolated individual to reject as undesirable that which he or she cannot have or cannot understand.

Even if you secretly want to possess something, even if you want to understand but you can't, you will reject it. You will reject it as bad as evil. Delusions are induced. What you see with your own eyes, ideology tells you, is not real, is not true. You are mistaken to believe your senses. Delayed gratification is exalted. Sacrifices in this world, Peterson's suffering, they are rewarded in the hereafter or later in your own life.

And this is where both Lash and Althusser seamlessly merge into intellectual trends in the 21st century.


Okay, this was the second lecture in the cycle, the prophets of narcissism. Stay tuned for the third, which will be coming next year. Have a happy new year, all of you, despite having listened to this lecture. And we'll see each other hopefully in the flesh sometime next year.

The vaccine permitting and Althusser willing.

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