September 22, 2020:

We thought we were "Structuralists", although without fully engaging with Saussure, Jakobson and Lévi-Strauss our understanding was sketchy. There were two sources of confusion.

First, the New Left Review told us so. Althusser's current was assimilated to French Theory writ large, before all the key works were published and the published materials comprehensively translated. We were "Structural Marxists", blessed and canonicalized a couple of years later by Ted Benton, and we were at this time in no position to argue.

Second, our Philosophy professor's dilettante enthusiasm for whatever was current ensured we encountered the academic ascendancy of "French Theory" at more or less the moment it arrived. He introduced us to Derrida and above all Foucault at the onset of the era in American academe when "French Theory", as yet undifferentiated, was taking hold. There's an ambivalence to the result, or if we prefer the old language a contradiction. On the one hand he opened us to the anti-subjectivist, anti-phenomenological vanguard at a moment in our lives when we could have gone seriously into the weeds. I credit him for saving me from Sartre and Lukács and the Frankfurt School, the dominant currents in American academic Marxism for the previous decades. Not just that. He also exposed us in an early and fairly reasonable way to the strategy of reading for gaps and silences, his own somewhat trivialized spin — I think he owed more to Martial Guéroult than to Foucault or Derrida or Althusser — on symptomatic reading. On the other hand he reinforced the tendency to assimilate all contemporary French writers to a false commonality labeled Structuralist, where Althusser, Barthes, Foucault, Derrida, Lacan, Lévi-Strauss, Deleuze, Kristeva, and others were all considered ingredients of the same French soup. So that it took effort and time to overcome what was for many of us a foundational misconception.

On my own I came to realize Althusser did not belong. With slow but repeated readings I found Althusser and his circle criticizing Structuralism for its "essential section": the false belief that a homogeneous whole is simultaneously present in all its parts. The Althusserians described a different structure, where a complex, unstable equilibrium is formed through accumulation of heterodox determinants, uncentered, radicalized as a site of absences, of conflicts. It was a "ruptural unity", necessarily unique, rather than a simple combinatory of pre-existing elements which could be more or less infinitely re-arranged or swapped in and out without damage to the whole. This is what makes possible the analysis of conjunctures, revolutionary or otherwise, where with that concept we're reaching the crux of things. In common with their era the Althusserians employed the word "structure", but their "structures" were not homologous with those of Lévi-Strauss, Barthes and the others. It's possible I was among the first of our small circle of Southern California Althusserians who cottoned-on to the distinction.

Althusser led to Cavaillès, Lecourt, and Bachelard, who led to Canguilhem who led to Serres and Koyré. I found Feyerabend in the NLB catalog. My academic focus on the epistemology of science was being fulfilled, in an unsystematic, ad hoc, go-where-it-leads kind of way, driven partly by my slow reading, partly by lack of reliable resources at school, but most helpfully by a milieu of generous older SoCal grad students who pointed the way.