The General Theory of Previous Generation Terrorists



For some time I have been reading and very slowly trying to establish some kind of position with regard to politics and theory in general and Marxism in particular. This has intensified in recent years due to things like the 1999-2001 protest movement and the lack of coherent response to the post-September 11 clampdown. Part of the direction this reading has taken came out of a long-term interest in the French writer Louis Althusser. An opportunity last summer to review a collection of some of his previously unpublished work did not come about, for unforseen circumstances. But my failure to write it also reflected the impossibility of the task for me. My objective had been to criticise Antonio Negri, author of Empire, using the work of his former colleague Althusser. But in even wanting to make the attempt the vistas of my autodidactic ignorance opened up like glacial theme parks.

Anyhow to cut a long story short the text was not written and my reading, supposedly for this text, which I still somehow wanted to write, became a circle of digressions within digressions. To solve this problem I got out and about to ask some famous rebels from history what to do.1 This is what they had to say for themselves:


David Bailey: What at first sight appears to be an unimportant error may lead to the most deplorable consequences, and only short-sighted people can consider factional disputes and a strict differentiation between shades of opinion untimely or irrelevant.

Nine Inch Nails: Error is not something positive.

’Lil Kim: You can make concessions in politics - that is known as a compromise - you can forge unions in politics, but you cannot ever forge a union with ideology. Marx added that you are especially well advised to respect this absolute rule, making no concessions whatsoever, above all when political union is the order of the day.

Aleister Crowley: …you cannot allow yourself theoretical compromises, because you always pay extremely dearly for them.

David Blaine: To recognise the rose in the cross of the present you can’t see everything from everywhere. You can discover the essence of that conflictual reality only on condition of occupying certain positions in the conflict and not others…

Sylvia Plath: Consciousness on its own is incapable of furnishing a distinction between systems.

Steven Berkoff: Neither amnesia, nor disgust, nor irony produces even the shadow of a critique.

Jean-Michel Basquiat: Only complexity can reduce complexity.

Catch: Incessant combat is the means.

Maurizio Catellan: People think they‘re talking to an ordinary person, when in fact they’re talking to some corporate shill…

Terry Christian from “The Word”: …my generation sucks.

Michael Bakunin: To have been the centre of contradiction, and not to have failed, and still to have found it hateful…

Timothy McVeigh: If you have already secretly departed, then admit it - the sooner the better…

Klaus Kinski: Every single human being is a blind link in the chain of necessity on which the world develops. Every single knower can extend his dominion over a greater length of this chain only if he recognises the direction in which the great necessity will go and learns from this cognition to utter the magic word which conjures up its shape.

Salvador Dalí: …I was already blind. Now at last I can enjoy it.

Gudrun Ensslin: Considering what is just around the corner for us all, we could scarcely have found a contemplation more idle.

Vivienne Westwood: Only the result that conforms to the task counts; all the rest are condemned.

Arthur Rimbaud: Sorry, but they aren’t going to send out any search parties for lost cultural capital.

Jean-Paul Gaultier: The purpose or “ethic” is not to announce the revolution but to take the risk of thinking in full view of the public. That is not a risk that many revolutions have been prepared to take.

Easy E: Instead of using the underground to enter the mainstream, be prepared to use the mainstream go underground…

Dennis Hopper: In a letter to a “Theoretical Work Group” he co-founded in 1966,2 Louis Althusser attempts to describe how psychoanalysis could be fitted into a “general theory of discourses”. This in order to help the practice of analysis and to illuminate other associated fields. As well as “general theories” he defines “regional theories”: for example aesthetic, scientific, ideological, and unconscious discourses. They are discourses in the sense that they are structured rather like languages and not in the sense that their content can be explained in words.

Guy Fawkes: The ideological discourse, for example, seen as a “regional theory”, would amongst other things support the interpellation of human subjects, meaning capitalism’s ability to automatically reproduce types of personality. The unconscious discourse (studied by psychoanalysis) would be considered as another “regional theory”, needed by the ideological discourse to ground these subjects with the lack that generates the fantasies and neuroses of the unconscious.

Keith Flint: What these regional theories have in common is that they not only interact with and explain each other, but are articulations of more general theories. In the case of the regional theory of the unconscious, whilst interlinked with the regional theory of ideology, it is also overdetermined by a combination of a “general theory of the signifier” (what is later referred to as the “general theory of discourses”) and the general theory of dialectical materialism. The “general theory of the signifier/discourses” is loosely defined as being the general theory of aesthetic, scientific, ideological, unconscious, and other related discourses. Whereas the “general theory of dialectical materialism” is the object studied by Marxism proper: the political superstructures of society in a dialectic with, and determined in the last instance by, the economy. The ideological processes of the interpellation of the subject, enabled by social institutions such as State, school or family, structurally need the abyssal element of the big Other, the phantasmic spirals of the unconscious. The general theory of economics and politics meets a general theory of meta-discourse in this particular interaction of their regional subsets.

Mickey Rourke: By looking for and tentatively sketching out a relation between regional and general theories, Althusser demonstrates how to link up mystified fields such as psychoanalysis, aesthetics and ideology, and see how they work with each other, whilst respecting their differences. Adding a general theory level renders them comprehensible as fault-lines within a specific historical context. They become entities in relation to theory and practice.

Michel Houellebecq: Similarly, we could seek the general theory of art’s theory… by doing art. Not to run away into politics or philosophy but to seek to articulate the determinants of sub- and regional theories without leaving their particular contexts, through those regional conditions’ specific articulation with the widest discursive and reproductive processes of capitalism. An art practice which understands how it functions in between the regional discourses and the general theories that overdetermine them, may, despite seeming to occupy a discipline such as painting, nevertheless lead to a demand to dismantle the institutions and subjectivities art discourse currently occupies; from art criticism to art fairs to artists.3

Jesus: The regional theories that overlap with others, and the way they overlap, as well as the significance they take on as a result of the position conferred upon them in the new structure, must be thought with reference to the new structure, not the structure to which they belonged prior to or outside this articulation.

Merlin Carpenter, London, July 1, 2004.




1. Welsh rock band Manic Street Preachers defined them as “Generation Terrorists”.

2. Louis Althusser, “Three Notes on the Theory of Discourses,” in The Humanist Controversy and Other Writings, ed. François Matheron, Verso, London, 2003; p. 65. The other members of the work group were Alain Badiou, Étienne Balibar, Yves Duroux and Pierre Macherey.

3. Think of the way the initial demand for better teaching and conditions in French and German universities in early 1968 quickly lead to a general uprising. Professor Theodor Adorno’s attempt to limit critique of the institution to academic debate only was met with a full frontal attack. Ironic, considering that the Frankfurt School was a large factor influencing the students’ direct action. Louis Althusser had a similar relationship to May 68. He initially refused to endorse the “revolution“ he had partly instigated, a position he later regretted.

























    This essay was written for the Nueva Generación catalogue published by Distrito 4, Madrid, to accompany an exhibition of the same name in September 2004. Also there is a Spanish translation in the book.


Melanie Gilligan text from the same catalogue.