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Structural Causality
La causalité structurale

A key concept in the Cahiers pour l’Analyse, inherited from Louis Althusser’s account of the specific interaction of structures and their elements.

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Louis Althusser attempted to extract the Marxist theory of society from its Hegelian dialectical origins by reformulating it as a theory of a ‘structured totality’, composed of economic, social and ideological levels. In Section II of his controversial 1964 essay ‘Marxisme et humanisme’, Althusser showed that the Feuerbachian and Hegelian principles behind Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts were different to those of his ‘mature’ work Capital.1 On the Hegelian schema ‘history is the alienation and production of reason in unreason, of the true man in the alienated man’. The alienation of labour and the ‘loss’ of the essence of man ‘produces history’, and ‘at the end of history, this man, having become inhuman objectivity, has merely to re-grasp as subject his own essence alienated in property, religion and the State to become total man, true man’.2 According to Althusser, Marx ‘replaced the old postulates (empiricism/idealism of the subject, empiricism/idealism of the essence) which were the basis not only for idealism but also for pre-Marxist materialism, by a historico-dialectical materialism of praxis’. For Althusser the shift to a theory of ‘the different specific levels of human practice’ was the key to the validity of the Marxist view of society. Taking up Marx’s analysis in the Introduction to the Grundrisse of the coexistence of the levels of production, distribution and consumption,3 he contended that social contradiction was ‘inseparable from the total structure of the social body in which is found, inseparable from its formal conditions of existence, and even from the instances it governs; it is radically affected by them, determining, but also determined in one and the same movement, and determined by the various levels and instances of the social formation it animates; it might be called overdetermined in principle.’4

In ‘L’Objet du Capital’ in Lire le Capital (1965), Althusser becomes preoccupied with the problem of how to think the inter-determination of structures. ‘With what concept are we to think the determination of either an element or a structure by a structure’?5 This problem is connected with another methodological problem: if the whole is already structured and all action is caught up in the movement of its specific mechanisms, how is it possible to present the structure as such? If we are already inside pre-structured relations, how is it possible to gain a vantage point on these structures? These questions lead Althusser to deal with the problem of structural causality. If, according to Marx, the economic relations of production are ‘determinant in the last instance’, how is this determination to be thought?

The structure is not an essence outside the economic phenomena which comes and alters their aspect, forms and relations and which is effective on them as an absent cause, absent because it is outside them. The absence of the cause in the structure’s ‘metonymic causality’ on its effects is not the fault of the exteriority of the structure with respect to the economic phenomena; on the contrary, it is the very form of the interiority of the structure, as a structure, in its effects. This implies therefore that the effects are not outside the structure, are not a pre-existing object, element or space in which the structure arrives to imprint its mark; on the contrary, it implies that the structure is immanent in its effects, a cause immanent in its effects in the Spinozist sense of the term, that the whole existence of the structure consists of its effects, in short that the structure, which is merely a specific combination of its peculiar elements, is nothing outside its effects6

In a footnote, Althusser refers to Jacques-Alain Miller’s ‘Action de la structure’ (CpA 9.6), which Miller had distributed as a paper in 1964 before publishing in Volume 9 of the Cahiers, ‘Metonymic causality’, Althusser writes, is ‘an expression Jacques-Alain Miller has introduced to characterize a form of structural causality registered in Freud by Jacques Lacan.’ The problematic of structural causality is of central importance for Miller’s work in the Cahiers, as well as for other contributors such as Thomas Herbert [Michel Pêcheux] and Alain Badiou.

Badiou dwells at length on the problem of structural causality in his 1967 review of Althusser’s work, ‘Le (Re)commencement de la matérialisme dialectique’. For him, the representation of structural causality within the social system is the key to the problem. Insofar as the economy is ‘determinant, it nevertheless remains “invisible”, not being presented in the constellation of instances, only represented’.

The fundamental problem of all structuralism is that of a term bearing a double function which determines the belonging of the other terms to the structure insofar as it is itself excluded from them by a specific operation that makes it figure only under the species of its representant (its lieu-tenant [or placeholder], to take up a concept of Jacques Lacan). It is the immense merit of Lévi-Strauss to have recognised, in the still mixed form of the Signifier-zero, the true importance of this question.7

Badiou’s solution to the problem of structural causality is different from Miller’s, and their divergence on this theme yields one of the overarching problematics of the Cahiers pour l’Analyse.8

In the Cahiers pour l’Analyse

In ‘La Suture’ (CpA 1.3), Jacques-Alain Miller presents a psychoanalytic account of the alternating relation of exclusion and representation that a subject has with ‘the chain of its discourse’ (CpA 1.3:39; trans. 25-26). The subject ‘figures there as the element which is lacking, in the form of a placeholder [tenant-lieu]’. However, while it is ‘lacking’ there, ‘it is not purely and simply absent’. The ‘general relation of lack to the structure of which it is an element […] implies the position of a taking-the-place-of’ (39). Thus ‘suture’ - Miller’s term for this relation - can be understood as a form of structural causality, where an excluded element is metaphorically and metonymically represented by means of a ‘stand-in’ or placeholder. Miller’s emphasis on the representation of a structurally excluded element by means of a placeholder is consistent with Althusser’s conception of structural causality, in which the determinant instance of the economy cannot be presented as such, but is rather represented inside the structure by a particular, displaced representative.

Where ‘Suture’ expounds the formal mechanism of representation and exclusion, Miller’s other piece in the Cahiers pour l’Analyse, ‘Action de la structure’ (CpA 9.6) situates this mechanism within the field of social and linguistic structure. Structure can be minimally defined as ‘that which puts in place an experience for the subject that it includes’ (CpA 9.6/95). Insofar as a structure lays out places to be occupied, it may be said to analytically contain a ‘virtual’ dimension, alongside the actual plane in which it is incarnated. This permits a distinction between a ‘structuring structure’ and a ‘structured structure’. The ‘subject’ that emerges out of this primary process of structuration is first of all nothing but a support, a ‘subjected subject’. The relation of the subject to the structure is mediated through an ‘imaginary function of misrecognition’, involving representations that respond to the fundamental absence in the structuring process, and ‘compensate for the production of lack’ (96). These representations ‘exist only in order to dissimulate the reason for their existence’. This ‘distortion’ of the structure by the subjectivity it has produced in turn leads to an ‘overdetermination’ of experience by the structuring process. The production of ‘the lack of the cause’ in ‘the space of its effects’ coincides with the operation of ‘suture’.

Miller suggests that ‘every structure includes a lure which takes the place of the lack, but which is at the same time the weakest link of the given sequence, a vacillating point which belongs only in appearance to the plane of actuality’. Although the subject is caught in a constitutive misrecognition of its own position, it is possible to produce a theoretical conversion of perspective that reveals ‘these vacillating points for what they are’: ‘points at which experiential, structured space intersects with the “transcendental” space of structuration’. Miller contends that this conception affords possibilities for political transformation, insofar as these ‘vacillating’, ‘utopic’ points indicate the ‘weak links’ of social and political structures. The misrecognitions of subjects can be examined according to the logic of their displacements. Structural causes may be ‘metaphorised’ in discourse, but their underlying metonymic causality can still be penetrated. ‘The necessary condition for the functioning of structural causality is that the subject takes the effect for the cause’ (CpA 9.6); but nevertheless, it is possible to ascend by means of theory to the level of structural determinations, and to target from there possible sites of practical intervention at the level of actual discourse.

Thomas Herbert’s ‘Remarques pour une théorie générale des idéologies’ (CpA 9.5) can be read as a more concrete, directly politicized version of the view of structural causality presented by Miller. Herbert makes a fundamental distinction between two types of ideology, the second of which operates according to a logic of structural causality. Type ‘A’ ideologies have an empiricist form in that their goal is to match significations to a putative ‘reality,’ whereas type ‘B’ ideologies follow an ‘immanent law’ of organization adhering to a ‘speculative-phraseological form’ that establishes coherence in advance. Whereas an empirically grounded ideology can be discarded by reference to a putative ‘real’ which reveals its inadequacy, a type ‘B’ speculative ideology determines what is admissible, or what can even make sense, in advance (CpA 9.5:78-79). Herbert claims that ideologies of the speculative form are situated at the level of syntax, that is, in the relation of signifier to signifier, rather than in the semantic ‘adjustment’ of signifier to signified. Speculative ideologies organize a ‘syntactical’ allocation of places for subjects that is constitutively forgotten by those subjects. ‘Let us say briefly that the putting into place of subjects refers to the economic instance of the relations of production, and the forgetting of this putting into place to the political instance’ (CpA 9.5:83). Taking up the relationship between (semantic) metaphor and (syntactical) metonymy in Lacanian thought, Herbert shows how metonymic relations in one domain, e.g., the economic, become metaphorically displaced into, and as a consequence establish relations with, other domains, such as the political or the ideological. For example, in capitalism, economic relations are effectively metonymical, its constitutive ‘terms’ - salary, worker, contract, boss, etc. - only making sense in their differential relationship to one another. Through the very organization of the economic field of production, however, these metonymic sequences become condensed into ‘semantèmes’, units of meaning, displacing these meanings into the adjacent field of the political, wherein they constitute a ‘politico-juridical axiomatic’ whose own internal coherence blinds it to its economic origins. The reciprocal functioning of these two levels is grounded in the primacy or the position ‘in dominance’ of the metonymic sequence: ‘As the horizontal articulation of ideological elements according to a syntactic structure, the metonymic effect produces a rationalization-automisation at all structural levels, each of which will now appear endowed with “internal coherence.” In this way the subject’s identification to the political and ideological structures that constitute subjectivity as the origin of what the subject says and does (the norms he states and practices) is produced: this subjective illusion through which, to use a phenomenological expression, the “consciousness of being in a situation” is constituted hides from the agent his own position in the structure’ (CpA 9.5:88).

Alain Badiou’s ‘La Subversion infinitésimale’ (CpA 9.8) and ‘Marque et manque: À propos du zéro’ (CpA 10.8) attempt to prise the Althusserian problematic of the representation of structural causality away from Miller’s Lacanian interpretation. In ‘Le (Re)commencement du matérialisme dialectique’ Badiou implicitly concurred with Miller that the identification of the determining instance in a structure can only be achieved by getting out of ‘the structured’.9 ‘On this problem, J.A. Miller has given an exposition to which reference will be essential. We will try to show elsewhere that 1) the usage - extraordinarily ingenious - of the construction of number by Frege to illustrate the problem of structural causality is epistemologically inadequate; and 2) that one cannot think the logic of the signifier as such (as signifier “in general”) except by redoubling the structure of metaphysics’.10 Badiou carries out these two tasks in ‘Marque et manque’. He identifies an ‘alternating chain in which what is known as “the progress of science” consists’ (CpA 10.8:173). However, the ‘action’ or ‘motor’ of this progress is science alone. ‘It is not because it is “open” that science has cause to deploy itself (although openness governs the possibility of this deployment); it is because ideology is incapable of being satisfied with this openness. Forging the impracticable image of a closed discourse and exhorting science to submit to it, ideology sees its own order returned to it in the unrecognizable form of the new concept; the reconfiguration through which science, treating its ideological interpellation as material, ceaselessly displaces the breach that it opens in the former’. Miller’s account of the reciprocal interpenetration of structure and ideological misrecognition must therefore be replaced by a more fundamental opposition between scientific progress and ideology.


  • Althusser, Louis. For Marx [1965], trans. Ben Brewster. London: New Left Books, 1969.
  • Althusser, Louis, and Étienne Balibar. Reading Capital [1965], trans. Ben Brewster. London: New Left Books, 1970.
  • Badiou, Alain. ‘Le (Re)commencement de la matérialisme dialectique’, Critique 23/240, May 1967.
  • Feltham, Oliver. Alain Badiou: Live Theory. London: Continuum, 2008.
  • Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Introduction to the Work of Marcel Mauss [1950], trans. Felicity Baker. London: Routledge, 1987.
  • Marx, Karl. Grundrisse, trans. Martin Nicolaus, London: Penguin, 1973.
  • Wahl, François. ‘Y-a-t-il une episteme structuraliste?’, in Qu’est-ce que le structuralisme? 5. Philosophie. Paris: Seuil/Points, 1973.


1. Althusser, ‘Marxism and Humanism’, in For Marx, 223-27.

2. Ibid, 226.

3. ‘The conclusion we reach is not that production, distribution, exchange and consumption are identical, but that they all form the members of a totality, distinctions within a unity. Production predominates not only over itself […], but over the other moments as well […]. A definite production determines a definite consumption, distribution and exchange as well as definite relations between these different moments’. Marx, Grundrisse, 99. Althusser writes that ‘the third chapter of the 1857 Introduction can rightly be regarded as the Discourse on Method of the new philosophy founded by Marx. In fact, it is the only systematic text by Marx which contains, in the form of an analysis of the categories and method of political economy, the means with which to establish a theory of scientific practice, i.e. a theory of the conditions of the process of knowledge, which is the object of Marxist philosophy’. Althusser, Reading Capital, 86.

4. Althusser, ‘Contradiction and Overdetermination’, in For Marx, 101.

5. Althusser, ‘The Object of Capital’, in Reading Capital, 188.

6. Ibid, 188-89.

7. Badiou, ‘Le (Re)commencement de la dialectique matérialisme’, 457. The reference to Lévi-Strauss is to Introduction to the Work of Marcel Mauss, 63-64.

8. For an account of Miller’s and Badiou’s theories of structural causality in the Cahiers pour l’Analyse, see François Wahl, ‘Y-a-t-il une episteme structuraliste?’, 115-126.

9. Badiou, ‘Le (Re)commencement de la dialectique matérialisme’, 459.

10. Ibid, 457.