Louis Althusser: Aleatory Materialism

Althusser’s work emerges fitfully toward the end of his career, scattered across a few brief texts (1982-86) that were published posthumously and whose recent publication is only now prompting an engagement with Althusser’s later allusions to an aleatory materialism. In these essays, Althusser refers to materialism as the hardest question of all. Aleatory materialism, or a “materialism of the encounter;” refers to an underground current in the history of philosophy that he finds running from Epicurus through Spinoza, Marx, and Wittgenstein, to Heidegger and himself. It is distinguished by its nonteleological principles and its consequent ignoring of origins or ends. Instead, it emphasizes emptiness, contingency, and chance. Althusser implies that materialism might itself be no more than a temporarily convenient label and that its aim might be to engender a certain sensitivity – a theoretical practice – rather than to define an ontology as such.

The idea of the encounter alludes to a chance conjuncture of atoms, the event, whose consequence may be the provisional configuring of facts or forms. History emerges here as the continuous transformation of provisional forms by new, indecipherable and unanticipated events, with the corollary lesson that an aleatory intervention may be more efficacious than the patient understanding of trajectories and working through of continuities whose internal logic of development is assumed to endure. In politics, this means that the state is always inscribed with the possibility of its imminent collapse or reconfiguration, where the utter indifference of the people to rule and their unresponsiveness to interpellation by the state apparatus yields the permanent possibility of a revolutionary event capable of halting the political machine. Such events occur in what Althusser calls the void: the space in which the encounter occurs that reconfigures the current conjuncture’s elements. Remember Lucretius! However, although the constitution of new phenomena (such as western capitalism) is now viewed as entirely contingent rather than as the destiny of forces maturing in an earlier phase, such phenomena may still have necessary effects and persist for a greater or lesser period of time. While the choreography of the encounter suggests an affinity with chaos theory, Althusser’s own approach suggests that he was not equating aleatory materialism with a new set of theoretical, systemic abstractions but with an empirical, concrete analysis of the forms and forces at work. What we would like to emphasize here is that in a multimodal materialist analysis of relationships of power, it is important to recognize their diverse temporalities by examining their more enduring structures and operations as well as their vulnerability to ruptures and transformation – all the while acknowledging that they have no predestined, necessary, or predictable trajectory.

Althusser’s work provocatively suggests how ordinary material practices might be critically investigated. He encourages us to explore the complex ways in which such familiar practices are effects of more distant power relations that they also help to reproduce. And contra Foucault’s insistence on his own nonnormative positivism, what makes such analyses grist for the critical materialist is the recognition that such dense networks of relationships support socioeconomic structures that sustain the privileges and interests of some rather than others, that these advantages are not randomly, much less fairly, distributed, and that understanding how they operate and are maintained is a crucial task for the engaged social theorist, especially one who eschews any lingering faith in the inevitability of either the present or the future.

2 thoughts on “Louis Althusser: Aleatory Materialism

  1. Thanks for this summary. I came across Althusser’s text last night and this tied the loose ends. I am not fond of this approach to history through the singularity and contingency of the event. I believe Alain Badiou’s work corrects this nicely. Zizekian materialism’s approach to historicity and time, directly influenced by Lacan’s -and a rereading of Hegel-, finds the place of contingency in dialectical thought as such, and posits a dialectics of contingency through retroactivity.


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