Rethinking Materialism: The Althusserian Swerve

Fabric copy

The posthumously published writings of Louis Althusser reveal an effort, however fragmentary, to rethink materialism on the basis of contingency and the absence of teleology. Althusser argues that there is a subterranean tradition in philosophy, which he calls aleatory materialism, a tradition that has resisted the rationalist and necessitarian tendencies of dominant idealisms and materialisms (that are also idealist). In his attempt to excavate this tradition, Althusser alludes to a dizzying range of thinkers, such as Machiavelli, Hobbes, Spinoza, Rousseau, Montesquieu, Marx, Derrida, and Deleuze, as he gestures to pinpoint the diverse ways in which they can be seen to constitute this neglected tradition. The Marx that figures in this tradition, of course, is a radically reconfigured one, distanciated not only from its Hegelian incarnations but also from the “mature” Marx emblematic of high Althusserianism. Crucial to this reconstruction, both of aleatory materialism and the new Marx in it, is the recuperation of the atomistic materialism of Epicurean (and Lucretian) inflection with the emphasis on the swerve. This paper investigates Althusser’s dual “swerve” from historical materialism to atomistic materialism and from the mature Marx to the young-est Marx, whose earliest work is a doctoral dissertation on Democritus and Epicurus. The paper reads this shift as an attempt to open up a different trajectory of political thinking after Marxism as well as a potent symptom of the rupture in Althusser’s own thought, a rupture that calls for a reassessment of Althusser’s legacy for critical theory.

 Banu Bargu is associate professor of politics at the New School for Social Research. Her main area of specialization is political theory, especially modern and contemporary political thought, in conjunction with political anthropology and a regional focus on the Middle East. Her research interests include theories of sovereignty, biopolitics, and resistance, as well as aesthetics and materialism. She is the author of Starve & Immolate: The Politics of Human Weapons (Columbia University Press, 2014). Her essays have appeared in venues such as Theory & Event, Diacritics, Contemporary Political Theory, and Constellations. Bargu is currently working on a book-length manuscript on Althusser and aleatory materialism.