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Rethinking Materialism: The Althusserian Swerve

Banu Bargu, The New School for Social Research


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. 

This presentation is sponsored by the Department of Rhetoric and hosted by the Department of History of Art.