- In the Theater of PoliticsAlthusser’s Aleatory Materialism and Aesthetics
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At the heart of philosophy as well as at the heart of theater, it is always politics that speaks.—Louis Althusser, “On Brecht and Marx”
In a piece that dates back to 1962, Louis Althusser discusses El Nost Milan, a Carlo Bertolazzi play staged by the Piccolo Teatro of Milan under the direction of Giorgio Strehler.1 The unwelcome reception of the play in Paris occasions his reflections. Althusser’s discussion of theater, curiously anchored among the theoretical essays that comprise the groundbreaking collection For Marx, remains relatively tangential to his overall philosophical project.2 However, this essay, “The ‘Piccolo Teatro’: Bertolazzi and Brecht,” also neglected in the vast literature that Althusser has inspired, is a rare gem, and for several reasons. First, and most obviously, it provides invaluable insights for a materialist analysis of aesthetic production. Second, and despite the general tenor of Althusser’s critics regarding how the totalizing system of structures in his thought leaves no space for agency, the essay is a testament to how Althusser’s analysis of aesthetic practice (in this case, materialist aesthetics as political practice) incorporates possibilities of critique and resistance.3 Third, it contains important elements that anticipate the extremely interesting theory of aleatory materialism Althusser develops in the 1980s. More specifically, it provides clues that shed light on the central concept of aleatory materialism—the encounter.
The theory of aleatory materialism is one of Althusser’s posthumous surprises, not only because it was formulated in the last decade of his life when he was considered philosophically dead, but also due to the undeniably novel quality of his formulations that differed from, if not contradicted, his early works through which he was known. At the end of his lifelong effort to formulate a philosophy of and for Marxism, Althusser provides the building blocks of a materialism that is nonteleological and not trapped within a logic of necessity, a materialism that takes chance seriously, and that maintains as its ambition the radical transformation of society.4 As the subterranean current of philosophy that Althusser brings to our attention, aleatory materialism is a subversive and suppressed stream whose force resides in its ability not only to critique but also to intervene in politics. The first goal of this essay is to make a case for the significance of aleatory materialism as a fresh angle from which we can analyze Althusser’s oeuvre retrospectively and find the ways in which it still holds timely and fecund insights for theory today. Aleatory materialism, however marginal it currently appears in Althusser’s legacy and despite the marginalization of Althusser’s work in contemporary discussions (due, at least in part, to his personal tragedies), is one of Althusser’s most important contributions to philosophy, with ramifications for politics that are far from negligible.
The second goal of this essay is to move toward a more rigorous theorization of the encounter. The idea of the encounter is crucial for Althusser’s aleatory materialist approach, which seeks to capture reality in its irreducible complexity. Althusser posits the encounter as the central interface between structures and events. The encounter is particularly important for the analysis of both the formation and the subversion of political conjunctures, both as the unpredictable and non-necessary coming-together of different [End Page 87] elements to create a singular reality and as the extreme, unexpected, and marginal events that rupture the stability of political conjunctures and activate the dormant potentialities for change. In other words, the encounter triangulates structure, conjuncture, and the event, opening up a new surface of possibilities for political theory and practice alike. As such, the encounter constitutes the link between stability and change, determinacy and contingency, theory and practice. It is therefore one of the key elements to unlock a new materialist understanding of revolutionary political transformation. The encounter is also the connecting thread between politics and aesthetics.
In this essay, I read Althusser’s reflections on theater from the vantage point afforded by his late theory of aleatory materialism in order to excavate latent continuities in his thought around the theme of the...