I recently finished the new Althusser collection, the Philosophy of the Encounter. In it Althusser sketches what he calls “aleatory materialism” or “materialism of the encounter.”
Althusser draws upon ancient atomist philosophy as a metaphor for what he means. In atomism there are two initial components before the world existed, atoms and the void. Atoms fall through the void, empty space, parallel to each other. They never touch each other and they have no relationships with each other. These two components do not suffice to form a world. A third component is needed, which will bring about relations between atoms. At least some atoms must encounter each other for a world to exist. That means at least one atom had to deviate from its path parallel to all the others, in order to run into another atom or atoms. The name of this swerving off of the parallel line is “clinamen.” It means “swerve,” and that’s the term I’m going to use. The swerve of one atom is what makes encounter between atoms possible.
Encounter alone is not enough to form a world. The atom which swerves might bounce off the atom it encounters, and get bumped back into its original path or some other path parallel to all other atoms. To form a world, there must be a relationship established during the encounter. The encounter or its effects must last.
There is no guarantee that an encounter will happen or that it or its effects will last. Even if they do last, there is no guarantee that the effects will continue to last. There is a world, so swerve must have happened, which means encounters must be possible, and lasting encounters or encounters with lasting effects must be possible. Still, none of this had to happen. The world could have not come into existence at all, or it could have come into existence with different traits. Its current make up may change. It may cease to last, that is, cease to last.
None of this is intended as a claim about actual atoms and void. The point is one about possibility and guarantees. There are no guarantees.
Althusser uses ancient atomism to think his way out of some bad habits of thought within the Marxist tradition and within philosophy. The habits basically consist of being too sure and thinking there are guarantees. One such habit is taking the accomplished fact of something’s existence – say, the world – as if to mean it had to exist this way, or that it had to exist. Another version is a certainty as to outcomes – what will and will not, can and can not, happen next.
In atomism, under Althusser’s discussion of it, in a sense the world already contains everything it needs. The pieces need rearranging, certainly, but such a rearranging is possible. Aatoms are capable of swerve. They are capable of encounters, and they are capable of making encounters last. They are, of course, also capable of continuing to fall parallel to each other such that encounter do not occur and they are capable of disentangling themselves from encounters such that the effects do not last.) The point is that there are capabilities. Capabilities do not determine outcomes, and outcomes do not indicate the absence of capabilities. To think otherwise is a mistake.
A former student of Althusser’s provides something that can serve as an example of this point, although it wasn’t intended as such an example, as far as I know. Jacques Ranciere discusses intelligence in his book The Ignorant Schoolmaster. (I recommend this book very highly. If I can recommend only one book to you, I recommend Marx’s Capital in all three volumes. If I can recommend one additional book, it is this book by Ranciere.)
Imagine a pair of twins, taking all the same classes in school, with all the same teachers. One twin gets better grades than the other. Someone could point to these twins and say “one twin is more intelligent than the other.” One can easily agree to this, as long as one takes it as an assertion of synonymy: “intelligent” means “gets good grades”, and vice versa, so “more intelligent” means “gets more good grades” or something like that. Using a synonym doesn’t really tell us much more than the original term does, but one is free to use synonyms.
The problem comes when it is forgotten that the terms are synonyms, and someone says “this twin gets better grades because this twin is more intelligent.” This doesn’t make sense, because a synonym can not be the cause of another of its synonyms. (”Why is it so cold outside?” “Because it’s chilly.” That doesn’t explain anything.)
The thought process goes something like this. The person first says, at least implicitly, “I will say ‘is intelligent’ about someone who gets good grades.” They then say, “this one gets good grades, therefore this is intelligent.”Then they say “Because this one is intelligent, this one gets good grades.” The presence of good grades is asserted as evidence for the quality called intelligence (and more good grades or means more of the quality called intelligence), and the quality called intelligence is taken as the cause for the good grades.
The function of this argument is to say two things. First, “this one gets good grades because of a capacity to get good grades.” This partially right. The presence of something means there must be a possibility for that something. That can not be argued against. (To say something is actual but impossible is to contradict oneself.) But this is also partially wrong. Capacity does not cause something. That there is a possible outcome does not mean that outcome will occur. Something has to happen to make a result, and this happening is not and was not guaranteed to take place. Much of the time, possibility is noted after the fact.
The second thing this argument says is more pernicious. It say “That one did not get good grades because that one was not capable of getting good grades.” This is false. There is often very little way to identify genuine incapacity and impossibility, if there is such a thing at all. That good grades are not gotten says nothing about whether good grades could have been gotten. “Not gotten” does not mean “could not have been gotten.” This argument is essentially a claim and justification of inequality and hierarchy. It is thus politically to be opposed. It also, happily, does not hold philosophically. Similarly, that atoms do not or did not swerve does not mean swerve is or was impossible.
What is shut out in the assertion of incapacity is the aleatory, the openness of possibility, the prospect for swerve, encounter, maintaining of encounter or its effects, and dissolution of encounter or its effects. The world has (the atoms have) all the capacities they need. They can swerve, encounter, maintain encounters, and construct worlds. And dissolve them.
To say the world has all the capacities it needs does not, of course, mean the world is fine. The world needs a lot of different actualities, and a lot of actualities in the world need to be dissolved. The point is that the path from this world – a far cry from the best of all possible worlds – to better worlds starts here. To get from point A to point C starts at point A. That is to say, what is valuable in this perspective is to orient us toward what is as our starting point. The problem is not one of impossibility – inability to pierce ideology, incapacity to free ourselves from consumerism, and any of a number of despairing lamentations. The problem is that the current actuality must be abolished and – which is to say the same thing – a new actuality is to be produced using our capacities. Asserting impossibility is simply to state that one hasn’t started.
Again, though, there are no guarantees. Encounters may well not happen or not last last. Encounters that last for a time may cease to last. The point is that one must try. “Keep going” is what, Alain Badiou, another former associate of Althusser, takes as the primary ethical injunction. Of course, one must also try better and try to learn from experience as best one can. Part of keeping going is to never mistake “did not happen” or “has not happened” for “could not have happened” or, even worse “can not happen.”
The swerve of the atoms essentially serves for Althusser to distance himself from a certain of causality as centrally important. The point is not so much why something did or did not happen, and certainly not that something must have happened or could not have happened, but rather simply that it did happen or did not happen, or does happen or does not happen. Actuality, the material world as it is, that’s the starting point.
Along these same lines, it’s important not to read the swerve of the atom as an external occurrence, a hand which reaches down and knocks the atom out of its parallel course. That reintroduces a causal perspective, a “must be” or “can not be,” the logic – or rather, the fantasy – of the guarantee. The emphasis is simply that atoms swerve sometimes. If we can identify conditions when swerve seems to happen more often, then we can seek to replicate those conditions, remembering, of course, that outcomes are not guaranteed of pre-determined.
I want to read the atoms and their encounters rather simplistically as an analogy for people and encounters between people. There is a partial truth to despairing pictures of society, where people are alienated, isolated, atomized, falling along parallel lines with no relation to each other. Many people do not encounter others, do not talk to others very much, develop new connections. But this does not mean it has never happened, that it can’t happen, that it doesn’t sometimes happen.
People have a power like that of atoms to swerve (and to encounter, maintain encounters, continue to maintain encounters). This doesn’t mean people will swerve and so on, but they can. Badiou calls this a power of thought, as a power to disrupt established orders, and he vigorously asserts that people have this power. Ranciere similarly asserts that people have a power which can be read as akin to swerve, which is to say encounters may happen and orders can be disrupted, parallel lines can be deviated from. This power is not a conclusion or something deduced, something to convince anyone of, so much as is the starting point for meaningful activity.
When any outcome occurs, it’s reasonable to ask why it happened. Despite my earlier remarks downplaying causality, there is a value to asking why. It can help suggest better ways to act next time. It can help suggest responses in the present. It can help preserve a sense things could have gone differently, and things can be made different.
I find all of this resonant with my involvement in organizing. The basic unit of organizing as I see it is the one-on-one meeting. This is akin to the encounter between atoms. The goal is for the encounter to last. For an encounter to last, there must be an encounter. For there to be an encounter there must be a swerve, an atom must deviate from its trajectory falling parallel to all other atoms. A person or people must deviate from the lines along which people fall in relative non-relation to each other – lines including the grooves along which capitalism, racism, patriarchy, and other systems of power-over flow, as well as lines which are more mundane and more of an immediate obstacle: lack of confidence, lack of ideas on how to start or what to do, and various habits. These lines can be addressed by encouragement, training, success stories, invitation to first-hand experiences of actions and meetings, and so on, but as noted repeatedly there is no guarantee.
Swerve sometimes does not occur. (I want to note here as well that swerve is something atoms do. The swerve, they do not get swerved.) Absence of swerve may later be replaced by swerve, but it may not. We should neither despair nor think we can automatically condition swerve. It is a general safe working assumption that swerve occurs around other occurrences of swerve. Action occurs more around action, and the answer to inaction is action. The answer to falling in parallel lines is swerve.
When swerve does occur, it only leads to encounter when another atom is present. Otherwise the swerving atom just follows a different course through empty space. Concretely, in organizing, this means one must be able to talk to workers. Not as in “have the capacity” but as in “be in the presence of.” A site and a time to talk is required. This can be at work sometimes, but mechanisms exist to prevent or attack encounters at work, and early on – when encounters are fewer and the number of swerving atoms are fewer – we are more vulnerable.
Some means of getting workers’ contact information include going through dumpsters at the workplace to find information, following workers carefully, being given contact information, and looking in the phonebook. Other methods exist and should be documented, discussed, and experimented with. All of them take time. This is part of why I find ideology uncompelling as an explanation for problems in the world. It’s largely not needed. Capitalism steals our time. Attacking capitalism takes a lot of time, which many of us are hard pressed to come up with or don’t want to use for those purposes. If we worked half as much we would have more time to fight the bosses, among other things. Hence the extension of worktime not only can boost profits but can serve to make organizing harder.
When an encounter does happen, what happens? On the one hand, every encounter is absolutely unique. Every atom is unique, which means every encounter is also unique. There are more possibilities for encounters and combinations than there are atoms. (If one starts with a group of just four items with no qualities but their names, A, B, C, and D, the combinations of them exceed the number of items: AB, AC, AD, BC, BD, CD, ABC, ABD, ACD, BCD, ABCD. In a similar sense, possibility exceed actuality, or in another sense, thought exceeds being.) That uniqueness is very important. Still, we can identify general procedures for the conduct of some encounters. This does not make encounters identical, it just provides us with some points of orientation, a framework with which we can try to act in ways to generate the encounters that produce actually existing differences. One of the values of aleatory materialism is that it orients toward practice. It looks what happens (this is the materialism part), tries to identify consistencies, qualities, things in common and different, things resonant and things opposed, across the range of what happens. It also tries to propose conducts (this is the aleatory part, the part about encounters) or experimentation with conducts, the generation of procedures. Another term for this is to say it is praxiological, it takes the study and production of practices as its object.
Every one-on-one meeting is unique, singular. But these singularities, these encounters, can still interact with others. They can last and in their lasting be part of forming bodies which can encounter others and form other bodies. This means they are not absolutely singular, atomic in the sense of unable to relate to each other. They have relationships with each other, or they can. The elements composing an encounter – the atoms, the people – are themselves unique, singular, but they can still encounter. The goal is for that encounter to form something which can itself swerve, encounter, and have encounters last.
I would like to suggest that swerve should be thought of as a power or a likelihood, the ability to actualize the possibilty of swerve. This power can be increased by exercise, and can be excited or encouraged by being in the presence of the exercise of this power. For this reason, after more people are swerving and encountering as individuals, in one on one meetings, the next step is a group meeting. This facilitates the composition of larger bodies, multiple encounters, and an increased rate of individual encounters. All of these are small steps toward confrontations which are themselves small steps toward replacing the world as it is, replacing it at least in part with actualities generated during the process of composition already described.
Althusser takes primitive accumulation, as the logic and the moment of the beginning of capitalism as well as the logic and the occurrences of the reproduction of capitalism, as an example of one form of encounter, of aleatory processes. Capitalism could well have not happened, or happened in different places and times, and it could well cease to be. I have in these notes tried to suggest another place to view the type of aleatory processes Althusser discussed, and I would like to suggest this is a site which could be productive if attended to more directly, the site of production of the encounters with which capitalism will be overturned. The goal is an accumulation of power direct against capital.
I don’t claim that the idiom used here is required for the carrying out of any of the proposals and practices suggested here. I think the theoretical idiom of aleatory materialism lends itself to the practical suggestions and practical idiom I favor, but the practices and practical idiom do no require the theoretical idiom and the theoretical idiom could also encounter and relate to other perspectives than mine. One could well ask, why use this theoretical idiom? This is fair question and one I don’t have a satisfactory answer for. I use it, and sometimes it’s useful to me. If anything, my view is that aleatory materialism should orient itself toward addressing and trying to practice the self-subjectification of the working class, more than the working class requires aleatory materialism.
There are two additional things that make aleatory materialism attractive to me. First, it does not assess people as atoms, as object, but as active, in motion, dynamic. People as actors of swerve. The emphasis is not class consciousness or proclivity to this or that position or ideological beliefs (all of which suggest not starting, staying in a position of incapacity), but rather on encounters and their outcomes and additional encounters. The second strength is that the focus is internal – the criteria are based on what happens in the encounter, inside the world or body formed, rather than external, subject to the dictates of leadership or the need to harm an enemy in combat – but not absolutely internal, because the encounter can produce bodies which then can encounter and produce (with) others.