Louis Althusser presents his thought of a “philosophy of the encounter” as follows:
1.) Before the formation of the world (any world), an infinity of atoms rain or fall through the void. All the elements that could potentially make up a world are there before any forms; at the same time, there is nothing but the void. The atoms lead a “phantom existence” in a “non-world that is merely the unreal existence of the atoms.” What confers reality on these initially abstract elements, what gives them any semblance of “consistency and existence,” is the encounter.
2.) Nothing is more unstable and uncertain than an encounter. It may or may not happen; if it does, it may or may not last; nothing guarantees it and nothing could. In a sense, the encounter is as improbable as being born. Any formed world is like “impossible.” Because it depends on the taking-hold of encounters and their holding-together, it is always, if it is, a “pure effect of contingency.” What we call and believe as our world of necessities, of reasons, of meanings, of ends, of sociality and of laws—all of this Althusser portrays as a most precarious hanging-together that is permanently in threat of dissolving, of changing entirely and unprecedentedly, of death or disease or misfortune coming like a thief in the night to rob us of every assurance and certainty of our personhood, of life.
3.) It is thus that a philosophy of the encounter favors dispersion, disorder, nothingness, or the Nothing (which Althusser correctly connects to the Es gibt (“It gives,” “There is”)), the throw of chance. Correspondingly, it seeks to cultivate a taste for these as an openness to the swerve, to the ‘moving train’ of encounters already unfolding unexpectedly before it, to the ‘smallest deviation possible’ (which recalls Agamben’s description of the redeemed or coming world in which ‘everything is as it was, but a little different’). Taking no object, logic, law, thought, fact, or atom as its basis, principle, question, or topic of study, such a philosophy seeks only to understand and develop its affinity to the inaugural deal, the Es gibt prior to presence and placement. It affirms an aleatory materialism and the primacy of the play of atoms, while also affirming its own jump into their “fall” or “rain”—into what happens, namely: the necessary encounter of contingencies.
What must be stressed is how this philosophy’s only “resource” is the swerve itself, so much so that none of its elements (atoms) can be determined except retroactively. Moreover, it suggests that this retroactive look back to determine what has become always comes at the expense of that becoming, of the swerve. To repeat, the “beings” (elements, atoms, individuals) are unreal without the reality an encounter confers on them; nothing about them prefigures what the on-rush of encounters makes of them. In their convergence, in their ‘taking-hold’ in the encounter, these beings “first” emerge. It is essential to emphasize this paradox: what or who converges comes after the convergence; the encountered comes after the encounter. What will have been (encountered) can only be determined ‘from’ the encounter. Knowledge or placement of the elements, the need of ours to see or know who or what “gels,” only acts as a retardant against the flame of the encounter, a break on the swerve. Any “one” becoming tends to thwart it.
What this philosophy seeks to resist is any and all reliance on whatever seems to ‘follow’ (naturally, logically, etc.) from the encounter’s having-taken-hold. It resists repeating any forms or formulas that have ‘so far’ issued, because the case (chance/occurrence), the fall of the case—being nothing— is prior to and has priority in relation to any form, element, law, being, or fact (all of which are retroactive determinations, dampening the pure thrust of the swerve). To operate otherwise is the “very great temptation” facing this philosophy. What it calls for instead is to let its world—forms, decisions and determinations, down to the seemingly most stable laws of what has ‘taken-hold’ in or as the world—to let it all remain “haunted by a radical instability,” so as to reveal “the aleatory basis that sustains [it]” and thus the possibility of its changing “without reason, that is, without an intelligible end.”
4.) The surprise of taking-hold in the encounter thus inspires the heart of this philosophy, this thought, this moment, this life. Yet, it is not as if it were all ‘for the sake of’ surprise—even if the desire for the unexpected, for the new form, for the fresh commencement, for the inaugural touch of something, drives this “materialism of the encounter.” No, for the swerve always will, always does, turn any and every ‘for the sake of’ on its head. If the individual—the ego with its identity, hope, and history—is the most developed figure we have for the ‘falling atom’, then this philosophy would signify its total putting-back-into-play, a de-termination as subtle, sudden, and ceaseless as the swerve itself. Perhaps it is even best to consider this individual ego-atom as an after-thought, an effect of retroaction (nachträglich), an “abstract element”—as nothing, as leading a phantom, unreal existence (if ever considered apart from the encounter).
This condition of falling in a void is nothing to be overcome or superseded, nor is it meant negatively. On the contrary, it affirms this fall just as it affirms the swerve, “with the void as the condition of their movement.” To move and live, speak and be, with the abyss ever under our feet, is to dwell in the unfinishedness of the ‘all’, the incompleteness of ‘being’, in the pure possibility of form and world, searching, perhaps, for the infinite felicitous moment. Or again, to comport ourselves to the void, the fall, and the swerve such that we perceive and experience this to be felicitous; to wait on it, in whatever extreme uncertainty and hopelessness that implies; to foster conditions for the swerve (starting from nothing, as nothing, in an unassignable place); to be lost in it entirely, dispersed and dissolved in the intimacy of the encounter Es gibt. Here, eternal blessedness is identical with instant communication in the strong sense, and it is so without any choosing intention or free act. Here, as ever, is the ever-ungraspable surprise of taking-hold, which a materialism of the encounter neither makes possible or knows but rather is, if at all, when it is, now, before now, or after.
To return and summarize: the world is the product of atoms encountering each other, entering into relations and leading to forms. This constitution is aleatory in at least three senses: 1) which atoms will encounter each other (and what those atoms are) is never prefigured; 2) that atoms will encounter each other is never predestined (they may never; most atoms don’t); and 3) that the encounter will last is never guaranteed. This is a materialism of the mutability of worlds: each is “built” on sand (atoms), liable to morph or decay back into nothing at any time. And this is precisely what they do, what they cannot not do. The following consequences might be drawn:
Given the inaugural quality of every Es gibt, There is, or swerve (the clinamen precedes presence, since without it there are only abstract, unreal elements and not a ‘world’), nothing can be “‘held’ to be” without jeopardizing the openness required for the encounter to take-hold (without which there is no ‘being’). The temptation is always to believe in the stability or reality of beings (as atoms) as if beings had any stability or reality outside the encounter—as if there could “be” such an outside. Indeed, what lies outside the encounter? Abstract elements, unreal or phantom (non)existences falling through a non-world, a void.
Being itself is a ‘practice of the outside’, a practice of turning in or toward the swerve, losing itself in the changing of worlds, from form to form. Taken to the limit, this practice ‘demands’ that one not consider oneself ‘one’; that one look upon oneself or one’s being (in the restricted sense of ‘me’) as an after-thought (autos as product of a split-effect). No self without other, no ‘self’ at all without this split-off, this determination of self qua the expulsion of encountered elements determined to be foreign. Acknowledgement of this obliges us to reconsider the traditional model of self as atom, as autonomous outside or aside from other atoms. It throws into question the very possibility of pure solitude and solipsism, or that ‘someone’ could ever be independently of their encounters. The other is thus introduced at the heart of self-reflection, of the cogito, of decision—for these too are swerves. And, as Althusser advises, it is simply a repression of this teaching to attribute a swerve to the will, freedom, or drive of an individual/atom. No doubt, for centuries it has felt that way—as if our great and passionate in-clinations sprang from us, heart and soul. No one denies that it can still feel this way. But to resist this act of attribution is to acknowledge the passivity of this “passion.” Or again, our passion is the very practice of being, which takes us ‘outside’ the ‘one’ we conceive ourselves to be.
We can actually venture more. Not only is there no possessing, controlling, or mastering the swerve, but also, the swerve itself—es gibt—is the dispossession, dethronement or disarmament of whoever would deem themselves proper to it. Not only do we belong to swerves; the conglomeration of atoms we are at any moment due to the swerve is due to change, break up, dissolve. We are no less unstable and uncertain than the world. Nor is our constitution any less aleatory or any more guaranteed. As a form, the clinamen deforms and reforms us in spite of preventative measures. It is thus that the self or individual atom guided by this materialism of the encounter inevitably places death at the forefront of its thoughts and self-considerations. It is a philosophy of the void in favor of encounter-potential or encounter-surrender, unable to know ‘what’ will come of it.
For the type of subjectivity that believes it ‘is’ outside its being-touched-by-the-other, nothing could seem more threatening, more challenging. One waits interminably for oneself, knowing one will never arrive, save in an encounter that exposes its oneness to otherness and proves identity-with-oneself untenable, a step-backward. Whereas the swerve—the rush of otherness—only surges forward, mixing it all up already beyond recognition and ‘intelligible end’. Such is why there is only the dive into this unknown, ever-repeated practice as ever-arriving event—practice that lets the other come across a self that in the end is merely an abstract element: event that is pure coming or advent of the ‘es gibt’ and so never assignable as ‘there’ (solid, steady, sturdy) like an accomplished fact.
Unaccomplishing, inoperating, incompletion, finality without end, eternal return of the ‘same’ turn of expropriation, messianic pivot that goes perpendicular to any time, directionlessly unto time’s end—all this signifies a “will to chance” without sovereignty, an unconditional without power and without needing it. Such is the j’accepte [I accept!] that says yes to everything, evacuating itself or letting death come to it, so as to let itself go on underway, dispersed but destined to travel and burn—to reach you not reaching you, to stand on the other side writing as occurring, vulnerable in the night of non-knowledge you become as you read. Such is the mystery of the encounter: what it does it does as if it had already done it, since encounter must be at the inception. Its result—that we await—is in fact the commencement that we are. The materialism of the encounter keeps on.
The ethical point to be drawn is then as follows: (a) consider oneself not as an atom but in-swerve, as deducible only from encounters, from events; and (b) consider the world not an accomplished fact but as-yet unmade, aleatory and ever subject to having its laws changed, as quasi-void or non-world: the radically equal “place” where atoms fall and may or may not encounter each other.
What comes of identity when, rather than a starting-point, accomplished or assignable, it only ‘is’ in the future anterior, only deducible ‘after’ the encounter? When this horizon (the point in time when the deduction could be made) recedes forever? And not only to death (which is not necessarily our last encounter) but to the end of existence (for we may still be read, remembered; nothing could guarantee we went ‘out of circulation’ forever)?
Recall Kierkegaard: we live forward, but we understand our life only backward. What happens, in this materialism, if the look back to understand is (at least partially) prohibited? Then there would only be “live” and not “our life.” Then there would only be the surprise of taking-hold in the encounter, and nothing that ever “held,” let alone “held true.” I leave aside the objection, relatively speaking, that certain things would hold true (in my case: “He was born in Iowa to a certain Jim and Nancy”), since what is at stake here is not the cancellation of knowing but an altered relation to it. What matters is to understand the meaning of what may or may not hold (and who will ever know what all the encounters in Iowa and elsewhere meant to “him,” to this writing, etc.?). Thus if we say “it’s never over,” we mean: whatever has been, if it still is, is in the encounter.
Outside the encounter, there is no real and nothing holds true. Put otherwise, if there is to be truth, its taking-hold must be in-swerve, in-repetition, in taking-hold once more.
By stressing the ‘after-thought’ character of identity, we seek to analyze and understand ourselves from the starting point (now) to the very end (never) as an encounter or place of encounter; and otherwise, as void. As if the self were just this: other-than or nothing, in-swerve or inexistent, encountering the other making sense or falling insensately into nothing. Of course, it is no either/or. What this philosophy wishes to bring out is how the self “is” both: always in-encounter and always nothing, but above all never a real atom, a real something in an accomplished world, with a real place, status, and life. Not in rejection of this! Rather as its liberation into and for the encounter.
To bring this out requires a concept of experience that deconstructs selfhood and demonstrates the otherness without which no selfhood could ever be. It affirms a self that is constituted by encounters and that obliges it to deconstruct itself—for the sake of ‘living’ and ‘our life’, but this time truly ours, never the self’s own—for a self that is sent in-swerve, a life that is but a meeting point of elements.
[[Original date of writing: April 2015. Edited for fragilekeys: April 2019]]