Marginal Thinking: A Forum on Louis Althusser

“Shut up now!” was Étienne Balibar’s ironic message to Louis Althusser in 1988. Maybe the irony got lost somewhere.

In those days Balibar’s former collaborator and co-author of Reading Capital — a book finally scheduled for publication next month in its unabridged 1965 edition — was still alive, although living in a kind of purgatory following the public scandal of his wife’s murder in 1980. Balibar’s mock exasperation was aimed at speaking up for this unhappy soul, for this ’60s philosopher frozen in time.

But since his death in 1990 Althusser’s fortunes, so to speak, have changed in such a manner that, with the publication of his posthumous writings, would seem flatly to contradict the popular impression of him as a Marxist dinosaur. Indeed, the essays assembled in this forum on art, social economics, politics, the law, philosophy, and subjectivity, which also include an exclusive extract from Althusser’s 1972 lecture course on Rousseau, all surpass the outdated concerns of 1960s Marxism. Althusser remains a “contemporary” thinker even if the man himself — a man “buried alive” or “shut up” in silence — no longer has anything to say.

However, this doesn’t mean that Althusser’s ideas have suddenly gone mainstream. Hence the title of this forum: “Marginal Thinking.” But perhaps marginal thinking is moving in that direction. Long before committing the murder that would turn him into a social outcast, Althusser had already come to accept that he was stuck in “the margin,” to cite the playful expression of his “comrade and friend” Jacques Derrida. “Then again,” Althusser remarks in 1976,

it turns out that, once normality is demystified […], interesting things happen in the vicinity of the margin: on the margin of official society, with exploited workers and immigrant workers; and children, from whose mouths truth emerges down through the ages; and artists, from the greatest to the humblest, with Breton and his friends somewhere in between; and the poor in spirit when they are saints, even if they remain ignorant of the fact; and the mad, and certain prisoners, especially Soviet and Latin American prisoners, etc.

Whether marginal thinking is moving into the mainstream, or the mainstream into the margin, is a question that nowadays extends quite considerably beyond mere Marxism and philosophy.

I would like to thank G. M. Goshgarian for kindly agreeing to translate “Rousseau’s State of Pure Nature,” and Verso for generously agreeing to its online publication. I would also like to extend my gratitude to Arne De Boever, Jonathan Hahn, and to everyone at the Los Angeles Review of Books for so enthusiastically supporting its publication.

— Jason Barker, editor, “Marginal Thinking”


Jason Barker is Professor of English at Kyung Hee University, South Korea. He is the editor with G. M. Goshgarian of Other Althussers (2015), a special issue of diacritics dedicated to Louis Althusser’s posthumous writings of the mid-1970s. As well as having published widely on philosophy, politics, literature and theory, he is a filmmaker, and the director of Films Noirs

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