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New Left Review 58, July-August 2009


ETIENNE BALIBAR

ALTHUSSER AND THE RUE D’ULM

I undertook to write this obituary of Louis Althusser for the alumni of the École Normale Supérieure in 1993, nearly three years after the thinker’s death; and not without hesitations and delays. [1] This essay is adapted from an obituary notice for Louis Althusser, written at the request of Jean Châtelet of the Association Amicale de Secours des Anciens Elèves de l’Ecole Normale Supérieure. It first appeared in the Association’s 1993 Annuaire, and annotated by the author in 2006, when it was published on the website of the Centre International d’Etude de la Philosophie Française Contemporaine. The moment happened to coincide with yet another change of fortune in the media image of our comrade, as the posthumous publication of two autobiographical texts had once more drawn attention, not without some commotion, to the fate of the ‘caïman of the rue d’Ulm’. [2] ‘L’avenir dure longtemps’ and ‘Les faits’, written respectively in 1985 and 1976, were published as L’avenir dure longtemps suivi de Les Faits, Paris 1992, and in English as The Future Lasts a Long Time and The Facts, London 1993. In what follows I draw on the first volume of the life by Yann Moulier Boutang: Louis Althusser, une biographie, Paris 1992. This reawakening of curiosity about a man who had seemed forgotten, his writings virtually out of print, no doubt coincided with the lifting of certain taboos and the end of a latency period. For Althusser had been famous two times over: first, in the 1960s and 70s, as a Marxist philosopher and, with Lévi-Strauss, Lacan, Foucault and Barthes, an emblematic figure of ‘French structuralism’; and second, for a few weeks at the end of 1980, as the unfortunate and scandalous protagonist of an unexpected fait divers, the murder of his wife Hélène, within the very walls of the École. By 1993, it seemed, enough time had passed for interest and nostalgia to appear, along with the need to explain events that now belonged to history.

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