The aleatory refers to chance, to random encounters: like throwing a die. Some years ago this term gained some prominence among readers of French philosopher Louis Althusser, after the posthumous publication of his later works.
In a recent talk at the Works In Progress Seminar Series (WIPSS) within the Faculty of Arts at the University of Malta, Norbert Bugeja applied the concept in his interpretation of The Return, a Pulitzer prize-winning memoir written by Libyan-American writer Hisham Matar.
The Return was published in 2016 and relates to the author’s own return to his native Libya to seek explanations regarding the disappearance of his father, Jaballa, in 1990. A dissident against the Gaddafi dictatorship, Jaballa was likely murdered during the infamous Abu Salim prison massacre in Tripoli in 1996.
On the same day of the execution of 1,270 prisoners, Hasham Matar was closely inspecting Manet’s Execution of Emperor Maximilian at the National Gallery in London. In the former’s words, this painting “evokes the inconclusive fate of my father and the men who died in Abu Salim”.
Fast forward to the WIPSS talk. Bugeja observed the aleatory encounter between the son’s viewing of the painting and the father’s execution. He then proceeded to observe other aleatory encounters related to Libya in the recent past.
For example, Saif Gaddafi was being groomed to replace his father, Muammar, as Libya’s supreme ruler. But who would have predicted that the self-immolation of a retailer in Tunisia would set the Arab world alight through the Arab Spring?
The Arab Spring itself was characterised by aleatory encounters: the outcomes in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Syria differ. Indeed, though much social change takes place through processes which are captured and explained through empirical social-scientific methods, at times there are also ruptures and shifts that might have or might not have taken place. Such encounters are provisional and can be influenced by a plurality of factors.
Very often economic readings are given to social changes, but one can mention so many other factors, ranging from the cultural to the technological, from mere coincidence to force majeure, and from character traits in leaders to the logic of numbers. For example, the widespread use of social media during the Arab Spring enabled protesters to communicate their grievances to each other and to the outside world.
Hence, the concept of the aleatory shows us that various social and political events are better understood after they occur. Long gone is the age of prophets: instead we have plural readings of history and at best projections of future possibilities.
This takes me to an article by Godfrey Baldacchino, another university colleague, who wrote recently (on December 30) about Labour’s prospects at the next general election.
Baldacchino told readers that “the 2008 election was the only election in Malta’s parliamentary history – which will be 100 years old in 2021 – to have returned the same political party to power for a third successive term. But only just”.
Thus, he argued, there could be some very serious challenges facing political parties in power in Malta once they hit the end of their second term. Baldacchino added that though comparisons are odious, and though Labour has a massive 35,000-vote majority, “history may have important lessons for us”.
In this regard, he warned that the longer a party is in power, the power of incumbency may eventually lose support, certain policies may alienate specific groups, and a desire for new faces comes about.
The latter is precisely what Joseph Muscat has promised to tackle, though I myself am not so sure if this is a deviating tactic, especially as he clearly is Labour’s best electoral asset.
If Muscat really decides to go, who will replace him? Someone tainted with bad governance, or someone who does not enjoy the blessing of Muscat’s inner circle? And what will the impact of this be? Will different factions unite, or will implosion result?
As Althusser warned us, we cannot predict such encounters in advance: they are aleatory. And the same may hold for the fortunes of the Nationalist Opposition: down according to surveys, but not looking out in relation to its internal rebuilding. The future lasts a long time.