The five arguments of Mouffe


1. The first argument is that all forms of social practice take place against a background of historically specific discourses, which can be broadly defined as relational systems of signification. Whatever we say, think, or do is conditioned by a more or less sedimented discourse which is constantly modified and transformed by what we are saying, thinking, and doing. At an abstract level, discourse can be defined as a relational ensemble of signifying sequences that weaves together semantic aspects of language and pragmatic aspects of action. Within discourse, meaning is constructed either in terms of difference or equivalence (metonymical or metaphorical). In some situations, the logic of difference predominates, in others, the logic of equivalence prevails. Most often, meaning is constructed both through the assertion of difference and the articulation of chains of equivalence. There is no ultimate centre that is capable of invoking a totalizing discursive closure, but tendentially empty signifiers will tend to function as nodal points for the partial fixation of meaning. At a more concrete level, discourse can be analyzed as an ensemble of cognitive schemes, conceptual articulations, rhetorical strategies, pictures and images, symbolic actions (rituals), and structures (architectures), enunciative modalities, and narrative flows and rhythms. All these things should be analyzed both in terms of their ability to shape and reshape meaning and in terms of their ultimate failure to provide a homogenous space of representation.

2. The second argument is that discourse is constructed in and through hegemonic struggles that aim to establish a political and moral-intellectual leadership through the articulation of meaning and identity. This argument merely asserts that discourse is neither determined by structural pressures emanating from socioeconomic infrastructures nor a result of the dialectical unfolding of reason. Because of the ultimate undecidability of the

not of how things really are. ideology can no longer be defined as a distorted representation of an objectively given social reality. but rather about an endless series of de facto decisions. precarious. present. ideology can still be defined in terms of distortion. However. style. in terms of a particular theme. discourse is a result of political decisions. However. conceptual framework. but of the undecidability of all social identity. we have to look for something outside the discourse in order to account for its limits. the outside will be reduced to one more difference within the .social world. 3. since reality is always-already a discursive construction. If the outside is simply different from the discursive moments in the same way as these moments are different from . and future events. and capture people's hearts and minds. Alternatively. etc. ideology constructs reality as a part of a totalizing horizon of meaning that denies the contingent. become hegemonic. This argument concerns the construction of the limits and unity of a discursive system. As such.each other. which is defined as a practice that establishes a relation among discursive elements that invokes a mutual modification of their identity. 1996b). Hegemonic practices of articulation that unify a discursive space around a particular set of nodal points always involve an element of ideological totalization (Laclau. and paradoxical character of social identity. which result from a myriad of decentered strategic actions undertaken by political agents aiming to forge a hegemonic discourse. We are not talking here about conscious decisions taken by some central decision makers on the basis of rational calculation. at the same time. The third argument is that the hegemonic articulation of meaning and identity is intrinsically linked to the construction of social antagonism. Articulations that manage to provide a credible principle upon which to read past. The construction of naturalizing and universalizing myths and imaginaries is a central part of the hegemonic drive towards ideological totalization. A discourse is forged and expanded by means of articulation. which involves the exclusion of a threatening Otherness that stabilizes the discursive system while. Foucault convincingly demonstrated that the limits and unity of discourse cannot be constructed by reference to an inner essence. preventing its ultimate closure. however.

Such an outside is constructed in and through social antagonism. social antagonism involves the construction of a threatening otherness that is incommensurable with the discursive system and therefore constructs its unity and limits. There are also political attempts to make antagonistic identities coexist within the same discursive space. Social antagonism involves the exclusion of a series of identities and meanings that are articulated as part of a chain of equivalence. Most discourses are flexible and capable of integrating a lot of new events into their symbolic order. or in other ways domesticate. it becomes clear that the excluded elements can only have one thing in common: they pose a threat to the discursive system. So. As the chain of equivalence is extended to include still more elements. However. the line separating the friendly inside from the threatening outside is not completely fixed. But all discourses are finite and they will eventually confront events that they fail to integrate. In a concrete analysis of discourse. which often invoke a stereotyped picture of friends and enemies. represent. Hence. Hence. which emphasize the 'sameness' of the excluded elements. In this sense. the price for this stabilization is the introduction of a radical other that threatens and problematizes the discursive system and prevents it from achieving a full closure. This will open a terrain for hegemonic struggles about how to heal the rift in the social order. what we are looking for is a constitutive outside which has no common measure with the discourse in question. social antagonism shows itself through the production of political frontiers.discursive system. The struggle over what and who are included and excluded from the hegemonic discourse is a central part of politics. the political construction of democratic 'rules of the game' makes it possible for political actors to agree on institutionalized norms about respect and responsiveness while disagreeing on the interpretation of such norms as well as on more substantial issues. However. The failure to domesticate new events will disrupt the discursive system. The fourth argument is that a stable hegemonic discourse become dislocated when it is confronted by new events that it cannot explain. the process of 'othering' helps to stabilize the discursive system. 4. .

the Nation. 5. post-structuralism has retained a rather structuralist view that threatens to reduce the subject to an objective location within the discursive structure. and so on. Here. for a large part. This argument is inspired by psychoanalysis and challenges the post-structuralist assertion that the subject can be reduced to an ensemble of subject positions. might help us to combat class reductionism. which is revealed by the dislocation of the social order.There will be political struggles about how to define and solve the problem at hand. an the sense of appeals to vaguely defined notions such as Revolution. but provides an inadequate understanding of the processes that lead to the formation of multiple selves.that aim to signify the lack of a fully achieved community. The political struggles lead to the articulation of a new hegemonic discourse. The final argument is that the dislocation of the discursive structure means that the subject always emerges as a split subject that might attempt to reconstruct a full identity through acts of identification. . as Louis Althusser phrased it: to a “mere bearer of the structure”. Modernization. or. a woman. which is sustained through the construction of a new set of political frontiers. or the People . This does not mean that we have to reintroduce an ahistorical subjectivity that is given outside the structure. take the form of empty universals . When it comes to the theory of the subject. These will. which are stamped upon the subject by the discursive structure in which it is located. The recurrent dislocations of the discursive system mean that the subject cannot be conceived in terms of a collection of structurally given positions. The idea that the subject simultaneously occupies the position of being a worker. The discursive structure is disrupted and this prevents it from fully determining the identity of the subject. Dislocation shows itself through a structural or organic crisis in which there is a proliferation of floating signifiers. The hegemonic struggles that are made possible by the dislocation of the social order will aim to fix the floating signifiers by articulating them with a new set of nodal points. the notion of dislocation provides a fruitful starting point.

. Because of dislocation.The subject is internal to the structure. Social antagonism will play a crucial role for the attempt to unify dissimilar points of identification. the subject emerges as a split subject. 1990). The construction of a constitutive outside facilitates the displacement of responsibility for the split subject's lack onto an enemy. Rather it has a failed structural identity (Laclau. a dislocated Russian party functionary might aim to reconstitute a full identity by identifying with the promise of Russian nationalism. neoliberalism. The split subject might identify with many different things at the same time. Hence. but it has neither a complete structural identity nor a complete lack of structural identity. In this situation the hegemonic struggles will have to offer ways of articulating the different points of identification into a relatively coherent discourse. social democracy. which is traumatized by its lack of fullness. The split subject might either disintegrate or try to recapture the illusion of a full identity by means of identifying itself with the promise of fullness offered by different political projects. The externalization of the subject's lack to an enemy is likely to fuel political action that will be driven by an illusionary promise: that the elimination of the other will remove the subject's original lack. which is held responsible for all evil. or some religious movement.

since no theoretical distinction is made between the exclusion of meaning from discourses directly in struggle with one another . to arrest the flow of differences. 2000). and ‘freedom’. assigning meanings to other signifiers within that discourse. They bind together a particular system of meanings or ‘chain of signification’. All other possible meanings excluded by a particular discourse constitute the field of discursivity. however. and thus can be seen as an exercise of power (Howarth & Stavrakakis. a nodal point is not simply ‘the ‚richest‛ word. Articulation is ‘any practice establishing a relation among elements such that their identity is modified as a result of the articulatory practice’. 1999). as Phillips and Jorgensen (2002: 28) explain. According to Žižek. a nodal point possesses no density of meaning – quite the opposite. a pure signifer without the signified’ (Žižek. 1985: 105). never permanent: ‘the transition from the ‚elements‛ to the ‚moments‛ is never entirely fulfilled’ (Laclau & Mouffe. 1989: 97). a discourse is an attempt to fix a web of meanings within a particular domain. on the level of the signifier itself. the signifier ‘communism’ is a nodal point that binds together other pre-existing signifiers such as ‘democracy’. and the state acquires a new set of functions and roles. It only acquires meaning through its positioning relative to other signs. Signs that have had their meaning fixed by a discourse are called moments. 1989: 95). to construct a centre (Laclau & Mouffe. rearticulating them into new meanings different from those used in competing discourses (Žižek. Through articulation. ‘state’. Discourses attempt to fix webs of meaning through the constitution of nodal points.DT ESSAY : The first concept that must be considered in the work of Laclau and Mouffe is that of discourse itself. and since signs derive their meaning from their relation to one another. This closure is. A signifier that is allocated a certain meaning in one discourse may be given another meaning in a different discourse. *it+ is rather ‘the word which. constitutes its identity’ (Žižek. while a discourse is ‘the structured totality resulting from this articulatory practice’ (Laclau & Mouffe. freedom is given an economic connotation. the field of discursivity makes possible the articulation of a multiplicity of competing discourses (Torfing. This positioning happens through articulation. Howarth & Stavrakakis. the word in which is condensed all the richness of meaning of the field it ‚quilts‛. as a word. in Žižek’s words. [1985] 2001: 112). 1989. unifies a given field. an ‘empty signifier. 2000). Elements which are particularly open to different ascriptions of meaning are known as floating signifiers. Democracy acquires the meaning of ‘real’ democracy as opposed to democracy based on class oppression. Thus: Any discourse is constituted as an attempt to dominate the field of discursivity. It is a reduction of possibilities. For example. Since no discourse can fix a web of meanings completely or permanently. ‘whereas the term ‚nodal point‛ refers Phillips and Jorgensen (2002) argue that the field of discursivity is too broad a concept for practical use. in communist ideology and discourse. all other signs within the discourse will be configured differently as a result. it is. a discourse establishes a closure. For Laclau and Mouffe. Nodal points themselves can be thought of as floating signifiers. The constitution of a discourse involves the structuring of signifiers into certain meanings to the exclusion of other meanings. a temporary halt to the fluctuations of meaning of elements. but. An element in this sense is a sign within the discourse whose meaning has not yet been fixed. In and of itself. Nodal points organise the discourse around a central privileged signifier or reference point – ‘points de caption’ as Lacan (1977) termed them. 1985: 110).

. They may be resolved. floating signifiers – into one unambiguous set of meanings (Laclau & Mouffe. albeit temporarily. though they may share certain signs. we must be wary of delimiting the order of discourse a priori to beginning a discursive analysis of texts. Hegemonic struggle takes place over and within many domains of social life. When discourses successfully become hegemonic. thus reconstituting unambiguity (Laclau. 1992): Objectivity notwithstanding. As Mouffe (2008: 4) puts it. Unlike Gramsci. hegemonic projects will need to construct and stablise the nodal points that structure social orders by articulating elements – i. to a point of crystallisation within a specific discourse. employed by Fairclough in a slightly different sense. Antagonisms may be visible through the presence of elements that are articulated in different ways by opposing political projects. Discourses then reach the level of ‘common sense’. and. When two or more antagonistic discourses compete for hegemony within a specific terrain. they do not.’ Such counter-hegemonic practices may occur naturally through day-to-day communicative practices which challenge or transform existing discourses. To do this. no discourse is capable of completely hegemonising a field of discursivity. ‘every hegemonic order is susceptible of being challenged by counter-hegemonic practices which attempt to disarticulate it in order to install another form of hegemony. the social practices they structure can appear so natural that members of a society fail to see that they are the result of political hegemonic practices. or they may be instigated as a deliberate and strategic act by interest groups as ‘an overt or covert struggle for discursive dominance’ (Grant et al. discourses of clinical medicine may be said to compete with discourses of alternative treatment in the terrain of health and illness. to denote the limited range of discourses which struggle in the same terrain. 1985. 1993). or set of discourses. 1985). Laclau and Mouffe do not view society as a single field of hegemonic struggle. This opens up the concept to include struggles over a variety of social relations. therefore. in that their origins and intrinsic contingency are forgotten (Laclau & Mouffe. relationships and systems of knowledge and belief (Foucault. The representation of discourse as a structuring of meaning within a particular terrain leads Laclau and Mouffe to their concept of hegemony. 1971. it is achieved through articulation.e. social consensus achieved without recourse to violence or coercion. In Discourse Theory terms.and those that are not. 1985). like discursive closure. however. we can say hegemony is ‘the expansion of a discourse. Phillips and Jorgensen advocate. concerted efforts to re-articulate discourses and achieve the dominance of one particular perspective. however. the word ‘body’ is a nodal point in the discourse of clinical medicine and a floating signifier in the struggle between the discourse of clinical medicine and the discourse of alternative treatment. not only those of class. Deetz. compete with discourses of football. This is a useful analytical distinction. and thus the domination of a particular discourse is never complete or permanent. a concept introduced by Gramsci (1971). following Gramsci (1971). through hegemonic interventions (Gramsci. the use of the term ‘order of discourse’. the term ‚floating signifier‛ belongs to the ongoing struggle between different discourses to fix the meaning of signs. For example. such as those of gender. 1999: 101). into a dominant horizon of social orientation and action by means of articulating unfixed elements into partially fixed moments in a context crisscrossed by antagonistic forces’ (Torfing. which has been taken up by many other researchers working within the field of discourse analysis (particularly CDA). 1972). though as Phillips and Jorgensen make clear. conflicting demands are made upon social identities. Laclau & Mouffe. Hegemony is.’ In the example they provide. 1998: 7-8).

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