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Dilip Parameshwar Gaonkar

THE PRIMACY OF THE POLITICAL AND THE


TROPE OF THE PEOPLE IN ERNESTO
LACLAUS ON POPULIST REASON

An introduction

If the proliferation of new social movements thematized in Hegemony and


Socialist Strategy was the key conjectural feature on the horizon of radical
democratic politics in Euro-America in 1980s, the eruptions of the people in the
streets and slums all over the world, and especially in the global south, is
hauntingly present in the background of On Populist Reason. With the
democratic imaginary now gone global, Laclaus positing of the people as
the political subject par excellence and populism as the paradigmatic logic of the
political acquires new pertinence. This double privileging is accompanied by a
series of shifts in emphasis in the conceptual architecture of Laclaus theory of
hegemony. Aside from the further radicalization two pivotal terms in Laclaus
social ontology  heterogeneity and contingency  one can observe three other
noticeable shifts in emphasis: First, on the plane of discursivity (or in the
differential field of the meaningful) the articulatory practices are increasingly
characterized in terms of their rhetoricity (i.e. the mode of braiding the rhetorical
form with its function); and, furthermore, the tropological characterization of the
articulatory practices progressively yields to an analysis of their performative
emergence by way of naming. Second, there is a corresponding shift in the
analytic interest from the discursive production of the nodal points (such as free
market or law and order) to the discursive production of empty signifiers
(especially, of the people). Third, the conflictual social field is configured not
only in terms of antagonisms but also in terms of dislocations.

Keywords heterogeneity; contingency; antagonisms; naming; the


political; the institution of the social
The people without history have occupied center stage to the point of
shattering the very notion of teleological historicity. So forget Hegel.
(Laclau 2005, p. 148)

Cultural Studies Vol. 26, Nos. 23 MarchMay 2012, pp. 185206
ISSN 0950-2386 print/ISSN 1466-4348 online # 2012 Taylor & Francis
http://www.tandfonline.com http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09502386.2011.636187
186 C U LT U R A L S T U D I E S

I
Even as this introduction is being composed, the so-called people without
history, or on the edge of history, are commingling with the people within
history in Cairos Tahrir Square. They are joined, of course, by those who
assume the mantle of being makers of history, or midwives of history and with
the people who presume to write history. This commingling, sometimes called
the third wave of democratic revolutions, is actually the third coming of the
people whose disorderly political potential goes well beyond the usual liberal/
republican democratic imaginary (Huntington 1991). This phenomenon of the
people without history imposing themselves on the people within history, in
streets and squares from Tiananmen (1989) to Azad (Tehran) to Tahrir and so
many other places, motley and majestic  is rattling politics as it is normally
understood. These eruptions of the people without history are different from
all those colour-coded revolutions in the post-Soviet Eastern Europe  the
Czech Velvet (1989), the Georgian Rose (2003) and the Ukrainian Orange
(2004) revolutions  which were revolutions of the people who had been
exiled or gulaged from a history which they once rightfully inhabited, as is the
proclaimed destiny of every European. Their exile and homecoming in history,
however violent and disorderly, was prefigured in the annals of that not-so-
universal narrative, the European Enlightenment.
The new entrants now at the gates of history are different. To incorporate
them, economically if not politically, one might have to announce the end of
history (as would Francis Fukuyama 1992) or declare that the world is flat (as
would Thomas Friedman 2009). The flat world at the end of history, if there is
one, is part of the planet of slums  the primary residence of the people
without history today. History is not ending and the agora cannot be gated; the
people are here, gathered and poised; they have always been here, invisible
only within the Hegelian optic. This coming of the people cannot be orderly
precisely because they are already here. Becoming visible is not a sequential
process; one cannot stand in a line to be visible and to be hailed as a political
subject. It happens suddenly as an event.
Moreover, there are and will be attempts to deter and block them,
sometime with brutal force in the name of law and order to obviate chaos,
sometimes by the well-worn dilatory tactics in the name of orderly transition
and consolidation towards a democratic future. They will be sequestered, they
will be starved and they will be crushed. But they would not go away, they will
not disappear and they keep coming. The whole world is watching, concedes
even the supreme self-appointed midwife of democracy, the President of the
United States. As they watch, some are terrified, some are elated and many are
anxious, but does anyone understand this plenitude of the people 
misrecognized as crowd, as mass, as multitude? Who are they, if they are
not the long awaited unified revolutionary agent in and of history? They are the
people.
AN INTRODUCTION 187

The intellectuals, both in the West and those trained in the Western
intellectual traditions, have been scrambling to theorize this third coming of
the people, most notably Etienne Balibar, Partha Chatterjee, Ranjit Guha,
Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Ernesto Laclau, Jacques Ranciere, James
Scott and Paolo Virno, who are building on an earlier tradition of reflection,
fraught with gaps and contradictions, from an eclectic group of thinkers 
Camus, Fanon, Freire, Gasset, Hobsbwam, Rude and others. Prominent and
distinctive among all of these contemporary thinkers is Ernesto Laclau, who
has been steadfast in his commitments to explore and understand the politics of
the people during his long scholarly career of almost half a century. Although
resolutely theoretical in his orientation, Laclau was engaged in the rough and
tumble of progressive politics as a young writer/ideologue in his native
country of Argentina  with its long and complex history of populism. So he
has had to grapple with the idea of the people from the very the beginning of
his forays into politics and the political. Thus, neither the people nor populism
makes Laclau nervous. He has grown up with that conceptual pair. He is able
to theorize the people without a guilty conscience, without sanitizing it or
smuggling it in through the back door. While Argentina is not a typical country
from the global south, its present cannot be understood primarily in terms of
its European genealogies. The Argentina contacts and contexts have been
relevant to Laclaus work, even though not always highlighted. Under the
seemingly very European surface of Laclaus theoretical texts, there flow
currents that come from elsewhere and are stirred by praxis.

II
This special volume of essays critically engages and interrogates Ernesto
Laclaus On Populist Reason (OPR) (2005), generally considered the most
influential of his writings since Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (HSS) co-
authored with Chantal Mouffe (1985). In the two decades separating the two
books, the political and intellectual landscape changed dramatically. HSS was
part of a remarkable and extended intellectual movement on the political Left
to rethink the tattered legacy of Marxism and to forge a new socialist politics in
the aftermath of the events of Paris/1968. The very first sentence of HSS
announces that Left-wing thought today stands at a crossroads. Positioning
itself explicitly as post-Marxist, HSS did, indeed, play a pivotal role in shaping
highly contested debates about how to formulate the theoretical agenda and the
political strategy for an emergent New Left. While systematically distancing
themselves from the essentialist economist categories of orthodox Marxism,
Laclau and Mouffe unambiguously located their project within the broader
Marxist endeavor to theorize and to engage in a radical democratic politics
committed to promoting free, plural and egalitarian societies:
188 C U LT U R A L S T U D I E S

What is now in crisis is a whole conception of socialism which rests on the


ontological centrality of the working class, upon the role of the
Revolution, with a capital r, as the founding moment in the transition
from one type of society to another, and upon the illusory prospect of a
perfectly unitary and homogeneous collective will that will render
pointless the moment of politics. The plural and multifarious character
of contemporary social struggles has finally dissolved the last foundation of
that political imaginary.
(Laclau and Mouffe 1985, p. 2)

What sort of a new political imaginary would supplant the old one
characterized variously as Jacobin and Stalinist? The one proposed in HSS
takes it bearing and orientation from the specific theoretical and historical
conjuncture in which the Left, especially the European Left, found itself in the
decades leading up to the 1980s. During that period, the social conditions
shaping everyday life under the existing socialist regimes were dismal and
rapidly deteriorating. The economic stagnation and the corrupt and inefficient
bureaucratic administration in the Soviet Union and her satellite states could
not be explained away by invoking the constraints and necessities imposed by
the cold war or by the alleged containment thesis. For decades, any attempt
at internal reforms was discouraged, if not ruthless crushed as in Budapest and
Prague. The debilitating Afghan adventurism and the Polish impasse did little
to lift the prospect of reform and rejuvenation within the existing socialist
societies teetering on the brink of economic collapse. Even the communist
victories in Vietnam and Cambodia and the continued survival of the Castros
Cuba, secured at massive cost and hardship for people in those countries, was
hardly sufficient to offset the massive gloom among the socialists, both
intellectuals and activists, in search of an alternative.
Against such a darkening background, HSS presented itself as bold and
guardedly optimistic alternative. That alternative drew its grounding and
direction from a radical, but not class-centred reading of an expanded
conflictual social field:

The rise of the new feminism, the protest movements of ethnic, national
and sexual minorities, the anti-institutional ecology struggles waged by
marginal layers of population, the anti-nuclear movement, the atypical
forms of social struggles in countries on the capitalist periphery*all these
imply an extension of social conflictuality to a wide range of areas, which
create the potential, but no more than a potential, for an advance towards
more free, democratic and egalitarian societies.
(Laclau and Mouffe 1985, p. 1)

Furthermore, HSS sought to theorize this newly envisaged conflictual social


field by, on the one hand, recuperating and redeploying the seminal insights of
AN INTRODUCTION 189

Gramsci, especially his concept of hegemony, and, on the other hand,


creatively drawing on the anti-foundationalist insights of post-structuralist
thought, especially as inscribed in and mediated through the concept of
discourse. This remarkable theoretical synthesis, which reworked and stitched
together a series of concepts such as contingency, hegemony, antagonisms,
subjectivity and discourse, has been discussed and analyzed extensively by
many scholars and its impact extends well beyond contemporary Marxist
studies to include cultural studies, discourse analysis, social movement theory
and especially democratic theory and practice.
In this introduction, I will review this powerful synthesis from the
perspective of Laclaus later turn to the trope of the people as the political
subject par excellence and his recuperation of populism as the paradigmatic
logic of the political. I will also try to show how the proposed theoretical
synthesis in HSS and its redeployment in OPR effectively fit together in mutual
elucidation and practical interpretation with the prevailing political conjunc-
tures set apart by two decades.
The key conceptual innovation proposed by HSS consists in showing how
the hegemonic position/relation of the ruling bloc in any given society/polity
(or more precisely, the social) is secured and sustained through a historical
process that is contingent rather than necessary. Once one has abandoned the
determinist narrative  which considered the working class as the sole
revolutionary agent, the party as its vanguard and the inevitable march towards
socialism its historical destiny  the social terrain, with all its divisions and
antagonisms, appears very different. The field of historical action is open,
enlarged and pluralized. A multitude of social struggles and the identities,
individual and collective, forged and named in those struggles call for an
alternative account of how conflicts unfold and how they are negotiated and
contained. Similarly, one is called on to account for how hegemony, no longer
grounded in historical necessity, is proclaimed by a given bloc to stand-in-for
or to represent the society as such. In HSS, hegemony is a contingent
formation: something that has to be incessantly fought and struggled over and
something that is always susceptible to challenge.
It is precisely this contingent structuration of hegemony, forged out of a
heterogeneous and conflictual social field, which discloses the true nature of
the political as the institution of the social (Worsham and Olson 1999,
p. 146).1 Laclau arrives at this formulation by working through a series of
distinctions between society and the social, between the social and the
political, and between the political and politics. In an essay provocatively
titled, The Impossibility of Society, Laclau (1990) flatly states that society as
an intelligible and self-grounding totality that seamlessly incorporates and
accounts for its disparate parts and processes is a mirage. To be sure, the
empirical social scientists can speak of society as a unified totality of
constitutive parts and processes, but they do so by recourse to reified forms
and terms  routinization of social practices, sedimentation of significations,
190 C U LT U R A L S T U D I E S

systemic imperatives, steering mechanisms and so on. Such a functionalist


reification depends on the bracketing or forgetting of the social, the
heterogeneous field of divisions and antagonisms, out which society as a
totality simply cannot be made to emerge. The social is the groundless ground,
unfixed, expansive and dispersive, on which the political operates to figure,
fix and institute the social and to make it legible, hence legitimate. Just as
society can only be imagined by reifying the social, so also politics, conceived
in terms of parties, campaigns, interests groups and so on, can only be
imagined by reifying the political. Both society and its subset, politics, bracket
the dynamics of the political institution of the social.
Of these three generative distinctions, one between the social and the
political is the most critical. This is where the play of fixing and unfixing,
sedimentation and reactivation, articulation and dissemination is executed most
consequentially. The social, the infinitude of the social as Laclau characterizes
it, is internally split and moves in two opposed directions. First, there is the
centripetal movement to discipline and absorb the inexhaustible heterogeneity
and antagonisms of the social into a reified system, a functional unity of the
societal. This drive originates in the impossible project to unify the disparate
excesses of the social into a totality called society, variously imagined as
driven by systemic imperatives (as in Webers iron cage) or by laws of history
(as in Marxs classless society) or by divine teleology (as in St. Augustines
the city of God). While the end is impossible, the drive persists and is
productive of a reified order; it presses on the social, seeks to surmount its
excesses, bleach its differences and functionalize its antagonisms.
The other movement within the folds of the social is prompted by the
political. This too is a movement towards fixity and closure, but of a different
kind. It is open, shaped by contingency rather than by necessity; it seeks to
institute an order of the possible the provisional, and the partial. In and
through this movement the heterogeneous excesses of the social are gathered,
quilted and articulated by the political to forge a hegemonic order of rule,
relation and position among things and people. In instituting the social, the
political does not secure a permanent ground or a unifying totality of all the
contending forces and factions, the end of antagonisms. The ground remains
groundless.
Laclaus deconstructive reading of the two movements is differently
calibrated. Despite the provocative claim  the society is impossible  the analysis
of the first movement is predictable. By the mid-1980s, the idea of social
totality in its numerous avatars, be it Marxist or structuralist, had come under
searing critique by an eclectic group of continental thinkers ranging from
Habermas and Derrida to Lyotard and Ranciere. Laclau has considerable
philosophical affinity with some of them, but what distinguishes Laclau here is
not so much his analysis as his attitude. While summarily dismissing the
viability of the very idea of social totality, many of those same thinkers appear
to be deeply anxious about the systemic properties of highly complex and
AN INTRODUCTION 191

differentiated modern societies. This anxiety is quite evident in the


colonization of life worlds thesis in its several versions from Arendt to
Habermas, which document the shrinking and cramping of the political
without invoking any particular image of social totality. It seems one can be
anxious about the logic of systemic imperatives without necessarily imputing to
the system a self-grounding intelligibility.
By contrast, Laclaus thinking is relatively free of such anxiety. For him,
the colonization thesis can be threatening only if one misrecognizes politics
for the political. The political institutes the social; it cannot be absorbed into
the social, nor be entrapped by the systemic imperatives of economy and
technology, nor be held hostage by the normative order of civil society. Such is
the primacy of the political. It is the constitutive force. Only by forgetting the
work of the political (praxis as the ancients understood it) which inaugurates an
intelligible order amidst the infinitude of the social, does one misrecognize
the secondary, but palpable, elaborations of social forms and practices as
constituting a unified social whole  the society. The error here, a tempting
one, is to seek to decipher a closed generative grammar out of the reified
secondary elaborations of what was initially fashioned in an open (and
rhetorical) idiom of the contingent.
This forgetting, as indicated in Laclau and Mouffes (1985) riveting
account of the second movement, is not entirely unexpected because the
political, as indicated earlier, is also prompted by the need and the desire for
closure, albeit a hegemonic rather than a systemic closure. The work of the
political, the second movement as such, is the most innovative and enduring
contribution of HSS and it also provides the most direct link to Laclaus turn to
the trope of the people in OPR.
The political in HSS can be read in different registers by privileging one set
of concepts and propositions rather than another. At the most general level,
one can characterize the second movement  the political institution of the
social  as made up of a complex interplay between the heterogeneous and the
contingent. Laclau begins with a posited social ontology of radical hetero-
geneity, the infinitude of the social, but cautions against imaging it as a pure
play of differences. The social is not simply a differential field of self-contained
monadic particulars. Nor can one ever see the differential field as pure
dissemination, it is always already configured. This configuration is not simply
one of exterior relationality, but one of complex embedding. Furthermore,
one cannot see this configuration and mutual embedding as a set of
distributions. What is disclosed at any given sight/site of the infinitude of
the social is a specific configuration of antagonisms. Difference is as much an
effect as a source of antagonisms. This move from dissemination to
configuration (or articulation in the idiom of discursivity) and from difference
to antagonisms, both on the temporal (substitutive) and the spatial
(distributive) axis, is a contingent achievement (not a necessary outcome) of
the work of the political. While Laclaus notion of the heterogeneous will
192 C U LT U R A L S T U D I E S

undergo another mutation in OPR as the very limit of the namable in the
differential field, it continues to serve as the background against which a given
hegemonic position/relation is contingently established in a struggle between
antagonistic fronts. The counter hegemonic struggles are possible precisely
because hegemony is always contingently secured and requires a sustained
discursive labour (on both socio-material and symbolic planes) to uphold it.
There is copious critical commentary on Laclaus innovative recuperation
and re-theorization of Gramscis concept of hegemony.2 No other concept has
been more central to Laclaus political thinking in more than four decades of
writing. Thus, it is hardly surprising that Laclaus answer to Judith Butlers
rather odd question as to whether hegemony is still a useful category for
describing our political dispositions would be resoundingly affirmative (Butler
et al. 2000, p. 44). In those long and tumultuous decades, rather trying times
for the Left, the concept of hegemony has been indispensable not only for
explaining the failure of the essentialist categories, historical formulations and
political projections of orthodox Marxism but also to account for the resilience
of a capitalist economy that continues to thrive under democratic as well as
authoritarian regimes that manage to govern, perhaps not with requisite
legitimacy, but certainly not by force alone. On the other hand, the concept of
hegemony has also played a decisive role in identifying, exploring and
encouraging (by the simple act of recognition) new democratic and quasi-
democratic emancipatory social movements that continue to erupt despite
sustained and organized ideological attempts to discipline and incorporate, if
not erase them. The crossing of order and disorder and their shrinking
temporalities in democratic societies has made hegemony an increasingly
attractive explanatory suture  so much so, that now it is regularly bandied
around in high-brow journalistic circles. To be sure, having had to carry such a
huge hermeneutic burden, the concept of hegemony has become strained and
diluted. While critics, often friendly, have been busy detecting slippages,
noting ambiguities and marking inconsistencies in the multiple meanings and
models of hegemony in Laclaus oeuvre, Laclau has been steadily refining the
concept and elaborating on its links to other concepts in its orbit such as
antagonism, discursive/articulatory practices, the play equivalence and
difference, political subjectivity, popular identities and so on.
In this introduction, I am not concerned with precisely mapping the
conceptual parameters of Laclaus theory of hegemony. What I wish to do is to
ascertain the extent to which Laclaus theorization of hegemony anticipates and
prepares the ground for the two distinctive features of OPR, namely, the trope
of the people as an empty signifier and the progressive tendency to characterize
the political as rhetorical. Furthermore, I want explore the role the concept of
contingency plays in facilitating this two-fold turn to the people/populism
and to the rhetorical.
It is generally agreed that under the conceptual rubric of hegemony, Laclau
offers, among other things, an analytic account of political practice and of
AN INTRODUCTION 193

political subjectivity/agency. His account of practice, while presupposing that


the political alone institutes the social, is directed at showing more specifically
how hegemonic relation/position is put together contingently in practice,
whereby a part of the social claims to stand-in and speak for the purported
whole. When, how, and which parts/particulars from a heterogeneous and
conflictual social field emerge in struggle to proclaim and establish a
hegemonic relation/position follows a logic of that is contingent rather than
necessary. The logic of contingency involves a relatively irreversible (rather
than random) movement of openings and closings on both substitutive (also
temporal) and distributive (also spatial) axes. At any given moment, what parts
come together  whether by an affinity of interests and passions, shared
histories and imagined futures, or a multitude of other motivations, material,
social and symbolic  is a contingent articulation, a chronotopic happening. A
given coming together also involves a closure, which, while disclosing new
possibilities and openings, also excludes certain options and alternatives. This
minimal logic of contingency was originally formulated by Aristotle, for whom
human affairs, unlike the physical world, consist of things that can be
otherwise than they are in any given situation (Aristotle 1991). However,
with the passing of that situation (with or without a decision), new possibilities
and constraints emerge. Such an articulatory struggle unfolds in a matrix-like
formation of connectivity and embedding on both temporal and social orders
before a hegemonic relation/position acquires the requisite density and
becomes palpable.
The second key feature of Laclaus account of practice is the primacy of the
discursive. In a quasi-transcendental mode, Laclau begins with the basic
discursive hypothesis that the very possibility of perception, thought and
action depends on the structuration of a certain meaningful field which pre-
exists any factual immediacy (Laclau 1993, p. 431). This means that every
object is constituted as an object of discourse and that any distinction
between, what are usually called the linguistic and behavioral aspects of a social
practice is untenable (Laclau and Mouffe 1985, p. 107). Therefore, discourse
may be viewed as a meaningful totality that transcends the distinction
between the linguistic and the extra-linguistic (Laclau 1993, p. 435). It is not
a closed totality, however. A discursive formation is open and pierced with
contingency. The elements in a given differential field of the meaningful (and
thus, intelligible and communicable) are over-determined (a la early Althusser)
and saturated with surplus meaning. Similarly, the dispersive/metonymic
configuration of the meaningful elements is also over-determined. What
might hold such a discursive formation together, make it manifest and
palpable?
According to Laclau, it is certainly not the imminent logical coherence of
discursive elements, nor the governing presence of a transcendental signifier
outside of the system of differences, nor the positing of a meaning-bestowing
subject who imparts unity and legibility to a discursive formation (Laclau and
194 C U LT U R A L S T U D I E S

Mouffe 1985, pp. 105112). Any sign is asymmetrically split and the play of
signifier and signified is uncontained and excessive. Articulation is Laclaus name
for the practice that gives shape and identity to a discursive formation and
makes the elements within it intelligible in their relationality. Articulation (or
disarticulation) is the discursive practice par excellence of fixing and unfixing,
sedimentation and reactivation, quilting and dissemination in the differential
field of the particulars, and it is shaped by contingency rather than propelled by
necessity. Here one can see a relatively clear homology between how the
political institutes the social and how articulatory practices discursively
constitute a hegemonic position/relation. The positing of a social ontology
of heterogeneity and antagonisms and the quasi-transcendental turn in
discourse analysis are perfectly aligned. One moves seamlessly from the
infinitude of the social to the infinite play of the disseminating sign. Only the
political that manifests itself in articulatory practices can arrest, stabilize and fix
the play in a differential field of the meaningful. Here, too, the reign of
contingency never ceases. Since there is no such thing as zero-degree
hegemony, with no recourse to Spinoza (an essentialism of the totality) or to
Leibnitz (an essentialism of the elements), as Laclau ironically muses, the
drama of coming together and coming apart of the social and the making and
unmaking of the hegemonic is necessarily political and carried out by the
steady, sometimes dissonant, beat of articulatory practices pierced with
contingency. This is one way contingency embeds itself in anything that might
be deemed necessary.
An account of practice cannot possibly dispense with an account of the
subject, the articulating subject engaged in hegemonic practices. Following in
the footsteps of Nietzsche, Freud and Heidegger and also drawing on
Foucaults analytic of finitude, Laclau assumes that the short-lived Age of
Man is over and with it the category of the originative subject. Once the idea
of a subject as an agent both rational and transparent to itself and as the
origin and basis of social relations is seen as philosophically untenable, the
constructive task begins of theorizing how the subject or more precisely a
multitude of subject positions arise in discourse (Laclau and Mouffe 1985,
p. 115). This is a rather delicate task. In rejecting the notion of the originative
subject, one must resist a double temptation: neither simply posit in its place a
proliferation of dispersed subject positions each encased in its particularity, nor
seek to locate a unified subject of discourse in and among the ensemble of its
dispersed positions. Like any other element in the differential field of the
meaningful, a given subject position finds its identity in relation to other
subject positions and those relations are variable  not only of opposition and
similitude and of contiguity and substitution but also of mutual embedding.
Here, once again, contingency holds sway. The way an articulating subject, the
subject of hegemony, comes to be constituted through a differential positioning
and cross-embedding of subject positions (individual and collective identities)
is not explicable by recourse to a narrative of necessity, organic or teleological.
AN INTRODUCTION 195

If the working class is no longer the appointed agent of revolutionary change,


who is the subject of hegemony? In open field of discursive differences and
antagonisms, how does a given subject effect hegemonic closure and proclaim
to stand-in-for and represent the political community as such?
This question is partly answered by Laclaus analysis of what he calls the
logic of equivalence and difference. Since no element in the field of discursive
differences is fully encased in its own particularity, it can be drawn into a chain
of equivalence with other elements to form an articulated bloc that stands in
opposition to another similarly constituted entity, including the existing order.
This is the general form in which antagonistic fronts arise out of the infinitude
of the social. The articulatory practices that set in motion an equivalential
chain, especially one in opposition to a hegemonized order, is the paradigmatic
case of the political in action. By the same token, they are also quintessentially
hegemonizing practices. To be sure, the coming together of two or more
elements to form an equivalential chain is neither random nor predetermined.
It is a contingent chronotopic achievement where affinity and alienation,
passions and interests, tradition and futurity are very much in play. Within a
certain range, substantial and consequential, things could be otherwise. The
chain of equivalence has to be forged and made manifest in the pragmatic space
between the differential plenitude of all relevant elements and the hegemonic
closure that generates user-friendly nodal points, the privileged signifiers whose
meaning is condensed and partially fixed to provide orientation and to secure
consent. At the most basic level, how an equivalential chain is forged in
practice and in struggle is a practical guide to understanding the making and
the unmaking of hegemony. That is why Laclau elaborates on the logic of
equivalence and difference quite extensively in OPR, going so far as to
illustrate it with diagrams.

III
This is the basic conceptual architecture that Laclau develops and elaborates in
HSS (with Mouffe) and in essays leading up to and immediately following that
book. This architecture has remained relatively intact in the two volumes of
essays published between HSS and OPR, despite various revisions and
refinements, such as rethinking the category of subject as a constitutive lack
rather than as a suture of multiple discursively dispersed subject positions.
Prodded by Zizeks Lacanian critique, Laclau has come to view the dispersed
subject positions as refractive effects of an originary lack in the very notion of
the subject as such. Even this important revisionary move from a Foucauldian
to a Lacanian view of the subject has not significantly altered the conceptual
balance. There are other shifts in focus and accent, some more important than
196 C U LT U R A L S T U D I E S

others, say from nodal points to empty signifiers and from representation to
naming, but the larger conceptual edifice remains recognizably the same.
So the question naturally rises: what is old and continuous and what is new
and discontinuous in OPR? This is a difficult question to address with a thinker
like Laclau, who seems to be relatively monogamous, if not indifferent,
towards the object domain. By contrast, one can track the career of Habermas,
whatever its value, in terms of changing themes and concerns  from the
public sphere to law to religion, or in terms of his debates with different
interlocutors  with Gadamer on hermeneutics, with Niklas Luhmann on
systems theory and with Rawls on political liberalism. To be sure, Laclau also
has had a rich set of interlocutors: Frank, Miliband and Poulantzas in Politics
and Ideology in Marxist Theory (Laclau 1977), his long-standing pedagogical
engagement with colleagues and students at the Essex School of discourse
analysis, and more recently Slavoj Zizek and Judith Butler in Contingency,
Hegemony, Universality (Butler et al. 2000). Moreover, HSS is many ways is an
extended critical engagement with the long Marxist tradition and especially
Gramsci. Nevertheless, one cannot easily track the evolution of Laclaus
theoretical project in terms its productive engagement with different themes
and interlocutors. It seems that energy and innovation in Laclaus work
is generated internally from the ways in which conceptual architecture itself is
coded and configured. If one accepts this view of the generative movement
within Laclaus thought, then one is prone to believe that the trope of the
people as an empty signifier, so central to OPR, is already prefigured in his
earlier reflections on hegemony. This view is also supported by the fact that
Laclau has always worked with a basic set of intuitions regarding social
ontology  its heterogeneity, its contingency and its discursivity on the one
hand, and its radical openness to being shaped (or more precisely, being
instituted) by the political on the other. The force of these intuitions, while
guiding and energizing his conceptual endeavor, has not been deflected or
attenuated, as is often the case, by an encounter with the strangeness and
resistance of the object domain. There is, however, one crucial exception to all
of this: Laclaus enduring commitment to a radical democratic project. If there
is a theme or an object of inquiry in the conventional sense that engages Laclau
deeply and continuously, it is democratic politics and its radical egalitarian
possibilities in our time. There is no runner up candidate. Therefore, I propose
to argue that Laclaus turn to the trope of the people as the paradigmatic
empty signifier is not simply motivated by the conceptual possibility and
trajectory already implicit in his earlier theorization of hegemony, but rather
that possibility is forced to the surface by the tumultuous career of the
democratic project in our time.
A theory of hegemony developed in HSS is explicitly directed at exploring,
identifying and promoting radical democratic politics. That objective is
announced in the subtitle and the final chapter emphatically states that a
radical democracy project is the only viable alternative the New Left can
AN INTRODUCTION 197

pursue in the wake of democratic revolutions, old and new. For Laclau,
democratic revolution marks a decisive mutation in the political imaginary of
Western societies that occurred a little over two hundred years ago (Laclau
and Mouffe 1985, p. 155). The key features of that mutation, among others,
are: the end of hierarchical and unequal type of societies, the affirmation the
sovereignty of the people and the insistence that social relations should be
based on principles of liberty and equality. These imaginary directives,
especially the rhetoric of liberty and equality, seep into every aspect of the
social life and give rise to a subversive democratic culture. For instance, as
Tocqueville presciently notes that (i)t is not possible to conceive of men as
eternally unequal among themselves on one point, and equal on others; at a
certain moment, they will come to be equal on all points (Laclau and Mouffe
1985, p. 156).
This new democratic imaginary also brings into full visibility the hitherto
occluded social ontology of radical heterogeneity, precisely the one posited by
Laclau. In a closed hierarchical social order, each individual is placed in a
differentiated but fixed position; hence, social relations are geared to
reproduce unequal situations and subordinated subjects. This is the state of
almost zero-degree hegemony where politics can only be repetition. With the
advent of democratic revolution, the hierarchical order dissolves and an open,
unfixed, and differential terrain of the social becomes manifest. Politics can no
longer be repetition and the political must now work through the
heterogeneous and antagonistic social field to articulate a new order unguided
by teleology. The logic of equivalence which aligns differential but autonomous
subjects to form a bloc or to facilitate a decision or to force a closure becomes
the primary and generative form of political practice. Under the equivalential
logic, no subject can claim priority a priori. Even socialist demands, like
demands of any other subject, say, the feminist or the ecologist, should be
viewed as a moment internal to democratic revolution (Laclau and Mouffe
1985, p. 156). The trajectory of the equivalential practice, aside from its
performative commitment to the ever expanding and often conflicting claims
of liberty and equality, cannot be predicted. It could go any which way.
The growing complexity and differentiation of advanced capitalist societies
also makes it increasingly difficult to forge an equivalential chain that can
traverse the whole of the social terrain to constitute a unified popular front.
Instead, one finds a proliferation of new social movements and the subject
positions associated with them, ranging from feminism and environmentalism
to those opposing racism, war, globalization and more. The emancipatory
projects associated with each of these movements are not bound together by
something that can be characterized as either natural or logical. Whatever the
alleged affinity between feminism and anti-racism, it cannot be presumed.
What binds them together has to be discursively articulated. The play of
equivalence and difference is never complete. The autonomy of differential
elements and subjects aligned within an equivalential chain cannot be fully
198 C U LT U R A L S T U D I E S

erased. Moreover, when two antagonistically positioned equivalential chains


are vying to establish a hegemonic position, one cannot simply assume that
the identities of and within the each camp are fully constituted. Under the
democratic imaginary, with so many variables in play  the state and the
citizen, the market and the consumer, the media and the spectator, the public
sphere and civil society  that the task of constructing a hegemonic position is
all the more challenging and precarious. By the same token, if democracy is the
only political imaginary possible and available in our time, then, according
Laclau, the political can be redeemed only by being galvanized by a positive
hegemonic project. Otherwise, democratic politics can be drawn into the orbit
of a Jacobin myth of the left or of the right, or lapse into the marginality of
sheer negation and opposition, or settle into pragmatic administration of things
and people.
If the proliferation of new social movements thematized in Hegemony and
Socialist Strategy was the key conjectural feature on the horizon of radical
democratic politics in Euro-America in 1980s, the eruptions of the people in
the streets and slums all over the world, and especially in the global south, is
hauntingly present in the background of On Populist Reason. The political
landscape changed dramatically in those decades separating the two volumes.
Even as Hegemony and Socialist Strategy was being published (1985), the Soviet
Union was beginning to disintegrate and the Communist China was moving
rapidly towards adopting a market economy without embracing democratic
government. China, having successfully suppressed the democratic upsurge at
Tiananmen Square (1989), would be an exception, but an exception that
remains precarious despite the economic miracle and deft manipulation of
national sentiments by the authoritarian state. At any rate, by the 1990s a third
wave of democratic revolutions that began in 1974 with the retreat of
authoritarian governments in the Southern Europe (Portugal, Spain and
Greece) and the Latin America was gaining strength and widening its sweep.
The recuperation and restoration of democracies that had withered and broken
down in the post-colony would follow, and, finally, it would crest with the
democratization of Eastern Europe and the Soviet successor states. Thus, by
the time On Populist Reason was published (2005), the third wave was stronger
and swifter and there were no signs of an impending reversal on the horizon.
The present unfolding of the democratic upsurge in the Arab middle-east is
moving rapidly from Tunisia and Egypt to Bahrain, Libya and Yemen suggests
that the third wave is continuing to gather momentum rather than dissipating.
The newborn or restored democracies are also under massive duress.
Many of these countries are hobbled by the problems of ethnic cleansing and
religious strife (sometimes on a genocidal scale), mounting social inequality,
severe unemployment, undiminished poverty, failing public health, economic
banditry and the criminalization of culture, weak political institutions and
corrupt leadership. The pressures generated by so much societal malfunction-
ing periodically flare up into sectarian and civil warfare, leaving behind
AN INTRODUCTION 199

permanent pockets of insurgency while turning children into mercenary


soldiers, and thus, everyday life often becomes a state of exception. Of
course, there are success stories, with India, Senegal, Slovenia, the Czech
Republic and Poland serving as the usual suspects, but they too have had a
rough ride.
Such is the tumultuously paradoxical career of the democratic project in
our time. On the one hand, the sheer scope of the current wave is astounding
and it seems as if the democracy is the only viable game in town. On the other
hand, there has been so much slaughter, mayhem, and pillage in the last
quarter of the twentieth century, the same period in which this wave of
democratization has touched the shores of so many countries. That democracy
continues to arouse so much raw energy, exhilaration and optimism, despite all
the setbacks ad calamities, is almost eerie. It is against the background of this
democratic paradox that Laclaus On Populist Reason makes its appearance.
The key features of On Populist Reason are unmistakably clear. With the
democratic imaginary now gone global, Laclaus positing of the people as
the political subject par excellence and populism as the paradigmatic logic of
the political acquires new pertinence. This double privileging is accompanied
by a series of shifts in emphasis in the conceptual architecture of Laclaus
theory of hegemony. Aside from the further radicalization two pivotal terms in
Laclaus social ontology  heterogeneity and contingency  one can observe
three other noticeable shifts in emphasis: First, on the plane of discursivity (or
in the differential field of the meaningful) the articulatory practices are
increasingly characterized in terms of their rhetoricity (i.e. the mode of
braiding the rhetorical form with its function); and, furthermore, the
tropological characterization of the articulatory practices progressively yields
to an analysis of their performative emergence by way of naming. Second,
there is a corresponding shift in the analytic interest from the discursive
production of the nodal points (such as free market or law and order) to the
discursive production of empty signifiers (especially, of the people). Third,
the conflictual social field is configured not only in terms of antagonisms but
also in terms of dislocations. Each of these shifts is confirmed by Laclaus reply
in this volume, especially in his response to Lundberg and Perello and Biglieri.
What is the significance of this transformation? How might one account for
these shifts in emphasis, especially when they tilt towards ontological
radicalization of terms, which is often misidentified by Laclaus critics as a
drift towards formalization? That misidentification is no doubt facilitated by his
penchant for a rhetorical vocabulary, but in any case I shall leave these
questions to another day. However, I do wish to pose a somewhat different
question: To what extent and in what manner are these conceptual shifts
motivated by the tumultuous career of the democratic project in our time?
Against the grain of these questions, one could simply argue that all of
these conceptual shifts were always already prefigured in Laclaus social
ontology as it was keyed around the three pivotal terms  heterogeneity,
200 C U LT U R A L S T U D I E S

contingency and discursivity. Given the relationality and mutual embedding of


these terms, one could argue that they were destined to become, through
interanimation, further radicalized and given a deeper ontological reading. For
instance, it is one thing to imagine the heterogeneous as a differential field of
particulars, but if the heterogeneous were to be further gleaned semiotically as
a differential field of the meaningful, with all the disruptive play imminent to
the sign process, the quotient of radical openness and undecidability multiplies
geometrically. Add to this mix the contingency of time and space and the
infinitude of the social, and soon enough the terrain on which the political
must work to effect hegemonic closures looks dauntingly complex, multi-
farious, and resistant to closure. This in turn has a retroactive effect on how
one conceives the play of the form (trope) and force (performativity) of
articulatory practices. Here one can become intrigued, as many an interpreter
has, in tracking and specifying the ways in which Derrida and de Man on the
one hand and Gramsci and Lacan on other are aligned in Laclaus thinking.
Pursuing an interpretive drift of this sort, one could justifiably claim that
Laclau is simply working out the implications of his fundamental intuitions and
insights that motivated and structured his early work, nudged here and there
by the changing scene of the democratic project.
Alternatively, one could annotate the parallels between the conceptual
shifts in Laclaus theory of hegemony with the recent mutations in the
democratic imaginary, now resolutely global. To be sure, Laclau and most of
his interlocutors in this volume are not particularly interested in tracking the
tumultuous career of the democratic project in a comparative empirical frame.
But they are attuned, both in theoretical reflection and practical criticism, to
exploring and assessing the possibilities for agency and solidarity put in play by
those democratic mutations. The question is how might one collate the two
registers without positing a causal link? Laclau himself suggests, however
cursorily, that with the advent of the democratic revolution and the attendant
passing of the hierarchical society, one could no longer imagine the possibility
of a politics of repetition that simulated the condition of zero-degree
hegemony. Following Claude LeFort, he also claims that with that historical
rapture the site of power becomes an empty space no longer occupied and
exhausted by the sovereign body (Laclau and Mouffe 1985, p. 186).
Thereafter, only within the frame of a hegemonic struggle can one claim,
seize, and hold power in the name of the people, the empty signifier par
excellence for an imaginary political whole. These are historical claims that
calibrate the link between the democratic revolution and the hegemonic
politics of struggle, the war of positions.
Just as a historical rapture can disclose new forms and venues of the
political, a historical impasse can disclose an obligation to think anew, to bend
conceptually to catch the blowback from a phenomenal world. This is precisely
what Laclau seems to do in essays collected in the volume titled Emancipation(s)
(1996), where he begins to refigure the dialectic of the universal and the
AN INTRODUCTION 201

particular.3 In the face of the fragmenting and particularizing force of new


social movements based on identity politics and cultural differences, Laclau
turns to a theorization of universality that avoids both the entrapments of pure
particularism and the lures of transcending universalism. This is done not by
giving universalism a specific self-limiting content or horizon but by
positioning it as an empty space to be fought over or embodied by particular
groups or forces seeking hegemony. (But no group or force will or can succeed
in fully incarnating the universal.) Moreover, the performative self-designation
or naming by means of which any group claims to incarnate the universal,
which is the principle of value or interest binding the imagined whole, is
always open to counter-hegemonic challenge. Here again, the movements
within Laclaus conceptual edifice are motivated by a specific conjuncture
related to the Euro-American debates over identity politics, multiculturalism,
minority rights, immigration policies and the prospect of the European Union.
Therefore, it seems reasonable to inquire about the force and specificity of
contextual features while trying to map and to understand the conceptual shifts
within On Populist Reason. This effort is especially pertinent for the double
movement of simultaneously privileging and emptying of the people as the
political subject par excellence, and the assertion of populism as the
paradigmatic logic of the political. The obvious question is this: Since Laclau
had already endorsed the LeFortian thesis that with advent of the democratic
revolution the site of sovereign power had been emptied out of its
transcendental claimants, why does he now so emphatically privilege the
signifier the people over all other possible contenders, say the proletariat or
the multitude or the subaltern or the nationalist or the citizen-subject in
the race to occupy and represent that empty site/signified? In a perceptive
essay on On Populist Reason, Oliver Marchart, an intellectual associate of Laclau,
raises the same issue:

Laclaus own outline of the conditions that made possible the emergence
and expansion of popular identities is rather cursory and consists in the
diagnosis that we inhabit a historical terrain where proliferation of
heterogeneous points of rupture and antagonisms require increasingly
political forms of social reaggregation [PR 230]. The interrelated
historical conditions behind this phenomenon of increasing social
dislocations are subsumed by Laclau under the label of globalized
capitalism. But as Laclau himself knows very well, the dislocations
produced by globalized capitalism cannot explain why it was the name of
the people which came to occupy such a central role within our
imaginary. It could have been any other signifier, since the potential
content of political reaggregation is not predetermined by the pure fact
or form of dislocation.
(Marchart 2005, p. 13)
202 C U LT U R A L S T U D I E S

One could argue that other signifiers, say the citizen-subject of liberal ilk, are
always already over-burdened with doctrinal content, which places them at a
disadvantage in the struggle to claim to represent the imagined political whole
without invoking the more inclusive name of the people. Invoking the name of
the people is not mere rhetoric, and even if it were, that invocation has
consequences. The rhetoric of the people is constitutive in so far as it
invariably dilutes the doctrinal content of any interest or party that invokes and
deploys it. The greater the divisions, antagonisms, and dislocations within the
social, the greater is the need for an emptier, thus more inclusive, political
subject to suture and articulate the unity amidst difference. But that articulated
unity is fragile, almost spurious, because the people as a trope both contains
the heterogeneous as a differential field of contending particulars but also
marks the limits of their representability. Within this context of democratic
limits, certain elements in Laclaus conceptual edifice  naming, empty
signifiers and dislocations  become more radical and prominent.
The tumultuous career of the democratic project in the latter half of the
twentieth century and into the present, especially as it has evolved in the global
south, has disclosed not only deep divisions and irreparable dislocations but
also the progressive jettisoning of doctrinal contents, be they liberal,
republican or socialist. Here one sees democracy in its starkest form,
simultaneously overburdened with and stripped of accidental doctrinal
content, as a radically open and unpredictable mode of governance. Hence,
populism, agnostic towards its content, was able to emerge, as it has in the
global south, as the exemplary mode being political, the democratic sublime
that is affectively charged and ambiguously designated. Here discourses on
Laclaus radical pluralist democracy and Habermas deliberative democracy
coexist and vie for attention with Zakarias (2003) illiberal democracy and
Manns (2004) the dark side of democracy. Democracy, it seems, is
increasingly capable of confounding its theorists.

IV
This volume consists on ten essays followed by a reply from Ernesto Laclau.
The essays are arranged to match the sequence and groupings in Laclaus reply.
As is customary with Laclau, he responds to each essay by identifying key ideas
and arguments that motivate and structure it. Furthermore, he critically
assesses each essay both imminently in terms of its avowed trajectory and goals
and also how it incorporates and addresses his work, especially OPR. Laclau
follows this critical format fairly consistently, with only occasional deviations.
Since Laclau introduces each essay thematically before offering a critical
response, it seems redundant to provide a similar introduction here.
Moreover, Laclaus reply, while polite, is also pointed and sharp in stating
AN INTRODUCTION 203

his disagreements with many of the authors in this volume. This too is
characteristic of Laclau. He rarely pulls his punches irrespective of who his
interlocutor, someone distinguished and established as a Judith Butler or a
Slavoj Zizek or some young scholar who is just beginning to test her
interpretive intuitions and skills. There are several essays in this volume by
both established and novice scholars that are sharply dissected and critiqued by
Laclau. This also prevents me from offering a critical introduction to the
essays. In this context, the privilege of critically engaging and interpreting
essays belongs to Laclau, whose book is the critical object of this volume,
rather than to one of the co-editors. Hence, I will confine myself to identifying
the range of topics covered by the authors.
The first essay by Lisa Disch offers a comparative account of the idea of
political representation, especially within the folds of modern democratic
imaginary, in the works of Hannah Pitkin and Laclau. She notes that Laclau
brings to the study of representation an additional constitutive/symbolic
dimension of identificatory naming that is missing in Pitkin or dismissed by
her as manipulative. The two following essays, by Oliver Marchart and Henry
Krips, respectively, show how the social whole can be articulated at different
levels with different political effects. Marcharts essay initiates a critical
dialogue between two modes of political analysis with which Laclau is closely
associated both as scholar and teacher: the micro-political forms of resistance,
as analyzed by cultural studies in the Birmingham tradition and the macro-
political hegemonic formations as analyzed by the Essex School of political
discourse analysis. Kripss essay attempts to rethink the under-theorized
phenomenon of new social movements and also valorize it (against its
detractors like Habermas, who privileges the politics of the public sphere) as a
venue for enacting new forms of radical political agency. Towards that end,
Krips draws on Laclaus theorization of populist logic to show that new social
movements present a new post-liberal form of democratic-emancipatory
political agency anchored in the less organized and heterogeneous life world.
The next essay about the role of affect in marking the limits of a
democratic community comes from Ivor Chipkin, who writes from the vexed
political space of South Africa. Since a political community has to address the
question of inclusion and exclusion, he asks, how might a radical democracy,
given its openness and plurality, construct self-referential boundaries? To
address that question, Chipkin engages in an extended mediation on the
relevant writings of Laclau and Mouffe.
The next set of three essays by Randall Bush, Christian Lundberg and Gloria
Perello and Paula Biglieri, respectively, are offered as Lacanian interrogations of
Laclaus more recent work, especially OPR, in light of the latters own
considerable interest in and engagement with Lacan. According to Bush,
Laclaus notion of rhetoricity, more precisely the rhetoricity of the social,
draws its hegemonizing motivation and energy from the crossing of the orders
of the symbolic and the real while marginalizing the imaginary. To obviate the
204 C U LT U R A L S T U D I E S

resultant formalization of rhetoric as tropology, Bush proposes that the order of


the imaginary should be rethought and resituated in Laclaus account of
rhetorically coded hegemonic practices. Laclau flatly rejects Bushs reading as
an error resulting from a misguided impulse to mechanically translate the
conceptual apparatus of the hegemony theory into a Lacanian lexicon. In his
essay, Lundberg analyzes the way the notion of demand is deployed in the
works of Freud, Lacan and Laclau. Furthermore, he notes that Laclaus account
of how demand functions as the minimal unit in a populist equivalential chain
is too formalistic and ignores the claims of jouissance (affect), and thus, remains
confined within the order of signification. Here again, Laclau rejects the
critique by noting that in his work the force of affect cannot be separated from
the form of signification. Gloria Perello (a psychoanalyst) and Paula Biglieri (a
political theorist), both from Argentina, try to show how Laclaus conception
of the people steers clear of the debilitating threefold opposition between
transcendence versus immanence, the people versus the multitude and negative
ontology versus positive ontology  oppositions that haunt the theorization of
political subjectivity from Hobbes to Hardt and Negri. They claim that Laclaus
notion of heterogeneity, something comparable in the Lacanian terminology to
an ontology of the Real, is the negative condition of possibility of affective bond
precisely because it marks the uninscribable limit, the impossibility of social
relations. In other words, heterogeneity is the place of transcendence or, in the
Lacanian idiom, the point of extimacy  the love at last sight, to borrow a
phrase from Ackbar Abbas. Laclau enthusiastically endorses this reading except
to insist that nothing, not even extimacy nor his own notion of dislocation
escapes inscription, although the modes of inscription at the limits are of a
different breed.
In her essay on Populism and Spectacle, Meghan Sutherland explores
complicated affinities that bind Guy Debords The Society of the Spectacle and
Laclaus On Populist Reason, by proposing that spectacle functions like an empty
signifier, or signifier of an empty signifier. To illustrate that claim, Sutherland
analyzes how the once dominant genre of variety show in the American mass
culture, especially one of its controversial instances  the blackface minstrelsy
show  did its hegemonic work as an empty spectacle through which an
unrepresentable plenitude of meaning could be filtered in the name of merely
entertaining the people.
The final two essays, by Michael Kaplan and Elizabeth Povinelli,
respectively, question and challenge Laclaus general theoretical position
and strategy in terms of its affiliations, omissions and orientation. Kaplan,
speaking from a Derridean perspective, argues that Laclaus key concepts like
heterogeneity and the empty signifier lose much of their openness and
explanatory power by being forced to operate within the restricted
economies of Saussurian structural linguistics and/or Lacanian psychoanalysis.
And that same strategy of privileging the order of signification leads Laclau
AN INTRODUCTION 205

to underestimate the durability of liberal hegemony and its capacity to


subvert and colonize the empty seat of power by institutionalizing the very
idea of the empty signifier. On the hand Povinelli, speaking from a Peircian
perspective, argues that Laclaus rhetorical model of politics, though in many
ways admirable and innovative, is nevertheless compromised by his excessive
reliance on a Lacan-inflected Saussurian theory of the sign. She also notes
that despite Laclaus strenuous effort not to collapse the distinction between
the discursive and the linguistic, his rhetorical politics operating within the
space opened by the empty signifier and performative naming is unable to
fully incorporate bodies (affect) and materialities (institutions). Laclau, as his
reply shows, is quite uncomfortable with the tenor of these essays. He
regards them as utter misrepresentations of his thinking and writing. Since
the disagreement is so massive, the reader is advised to turn to Laclaus
own reply.
Finally, this introduction was not available to Laclau when he completed
his reply. I hope that in contextualizing his work, especially his two most
important volumes separated by two long and consequential decades, I have
not committed errors of interpretation too numerous and egregious.
Furthermore, I hope that the errors, and there certainly will be some, are
errors productive of some insight rather than of sheer blindness.

Notes
1 This moment of the institution of the social through contingent decisions is
what I call the political. This quotation is from an interview with
Worsham and Olson (1999). For an analogous quotation, see Laclau and
Mouffe (1985, p. 153): (T)he problem of the political is the problem of the
institution of the social, that is the definition and articulation of social
relations in a field criss-crossed with antagonisms.
2 For an excellent essay on Laclaus concept of hegemony, see Howarth
(2004).
3 See especially the essay entitled, Universalism, Particularism, and the
Question of Identity (Laclau 1996).

Notes on contributor

Dilip Gaonkar is an associate professor in the programme in rhetoric and


public culture in the department of communication studies at Northwestern
University. He is director of the Center for Transnational Culture and
executive editor of the journal Public Culture, and director of the Center for
Global Culture and Communication at Northwestern University.
206 C U LT U R A L S T U D I E S

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