Interview

Politics and the unconscious – An interview with Ernesto Laclau
Jason Glynosa and Yannis Stavrakakisb,*
a

Department of Government, University of Essex, Colchester, UK.

School of Political Sciences, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece. E-mail: yanstavr@yahoo.co.uk
*Corresponding author.

b

Subjectivity (2010) 3, 231–244. doi:10.1057/sub.2010.12

Introduction: Psychoanalysis and Politics
Ernesto, you have often stated that the focus of your work is primarily theoretical, contributing specifically to what you call a ‘political ontology’. It is also clear, however, that you don’t view doing theory as a purely speculative enterprise. This is evident, for example, in your claim that theoretical work ought to be informed by the experience we derive in our concrete practices and case studies. In this context it may be helpful, by way of introduction, to get an initial reaction from you to a set of preliminary questions. To start with, how would you relate your current research to the present historical conjuncture, a conjuncture marked by the emerging dominance of Hugo Chavez in S. America, the election of Barack Obama in the United States, the global financial crisis and economic recession, the urgency of avoiding the fate of (or adapting to) global warming? You have remarked how your involvement in 1960s Argentinian politics presented you with your first lessons in poststructuralism (see the series of interviews included in Laclau, 1990). We wonder what theoretical lessons you think we can draw from the current conjuncture. EL: I think that the present conjuncture – which is more than a conjuncture, it marks the transition to an entirely new historical period – is characterized, first of all, by the crisis of the neo-liberal model of world economic order, which dominated during the 1980s and 1990s, and was epitomized by the

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Vol. 3, 3, 231–244

It is always the result of a process of overdetermination. which is now more visible than ever before. 1755-6341 Subjectivity Vol. What do you consider to be the central appeal of psychoanalysis when addressing these sorts of issues? In particular. to any predetermined origins. In the next 20 years we are going to see the access – already visible in its initial stages – of countries such as China. 3. This can be seen not only in the Venezuela of Chavez. 3. namely. This process has its own internal laws. what significance do you attach to the category of ‘the unconscious’ in thinking about the ‘hurly-burly’ of social and political practice. but also for contemporary political theory and analysis? For example. the main countries of the continent are reacting against neo-liberalism and de-regulation and are developing models of growth in which state intervention plays a much more significant role. and I don’t think it would make much sense regurgitating here what everybody knows are my thoughts about it. the unconscious is neither a set of underlying categories entering ` into various combinatorial arrangements – a la Levi-Strauss – nor does it ´ ` refer to the pre-existing symbolic forms of a ‘collective unconscious’ – a la Jung. but they do not lead back to any a priori fixed meanings. as Freud already knew. has experienced an ultimate collapse. I would like to add one important thing: for me.Glynos and Stavrakakis so-called Washington consensus. India and Brazil to the status of world powers. emerging from the ashes left over by the Bush years. However. The defeat of the US Latin American politics was already visible in the meeting of American presidents in Mar del Plata (Argentina) a few years ago. 231–244 . a multi-polar one. but we know very well how we got into it. but perhaps the most important one is that the idea of the economy as a unified space. It is in that context that we have to assess the Obama phenomenon in the United States. On the contrary. at an initial and quite general level we wonder how you would relate the concept of the unconscious to the domain of political ontology generally. in which new actors will occupy a central role in the historical arena. in the Argentina of the Kirchners. As for Latin America. but also in the Brazil of Lula. It is not very clear how we are going to get out of this world economic mess. which was at the core of the neo-liberal project and which led us to the edge of a catastrophe. the formation of relatively stable configurations of meaning is always the 232 r 2010 Macmillan Publishers Ltd. in which the Bush proposal of constituting a unified economic space covering both North and South America was defeated following the opposition of the main Latin American countries. What are the theoretical consequences that one can derive from these new developments? There are many. dominated by its own endogenous logic. and to the category of hegemony more specifically? EL: I have already spoken in extenso about this issue throughout my work. It is clear that we are advancing towards a different world order. as a result of the politics of de-regulation. the Bolivia of Evo Morales and the Ecuador of Correa.

Of course. the Freudian approach. and. There are. This applies to both individual and collective processes. Why have I adopted in my work a Freudian/Lacanian approach rather than any of the other available alternatives? For a start. those theories that reduce the unconscious to a residue of irrationality – as rational-choice theories do. 1755-6341 Subjectivity Vol. all those that attempt to delineate a strict. 3. I have mentioned only two examples but. from an anti-essentialist perspective: apart from the logic of overdetermination. this is a decision clearly related to my attempt to break with essentialism. which. 3. Thus. In opposition to all such essentialisms. located in the central role of overdetermination in both psychic and collective processes. r 2010 Macmillan Publishers Ltd. or anything else capable of playing this role. it highlighted the logic of the signifier. conceives politics as an epiphenomenon or a superstructure. provided crucial tools for the development of what I was trying to think at the political level. the idea that there are things which escape conscious thought and control is something that has been around for a long time and there have been many attempts in the past as well as the present to record and better understand such phenomena. 231–244 233 . the core of my philosophical project consisted in asserting the centrality of the political moment in the constitution of the social and. to name just a few. and why you appeal to a Freudo-Lacanian strand of this tradition in particular? EL: You have. This is the reason why I see a clear link between the theory of hegemony and psychoanalytic theory. indeed. And this applies to the economic level of society as well as to any other level. in my analysis. of the partial fixation of meaning through the intervention of points de capiton – nodal points in the vocabulary of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy – a whole ontology of lack and desire. Can you say a few more words about why you appeal to a specifically psychoanalytic understanding of such phenomena. to take the central role previously occupied by the category of ‘mode of production’. From this point of view. in highlighting the constitutive character – in the transcendental sense of the term – of the category of antagonism. the notion of ‘hegemonic formation’ tends. syntagmatic grammar of the workings of the unconscious. many others could be brought to the fore. as the mere phenomenal expression of some underlying structure or laws – the latter being either the mode of production (in a traditional leftist discourse). in the political field. obviously. In politics. on the other hand. the constitution of a ‘hegemonic formation’ depends entirely on a contingent fixation – through overdetermination – which assigns to particular signifiers a central role in structuring a discursive field. as a result.An interview with Ernesto Laclau result of partial fixations. globalization (in a neo-liberal discourse). for example. constituting in each case a unique trajectory. together with its Lacanian reformulation. on the one hand. many competitors to the Freudian/Lacanian theory of the unconscious.

something belonging to the order of affect has a primary role in discursively constructing the social. I see psychoanalysis as the only valid road to explain the drives behind such construction – I see it. 3. this affective dimension and its relation to discourse can be approached also from the point of view of the unconscious. fearing that this dimension was too often eclipsed on account of the enthusiastic attention paid to the symbolic dimension of discourse. In fact. So if I see rhetoric as ontologically primary in explaining the operations inhering in and the forms taken by the hegemonic construction of society. drawing inspiration primarily from the work of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. but something consubstantial with it. 231–244 . Here something else has to be brought into the picture. what are the benefits and 234 r 2010 Macmillan Publishers Ltd. Lacan also attributes to the unconscious a certain force. We wonder to what extent you would agree that there has been such a shift of emphasis in social and political theory? And if so. ‘The unconscious is structured like a language’ is one of Lacan’s well-known phrases. Of course. specifically on the respective roles you appear to attribute to the disciplines of rhetoric and psychoanalysis. Indeed. Any overdetermination requires not only metaphorical condensations but also cathectic investments. In The Laclau Reader. indeed. but also to suggest that the relationship between affect and signification is not a simple additive one. as the only fruitful approach to the understanding of human reality. of course. but not the force that explains the investment as such and its perdurability. p: 326) This passage appears to do several interesting things. In the same text you contrast the form of a discourse with its force: [W]hat rhetoric can explain is the form that an overdetermining investment takes. Putting it in these terms. 3. 2004.Glynos and Stavrakakis Discourse and Affect As you know. And affect y is not something added to signification. resulting in his theory of the four discourses. Not content. however. an increasingly prominent theme in your own work concerns precisely the place of affect in discourse. you acknowledge that ‘something of the order of hegemony and rhetoric takes place which could not be explained without the mediating role of affect’. allows us to draw out the resonances more clearly with your own work. even if his concern was primarily clinical. 1755-6341 Subjectivity Vol. noting how it ‘insists’ through a kind of ‘compulsion to repeat’. for example. (Laclau. in the field of social and political analysis there have been recent calls to refocus our attention on the affective dimension of discourse. among them to ascribe ontological primacy to rhetoric. to remain at the level of structure or form. the place of affect in discourse is a theme that interested Lacan too. That is. Freud already knew it: the social link is a libidinal link.

to start with. whose combinations could be sufficiently grasped by mere reference to certain syntactic rules. symbolic) rules. But this is not the way in which the symbolic has been conceived in psychoanalysis. In that sense. whose substitutions are not governed by such rules. Do you see its role primarily r 2010 Macmillan Publishers Ltd. An extreme formalist such as Hjelmslev wanted to submit even the paradigmatic pole of language to syntactic (that is. Affect is not some vague emotion external to signification. sex. 3. an extreme structuralism for which only the symbolic counts. I wouldn’t say that there is a shift from emphasizing the symbolic dimension of discourse to a new emphasis on its affective dimension. 3. There is. the father. In the discourse of the ‘rat man’ that I mention in the text to which you refer. Jakobson sought to transform our understanding of rhetoric by making the tropes of metaphor and metonymy foundational of all other tropes. the separation between the two. for it can only constitute itself on the basis of overdetermining a signifying chain. I would rather say that there is a shift from emphasizing the syntagmatic/syntactic (as it happened during the heyday of structuralism). signification is also an internal component of affect. but an internal component of it. You have spoken about this yourself. Affect is not something external. So the work of the unconscious on affect has to be traced back to the substitutions constituting the paradigmatic pole of language. because I do not accept. Even Saussure made a distinction between the syntagmatic pole of language. and so on. We would like to know how you would like to see the discipline of rhetoric being used in social and political analysis. 231–244 235 . and where the work of affect has to be located. so that even the constitution of the symbolic as such requires the operation of affect and the unconscious. to emphasizing the role of the paradigmatic dimension. The important point is that without this paradigmatic pole there would be no language. and an associative (paradigmatic) pole. added to the symbolic. Famously. and for which this symbolic is conceived as a ground whose laws are to be enacted in all factual instantiations. that I do not think there is such a shift from the symbolic to the affective dimension of discourse in my work. It is precisely in this world of substitutions where the unconscious operates. but his attempt was less than successful. So if affect is an internal component of signification. 1755-6341 Subjectivity Vol. in the first place. the signifier ‘rat’ is so affectively overcharged because it evokes – overdetermines – a plurality of currents of unconscious thoughts – money. which would be the only terrain making such a shift intelligible. of course. especially in connection with the notion of ‘catachresis’.An interview with Ernesto Laclau drawbacks of such a shift? What do you think are the sorts of issues and problems that it can help us address? Does such an analytical shift signal also a more political and/or critical shift? How are all these developments registered in your own work? EL: Let me say. and that the necessary effect of this shift has been paying increasing attention to the unconscious and the affective aspects of signification.

The hegemonic logic. Now. is central for Jakobson’s analysis. As for the opposition metaphor/metonymy. but reveals a basic structure grounded in the opposition metaphor/metonymy. democracy. 231–244 . has to take into account both the poles or dimensions we are talking about. what role would you give particular tropes in the domain of critical political analysis? The category of hegemony. to that between metonymy and metaphor. as you have pointed out. Catachresis is not. and that the rhetorical is inherent to discourse. You have mentioned catachresis. what other sorts of tropes might be brought to bear in thinking about similar questions having to do with identity. and. It is because of this that hegemony. So this same dichotomy is found at different levels of human reality: at the level of language it refers to the distinction between the syntagmatic and the paradigmatic poles. on the contrary. for Jakobson. so that any figure is. 236 r 2010 Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 1755-6341 Subjectivity Vol. for example. goes beyond these unilateralizations and understands the political as the constituting moment of a space within which the tension metaphor/ metonymy is never finally resolved. Rhetoric. as it had been for a long time. 3. all figural expression adds some new meaning to what a literal term (when it exists) is capable of expressing. a particular figure of language among many. which cannot be replaced by a literal one (as when we speak of ‘the leg of a table’). This basic distinction was. and here I would like to add a qualification. at the level of rhetoric. 3. as the central category of political analysis. to that between difference and equivalence. We have catachresis whenever we use a figural term. What would you say are the advantages and disadvantages of adopting one or the other perspective. which. is not. it corresponds to the duality displacement/condensation. indeed. has sometimes been thought in terms of metaphor. to some extent. such a centrality results from the fact that the distinction itself is anchored in language. and so on? EL: First of all. in turn. the organization around the two poles that we discussed earlier. In my work I have attempted to show that in the socialist tradition there have been cases of overemphasizing the metaphoric moment of equivalence over the differentiality of metonymic positions (as in the work of Sorel). based on the structure of language. a heteroclite catalogue of figures. in psychoanalysis. the centrality of rhetoric for social and political analysis comes from the fact that social and political spaces are discursively constructed. strictly speaking. and in politics. that is.Glynos and Stavrakakis in terms of the array of rhetorical tropes it appears to furnish scholars? If so. sometimes in terms of metonymy. catachrestical. Reading the work of Gramsci from this perspective would make it possible to deepen the analysis of all the subtleties of this constitutive tension. but an index of figurality as such. but there has also been the opposite tendency: to present the revolutionary sequence in terms of frozen metonymic positions without any role for metaphorical contaminations (as in Leninism).

the basic ontological category was that of eidos. unicity. so multiplicity is the primary ontological terrain. 3. the cathectic investment. but you do not have a fully fledged multiplicity either. in my view. while I agree with Badiou that the One is not. is not the other of the symbolic but its very precondition. the latter being understood as the cathectic investment which gives to it a centrality fully exceeding its ontic identity. I do not think that there is mere multiplicity either but. In my case. From there he moves to his mathematical ontology. substance. 2005). Without this intensity or force (that is. without cathectic investment) there would be no discursive structure in the first place. in the sense that the failure of the One in constituting itself as ground does not lead to its disappearance. that is. This cathectic investment is exactly the point in which affect enters the scene. One does not do away with the category of the One entirely. consequently. for Aristotle. is not a ground but a horizon. the cathectic investment in the hegemonic object is weaker. This means. The way an ontology is conceived will be the determining factor deciding how all other philosophical categories emerge. How would the relationship between the symbolic and affective dimensions play out in relation to your theory of populism? For in your book Populist Reason it appears that we need to distinguish populisms not only at the level of discursive structure but also at the level of the intensity or force. 231–244 237 . 1755-6341 Subjectivity Vol. This is not a question of differentiating the various populisms from each other first in terms of their discursive structure and then at the level of their intensity or force. is that between cases in which the cathectic investment in the hegemonic object is so overwhelming that a whole symbolic order becomes totally dependent on that object. So the affective. 3. and how should the relationship between symbolic and affective dimensions feature in such a discussion? EL: An ontological discourse is one concerning being qua being. unicity remains but with a twist.An interview with Ernesto Laclau On what basis is it useful to address questions of ontological primacy. that totality. 1991). instead. the nature of the investment leaders and followers exhibit in their identifications (Laclau. one in which the primary categories will not be mathematical but linguistic. EL: Let me make something clear. and cases in which the symbolic order is more immanent and self-sustained and. to take just a couple of examples. remains. for Alain Badiou the One is not. For Plato. Failed unicity means that you do not have unicity conceived as a ground. The important point is to realize that without this cathectic (affective) investment in an object (which is what we call hegemony) there will not be a symbolic order either. r 2010 Macmillan Publishers Ltd. In Group Psychology Freud analyzed this question in terms of the differential distances between the ego and the ego ideal (Freud. The distinction whose pertinence. This leads to a different type of ontological approach. acquiring the status of a simulacrum. failed unicity. To move to a contemporary approach. however.

You have reiterated this view a number of times. obviously. 2000). You have argued that the dimension of affect. but let me add a couple of further points since the way you have just formulated it. 238 r 2010 Macmillan Publishers Ltd. for example. 282). but it seems to us that one needs to focus on the distinctive character of each in addition to the constitutive interimplication of affect and representation. The crucial question here is how to theorize the affective dimension in a way that would not only avoid a kind of ‘psychologizing emotionology’ which would reduce affects to a series of pre-existing dispositions. shows that your discourse remains. In other words. in your reply to our JLS article you seem to ‘want to question y the idea that here we are really dealing with two sides’ (what we are calling here symbolic and affective dimensions of discourse) (Laclau.and not extra-discursive. Nevertheless. 2003: p. As I hope I have made clear. prisoner of a dualism which creates an obstacle to its own development. We would entirely agree with you that the two sides are intimately connected. to determine the degrees of either institutionalism or populism characteristic of a given hegemonic formation. it would be difficult to differentiate between discourses that successfully offer up objects of affective investment and those that do not. it is impossible for all discourses or all the parts of a discursive formation to be evenly cathected. that an institutional moment would prove so successful that no room would be left for any populist cathexis. Or. 1755-6341 Subjectivity Vol. what exact direction this effort should take. may lead to the bizarre conclusion that all discourses are ‘equally’ cathected (or equally significant from the point of view of affective investment). it seems that some theoretical elaboration is still called for in order to develop fully the implications of this insight. Finding a satisfactory conceptualization of the relationship between signifier and jouissance presented Lacan with a towering theoretical challenge that he apparently never felt he came to terms with in a satisfactory way (see. EL: I have already touched on this question as far as populism is concerned. to some extent.Glynos and Stavrakakis The problem. In the absence of such theoretical and analytical effort. 231–244 . In Freudian terms that would mean that the distance between ego and ego ideal would altogether disappear. but also avoid the temptation to collapse the affective dimension into the symbolic dimension. Nobody is. libidinal investment and jouissance (here treated as interchangeable) was always already implicit in your understanding of discourse. to view them as ‘simply’ coextensive. 3. We wonder. Miller. 3. the distinction between affect (cathectic investment) and the symbolic is for me intra. therefore. signifier and jouissance (this is something evident in both the Freudian and the Lacanian corpus). our worry is that to downplay the distinctive character of these two registers. In that sense. in terms of political analysis. in terms of political analysis is. It would be like the full realization of the Saint-Simonian dream of a transition from the government of men to the administration of things. For example.

In this context. Such a view would restore a radical opposition between the discursive and the extra-discursive which is not only incompatible with my own approach but also. something that in some of your formulations you are on the brink of doing.and not extra-discursive is perfectly compatible with sustaining that some elements of a discursive formation may be highly cathected while others are not. you are dangerously bordering – that this unevenness in cathectic investment should be explained by the action of a force fully outside the discursive field. is not part of the symbolic. as you know. for it produces distortions within the symbolic. for instance. The real in the Lacanian sense. 231–244 239 . I think. that there is within the discursive field a certain ‘combined and uneven development’. on the contrary. What about the Lacanian Real then? The real seems to reveal the limits of discourse. it is definitively discursive. while the appeal to rhetoric appears to acknowledge this insight. Yet. First of all. what the symbolic cannot master. it does not appear to offer a theoretical articulation of these dimensions in the way that fantasy does. let me approach this problem by relating the psychoanalytic insights – including the status of the Lacanian Real – with rhetoric. with basic premises of Lacanian theory. Now. which I have not used. What is being denied is the idea – that. 1755-6341 Subjectivity Vol. we use terms in a figural sense because there are more objects in the world to be named than the arsenal of words comprising our language. To assert that the distinction between affect and the symbolic is intra. although. We know today that this asymmetry is not a mere empirical failure of language. both signifying and affective inscriptions. we would also like to ask what role you see the category of fantasy playing here. So it has some form of discursive inscription. distortions. One speaks in order to say something that is essentially unsayable. for instance. but also to ‘negotiate’ our relation with the limits of discourse. for me. and so on). a great deal of the terrain that notion covers is present in my work through other conceptual avenues. So both r 2010 Macmillan Publishers Ltd.An interview with Ernesto Laclau obviously. After all. on the contrary. for reasons that we have already discussed. These are. precisely the task of a psychoanalytically oriented rhetoric. asserting such absurdities. it is constitutive of it. fantasy appears precisely to be a category which seeks to ‘articulate’ the symbolic and affective dimensions of discourse. it is. the systematic study of these distortions is. One way to approach this is to ask how you would conceptualize the relationship between rhetoric and fantasy? Some might say that the appeal of both these categories is underpinned by the recognition that the symbolic and affective dimensions of discourse are not only equally important but that they require each other to be effective. Nevertheless. According to Cicero. 3. require forms of discursive visibility (repetitions. Cathectic investments leave discursive traces – symptoms. Would you agree? EL: Fantasy is a Lacanian category. So rather than embarking into some form of complex comparative exegesis. at some point. 3. I think it is necessary to avoid using ‘the symbolic’ as a synonym of ‘the discursive’.

Hegemony. as such. I would like to say a few words concerning representation. for politics. 3. the link signification/affect is broken: signification would be established from the very beginning. And this applies to the sphere 240 r 2010 Macmillan Publishers Ltd. The same thing can be said about radical immanentism. So hegemony would be unnecessary. In particular. the essential link between signification and affect would be restored. 1755-6341 Subjectivity Vol. Or. I suspect that it would be a highly rewarding enterprise to enrich the category of fantasy using the conceptual tools provided by rhetoric. to put it in slightly different terms. and in relation to radical democracy and political economy in particular? EL: At this point. transcendence and failed transcendence? EL: Transcendence. 231–244 . because here the notion of a radical investment is transferred to the very ground of objectivity – or. of the absolute distance between the ground and the finite being. the affective dimension is confined to the feeling of finitude.Glynos and Stavrakakis the symbolic and the real inhabit the discursive field. in that case representation would require cathectic investments. Finally. Critique This leads us to explore more precisely what implications the above thoughts carry for a theory of hegemony. Although it is not something that I have done myself. and its transference to the new level would not require any kind of investment. does not require any affective dimension in the process of its self-posing. and for questions of critique. If. to put it in different terms: the cycle of representation would take place entirely within the symbolic order. names the defining feature of an absolute ground and. If we consider representation as the transmission of a meaning constituted at some level of society to a different level. representation is not such a transparent process but requires the construction of something new. in the classical sense of the term. however. and representation would become a central component of any hegemonic operation. how would an emphasis upon the affective dimension of discourse (concerning both subject and object) shape our understanding and significance of the contrast you draw between immanence. if hegemony is to be thought as a function of both representation and affect. in Spinoza’s amor Dei intellectualis. Politics. without being shortcircuited by any real. what avenues do you see as potentially productive in theorizing this relation from the point of view of political analysis and critique generally. the separation between signification and affect is no longer possible: the investment itself becomes the source and precondition of signification. This changes with the notion of a failed transcendence. 3. Echoes of this feeling can be found even in immanentist conceptions – for instance. In transcendent conceptions of the ground.

does not make any sense. His major objection seems to be that radical democracy limits itself to an awareness of contingency. He has himself noted how Hegemony helped forge a productive link between Lacanian psychoanalysis and critical political theory ˇ ˇ (Zizek. As for the contingency resulting from the fragility of the equivalential chains. for me. Stavrakakis has not realized that my political perspective has changed. as long as one accepts the meaning I have given to these terms. the Algerian revolution and the various 1968 mobilizations both in America and in Europe. because it is populist. In a recent intervention he takes Yannis Stavrakakis to task because. 2008). what it will hegemonically fix as the meaning of a particular equivalential chain. it is obviously to him that one should address such a question. There is radical democracy whenever there is a widening of popular interventions in the public sphere on the basis of the expansion of equivalential chains of democratic demands around a hegemonic popular core. 3. in my view. he does not seem to have ever understood what we mean by ‘radical democracy’. as he argues. 231–244 241 . This. And he says ˇ ˇ that in order to add a note of approval of my supposedly new stand. in any case. That is why. judging from his own writings. not all of which are going to be liberal-democratic in the usual sense of the term. however. Gone are the days in which the economy was conceived as a self-defined universe. At first. So in this r 2010 Macmillan Publishers Ltd. What would be your position on this issue? ˇ ˇ EL: About Zizek’s own intellectual evolution. And this can take place within the most divergent institutional frameworks. Mao’s Long March. ˇ ˇ It is difficult to avoid bringing up Slavoj Zizek in this context. as its manifest destiny. I can only say that. but clearly misleading in others – is. governed by its own endogenous laws. which – although useful in certain circumstances. What Zizek does not realize is that. did not last. the present populist Latin American regimes to which we have referred at the beginning of this interview are clearly radical democratic. the kind of populism that I defend is a form of radical democracy. with hindsight. insufficient to ground a progressive politics. I think it should be evident to everybody that no particular demand has inscribed within itself. 1989). 3. that while in my earlier work ˇ ˇ I spoke of radical democracy. but as radical democratic I would also consider the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. But as far as his appreciation of my own work is concerned. one would tend to think that ˇ ˇ Zizek was persuaded by the radical democratic project you had put forward with Chantal Mouffe and that he was devoted to developing its links with Lacanian theory.An interview with Ernesto Laclau of political economy as much as to the other spheres of society. the Intifada. now I defend populism (Zizek. and this in the full knowledge that relations between you have gone through both highs and lows. To say that a movement cannot be radically democratic. 1755-6341 Subjectivity Vol. It was to be replaced by a more ‘Leninist’ phase in which the focus on a radicalization of democracy is replaced by a politics of the anti-capitalist ‘act’.

2004. is the following: why don’t they admit that what Marx called critique of political economy is also not simply positive economics. baptizing this the 242 r 2010 Macmillan Publishers Ltd. as with everything else. centred as it is in the notion of alienation. ˇ ˇ Zizek goes on to make more explicit his disagreement with what he has described as the formalist element in your work. 1755-6341 Subjectivity Vol. Zizek himself has recognized this fact several times. so I cannot really understand all the fuss he is making around this issue. p. 3. is that he appeals to the notion of commodity fetishism. 231–244 . In several places you have argued for the essential interpenetration of the descriptive and normative aspects of discourse. all kinds of combinations and perversions are possible. that there is in commodity fetishism. 295 ) How would you respond to this comment at a general level? EL: I do not think that you will find in my work even a single denigratory reference to political economy – and I do not think that you will find it in the ˇ ˇ work of Badiou either.Glynos and Stavrakakis ˇ ˇ area. transcendental level y Now. what Laclau would call a purely formal. and with Badiou and others. as it turns out. Now. in the whole logic of surplus. This charge has its only source in Zizek’s febrile imagination. however. and that capitalist relations of production are the locus of a multiplicity of antagonisms and democratic demands. (Zizek. 3. ˇ ˇ What is. symptomatic of the way in which Zizek attempts to introduce political economy into his discourse. so that an expansive radical democratic hegemony obviously needs to be extended to the economic sphere. Consider the following quote: Where is my problem? Maybe my biggest disagreement with Laclau is the following: I admire him very much when. what I find a little bit ˇ ˇ suspicious is this denigration of political economy. What you will definitely find in my work is the assertion that the economic level of society is not a self-contained entity operating as an infrastructure. that the coherence it reaches is. he tries to define notions at a logical. the problem I have with his work. It is a remainder of Hegelianism. his problem is not so much with formalism as such but with a particular omission he diagnoses in your version of formalism. Of course. This is the main problem with Zizek’s approach: that the very insightful remarks he frequently offers do not cohere into a rigorous orientation because of the eclecticism of their component elements. as a true philosopher. But if alienation in its Hegelian sense is accepted. hegemonically constructed. transcendental dimension? In other words. all the central categories of Lacanian theorization ˇ ˇ fall away. everybody has realized a long time ago that commodity fetishism is a blind spot in Max’s theorization.

‘socialism is justice’. for instance. But if it marks a tension by which none of the two dimensions can entirely absorb the other. what makes all the communitarian elements cohere into a whole. If I say. Thank you very much. that concrete content acquires an ethical dimension that it would not have had otherwise. There are thus two sets of distinctions at play here. As for the question concerning ‘contamination’. on the one hand. everything depends on what is understood by this term. the answer is no. and then there is the distinction between the descriptivenormative complex. First there is the descriptivenormative distinction. r 2010 Macmillan Publishers Ltd. impossible and necessary. The notion of radical investment (with its double dimension. This double condition – impossibility and necessity – is expressed through the semantic presence of words without concrete contents and through their relation to other words which have such a content. 231–244 243 . which has been with us from the beginning of our exchange. If it refers to a total fusion or collapse of the one onto the other. but. attaching that absence to a concrete presence that starts to function as its incarnation – the ethical acquires. with what implications for political analysis and critique? EL: My distinction between the descriptive/normative complex and the ethical is grounded on the role that the notion of ‘empty signifier’ plays in my approach. 1755-6341 Subjectivity Vol. the answer is positive. So when I identify justice with socialism. simultaneously. and the ethical as such. 3. But you have also argued that this descriptivenormative dimension is ‘orthogonal’ to the ethical dimension of discourse. is an object which is. First. but I know it would be something negating and reversing my present predicament. I am. thus acquires a new dimension: an ethical dimension. on the other hand. and simultaneously. As I have frequently argued. at a most general level the fullness of the community. how do you see the relationship between these two distinctions? How might this relationship be cashed out as a function of the symbolic and affective dimensions of discourse? Are there no conditions under which the descriptive-normative dimension begins to ‘contaminate’ the ethical dimension? And if so. through this investment a concrete content. I am not equating two concepts with precise contents of their own. How is justice conceived here then? Justice is the pure reverse of situations experienced as unjust. a tension revealing the relation to each other as an asymptotic movement. 3. signifying and affective). in terms which can only be conceived as radical investment. but I am attributing to the precise contents of one of them (socialism) the undefined positive value of another (justice). It is the presence of an absence. I do not know what a just arrangement would be.An interview with Ernesto Laclau ‘descriptive-normative complex’. EL: Thank you. There are a series of questions which arise for us here. on the one hand.

ˇ ˇ Zizek. Laclau. Lacanian Ink 12: 10–47. (2003) Discourse and jouissance: A reply to Glynos and Stavrakakis. Journal for Lacanian Studies 2(2): 285–305. 231–244 . S. 3. (Penguin Freud Library. Journal for Lacanian Studies 1(2): 278–285. Translated by J. Strachey. References Freud. Laclau. ˇ ˇ Zizek. Society and Religion. E. (2004) Glimpsing the future: A reply.-A. (1990) New Reflections on the Revolution of Our Time. (1989) The Sublime Object of Ideology. 3. E. (2008) In Defense of Lost Causes. London: Verso. London: Verso. UK. (2004) Psychoanalysis. London: Routledge. Colchester.) Laclau: A Critical Reader. S. London: Verso. 244 r 2010 Macmillan Publishers Ltd. J. London: Verso. Marchart (eds. 12) London: Penguin. E. S. E. Laclau. In: S. pp. (2005) On Populist Reason. (1991) Group psychology and the analysis of the ego. S. Civilization. 1755-6341 Subjectivity Vol. Critchley and O. theory and politics: Yannis Stavrakakis interviews Slavoj ˇ ˇ Zizek. 91–178. Laclau. Miller. ˇ ˇ Zizek. (2000) Paradigms of Jouissance.Glynos and Stavrakakis About the Interviewee Ernesto Laclau is Emeritus Professor of Political Theory at the University of Essex.

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