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Further Reflections on Conversations of Our Time

From: Diacritics
Volume 27, Number 1, Spring 1997
pp. 13-15 | 10.1353/dia.1997.0004

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Further Reflections on Conversations of Our Time

The exchange that Ernesto Laclau and I conducted through e-mail last year at this time begins a conversation that I expect will continue. And I suppose I would like to use this “supplementary” reflection to think about what makes such a conversation possible, and what possibilities might emerge from such a conversation.

First of all, I think that I was drawn to the work of Laclau and Mouffe when I began to read Hegemony and Socialist Strategy and realized that I had found a set of Marxist thinkers for whom discourse was not merely a representation of preexisting social and historical realities, but was also constitutive of the field of the social and of history. The second moment came when I realized that central to the notion of articulation, appropriated from Gramsci, was the notion of rearticulation. As a temporally dynamic and relatively unpredictable play of forces, hegemony had been cast by both Laclau and Mouffe as an alternative to forms of static structuralism that tend to construe contemporary social forms as timeless totalities. I read in Laclau and Mouffe the political transcription of Derrida’s “Structure, Sign, and Play”: a structure gains its status as a structure, its structurality, only through its repeated reinstatement. The dependency of that structure on its reinstatement means that the very possibility of structure depends on a reiteration that is in no sense determined fully in advance, that for structure, and social structure as a result, to become possible, there must first be a contingent repetition at its basis. Moreover, for some social formation to appear as structured is for it to have covered over in some way the contingency of its own installation.

The theoretical rearticulation of structure as hegemony marked the work of Laclau and Mouffe as consequentially poststructuralist and offered perhaps the most important link between politics and poststructuralism in recent years (along with the work of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak). The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

It is, of course, impossible in this context to reconstruct the particular way in which Derrida’s work and Foucault’s work converge in the reconceptualization of hegemony that Laclau and Mouffe have offered. One of the points, however, that became most salient for me is the reintroduction of temporality and, indeed, of futurity into the thinking of social formations. Among many critical social theorists, the tendency has been to underscore how the systemic character of capital tends to incorporate any instance of opposition in the service of capital’s own self-augmentation. I would clearly agree that the incorporative and domesticating possibilities of capital are immense. But I would also [End Page 13] argue that any theory that fails to think the possibilities of transformation from within that “systemic” formation is itself complicit with the idea of the “eternal” character of capital that capital so readily produces. Hegemony also marks a limit to the totalizing terms within which social formations are to be thought. For what hegemony attends to are the moments of breakage, of rearticulation, convergence, and resistance that are not immediately coopted by social formations in their past and present forms. That no social formation can endure without becoming reinstated, and that every reinstatement puts the “structure” in question at risk, suggests that the possibility of its own undoing is at once the condition of possibility of structure itself.

Before I knew the work of Laclau and Mouffe very well, I came close to this kind of insight in my work on gender. 1 There I argued that gender is not an inner core or static essence, but a reiterated enactment of...