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  • A Critique of Neo-Left Ontology
  • Carsten Strathausen

This essay investigates why “ontology” has become an increasingly important topic for a number of contemporary political philosophers. It is divided into two parts, the first of which contrasts what it calls “neo-left” thinkers with more traditionally minded Marxists (such as Theodor Adorno and Fredric Jameson), focusing in particular on their different understanding of the meaning of “ontology.” The second part provides a comparative commentary on Ernesto Laclau, Slavoj Zizek, Alain Badiou, Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, as well on Giorgio Agamben, in order to analyze their use of and reference to “ontology” as a crucial concept for much leftist political discourse today. Here the focus lies on three interrelated categories: “space,” “political acts,” and “subject(ivity).” The ontological neo-left faces two basic options: either to adopt a discursive ontology structured around the void (Derrida, Laclau, Mouffe, Badiou, Zizek) or a biopolitical ontology that embraces the productivity of life (Foucault, Deleuze, Agamben, Hardt and Negri).

The term “ontology” occupies an increasingly prominent place in current politico-philosophical discourse. “Political philosophy forces us to enter the terrain of ontology,” declare Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (Empire (354). Ernesto Laclau recently said that he has “concentrated on the ontological dimension of social theory.” According to Laclau, his work should be judged at “the theoretical and philosophical level” (“A Reply” 321) because it “requires a new ontology” (304). Such investment in ontology is important in much recent self-avowedly leftist political theory. Giorgio Agamben’s critique of the state of exception and of today’s concentration camps is intimately tied to his ontological reflections regarding our potential existence beyond sovereign power: “Until a new and coherent ontology of potentiality” has been found, he argues, “a political theory freed from the aporias of sovereignty remains unthinkable” (Homo Sacer 44). Likewise, Alain Badiou’s political writings are intertwined with his mathematical ontology of set-theory, and Slavoj Zizek’s exhortation to return to the legacy of Lenin in order to combat global capitalism remains inseparable from his ontological determination of capital as the real.

An early call to re-invent a “first philosophy” was Jean-Luc Nancy’s seminal essay “Being Singular Plural,” first published in 1996. Here, Nancy says that we must think “an ontology of being-with-one-another” (53) as the basis for a new communal politics beyond sovereignty and domination: “there is no difference between the ethical and the ontological” (99), he declares, because “only ontology, in fact, may be ethical in a consistent manner” (21). In his view, only a radical recommencement of philosophical thought can move political theory beyond its current impasse caused by the liberal defense of the status quo. In particular, Nancy distinguishes his new ontology of “being-in-common” both from Heideggerianism and from Marxism. Heidegger, so Nancy, did not take his own analysis of “Mitsein” far enough, but instead remains committed to a thinking in hierarchies: “The analytic of Mitsein that appears within the existential analytic remains nothing more than a sketch; that is, even though Mitsein is coessential with Dasein, it remains in a subordinate position” (93). Against Marxism, Nancy’s ontology insists on dissolving the the various oppositions (between essence and appearance, base and superstructure) that sustain a dialectical (i.e. Hegelian) mode of critique: “Both the theory and the practice of critique demonstrate that, from now on, critique absolutely needs to rest on some principle other than that of the ontology of the Other and the Same: it needs an ontology of being-with-one-another” (53).

In this essay, I use Nancy’s reflections as a starting point for examining the reasons for and the significance of the renewed interest in a “new ontology,” particularly among certain leftist political thinkers. I argue that ontology had become a shunned concept in traditional leftist discourse because it was tainted by Heidegger and his involvement in German fascism. Moreover, I demonstrate that Jameson’s recent attempt to revive ontology as a crucial concept for Marxist theory inevitably leads him back to embrace the same old (Hegelian) dialectics of self and other, form and content—that is, precisely the kind of dualist thinking that...

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