Radical Democracy and the Politics of Representation
This superb edited collection provides a sustained exploration of the intellectual origins, principal arguments, and political project of “radical” democratic theory—a body of work that the editors distinguish from liberal, Marxist, or communitarian democratic thought by the fact that it holds “difference” (in the Derridean sense of that which exceeds or eludes conceptualization) to take “primacy…over identity” (3). The volume stages a debate between what emerge over the course of its pages as two schools of radical democratic thought, schools which the editors contend are premised on rival ontologies. The first, inspired by the work of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, subscribes to an “ontological imaginary of lack” that is principally inherited from Lacan. The second, inspired by William E. Connolly, subscribes to an “ontological imaginary of abundance” that is principally inherited from Deleuze (2). The framing contention of the volume is that the political differences between these two schools derive from their rival ontological underpinnings.
When it comes to politics, radical democrats of lack pursue both a critical and a positive project. Their critical project targets discourses (such as nationalism) that construct a holistic and naturalized fiction to suppress “the inherent contingency and historicity of its identity” (6). Their positive project, hegemony, seeks to build a transformative political subject by articulating “different constituencies into a [contestable] whole” (6). It is this persistent concern with identity that distinguishes the democrats of lack from those of abundance who, Nathan Widder explains, press “individuals and collectives to overcome the assumption that some form of identity is necessary for their subjectivity” (34). Tønder and Thomassen elaborate three points on which the politics inspired by the ontology of abundance differs from that inspired by lack: 1) it meets “ethical injunctions and moral commands” with a spirit of “enchantment”; 2) it nurtures components of contemporary society that can break out of such hegemonic formations as capitalism and heteronormativity; 3) it actively fosters minoritarian forms of life that “although operating below the radar of existing social codes, may contribute to the deepening of democratic government” (7).
Although ultimately unpersuaded to view “lack” and “abundance” as distinct ontologies, I came away from this volume with an enriched appreciation for radical democratic theory, with a keen understanding of the leading debates in that field of inquiry, and with a new set of arguments to account for my own position. I was mildly disappointed by one feature of the collection: that the essays grouped under the heading “The Politics of Radical Democracy” remained at such an abstract level. Not one deals with radical democratic politics in practice, thus perpetuating an existing imbalance in this field that has always been long on theory and short on either contemporary empirical or historical cases. This may be a simple omission, or a predilection of scholars trained in political theory. It may also be, as Aletta Norval suggests (more on this below), an effect of the architecture of radical democratic theory itself. In addition, some readers may be bothered by the absence of any sustained treatment of the work written and/or inspired by two theorists who have surely done much to elaborate a politics from an ontology of abundance, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri.
These are small criticisms, however. It is rare for an edited volume to achieve the intellectual coherence and consistently high quality that this one does. Because of the clarity of its chapters (all written by leading radical democratic theorists, and including closing remarks by William E. Connolly and Ernesto Laclau), this volume will be accessible and illuminating to graduate students new to the field of radical democracy. Yet, because each of the chapters makes an original contribution to the conversation among radical democratic scholars, it is a compelling and enriching read for experts as well.
One of the most noteworthy features of this collection (or perhaps it is not at all remarkable given how radical democracy prizes conflict) is that several of the contributors refute its framing contentions. For example, Oliver Marchart contends that there is no significant ontological difference between abundance and lack. Whereas these terms “may seem at first sight incompatible, a closer look will reveal that on the ontological level they are not necessarily so” (26). In fact, they share a belief in the fundamental instability of being. Aletta Norval takes a different tack, arguing that these ontologies are distinct but not rival, as evidenced by Laclau’s work in which they are productively joined. Laclau establishes the ontological basis for the hegemonic project by an act of theoretical brocolage, knitting a Lacanian account of identity together with a Derridean premise regarding the abundance of meaning. Like Marchart, who emphasizes the shared premise of instability, Norval contends that this articulation succeeds at an ontological level, “as a result of the fact that [Laclau’s] readings of both these traditions focus on their opposition to the thought of structural completion and fullness” (97).
Yet Norval also raises a perceptive caution, noting that psychoanalysis and deconstruction may be ontologically compatible, but they prescribe different tasks where the analysis of political discourse is concerned. A deconstructive analysis “that takes as its starting-point an undecidable terrain” will “concentrate on recovering the richness of dimensions of political life that have been submerged and/or excluded by dominant political forces so as to make visible alternative ways of thinking about a political order or political project” (97). By contrast, the psychoanalytic “focus on lack shifts attention away from an alternative, genealogical mapping of the structure, to the intervention of the subject and an analysis of modes of identification and their failure or success” (97). Thus, there is a tension between the two traditions insofar as the deconstructive project submits the subject, which is the “foreground of discussion” in “some Lacanian inspired works,” to “critical, if not skeptical, engagement” (97). This raises the question whether Laclau’s theoretical bricolage makes it difficult to apply his framework to the analysis of political struggle, and whether this might account for the relative paucity of case studies in the field.
Let me move now to the difference between these two schools of radical democracy that most interests me: their positions on the question of political representation. As Thomassen notes, the work of Laclau and Mouffe (and, particularly, the recent work of Laclau), offer a uniquely political reworking of the concept of political representation. Whereas the “hegemonic relation is essentially a relation of representation,” it is one “where the representation is not the representation of an original presence but what brings about the represented” (106, emphasis added). In other words, the theory of hegemony makes clear that democratic representation necessarily exceeds such mainstream concepts as responsiveness and fidelity to campaign promises: there is an irreducible aspect of agency in political representation.
This thesis -- regarding the agency of representation -- is easy to misunderstand. One way to do so is to reduce that moment of agency to sheer decisionism. Both Thomassen and Norval seek to complicate this reductive reading by emphasizing that the work of hegemonization is necessarily constrained by its context. As Thomassen explains, “the act of representation takes place in a terrain already partly sedimented and partly penetrated by relations of power” (106). Various particulars struggle against one another to articulate the terms of the whole. Whereas the victory of one must involve power, power in this context is not synonymous with sheer force of will. It does, however, involve making exclusions. As Thomassen puts it, “there is a point when it becomes evident that the ‘freedom’ representing the community is not the freedom of everyone, and where one person’s terrorist is not another person’s terrorist” (106).
Given this emphasis on the inescapability of exclusion, Laclau might also be misunderstood to endorse a simple politics of antagonism. Thomassen makes close and careful discussion of Laclau’s notion of heterogeneity—that which “escapes attempts to divide the political space into an inside and an outside”—to discourage this reading as well (116). Like Marchart, Thomassen emphasizes that Laclau conceives antagonism as a relation between unstable identities fixed only in struggle and in terms of (not in opposition to) one another. Laclau’s conception of antagonism is, then, more precisely understood as what Mouffe calls “agonism”: a struggle “between adversaries” who “fight against other because they want their interpretation to become hegemonic,” not because they question the “legitimacy of their opponents’ right to fight for their position” (126).
Torben Bech Dyrberg demonstrates the work that representation does in staging political conflict with his analysis of the role that “orientational metaphors”—such as right/left, up/down, in/out, front/back—play in “discursive identification” (169, 179). Dyrberg calls on radical democrats to reorient those forms of nationalist, neo-liberal and anti-terror politics that have emphasized “up/down, front/back and in/out” antagonisms, toward the “modern political symbolic order” of right/left that was inaugurated by the French Revolution (181,175). Drawing on the 1981 work of J. A. Laponce (Left and Right: The Topography of Political Perception), Dyrberg explains that right/left breaks the order of cultural or religious identity, where differences are moralized, to reorient them “in terms of parity,” as differences “on equal political footing” (175, 179). In Mouffe’s terms, right/left effected a transformation of antagonism into agonism, clearing a “space in which opposition and disagreement were legitimate and where contending forces could be balanced against one another” (176).
Laclau’s position on representation both allies him to and distinguishes him from Deleuze, as Thomassen insightfully observes. Laclau arrives at the agency of representation through his Derridean commitment to the abundance or excess of meaning, for it is a consequence of that excess that “any attempt to stabilize meaning has to take the form of an act of hegemonization” (Norval, 92). Both Laclau and Deleuze are theorists of abundance. Yet, whereas abundance carries Laclau to affirm representation, Thomassen notes that “the Deleuzian notion of abundance…rejects the primacy of representation” (10, emphasis added). This is not to say that Deleuze proposes an “alternative” to representative politics but, rather, as Paul Patton sees it, the political writings of Deleuze and Guattari refer “to a different order of political activity” whose concern is first and foremost with fostering insurgent enactments of democratic living (61). Affirming unexpected and wondrous modes of agency is the signature of radical democracy, manifest as such in the work of Jane Bennett.
Bennett argues that such projects proceed from two ontological assumptions, the “image of matter as a vital and dynamic force” and the “idea that there exists what might be called a structural parallel between formations in nature and cultural formations” (137). Borrowing a term from Steven Johnson (author of Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software and The Ghost Map), Bennett characterizes both as systems of “organized complexity” that are “marked by self-organised patterns created from the bottom up, where no single element plays the role of a centralized or higher authority” (138). Any system of organized complexity, “be it biological, social, technological, human or nonhuman” is characterized by the fact that it “produces outcomes that cannot be explained as issuing from either a consummate central agent or an automatic process” (138). Bennett turns to the work of science studies scholar Bruno Latour to elaborate this model of agency.
Democratic action, for Latour, consists in the “activity of forming a working whole or ‘cosmos’” that operates without a sense of that whole. Thus, Bennett takes from Latour the idea of a “demos…guided by a self-organising power” that “comes to a decision through a process akin to that of brewing or fermentation” (143). Such an idea is incomprehensible if one imagines a political field composed exclusively of human agents who are legitimately bound by world alone. Bennett counters this modernist imaginary with a materialist one in which “humans are figured as themselves materialities inextricably enmeshed with nonhuman entities and forces” (137). Bennett closes with a call for radical democracy to both recognize that humans act only “in league with a wide and changing variety of natural and technological” entities—actants in their own right—and to generate “new ways to listen to them and respond more carefully to their outbreaks, objections, testimonies and propositions” (145).
What is the place of political representation in such a politics? Although Bennett herself does not answer this question directly, her call for radical democracy to both recognize and respond to “nonhuman” agents seems to require the work of representation. I mean this in two senses. First, as is implicit in Bennett’s own Latour-inspired language, radical democratic theory requires a new vocabulary if it is to accord natural, technological and biological entities their due in the acts and events that have been attributed to humans alone. This would be representation as picture-making or visualizing. Bennett might concede to the need for representation in this sense but she would likely disagree with the following: that representation also comes into play to constitute the terms of a counterhegemonic struggle. This is representation as “naming,” in the sense that Laclau gives to the term. Simon Critchley calls this the “political task” of the Left: to invent a “name around which a political subject can aggregate itself from the various social struggles through which we are living” (224).
I imagine Bennett objecting that she has recourse to this notion of organized complexity precisely to avoid the appeal to a name or other transcendent force that mobilizes entities toward a shared goal. She seeks to affirm a capacity for self-organizing by virtue of the “momentum that action itself seems to possess, a directionality irreducible either to human intentionality or to the propensity of the materialities with which it engages” (114). I could respond in turn that Latour’s work is filled with what look like efforts at naming this whole in which “humans” are inextricably intertwined with “things” (his terms “collective” and “cosmopolitics,” for example). The trouble is that he has come up with nothing so felicitous as “the people,” which is the term for the democratic subject that Laclau defends in his recent work, On Populist Reason. Yet, with this term I find myself at an impasse, having fallen into what Bennett (and Latour) would deem the modernist fallacy that lends agency to humans at the expense of things.
Let me step back from this place to underscore a point: Bennett’s well-crafted chapter hones what I take to be the sharpest difference between these two schools of radical democracy: the difference between insisting on the agency of representation and trusting in the agency of self-organizing complexity. I have always had trouble imagining political action without some form of institutionalized organization—a labor union, church, community canvasser or political party (to name just a few). Yet I recognize the power and significance to democracy of the insurgent forces for which Bennett urges radicals to cultivate a sensibility. For this reason, I appreciated Critchley’s contribution to the volume, which seems to bring these two modes of agency together.
Critchley does, as I have noted, take a strong stance in favor of representation in the sense of naming. Yet, at the same time, like Bennett, he affirms that resistance is always brewing. In his words, “politics is not rare or seldom…[it is] now and many” (233). Radical democratic practice does not wait for the revolutionary event but begins with the micropolitics of everyday life “by occupying and controlling the terrain upon which one stands, where one lives, works, acts and thinks” (227). He describes naming as in intervention into that micropolitics. It is the “dirty, detailed, local, practical and largely unthrilling work” of linking together the many local disturbances that are currently happening “at an interstitial distance from the state” (234). It seems to me that Critchley conceives self-organizing and representation as distinct rather than qualitatively different. Although he insists on the necessity of naming to weave “such cells of resistance together into a…shared political subjectivity,” he takes that resistance seriously even before it comes to be named (227).
I want to sum up the line of thinking that this book provoked for me with one last quote from Lasse Thomassen: “Radical politics is not the art of the possible, but the art of making possible what is impossible in the present” (114). For Bennett, Connolly and other Deleuze-inspired political theorists, practices of political representation risk foreclosing unexpected possibilities. For Laclau, Mouffe and others engaged in hegemonic projects, those possibilities would remain forever unrealized without representation.
Lisa Disch is Professor of Political Science and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan where she teaches courses in contemporary democratic theory and feminist thought. Her most recent book is The Tyranny of the Two-Party System (Columbia, 2002). She can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.