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  • The Rhetoric of Hegemony:Laclau, Radical Democracy, and the Rule of Tropes
  • Michael Kaplan


The work of Ernesto Laclau (both with and without his occasional collaborator, Chantal Mouffe) has exerted considerable influence in rhetorical studies over the past two decades. Emerging alongside the so-called epistemic and cultural turns, the project of "critical rhetoric" and cognate endeavors have found in Laclau a revision of Gramsci's hegemony thesis that places discursive—and thus, evidently, rhetorical—operations at the center of politics, culture, and social processes generally. While Raymie McKerrow's seminal essay (1989) drew on Laclau and Mouffe to outline a set of tasks for rhetoric that clearly remained within the ambit of ideology critique, subsequent appropriations of what is variously called "articulation" or "discourse" theory have, like Laclau himself, broken with the last vestiges of this tradition to proffer modes of politically engaged rhetorical critique animated by the insight that "ideology" is finally intrinsic to signification as such.

Writing at the same time as McKerrow, Barbara Biesecker (1989) turned to "articulation" as the optimal candidate to supplant "persuasion" as the name for what transpires in "the rhetorical situation" rethought from a [End Page 253] deconstructive perspective. A few years later, Celeste Condit (1994) ventured her own influential reformulation of the concept of hegemony as "concordance," which likewise relied on a critical appropriation of Laclau and Mouffe. Subsequently, Ronald Greene (1998) drew heavily on Lawrence Grossberg's, Stuart Hall's, and his own critical revisions of Laclau and Mouffe's work to argue for a "materialist" conception of rhetoric that would abandon rhetoric's longstanding reliance on a "logic of influence" in favor of "a logic of articulation." Around the same time, Kevin DeLuca enthusiastically recommended the integration of "articulation theory" into rhetorical studies, arguing that it provided "contingent grounds for a fundamentally rhetorical understanding of the postmodern world" characterized by proliferating social struggles, identity politics, and heterogeneous problems that defied existing models of political agency (1999, 335).

Meanwhile, as his work has been variously appropriated by rhetoricians, Laclau himself has increasingly come to invoke rhetoric explicitly as the theoretical model for the theory of hegemony. Since the publication of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, his interest in and reliance on rhetoric have grown steadily—so much so that his latest elaboration of the theory of politics as hegemonic struggle—paradigmatically exemplified by populism—verges on becoming a theory of rhetoric (2005).1 To be sure, his engagement with rhetoric is motivated by a specific political interest, that of opening a new, postfoundationalist and postideological, path for leftist politics. Laclau has long conceived of the challenge facing the Left as that of integrating the copious new social movements and identities struggling against diverse forms of oppression into a more cohesive project aimed at winning and exercising legitimate political power—without relying on, or producing, what are now regarded as inherently antidemocratic metaphysical foundations or totalizations. This was the impetus behind his and Mouffe's classic Gramscian revision of Marxism and remains the impulse animating his most recent work.

It is to be expected that this impulse should influence the theory of rhetoric on which its cogency now fully depends. Yet while an extraordinary amount of attention has, quite rightly, been lavished on Laclau's innovative, sophisticated, and fertile work, his own explicit turn to rhetoric has, despite its decisive importance, received only intermittent notice and no systematic analysis. This is a serious problem for two interrelated reasons. First, without a sufficiently elaborated account of Laclau's conception of rhetoric, his theory of politics cannot be adequately understood. But—and this is the second problem—Laclau himself has yet to offer such [End Page 254] an account—that is, one capable of explaining the conduct and outcomes of concrete political struggles. Moreover, closer attention to the model of rhetoric underpinning Laclau's theory of politics suggests that this lacuna may not be entirely accidental. On the contrary, the determination of politics as hegemonic struggle seems to require a form of rhetorical agency that Laclau's theory of discourse explicitly precludes.

Conversely, Laclau's theory of hegemony relies on a highly restricted conception of rhetoric that, ironically, appears inadequate to the daunting...


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