- When Speaking of Political Ontology
When Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe published their influential book Hegemony and Socialist Strategy in 1985, its reception was mediated by antagonisms that still shape perceptions of both authors’ work four decades later.1 Some of this was a result of Laclau and Mouffe’s provocative description of their ‘intellectual project’ as a ‘post-Marxist’ project (p4). And some was because of the importance they accorded to the concept of discourse. The book captured a then avant-garde theoretical sensibility that highlighted the discursivity of the social. For its admirers, the book offered a new post-structuralist vocabulary for talking about the contingency of social structures that retained the critical impulses of Marxist theory but promised theoretical liberation from what Laclau and Mouffe framed as the dogmatic assumptions of orthodox Marxism. To its detractors, all the talk of discourse attested to the ‘idealism’ of Laclau and Mouffe’s argument, and their neglect of ‘materialist’ concerns and perspectives. These perceptions were reinforced by the subsequent naming of Laclau and Mouffe’s approach as ‘discourse theory’, which suggested a prioritisation of certain questions and concerns over others. One legacy has been a mode of engagement with Laclau and Mouffe’s work, and especially Laclau’s, that sometimes seems preoccupied with the question of how to properly define the scope and limit of discourse. I am describing a polemical atmosphere that was likely more vivid in the 1980s and 1990s, but the point still resonates today. I sometimes jest with students who plan to use discourse theory that they should save themselves some bother by not using the word ‘discourse’, such is the confusion that can still be generated by the term.
Oliver Marchart’s book Thinking Antagonism: Political Ontology After Laclau not only helps us understand why the responses to Hegemony and Socialist Strategy would lead to an enactment of the political-intellectual antagonisms that the book itself described and constructed, but it also offers a brilliant new framework for reassessing the significance of the post-Marxist theoretical intervention four years after Laclau’s death. Marchart’s argument rests on a simple claim about Laclau’s work that has perhaps been obscured by its over-association with the concept of discourse (and more recently populism): that Laclau’s ‘most decisive theoretical contribution’ is ‘his conception of antagonism’ (p20). ‘What is rarely seen… is that [Laclau’s] influential work is organised around a key philosophical problematic’ based on the question: ‘What is an antagonism?’ (p2–3). Marchart partly takes his lead from what [End Page 116] he calls ‘Laclau’s question’, which he reformulates as ‘what is a conflictual relation and what are the laws that govern this relation’? However, he poses an even ‘more fundamental question’ that he suggests was glimpsed by Laclau but never satisfactorily explicated: ‘what is antagonism?’ (p2–3).
A surprising amount hinges on the elision of the little word ‘an’. The question ‘what is an antagonism?’ frames antagonism as some kind of identifiable thing or object. For Laclau, this object took the default form of an antagonistic representation. An identity defines itself in opposition to some Other that is rejected. ‘The political’ is conceived as a domain of friend/enemy relations. Marchart’s problem with this conventional understanding of antagonism is that it fails to think through the full implications of Laclau’s own contention that antagonism is a name for an ontological condition that ‘grounds’ – by never fully or permanently grounding – the logic of the social. Marchart describes this ontology as one that signifies ‘the ineradicable moment of negativity’ (p43) that structures the articulation of all positive social identities; a mode of social being ‘which undermines the very positivity of “positive facts”’ (p10). Taking inspiration from Foucault’s notion of an ‘ontology of ourselves’ (p159), Marchart highlights how our own analyses of social antagonisms are ‘self-implicated’ (p27) by the very same ontological presuppositions that we project onto the phenomena that we analyse. In other words, the ‘moment of negativity’ structures the identity of not only the object of analysis that is...