- The Uses of Equality
The following exchange between Judith Butler (who at the time was in Irvine, California) and Ernesto Laclau (in Essex, England) took place during the months of May and June of 1995. Ernesto Laclau, born in Argentina, is well known for his Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, published in 1985 in collaboration with Chantal Mouffe. The work starts off by critically examining the concept of “hegemony” within a Marxist tradition, and it ends by proposing a socialist strategy that not only takes into account the criticism posited against the Marxist tradition of the last three decades, but also the emergence of new social and political fronts. Hegemony manifests a motive that is felt in the background of the following discussion: a politics of “radical democracy” (a term introduced in the book) should aspire to preserve the conflictive character of all social processes if it intends to avoid becoming a totalitarian system. In other words, a politics of a “radical democracy” should remain faithful to the dictum stated by the German poet Paul Celan: “build on inconsistencies.” It is evident that Laclau and Judith Butler, the North American author of Gender Trouble (1990) and its sequel, Bodies That Matter (1993), share this position. In these works, Butler advocates the reactivation of the concept of “interpellation” in order to expose the ways in which any given subject is “engendered.” The performative constitution of a subject, according to Butler, is defined through a reiterative convocation or “interpellation,” which continuously exhorts the subject to adhere to a gender norm. Not all sequences and efforts at interpellation, however, are completely successful; hence the need for notions of “deviations” in contrast to the norm. This theoretical standpoint facilitated a deconstruction of social gender norms and addressed issues raised by the gay and lesbian communities. In Bodies That Matter, however, a growing emphasis was placed on the articulation of the task at hand within a broader field of the democratic claims of minorities. Here, references to Mouffe and Laclau and to the concepts of “articulation” and “hegemony” were increasingly necessary.
The link between Butler and Laclau was extended by the dialogue that follows. An example of this is the notion that all identities constitute themselves by differentiation. However, differentiation immediately implies antagonism. Identities exist because there are differences in strength, antagonism, and finally, in hegemony. According to both Butler and Laclau, the social constitutes itself as the space in which hegemonic relations unfold. Nevertheless, it is characteristic of any hegemonic position to never gain stability: any hegemonic position is always exposed to the risk of being subverted. Thus the recurrence of two issues that play a role in the following discussion: the existence of hegemonic relations and, hence, exclusion, found in the social domain. But since no particular exclusion is based on “the nature of things,” or can be ultimately justified, no exclusion can be definite, and no politics can achieve a final form. It is within the gap between the recognition that exclusion always exists in the social domain, and the rupture it provokes—that is to say, between the affirmation that no situation is purely structured and that no structure formation is ever complete—that perhaps the program of radical democracy unfolds.
Equality, as a signifier and as a thing—if it exists—was the topic proposed to Butler and Laclau: their dialogue exceeds our original expectations.
Reinaldo Laddaga [End Page 3]
What’s the political value, today, of the use of the signifier “equality”? Considering the poststructuralist elaboration of “difference,” how does “equality” work today in gender and/or race politics? “Difference” has been, for more than a decade, the key word for a certain number of programs related to radical democracy. Certainly, “difference” has given space to the constitution of new types of social solidarity. Recently, however, some reservations on the extension of the term have been published. Chantal Mouffe—in her introduction to Dimensions of Radical Democracy—has stated that “all differences cannot be accepted” in order “for pluralism to be made compatible with the struggle against inequality.” Mouffe doesn’t clarify, in this particular text, the criteria with which to discriminate between “acceptable” and “nonacceptable” (or, maybe, “pertinent” and...