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  • This Universalism Which Is Not One
  • Linda M. G. Zerilli (bio)
Ernesto Laclau. Emancipation(s). London: Verso, 1996.

Judging from the recent spate of publications devoted to the question of the universal, it appears that, in the view of some critics, we are witnessing a reevaluation of its dismantling in twentieth-century thought. One of the many oddities about this “return of the universal” 1 is the idea that contemporary engagements with it are more or less of a piece, and that they reflect a growing consensus that poststructuralist political theories are incapable of generating a viable alternative to the collective fragmentation that characterizes late modernity. 2 The putative return to the universal marks, on this view, both a homecoming to Enlightenment ideals—purified of their more poisonous elements, of course—and a reconciliation of sorts between those who refuted these ideals and those who sought to realize them. Now that “we” all know and agree that poststructuralism is critically valuable but politically bankrupt; now that we all know and agree that the “old universal” was indeed a “pseudo-universal,” so the homecoming narrative goes; we can get on with the project of constructing a “new universal.” 3 This authentic universal would really be inclusive of all people, regardless of race, class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nationality, and whatever else attaches to the “embarrassing etcetera” that, as Judith [End Page 3] Butler reminds us, inevitably accompanies such gestures of acknowledging human diversity.

Before signing on to this felicitous agreement about “the necessity of universalism,” we may wish to know whether we have anything like a minimal agreement in language, that is, whether we who speak of this universal are even speaking about the same thing. Apart from the not insignificant problem of translating from a philosophical to a political idiom, the whole question of this agreement is virtually occluded by the rush to rescue politics from the virulent particularisms that admit no common ground or sense of collective belonging. Presented in terms of the familiar binary couple, the choice between universalism and particularism seems settled by merely pointing to global and domestic political realities. Universalism is the only alternative to social fragmentation, wild child of the collapse of communism, the rise of deadly nationalisms, and the multiculturalist romance with particularism. To invoke the name of the universal in any affirmative sense is already to sign on to the political diagnosis and its solution.

One of the many virtues of Ernesto Laclau’s Emancipation(s) is that it offers both an alternative to the binarisms spawned by the “return” to the universal (for example, false universalism/true universalism) and a trenchant critique of the original binary couple itself (universalism/ particularism). Demonstrating the imbrication of the universal and the particular, Laclau shows why it is a matter not of choosing one over the other but of articulating, in a scrupulously political sense, the relation between the two. He thus explicitly rejects the notion that this relation is one of mutual exclusion, and shows that the tendency to see it as just that has led to the impasse of the contemporary debate, an impasse that is glossed over in some highly visible academic cases by proclaiming the necessary return to the universal. Although the language of universalism as spoken by Laclau searches for some common ground between particularists and universalists, it is more by way of articulating their mutual contamination, that is, how each is rendered impure by the irreducible presence of the other.

The Problem of Universals

Laclau situates his collection of essays in the context of the increasingly polarized debate over multiculturalism, a debate in which the classical universalism of the philosophical tradition has come under serious question. Reading his essays, one comes to see the deep dependence of the entire contemporary discussion on this tradition, even when its metaphysical assumptions are explicitly rejected (as, say, in the work of Seyla Benhabib) or insufficiently comprehended (as in most of the popularized political discourse). Laclau’s book can help us to see that the political question of universalism cannot be posed properly as long as it remains tethered to the classical philosophical “problem of universals.” At stake in sorting out the affinities and...