Walking between precipices: An interview with Ernesto Laclau

Hegemony vs. reification,
Gramsci contra Lukács .

Platypus Review 2
February 1, 2008
Ashleigh Campi
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May 2014: Ernesto Laclau, the post-Marxist Argentine political theorist of populism and democracy, died a little under a month ago. I’m reposting this interview Ashleigh Campi conducted several years ago with him because I think it gets at some of the tensions within Marxist thought and the differential legacy of concepts like “hegemony” and “reification.” To be sure, I’m not really an admirer of Laclau’s work, and consider post-Marxism (a term coined by Laclau and his French colleague Chantal Mouffe) a form of late capitalist dementia, a senility of sorts. But it is one that expresses a broader pattern of degeneration across the board during the 1980s, that is not merely the fault of various intellectuals’ “loss of nerve” or idiosyncratic “deviations.” It reflects an objective political reality that had regressed from the position it occupied even a few decades earlier.

February 2008: Confronting the confusion and fragmentation that wrought progressive politics in recent decades, Ernesto Laclau’s work attempts to theorize the path to the construction of a radical democratic politics. Drawing on Gramsci’s concept of hegemony to devise his own theory by that name, Laclau describes the processes of social articulation that creates popular political identities. By redefining democratic politics as the construction of hegemony, Laclau reminds political actors of the work necessary to construct the plurality of democratic structures vital to any emancipatory political project. In December 2007, Laclau sat down to talk about the use and misuse of Marx’s theories, and what he sees as the essential questions for political theory today. Laclau teaches political theory at the University of Essex and at Northwestern University, in Chicago. .

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Ashleigh Campi: In describing the process of uniting disparate social demands behind a common politics, your work argues that the proliferation of social movements and politicization of certain identities in recent decades offers the potential for a deepening of the democratic process and presents new possibilities for social emancipation. Politics is to be understood as process through which demands are articulated by particular identities; immigrants, public-housing residents, the unemployed, etc. Do you see this emphasis on the plurality of political demands as a challenge to the creation of a coherent progressive politics?

Ernesto Laclau: I think we are dealing with two edges of a sword, because on the one hand it is obvious that the horizontal proliferation of social demands in recent decades is enlarging the area from which an emancipatory project can be launched. On the other hand to put together all of these social demands in a coherent project is more complicated than when people thought that there was just one social agent of emancipation which was the working class. For instance, I remember thirty years ago in San Francisco; everybody said that we had all the conditions for a very large emancipatory movement, popular pole etc., because we had the demands of the chicanos, the demands of the blacks, the demands of the gays, but at the end of the day, some of these demands clashed with the demands of the other groups, so nothing happened. There have been attempts like the Rainbow Coalition of Jesse Jackson to put together a plurality of these demands but the task is not easy; the Rainbow Coalition didn’t have a particularly good end. So I think that the dilemma of contemporary politics is how to create a unity out of diversity. That is the political challenge that we are facing today.

Ashleigh Campi: You’ve described the process of radicalizing political demands as the process through which disperse localized claims become discursively linked such that political subjects come to identify themselves in common as the bearers of rights that are not being met by an institutional order. This unity then becomes asserted as the demand for the radical overhaul of the institutional order, or some process of radical reform or revolution. Does this common antagonism provide a sufficient mechanism of unification among ‘the people’ of democratic politics to allow them to carry out the task of self-governance?

Ernesto Laclau: Well, I have tried to argue that all demands taking place in a public sphere are always internally divided. For instance you can have a demand for higher wages, but if it is articulated in some kind of repressive regime in which the demand is not immediately responded to, on the one hand the demand will have its particular content (higher wages), but on the other hand people will see the demand as a challenge to the existing system as a whole. Because of this second, more universal side of the demand, the demand could generate other social demands whose content is very different from the first; for instance, student demands for increasing autonomy in schools will start to form an equivalential relation so that the two demands, higher wages and increased autonomy — which are very different from the point of view of their particularity, come to be seen as equivalent in their opposition to a regime which is challenged by both. Thirdly let’s suppose that you have a third demand: the demand for freedom of the press from some liberal sector. Again this demand is a particularity that establishes the opposition to an existing state and creates some equivalential relations and in this way it constructs what I would call an equivalential chain. Now, at some point you would see not only the individual demand, but the chain of demands as a whole. At that point, because the means of representation of this chain is one individual demand — this demand is charged with the function of representing the whole. This is an example that I have used in my work: the demands of Solidarnosc in Poland. In the beginning there were the demands of a group of workers in the Lenin shipyards in Gdansk, but because these demands took place in a situation in which many other demands were not recognized by a repressive regime, these demands assumed the function of representing the whole. This is what I call an empty signifier. Why empty? Because, if the signifier is going to represent the totality of the chain, it has to abandon its only relationship with the particular demand from which it originated, and it has to represent a vast array of demands which are in an equivalential relationship; so it is less clearly a particularity and more and more a universal, and at the same time it is a hegemonic signifier because it has the function of representing — through its particular body — the universality transcending it. As I see it, this is the process of generation of a popular will as a whole. But as we were saying before there are counter tendencies that go against this popular representation of the collective will. For instance there is the tendency to reduce each demand to its own particularity so that this equivalential effect — the construction of the popular will — is finally defeated. And in the societies in which we live, these two tendencies — the tendency toward universalization through the production of empty signifiers and the tendency towards the particularism of the special demands — create a tension that is the very terrain in which the political is constructed. Continue reading

An exchange with conservative Swedish permaculturalist Øyvind Holmstad on the concept of “civilization”

Monuments to permanent unnature: The Egyptian Pyramids

I recently had an exchange with Øyvind Holmstad, a blogger and self-described conservative permaculturalist, on the subject of my reflections on the idea of “civilization,” which I posted not too long ago.  The only edits I made are grammatical.  Øyvind’s comments will appear in normal font, aligned to the left, while my responses will appear in goldish-orange, indented once to the right.

“…as Engels wrote in 1849, in the core of old Europe: “On the one side the revolution, on the other the coalition of all outmoded estate-classes and interests; on the one side civilization, on the other barbarism.”[62]”

I’ve really never thought of this distinction between culture and civilization as outlined in your article. If civilization really means technological control of nature, I don’t want civilization. But I think the alternative is not barbarism, but permaculture, applying the “technologies of life” to live in symbiosis with nature. So probably we’re better off with a permanent culture (permaculture) than with civilization.

I think I should work these thoughts into an article for the PRI-institute some day. Thanks for offering me this new insight!

Øyvind Holmstad said this on June 3, 2012 at 4:07 am |

No problem. Though I would again stress that the opposition of culture to civilization was usually invoked by right-wing nationalists, if not outright fascists. I think that is why Adorno, Elias, and others objected to any sort of hard-and-fast line of separation between them.

Also, “civilization” is usually contrasted to “barbarism.” Only under barbaric conditions is it contrasted to “culture.” The concept usually opposed to “culture” is “nature,” as structuralist anthropology taught us long ago.  Permaculture could thus be seen to signify a state of permanent unnature.  It is humanity’s lot to cultivate the earth.  In a different key, “culture” may be seen to be humanity’s mastery over nature. “Civilization,” by contrast, would be humanity’s self-conscious mastery of its own activities (i.e., freedom).But I imagine you and I would have very different ideas as to the extent of that cultivation.

Ross Wolfe said this on June 3, 2012 at 3:28 pm |

Thanks again for very interesting viewpoints and information! All this is brand new thoughts to me, so I anyway have to digest it a long time before I eventually write my article. Have you written other essays on this subject, or do you have some good ones to recommend? I don’t know what to name my article. Maybe “Permaculture, Nature and Civilization”?By the way, I’m not an academical so I can come up with whatever crazy ideas I like without influencing my career, I see this as my advantage. Anyway, if you had read “The Nature of Order” you would have known that Alexander has documented by empirical findings that order and wholeness in nature, art and architecture is one and the same, i.e., all nourishing art and architecture is unfolded through the same processes and laws. So I think that after “The Nature of Order” was published culture and nature are not opposites anymore.

I’ve only read “The Phenomenon of Life” yet, so I might should have finished the whole series before I eventually write my essay. I’ll have these new ideas in my mind while reading it.
Here are some of the findings documented in this work:

http://www.livingneighborhoods.org/library/empirical-findings.pdf

Øyvind Holmstad said this on June 3, 2012 at 4:03 pm |

First and foremost I identify myself as Alexandrin, after Alexander. Now that I see that Alexander has wiped out the oppositions of nature and culture, I feel even more proud of my identity. I believe this reunion of nature and culture has to be the basic of a new permanent civilization.And nothing of this I had ever thought of when I wake up this morning.

Øyvind Holmstad said this on June 3, 2012 at 4:23 pm | 

I continued thinking about these things tonight and couldn’t help myself from starting to write my essay, so here it is:

http://permaliv.blogspot.no/2012/06/permaculture-nature-civilization.html

I really don’t know if it’s of any interest for you, as I’m not full of knowledge like you. I’m just a hobby philosopher, so maybe you find it naive? But it’s a lot of naive people out there, so I’m sure some will appreciate it.

Øyvind Holmstad said this on June 4, 2012 at 12:00 pm |

Well, Øyvind, I think if I’m honest with myself, I have to admit that I do find your view a little naïve. But that’s not because it’s not erudite or sophisticated enough; often erudition and sophistication conceal an underlying weakness in an argument. (For me, I think my footnoting is largely a result of an obsessive-compulsive pattern. But obviously having a bunch of footnotes doesn’t mean that my argument is right).Ultimately, I think that the question of how humanity will continue to live in this world can only be resolved through a radical restructuring of how society organizes itself. Rather, society would have to finally become capable of self-consciously organizing itself, rather than remaining unconscious and uncontrollable. This, actually, would be the truth of concepts like economy and ecology, from the Greek οἶκος (oikos, or home). The relationship between these two terms is effectively analogous to the relationship between astrology and astronomy today.There’s a beautiful bit from the young (pre-Marxist) Lukács that I think still rings true, no matter how idealistic:

Happy are those ages when the starry sky is the map of all possible paths — ages whose paths are illuminated by the light of the stars. Everything in such ages is new and yet familiar, full of adventure and yet their own. The world is wide and yet it is like a home, for the fire that burns in the soul is of the same essential nature as the stars; the world and the self, the light and the fire, are sharply distinct, yet they never become permanent strangers to one another, for fire is the soul of all light and all fire clothes itself in light. Thus each action of the soul becomes meaningful and rounded in this duality: complete in meaning — in sense — and complete for the senses; rounded because the soul rests within itself even while it acts; rounded because its action separates itself from it and, having become itself, finds a center of its own and draws a closed circumference round itself. ‘Philosophy is really homesickness,’ says Novalis: ‘it is the urge to be at home everywhere.’

This, ultimately, must be the end of all ecology and economics: to make humanity at home in the world once more. I don’t think that this would mean a vast simplification of human production, or a global permaculture à la Mollison or whatnot. Humanity remains alienated from nature. This alienation can only be suspended through some balance of humanizing nature, or naturalizing humanity. I think that it would have to be some combination of both, but I would hope far more the former than the latter (insofar as in nature, we remain at the mercy of forces which dwarf us).

Ross Wolfe said this on June 8, 2012 at 7:29 am | Continue reading

Interview with Ross Wolfe of on #Occupy, the role of criticism in relation to theory and praxis, and the “return to Marx”

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Conducted by C. Derick Varn of
The Loyal Opposition to Modernity

Here’s Derick’s introduction to this interview:

Ross Wolfe introduced me to the Platypus Affiliated Society and is a member of my Aesthetics, Politics, and Theory: Red and/or Black (of which Symptomatic Redness is a project).  Ross Wolfe is currently a graduate student at the University of Chicago.  The main focus of his work is in Russian history, but he is also interested in Central European history, Jewish studies, philosophy, and Marxism.  He writes primarily about the history of avant-garde architecture, contemporary political issues (activism, current events), and topics such as the environment, technology, utopianism, and the history of the Left.  He blogs at the Charnel-House.

More from Derick’s ongoing Marginalia on Radical Thinking series can be found hereherehereherehereherehereherehere, here, and here.

C. DERICK VARN: So you have been working with and critiquing Occupy Wall Street from your vantage point in New York.  How did you get involved?

ROSS WOLFE: I was first alerted to the #Occupy protests going on down at Liberty Plaza about one week after it began, by someone much further from the scene than I was — my good friend Steve McClellan, a graduate student in Central European history at Oregon State University.  At that point, the movement had barely made any sort of splash in the mainstream media, and mostly established itself through YouTube videos and other decentralized, user-based means.

So I decided to take a visit down to Zuccotti Park to try and get a better sense of what was going on there.  What I saw there (especially at this early point) was largely ideological incoherence.  The politics on display at Occupy Wall Street were symptomatic in very much the same way that they had been at the resurgent anti-globalization protests against the G-8 in Pittsburgh back in 2009 and the G-20 conference in Toronto in 2010.  Needless to say, my first reactions to the demonstration were fairly pessimistic.  This was reflected in my initial write-up of my experiences. Continue reading

The spatiotemporal dialectic of capitalism

Introduction

To understand the history of architectural modernism and eclecticism as they emerged out of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, one must take into account the broader development of architecture over the course of the latter half of the nineteenth century. This development, in turn, must be seen as emerging out of the dynamic of late nineteenth-century capitalism, which had by that point extended to encompass the whole of Europe. For it was the unique spatiotemporal dialectic of the capitalist mode of production — along with the massive social and technological forces it unleashed — that formed the basis for the major architectural ideologies that arose during this period. Before the story of the academicians or the avant-garde can be told, then, some background is necessary to explain both their origin and the eventual trajectory they would take into the early twentieth century.

So while my aim is to eventually account for how a single social formation, capitalism, can give birth to these two opposite tendencies within architectural thought, the space required to give an adequate exposition of the spatiotemporal dialectic of capitalism is such that it deserves to function as a standalone essay. Certainly other trends, both cultural and social, could be understood as reflections of this underlying socioeconomic dynamic. It is thus my intention to post this as its own piece, before then proceeding to detail the way in which architectural modernism and eclecticism mirrored these dynamics. Continue reading

This Essay Has Been Re-Routed

Sorry for the inconvenience.  The now-completed essay can be found here.

Ivan Leonidov's City of the Sun (1940s-1950s)

The transformation of utopia under capitalist modernity

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IMAGE: Ivan Leonidov’s
City of the Sun (1940s)

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Utopianism has always involved the imagination of a better world, a perfected society set against the imperfect society of the present. Whether as an object of speculative philosophical reflection, a practical program for social transformation, or an idle daydream, utopia has always evinced the hope that reality might be made ideal.

Underneath this general rubric, however, “utopia” can be seen to signify several related but distinct things. The term is commonly used to refer to that literary genre, deriving its name from Thomas More’s eponymous Utopia, which depicts various “ideal commonwealths.” Beyond this meaning, many commentators have identified these literary utopias as belonging to a broader impulse that exists within the very structure of human experience, of which they are but one expression.[1] Karl Mannheim, for example, described utopianism as a mentalité, writing that “[a] state of mind is utopian when it is incongruous with the state of reality within which it occurs…and at the same breaks the bond of the existing order.”[2] Others have linked the idea of utopia to more metaphysical foundations, explaining how the condition for the possibility of utopia is carried by the category of possibility itself. Understood in this way, a utopia could be an alternate social configuration that is imaginable either as a pure fantasy wholly apart from existing conditions, or as one that is potentially viable, somehow implied by those same conditions.[3] The former of these constitutes an abstract or merely logical possibility, whereas the latter represents a concrete or real possibility.

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The Tragically Sublime: Schelling’s Metaphysics of Fate and Freedom in his Philosophy of Art

The discovery that man’s actions fail to produce their intended results, that the world does not bend itself to his will — this is the first instance of his spiritual alienation.[1] For herein lies the recognition that the world is not of man’s making, the understanding that nature obeys laws utterly removed from his desires. Such laws, insofar as they are intelligible, do not yet threaten mankind’s claim to freedom as such. Their necessity is only empirical. That is to say, the limitations they impose are of a merely physical character. In this respect, these laws do not jeopardize man’s moral autonomy. Rather, they are seen to possess a sort of brute factuality, an objective regularity. So long as man exempts himself from their mechanism, his freedom is preserved. His actions would thus simply be subject to material constraint.[2]

Another necessity presents itself to experience, however, of a far more sinister aspect. This necessity, by contrast, appears irreconcilable with man’s sense of free will. Its source is likewise external (heteronymous), but its precise origin remains shrouded in obscurity. As such, its machinery is wholly incomprehensible.[3] Where the one necessity persists in universality, the other exhibits itself as entirely particular.[4] In other words, the determinations of the first sort are understood to follow a consistent, uniform pattern; conversely, those which issue from the second variety seem hopelessly arbitrary, catastrophic. The apparent indeterminacy of the latter’s foundation does not alter its necessity, however. Its dictates must not, for this reason, be thought any less binding. On the contrary, the decrees of this invisible necessity govern the outcome of men’s actions with irresistible effect, deciding their fortunes without their consent.

This latter necessity is commonly referred to as fate. Qua absolute necessity, it is the essential annihilation of human freedom. Our activities are thus revealed in their impotence: we are not the masters of our destiny. It is on this account that the intuition of fate is always accompanied by a distinct feeling of horror. The moral freedom we so fervently assert as essential to our subjectivity is contradicted outright by the objective necessity of fate. Each side (subjective and objective alike) claims total sovereignty, and can scarcely tolerate its opposite. Yet both seem to contain an equal degree of reality. How can this be? To admit the one would surely be to negate the other. Are these two sides not incommensurable?

For the idealist F.W.J. Schelling, this paradox was definitive of the human condition. Indeed, it was viewed as the central problematic at work in transcendental philosophy, since the very possibility of this philosophy rests on the presumption that free will exists. In his 1800 System of Transcendental Idealism, Schelling explains the connection between freedom and fatal necessity as “a relationship whereby men through their own free action, and yet against their will, must become cause of something which they never wanted, or by which, conversely, something must go astray or come to naught which they have sought for freely and with the exertion of all their powers.”[5] Schelling here confirms much of what has been hitherto described: namely, that one’s free actions engender unimaginable consequences, regardless of intention; moreover, that the real results of his endeavors appear totally divorced from their ideal basis.

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