Tuesday 3 April 2007


Ernesto Laclau

It is fashionable to dismiss thinkers who claim to understand the world in terms of Theory (of the capital cross-bone ‘T’ variety) as being wilfully oblique, inaccessible and uninspired: such was the response of Ziauddin Sardar to the first batch of books in Verso’s ‘Radical Thinkers’ series.

You can imagine him responding in much the same way to the sequel run, ‘Radical Thinkers II (Return of the Radicals)’ - and to Laclau in particular. Obsessing about ontological differences, the antagonisms and exclusions of identity and the logic of incarnation looks like the embarrassing attention-seeking of an intellectual relic. And some would go further: Theory, it is said, is most probably dead, along with God, the subject, and history, all fraternising in some defunct Platonic heaven. So how are we to make sense of Radicals II?

It’s telling that the first two reviews of Emancipation(s) spat up by Google are in pay-per-view journals, academic hangouts rather than the public sphere. Any other information (well into the third pages of search returns) reads suspiciously like a publisher’s blurb. And the blurbs are unenlightening: we learn Laclau is an ‘influential theorist’ who makes a ‘startling argument’ about how the changes of the late twentieth century have transformed Enlightenment notions of ‘emancipation’. Apparently, Emancipation(s) is ‘highly recommended’ by Fortnight Philosophy. I’ve never heard of Fortnight Philosophy; nor has Google and nor has the British Library catalogue. It sounds suspiciously like philosophy that doesn’t happen.

Emancipation(s) itself is a svelte book of seven essays bound like the other ‘Radical Thinkers’ books in a kitsch silver sleeve. The essays, written between 1989 and 1995,

should be seen as provisional explorations rather than as fully-fledged theoretical constructs, as answers to the ethical and political imperative of the intervening in debates about transformations which were taking place before our eyes.

However difficult the prose, then, Laclau is writing from a sense of political obligation to respond to unfolding events. And the events of that time were indeed transformations: the restructuring of the world order after the collapse of the Eastern bloc, the civil war in former Yugoslavia, the rise of racist political parties in Western Europe, the end of apartheid in South Africa… all, says Laclau, characterised by being the ‘rebellions of various particularisms’. Unfortunately, he swiftly undermines his former heroic statement by acknowledging even further the essays’ ‘ad hoc character, their inevitable repetitions, and their lacunae… I hope, anyway, that they can be useful in throwing a certain light on some of the more pressing political problems of our time’. He sounds like an old scholar performing the parlour trick of false modesty, of pre-emptive defence against possible criticism, and this sort of shenanigans, I suspect, has kept many an academic publishing for years. But Laclau at least partially redeems himself, conceding that it is ‘for the reader to judge what is achieved through this kind of approach’.

The real disappointment for this reader is not the language, but the fact that Laclau rejects the possibility of formulating the Enlightenment notion of a totalising universal identity, and with it washes down the drain any project of uniting the world under a single banner of rationality. Thankfully, he also rejects postmodernism’s view of the world as a place populated by particular identity groups with no hope of commonality. Instead, he proposes a radically alternative analysis of the relationship between universal and particular, namely, marriage: they can’t live with each other, can’t live without each other, ‘universality is incommensurable with any particularity but cannot, however, exist apart from the particular’ (p34). And this is pronounced the paradox whose ‘non-solution is the very precondition of democracy’ (in analytic philosophy they simply call them ‘immanent universals’).

The political bite of the analysis is severe. The concept of human rights developed during the French Revolution was based on implicit assumptions about the homogeneity of the society at that time. But today, we have no homogenous society in this sense, since this would need the universal notion Laclau has just rejected. ‘Liberal democratic theory and institutions’ must now be deconstructed before human rights can be had by all groups of society, but about how this deconstruction is to take place, Laclau remains eerily vague.

[I]f democracy is possible, it is because the universal has no necessary body and no necessary content; different groups, instead, compete between themselves to temporarily give to their particularisms a function of universal representation….[this is the] final failure of society to constitute itself as a society.

Hence, I suppose, the existence of hideously legislative social policies to keep these competing groups in check. And it seems that Emancipation(s) is itself an expression of this idea: each essay asserts its own viewpoint, jostling with the others to be taken seriously, but no clear dominating theory emerges. What results is both dissatisfying and exciting: you know there’s not a ‘fully-fledged’ theory anywhere in Emancipation(s) but feel like there almost is. It’s this constant teetering on the universal that drives you to distraction, and the fact that I still have the idea of a universal to teeter on probably means I haven’t understood a thing Laclau has said, or else that I disagree with him entirely.

Which carries us swiftly on to Sardar’s gripe against radical writing’s ‘rarefied’ terminology: it is comforting to suppose that if you don’t understand something it’s nonsense. Unluckily for Sardar, the charge of rarefied terminology has no charge at all. For instance, most medical-speak is impenetrable to most people, but nobody accuses doctors of semantic fascism. Words and ideas are partners in crime: a rich and nuanced lexis can pick out subtleties of thought and elucidate complex ideas in a way a restricted vocabulary never can. Rather than inaccessibility being ‘a direct cause’ of the decline of leftist thinking as Sardar claims, it’s often the imposition of accessibility that simplifies it to the point of vacuity. If anything, we need a truckload of technical terms in order to make sense of the world. And it’s not always easy, and neither should it be, to understand the ‘rarefied’ terms.

I don’t mean to say that being inaccessible makes a theory automatically amazing. A high frequency of technical terminology alone doesn’t vindicate Laclau, Adorno or Baudrillard’s inclusion in the series; the right question to be asking is, does the terminology do the job? Like Laclau says, it’s up to the reader to judge. But if the reader doesn’t understand, and perhaps this is what Sardar is getting at, how can he judge the effectiveness of the approach, and if he can’t, who can? Just so, it’s ultimately up to readers to make the world more accessible to themselves, and not up to the world to make itself more accessible to readers.

No, the real problem with Emancipation(s) is not its semantics - it’s not that the book is oblique, inaccessible or uninspired - but with the sentiment. It’s not enough to have just a ‘response’ to world-changing events: you need a well-worked out position. If Laclau has a theory, an interpretation of events, a coherent worldview, he should say so, and be prepared to defend it. If he doesn’t, I don’t want to know about his speculation. It just doesn’t do to be so non-committal about the application, and potential, of political theory. Seven half-theories don’t amount to one good book.


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