Theories and Texts
and the Limits of Modernity"
from Docherty, Thomas, ed. Postmodernism:
A Reader. New York: Harvester, 1993.
Thesis: Laclau's focal point of the
theory centers on anti-foundationalism, which derives from Heidegger's
conception of the dissolution of categories. The emphasis on radical contingence
provides a way to 'weaken' the contents of the project of modernity.
Jan. 07, 1999
view of postmodernity:
1. "Postmodernity has advanced by means
of two converging intellectual operations. . . which share one characteristic:
the attempt to establish boundaries, that is to say, to separate an ensemble
of historical features and phenomena (postmodern) from others also appertaining
to the past and that can be grouped under the rubric of modernity." (329)
|Generally speaking, Laclau deals
with postmodernity from a positive viewpoint. As for him, postmodernity
can manifest its radical contingence to challenge the foundations of modernity.
That is to say, postmodernity focuses on anti-foundationalism and it attempts
to weaken the logic of the construction between social and cultural identities.
a). "The first announces a weakening
of the metaphysical and rationalist pretensions of modernity, by way of
challenging the foundational status of certain narratives." (329)
What's the importance of these two operations?
Both of them serve as radical ways to establish the boundaries of modernity
. "The second challenges not the ontological
of narrative as such, but rather the current validity of metanarratives,
which unified the totality of the historical experience of modernity within
the project of global, human emancipation
Postmodernity is an ensemble of pre-theoretical
references that establish certain 'family resemblance's' among its
diverse manifestations, that is suggested by the process of erosion and
disintegration of such categories as 'foundation,' 'new,' 'identity,' 'vanguard,'
and so on. (330)
Postmodernity cannot be a simple rejection
of modernity, rather, it involves a different modulation of its themes
and categories, a greater proliferation of its language-games. (330)
It is precisely the ontological status of
the central categories of the discourses of modernity, and not their content,
this is at stake; that the erosion of this this status is expressed through
the 'postmodern sensibility; and that this erosion, far from being a negative
phenomenon, represents an enormous amplification of the content and operability
of the values of modernity, making it possible to ground them on foundations
much more solid than those of the Enlightenment project. (332)
Language and Reality:
|This part is very significant, for
it unfolds Laclau's central idea and it is also in relation to the following
sections of discussion. First, Laclau deconstructs traditional structuralism.
Saussurean theory of linguistics is the target of his argument. Laclau
shows us the analysis of the ambiguities between the signifier and the
signified. There is no fixed character of the signifier/the signified relation.
And then, he generalizes this analysis
into two points: context is changeable and every identity is relational.
Second, in this sense, Laclau skillfully applies the ambiguous feature
of language to the explanation of the social action.
As for him, the 'social' itself is a discourse
and it is in the form of discursive sequences that articulate linguistic
and extra linguistic elements, which leads the society to plurality.
The crisis of linguistic model in structuralism:
Where is the crisis?
"The crisis consisted precisely in the
increasing difficulty of defining the limits of language, or, more accurately,
of defining the specific identity of
the linguistic object." (332)
Saussurean theory of linguistics as an example:
it exposes a set of ambiguities between the signifier and the signified.
three moments to transcend the ambiguities:
. ¡§[O]ne of the fundamental oppositions
of this system was required to be externally defined, thus confining linguistic
formalism within a new limits. Beyond this point, it was impossible to
posit a 'linguistics of discourse', if by discourse we mean a linguistic
unit greater than the sentence."
. "In this second moment of the radicalization
of structuralism, the stable character of the relation between signifier
and the signified had not, however, been questioned; only the structural
isomorphism between the two had been broken. The boundaries of linguistics
had been expanded, but the immediacy and the characteristic of full presence
of its objects were only reaffirmed." (333)
. "The quasi-Cartesian transparency
that structural formalism had established between the purely relational
identities of the linguistic system served only to make them more vulnerable
to any new system of relations." (334) A double movement in
the crisis of the immediacy of the sign: "While the signified was less
closed within itself and could be defined only in relation to a specific
context, the limits of that context were increasing less well defined."
1. Example: Democracy is a floating signifier.
The term 'democracy' has a radical ambiguity,
which subverts the fixity of the sign. This ambiguity is precisely what
gives the context its openness.
2. Three consequences come after a floating
The unfixed character of all identities:
. The concept of discourse is not linguistic
but prior to the distinction between the linguistic and extralinguistic.
. The relational character of discourse is
precisely what permits the generalization of the linguistic model within
the ensemble of social relations.
. The radical relationalism of social identities
increases their vulnerability to new relations and introduces within them
the effect of ambiguity.
The difference of discourses between modernity
and postmodernity (335-36)
Modernity: The discourses of modernity characterize
their pretension is to dominate the foundation of the social, to give a
rational context to the notion of the totality of history, and to base
in the project of a global human emancipation.
Postmodernity: The fully present identity
is threatened by an ungraspable exterior that introduces a dimension of
opacity and pragmatism into the pretended immediacy and transparency of
its categories. It weakens the absolutist pretensions of concepts. However,
this 'weakening.' does not in any way negate the contents of the project
of modernity; it shows only the radical vulnerability of those contents
to a plurality of contexts that redefine them in an unpredictable way.
Development, and Hegemony
|Laclau continues his assertion of
radically relational character of identity and further employs this conception
to analyze politics. In this part, he takes Marxism for an example and
challenges the logic of foundations in the Marxist tradition.
Weaknesses/Limits of a central tenet of Marxism
Capitalism exists only by dint of the constant
transformation of the means of production and the increasing dissolution
of preexisting social relations.
The history of capitalism is, on the one hand,
the history of the progressive destruction of the social relations generated
by it and, on the other, the history of its border with social forms exterior
The relation of exteriority can be internally
defined, since every exterior relation is destined a priori to succumb
as a result of capitalist expansion.
The internal logic of capital comes to constitute
the relational substrate of History, and the advent of socialism is thought
to be made possible only by the results of the internal contradictions
Nodal moments of ambiguity in the history
of Marxism (Laclau's views)
. Uneven and combined development
1. Two examples: Sorel and Gramsci
Employment of post-Marxism to deconstruct
2. The stance of post-Marxism: Basically,
'post-Marxism' is not an 'ex-Marxism', for it entails an active involvement
in its history and in the discussion of its categories. (339)
. The abandonment of the faith in the "universal
class" and in the unity of Marxism.
. The rejection of the myth of foundations.
. To construct a radical imaginary: it means
trying to insert the isolated struggles within a wider horizon that 'totalizes'
an ensemble of an experience.
To establish a radical political discourse.
Process of Arguing and Common Sense (341-42)
|Laclau tries to redefine the categories,
such as common sense and tradition, which we take it for granted.
A. Society can then be understood
as a vast argumentative texture through which people construct their own
B. Abandonment of the myth of foundations
does not lead to nihilism; it leads to a proliferation of discursive interventions
and arguments that are necessary, because there is no extradiscursive reality
that discourse might simply reflect.
Argument and discourse constitute the social,
their open-ended character becomes the source of a greater activism and
a more radical libertarianism.
The dissolution of the myth of foundations
- and the concomitant dissolution of the category 'subject' - further radicalizes
the emancipatory possibilities offered by the Enlightenment and Marxism.
Social agents are never 'humans' in general.
They appear in concrete situations and are constituted by precise and limited
discursive networks, In this sense, lack of grounding does not abolish
the meaning of human beings' acts, it only affirms their limits, their
finitude, and their historicity.
Laclau makes the concept of empty signifiers
clearer and redefines the global emancipation by telling from the difference
between the foundation and the horizon.
and Empty Signifiers (342-43)
Any identity is ambiguous insofar as it is
unable to constitute itself as a precise difference within a closed totality.
The degree of fixity of a signifier varies
in inverse proportion to the extent of its circulation in a given discursive
A signifier is emptied when it is disengaged
from a particular signified and comes to symbolize a long chain of equivalent
The difference between the foundation and
It is a relation of delimitation and determination.
It is unified or totalized.
It suffices to posit an egalitarian logic
whose limits of operation are given by the concrete argumentative practices
existing in a society.
It is open-ended.
It is a formation without foundation.
It is an empty locus, a point in which society
symbolizes its very groundlessness, in which concrete argumentative practices
operate over a backdrop of radical freedom, or radical contingency.'
What's the difference between 'democracy'
and 'radical democracy'?
Do you agree Laclau's opinion that democracy
is impossible without the abandonment of the universal discourse?