Postmodern Theories and Texts

"Politics and the Limits of Modernity"
Ernesto Laclau
from Docherty, Thomas, ed. Postmodernism: A Reader. New York: Harvester, 1993.

Introduction Laclau's view of postmodernity Language and Reality
Capitalism, Uneven Development, and Hegemony The Process of Arguing and Common Sense Global Emancipation and Empty Signifiers
Julia Kuo
Jan. 07, 1999
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.
  1. Introduction:

    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. Laclau's 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) 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)
    1. . "The second challenges not the ontological status 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
  1. 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)
  2. 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)
  3. 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)
  1. 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.

  1. The crisis of linguistic model in structuralism:
    1. Where is the crisis?

    2. "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)
    3. Saussurean theory of linguistics as an example: it exposes a set of ambiguities between the signifier and the signified. (333)
    4. three moments to transcend the ambiguities: (333)
    1. . ¡§[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."
    1. . "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." (334)
  1. The unfixed character of all identities:
1. Example: Democracy is a floating signifier. (335) 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 signifier.
    1. . The concept of discourse is not linguistic but prior to the distinction between the linguistic and extralinguistic.
    1. . The relational character of discourse is precisely what permits the generalization of the linguistic model within the ensemble of social relations.
    1. . The radical relationalism of social identities increases their vulnerability to new relations and introduces within them the effect of ambiguity.
  1. The difference of discourses between modernity and postmodernity (335-36)
    1. 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.
    2. 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.
  1. Capitalism, Uneven 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.
  1. Weaknesses/Limits of a central tenet of Marxism (336-337)
    1. Capitalism exists only by dint of the constant transformation of the means of production and the increasing dissolution of preexisting social relations.
    2. 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 to it.
    3. The relation of exteriority can be internally defined, since every exterior relation is destined a priori to succumb as a result of capitalist expansion.
    4. 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 of capitalism.
    5. Nodal moments of ambiguity in the history of Marxism (Laclau's views)
      1. . Uneven and combined development
      2. . Hegemony
  1. Employment of post-Marxism to deconstruct Marxist tradition:
1. Two examples: Sorel and Gramsci

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)
3. Declarations:

    1. . The abandonment of the faith in the "universal class" and in the unity of Marxism.
    2. . The rejection of the myth of foundations.
    3. . To construct a radical imaginary: it means trying to insert the isolated struggles within a wider horizon that 'totalizes' an ensemble of an experience.
    4. To establish a radical political discourse.
  1. The 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 identity.
    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.

  1. Argument and discourse constitute the social, their open-ended character becomes the source of a greater activism and a more radical libertarianism.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  1. Global Emancipation and Empty Signifiers (342-43)

Laclau makes the concept of empty signifiers clearer and redefines the global emancipation by telling from the difference between the foundation and the horizon.
  1. Empty signifiers:
    1. Any identity is ambiguous insofar as it is unable to constitute itself as a precise difference within a closed totality.
    2. The degree of fixity of a signifier varies in inverse proportion to the extent of its circulation in a given discursive formation.
    3. A signifier is emptied when it is disengaged from a particular signified and comes to symbolize a long chain of equivalent signifieds.
  1. The difference between the foundation and the horizon:
    1. The foundation:
    1. The horizon:
  1. Questions:
  1. What's the difference between 'democracy' and 'radical democracy'?
  2. Do you agree Laclau's opinion that democracy is impossible without the abandonment of the universal discourse?