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Judith Butler: Laclau, Marx, and the Performative Power of Negation

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This paper was delivered by Judith Butler at a conference on Laclau in Paris in 2015 and published in the collection of papers entitled Hégémonie, populisme, emancipation: Perspectives sur la philosophie d'Ernesto Laclau (1935-2014), edited by Rada Ivekovic, Diogo Sardinha and Patrice Vermeren, L’Harmattan (Paris), 2021. Thanks to Rada for permitting its republication here.

I am honored to be here today to reflect not only on the work of Ernesto Laclau, one of the truly great thinkers in our lifetimes. Ernesto always challenged me; we had great solidarity, but that was a solidarity with some agonism, and, like many people, I looked to him to understand the shape and promise of the left. Of course, he was pleased when people agreed with him, but he came to life in a different way when people disagreed. I understand my task, one that I take on gladly, to honor this great and singular political thinker, this philosopher, and also to keep the work alive through a living engagement. That means that, as I read him now, I continue the conversation we had, one in which I maintained solidarity with him, and also treated him, as I treat him still, as a thinker whose thought is alive, whose thought is pertinent, especially as we try to consider, what still defines the left, and how we critically understand our world.

As you doubtless know, Laclau’s writings were meticulous, erudite, and clear; they proceeded methodologically, making explicit the premises and conclusions of his argument. At the same time, he revisited and refined some of his own key concepts at different points in the course of his intellectual career, offering new formulations that brought into focus new formal and linguistic dimensions of his analysis. Although, for instance, rhetorical or tropological analysis was always present in his work, it obviously became more important in some of the last of his published works, where he argued that rhetoric is the foundation of social philosophy. It is a foundation, insofar as every social and political process is, in fact, structured according to key forms of substitution, condensation, and displacement. The formal features of metaphor and metonymy allow us a way to understand how key political signifiers operate in forming and dissolving groups, in establishing and disestablishing identification. In some of his tropological restatements of the operation of hegemony, he offers a way to reconsider very basic principles within Marxian analysis. In his view, “no conceptual structure finds its internal cohesion without appealing to rhetorical devices.” His move to both rhetoric and logic constituted a significant departure from Marxist theory, one might call it post-Marxist. And, yet, I want to suggest that, even as Laclau took distance from some dimensions of Marx’s work – the Hegelian concept of negation, the problematic invocation of totality, the reliance on forms of historical determinism –, he also re-articulated an aspect of Marxist analysis that gave it a new language and a new life for the political present. I hope, today, to distinguish between the Marx that Laclau sought to overcome, and the Marx that he sought to rearticulate. In following this path, I believe we have a chance to understand both the complex erudition of Laclau’s work as well as its pervasive originality. We also, perhaps, have a chance to rethink the question of why and how it is possible to emerge from subjugation into forms of solidarity or alliance through the process of articulation that is derived from the Gramscian tradition and that continues, in the work of both Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, to illuminate crucial forms of coalition that belong to a political trajectory both democratic and oppositional.

Few questions could be as important as the ones to which Laclau dedicated his incisive and capacious thinking. How do people come together whose apparent interests and apparent identities do not, at first, seem to have a relation to one another? How do we describe the process in which one group becomes linked to another, establishing a growing opposition to powers that dominate, and how, we might ask, does that form of articulation rely on rhetorical structures animating social process by which new life and new hope are given to a radical democratic future? If I take issue with Laclau along the way, please understand, that is my way of keeping our relationship alive. He would not want me to submit to his view without a struggle. It was my impression that he loved a good struggle. It was a sign that someone was profoundly engaging the work, and that he had a worthy interlocutor. I was one such person for a period of time, and I strive to be that, still, even as I know he is gone and like so many tens of thousands, I mourn the passing of this unparalleled intellectual and political presence from the world.

Let us turn first to the question of Laclau’s relation to Marx, and to the idea of collectivity and futurity that we find there. When Laclau turned to Marx, he tended to contrast two very different genealogies of thinking that emerged from Marx’s writings. The first is Marx’s “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right” in which Marx narrates the “coming into being” of the proletariat in Germany “as a result of rising industrial development.” The proletariat proclaims “the dissolution of the hitherto existing world order,” and, in doing so, it makes explicit what Marx calls the “secret of its own existence.” Indeed, the proletarians contain within themselves the principle by which the “world order” is dissolved, one that we might understand as a power of determinate negation. So they come into being, but that coming into being, realizes that power of negation, dissolves the established world order; the one not only brings about the other; the two are simultaneous. We could not fully understand what it means for the proletariat to come into being if we did not understand that such an emergence brings with it the downfall of the existing world order, since the existing world order is organized by the principle that the proletariat will never come into being, for if it did, that would mean or, rather, that would be the end of property. Indeed, to understand that coming into being of the proletariat, we would have to understand as well the moment in which it “proclaims” the end of that world organized by the principle of property. That proclamation wields the power to destroy property, and all the relations of property, including class relations, that follow. This proclamation is not a random speech act; rather, it is a speech act that becomes possible once class consciousness is realized or, rather, it is the linguistic realization of that consciousness. This negation of property thus becomes a principled opposition to property, and the proletariat is identified with that principle which then, in turn, becomes the new organizing principle of society, the founding of a new, propertyless society. In Marx’s words, “the proletariat raises to the rank of a principle of society what society has made the principle of the proletariat, what, without its own cooperation, is already incorporated in it as the negative result of society.” In other words, property negates workers, and, so, when workers become the proletariat, they emerge into the world, but they can only emerge to the extent that property is negated. They negate the conditions of their own negation and, as a result of their cooperation, emerge.

Laclau will take issue with this particular formulation, one that is clearly too Hegelian for his own purposes, and claims that, according to this account given by Marx, “the particular body of the proletariat represents, by itself, unmediated universality.” This is, however, not the only way of thinking found in Marx. He contrasts this passage to another one from Marx which he finds more promising, one which, in his view, expresses in abbreviated form “the structural moments of the hegemonic operation.” Marx asks, “On what is a partial, a merely political revolution based? On the fact that part of civil society emancipates itself and attains general domination; on the fact that a definite class, proceeding from its particular situation, undertakes the general emancipation of society… For the revolution of a nation and the emancipation of a particular class of civil society to coincide, for one estate to be acknowledged as the state of the whole society, all the defects of society much conversely be concentrated in another class, a particular estate must be looked upon as the notorious crime of the whole of society, so that liberation from that sphere appears as general self-liberation.”

In this second citation from Marx, we see that it is, importantly, only a part of civil society that comes to represent the general emancipation of society not because that part contains within itself the principle according to which the negation of existing society will take place. Those who belong to that part do not contain it in themselves. Rather, they make a bid for a representative status in relation to both the powers of negation and of emancipation; that status depends on being generally acknowledged as this part of society that now represents the emancipation of all society. In other words, a part of society comes to represent the whole, the interests of society in general become condensed into the part - but how, precisely, does this happen? Marx claims that all the defects of a society become “concentrated” there in that one group who comes to represent the possibility of revolutionary change. (i.e. both negation and emancipation). That class or estate comes to be regarded as a “notoriously criminal” class, because they represent the nullification of the legal order that secures property relations – so “criminals”, up until the point that they are acknowledged as emancipators from a criminal regime. So that the part of society, understood as class or estate or as some other group, only assumes the capacity to represent the emancipation of all of society when it is invested with that particular representative power. I will call it power, though I am not sure that Laclau would agree with the use of that word in that way – we will return to that in a moment.

In any case, the difference between Marx’s first and second formulation pivots on the difference between a principle directly embodied by a people whose realization brings about the negation of property relations, and a representative status that is attributed to a group, which allows that group or estate to represent an aggregate of demands directed against currently existing society in its entirety. Both aim at a totalizing negation, but, for Laclau, the one achieves it when a body, or set of bodies, represent(s) universality directly, without any intervening political contest over that representative capacity. The second, in Laclau’s view, “presupposes political mediation as a constitutive moment.” Indeed, for Laclau, the link between the particular body or bodies, class or estate, or even identities more generally, and the universal task of emancipation has to be forged in some way. The one does not imply the other logically or causally; the link is always accomplished by a process of substitution. That substitution is contingent and transient, and, even though it appears that the particular is now fused with the universal, that appearance is always impossible and, in that respect, illusory.

Let us return to Marx’s first formulation, since, if I have understood Laclau’s criticism correctly, then the pProletarians are not the proletariat until they are constituted as such. There are workers who come together into cooperative associations and form a new collective subject formation precisely as the proletariat, and so the very category of “proletariat” is one that is achieved and lost (overcome) in time. It is an historical category, and, for the proletariat to emerge, some diverse group has to start to identify with that category and claim it as its terms. So it may be that there is already a synecdochal operation happening within the first formulation. Marx describes this process as the February phase of the 1848 revolution: disparate groups with diverse labor demands gradually or quickly coalesce, and they form as a “subject” that represents them as a unity, and so this process already forms part of what Laclau would call a hegemonic operation. The term “proletariat” is not essential: it is not found in the body of those who gather under that sign, but they come to accept or acknowledge this term as what unifies them. In effect, it is only retroactively that the term gains the power to unify them. The term becomes regarded as unifying as well their particular interests with universal emancipation. So, there is a process of substitution and condensation that happens in the very development of the proletariat, although that process is not relayed in the abbreviated account of the emergence of the proletariat supplied by Marx on that occasion. If we ask what brings those with labor demands together under such a rubric, we could proceed to answer sociologically, as it were, and see what the particular demands were, and how they came to recognize a common interest, and to build up a form of alliance that culminates in a term that names that unity. But there are at least two problems with that procedure. For Laclau, the first problem is that the name, the sign, − and let us use the name “proletariat” − does not describe a pre-constituted sociological reality. It functions as a promise, or as a site of wish-fulfillment, even perhaps a dream of unity that is not realizable. It gathers its constituents and retroactively renames them through holding out the phantasmatic promise of unity and fulfillment. Sometimes, he will name this function of the signifier its jouissance. The other problem with this formulation is that Marx starts with the sociological presumption that there are already, pre-constituted, different parts of society, and that one part comes to stand, not only for its own liberation, but for the general liberation of society. So, it would seem that a name and a categorical place is already in place for every part of society, and that all its parts are included in what we call society. But what if not all the parts of society are named? What if there are unnameable parts, parts that are disavowed or nullified or, as Rancière would say, a part that is no part?

If we go back to Marx’s first formulation, we see that the power of the proletariat to negate property relations and all of existing society organized by property relations, depends on the fact that those who are called “the proletariat” have themselves been negated. They were first negated, and only on the condition of their own negation, do they now embody the principle of negation. That principle is not “immediately” part of who they are, or directly manifested by the bodies they are. Negation is laid in, as it were, as a defining and animating characteristic of an emergent group, an aggregate of some kind, that at some point or another coalesces into a unity, unified in part and retroactively by a name. Laclau is right to see the Hegelian dimensions of the first formulation, but is he right to reject that first formulation on the basis of its Hegelianism?

Here is my rejoinder: it is hardly by virtue of their bodies alone that an assemblage of some sort comes to call itself the proletariat. We could say that they constitute themselves as a unity by suppressing the importance of their differences. But is it not equally true that they come to embody a principle of negation because they have been variously negated in some way, without precisely being eliminated? So negated, we might say, they nevertheless persist in a modality of life. Such a concept bears resemblance to social death, or, indeed, to forms of partial living as a non-living creature, a paradox that is not exactly a contradiction, and that characterizes forms of human life under conditions of commodity fetishism, but under conditions of precarity more broadly. If a group called the proletariat, a group that assumes that name, comes to embody a principle, it is only because historically, their labor has been devalued, disposed of, exploited, and the conditions of labor have not yielded a livable wage or a livable life. So it is only because negation has already affected and formed such a partial subject that the subject is animated by a negating power, converts the negation done to that subject into a negation of the conditions of the world that produces that form of social death is itself nullified. For this formulation to work, it must be possible for the principle of negation to undergo a conversion which is not the same as a reversal. Negated, but not fully eliminated, a subject emerges which is organized by the desire to negate not only its own oppression, but the general conditions of oppression that call to be radically transformed. We could say that the transformation of those conditions precedes the emergence of the subject. But Marx is telling us, with the first formulation, something else? The emergence of the subject is the negation of those conditions. So, negation is not the essence of the proletariat: negation is first attributed, and then converted, and the end-effect of that process of conversion is what is called “the proletariat”. The name is first adjectival and only later becomes a plural noun. And were its action to become completed, it would lose that name altogether, perhaps becoming “the people.” Either way, it is the effect of an historical process, not an unmediated relationship.

Of course, Laclau has argued that the emancipatory action is undertaken by what is called the people, not the proletariat, and this also leads him to posit the ultimate value of populism, and to regard class struggle as having a more limited value: this is surely one of the most crucial differences from Marx, on to which we will return shortly. But, before we do, we should return to the performative function of the name and its constitutive temporality in order to better understand what is at stake in Laclau’s preference of the one formulation of Marx over the other.

Whatever group, whatever assemblage, endeavors to take up revolutionary negation, in the first formulation, is not yet the subject called “the proletariat”, but they become the proletariat, that is, they can only properly be named as such, through the collective action they take to overcome the broader conditions of oppression. This means that the name comes to characterize those who engage in the action, that finally, that action is named, and that the subject only comes into view at the moment of that action: without the action, there is no name, and though it may seem odd that the name brings a subject into being, it is that signifying action that achieves that performative effect. For Laclau, the name exercises the unifying force on an aggregate that coheres when it acts, but that loose group, as it were, becomes the proletariat when it acts decisively and negatively in relation to the existing regime of social and economic relations. For Laclau, without that signifier, the group does not exactly come together. The name exercises the power to unify an aggregate: disparate groups or identities minimize their own claims in relation to a larger emancipator project precisely because the name holds out the promise of a unified identity that appears to background, or subordinate, all differences. For Laclau, the name, that unifying signifier, functions both in an anticipatory and retroactive way; it induces the collectivity that it seems to name; it renames the various aggregates that have come together prior to, and in the course of, revolutionary action.

Marx seems to be less interested in how a set of groups come to identify with the status of the “proletariat.” He does, however, understand that that identification happens in the midst of negating action. So it is not the ideal of unity that compels them as much as the full-scale negation of existing social relations. Thus, for Marx, it is in the collective act of negation that the name arrives, not in the unified gathering of the revolutionary forces. Indeed, for Marx, the unification of the forces implies the large- scale possibility of negation and emancipation. So the name, “the proletariat”, does not describe who the people are, but, rather, that very action by which a process of being negated converts into a negating power. Although “proletariat” is the name for a collective subject, for Marx, it is perhaps as well, or even fundamentally, a name for the conversion within negativity; those who are in part negated, or whose allies have been eliminated, or who live under conditions of social death, appropriate and convert the power of the negative to dismantle those social relations that rely upon, and perpetuate that condition of social death. The conversion of the negative performatively produces the proletariat. This may seem like an economical Hegelian ruse, but, perhaps, all it does is name the moment of uprising.

For Laclau, if a political subject incorporates a principle of negation, transformation, or emancipation, that can only be the result of a self-attribution that is both contingent and transient. Is it different for Marx when he refers to a political subject who embodies such a principle? One could take the position that, for Marx, history proceeds through a secular eschatology, and sometimes, at least, Laclau claims this is true. He is more interested in the Marx of the 18th Brumaire in which anachronisms are suddenly animating a revolution than the Marx who understands historical development to proceed toward a fixed teleology in the future through the dynamic propulsion of contradiction. And, yet, when Marx points to historical development of industrialization, for instance, as one way of accounting for the production of the proletariat, he is neither claiming that industrialization should be understood as the sufficient and necessary condition of the emergence of the proletariat, nor is he arguing that some cunning of reason is working itself out in and through both historical conditions and the human actions. Although we can all find different passages in Marx that support our various views, my point is simply that, for those who have undergone the systematic negation of their work and their livelihood, they are acted on before they act, which means that the effects of an historical formation both continues and reverses in the critical and transformative acts that are called revolutionary. There is a break with the past, but from what source does the power of breakage emerge? Do not revolutions cite prior revolutions, recirculating their emblems and signifiers, calling upon a prior form of uprising in order precisely to rise again? That form of citationality may break with the original context, but also draw power from its symbolic currencies. Is this not part of the conversion of the negative by which the proletariat comes into being? If so, then the principle of negation embodied by the proletariat is implicitly composed of a history of revolutionary ruptures, sealed over and yet drawn upon with every new uprising. Can we understand negation not only as a logical principle, but as a sedimented practice bearing its own historicity – was this not the point of the 18th Brumaire when Marx referred to “the world-historical conjuring up of the dead?”

Could not negation be, to use Laclau’s terms, a practice at once sedimented and reactivated when it acts, when its acts turn out to repeat, reverse, or redirect a past either glorified or reviled? We have to be able to assume a heterogeneity that is not fully described by the language of class. He points to the fact that the lumpenproletariat emerges time and again in the writings of Marx as not the same as the proletariat invested with revolutionary potential. And, yet, this exclusion proves to be constitutive not only of the “proletariat” Marx seeks to recognize and affirm, but the structure of class antagonism that is understood to function as the motor of a dialectical history. Laclau sides with Rancière on this point, namely, that heterogeneity precedes dialectical opposition, not only constituting dialectical history through its exclusion, restricting the idea of the political such that the most dispossessed and disparaged of peoples are excluded from its terms.

One might be convinced by the force of this argument to say, with Laclau, that Hegel is now clearly no longer useful. But, of course, the entire idea of a constitutive exclusion depends upon the notion of determinate negation. Or so it seems to me. Can there be a determinate negation of this view of dialectical history? I would wager that there could, but that does not exactly answer the question of how to account for heterogeneity. If dialectical opposition and history suppress the heterogeneity of the people, then the second question emerges: how to form a unity from this heterogeneity? For Laclau, heterogeneity is not the basis of politics: the particular positions that constitute heterogeneity must be linked together, and one of them must substitute itself credibly for the general emancipator interests of them all. This is the operation of hegemony, and it depends on the retroactive and unifying power of the signifier. That signifier is wrought through a substitution that is, in some sense, false, since the part is not the whole, ontologically considered; at the same time, that signifier no longer functions in a descriptive way; it comes to represent the people, which is not to say that it represents all of them adequately. On the contrary, particularistic interests minimize their differences from one another as they form the chain of equivalence from which a part assumes the representative status for the whole, that is, for the people, and so the signifier of populism emerges.

Laclau’s fundamental critique of Marx cannot, and should not, be set aside. My effort has been only to suggest that the first and second Marx are perhaps closer to the position of Laclau than we might expect, since, once we understand the concrete temporality of negation in Marx’s text, we can see that there is no perfect and unmediated incorporation of principle on the part of the proletariat. It would be an overstatement to say that when the proletariat is the force of negation, a symbolic relation has taken hold, but when an aggregate becomes unified under a signifier that allows a part to stand for the whole, that is, a metonymy that functions as a synecdoche, a part used to grasp together the parts to make a totality (in this way, precisely not the part that is no part – as Rancière would have it – but the part that comes to stand for all the other parts). It would seem that even the claim that a subject is the principle of emancipation has to give some account of how that ontological effect was achieved, and this brings us back not only to problems of rhetoric (how does substitution discursively establish ontological effects) but history (how does revival and rupture work in the anticipatory construction of the revolutionary subject?). But, of course, it is precisely on the topic of the revolutionary subject that Laclau and Marx differ more fundamentally, in my view. After all, populism is not the same as class struggle, and “the people” is a different kind of subject than “the proletariat.” Laclau and Mouffe both have argued that the theory of hegemony has had to take into account new social movements where particular kinds of identities and demands are now in conflict with one another, and for whom new hegemonic signifiers are required. Would it be fair to say that “populism” is the hegemonic signifier for new social movements, or for that existing heterogeneity that can no longer be adequately grasped by the conceptual categories of class?

Laclau does not dispute the fact that “class” continues to describe various forms of domination and exploitation. The question is, rather, whether “class” can function as a signifier that can unify the various demands that belong to what he calls the chain of equivalence. Let us remember that various demands may well be in conflict with one another, especially within new social movements, but within Marxism and anarchism as well. Laclau writes that the Marxist view that sought to simply subordinate social structure to capitalism with the expectation that an antagonism between bourgeoisie and the working class would emerge as the final and decisive antagonism was mistaken. For Laclau, that view “misread what was going on in society” and faltered with theoretical inconsistencies. Indeed, the internal fragmentation of society could not be grasped by that version of antagonism. And, as he notes, “the splits between economic and political struggle became less and less politically manageable.” In effect, the heterogeneous could not be homogenized. “The only possible alternative,” he writes, “is to accept heterogeneity.” And yet, even though that heterogeneity cannot be overcome, its constitutive parts can be articulated, or linked, within a hegemonic struggle. What, if anything, brings the proponents of those demands to link with one another, to find a condition of alliance? What do they rally around? And what signifier unites them, letting them minimize their particular differences and join in a popular struggle, that is a struggle to make and sustain the notion of “the people” over and against a set of powers, or a regime, that identified as the primary antagonist of political life? In a way, Laclau’s political theoretical reflection emerges in the aftermath of a left discourse in which “class” could operate as such a unifying signifier, but there is nothing in Laclau’s theory that precludes the notion that “class” could very well emerge as such a signifier in the future. The point is not whether “class” can provide an adequate description, but whether it functions as a part that can claim the mantle of the whole. For “class” to become part of a truly hegemonic struggle, would have to link with gender, race, precarity, and a host of other active and compelling signifiers to produce an alliance, a unity, a chain of metonymically connected signifiers and act as the unifying force that can only happen when a part, nevertheless comes to stand for, or represents the whole: “… this is inherent to the central political operation we call ‘hegemony’ … the movement from … contingent articulation to essential belonging.”

Let us remember that his task was to continue to reformulate and build the theory of hegemony. No signifier has this political capacity in advance; it gains its status neither through a claim to a priori structure nor by virtue of its ability to describe comprehensively all the various social and economic dynamics. As Laclau puts it, “everything depends on a hegemonic contest.” And the major challenges to this form of hegemonic contest seem to be (a) the situation in which heterogeneity is simply accepted, whether lamented as a loss or applauded as an ideal, and (b) the management, containment, and hence domination of multiple differences by state and economic powers that effectively shore up their own hegemony through an administrative power that neutralizes the potential counter-hegemonic force of that heterogeneity. Some part has to act as the whole, which means that hegemonic struggle relies on a synecdochal function that produces a symbolic effect. We belong to one group and we happen to arrive at the public square next to another, and we are not sure whether or not we belong together, but we are both at the square.

Let us think about Taksim Square in Turkey in 2013, for instance, in which the group defending public water rights arrives with the radical anarchists, and they are joined by revolutionary Marxists, feminists against sexual harassment, the emerging LGBTQ movement, a rush of fans from the soccer team along with the Kurdish mothers who are asking the state to supply documentation about the disappearances of their sons, and a substantial number of activists who want to save the trees and the public status of the park against an elaborate privatization effort sponsored by the state. At the point of arriving, they are quite literally related contiguously: they are spatially next to one another, some of them for the first time. They are occupying the square, and, in some sense, that square, and its name, Taksim, functions as a focus of opposition that allows for this contingent collection of disparate demands. Is Taksim the signifier, or is it by virtue of the struggle to lay claim to the public as the people, that a certain populist possibility emerges? If we claim that the power of Taksim square, a power that relies on its own important political history, is re-activated when demonstrations took place there, we have to understand how the square has achieved such symbolic power. Is it the name, “Taksim”, is it the materiality of the square, and the historicity of popular resistance that the square recalls, reanimates, and signifies, a social history that acts on, and through, the present desires of the people in refracted and enigmatic ways? Indeed, is there a past that acts on those assembled in an unwitting way, perhaps an in involuntary way, implicating the assembled in a history that is carried more or less unconsciously (I take it that this was one of the important points from Marx’s 18th Brumaire – the vital and unexpected emergence of an anachronism as part of a popular uprising). The square is sedimented with history, and yet, is it also an “empty signifier” whose very capacity to unify disparate demands works for the moment precisely because it is empty? In Laclau’s view, “the so-called ‘poverty’ of the populist symbols is the condition of their political efficacy.”

The square emerges as an empty signifier, in the sense that it can become the site of a new investment, but, perhaps, it is the place where older longings flood the public sphere. The occupation of the square can be understood as a re-signifying political practice that calls upon a history, interesting enough, a history of repeated rupture with authority, recalling and remobilizing that history in the name of a new rupture which is not reducible to any of the prior ruptures? And is it something in or of the subject that actively re-animates the past, or are we, as subjects, always re-animated by a past we cannot fully track or know? We could say that the square or the name of the square becomes a site of radical investment, but when we do say that, we imagine that investment, which includes forms of identification and idealization, all proceed from the human subject and the psychoanalytic structure of wish-fulfillment. The fact that no signifier ever makes good on its promise to provide the place of “essential belonging” seems to follow from the fact that the imaginary solutions for desire can never produce the unity they promise. This is important for Laclau, since it keeps the hegemonic struggle open-ended, establishing every totalization not only as false (the part does not, and cannot, really become the whole) but as incomplete (that final satisfaction is not really attained, and certainly not sustained, except in transient moments.) But can this account of radical investment suffice for an account of the power of the assembly, the demonstration, the coalition or alliance, or even for the articulation of left movements and their internal conflicts? After all, if the subject is formed in part through being “invested in” by historical discourses of desire, loss, and reparation, then how do these later re-appear in the kinds of emotional investments that any subject may make? How do we account for the historical dimension of investment, the emotional binds into which we are born, and the historical forms of desire and longing that precede and form us? To answer this question well, we might have to return from Lacan to Freud, but also to note that the structure of wish-fulfillment and its impossible objects belongs to the early Freud of The Interpretation of Dreams, failing to take account for the later development of the death drive (1920) which, after all, is concerned with destructiveness and “unmaking” at both the personal and the political levels.

I cannot pursue that thought fully in this essay, but I want to note that we may have to account for why the anachronistic emerges so powerfully in the midst of present desires, but also how place and history function in the reproduction of fundamental forms of longing, disappointment, idealization and disillusionment. Prior to investing in any object or ideal, I am already interpellated or addressed so that I am formed by various longings that are not mine, that are, from the start and perhaps for all time, foreign to me, and that establish an unconscious matrix of desires from which I, as a subject, emerge.

Before I act on anything, before I invest in anyone or any ideal, this “I” is already acted on; in fact, only by being acted on can I emerge as an “I” at all; and so, in this sense, I am inserted into, we might say, a signifying chain that I never chose, and that chain takes me up and acts on me quite involuntarily, producing a set of conflicts without which psychic life would be unthinkable. And does this formation of the subject implicate us in social relations that we never chose and that are nevertheless crucial for our survival?

When those gathered at Taksim, or indeed, those who recently gathered at Syntagma in Greece, or in the favelas of Brazil, or in the Black Lives Matter movement produce the caption for their action, holding signs, chanting slogans, or writing manifestos, they operate within discourse as we are used to understanding it. But does it matter as well that they arrive in bodily form, standing together at the square, and in relations of bodily contiguity, relying on one another in the face of police violence, compelled to assist one another, or to produce the human barricade? Many of those groups had never met outside the square, and some of them had never seen Kurdish mothers at all. A rupture in the order of the visual field had taken place, at least for a time.

It probably was not altogether comfortable for the soccer fans to stand next to the drag queens in downtown Istanbul, and, yet, a set of tentative identifications were formed in the midst of such anxieties among groups that had never been articulated with one another before. I am not sure one group became the social representative of the entire group. Perhaps the signifiers “Taksim” or “Gezi” – the names of contiguous spaces worked in that way, or perhaps the exciting oscillation between the two adjacent signifiers was most important. We could say there was a clear demand, “Save Gezi Park from Privatization”, that unified the effort, that the part became the whole, but even then the “whole” exceeded that signifier, and the signifiers shifted several times, expanding and morphing into a movement to counter the violence of the police and security personnel, the corruption of the courts and the complicity of the media, the practices of indefinite detention, the killing of pedestrians, the authoritarian character of the state and its leader, a call for popular resistance and freedom of assembly, and the true realization of democracy. We might say, with Laclau, that the absence of a unifying signifier explains the evanescence of the movement. That may well be true.

How much finally can we ask of the signifier? We can discern the signifiers in the mobilization, and we can even formulate in propositional form the demand that the signifier seeks to make; we can as well track the retroactive unification of the chain of equivalence as a performative way of producing “the people” and establishing a populism at the level of the popular imaginary. But does this account for the powers of signification, or the relation between power and signification? After all, there are modes of signification that do not take propositional form, and the performative, which is often gestural or dramatic, is one of them. Sometimes it is propositional, for sure, but other times gestures, movements and concerted embodied actions signify in ways that do not reduce to propositional claims. If we stay with a concept of “representation” that requires that all demands take propositional form, do we overlook those other forms of signification that operate politically in forms of assembly, and in democratic mobilizations? The point is not to celebrate some “immediacy” of bodily life. That view misunderstands those forms of embodied signification that are so crucial to understanding how forms of gender hierarchy are lived, and how modes of racism become incorporated in racial schemas of the body. If performativity is not fully reducible to a propositional form, but characterizes as well the social reproduction of embodied life according to norms of gender, race, class, individualism and civilization, then embodied actions, understood as discourse and power, are also crucial ways of renegotiating hegemony. Indeed, social and political forms of domination depend on the regulated reproduction of the embodied subject to extend their own hegemony.

Political forms of performativity are certainly not restricted to embodied action, but no account of political performativity will be persuasive without demonstrating how forms of power manage and incite embodied life, including trajectories of desire, the mode and possibility of movement and stasis, the regulations on gathering, the incitements of acting together. Laclau’s rhetorical analysis can certainly enter here, showing us the structural conditions for gathering and acting. But we will need another component to that analysis to explain, for instance, “being moved” without which we cannot have a concept of mobilization, much less an account of democratic mobilization. We are not only creatures who look to have our desires for essential belonging objectified in the political world. We also rail against those social bonds that seek to capture us, and sometimes come to resist those very forms of unity for which we have longed and struggled. This is perhaps one way that the death drive enters into the equation, for which we must find rhetorical structures by which the common world is undone.

Of course, we have to be aware of the inhuman and unwilled dimensions of mobilizations, the spatial history of where and how we congregate, how architecture acts upon us in complex and ambivalent ways, the social histories that our bodies carry in their desires and longings, and the various forms of socialities that produce, or fail to produce, the very possibility of hegemonic articulation. This in no way discounts the power of rhetorical analysis – but it does expand the field of its operation into new domains.

I tried to suggest that Marx begins with the assumption that the worker has suffered a form of negation, and has, in Hegelian terms, suffered the negation of his or her own existence, but in such a way that the work still somehow lives on. In economic terms, we would call this “bare subsistence”. But it is more, since it is living at the level of bare subsistence knowing that subsistence will only become more difficult to secure, so living within a steadily contracting horizon of livability. If the worker converts this power of negation, that is, rising up with others in a structurally similar situation, to negate the conditions that negate their very capacity to subsist, then they are taking back, re-embodying, and re-purposing that very power of negation. They are, we might say, part of the signifying chain of negation. If so, can we then see that this is not an “immediate” embodiment, but a highly mediated one, indeed, a re-incorporation of negative power for the purposes of overthrowing the conditions that preclude livability?

Secondly, does this idea of embodiment help us to understand what happens within mobilizations when a call or demand assumes the form of a concerted bodily practice. It would be a mistake to understand the call or demand as merely a propositional form, or to say that it operates at the level of “representation” that is fully abstracted from the embodied forms of its signifying. Signification exceeds representation, and has embodied forms (as we know from performance studies) as well as verbal and written manifestations. Our bodies are ordered – and disordered − by powerful networks of signification that form our very sense of embodiment, socially shaping the bodily schemas in which we live and work and love. When we demonstrate against precarity, we are “saying” that precarious conditions are unlivable, but, if we hope to give some semantic content to the claim of “unlivability”, some portion of us have to arrive within public view, effectively to present the bodies that are affected by such policies through a self-referential gesture. This might be understood as the deictic dimension of bodily self-reference that takes place in any given demonstration or mobilization. It is what Laclau would call “a demand.” There is self-reference in this action: it is this body, or these bodies, who both suffer and resist, at risk of losing the conditions of subsistence, and who are linking with one another in order to secure the conditions for subsistence and flourishing in the course of a struggle for equality and justice. We can translate what is happening on the street into such propositions, and perhaps we feel that only at such moments do we “grasp” the meaning of such actions. The proposition distills and clarifies the action. But the representational status of language is supplemented, and qualified by the performative dimension. Yet, if there were no framing and circulation of the action in its collectively self-referential moment, a moment, we might say, in which bodies struggling in collective fashion appear, signifying that they exist still, lay claim publically to that right to appear and subsist and, indeed, to flourish, then we fail to understand the meaning of the proposition at all.

When Laclau defines hegemony as “a relation of transient and contingent incarnation,” and democracy as the “type of regime which makes fully visible the contingent character of the hegemonic link,” he opens the way to understanding how relations established between any number of disparate political claims may well become embodied in the course of their contingent articulation. And, yet, what might change in his theory if we understood bodies as both constrained and animated by both discourse and power? These are among the broader questions that I would pursue with him if I could, and I am sad that I cannot once again engage in that invaluable form of agonistic encounter that so many of us had with Ernesto Laclau. That would include, perhaps, a debate about discourse versus representation, and how embodied the signifier, if not the chain of signification, can be, or what “the people” are or “could be” and how to move beyond what he called the “egalitarian imaginary” – a place where I think I probably dwell. I can imagine him criticizing me precisely on this point, and he may well be right.

Perhaps, as we try to fathom how to continue to think politically in the aftermath of this very terrible loss, and in light of this time in which forms of the left are resurging, and others seem very lost, we might ask about how hegemony can still guide us. Laclau never said that class was no longer part of politics, but only that conflicts among classes cannot now be understood in terms of a class struggle that can by itself lay claim to the political field. For us, we are left with understanding how precarity relates to class, and how both relate to any number of struggles against domination and exploitation, including feminism, LBBTQ movements, anti-racism struggles, the ongoing fight against fascism, restrictions on immigration that have life and death consequences, and activism against security and surveillance, the prison industry, ongoing forms of colonial domination, as well as neo-liberal economic and administrative forms of power, that could not have been predicted or described by earlier economic theory.

When I used to ask Laclau whether rhetoric or logic, or even theory, could be, in some sense, prior to social practice or historical process, he would say that my very capacity to identify a practice or a process depends on a theoretical presupposition, a conceptual capacity to grasp the phenomenon in this or that way. I agreed with him, and it always came as a great relief to hear this great thinker of Marxism insist upon this point. For him, this was not a linguistic idealism, as some of our common opponents would say. It was, rather, a precise and subtle understanding of how language enters at the most basic levels of perception, event, practice, and process, including economic process and the determination of every materialism. If rhetoric is a foundation, it is not, for that reason, stable and knowable through time. It is, I would suggest, a post-foundational foundation, if we may speak that way in order precisely to foreground the contingent and transient character of the political formations that make or break our world. When “the people” emerges, it is generated, and generates iteself from a condition of disparate interests and identities. Whatever grounding they have is to be found precisely in the movement they make together. That we can describe and analyze the rhetorical structures of hegemonic articulation means that we have now, with Laclau, brought together a political and linguistic understanding of articulation that most definitively overcomes the division between language and materialism. Where potential or actual division persists, however, is precisely among those links in the chain of equivalence, for they can separate or re-unite, and this marks their contingency and their freedom. Laclau surely confirmed that “the people” does not belong to a metaphysics of the subject – we cannot look outside their articulation to find the grounding for their unity. There remain forms of ambivalence within the relations that bind, but, in moments of popular emergence and opposition, that ambivalence moves into the background, and conflict becomes clearly situated in the opposition to hegemonic power. Of course, there is a necessary agonism at the heart of antagonism. My relation to Ernesto Laclau had its agonism, but that meant only that I was with him, engaged at the most urgent levels of thought, as I still am, persisting in my own style of solidarity. I was, and still am, ever grateful for his incitation to continue to think the political conditions of our times.

References from Ernesto Laclau:

“Democracy and the Question of Power”, Constellations, Vol. 8, no 1, 2001.

“Populism: What’s in a Name?” in ed. Panizza, Populism and the Mirror of Democracy, ed. Panizza, London: Verso, 2005.

“Articulation and the Limits of Metaphor” in A Time for the Humanities, eds. Bono, Dean and Ziarek, New York: Fordham University Press, 2008.

  1. Constructing a People is the Main Task of Radical Politics”, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 32. #4. 2006. pp. 646-680.

On Populist Reason, London: Verso, 2005, pp. 129-172; La Raison populiste, traduit par Jean-Pierre Ricard, Paris : Seuil, 2008.

On the Rhetorical Foundations of Society, London: Verso, 2014