Laclau and Zizek on the Populist Reason


First the obvious: for this week’s readings it is difficult to craft a post entry that would be legible, short (readable), and comprehensive. Since we started by reading the debate backwardly as it were and have not reached the origin (or the end in that case) of these exchanges the difficulty I mentioned above only increases. Nevertheless I would try to enumerate a few points of the debate and with these in mind help to set the terms for our discussion Friday. There are also segments of the readings where I just couldn’t decipher the issues discussed. These I also bring up as a way to clear the confusion in our meeting.
I begin with the Zizek response “The Populist Temptation” in lieu of a better starting point. (“Why do Empty Signifiers Matter to Politics” from Emancipation(s) was not available at the UBC library). It seems that there are a few places where both Laclau and Zizek disagree as well as different levels of disagreement. In a few words, for me, Laclau is in favor of populism. Zizek is skeptical and sees it as a form of proto-fascism. The question is then displaced into debating whether populism of class struggle are compatible, actual, and viable as a way to create a project of “radical politics.” The debate seems to be over class struggle versus populism as Zizek puts it here at the beginning of his critique:
It is clear now why Laclau prefers populism to class struggle: populism provides a neutral “transcendental” matrix of an open struggle whose content and stakes are themselves defined by the contingent struggle for hegemony, while “class struggle” presupposes a particular social group (the working class) as a privileged political agent; this privilege is not itself the outcome of hegemonic struggle, but grounded in the “objective social position” of this group – the ideologico-political struggle is thus ultimately reduced to an epiphenomenon of “objective” social processes, powers and their conflicts
So far so good.
For Laclau, on the contrary, the fact that some particular struggle is elevated into the “universal equivalent” of all struggles is not a pre-determined fact, but itself the result of the contingent political struggle for hegemony.
I guess that this is a theoretical disagreement between the two actors -agents of revolutionary change: working class and populism (as the site of particular struggle is elevated into the “universal equivalent”). But Laclau’s first sentence refuses to recognize this dichotomy:

“Žižek starts by saying that I prefer populism to class struggle (see p. 554). This is a rather nonsensical way of presenting the argument. It suggests that populism and class struggle are two entities actually existing in the world, between which one would have to choose, such as when one chooses to belong to a political party or to a football club.”
So far so good… maybe?
In defending or clearing his point from any possible misunderstandings Laclau reformulates the core of the thesis and this brings us to the first point I would like to clarify in our meeting due to its importance but its dense articulation:

“My whole analysis is precisely based in asserting that any politico‐discursive field is always structured through a reciprocal process by which emptiness weakens the particularity of a concrete signifier but, conversely, that particularity reacts by giving to universality a necessary incarnating body. I have defined hegemony as a relationship by which a certain particularity becomes the name of an utterly incommensurable universality. So the universal, lacking any means of direct representation, obtains only a borrowed presence through the distorted means of its investment in a certain particularity.”
Let’s try to digest the idea with attention to his use of “particularity” “universality” etc…
Next he brings a nice breakdown of Zizek’s faux pas in his interpretation (let’s discuss it Friday):

But let us go back to the logical steps through which Žižek’s analysis is structured—that is, how he conceives of his supplement to my theoretical construct. His argument is hardly anything more than a succession of non‐sequitur conclusions. The sequence is as follows:

1. he starts by quoting a passage from my book in which, referring to the way popular identities were constituted in British Chartism, I show that the evils of society were not presented as deriving from the economic system, but from the abuse of power by parasitic and speculative groups;
2. he finds that something similar happens in fascist discourse, where the figure of the Jew becomes the concrete incarnation of everything that is wrong with society (this concretization is presented by him as an operation of reification);
3. he concludes that this shows that in all populism (why? how?) there is “a long‐term protofascist tendency”;
4. communism, however, would be immune to populism because, in its discourse, reification does not take place, and the leader safely remains as a secondary one. It is not difficult to perceive the fallacy of this whole argument.

First, Chartism and fascism are presented as two species of the genus populism; second, one of the species’s (fascism’s) modus operandi is conceived as reification; third, for no stated reasons (at this point the Chartist example is silently forgotten), that makes the modus operandi of the species become the defining feature of the whole genus; fourth, as a result, one of the species becomes the teleological destiny of all the other species belonging to that genus. To this we should add, fifth, as a further unwarranted conclusion, that if communism cannot be a species of the genus populism, it is presumably (the point is nowhere explicitly made) because reification does not take place in it. In the case of communism we would have an unmediated universality; this would be the reason why the supreme incarnation of the concrete, the Leader, has to be entirely subordinated to the Idea. Needless to say, this last conclusion is not grounded on any historical evidence but on a purely a prioristic argument.

Laclau dissects Zizek’s critique and accusations and proceeds to critique Zizek’s tools (reification) and his less than tasteful examples:

Žižek’s whole reasoning, is to explore the two unargued assumptions on which the latter is based. They are as follows: (1) any incarnation of the universal in the particular should be conceived as reification; (2) such an incarnation is inherently fascist. To these postulates we will oppose two theses:

1. that the notion of reification is entirely inadequate to understand the kind of incarnation of the universal in the particular that is inherent in the construction of a popular identity;
2. that such an incarnation—rightly understood—far from being a characteristic of fascism or of any other political movement, is inherent to any kind of hegemonic relation—that is, to the kind of relation inherent to the political as such.

The omnipotence of exchange‐value in capitalist society would make impossible access to the viewpoint of totality; relations between men would take an objective character and, while individuals would be turned into things, things would appear as the true social agents. Now if we take a careful look at the structure of reification one salient feature becomes visible immediately: it essentially consists in an operation of inversion. What is derivative appears as originary; what is appariential is presented as essential. The inversion of the relationship subject/predicate is the kernel of any reification.)

We are not dealing with a false consciousness opposed to a true one—which would be waiting for us as a teleologically programmed destiny—but with the contingent construction of a consciousness tout court. So what Žižek presents as his supplement to my approach is not a supplement at all but the putting into question of its basic premises.

What we have said so far already anticipates that, in our view, the second thesis of Žižek, according to which symbolic representation—which he conceives as reification—would be essentially or, at least, tendentially fascist, does not fare any better. Here Žižek uses a demagogic device: the role of the Jew in Nazi discourse, which immediately evokes all the horrors of the Holocaust and provokes an instinctive negative reaction. Now it is true that fascist discourse employed forms of symbolic representation, but there is nothing specifically fascist in doing so, for there is no political discourse that does not construct its own symbols in that way.

Laclau’s rebuttal is welcomed as it helps us understand the theoretical tools used by both thinkers. Although I understand the general idea I have some questions for Jon which I will bring up later in addition to a few points in Laclau’s explanation of his argument as follows:

So what Žižek presents as his supplement to my approach is not a supplement at all but the putting into question of its basic premises. These premises result from an understanding of the relation between the universal and the particular, the abstract and the concrete, which I have discussed in my work from three perspectives—psychoanalytic, linguistic, and political—and which I want briefly to summarize here to show its incompatibility with Žižek’s crude false‐consciousness model.

Namely the overview of the three perspectives used by Laclau “psychoanalytic, linguistic, and political.”
In the next section Demands: Between Requests and Claims
We understand how the chain of demand is articulated in Laclau’s theory although I would like to go over it later in our meeting.

Here I quote a passage from Laclau’s article:
“The minimal unit in our social analysis is the category of demand. It presupposes that the social group is not an ultimately homogeneous referent but that its unity should rather be conceived as an articulation of heterogeneous demands. Žižek has formulated two main objections to this approach: the first, that the notion of demand does not grasp the true confrontational nature of the revolutionary act (“Does the proper revolutionary or emancipatory political act not move beyond this horizon of demands? The revolutionary subject no longer operates at the level of demanding something from those in power; he wants to destroy them” [p. 558]); the second, that there is no correlation between the plurality implicit in the notion of an equivalential chain of demands and the actual aims of a populist mobilization because many populist movements are structured around one‐issue objectives (“A more general remark should be made here about one‐issue popular movements. Take, for example, the ‘tax revolts’ in the U.S. Although they function in a populist way, mobilizing the people around a demand that is not met by the democratic institutions, it does not seem to rely on a complex chain of equivalences, but remains focused on one singular demand”)”
In addition he criticizes Zizek’s almost impossible subject. He believes that the Slovenian thinker places to many demands on that subject and is therefore closer to the figure of a Martian than anything else:
“This is probably the kind of development that Žižek has in mind when he speaks of not demanding anything from those in power, but wanting to destroy them instead. The difference between his approach and mine is, however, that for me the emergence of emancipatory actors has a logic of its own, which is anchored in the structure of the demand as the basic unit of social action, while for Žižek there is no such logic; emancipatory subjects are conceived as fully fledged creatures, who emerge without any kind of genetic process, as Minerva from Jupiter’s head. The section in my book that deals with Žižek’s work has, as a title, “Žižek: Waiting for the Martians.” There is, indeed, something extraterrestrial about Žižek’s emancipatory subjects; their conditions as revolutionary agents are specified within such a rigid geometry of social effects that no empirical actor can fit the bill. In his recent writings, however, Žižek deploys a new strategy in naming revolutionary agents, consisting in choosing some actually existing social actors to whom he attributes however so many imaginary features that they become Martians in everything but name.”

In the following section Heterogeneity and Social Practices
I got a little disoriented and failed to extrapolate much from it. I believe that here Laclau revisits the use of Lacan and critiques Marx’s CPE [critique of political economy] in the issue of giving privilege to class struggle. After Zizek concludes one of his sections of “Against the Populist Temptation” with the following statement,
“Here we encounter the Lacanian difference between reality and the Real: reality is the social reality of the actual people involved in interaction and in the productive processes, while the Real is the inexorable abstract spectral logic of capital that determines what goes on in social reality” (p. 566)”
Laclau reproaches Zizek and mentions this quote as a “good example of how Žižek systematically distorts Lacanian theory to make it compatible with a Hegelianism that is, in most respects, its very opposite”

I will leave it here because I want to publish it today Tuesday so you both have time to read it and also because I don’t want these posts to become one more burdensome reading to the already heavy list you both have.
What is missing are two important sections: Heterogeneity and Dialectics and Creating a People. I believe we can go over them when we meet. However, I will try to reread them tomorrow and figure out as much as possible before Friday. I have not spent too much time on Bourdieu so do not expect something like this summary about the Practical Reason. Regards.