Academic journal article Brazilian Political Science Review

The Place of Normativity in the Political Ontology of Ernesto Laclau*

Academic journal article Brazilian Political Science Review

The Place of Normativity in the Political Ontology of Ernesto Laclau*

Article excerpt


The work of Ernesto Laclau has been a theoretical effort to present an interpretation of the political as an area specific to and explanatory of social relations, particularly since Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (HSS from now on), co-authored with Chantal Mouffe. In spite of his work sometimes having been "accused" of being abstract, philosophical, - in a word - "unconcerned" with daily political practices, this is absolutely not Laclau's objective. On the contrary, he calls himself a "political theorist", in the sense that all of his intellectual effort has analytical and normative applicability in the field of politics.

This article is an exercise in thinking about the field of normativity in political theory, based on the ontology present in Laclaunian discourse theory. As we have already stated, we base ourselves on the premise that, as a political theorist (rather than a political philosopher) Laclau seeks to present a political theory with analytical applicability that is also useful for thinking normatively. Considering this theoretical perspective, we sustain that normativity is inexorably dependent on the conception of political ontology elaborated by him, the main presuppositions and elements of which will be explored in this article.

To this end, the paper is divided into five parts. Firstly, we will deal with the post-foundationalist position defended by Laclau. Following that, we will present him as a political theorist. We will then analyse the notions of ideology and discourse, central to the political ontology of discourse theory. Following that, we will discuss antagonism and dislocation, categories used to explain the incompleteness of social meanings, according to him. Lastly, bearing in mind the ontological presuppositions presented, we will seek to establish the possibilities and limits of normativity in view of discourse theory.

Laclau and the post-foundationalist position

Although it is not the only one, a reasonable starting point for understanding Laclau's work is the awareness that his theoretical effort is related to a post-foundationalist matrix. Post-foundationalism consists of a constant critical questioning of theoretical projects aimed at structuring themselves on an ultimate ground, as if such a ground underlay political practices sensu stricto. One example of this is the economic essentialism in the last instance present in the Marxist tradition (LACLAU and MOUFFE, 1985). Although post-foundationalism is a criticism of an ultimate ground that would explain and close all meanings in a totality called society, according to Marchart, it

"must not be confused with anti-foundationalism or a vulgar and nowadays somewhat out-dated 'anything goes' type of postmodernism, since a post-foundational approach does not attempt to erase completely such figures of the ground, but to weaken their ontological status. The ontological weakening of ground does not lead to the assumption of the total absence of all grounds, but rather to that of the impossibility of a final ground, which is something completely different, as it implies an increased awareness of, on one hand, contingency and, on the other, the political as the moment of partial and always, in the last instance, unsuccessful grounding" (MARCHART, 2007, p. 02).

Bearing the post-foundationalist presupposition in mind, Laclau structures his notion of the political based on the ascertainment that political relations are always unstable and contaminated by antagonism, precariousness and contingency. Thus, any normative efforts that seek to establish future emancipatory scenarios a priori or to prescribe the best way to make public decisions - such as the Marxist tradition and deliberative theories - are the target of constant criticism by the Argentinian theorist.

Hence, his intention is to demonstrate that any political ground is always provisional and dependent on the actual conditions of its inscription. …

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