Towards a Rethinking of Laclau and Mouffe's Conception of "Social Antagonisms": Agamben's Critique of Relation

By Mihkelsaar, Janar | Philosophy Today, Summer 2015 | Go to article overview

Towards a Rethinking of Laclau and Mouffe's Conception of "Social Antagonisms": Agamben's Critique of Relation


Mihkelsaar, Janar, Philosophy Today


One possible way to organize divergent-and even contradictory- conceptions of politics is to distinguish conflict-oriented approaches from consensus-oriented approaches. The latter group is notably represented by the socio-political thought of Jürgen Habermas and John Rawls who, their disagreements notwithstanding, conceive the social bond on a rational and normative basis. Principles, which all rational agents agree on in "ideal speech situations" or behind a "veil of ignorance," structure society in such a way that politics is downplayed-if not eliminated altogether-and reduced to the rational and just management of social affairs.1 From the conflict-oriented perspective, on the contrary, society is cut across by an antagonistic split that divides and, at the same time, constitutes the social bond. The infamous case is Carl Schmitt's Der Begriff des Politischen that proposes a friend-enemy criterion for distinguishing "the political" (das Politische) from the economical, the aesthetic, and the ethical.2 More contemporary examples include the works of Claude Lefort and Jacques Rancière. The current article, however, examines Ernesto Laclau's and Chantal Mouffe's influential book Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics that puts forward a novel concept of "social antagonisms."3

The current article takes as its point of departure the concept of relation, with which, as I maintain, it is possible to grasp the subject matter at issue in the work of Laclau and Mouffe. The relation is not an objective relation between fully constituted objectivities such as pure contingency or pure necessity, but rather a limit type of concept that points to the undecidable threshold where binary opposites reciprocally subvert and constitute one another. This limit type of relation is, for Laclau and Mouffe, principally an "antagonistic relation."4 In light of this, Giorgio Agamben's influential, and probably most controversial, work Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life elaborates a diametrically opposed perspective that aims at conceiving not only ontology but also politics beyond the category of relation.5 In "Bare Life or Social Indeterminacy?" Laclau criticizes Agamben for eliminating the antagonistic relation and, together with it, politics.6 To clarify the issue, the question we should ask is: Does the revocation of the antagonistic relation reconcile society with itself? The present article argues against Laclau and Mouffe that the answer is "No."

To make a long story short, social antagonisms bring forth the limits that constitute an order and that, on the other hand, signify "the impossibility of society" as a self-sufficient and self-identical being. The antagonistic limit does not demarcate conflicting identities or territories, but rather marks the internal fault line where an order suspends its normal functioning and, as a result, exists beyond itself as the empty form: "In a situation of radical disorder 'order' is present as that which is absent."7 Agamben reformulates the same idea in other terms: an order, in order to be effective, has to be capable of suspending itself and of giving rise to "the state of exception." An order, conceived either in a discursive-hegemonic or juridico-political terms, is therefore capable of existing in a state of privation. These antagonistic limits reveal the zone of undecidability where the empty form of relation between binary oppositional concepts such as outside and inside or law and life is at stake. This undecidable terrain, moreover, is the original locus of practice-or, to be exact, of Laclau and Mouffe's "political articulation" and of Agamben's "sovereign decision" that engender a discursive-hegemonic order and a juridico-political order, respectively.8

As long as undecidability-or better yet, antagonisms-constitute society, there cannot be "communitarian fullness" that sutures the reflexive determination of dichotomous opposites. The self-signification of the social field is never-ending mediation, which never achieves that which it aims at-that is, society as a reconciled and immediate fullness. …

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