Ernesto Laclau and Communication Studies
Summary and Keywords
Arguably one of the most important political theorists of our time, Ernesto Laclau has produced an extremely influential theoretical corpus involving a multitude of methodological and political implications. His contribution is mainly focused on three fields; discourse, hegemony, and populism, all of them highly connected with communication and mediation processes.
In particular, Ernesto Laclau has introduced, throughout his career, a complex conceptual apparatus (comprising concepts like articulation, the nodal point, dislocation, the empty signifier, etc.) as a result of the radicalization and re-elaboration of the Gramscian conceptualization of hegemony. According to this framework, elaborated for the first time in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, co-authored with Chantal Mouffe (first published in 1985), discourse is a social practice that performatively shapes the social world. Human reality is thus articulated through discourse and obtains its meaning precisely through this discursive mediation. All social practices are therefore understood as discursive ones. To the extent, however, that processes of articulation are never taking place in a vacuum and are bound to involve different or antagonistic political orientations, the field of discursivity comes to be seen as a field marked throughout by the primacy of the political. As a result, any hegemony will be contingent, partial, and temporary.
In addition, Laclau is one of the most well known analysts of populism, to which he has (partly) devoted two of his books, Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory (1977) and On Populist Reason (2005). Populism, for Laclau, is designated, as expected, as discourse, as a specific way to articulate and communicate social demands as well as to form popular identities, to construct “the people.” His elaborations of populism are surely critical for the analysis of a pervasive political phenomenon of our era. All in all, the thought of Ernesto Laclau remains influential in the sphere of theory and political practice, and his theoretical arsenal will be an extremely helpful tool for academics and researchers of discourse theory and political communication.
Ernesto Laclau has been one of the foremost contemporary political theorists of our time, producing a complex and multi-layered theoretical work. In this brief introduction, which will serve as an intellectual biography of Laclau, his key ideas and the main points of his theoretical evolution will be presented. These will later on be analyzed in a more detailed way.
His academic and political trajectory started in Argentina in the 1960s. In 1958, he joined the Partido Socialista Argentino (PSA, Argentinian Socialist Party), which split into a number of factions at the start of the 1960s. At that time he was also very active in the student movement (as president of the students’ union at the Philosophy and Arts Faculty and representative of the left faction of the student movement on the Senate of the University of Buenos Aires). In 1963, he became a member of the Partido Socialista de la Izquierda Nacional (PSIN, Socialist Party of the National Left, one of the splinter groups of the PSA). From 1963 to 1968, he was member of the PSIN’s political leadership, and for several years he was editor of Lucha Obrera (Workers’ Struggle), the party’s weekly journal, and for a number of periods editor of the party’s theoretical journal, Izquierda Nacional (National Left). In 1969, he moved to the United Kingdom, where he completed his studies and started his academic career at the University of Essex.
Laclau was deeply influenced by the experience of Peronism in Argentina. Indeed, the biggest challenge of that period was the interpretation, from a political point of view, of Peronism. He felt, from the beginning, that a national-popular movement, like Peronism, could not be understood within the framework of a strict class analysis or under an economistic perspective. The experience of Argentinean populism taught Laclau that political alliances had to be constructed not along class lines, but beyond them, in a constant effort to hegemonize a larger universal task. This led him increasingly to abandon all forms of class reductionism. Even his readings of post-structuralism were always informed by the experience of political practice (Critchley & Marchart, 2004, p. 2).
As he stated in an interview later on:
All I tried to think theoretically—the dispersal of subject positions, the hegemonic recomposition of fragmented identities, the reconstitution of social identities through the political imaginary—is something I learned in the course of political activism. The roots of my post-Marxism date back to the Argentinean experience during the 1960s.
(Laclau, 1990, p. 180)
Ernesto Laclau became widely known in the western theoretical circles with the publication of his article “Feudalism and Capitalism in Latin America,” in which he criticized Gunder Frank’s work. Shortly thereafter he published the text “The Specificity of the Political” and intervened in the Miliband/Poulantzas debate on the character of the bourgeois state and the autonomy of the political. These two texts, together with two previously unpublished essays, were collected in a volume entitled Politics and ideology in Marxist Theory (Laclau, 1977). The text that closes his first book concerns the analysis of populism (“Towards a Theory of Populism”), a topic with which he will deal extensively during his whole life. The purpose of the text was to reconstruct the notion of populism through the exhaustive critique of its traditional uses.
The tendencies that began to emerge in his first book (overcoming Marxist reductionism, deepening the concept of hegemony, developing a logic of articulation) were radicalized in the next one, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, which he co-authored with Chantal Mouffe in 1985. Hegemony and Socialist Strategy constitutes undoubtedly a key moment in his theoretical evolution. It is a theoretical and political intervention that attempted to take into account the transformations of modern and contemporary social struggles and deal with the crisis they bring to the political imaginary of the left and the theoretical tools of Marxism.
Laclau and Mouffe argued that to analyze and overcome this crisis we had to exploit recent developments in the field of theory, like Foucauldian genealogy, Lacanian psychoanalysis, meta-analytical philosophy, Derrida’s deconstruction, and post-structuralism in general. Their argument was initially presented as a genealogy and deconstruction of the Marxist tradition. Hegemony and Socialist Strategy marks the passage of Laclau to post-Marxism, as he opposed the reductionism and the essentialism of traditional Marxism, eventually turning his interest to the development of a comprehensive, post-structuralist theory of discourse.
For Laclau and Mouffe, human reality is articulated at the level of discourse and becomes important because of its meaningful articulation. Laclau and Mouffe’s constructivism also perceives society itself as the incomplete product of our discursive constructions. The social becomes a competing field, in which different articulations and competing discourses try to hegemonize the formation of society. Human experience can be understood through the dipole of articulation and antagonism.
The publication of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy influenced immensely the political and theoretical debates on the Left and areas like democratic theory, social movement theory, discourse analysis, and cultural studies.
Simon Critchley and Oliver Marchart (2004) offer, in Laclau: A Critical Reader, a brief account of the main influences of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. First of all, by putting Gramsci’s category of hegemony at the center, Laclau and Mouffe undermined the deterministic assumptions of more traditional versions of Marxism. They radicalized the Gramscian concept of hegemony, which has now become a name for the general logic of the political institution of the social. The realm of politics was significantly extended to the institution of the social as such, where political identities are articulated on a terrain that is primary and not derivable from any underlying reality, such as the economic “laws of motion” that govern the relations of production. Subsequently, if the political is primary and constitutive of the social, then no social actor can lay claim to a privileged position in a society. Class as a political actor loses its ontological privilege. Moreover, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy contributed to the discursive turn within the social sciences. The social as such is entirely reconceptualized by Laclau and Mouffe in terms of discursivity. In Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, Laclau and Mouffe (2001) introduced some of the key concepts and tools of a new form of social and political inquiry, called the “Essex school” of discourse analysis (Critchley & Marchart, 2004, pp. 3–4).
The theoretical and political proposal of Laclau and Mouffe was not left without criticism. It provoked a series of polemics and debates, especially from within the field of Marxism. A typical example was the criticism of Norman Geras (1987), with his article “Post-Marxism?” and the dialogue that followed. Another set of critiques came later, from scholars of post-hegemony and biopolitics like Richard Day, Scott Lasch, and Jon Beasley-Murray (Beasley-Murray, 2010; Day, 2005; Lash, 2007).
In Laclau’s next book, New Reflections on the Revolution of our Time (Laclau, 1990), one can notice two elements that distinguish it from his previous work; the transition to a Lacanian conception of subjectivity as opposed to the post-structuralist view of subject positions that dominated Hegemony and Socialist Strategy and the introduction of the concept of dislocation as a core theoretical category. Dislocation takes, in this work, the position held by antagonism in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. Laclau introduces dislocation on a deeper ontological level than that of antagonism. Antagonism refers to the struggle between already constructed imaginary and symbolic constructions, therefore it presupposes the field of articulation. However, what makes possible the articulation of competing discourses is the fact that no discourse can be established as a closed objectivity, the fact that the element of dislocation is constitutive. The moment of dislocation is the moment of dissolution of an articulatory structure. Creating a lack of meaning, it provokes the need to articulate new discourses. The cause of the hegemonic game is the dismantling of earlier structures. The driving force of historical evolution is this contingent power of dislocation.
In his 1996 book, Emancipation(s), Laclau intervenes in the debates around identity politics and multiculturalism. Laclau’s contribution to this debate consists in a radical reformulation of the relation between the universal and the particular. The tension between these terms, he argues, must not be resolved in favor of one or the other side (Critchley & Marchart, 2004, p. 6).
Contingency, Hegemony, Universality (Butler, Laclau, & Žižek, 2000) is based on a sustained exchange between Ernesto Laclau, Slavoj Žižek, and Judith Butler. The book is comprised by three cycles of three essays each, and in its pages the three authors engage in dialogue with each other, highlighting their theoretical differences on a variety of topics, ranging from the legacies of Hegel and Lacan to the concept of hegemony and identity politics, and from universality to capitalism and multiculturalism.
Laclau returns to the topic of populism and the construction of popular identities in the highly praised On Populist Reason (Laclau, 2005a). He develops his formal approach to populism, combining a powerful theoretical analysis and empirical references from different contexts.
Finally, The Rhetorical Foundations of Society, Laclau’s swan song, was published in 2014, a couple of weeks after his sudden death in April 2014. This book includes a collection of essays written during the previous 15 years that contributes (as stated in the introduction) to the construction of a political ontology that can correspond to the challenges presented by the post-Marxist and post-structuralist situation within which the author was operating (Laclau, 2014, p. 1).
The cornerstone of Laclau’s theoretical approach was the conception of social relations as discursively constructed. The performativity of language has been central to Laclau’s political theory since the beginning. Throughout his entire theoretical course, he continued to develop and explore with great consistency this perspective. In his own words: “I do not think there is such a radical discontinuity in my intellectual evolution. The idea of politics as hegemony and articulation, for example, is something that has always accompanied my political trajectory” (Laclau, 1990, p. 177).
For him, discourse is the horizon of the constitution of any object. The primary and constitutive character of the discursive is, therefore, the condition of any practice to the extent, simply put, that all social practices have a discursive character. Yet, despite the privileged position ascribed to the discursive level, the concept of discourse does not have, in the theory of Laclau, the status of an essentialist category, because it is precisely this same concept that points to the limitations and contingency of all essence (Laclau, 1990, p. 186).
There are two key points in the theoretical evolution of Laclau; his move beyond Marxism and his gradual embrace of Lacanian theory.
For Laclau, Marxism was just one moment in the radical tradition of the West, a moment that is definitely over:
If we look at the central theses of Marxism there is, firstly, the assertion of an increasing homogenisation of the social structure under capitalism, tending towards a rapid proletarianisation which would lead to a final showdown between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. That image of the historical process is, obviously, entirely wrong. Secondly, Marxism was a theory based, precisely for those reasons, on the centrality of the working class as a historical actor. Again, this centrality is disappearing, everywhere.
(Laclau, 1991, p. 16).
Furthermore, Laclau argued that Marxism shares some epistemological limitations with the ensemble of the 19th-century sociological tradition. The main limitation in this respect is the objectivism in the comprehension of social relations, the assumption that society can be understood as an objective and coherent ensemble from foundations or laws of movement that are conceptually graspable (Laclau, 1990, p. 180).
Contrary to this view, the perspective of Laclau and Mouffe (1987) affirms the constitutive and primordial character of negativity and antagonism. All social order can only affirm itself as it represses a constitutive outside that negates it. Social order never succeeds in entirely constituting itself as an objective order. Society presents itself not as an objective, harmonic order but as an ensemble of divergent forces that do not seem to obey any unified or unifying logic.
Believing that the relation with a tradition should not be one of submission and repetition, but one of transformation and critique, Ernesto Laclau proceeded to the deconstruction of Marxist tradition and not its mere abandonment. The starting point of this deconstruction was the concept of hegemony. He even stated: “Post-Marxism is a radicalization of those subversive effects of the essentialist discourse that were implicit from the beginning in the logic of hegemony” (Laclau, 1990, p. 184).
He was influenced by thinkers like Gramsci, Althusser, and Della Volpe, but only insofar as they contributed to his gradual rupture from the totalizing character of Marxist discourse. Laclau and Mouffe transform the Marxist tradition in three ways. First, they abolish the division between base and superstructure and understand all societal formations as products of discursive processes. Second, they dismiss the Marxist conception of society, namely that society can be described objectively, as a totality. Third, they reject the Marxist understanding of identity and group formation. For Marxism, people have an objective class identity even if they do not realize it, while for Laclau and Mouffe people’s identities are the result of contingent, discursive processes and, as such, are always part of a discursive struggle (Phillips & Jorgensen, 2002, p. 34).
Lacanian theory has become important in the theoretical development of Laclau since the beginning of 1980s, when he co-authored with Chantal Mouffe Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. This influence increased during the following years and became particularly evident in the elaboration of some categories of the theory of hegemony in New Reflections on the Revolution of our Time. The gradual embrace of Lacanian theory by Ernesto Laclau is described in detail later on.
Laclau never ceased to explore new theoretical pathways. He wanted to engage with theoretical issues and political challenges that allow for no easy solutions. He dared to experiment with unexpected theoretical insights, and his gradual embrace of Lacanian theory undoubtedly constitutes the most emblematic case of this experimentation (Stavrakakis, 2016, p. 316).
Discourse Theory: The Essex School
The Essex School of Discourse Analysis, a discourse theory initiated by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, is a theoretical and analytical approach that highlights the importance of discourse within socio-political research.
In the introduction of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, Laclau and Mouffe refer to their influences from the thought of Gramsci, the philosophy of Wittgenstein, the deconstruction of Derrida, but they explicitly distinguish the decisive importance of post-structuralism and Lacanian theory in their work (Laclau & Mouffe, 2001, p. xi).
Discourse is located beyond the linguistic/extra-linguistic distinction and acquires a performative function. According to their analysis, the social is conceived as a discursive space. Discourse does not refer only to language, but it is a social practice that shapes the social world. Laclau’s work aims to show the discursive nature of social objectivity; it understands human reality as socially constructed and articulated in discourse. The theoretical approach of Laclau and Mouffe makes no distinction between discursive and non-discursive dimensions of the social. They argue that every object is constituted as an object of discourse, but this fact has nothing to do with whether there is a world external to thought, or with the realism/idealism opposition. Finally, they speak about the material character of every discursive structure: “To argue the opposite is to accept the very classical dichotomy between an objective field constituted outside of any discursive intervention, and a discourse consisting of the pure expression of thought” (Laclau & Mouffe, 2001, p. 108). For Laclau and Mouffe’s approach, as for other discourse analytical approaches, both social and physical objects exist, but our access to them is always mediated by systems of meaning in the form of discourses. Physical objects do not possess meaning in themselves; meaning is something we ascribe to them through discourse (Phillips & Jorgensen, 2002, p. 35).
Discourse theory combines a theoretically sophisticated grasping of the processes through which social meaning is articulated, with an emphasis on the political and often antagonistic character that different discourses acquire through their articulation around distinct nodal points and their differentiation from other discourses in a bid to hegemonize the public sphere and to influence decision-making.
The Conceptual Vocabulary of Discourse Theory
Laclau and Mouffe introduced a new theoretical vocabulary. Before proceeding further to discuss the impact of discourse theory, one needs to define the central concepts of their approach, such as articulation, elements, moments, and nodal points.
Articulation refers to any practice establishing a relation among elements such that their identity is modified as a result of the articulatory process. It constitutes the signifying practice through which discourses are produced. Discourse is, subsequently, the structured totality resulting from this articulatory practice. What is articulated in such practices is conceived in terms of signifying units—elements—that pre-existed the articulation, but acquire new meanings through this process. As soon as these signifying elements become parts of a new articulatory chain, they are designated as moments of the new discourse produced. Thus, moments are the differential positions that appear articulated within a discourse, while elements are the differences that are not discursively articulated yet or belong to other discourses (Laclau & Mouffe, 2001, p. 105). In this sense, articulation refers to the signifying mechanism through which elements are incessantly transformed to moments of distinct discourses in an attempt to partially fix their meaning and crystallize identities. But meaning can never be ultimately fixed. “The transition from the ‘elements’ to the ‘moments’ is never entirely fulfilled. . . . Α system only exists as a partial limitation of a ‘surplus of meaning,’ which subverts it. Being inherent in every discursive situation, this 'surplus' is the necessary terrain for the constitution of every social practice. We will call it the field of discursivity” (Laclau & Mouffe, 2001, pp. 110–111). A discourse is a reduction of possibilities, and the field of discursivity includes all the possibilities that a discourse excludes in order to constitute itself. The field of discursivity is a reservoir for the “surplus of meaning” produced by the articulatory practice—that is, the meanings that each sign (or signifier) has, or has had, in other discourses, but which are excluded by the specific discourse to create a unity of meaning (Phillips & Jorgensen, 2002, p. 26).
The impossibility of an ultimate fixity of meaning, of a final suture, implies that there have to be partial fixations; otherwise, the very flow of differences and its crystallization in (partial and precarious) identity formations would be impossible. Here Laclau introduces a crucial concept of his theory. This partial fixation is possible through the operation of nodal points. Nodal points, the privileged discursive points of this partial fixation, are signifiers around which the other signifiers are ordered; the other signifiers (moments) acquire their meaning from their relationship to the nodal point. So the practice of articulation is eventually the construction of nodal points that partially fix meaning. Consequently, every social practice is an articulatory one.
To fully present the core concepts of Laclau’s discourse theory, one needs to refer to two more concepts that were fully developed after the publication of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy and are related to the growing Lacanian influence in Laclau’s work. As we saw earlier, Laclau introduced, in New Reflections on the Revolution of Our Time, the concept of dislocation and ascribed to this concept a constitutive role. Dislocation is the very process that makes possible the articulation of new discourses; it is—in other words—the negative twin of his central concept of discursive articulation. Moreover, in his work in the 1990s, Laclau further developed the logic of discursive structuration by associating the function of the nodal point with the category of the empty signifier. Thus, the articulation of a political discourse can only take place around an empty signifier that functions as a nodal point.
Drawing on the linguistic work of the founder of modern structuralist linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure, and especially on the distinction he introduces between the paradigmatic and syntagmatic poles of language, as well as on the Jakobsonian concepts of metaphor and metonymy, Laclau and Mouffe have elaborated the logics of equivalence and difference as two distinct logics through which the representation of social space is formed:
We, thus, see that the logic of equivalence is a logic of the simplification of political space, while the logic of difference is a logic of its expansion and increasing complexity. Taking a comparative example from linguistics, we could say that the logic of difference tends to expand the syntagmatic pole of language, the number of positions that can enter in to a relation of combination and hence of continuity with one another; while the logic of equivalence expands the paradigmatic pole—that is, the elements that can be substituted for one another—thereby reducing the number of positions which can possibly be combined.
(Laclau & Mouffe, 2001, p. 130)
A practical application of these discursive logics is analyzed in relation to populism in the following pages. One has to bear in mind that in social life these two logics continuously overlap with the one over-determining the other.
Discourse Theory and Psychoanalysis
Laclau’s continuously deepening interest in Lacan had a great impact on the conceptual and theoretical development of discourse theory and the “Essex School.” Theoretical affinities with the Lacanian corpus are present already from the 1970s, but the importance of Lacanian argumentation increased in Laclau’s subsequent work, leaving a distinctive mark on his theoretical trajectory, most notably in New Reflections on the Revolution of our Time (Laclau, 1990), and in Emancipation(s) (Laclau, 1996). Since then, such affinities have been subject to further exploitation, culminating in On Populist Reason (Laclau, 2005a).
A clear example of this influence was the already mentioned concept of the nodal point, introduced in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. Laclau and Mouffe relied on a Lacanian term central in Lacan’s understanding of the Symbolic, namely the point de capiton, to conceptualize this central element of their theory:
Any discourse is constituted as an attempt to dominate the field of discursivity, to arrest the flow of differences, to construct a centre. We will call the privileged discursive points of this partial fixation, nodal points. (Lacan has insisted on these partial fixations through his concept of points de capiton, that is, of privileged signifiers that fix the meaning of a signifying chain. This limitation of the productivity of the signifying chain establishes the positions that make predication possible—a discourse incapable of generating any fixity of meaning is the discourse of the psychotic).
(Laclau & Mouffe, 2001, p. 112)
In the years that followed, the importance of Lacanian argumentation increased in Laclau’s work. Indeed, it has been crucial in developing the social and political relevance of both Lacanian constructionism and Lacan’s negative ontology. His work has been paradigmatic in simultaneously highlighting the political workings of the symbolic and in registering the real limits of signification. The limit involves a conceptualization of the Lacanian real in predominantly negative terms; in other words, it concerns the particular way Lacan’s negative ontology is registered within discourse theory. There is always something that frustrates all efforts to reach an exhaustive and supposedly final representation of the world. One can approach this constitutive frustration by speaking of the limits of discourse, often associated with notions like “incompleteness of identity” (post-structuralism), “impossibility of society” (Laclau) or “the lack in the Other” (Lacan) (Stavrakakis, 2007, p. 73).
Laclau’s concept of dislocation, first developed in New Reflections on the Revolution of Our Time (1990), was designed to account for this radical interruption of signification. In Lacanian terms, one could describe dislocation as an “encounter with the real”; while antagonism falls on the side of the imaginary-symbolic order of reality, dislocation falls on the side of an encounter with the real order. In this way, dislocation becomes an index of the negative dimension of the real as limit of discourse.
However, in Lacanian theory, the real is not only associated with moments of disruption, with dislocatory experiences. For the social world to retain any consistency and appeal, this lack of the real, the negative mark of symbolic castration, needs to be positivized (imaginarized).
Laclau’s dislocation is not only something traumatic but also the condition of possibility for social and political creation and re-articulation. Dislocations are, at the same time, traumatic, disruptive, and productive. They are traumatic in the sense that they threaten identities, but they are also productive in the sense that they serve as the foundation on which new identities are constituted (Laclau, 1990, p. 39). Also, from a discursive point of view, the emergence of new discourses is always related to the dislocation of previously hegemonic discursive orders.
In particular, for Laclau, dislocation is positivized in what he calls an “empty signifier”:
In a situation of radical disorder, “order” is present as that which is absent; it becomes an empty signifier, as the signifier of this absence. In this sense, various political forces can compete in their efforts to present their particular objectives as those which carry out the filling of that lack. To hegemonize something is exactly to carry out this filling function . . . Any term which, in a certain political context becomes the signifier of the lack, plays the same role. Politics is possible because the constitutive impossibility of society can only represent itself through the production of empty signifiers.
(Laclau, 1996, p. 44)
This acceptance of a productive negative ontology brings Laclau very close to the Lacanian problematic. Lacanian psychoanalysis is indispensable for discourse theory to the extent that it reveals how understanding social reality is not equivalent to understanding what society is, but, ultimately, what prevents it from being (what Ernesto Laclau called the ultimate impossibility of society) (Stavrakakis, 2007, p. 69).
Discourse and Jouissance
There are, nevertheless, additional important ways in which the real becomes positivized within Lacanian theory, and they are related to the whole problematic of psychic energy and affect in Freud and its radical reformulation in the concept of jouissance by Jacques Lacan. This dimension is crucial for Laclau’s discourse theory. First of all, without taking into account enjoyment, the whole Lacanian framework loses most of its explanatory force. Second, the category of jouissance can offer particular advantages and new insights to the discursive approach to politics advanced by Ernesto Laclau. For example, such enjoyment helps us answer in a more concrete way what is at stake in socio-political identification and identity formation.
At first, Laclau did not fully embrace the whole problematic of affect and jouissance in particular. His reluctance was criticized in an article published in the Journal for Lacanian Studies (Glynos & Stavrakakis, 2003).
The response of Laclau unfolded in three stages. At first, his reply, in the Journal for Lacanian Studies, seems to embrace unequivocally the category of jouisssance; he argues that this dimension has not been absent from his past work: “what they claim is a dimension absent from my work, I see, on the contrary as very much present in it—although admittedly, sometimes in a rather sketchy and inchoate way” (Laclau, 2003, p. 278). He practically argues that jouissance was always part and parcel of the concept of discourse, that his category of discourse incorporated the logic of jouissance from the beginning.
Later, in his extensive reply to a series of critical papers in Laclau: A Critical Reader, in which he outlines the future research agenda for discourse theory, Laclau acknowledges that “something of the order of hegemony and rhetoric takes place which could not be explained without the mediating role of affect.” In the same text, he introduces a crucial and novel distinction between the form and the force of a discourse:
For what rhetoric can explain is the form that an overdetermining investment takes, but not the force that explains the investment as such and its perdurability. Here something else has to be brought into the picture. Any overdetermination requires not only metaphorical condensations but also cathectic investments. That is, something belonging to the order of affect has a primary role in discursively constructing the social. Freud already knew it: the social link is a libidinal link. And affect [. . .] is not something added to signification, but something consubstantial with it. So if I see rhetoric as ontologically primary in explaining the operations inhering in and the forms taken by the hegemonic construction of society, I see psychoanalysis as the only valid road to explain the drives behind such construction—I see it, indeed, as the only fruitful approach to the understanding of human reality.
(Laclau, 2004, p. 326)
Finally, in his return to the analysis of populism in On Populist Reason (Laclau, 2005a), he puts into use this reconceptualization of discourse with jouissance as a central component, offering an example of the important advantages that this move can offer especially in our effort to understand the differential investment of distinct discursive articulations:
A final and crucial dimension must, however, be added to our analysis. . .This qualitatively differentiated and irreducible moment is what I have called “radical investment.” What this notion of “investment” would involve is, however, something we have not yet explored. The different signifying operations to which I have referred so far can explain the forms the investment takes, but not the force in which the investment consists. It is clear, however, that if an entity becomes the object of an investment—as in being in love, or in hatred—the investment belongs necessarily to the order of affect.
(Laclau, 2005a, p. 110)
Summing up this section, Laclau and Mouffe introduced a whole theoretical and conceptual vocabulary, elaborated to a large extent at the intersection between discourse theory and psychoanalysis. In terms of Laclau’s theoretical development, the embrace of the crucial Lacanian concept of jouissance signals a passage from a largely eclectic use of Lacanian insights to a committed engagement with the Lacanian corpus. The registering of affectivity allows a more comprehensive account of the psychosocial dynamics at play adding to discourse theory an important new aspect. If we want to examine how hegemonies are sustained, how political discourses get sedimented, we need to take into account affect and discourse together, as two distinct but interpenetrating fields. In this way, Laclau should be recognized as one of the key figures of the Lacanian Left and of the psychosocial turn in contemporary political theory (Stavrakakis, 2016, p. 316).
The Discursive Theory of Hegemony
The theory of hegemony remains the central piece of the discourse-analytical approach to politics. This centrality is clearly stated in the preface to the second edition of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: “Our approach is grounded in privileging the moment of political articulation, and the central category of political analysis is, in our view, hegemony”(Laclau & Mouffe, 2001, p. x).
Here, Gramsci’s work will function, undoubtedly, as a crucial inspiration for the development of Laclau and Mouffe’s theory. However, the two theorists proceeded during the 1970s and 1980s in a project of recasting the theory of hegemony by radicalizing the Gramsian theoretical arsenal. This project unfolded primarily in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, but the concept of hegemony was central already from Laclau’s early work and was present till the end of his writings, retaining its privileged position up until the publication of Laclau’s last major solo work, On Populist Reason (2005a).
Hegemony and Socialist Strategy constructs all its basic categories starting from a deconstruction of the history of Marxism and the re-elaboration and reformulation of Gramscian categories. The post-structuralist tradition (especially the theories of Derrida and Lacan) has helped to enrich considerably the approach of hegemony of Laclau and Mouffe (Laclau, 1999, p. 94).
This post- structuralist take on hegemony developed throughout their argumentation has managed to move beyond the remnants of class reductionism still implicit in Gramsci’s work:
It is clear from the above that we have moved away from two key aspects of Gramsci’s thought: (a) his insistence that hegemonic subjects are necessarily constituted on the plane of the fundamental classes; and (b) his postulate that, with the exception of interregna constituted by organic crises, every social formation structures itself around a single hegemonic centre. As we pointed out earlier, these are the two last elements of essentialism remaining in Gramscian thought.
(Laclau & Mouffe, 2001, p. 138)
Keeping in mind all the core categories of discourse theory presented in “Conceptual Vocabulary of Discourse Theory,” we can now present a brief definition of hegemony as conceptualized by Laclau and Mouffe. The general field of the emergence of hegemony is that of articulatory practices; a field where the elements have not crystallized into moments yet:
In a closed system of relational identities, in which the meaning of each moment is absolutely fixed, there is no place whatsoever for a hegemonic practice. A fully successful system of differences, which excluded any floating signifier, would not make possible any articulation; the principle of repetition would dominate every practice within this system and there would be nothing to hegemonize. It is because hegemony supposes the incomplete and open character of the social, that it can take place only in a field dominated by articulatory practices.
(Laclau & Mouffe, 2001, p. 134)
In order to emerge, hegemony needs a conjuncture where there is a generalized weakening of the relational system defining the identities of a given social or political space, and where, as a result, there is a proliferation of floating elements. The so-called openness of the social is, thus, the precondition of every hegemonic practice. In this context, Laclau and Mouffe offer two brief definitions of hegemony and the hegemonic relation:
Hegemony is a political type of relation, a form of politics; but not a determinable location within a topography of the social. In a given social formation, there can be a variety of hegemonic nodal points.
(Laclau & Mouffe, 2001, p. 139)
This relation, by which a certain particularity assumes the representation of a universality entirely incommensurable with it, is what we call a hegemonic relation.
(Laclau & Mouffe, 2001, p. xiii)
More dimensions of the concept of hegemony and its practical political implications are highlighted in the next section, in which Laclau’s theory of populism is discussed. In what follows, it is necessary to refer to two important theoretical debates that the discursive theory of hegemony has triggered.
The Twofold Criticism of “Hegemony”
Ernesto Laclau has pointed out that what stands at the basis of a discourse theory orientation is a critique of immediacy:
[discourse theory] has its roots in the three main philosophical developments with which the XXth Century started. In the three cases, there is an initial illusion of immediacy, of a direct access to the things as they are in themselves. These three illusions were the referent, the phenomenon and the sign . . . Now, at some point this initial illusion of immediacy dissolves in the three currents—from this point of view their history is remarkably parallel—and they have to open the way to one or other form of discourse theory. This means that discursive mediations cease to be merely derivative and become constitutive.
The deconstruction of the Marxist tradition in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy is primarily a deconstruction of the claim to have direct access and control of the totality of the real and its predictable historical development.1 The most critical resistance encountered by discourse theory has emanated from the field of traditional Marxism and the defenders of such immediacy. The typical example of this critique was the rejection of the discursive orientation by Norman Geras, which led to an important theoretical debate. New Left Review published all the articles involved in this debate, which included the following articles: “Post-Marxism?” by Norman Geras (1987), “Post-Marxism Without Apologies” (Laclau & Mouffe, 1987), “Marxism or Post-marxism?” an intervention in the dialogue by Nikos Mouzelis (1988) and, finally, “Ex-Marxism Without Substance: Being a Real Reply to Laclau and Mouffe”(Geras, 1988).
Geras had accused the supposedly relativist discourse theory of disputing the most elementary facts of existence. In Geras’s view, together with denying the primacy of the economy, the objectivity of class interests and the validity of socialism, Laclau and Mouffe are guilty of a more foundational denial: “And even, finally: that society and history can be rendered intelligible by some unifying principle or principles, or within a unified framework, of explanation and knowledge” (Geras, 1987, p. 44). To deny the existence and superiority of such a unifying principle leads, in his view, to anti-materialist idealism (Geras, 1987, p. 59). Discourse theory, “a perspective in which the spheres of politics and ideology have become superordinate, in which, more generally, the ‘symbolic’ has expanded to be all-encompassing’ is clearly guilty of such ‘shamefaced idealism’” (Geras, 1987, p. 65).
This criticism allowed Laclau and Mouffe to articulate in more detail the epistemological and ontological aspects of their framework in their reply. They, once more, make clear that the discursive character of an object does not imply putting its existence into question and argue that Geras made an elementary confusion between the being (esse) of an object, which is historical and changing, and the entity (ens) of that object which is not. The crucial point is that existence, the entity of an object, does not determine being: “the ‘truth’, factual or otherwise, about the being of objects is constituted within a theoretical and discursive context, and the idea of a truth outside all context is simply nonsensical.” After all, objects are never given to us as mere existential entities but within discursive articulations of meaning (Laclau & Mouffe, 1987, pp. 85–86).
Far from being idealistic, a stress on discursive representation is perfectly compatible with a realist position accepting the existence of objects independent of thought (Laclau & Mouffe, 1987, p. 87). Any immediate access to the truth of objects is here mediated by discursive representation. In Laclau and Mouffe’s view, a move away from idealism cannot result from an exclusive focus on the existence of the object, because nothing socially and politically significant follows from this existence alone: “Such a move must, rather, be founded on a systematic weakening of form, which consists in showing the historical, contingent, and constructed character of the being of objects; and in showing that this depends on the reinsertion of that being in the ensemble of relational conditions which constitute the life of a society as a whole” (Laclau & Mouffe, 1987, p. 91), that is to say, within the meaningful yet unstable and precarious materiality of the signifier. Hence the ontological centrality attributed to discourse and representation and the political centrality attributed to hegemony.
Years after this type of criticism, a second line of argumentation dismissing Laclau and Mouffe’s theory of hegemony and discourse emerged. This time the arguments relied on biopolitical grounds. The work of Richard Day, Scott Lash, and Jon Beasley-Murray constitute characteristic cases. This body of research highlights the importance of biopolitical, non-hegemonic mechanisms of domination, in which power is not discursively mediated, but operates directly and exclusively on a biopolitical, affective real. Together with the emphasis on discourse and representation, criticism targets the status of the category of “hegemony” itself, arguing that “hegemony” is not a suitable theoretical and analytical category for understanding contemporary politics (Stavrakakis, 2014, pp. 111–112).
The work of Richard Day (2005) has been instrumental in the development of this type of arguments. In a book characteristically entitled Gramsci is Dead, he purports to overturn “the hegemony of hegemony” by focusing on what he calls “the Newest Social Movements,” mainly radical groups “operating non-hegemonically rather than counter-hegemonically.” They do seek radical change, but “not through taking or influencing state power,” thus challenging the logic of hegemony “at its very core” (Day, 2005, p. 8).
The basis of this objection is predominantly political. Day is right to draw our attention to the horizontal axis of political activity, as it is a dimension not adequately discussed within hegemonic approaches. However, the horizontal dimension of autonomy, left to itself, has historically proven to be inadequate to bring about long- term historical change if it is not complemented by the vertical dimension of hegemony. The best strategy, instead of treating horizontalism and hegemonic approaches as mutually exclusive and antagonistic processes, is to acknowledge their interaction and to find a productive way to combine the horizontal and the vertical axis in a political struggle.
Scott Lash and Jon Beasley-Murray are associated with the emergence of the category of “post-hegemony” tout court. The argument connected with this concept acquires two variants. According to the first type, represented by the work of Lash, hegemony has deservedly been a crucial political category for a certain period but this is not the case anymore. The second type, represented by the work of Jon Beasley-Murray, proceeds to a total and diachronic rejection of hegemony. Let us examine in some detail these two arguments.
In a 2007 article in Theory, Culture and Society, Scott Lash has argued that we have entered an era of “post-hegemony.” He rejected the relevance of discourse theory, as developed by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, in a world that is supposed to have entered a new period in power relations:
From the beginnings of cultural studies in the 1970s, “hegemony” has been perhaps the pivotal concept in this still emerging discipline. . . In what follows I do not want to argue that hegemony is a flawed concept. I do not want indeed to argue at all against the concept of hegemony. . . What I want to argue instead is that it has had great truth-value for a particular epoch. I want to argue that that epoch is now beginning to draw to a close. I want to suggest that power now, instead, is largely post-hegemonic.
(Lash, 2007, p. 55)
Lash’s criticism was a respectful one, unlike the first wave of rejection of discourse theory by Geras and others, as he does pay tribute to the explanatory power of hegemony and to the central place of Laclau and Mouffe in the hegemonic paradigm studying power “largely as operating semiotically, through discourse” (Lash, 2007, p. 58, 68). Despite the differences from the Geras-type critique, however, Lash’s criticism shares with it the central idea that, by focusing on the level of representation, discourse theory misses a more important and foundational level, that of the real: “The real, unlike the symbolic or the imaginary, escapes the order of representation altogether” (Lash, 2007, p. 56).
To define this real, Lash turns first to Agamben and then to Hardt and Negri’s elaboration of Spinoza. In Lash’s theory, post-hegemony is associated with a primordial neo-vitalist real. What is at stake is not engineering consent or securing a consensus: “power enters into us and constitutes us from the inside” (Lash, 2007, p. 61), “it grasps us in our very being” (Lash, 2007, p. 75).
Lash’s schema is almost quasi-eschatological, as it relies on a periodization that distinguishes clearly between two periods—one in which discursive mediation is constitutive of power relations and one in which focus turns on post-hegemony—and the unilinear passage from the first to the second (Stavrakakis, 2014, p. 120).
Three years after Lash’s article on post-hegemony, Jon Beasley-Murray (2010) published Posthegemony: Political Theory and Latin America. While his project seems similar to that of Lash, he highlights one crucial difference: “Lash’s conception of posthegemony is purely temporal: he argues merely that power is now posthegemonic. My aim is a more comprehensive critique of the idea of hegemony” (Beasley-Murray, 2010, p. xi). His “post-hegemony theory” is articulated around three central concepts: habit, affect and the multitude. He also shares with Lash the emphasis in the somatic real of power relations: “power works directly on bodies” (Beasley-Murray, 2010, p. xiii).
Beasley-Murray’s attack on hegemony theory is indeed total: “There is no hegemony and never has been. . . we have always lived in posthegemonic times: social order was never in fact secured through ideology. . . Social order is secured through habit and affect . . . Social change, too, is achieved through habit and affect” (Beasley-Murray, 2010, p. ix–x). Laclau’s theory is a prime target here since his “version of hegemony theory is the most fully developed and influential for cultural studies” (Beasley-Murray, 2010, p. 15). In Beasley-Murray’s reading, the main problem is, once more, Laclau’s reliance on representation.
To conclude this section, the main problem with the second wave of rejection of the discursive theory of hegemony is that all relevant criticisms presuppose a set of dichotomies which are understood more or less in binary and oppositional terms: hegemony/post-hegemony, representation/real, meaning/being, horizontality/verticality, discourse/affect. Again, instead of clearly isolating the eras of hegemony and post-hegemony or treating discourse and affect, symbolic and real as mutually exclusive dimensions, we could search for ways in which these dimensions could interact productively (Stavrakakis, 2014, pp. 120–121). Laclau started to explore this avenue very shortly after the publication of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. Practically, this means that, well before the objections of Day, Lash, and Beasley-Murray, Laclau had already taken into account the affective dimension. Apart from being a discursive theory of hegemony, Laclau’s theory of hegemony is also an affective theory of hegemony (Stavrakakis, 2014, p. 128).
Populism as Discourse: The Formal Approach of Laclau
Populism has been, since the 1970s, at the epicenter of Laclau’s work and has constituted a key part of his discourse theory. Laclau understands populism as discourse, as an articulatory practice, and contrary to most usage of the term, he does not ascribe to it an exclusively positive or an exclusively negative content. He tried, through his diachronic work on populism, to render the concept operational for political analysis. To achieve that, he put forward a structural, formal approach to populism. This formal emphasis is visible already in Laclau’s work in the 1970s, but was developed further in On Populist Reason (Laclau, 2005a). As he explicitly states:
the concept of populism that I am proposing is a strictly formal one, for all its defining features are exclusively related to a specific mode of articulation—the prevalence of the equivalential over the differential logic—independently of the actual contents that are articulated. . . Most of the attempts at defining populism have tried to locate what is specific to it in a particular ontic content and, as a result, they have ended in a self-defeating exercise whose two predictable alternative results have been either to choose an empirical content, which is immediately overflowed by an avalanche of exceptions, or to appeal to an “intuition,” which cannot be translated into any conceptual content.
(Laclau, 2005c, p. 44)
Based on all the insights that discourse theory could offer, Laclau managed to propose two operational criteria for the differential identification of populist discourse that would solve the analytical confusion around this essentially contested term. A discourse can be characterized as “populist” if (1), it is articulated around the nodal point “the people,” and (2), it offers a predominantly dichotomic representation of society, dividing society into two main camps along equivalential lines: the establishment—the power block—versus the underdog—the people. Both criteria are necessary to identify a discourse as a populist one. For example, one will determine whether a discourse exhibiting an equivalential profile is populist or not based on the structural location of the signifier of the people. If it does not function as a nodal point, but instead is located at the periphery of a given discourse, one should not treat discourse as a populist one.
This focus on form entails a move of the scope of analysis to discursive practices constructing the people by employing an equivalential articulatory or mediating logic. The meaning of populism is not to be found in any political or ideological content entering into the description of the practices of any particular group, but in a particular mode of articulation of whatever social, political or ideological contents. If this approach is correct, we could say that a movement is not populist because in its politics or ideology it presents actual contents identifiable as populistic, but because it shows a particular logic of articulation and mediation of those contents—whatever those contents are (Laclau, 2005c, pp. 33–34).
As a result of this formal approach, we can argue that populism does not predominantly define the practical politics of various organizations; rather, it designates a way of articulating demands. It is a neutral term, and whether it becomes reactionary or not depends on the concrete contents of its claims. In principle, populism can be derived from any place in the socio-institutional structure and from any location in the left-right spectrum.
The Emergence of Populism: Constructing “The People”
Populism is linked to articulations claiming to express popular interests and identities, and this is why Laclau’s first criterion in identifying a discourse as populist is the extent to which it privileges as its main point of reference “the people.” But how is “the people” constructed and what are the necessary conditions for the emergence of populism?
A crisis or, better, a dislocation of a previously hegemonic, sedimented system of representation, in the terms of Laclau’s discourse theory, functions as a triggering mechanism for new discursive articulations. From his early work, Laclau had linked crises to the emergence of populism: “the emergence of populism is historically linked to a crisis of the dominant ideological discourse which is in turn part of a more general social crisis” (Laclau, 1977, p. 175). The importance of economic and social dislocations in triggering a crisis of representation and, subsequently, the formation of populist alternatives is evident.
Within this context, the guiding thread of Laclau’s analysis of populism relies on the category of “demand.” A social situation in which demands, within a specific socio-political system, tend to reaggregate themselves, on the negative basis that they all remain unsatisfied, is the first precondition of that mode of political articulation that we call populism. Some kind of solidarity will then arise between them all: all will share the fact that they remain unsatisfied (Laclau, 2005c, pp. 36–37). This kind of solidarity is the practical application of the logic of equivalence. Diverse demands that cannot be fulfilled within the existing power structure can establish relations of equivalence between themselves, and despite their differential character, they can form a chain of equivalence based on the common negative dimension that they share. It is clear then that populism presupposes a privileging of the logic of equivalence over that of difference.
Diverse social actors, identities or demands obviously occupy differential positions within the discourses that constitute the social fabric. In that sense they are all, strictly speaking, particularities. When these identities feel the limits imposed in their development by a power structure frustrating their demands, a new representation emerges splitting the social field: “Vis-a-vis oppressive forces, for instance, a set of particularities establish relations of equivalence between themselves.”
(Laclau & Mouffe, 2001, p. xiii)
The subject that is constituted on the basis of this logic, namely as a result of the equivalential aggregation of unsatisfied demands, is called by Laclau a “popular subject.” In other words, the emergence of a popular subjectivity involves the establishment of linkages between a series of initially heterogeneous unsatisfied demands, which enter into relations of equivalence thus forming a collective identity around the signifier “the people.” For example, in conditions of increasing inequality, exclusion, and failed representation, “the people” can function as an empty signifier, expressing the need to address the perceived lack in equal rights, inclusion, and representation, calling forth a political subject in need of restoring its lost power and claiming the representation of its true will (Stavrakakis, 2017, p. 539).
One has to insist, therefore, on the point that “the people” is always something retroactively constructed, an empty signifier that needs to be invoked, a performative call that creates what it is supposed to be expressing:
[T]he construction of the “people” is a radical one—one which constitutes social agents as such, and does not express a previously given unity of the group . . . [W] e are dealing not with a conceptual operation of finding an abstract common feature underlying all social grievances, but with a performative operation constituting the chain as such.
(Laclau, 2005a, p. 97, 118)
This process requires the identification of the source of negativity, and that source is of course the power block that refuses to satisfy the demands addressed to it. In this way, the equivalential popular discourse divides the social field into two blocks, the power—the elites, and the underdog—the people. This dimension is extremely crucial, as there is no emergence of popular subjectivity without the creation of an internal frontier and the construction of an enemy (Laclau, 2005c, p. 38).
It now becomes possible to see in more detail how this equivalential chain is represented. At this point, it is necessary to go back to the concept of hegemony:
It becomes necessary, however, to represent the totality of the chain, beyond the mere differential particularisms of the equivalential links. What are the means of representation? As we argue, only one particularity whose body is split, for without ceasing to be its own particularity, it transforms its body in the representation of a universality transcending it (that of the equivalential chain). This relation, by which a certain particularity assumes the representation of a universality entirely incommensurable with it, is what we call a hegemonic relation.
(Laclau & Mouffe, 2001, p. xiii)
All the structural elements to successfully define populism seem to be here then; logic of equivalence, dichotomization of the social space, popular subjectivity, and empty signifiers. However, a crucial aspect is missing: the affective dimension of hegemonic formations. The dimension of affective investment acquired a central place within Laclau’s late analysis of populism through the dialectics of radical investment he elaborated in the final phase of his work, as was analyzed earlier.
Thus, to effect the symbolic unification of a group in a formation such as “the people,” an affective investment is necessary. Taking this affective dimension into account, Laclau stresses the fact that the populist discursive articulation can acquire true hegemonic appeal through processes of affective investment in which discursive form acquires its hegemonic force (Laclau, 2004, p. 326). Subsequently, affect becomes a nuclear element of the discursive analysis of populism.
Antonis Galanopoulos’s research is currently financially supported by the General Secretariat for Research and Technology (GSRT) and by the Hellenic Foundation for Research and Innovation (HFRI) (Scholarship Code: 2552).
Laclau introduced, over the years, a novel conceptual vocabulary (articulation, nodal point, dislocation, empty signifier, etc.) as a result of the radicalization of a set of insights emanating from the Gramscian tradition of hegemony. His most important book is Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, which he co-authored with Chantal Mouffe in 1985, widely considered as one of the founding texts of post-Marxism. This book includes some of the most innovative and constructive ideas of Laclau regarding the discursive construction of political identities and the centrality of political antagonism. In his theory of discourse, he drew on several theoretical traditions including Saussurean linguistics, Lacanian psychoanalysis, deconstruction and post-structuralism. The theoretical and analytical orientation produced on the basis of this confluence is now known as the “Essex School of discourse analysis.”
Finally, Laclau is one of the most renowned scholars of populism, to which he has (partly) devoted two of his books, Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory (1977) and On Populist Reason (2005). Populism, for Laclau, is understood, once more, as discourse, as a specific way to articulate and communicate demands as well as to form popular identities.
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