Philosophy Hammer
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73: Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe part III:
Beyond the Positivity of the Social: Antagonisms and Hegemony

Summary by: Jeff McLaren

         Beyond the Positivity of the Social: Antagonisms and Hegemony
         Last time we saw the most important developments in Gramsci's concept of hegemony from the authors' perspective. Today we expand it into the authors' own conception.
         The authors go to great lengths to show the essentialist and identifiable nature of the Gramscian Social. However the social is neither essential nor precisely identifiable (Q1). This fundamental error has shackled the left (By the “left” I mean the side that is traditionally considered proletariat and is concerned with the benefits of the middle and lower classes; by the “right” I mean what is traditionally considered the bourgeoisie and is concerned with the the interests of the ruling class) and allowed the right's neo-liberal and neo-classical economic articulations to gain hegemonic status (Q2).
         The positivity of the social refers to the attribution or positing of qualities, referents and/or motivations to a defined or undefined group of people. “People want to be happy” is an example of positing a quality onto a group. The problem is that it is always true and never true at the same time depending on your perspective. The aspects that are never true can return to challenge and if properly exercised will subvert any established hegemonic articulation.
         The fact that all positings are never true is the source of all “social” antagonisms: everything we say is disagreeable. However disagreeableness is not the same as antagonism. Antagonism manifests itself in the conflict of the over-determination of entities. The over-determination of any entity is the condition of having many conflicting or contradictory meanings, demands, functions or expectations (Q3).
         “In the context of this discussion, we will call articulation any practice establishing a relation among elements such that their identity is modified as a result of the articulatory practice. The structured totality resulting from the articulatory practice, we will call discourse. The differential positions, insofar as they appear articulated within a discourse, we will call moments. By contrast, we will call element any difference that is not discursively articulated.”
         A discourse is not united by any logic, subject or experience rather a discourse is united by the dispersion of its moments. That is by how far ranging and well incorporated a discourse appears to be relative to the lived experience of the listener. When the relationship between elements becomes “clear” (an apparent necessity becomes understood) to a passive subject he or she has accepted the totality of the discourse (and the elements are now moments). Hence the best (that is, most successful) discourses have to be retaught over and over again and they must provide an answer to everything. This is so because they cannot achieve a complete or total fixity of relation due to the actual contingency of their implied necessity of relation; due to the actual antagonism of all entities; due to the need to suture the elements together (Q4).
         To create a new hegemonic discourse the field of the articulatory play is one in which the moments of the existing hegemonic idea are first overdetermined back into elements (Q5) and then secondly reconstituted as moments of the new discourse (Q6).
         Q1 We all have some idea of what a social group is but actually the we don't. Any group, just like any statement, is both truly and falsely defined because there is always a different and just as “real” perspective. Consider the family group: a couple may or may not be a family depending on your religious beliefs. Creating favorable identities and destroying unfavorable identities requires a malleability of conception and the implicit acceptance that people can be found who will always disagree with anything you say. Is this acceptable? Are you willing to consider each and everyone of your “truths” as wrong as they are right?
         Q2 The left has been extremely essentialist in the past. Its opposition to capitalism had been essentialist and therefore stagnant up until the 1980s. According to the authors the left has been preoccupied with defining and explaining the nature and workings of capitalism with nearly the same concepts and categories that Marx used. The right on the other hand has dynamically changed its theory and categories overtime. The left has been fighting new chimeras with each new discourse from the right. Each new discourse from the right is systematically dismantled and shown to be nonsense by the left (which is good but not enough). The right, instead of “sticking to its guns,” quickly abandons one position and move into a new discourse. Consider the right's discourse on monetary union in Europe in the late 1990 and early 2000s: quickly abandoned and replaced with the austerity doctrine. Consider the right's discourse on housing as a guaranteed investment – replaced with the need to bail out banks. The left says no sometimes but offers no credible alternative. The cold war is given as a battle between communism and capitalism; perhaps it should be presented as a battle between dictatorship and democracy. The left has not yet challenged the right's assertion that communism failed in 1989; it may be better to say dictatorship failed in 1989. Do you believe that the left has been less successful than the right? Does it have anything to do with the essentialism of the left?
         Q3 The very idea of determining the purpose or reason of anything is an essentialist notion. To take the reason or purpose of anything (including any of the right's discourses) seriously is the mistake made by the left. Complete over-determination is the goal of political articulation: to have overdetermined each entity to the point that all the remembered meanings, demands, functions or expectations support your political interests. Consider the popular versus the unpopular reasons for institutions like corporations, money, the armed forces, property, free trade etc. For example if the right says: the armed forces' job is to protect us from enemies. Should the left respond with: 1) “yes, but it is not doing that it is creating the next enemy” or should the left respond with: 2) “the purpose of the armed forces is to kill innocent people and give survivors a reason to hate us.”? In the first response the left has accepted the rules of the right's discourse thus dooming the left to lose that discourse. The second response holds the possibility of challenging the right's hegemonic position on the playing field of the left's discourse. Do you believe that any idea can be challenged in this way?
         Q4 If this is true then everything a politician (or anybody) says is absolutely true all of the time and simultaneously untrue all of the time (including this statement). Do you believe this? If you accept this, what does it mean when one politician (or party) beats another in an election? Does the idea that a politician should concentrate on one simple message support or contradict the authors' idea?
         Q5 Political negative attack ads are attempts to de-legitimize a candidate. In other words to turn the moments of his/her discourse back into elements. This is the necessary first step to challenging the dominance of a hegemonic discourse. Do you believe (in) negative attack ads? Their only purpose is to limit the range of the discourse's playing field; to narrow the dispersion of a discourse's moments. Is this believable? Why else do negative attack ads work?
         Q6 The right claims “corporations are good and just ways to channel the creative energies of people into socially useful tasks that benefit everyone both in the company and the society.” The left's response: LOL “Like Enron, RBC and Ornge. Please wake up from your fantasy world. Maybe in a perfect world you might have something and maybe it should be like that but HERE in the REAL world corporations are greedy vampires, sucking out the best years of workers while holding out a promise of a better life which they do not intend to keep as they destroy people, governments and the environment in their obsessive quest for profit.” This has been a simplified articulatory practice. Can it be attempted with all discourses?

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