Culture Machine, Vol 4 (2002)

CM2002 Article: Laclau

Ethics, Politics and Radical Democracy - A Response to Simon Critchley

Ernesto Laclau

First of all I would like to thank Simon for all the effort he has undertaken in preparing what is no doubt a very important article of his. I would like, however, to start by indicating two general areas in which my approach differs from Simon's. Then I am going to go into the seven points that he has enunciated at the end of his article.

The first point of disagreement concerns the question of deconstruction. Simon has quite rightly pointed out that mine is a deconstructive approach and that my deconstruction leads to putting into question some of the sharp distinctions that we have found in recent philosophical writings. One of these distinctions is the distinction to be found in the work of Alain Badiou between l'être and l'événement, which is probably a leftover from his Sartrean past but which is quite an important structure in his approach. (Recently Slavoj ÂŽižek has written that the difference between the work of Badiou and my own is the fact that I am a deconstructionist while Badiou is not one. That is probably true, although I think there are more important differences, the main one being that he is a Maoist and I'm a Gramscian.) But, anyway, what I want to take issue with Simon about in the first place is the idea that I am deconstructing the descriptive/normative distinction while I am not deconstructing the ethical/normative one. In fact I think I am deconstructing both.

Deconstruction consists in discovering the undecidability of things which are presented as being either joined or separated. So deconstruction involves two kinds of operation. On the one hand, it shows that between two things which have been portrayed as being essentially linked there is in fact some kind of undecidability which prevents them from being assembled together. On the other hand, deconstruction also involves showing that between two things which are originally presented as separated there is a certain amount of contamination. Now in traditional ethical theory the descriptive/normative distinction is fully accepted. It has, as you know, Kantian origins; in fact it is first and foremost with Kant that we have such a strict separation. If we go, for instance, to The Nichomachean Ethics we find that it is much more difficult to determine what is descriptive and what is normative. Nevertheless, this distinction is generally accepted in post-Kantian ethical theory. The deconstructive task here consists in showing that these two sides, which are in fact two dimensions of an ensemble that cannot be separated except in an analytical way, are contaminated. But, in the second place, from the point of view of the relationship between the normative and the ethical, the deconstructive task is quite the opposite. As people normally tend to collapse the ethical and the normative, the deconstructive task is to show that there is not such a strict overlap between the two. So, in fact, I think I am deconstructing both of these oppositions, both of the distinctions we are arguing about.

The second point on which I am going to take issue with Simon is the question of formal content. Let me put it bluntly. The distinction between the normative and the ethical that I am presenting in my work has absolutely nothing to do with the distinction between form and content, because among other things form is something which has a content of its own, it is a more general content. It is a content the space of which can be occupied by many specified instances, but this space is still organised around a set of essential contents. For me, the notion of the ethical is linked with the notion of an empty signifier, whereby an empty signifier is that option to which no content would correspond. It is, to use Kant's term, a noumenon, an object which shows itself through the impossibility of its adequate representation. So if the ethical is conceived in this way, obviously it has nothing to do with any kind of formalism. If I had to choose between Hegel and Kant, I myself would choose Hegel. But the problem is that the ethical in the sense in which I try to specify it cannot be answered either by Hegelian or by Kantian ethics.

Now, what is an ethical experience? In another paper Simon has linked the notion of an ethical experience to the answer to a demand. I am not against this assertion, but I would argue, however, that the notion of the ethical experience is far more radical than this. It is related to the experience of the unconditional in an entirely conditioned universe. And this experience of the unconditional is the kernel of any notion of ethics. If we say that there is a radical distinction between the 'is' and the 'ought', this distance between the two is precisely what constitutes the space of ethics. But this distance is experienced through a certain breech, or gap, which cannot be ultimately filled. Because of this the transition from the ethical to the normative is going to have the characteristic of a radical investment.

Here I want to take a small detour and speak about mysticism, because mysticism is a type of intellectual or experiential exercise in which the problem is exactly how to give expression to something which is essentially ineffable; how the ineffable can be in some sense expressed there. And this question of the discursive devices to which mysticism tries to give appropriate expression illuminates the central aspect in the organisation of the whole human experience. Let me quote a passage from Meister Eckhart:

You should love God non-mentally, that is to say the soul should become non-mental and stripped of her mental nature. For as long as your soul is mental, she will possess images. And as long as she has images she will possess intermediaries and as long as she has intermediaries, she will have no unity or simplicity. As long as she lacks simplicity, she does not truly love God, for true love depends upon simplicity.

At the continuation of that paragraph is the famous passage in which the notion of the negation of negation that is going to impress Hegel so much is formulated for the first time. Eckhart writes further, 'Oneness is purer than goodness and truth. Â… If I say that God is good then I am adding something to him. Oneness on the other hand is a negation of negation and a denial of denial. What does "one" mean? One is that to which nothing has been added'. Obviously this passage has a kind of Spinozian ring. The notion of oneness that is presented here involves a negation of difference, an annihilation of difference. But there is an ambiguity in the passage, and in fact I think in all mysticism of the Northern type. On the one hand, God is the Absolute Beyond, on the other he is something which is all-embracing. These are the two possibilities on which a classical distinction between introverted and extroverted mysticism has been formulated, but it is a distinction which is full of consequences for the problems that we have discussed so far. Obviously the whole Hegelian dialectic is an attempt to transform the beyond into something which is an all-embracing totality. In Saussurean terms we would say that we have a universe in which we have only relations of co-ordination and not relations of substitution.

Now, what is the consequence of this? If we have a total introverted mysticism, in that case the distinction between the ontic and the ontological practically disappears. I am going to come back later on to that distinction. But let me quote now from a poem by Robert Browning:

Do I task any faculty highest, to image success?
I but open my eyes, -- and perfection, no more and no less,
In the kind I imagined, full-fronts me, and God is seen God
In the star, in the stone, in the flesh, in the soul and the clod. ('Saul')

Now if God is expressed through the totality of things, we don't have a point at which there is a radical investment and the possibility of establishing the distinction that I tried to establish between the ethical and the normative. What is important to see here is that for the mystic, especially of the introverted type, there is no lack of engagement at work. There is, on the contrary, active participation - a mystic is not an anchorite. Eckhart says as follows:

Those who are rightly disposed truly have God with them and whoever truly possesses God in the right way, possesses him in all places: on the street, in any company, as well as in a church or a remote place or in their cell. No one can obstruct this person, for they intend and seek nothing but God and take great pleasure only in him, who is united with them in all their aims. And so just as no multiplicity can divide God, in the same way nothing can scatter this person or divide them for they are one in the One in whom all multiplicity is one and is non-multiplicity.

That is to say, we have what I have called in other works a logic of equivalence by which a set of a different particularised actions act as part of a certain process of totalisation. But the possibility of this totalisation depends on this dialectic which Eckhart has explored, which is the dialectic between detachment and engagement. I am then fully detached because God is something beyond everything which is expressible. But precisely because of that I can engage in my activities in the world with an ethical seriousness that people who are preoccupied with small objectives are unable to develop. In fact, what I think Eckhart is describing here is something belonging to the figure of the militant. A similar argument was made by Georges Sorel when discussing the general strike. He says:

If I participate in an occupation of a factory, in a demonstration, in a strike, each of these movements is going to have a particular objective. If I am concentrating on the particularity of the objective in that case I am dispersing myself in the world. But if I see each of these activities as steps towards an ultimate end, which is the general strike, in that case precisely because I am detached from the direct identification with a particular objective I can engage in a more militant way in all these objectives.

An important point is that the general strike necessarily is an empty signifier. The general strike for Sorel is also something - an event which could possibly happen is some kind of an ultimate objective in which the fullness of being is going to be achieved. And in this fullness of being tangentially we are going to see a breech of the gap between the ontic and the ontological. In the fullness of being is in that sense the ethical moment which forges a variety of partial actions.

Now with these general remarks in mind I want to pass to some of the more concrete points raised by Simon in his paper. First, about the de jure/de facto distinction between normative content and ethical form, which, as we know from what I have said before, is not an ethical form but rather an ethical content. But this ethical content is given by a pure emptiness which later requires some form of radical investment. In fact here the moment of the decision is clearly unavoidable. Now, what about de jure and de facto? I would say that it is not simply de jure, not simply analytically, that the distinction between the ethical and the normative is made. Once an object is an object of ethical investment, this object is going to function discursively and with organised experience in a completely different way than it would in a purely normative order. For instance, at the beginning of the twentieth century the idea of the socialisation of the means of production was the object of some radical investment. How did this investment proceed by transforming socialisations of the means of production in the symbol of something beyond them? Because socialisation of the means of production is, strictly speaking, a way of running the economy. But for people who invested in this aim the end was much wider. Through a state of equivalence it involved the supposition of all forms of oppression. And in this sense it was the signifier of something beyond itself. So the fact that it was the object of ethical investment made a great deal of difference to the organisation of the whole of the normative experience. Any kind of normative experience required this ethical investment, but once this ethical investment is in operation there is not going to be an overlap in the distinction between de jure and de facto as such. Instead, we will have a totally different structuration of the field of historical experience.

The second point concerns Heidegger. I cannot accept the notion of the unity of the ontological and the ontic as the characteristic of Dasein in the way in which Simon suggested, among other things because Heidegger says from the very beginning of Being and Time that the ontic characteristic of Dasein is the fact that it is ontological. That is to say, the ontic characteristics which apply to a set of other realities are in fact organised in an entirely different way in the case of Dasein. What this involves is the idea that the ontic characteristic of Dasein is to be ontological; it is important that its meaning is not simply given but is rather constructed. I have to choose my life at any singular moment; I have an openness which precisely no content can really absorb. And so the ontic/ontological distinction is not a formal one; it is a distinction which actually organises a human reality as such. Then in point (4) Simon says the assumption behind the identification of the ethical with the ontological would seem to be that we can thematise and grasp conceptually the being of the ethical: i.e. that the nature of ethics can be ontologically identified and comprehended. If the ethical is an experience of the unconditional which is beyond any possibility of language, then it is impossible for the ethical to be identified and comprehended. In making this point I think Simon really has to some extent misunderstood my argument. The quotations he then provides from Levinas, Lacan etc. are quotations to which I would fully subscribe precisely because the being of ethics in not a being, it is a beyond-being, other-than-being. In that case there is something that you can invest in a normative order, but you cannot express it in a direct way. So I think that from this point Simon and I are not that far apart. Now, as far as Wittgenstein is concerned, I would disagree on a philological level. I think that when Wittgenstein is speaking about the ethical, the type of argument he is making is entirely different from the one that Kant or Levinas develop. I don't accept the fact that the word ethics appears there and the mystical appears there. This is also something which relates to some of the problems of how to connect names and objects, which is typical of the early analytical philosophy but is something which I do not have time to enter into now.

Let me now address point (5) in Simon's critique. Again, I am not entirely in agreement with Simon about the way in which he links a particular decision with a rule in the beautiful quotation from Wittgenstein concerning rule-following which he includes here. Simon says, 'This quotation would seem to illustrate well the relation between ethics and normativity. There is a rule which possesses universality, for example the sequence of prime numbers, and yet each expression of that rule demands a decision, an act of continuing the sequence'. And he concludes, 'In this sense the rule would be ethical and the particular decision would be normative'. I think this cannot be solved if the ethical is understood in the way I understand it myself, because in the first place there is no rule which would be in itself and by itself ethical. This rule requires ethical investment and this ethical investment is already something which enters into the order of the normative. So I do not think that the moment of the universality of that rule is what transforms it into the ethical, because you cannot have a universality which is fully normative, as in case of Kant.

Now let me comment briefly on the point in which I am seriously risking banality, which is point (6) in Simon's argument concerning the two alternatives he presents: 'If there is some specific content of the ethical then the distinction between the ethical and the normative cannot be said to hold. Yet conversely, if there is no content of the ethical at all then one might be entitled to ask, what's the point?' I have two responses here. First, I do not think that we are actually presented with only these alternatives that Simon is discussing in this passage - either we have a meta-ethical position or an ethics with a particularised ethical content. I want to suggest that there are some other alternatives. Let me quote a famous passage from Marx, in which he tries to explain why in Aristotle there cannot be a conception of value in the economic sense: 'It cannot be a notion of value simply because there was slave labour and the idea that there was an abstraction that was called abstract labour is something which could not emerge in the ancient world.' Once you have that brief move from one branch of industry to the other then labour power becomes something of an abstraction. This abstraction is not simply an abstraction in thought; it is an abstraction which is actually organising social relations. But once I have the category of abstract labour I can perfectly well see how, in the past, in those societies in which abstract labour could not emerge, labour was nevertheless organised. I do not think that is a matter of restricting the analysis to the present; rather, the present through its form and distinction shows something which also has the characteristics of meta-theory, of the wider theory of society. So I think the two elements are here together - which is why the theory of hegemony has emerged these days and could not have emerged two hundred years ago. It is emerging exactly at the moment in which the plurality of subject positions is seen to be constantly rearticulated in a new way; that is to say, the experience of hegemonic relation today has illuminated something concerning also the general characteristic of human society. Now, is this content exclusively descriptive? I would argue it is not, and there I would agree with Simon. It is not entirely descriptive because in order to see hegemony I have to see the contingency of social arrangements, and once I see the contingency of social arrangements, I can start conceiving of ways of developing social possibilities which could not exist if society were considered to be grounded in the will of God, in nature, or whatever there is. That is to say, I also agree with some of the conclusions that Simon has reached here, in the sense that democratic hegemony is what reveals the nature of hegemony as such; and it is only with democratic hegemony that the full extent of the hegemonic relation can be historically recognised.