Archive for December, 2008

31 December 2008

Totality as a horizon

The most recent issue of World Picture includes an interview with Ernesto Laclau. He says, inter alia:

I don’t think that the notion of totality should be repudiated but, rather, that its theoretical status has to be redefined: totality is not for me a ground but a horizon; it is a type of closure which is not incompatible with the heterogeneity of its internal elements.

Laclau also clarifies once more that where deconstruction is a theory of undecidability, hegemony is a theory of decision (the decisions taken in an undecidable terrain). What interests me most — given my current grappling with the fruitfulness of Lacan for discourse analysis — is his next comment:

In my work I have argued that the logic of the objet a in Lacan’s conception and the hegemonic logic show a profound homology, even if in one case that logic has been established through a psychoanalytic reflection and, in the other, through a politico-theoretical field.

World Picture appears twice annually,
edited by Brian Price, John David Rhodes
and Meghan Sutherland.

30 December 2008

Tanks moving towards Ossetia

Apparently, reports have been made that Georgian tanks are moving back towards the South Ossetian border. Love the discussion on this blog, where the first comment noted that “And while the world is watching Israel, Russia decides it’s time to move things along slowly… quietly….”. S_he was corrected and noticed the mistake (“LOL. Sorry”)… Ah, how hegemonic configurations frame our readings… (Although a later comment on the same blog probably has a point: I wouldn’t be surprised either if Russian, Georgian, Ossetian military were all on the move in the region.)

30 December 2008

Žižek and the subject

I’ve recently had a great deal of Žižekianism imported into my home (initially most adamantly not invited by me). Yesterday, a moment of illumination appeared for me in Ernesto Laclau’s preface to one of Slavoj Žižek‘s earliest books, The Sublime Object of Ideology. The main thesis of this book (and, one could add, of his copious later writings) is, according to Laclau:

that the category of ‘subject’ cannot be reduced to the ‘positions of subject’, since before subjectivation the subject is the subject of lack (p. xii)

This assumption (the subject of lack) forms one of the fundamental differences between a Laclauian approach to discourse analysis, and approaches developing from Foucault or (critical) discourse analysis. Could we say it is the “why” question? Žižek later in the same book criticises those analyses which do not ask the why question. Althusser, for instance ‘never succeeeded in thinking out the link between Ideological State Apapratuses and ideological interpellation’ (p. 43). Why does the ISA produce subjectivation effects, why does it interpellate (hail/call) its subject into being, why does it produce the recognition of one’s subject position?

As a friend of mine said recently, if we knew the answer to the “why” question, we could control the world. So, first, perhaps it is not possible to answer it, and second, perhaps it is not necessary to ask it. But it is very tempting to speculate, and Lacanian psychoanalysis does offer one line of approach (as long as we are clear about its set of presuppositions) to exploring it. I think I’m softening towards the master…

Slavoj Žižek (1989) The Sublime Object of Ideology. London: Verso (review)

Also on the houshold Christmas reading list:

30 December 2008

Batman on Hume

Quote of the day: “What you are inside doesn’t count; it’s what you do that counts.” (Rachel to Bruce in Batman Begins) Thus does she get rid of the idea of a true inner self, refocusing our attention on actions.

David Hume — another of those famous Scots — already eliminated the Self in the eighteenth century by noting that no matter how hard he examined his experiences in the search for an experiencing self, all he could ever find were the experiences. The self, then, is not an entity, but more a ‘bundle of sensations’. Susan Blackmore’s Consciousness (OUP, 2005) provides an excellent ‘very short introduction’ to recent research and thinking about a range of issues related to consciousness, including the idea of a unified, continuous self.

29 December 2008

Lieven, Obama and Russia

News media are full of analysts urging Barack Obama how to deal with Russia. In The Nation, Anatol Lieven tells us ‘How Obama Can Reform Russia Policy‘. Basically, “in order to achieve a significant improvement in relations, Washington does not actually have to do anything. It only has to stop doing certain things.” He suggests US policy-makers pay attention to the difference between the “the image of Russian behavior in the United States and its reality”.

(Which we could rephrase as noticing the difference between the hegemonic image of Russian behaviour in the US and other potential images which could be equally as plausible. See, the problem is that the post-structuralist phrasing is just not as succinct…)

Lieven also suggests (quote):

  • The first step in relations with Russia on the part of the new administration should therefore be quietly to move the offer of NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine onto the back burner.
  • As far as Ukraine is concerned, the Obama administration should aim at a clear, if doubtless private, agreement that would exclude radical action by either the United States or Russia in favor of a joint commitment to share influence.
  • It should also be made clear to Moscow that if it ever uses energy blackmail against existing members of NATO and the EU, then all other agreements will automatically be under question.
  • The Obama administration needs to embed its relations with Russia in a wider new strategy toward Eurasia. The frame should include Russia, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, and the approach should be based on a recognition that the United States is simply not strong enough anymore–if indeed it ever was–to impose its will on the region, or even to prevent Afghanistan from sinking into deeper civil war.
29 December 2008

Russia’s Media Darlings

Although Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev were most mentioned in Russian media in 2008, Putin only came third in the most-positively-mentioned rankings, according to findings presented by Medialogia, a marketing and media research company in today’s Russia Today:

medvedev_obama1Persons most mentioned in the Russian media:

1) Vladimir Putin – 348,494
2) Dmitry Medvedev – 339,032
3) Viktor Yushchenko – 174,035

Persons mentioned in a positive context:

1) Dmitry Medvedev – 7,784
2) Barack Obama – 2,838
3) Vladimir Putin – 2,475

Persons mentioned in a negative context:

1) Mikhail Saakashvili – 7,670
2) Viktor Yushchenko – 5,460
3) George W. Bush – 3,272

19 December 2008

Caucasus Analytical Digest

The first issue of the Caucasus Analytical Digest is now available: “Perspectives on the Georgian-Russian war” (download pdf here).

The Caucasus Analytical Digest (CAD) analyzes the political, economic, and social situation in the Southern Caucasus within the context of international and security dimensions. Subscription is for free.

CAD is a monthly internet publication jointly produced by the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Tbilisi (, the Research Centre for East European Studies at the University of Bremen (, the Jefferson Institute in Washington, DC ( and the Center for Security Studies (CSS) at ETH Zurich with support from the German Association for East European Studies (DGO).

Although written in a different style to the RFE/RL Caucasus Report (where RFE/RL is primarily a news service, CAD offers more analytical, although also fairly short, articles), it promises to offer more balanced and reflective accounts of events in the region than those available at Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty.

17 December 2008

Educational discourse

Wade Tillet has challenged hegemonic educational discourse (articulated not only in language but also in testing practices) by calling a ‘Bubble (Pro)test Press Conference‘ in Chicago. He is opting his third grade child out of the Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT). Learning is about more than filling in bubbles in standardised tests, he says.

You can’t measure learning, creativity, or anything else of real value with bubbles. Because of this fact, the current ideology that makes use of bubble tests dumbs down what is taught, limits creativity, encourages competition between peers, penalizes students, teachers, and schools, and focuses on students’ “weaknesses” instead of their myriad strengths

…bubble pic from tvbythenumbers.

16 December 2008

Laclau on Populism

…in Spanish

…thanks to Marco

12 December 2008


I had the rare pleasure of attending a debate with two excellent speakers on “The Power of Tolerance” last night. Wendy Brown, author of Regulating Tolerance, and Rainer Forst, author of Toleranz im Konflikt [Tolerance in Conflict], two political theorists/philosophers who have obvious respect and liking for each other discussed discourses and conceptions of tolerance, the normative premises involved and the possibility of reframing or drawing positive use from the term. [Update: a video of the evening should be online soon. The third Spannungsübung – thanks Sara for the link.]

Both were keen to point out their shared perspectives, agreeing, for instance, that the term tolerance operates on a field of power, that it constitutes subjectivities, and that a critical view of the discourses involving tolerance is necessary. Given their intellectual backgrounds and their books on the concept, they strove (successfully) to avoid reducing the debate to, in Brown’s words, a “tired” Foucauldian (Brown) vs. Habermasian (Forst) argument. And they aimed (again successfully) to avoid turning the debate into an anti-tolerance (Brown) vs. pro-tolerance (Forst) argument.

What instead ensued at Berlin’s ICI was a sophisticated, subtle exploration of the two approaches to studying the term. I could never do justice to their arguments here. Nevertheless, what I can do is firstly, briefly outline their comments, and note that although I do still find Wendy Brown’s perspective more convincing, I wholeheartedly agree with her comment towards the end that she now more fully understands what Rainer Forst’s project is about.

Basically, he divides “tolerance” into a “permission” conception and a “respect” conception. The first is what is often criticised; you can only tolerate something if you are operating from a position of power and dominance. Giving someone permission to do something (examples used frequently this evening were gay marriages or wearing a headscarf in public office), if you are in a position of domination over them. It means no longer persecuting thyat group but also not giving them equal rights. At the same time, however, Forst foregrounds the dynamic of an emancipatory dimension of tolerance when it functions as a strategy to resist domination. If minority groups claim their (equal) rights through invoking tolerance, they invoke a respect conception of tolerance.

In a second move, he delineated three components of tolerance.

  1. Objection (we can only say we tolerate something, e.g., homosexual marriage, if we think it is wrong. If we think it is good, we would not speak of toleration; if we think it is interesting but strange, we would also not speak of toleration).
  2. Acceptance (if we can provide proper rational, reasoned justification for why this something should be tolerated)
  3. Rejection (if we can provide proper rational, reasoned justification why this something goes beyond the limits of tolerance, e.g., racism, homophobia)

From a discursive perspective there are a number of tensions within these arguments. Where do the power relations figure in this analysis? Who decides what is ‘proper’ justification or defines the limits of ‘rationality’? If the concept of ‘tolerance’ already constitutes the candidate for tolerance (the homosexual, the female Muslim teacher) as deficient, deviant, wrong, then how can it have the positive twist which Forst gives the respect conception? Is the discourse of tolerance not operating instead as one element which (re)produces liberal democracy, secularism, etc. as today’s hegemonic formation; the contemporary horizon of intelligibility and justifiability?

Brown made all of these and more arguments, while repeatedly stressing that her project is simply different from Forst’s, rather than contradictory. And she gave an imposing list of what interests her about ‘tolerance’; about the normative discourses of tolerance:

  • how do discourses of tolerance constitute political identities (the West as a civilisation; the homophobe who is “against gay marriage” but “for tolerance”)?
  • why did the New York Times declare the election of Obama a “triumph of tolerance”?
  • how does that utterance discursively resubordinate the object that it claims to free?
  • how have openly Zionist museums of tolerance managed to steal the mantel of tolerance for their explicit project of sanctifying Israel and demonizing Palestinians?
  • why would most Europeans today normally associate tolerance with the “problem” of immigrants?
  • how does tolerance discourse manage to fuse culture and religion and to render culture and religion ontological, i.e., something to be tolerated at the very level of being?
  • how did the Netherlands manage to make tolerance of nudity and gay sex into a threshold of citizenship for its potential Arab citizens?
  • how and why are individualism, secularism, enlightenment, civility and tolerance linked in civilisational discourse, such that western liberal democracy becomes identical with tolerance (despite fascism, slavery, etc)., whereas Islam becomes identified with intolerance?
  • how was tolerance deployed to justifiy the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan?
  • what do the operations of discourses of tolerance reveal about contemporary liberal democracy?
  • why has the notion of tolerance had such a renaissance in the last 15-20 years?
  • how is it ontologising the differences that it claims only to negotiate?
  • to what extent does this discourse figure contemporary societies as inherently riven by these naturalised differences?
  • what happens when tolerance shifts from belief as its object to identity as its object?
  • what happens when police, schoolchildren, social workers, etc, are taught tolerance as a way to negotiate their encounters with one another as transgender, Muslim, Jewish, homosexual?
  • how does tolerance substitute for equality while claiming to be the same as equality — or to be at least supporting equality?
  • how does tolerance subtly stratify and abject certain people?
  • how does tolerance today recentre certain hegemonic norms (e.g., when someone speaks of tolerance towards Arabs, immigrants, etc, what norm of nationality is being recentred)?
  • how do contemporary discourses of tolerance comprise a set of normative operations that often hide themselves as such?
  • how do contemporary discourses of tolerance manage challenges to cultural hegemony by construing those challenges as naturalised (antagonistic) differences or deviations?
  • how is tolerance a dimension of multicultural governmentality?

This focus is — unsuprisingly given this blog’s name — far more plausible for my perspective and interests. It felt like a large part of the audience also shared this view. In fact, a good deal of the evening was spent deconstructing Forst’s arguments. Nevertheless, precisely through his subtle and reflective responses to this deconstruction, he has in turn deconstructed the straw man of Habermasianism which is quite often wheeled out by theorists of a discursive colour.

And he pointed — albeit implicitly — to one strong advantage of his position. He offers tangible, feasible, immediate, pragmatic, reflective, contextualised tools for political actions and even policy-making. For example, working up the ‘respect’ conceptualisation of tolerance in specific discussions and policies rather than the ‘permission’ conceptualisation would by making a first step towards equal rights.

Where does discourse theory leave us (or where does it take us) with respect to political action? This is a question I have often been asked: what actions — what actual political change — does/can my discursive research lead to? Is it enough to answer that it opens the discursive terrain to reflection and critique? That by paying close attention to hegemonic formations — to struggles for power and hegemony, to the emergence and destabilizaiton of discourses, to the contingency and situatedness of identies and truths — analysis opens the terrain for a more de-essentialised, de-naturalised engagement with political issues? A sometimes unsatisfactory answer and a still open question.