- The term "ontology" occupies an increasingly prominent place in current politico-philosophical discourse.
"Political philosophy forces us to enter the terrain of ontology," declare Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri
(Empire (354). Ernesto Laclau recently said that he has "concentrated
on the ontological dimension of social theory." According to Laclau, his work should be judged at "the
theoretical and philosophical level" ("A Reply" 321) because it "requires a new ontology" (304). Such investment in ontology
is important in much recent self-avowedly leftist political theory. Giorgio Agamben's critique of the state of exception
and of today's concentration camps is intimately tied to his ontological reflections regarding our potential existence beyond
sovereign power: "Until a new and coherent ontology of potentiality" has been found, he argues, "a political theory freed from
the aporias of sovereignty remains unthinkable" (Homo Sacer 44). Likewise, Alain Badiou's political
writings are intertwined with his mathematical ontology of set-theory, and Slavoj Zizek's exhortation to
return to the legacy of Lenin in order to combat global capitalism remains inseparable from his ontological
determination of capital as the real.
An early call to re-invent a "first philosophy" was Jean-Luc Nancy's seminal essay "Being Singular Plural," first published in
1996. Here, Nancy says that we must think "an ontology of
being-with-one-another" (53) as the basis for a new communal politics beyond sovereignty and domination: "there is
no difference between the ethical and the ontological" (99), he declares, because "only ontology, in fact, may
be ethical in a consistent manner" (21). In his view, only a radical recommencement of philosophical thought can
move political theory beyond its current impasse caused by the liberal defense of the status quo. In
particular, Nancy distinguishes his new ontology of "being-in-common" both from Heideggerianism and from Marxism.
Heidegger, so Nancy, did not take his own analysis of "Mitsein" far enough, but instead remains committed to
a thinking in hierarchies: "The analytic of Mitsein that appears within the existential analytic remains
nothing more than a sketch; that is, even though Mitsein is coessential with Dasein, it remains
in a subordinate position" (93). Against Marxism, Nancy's ontology insists on dissolving the the various oppositions
(between essence and appearance, base and superstructure) that sustain a dialectical (i.e. Hegelian) mode
of critique: "Both the theory and the practice of critique demonstrate that, from now on, critique absolutely needs
to rest on some principle other than that of the ontology of the Other and the Same: it needs an ontology of
In this essay, I use Nancy's reflections as a starting point for examining the reasons for and the significance of the
renewed interest in a "new ontology," particularly among certain leftist political thinkers. I argue that
ontology had become a shunned concept in traditional leftist discourse because it was tainted by Heidegger and his
involvement in German fascism. Moreover, I demonstrate that Jameson's recent attempt to revive ontology as a
crucial concept for Marxist theory inevitably leads him back to embrace the same old (Hegelian) dialectics of self
and other, form and content--that is, precisely the kind of dualist thinking that Nancy and other neo-left ontologists seek to
leave behind. Contrary to the Marxist belief in the recuperative power of negativity, they conceive of political ontology as a
paradoxical terrain that "'contradiction,' in its dialectical sense, is entirely unable to capture," as Laclau argues (Populist
Reason 84). "So forget Hegel" (148).
However, in spite of this rejection of traditional Marxism, these theorists acknowledge the necessity to base their political theory
on explicit assumptions about the "nature" of social life and the world at large. It is this tension between being and becoming
that gives rise to the paradoxical definitions of ontology as a "groundless presupposition" (Nancy) or "limiting horizon"
(Laclau)--formulations that seek to describe or conceive of a de-essentialized ontology, an ontology that recognizes a given (social
or natural) foundation as both structurally given and as historically changing. This, then, is the problem: how to
move beyond Marxist dialectics without falling prey to an essentially conservative ontology (such as Leo Strauss's firm belief in the
natural superiority of philosophers and gentlemen or Carl Schmitt's seminal distinction between friends and enemies as constitutive of
the political). Can one choose something other than (Marxist) dialectics and (Heideggerian) Dasein?
I believe one can, and this essay introduces some of the major theoretical positions that have developed in response to this
question. I use the generic term "neo-left" to address them in unison. I choose "neo-left" primarily because it goes
the other two terms that have become widely accepted today--"neo-conservative" and "neo-liberal." Moreover, the prefix
some of the drastic changes in global capitalism and technology, that play an important part in contemporary politics, while
suffix "left" emphasizes the continuing commitment of these thinkers to issues of economic justice and social equality. Thus, the
purpose of my essay is to compare the current use of and reference to "ontology" as a crucial concept in contemporary political
philosophy. Needless to say, such a comparison can neither be comprehensive nor can it do justice to the full complexity of the
particular works discussed. It must be satisfied instead with an outline of the major trends and their underlying
My overall thesis is that the current interest in ontology signifies a profound change within the leftist
politico-philosophical tradition, namely the belief that thought has the intrinsic power to affect and alter (but not to control or
govern) the "nature" of what it thinks: "A thought is an event," claims Nancy; "what it thinks happens to it there,
where it is not" (175). Only if Being and thinking are the same can the creative "reflection" on the "nature" of
things be concomitant with their "change." Put differently, thought neither represents objective materiality (as
some orthodox Marxists would claim) nor does it reflect the autonomous "dis-appearing" of things (in the sense
of Heidegger's aletheia). Rather, thought partakes of reality; the two are consubstantial. This leads me to embrace
what Stephen K. White has called a "weak ontology" as the basis for thinking leftist politics. Such an ontology registers the
affective power of theory to influence politics above and beyond its rational content.
Marxism, Heidegger, and Ontology
As exemplified in Nancy's text, Heidegger's work often serves as a springboard for those envisioning a "new ontology," because
Heidegger was among the first to de-essentialize ontology in his effort to move beyond classical metaphysics. For example, this is how Agamben states the situation:
The fact that must constitute the point of departure for any discourse on ethics is that there is no essence, no historical or
spiritual vocation, no biological destiny that humans must enact or realize . . . . This does not mean, however, that humans are not,
do not have to be, something, that they are simply consigned to nothingness and therefore can freely decide whether to be or not to
be, to adopt or not to adopt this or that destiny (nihilism and decisionism coincide at this point). There is in effect something
that humans are and have to be, but this something is not an essence nor properly a thing: It is the simple fact of one's own
existence as possibility or potentiality. (Coming Community 43)
Here, the debt to Heidegger is as unmistakable as in the work of Derrida or Levinas. But there is also the deliberate attempt to move
beyond Heidegger and to dissociate his de-essentialized ontology from the horrors of fascism. Agamben first emphasizes "that Nazism
. . . has its condition of possibility in Western philosophy itself, and in Heideggerian ontology in particular." But he soon finds "the
point at which Nazism and Heidegger's thought radically diverge," because the latter allegedly resists the "biological and eugenic"
drive that characterizes the former (Homo Sacer 152-53). Whether this distinction is ultimately convincing seems less
relevant than Agamben's overall effort to think with and beyond Heidegger as he searches for a new, non-foundational and non-relational ontology.
The recent interest in political ontology thus departs from the traditional leftist position to equate ontological thinking (via
Heidegger) with German fascism. Since Heidegger and up until the mid-1980's when a deconstructive version of Marxism emerged in the works
of Laclau, Mouffe, Zizek, Badiou, a.o., ontology was synonymous with Heideggerianism: "Contemporary philosophical 'ontology' is entirely
dominated by the name of Heidegger," Alain Badiou correctly stated in 1988 (Being and Event 9). Badiou himself, of course,
will break with this tradition; yet this general identification of ontology and Heidegger allowed most leftist intellectuals at the time
to dismiss the entire ontological tradition as a dangerous aberration in Western thought. As a philosophical tradition, ontology is not
only suspect among leftist intellectuals. It is part of an oppressive super-structure that affirms rather than challenges the existing
status quo. "In all its mutually excluding and defaming versions, ontology is apologetic," Adorno unequivocally states in 1966 (69). For Adorno, the basic fault of ontology in general, and of Heidegger's "foundational ontology" in
particular, is its essentialism, which seeks the eternal, self-identical truth underneath the flow of history. "Heidegger," we read,
"refuses to reflect [the difference between expression and thing]; he stops after only the first step of the language-philosophical
Ontological argument is static, undialectical, and unhistorical. It apodictically posits a truth that, following
Adorno, can only be thought in and through a continuous process of self-critical reflection. The truth about
ontology, therefore, is its untruth and philosophical sterility. Ontology begets ideology, because it refuses to
think through and beyond contradiction the way dialectics does. Instead, Heidegger allegedly praises the mere
existence of paradox as if it were truth itself. In doing so, ontology succumbs to the apologetic "affirmation of
power" (136), and Adorno spends numerous pages on Heidegger's use of the predicate "is" to substantiate this
claim. The brute fact that the world exists and that Being "is," so Adorno,
seduces Heidegger to abandon dialectical reflection in favor of mere tautologies that refuse to mediate between the
constitutive poles of subject and object, Being and beings. Instead, ontology ultimately collapses the two into
one. "The whole construction of [Heidegger's] ontological difference is a Potemkin Village" (122), Adorno
concludes, because this alleged difference only serves to advocate the self-identity and self-righteousness of the
way things always already are in the beginning and will have been in the end. In Heidegger, "mediation [succumbs]
to the unmediated identity of what mediates and what is being mediated" (Adorno 493).
In contrast, the overall goal of critical reflection must be to "once again liquefy the reified movement of
thought" that characterizes (Heidegger's) ontology (104). The way to do this is to unveil its
"objective," that is, its "truthful" dimension, which consists of its socio-ideological function. Hence, Adorno
reads Heideggerian "Fundamentalontologie" as a symptom for the fate human subjectivity suffers at the
hands of capitalist society. Although, philosophically speaking, Heidegger's fetishization of Being along with his
renunciation of the subject's power of critical reflection is "untrue" and "ideological," it is, at the same time,
"true" nonetheless in so far as it "registers" the "total functionality-complex" constitutive of modern society
(74). (Heidegger's) ontology is a false thought enabled and sustained by a false human practice. Only a fundamental
change in the latter could prompt the necessary dissolution of the former.
Like Adorno, many traditional Marxists are reluctant to use the term "ontology" at all because, in their view,
this term is part of the speculative philosophical tradition that the pragmatic approach of some Marxist
theory seeks to upturn from its head onto its feet. For what distinguishes nineteenth-century Marxism from eighteenth-century
philosophical materialism is precisely this emphasis on the social-active potential of mankind as opposed to the mere description of its physical
components. If there is something like a Marxist ontology, it is based on human practice, which renders a priori
attempts to theorize it irrelevant at best and
reactionary at worst. Once again, Heidegger proves an excellent case in point, as Pierre Bourdieu argues in his 1977 book The
Political Ontology of Martin Heidegger. Although Bourdieu criticizes Adorno's alleged one-dimensional
denunciation of Heidegger, he pursues the same overall goal as does Adorno, namely to situate
Heidegger's ontology within the socio-political context of his time. Bourdieu's own methodology consists of what he
calls a "political and philosophical double-lecture of Heidegger" that recognizes the "relative autonomy" of both
realms--the political and the philosophical--without, however, relinquishing the critical effort to mediate between them
(German edition p.
11). Bourdieu, then, defines "Heidegger's political ontology" as "a political stance that expresses itself exclusively in
philosophical terms." In other words, the objective of Bourdieu's investigation is to reconstruct "the
comprehensive structure of the field that governs philosophical productivity" (14-16).
Given the prominence of Althusserian Marxism in France at the time of Bourdieu's essay, his structuralist
terminology ("relative autonomy"; "overdetermination"; "structure of the field of productivity") and its proclaimed
difference from the critical apparatus of the Frankfurt School should not be overrated. True, Bourdieu speaks of
"habitus" while Adorno speaks of "ideology"; Bourdieu regards Heidegger as a "practical operator" (64) who mediates
between politics and philosophy, whereas Adorno refers to him as a "reflection" ["Widerhall"] or "sign"
("Abdrücke" (73)] of the social in the realm of philosophy. But the crucial point remains that both Adorno
and Bourdieu read Heidegger's ontology as the unconscious expression of a dynamic social process whose dynamics it fails
to reflect. This failure is constitutive of ontological discourse, whose preference for stasis over movement,
ground over horizon, Being over becoming is but an expression of a human "desire" (69) caused by a world that, in
reality, never stands still.
In short: while most critics today read Heidegger's philosophy as a deconstruction of Western metaphysics and essentialist
ontology avant la lettre, this is precisely not how Bourdieu, Adorno, or several leading Marxists understood his
work. For them,
ontology is an inherently conservative, if not reactionary concept. Marxist theory, it follows, should dispense with
ontology and turn toward this changing
world instead. "Always historicize" is its motto, and the "persistence of the dialectic"
(Fredric Jameson) testifies to the reflective nature of Marxist thought. It is an attempt literally to think
after ["nach-denken"] the real, material events that define human experience and collective practice.
Hence, Étienne Balibar and Fredric Jameson continue to argue that "there is no Marxist philosophy and
there never will be" (1). Rather, Marxism should "be thought of as a problematic" (Jameson, "Actually" 175) that
continues to develop and change along with the object of its inquiry, namely capitalism. Only the dialectical method is able to keep
pace with history as it mediates between the constitutive poles of subject and object, Being and becoming. Thus, Marxists do
"philosophy in a materialist way," as Pierre Macherey puts it (8). The goal, after all, is not to interpret the world,
but to change it.
In order to further elucidate this crucial philosophical difference between traditional Marxist and contemporary
ontological discourse, let me briefly discuss their contrary understanding of paradox and contradiction. Boris Groys argues that the
"central law of dialectical materialism"
consists in thinking simultaneously "the unity and conflict of oppositions," which is to say to "think in paradoxes" (35; my
translation). Marxists think in contradictions because the world itself is contradictory. To quote Lenin: "In essence,
dialectics examines the contradictions at the heart of things themselves" (qtd. in Groys 47)--a maxim that recalls
Hegel's formulation that "all things are in themselves contradictory in precisely the sense that this sentence, contrary
to all others, expresses the truth and the essence of things " (286; my translation). Marxist philosophy destroys
rather than sustains paradox: dialectics consists precisely in the temporalization or dissolution of paradox into
process. The overall aim is to unleash the dynamic tension that sustains contradiction to achieve a clearly defined goal
(Communism). In so doing, dialectics thinks through contradictions rather than paradoxes; it transforms
the latter into the former. Paradox is a decayed form of dialectics, as Adorno puts
it. Unlike a contradiction, paradox remains fixed, a well-defined constellation in thought, whereas contradiction
operates temporally and seeks to liquefy thought in and through the dialectical method. To ponder a paradox is to be
caught in a circular reflection that seems to lead nowhere--hence Adorno's repeated charge against Heidegger of producing
On this point the ontological neo-left differs from traditional Marxism: it takes paradox seriously by refusing to
temporalize it. Aporias abound in contemporary politico-philosophical discourse--epitomized in Laclau's claim "that the condition
of possibility of something is also its condition of impossibility" (Mouffe 48). Walter Benjamin's notion of "dialectics at a
standstill" (578) is an early
attempt in this direction. For the mythically inclined Benjamin, dialectics did not describe a teleological process toward the end
of history, but a sudden awareness that this end was always already included in the beginning. Most
importantly, this awareness is not "rational" and cannot be predicted in advance. Benjamin posits the ontological
paradox of a folded space whose "outside" belongs to and emerges within the "inside" only after the
"lightning bolt of revelation" has struck. Unlike in traditional Marxism, there are no guarantees for Benjamin that
anything will happen at all. Instead, it is our sudden insight that engenders what we falsely presume to have been
there all along. For it is the mere inspiration to conceive of things differently that makes them so, however
slight a change this may turn out to be. This emphasis on the power of inspiration, revelation, and shock puts
Benjamin at odds with traditional Marxism. His Arcades Project promotes a spatial understanding of
paradox that deemphasizes the developmental nature of dialectical thought, if not of history as such.
Benjamin's paradoxical space of dialectical stand-still is also similar to what Derrida has called "the third type
of aporia," defined as "the impossible, the antinomy, or the contradiction." This aporia "is a nonpassage
because its elementary milieu does not allow for something that could be called passage, step, walk, gait,
displacement, or replacement, a kinesis in general. There is no more path . . . . The impasse itself would be
impossible" (Aporias 21). It is within this impassable and impossible space that the political must be
thought, according to Derrida. What thus remains of ontology is the specter of a haunted place bewitched by its own
non-existence--a "hauntology," as Derrida calls it: "(H)auntology has theoretical priority" for Derrida,
Simon Critchley contends, "for the claim is that it is from this spectral drive that something like thought is
born" (Ethics 147). Yet, this also means that ontology will continue to disturb the thought of
deconstruction. The latter can never completely shake this specter, because hauntology itself is haunted by
ontology. I want to suggest, therefore, that in spite of Derrida's critique of ontology, the question of
(deconstructive or textual) space remains inseparable from ontological questions. Let me briefly recall that
"Il n'y a pas d'hors de texte" means
both that there are only contexts, that nothing exists outside context, as I have often said, but also
that the limit of the frame or the border of the context always entails a clause of nonclosure. The outside
penetrates and thus determines the inside. (Derrida, Aporias 152-53)
This spatial paradox ("nothing exists outside context," yet "the outside [of the context] penetrates . . . the
inside") between inside and outside lies at the center of deconstruction and connects it with the various
post-Marxist ontologies discussed later on in this essay. In spite of--or, rather, precisely because of--Derrida's
explicit refusal to "re-ontologize" thought ("Marx & Sons" 257), he remains a major contributor to the current
debate about the relationship between ontology and politics.
The Topography of Paradox
The philosophical consequences--and, I shall argue, the political consequences as well--of this shift from dialectics
to paradox are far-reaching. First of all, it differentiates traditional Marxist from current
neo-left discourse. For the paradoxical effort to think the outside as a constitutive part of the inside from which
it emerges has been crucial to post-Marxist theory ever since the publication of Ernesto Laclau's and Chantal
Mouffe's Hegemony and Socialist Strategy in 1985. Insisting on the possibility of
historical change and hegemonic interventions, they refer to the social field as an ontological "horizon" rather than an ontological
"ground." Whereas ground is a foundationialist term that reintroduces the surface-depth (or inside-outside)
distinction, horizon implies an ever receding, historically shifting borderline that remains internal to the social
and defies the internal/external distinction:
This irresoluble interiority/exteriority tension is the condition of any social practice: necessity only exists as
a partial limitation of the field of contingency. It is in this terrain, where neither a total interiority nor a
total exteriority is possible, that the social is constituted. (111)
The terrain of the social thus constitutes a self-subversive totality that, although it can never become total,
nonetheless confronts no limit outside itself. Still an advocate of post-Marxism in 1996, Zizek described this
"undecidable alternative Inside/Outside" ("Introduction: The Spectre" 17) as a "paradoxical topology" in which surfaces absorb
depth, the outside of discourse emerges on its inside, and ideology becomes "more real that reality itself" (30).
Questions of topography and historical horizons emerge as core issues in "Contemporary Dialogues on the Left," a series of discussions
among Butler, Laclau, and Zizek published in 2000. In a bizarre dance of ever-shifting alliances, each of the participants accuses the
others of advocating an "ahistorical" or "quasi-transcendental" theory that remains unable to account for historical change. The central question is this: if we acknowledge the existence of a structural (or
quasi-transcendental) limit operating within the existing socio-political field, does this acknowledgment lead to political
impotence (because we cannot change this limit and hence are condemned to operate within its structural borders), as Butler implies? Or
is it exactly the opposite: does this limit not actually enable political action and radical change precisely because it is a
purely structural void (an "empty signifier") whose contours and location are determined by historical shifts within the entire
field, as Laclau and Zizek argue?
Many ontological neo-left thinkers espouse this latter view. Nonetheless, Laclau's unorthodox understanding of topological borders
continues to irritate not only traditional Marxists, but also thinkers much more sympathetic to contemporary theory in general. Critics
like Simon Critchley, Judith Butler, and Rodolphe Gasché continue to understand the relationship between the universal and the
particular in terms of a form/content divide, according to which the universal functions as a transcendental, albeit empty, "form" that
is filled by some historically contingent, particular "content." Scrutinizing Laclau's definition of the universal as an "empty
signifier," Gasché, for example, argues that the universal must, at the very least, possess a "form of sorts" that guarantees its
self-identity and thus somewhat pre-determines which historical particular can actually occupy its place:
In response, Laclau explicitly distinguishes between emptiness and abstraction, arguing that the former does not imply the latter. In
his view, the charge of abstraction that Hegel raised against Kant's dualist philosophy does not apply to his own theory of hegemony.
Universals are empty, Laclau contends, both because they have no predetermined content of their own and because they do not
pre-exist the chains of particulars from which they emerge: "particularity and universality are not two ontological orders opposed
to each other but possibilities internal to a discursive structure" ("A Reply" 282). Put differently, Laclau resists the separation
between the epistemological and the ontological implicit in Gasché's questions. Whereas Gasché conceives of universals as
some kind of (ontologically present) entities that subsist as abstract forms devoid of any (epistemologically determinable) content,
Laclau denies the universal any existence at all apart from the particulars that sustain its meaning: "What is the result of a
historical construction is not the filling of a transcendentally established place, but the constant production and displacement of the
place itself" (283). The effort to think this process "requires a new ontology," Laclau concludes, because it considers the "kinds of
relations between entities which cannot be grasped with the conceptual arsenal of classical ontology" (304).
Once the empty place is thought of as the place of the universal, does it not, as this very place, betoken a content of sorts
distinct from whatever contents subsequently come to fill that place? . . . Is it not thanks to this form or structure that the empty
signifier or place can become the surface of inscription for a diversity of universals? (Gasché 32-33)
Likewise, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have argued that "political theory must deal with ontology" because "politics cannot be
constructed from the outside" anymore (Empire 354): "In Empire . . . all places have been subsumed in a general
'non-place'" of pure immanence (353). Like Laclau, Hardt and Negri insist that their notion of "ontology is not a theory of foundation"
(Labour 287), for which reason they speak of the "ontological horizon of Empire" instead of its ground
(Empire 355; emphasis added). Yet Hardt's and Negri's account of political ontology differs from Laclau's in one crucial
aspect: it is not based upon the (Lacanian) notion of structural lack, but on (Foucault's and Deleuze's) bio-political and
life-philosophical belief in the fullness of life.
Rather than trying to expose the constitutive void at the center of global capitalism, Hardt and Negri emphasize the plentitude and
enormous productivity of the current imperial Order. The latter is able to integrate everything that seeks to establish itself outside
of that Order, because "transcendence is always a product of immanence," as Deleuze put it (Pure Immanence 31). For Deleuze
and Guattari (as well as for Hardt and Negri), "immanence is immanent only to itself and consequently captures everything, absorbs
All-One, and leaves nothing remaining to which it could be immanent" (What is Philosophy? 45). Immanence has no limits,
neither outside nor within itself. Since immanence is all there is, Negri concludes that "ontology has absorbed the political" so that
"all that which is political is biopolitical" (234). Political philosophy today is no longer about contemplating "the good life," as Leo
Strauss and other conservatives would argue. Instead, it is about life as such, about "bare" or "naked life" itself and its relation to
Being. It is about ontology, because "the 'body' is always already a biopolitical body" (Homo Sacer 187).
The latter claims are central to Agamben's work. Agamben, too, recognizes the increasing interdependence of political philosophy
and ontology that determines the fate of what he calls "homo sacer." A crucial notion in Agamben's overall
politico-philosophical project, homo sacer defines a life that may be killed but not sacrificed, a life that is neither secular
nor divine and thus "exceeds the sphere both of law and of sacrifice" (86). Agamben's most frequently used historical example is life in
the German concentration camps (his examples include the German concentration camps, the Gulag, and
Guantanamo Bay): the inhabitants of the
camps are stripped of all civil protection and thus are the literal referent
for--indeed the embodiment of--"human rights." For what exactly are the "rights" of human life outside of any concrete juridical order?
Situated at "the zone of indistinction" between the sacred and the profane, between the (unprotected) biological order of "bare life"
(zoe) and the (protected) juridical order of "socio-political life" (bios), homo sacer defines the very
"threshold" that both connects and separates the two spheres.
Agamben contends that these human "objects" that have been reduced to bare life posit a basic ontological challenge to
philosophy. If the twentieth century has indeed witnessed the gradual ascension of the state of exception to the overall paradigm of
Western government, as Agamben claims, then the very distinction between inside and outside can
no longer be maintained. Instead of trying to reestablish these classical distinctions, one needs to think beyond categories and
distinctions in general:
On the basis of this premise, Agamben calls for a new or "coming politics" that moves beyond the state of exception as the contemporary
paradigm of governance. Such a new politics, however, can only emerge in the context of a new metaphysics and a new way of thinking that
"return(s) thought to its practical calling" (5). Why? Because,
in Agamben's view, the current dilemma of a global state of exception is not a perversion of the classical Greek distinction
between zoe and bios, but its logical conclusion. Only because political philosophy was, from its very beginning,
based upon this life/politics distinction was it possible for the gradual erosion of the latter to lead to a crisis of the former. For once Greek philosophy had stipulated the separation between life and politics, it was merely a
question of time before this entire scheme would come undone and self-de(con)struct. Today, the damage is done and there is no turning
back. Instead, Agamben suggests that we seize upon the contemporary fusion of life and politics as an opportunity to think about
community differently so as to move beyond its classical metaphysical framework. This task, however, "implies nothing less than thinking
ontology and politics beyond every figure of relation" (47). Again and again, Agamben returns to this notion of a "non-relationship" and
his effort "to think the politico-social factum no longer in the form of a relation" at all (60).
Every attempt to rethink the political space of the West must begin with a clear awareness that we no longer know anything of the
classical distinction between zoe and bios, between private life and political existence, between man as a simple
living being at home in the house and man's political existence in the city. This is why the restoration of classical political
categories proposed by Leo Strauss . . . can have only a critical sense. There is no return from the camps to classical politics. In the
camps, city and house became indistinguishable, and the possibility of differentiating between our biological body and our political
body . . .was taken from us forever. (187-88)
New Ontological Horizons
Our discussion so far has shown that the shift from dialectics to paradox inaugurates a new meaning of "ontology" in
contemporary political discourse. Ontology no longer describes the ancient philosophical attempt to define the "essence" or "nature of
being" in positive, non-paradoxical terms. Nor does it claim to provide an absolute perspective guided by pure thought that operates
beyond the pale of history. Since this Archimedian viewpoint does not exist--or, more precisely, since such a perspective is always
already located inside rather than outside the (social or "natural") space it seeks to analyze--, ontology, instead,
begins to function as a heuristic device for the historically contingent construction of a different "nature" from the one we presently
inhabit. Ontology, in other words, is more than a mere historical construction; it is also constructive in the sense that it
informs a particular political vision for change.
Thus, we may speak of ontology as a ground only in so far as we understand this "ground" to be constantly
and evolving. One must not confuse this recognition of historical contingency with the Marxist emphasis on history.
The major difference is not simply the teleological, eschatological nature of classical-orthodox Marxism, according
to which history is a more or less pre-determined rather than contingent process. Rather, the difference lies in
the fact that non-deconstructive versions of Marxism assume a structural correlation between philosophical
statements and the sociopolitical field that allegedly generates them. Both Bourdieu and
Adorno regard the emergence and success of Heidegger's ontology as deeply significant in the sense that
it carries an objective meaning pointing back to the realm of the social, to history and the real itself--such as
it existed in the middle of the twentieth century, of course. Indeed, Marxists readily acknowledge that the real
changes historically along with thoughts that reflect the real. But what does not change, according
to traditional Marxism, is the necessary existence of a dependency between these changes, i.e.,
between the primary, economic changes and the secondary changes in thought as it reflects (upon) the first.
Hence, from a Marxist perspective, the current renaissance of ontological thought must be significant: it must unveil
an objective truth about the current state of global capitalism. To be sure, there may
be some discussion as to what exactly this truth is. But it is precisely the assumption of an "objective"
significance of a given (theoretical) event
that current ontological discourse leaves behind. If the proclamation of a new ontology is both constructed and
constructive, this can only mean that whatever sociopolitical significance this proclamation may attain over time
is constructed as well. It is a mere potentiality. Hence, the seemingly "objective" claims of ontological neo-left discourse
can only emerge as a retrospective projection from within the new reality potentially inaugurated by this discourse
itself. Otherwise, this discourse becomes meaningless in the sense that it only serves as a blank screen for the
projection of a pre-established interpretative scheme. It is reduced to a mere symptom whose meaning is
pre-determined by the old context in which it is made to signify.
Put differently, from this perspective, if a theory fails to affect the reality it ponders, it has no active meaning at
all, objective or
otherwise. A thought that fails to alter the non-discursive, material environment from which it emerges does not
exist as thought. It is nothing but a description or a symptom. As such, it may be judged accurate or inaccurate. But a
description is not a thought, because the latter emerges only retrospectively from within the reality it has
managed to transform. I want to emphasize that this idea does not bespeak Heideggerianism and its effort to
identify the nature of Being. It merely phrases a materialist insight in ontological idioms. Whereas Heidegger
understood thinking as "Nach-denken," the ontological neo-left focuses on "mit-denken" as a part of
Like all thought, this idea remains a construct. Whether or not this construction is "true" is as yet a meaningless
question. Its future answer would depend on the ability of the construction to alter its own conditions of
emergence such that it will have stepped into being and will have acquired meaning.
I now turn to yet another important thinker in the Marxist tradition to elucidate this point. In his essay on
"Ontology and Utopia," first published in 1994 and reprinted in Archaeologies of the Future
(2005), Fredric Jameson indeed refers to a "Marxian ontology" (240). One of its major concerns, he claims, is to
account for the possibility that a different collectivity would emerge from within a given structure. How can something
new emerge from the old? Jameson's answer is to build "eventfulness into the structure itself"
(246) and thus to fold the new (outside) back into the old (inside)--dialectically, of course: "For, once again,
Marx is ontological in the way in which he grasps the collective forms as already latent in the capitalist present:
they are not merely desirable (or ethical), nor even possible, but also and above all inevitable, provided
we understand the bringing to emergence of that inevitability as a collective human task and project" (250;
It is precisely this notion of "inevitability" that remains problematic for the ontological neo-left. If Marxist
ontology consisted of nothing but this belief in immanence--according to which "what already is, or what is
virtual, latent, at the level of fantasy or half-formed wish or inclination, is also the rockbed of the social
structure itself" (Jameson, Archaeologies 252)--few would object. One might even grant Jameson's
persistent attempt to align "the great thought of immanence" with Hegel and Marx (251) or to transform Deleuze into
a dialectical thinker. But Jameson ultimately wants to square this new version
of dialectical immanence with the scientific aspirations of traditional Marxism, according to which the
emergence of something new (such as the arrival of socialism) is objectively "inevitable." Such a claim, however,
is forced to disregard the temporal aporia that governs the relationship between event and structure. An event can
only be judged inevitable once it has actually occurred and thereby altered the original situation from which it
emerged. Put differently, we might say that an event will have been inevitable once we look back on it
from a later point in time and space inaugurated by the event. But not before.
Jameson comes close to this insight in his latest book when he, once again, ponders the relationship between
base and superstructure: "Can culture be political, which is to say critical and even subversive, or is it
necessarily reappropriated and coopted by the social system of which it is a part?" (xv). In a lengthy footnote
that forms part of his response, Jameson elaborates that "from another standpoint, this discussion of the ambiguous
reality of culture . . . is an ontological one" and has to do with the "amphibiousness of being and its
temporality" (xv-xvii.). For culture (along with the "desire called utopia" that sustains Marxism as an ongoing
problematic in global capitalism) is based on a "mixture of being and non-being": on the one hand, cultural desire
testifies to what lacks in the present such as it currently exists, while, on the other, it imagines a future that
does not yet exist. Although Jameson characterizes this temporal paradox as "mildly scandalous for analytical
reason," he nonetheless calls for its integration into his "Marxian ontology" (xv-xvii).
Here, it seems, we have moved away from the traditional leftist disdain for both ontological thinking and
paradox, since Jameson explicitly acknowledges the aporetic structure of utopian desire (i.e., the desire for
improvement) as a constitutive part of Marxist theory. The question remains what consequences
he draws from this insight for the formulation of a leftist (Marxist) politics. As mentioned above, the
takes the constitutive paradox of Being as a starting point for reexamining the history and goals of political
philosophy. But since Jameson still remains committed to traditional Marxist principles such as "the primacy of the
economic" over "the political (and other) superstructures" (219), he considers Marxism's "neglect of political
theory . . . a happy consequence" that he refuses to dismantle. So instead of political theory, he discusses the nature
of what he calls a "Utopian formalism" (xiii) that seeks to "illuminate its historical conditions of possibility:
for it is certainly of the greatest interest for us today to understand why Utopias have flourished in one period
and dried up in another" (xiv).
Here we return to the kind of Marxist analysis of culture we encountered in Adorno and
Bourdieu. For Jameson, looking into the future always leads one to gaze at the past--but not in order
to recognize simply what happened (namely a contingent process that could have unfolded otherwise although
it now appears to have been necessary), but in order to "objectively" determine the "inevitable" outcome of what
allegedly had to happen. This skewed perspective allows him to connect the new to the old in a seamless,
that is, dialectical fashion. Indeed, although Jameson explicitly welcomes disruption as a "new discursive
strategy" to resist the current status quo, his strategy is ultimately little more than a formal exercise
in dialectical thinking. For since "Utopia is the form such disruption necessarily takes," Jameson insists that
"the Utopian form proper . . . has its political role to play, and in fact becomes a new kind of content in its own
In the end, Utopian "form becomes content" (212). Thus we return to Hegel and the dialectical dissolve of
paradox into contradiction.
In contrast, the ontological neo-left stops dialectics, embraces paradox, and ruptures thought. Or,
better, it inaugurates a
different kind of thought because it thinks thought's relation to Being differently. Its goal is to promote new
ideas, and although these ideas need not add up to a particular political program,
they confer upon thought greater independence and material relevance than even Jameson seems willing to grant it.
More specifically, the ontological neo-left dispenses with the traditional Marxist idea of the "relative
autonomy" of cultural politics (i.e., of thought) vis-à-vis the economy. Instead, it considers the potential
productivity of thought to disrupt the given status quo, including its economic structure. This disruption can
only occur if thought identifies substance rather than form. Thought must act as (a part of) substance rather than
try to reflect it.
- So far, I have argued that Marxist theory and contemporary political philosophy differ substantially with regard to their
understanding of ontology. While traditional Marxists denounce ontology as an essentialist and ahistorical discourse,
the neo-left conceives of ontology as a de-essentialized discursive formation that both reflects and informs
political acts and historical events. They can do so only because they accept rather than dissolve the paradoxical
nature of things. Put differently: for Marxists, there is only way to move beyond paradox, namely dialectics, with
Hegel and Marx lighting the way. But if we accept that dialectics is only one among many ways to deal with our
ontological paradox, it follows, first, that the way in which we conceive of this paradox deeply affects the kinds of
actions we are likely to support, and second, that the future result of these actions remains contingent and
unpredictable from our present position. Marxists cannot endorse either of these propositions.
However, on the other side of this divide separating Marxist and contemporary discourse, there obviously remain vast
and crucial differences among those who (explicitly or implicitly) call for a "new ontology." Hence, it is hardly
surprising to find a variety of names attached to different groups of thinkers engaged in political ontology today.
Since the term "New Left" is already taken (it refers to the group of writers and activists around Herbert
Marcuse in the late sixties and early seventies), most critics associate the current
ontological turn with "post-Marxism" or with the movement toward "radical democracy." These terms, however, are also problematic, because they are strongly linked to the works of
Laclau and Mouffe, who originally promulgated them (and were supported in this, at least initially,
by Zizek). Hence, "post-Marxism" and "radical democracy" are less apt to describe some of the other theorists who, albeit
confronting the same questions, pursue a somewhat different route than do Laclau and Mouffe. Alain Badiou, and
Bruno Bosteels, for example, reject what they call "speculative leftism," that is, a form of "post-Marxist" theory
that is severed from the original communist project. Bosteels in particular
has criticized "radical democracy" for its actual "lack of politics." What remains of the project in the end, he
argues, is "an imitation, within philosophy, of the revolutionary act" rather than the real thing itself ("For Lack"
This problem of "naming" remains crucial to contemporary political philosophy. It is not just an
academic but a political issue. Because if thought and discourse matter in the sense that they are politically
effective, then the question of how to name the current strand of political ontology will itself have some influence
on our current situation. This is why Badiou (as well as Jacques Rancière) has advanced the term
"metapolitics," which he opposes to traditional political philosophy. The former is concerned with "real instances of
politics as thought," whereas the latter believes that "since no such politics exists, it falls to philosophers to
think 'the' political" (Metapolitics xxxix). Metapolitics describes "what a philosophy declares, with
its own effects in mind, to be worthy of the name 'politics.' Or alternatively, what a thought declares to be a
thought, and under whose condition it thinks what a thought is" (152). Following Badiou, Hallward has argued for what
he calls a "politics of prescription." The latter, he claims, can break more radically with the existing
liberal-democratic system than those inspired by "radical democracy" or by "post-Marxism."
Obviously, there will not and there cannot be one name that fits all, and my own suggestion--the
"neo-left"--is hardly an exception. But I want to insist on the political importance of what might otherwise appear to be an abstract theoretical
debate about labels. The point is that non-essential ontologies undermine this very distinction between theory and
practice, thought and action. The same is true for the monist philosophical tradition (leading from Spinoza to Bergson and Deleuze) that influences many neo-leftist thinkers. This tradition is based not on the separation,
but on the connection of thought and movement. In a purely immanent universe, thinking is (a form of) action, and
the creation of new philosophical concepts itself amounts to an intervention within the sociopolitical field.
Here we have arrived at a crucial junction in current ontological discourse. For we might distinguish between what Agamben calls a
"line of immanence and a line of transcendence" (Potentialities 239) in order to delineate the two major camps. Under
the latter, Agamben lists Kant, Husserl, Levinas and Derrida, whereas the former comprises Spinoza, Nietzsche, Deleuze and
Foucault. Heidegger is situated in between the two lines--an appropriate position given Heidegger's ambiguous status as one of
the first philosophers to de-essentialize ontology. Since Agamben himself does not elaborate on this configuration in the
context of political ontology, we might want to add that Deleuze, Hardt, Negri, and Agamben take their place along the line of
immanence, while Laclau, Mouffe, Badiou, Zizek and Rancière belong to the line of transcendence.
Moreover, Agamben's distinction
between immanence and transcendence remains intimately linked to the distinction between biological
plentitude and structural lack. As Tønder and Thomassen argue in their excellent analysis of this distinction, an
ontology of lack
"emphasizes the hegemonic nature of politics," whereas an ontology of abundance "cultivates a strategy of pluralization" in order to
realize political demands (7). Put differently, the latter ontology focuses on emergent networks of life below--and thus
independent from--representation, whereas the former focuses on the construction of identities through representation. According
to this scheme, Deleuze, Hardt, Negri, and Agamben certainly belong to an ontology of abundance, while Laclau, Mouffe, Badiou, Zizek,
and Rancière form part of an ontology of lack.
It thus appears that the two lines of distinction--the one juxtaposing abundance and lack, the other contrasting immanence and
transcendence--overlap and supplement each other perfectly. However, critics have rightly pointed out that this neat matrix does not
withstand closer examination. Derrida refers to the "quasi-transcendence"
("Justice" 282) that sustains the practice of deconstructive reading, and his work cannot simply be assimilated to
the history of
transcendent philosophy. Likewise, Laclau's and Mouffe's as well as Badiou's and Zizek's models rely on what might be called a
"negative" or "inverted" form of transcendence--Laclau names it a "failed transcendence" (Populist Reason
244)--since all of them locate the "realm beyond" as a void or empty place within rather than outside the social structure.
If this were otherwise, these theorists would violate or abandon their central premise concerning the non-essentialist
ground of political ontology. It also seems noteworthy that Laclau's ontology is based on rhetoric (i.e., catachresis) while Badiou's
ontology is based on mathematics (i.e., set theory). The former insists on a linguistic model that the latter explicitly
insufficient for ontological thinking. Finally, one might point out that Zizek, according to Laclau, pursues "two incompatible
ontologies" at the same time (Populist Reason 235), while Rancière, according to Badiou, does not develop any
ontology at all.
In spite of its great heuristic value, then, the distinction between abundance and lack also occludes a number of important
within these groups. Let me briefly consider the question of historical change and how to bring it about. I have already discussed
Badiou's critique of Laclau's notion of "radical democracy," according to which it remains both too "speculative" and
the one hand and too liberal or anti-revolutionary on the other. Those sympathetic to Badiou's philosophical framework,
like Peter Hallward and Bruno Bosteels, explicitly condone this critique. And although Zizek shares Laclau's theoretical
framework and both are influenced by Lacan, he too has charged Laclau with political quietude and a complete disregard for "a particular leftist political practice"
(Ticklish 174). A proponent of radical, militant action, Zizek instead reiterates the Marxist-Leninist rhetoric of class
struggle and socialist revolution. The overall goal for the "ethical, militant act," Zizek claims, is to disrupt the seemingly
homogeneous terrain of liberal democracy and global capitalism. Calling for an "ethics of the real" and a "crossing of the social
fantasy," he wants to force people to acknowledge their unconscious desire for ideological models of culpability (the Jew, the Other,
etc.). In other words, the "ethical act" is meant to expose the hidden existence of those who are exploited by or excluded from the
current social order. In concrete political terms, it is a question of exposing the structural void that underlies the neo-liberal
fantasy of the universal order of global capitalism.
Laclau, in contrast, has shown little patience with the revolutionary rhetoric of Zizek or of Badiou. For him, the only way
particular political goals is to build "chains of equivalences" that operate within rather than outside the existing democratic
system. From Laclau's perspective, Zizek's and Badiou's exhortations to withdraw from rather than engage with the democratic system run
the risk of relinquishing political power to the right. Given Zizek's belief in the absolute priority of class struggle and
anti-capitalism, Laclau concludes that "Zizek cannot provide any theory for the emancipatory subject" (Populist Reason
238). He even locates Zizek on the other side of the central divide between immanence and transcendence. Like Hardt and Negri, Zizek
allegedly remains committed to a (Hegelian rather than Deleuzian) "form of immanence" (242) that is politically sterile.
For Laclau, all forms of immanence necessarily lead to a "theoretical framework [in which] politics becomes unthinkable" ("Can
Hardt and Negri have tried to respond to this and similar criticism by distinguishing between two different yet
interrelated dimensions of their emancipatory subject, the "multitude." They discern an ontological dimension that regards "the
multitude from the standpoint of eternity" as that which "acts always in the present, a perpetual presence," and a political or
historical dimension that "will require a political project to bring it into being," because it does not yet exist
(Multitude 221). This "strange, double temporality" of the multitude as that which "always-already and not-yet" exists
allows Hardt and Negri to deflect the charges of philosophical utopianism and of political vanguardism: "If the multitude were not
already latent and implicit in our social being, we could not even imagine it as a political project; and, similarly, we can only hope
to realize it today because it already exists as a real potential" (221-22). The multitude, in other words, is both present and future,
real and imagined. It gradually steps into being as that which it always already was--an almost Hegelian conclusion
that results directly from Hardt's and Negri's immanent ontology of abundance. In contrast, Laclau, Badiou, Rancière
and Zizek argue that the subject emerges only in response to or in conjunction with
the inevitable void that constitutes the social structure as a whole--a void that simply does not exist for Hardt and Negri. It follows
that theorists of lack regard identities as inherently unstable and contingent. All identities need to be articulated (i.e.,
represented) politically; they do not simply unfold their always already inherent potential of being, as does Hardt's and Negri's
Yet again, there exist important differences among theorists of lack in this regard as well, most notably in their respective reading of
Lacan. Like Laclau, Badiou has acknowledged his indebtedness to Lacan, particularly in regard to their propensity for mathematical
formulae. Yet Badiou has also insisted on a crucial difference between his and the Lacanian
notion of the void. The latter relates to the subject, whereas Badiou's relates to being: "Let us say that philosophy localizes the void
as condition of truth on the side of being qua being, while psychoanalysis localizes the void in the Subject" (Infinite
Thought 87). For Lacan, the subject figures a structural void within the symbolic order, Badiou argues. Thus, the Lacanian
subject remains passive and severed from the emergence of an event that defies structural causality. Lacan's structuralism, in Badiou's
view, does not allow for the possibility of a radically new beginning (i.e., a truth-event) taking place within a given Order or
historical situation. To avoid this impasse, Badiou's "evental" philosophy conceives of the subject not as void, but as the
infinitely extended response to an event that exposes the void. This response, the decision of a "subject-to-be"
event has taken place, initiates a truth-procedure that breaks through the reified state of the situation. According to
account of subjectivity can overcome the legacy both of Lacan's and of Althusser's ahistorical structuralism. In Zizek's words, both
Badiou and Laclau try to resist what they perceive as the "Lacanian ontologization of the subject," namely to identify the subject with
"the constitutive void of the structure" (Ticklish 159). In contrast, Laclau and Badiou render the subject
"consubstantial with a contingent act of decision" (159).
But Zizek has also charged both Laclau and Badiou with misunderstanding and simplifying the temporal dynamism at work in Lacan's
structuralist version of subjectivity. According to Zizek, Lacan's subject is not simply a structural void (as Badiou and Laclau claim),
but emerges at this place only as the retrospective effect of its failed representation in language. Indeed, once this temporal paradox
of Lacan's "future anterior" is taken into consideration, Zizek argues, the very "opposition between the subject qua
ontological foundation of the order of Being and the subject qua contingent particular emergence is [exposed as] . . . false: the
subject is the contingent emergence/act that sustains the very universal order of Being" (160).
Why should all this matter politically? It matters because if the subject indeed "sustains . . . the order of Being," as Zizek
maintains, then it can hardly go wrong with its actions, which is why Zizek affords a more militant rhetoric than others. For him, every
authentic, militant act simultaneously alters the ethical categories by which it could it judged.
Badiou is more careful at this point. Although he, too, argues for the interdependency of event and subject(ivity), the latter emerges
in response to an event and not as its cause. The subject names the event and remains faithful to it, but it
does not create the event as such. This opens up the possibility that a subject might misjudge and support an "event" that
turns out to be catastrophic (for example totalitarianism). Most importantly, Badiou's subject
does not "sustain . . . the order of Being." It sustains a particular state of the situation or supports its rupture, but it
remains completely severed from Being qua Being, that is, from the ontological level of pure multiplicity that Badiou equates with
mathematics. Laclau, finally, rarely refers to the "subject" at all--he prefers the term identity instead--nor does he speak of events
or revolutionary change. For him, change always occurs within a given social structure through a different alignment of already existing
political forces--hence his "reformist" theory as opposed to Badiou's and Zizek's "radicalism." These differences about how to conceive
of political subjectivity are most evident on the terminological level: while Zizek holds fast to the traditional Marxist notion of
"class-struggle," Rancière refers to the "proletariat . . . as the dissolution of all classes" (Disagreement
18)--and thus, in Laclau's words, talks about class-struggle only "to add that it is the struggle of classes that are not classes"
(Populist Reason 248)--whereas Laclau rejects any references to traditional class-struggle tout court.
- I have argued that the two major philosophical distinctions (immanence vs. transcendence, plentitude vs. lack) called upon to
categorize the various proponents of a new political ontology are both important and insufficient. They are important because they help
identify the overall goal of the ontological neo-left, which is political participation and collective inclusion in
society. Their shared
objective remains to overcome the inside/outside dialectic by means of a non-foundational ontology. But they are insufficient for two
reasons: first, because they occlude other important similarities and distinctions that both sever and connect these theorists, as shown
above. And second, because they are philosophical distinctions that claim to discern the political potential allegedly
inherent in different ontologies. But we already know that there is no pre-determined path leading from philosophy to politics,
from thought to action--unless we return to traditional metaphysics or orthodox Marxism. In Laclau's and Mouffe's
terminology, we can say that there is no transparent or rational connection between the ontological and the ontic
level. It is precisely this logical gap between philosophy and politics that enables or sustains the various efforts to build a bridge
between the two. This gap also accounts for the recurrent charge against the ontological neo-left (and within the
neo-left) of lacking a clear political program.
But the existence of this logical gap does not mean that there is no connection at all between philosophy and politics, or that an
innovative thought will not affect a given situation. It simply means that there is no rational or scientific proof for this
eventuality, which, in the end, remains a matter of faith alone. As long as neo-left theorists embrace a non-essentialist
about how best to achieve economic equality and social justice remain unanswerable--for if they could be answered, the ontology in
question would no longer be "groundless" or unstable, but provide a dependable basis for how to change the world. For
this reason alone,
a non-essentialist ontology must always be "weak" in the sense that it remains "both fundamental and contestable," as Stephen
White has argued (2). Ontologies inspire and motivate political actors in fundamental ways, but they remain a matter of belief, not
science. From this, White concludes that ontologies "are not simply cognitive in their constitution and effects, but also
aesthetic-affective" (31)--this is precisely what makes them contestable in the first place. Ontologies literally live (i.e., they
become embodied and practiced) by the credo of those who adhere to them, and this credo is not simply a matter of rational power or
philosophical logic. There are other forces at work here, such as passion, unconscious beliefs and drives, aesthetics, and, above all,
the way in which all of them are expressed, marketed, and "consumed."
I believe that the current discussion of political ontology would benefit from a stronger emphasis on this
aesthetic-affective dimension of politics.
There are some who are moving in this direction. Jacques Rancière, for one, fully acknowledges that "politics is a paradoxical
form of action" and regards it as "first and foremost an intervention upon the visible and the sayable" ("Ten Theses" 34,
Rancière, aesthetics is an irreducible part of both the political and of politics. Likewise, William Connolly argues
that the best
way to deal with the dispute between transcendence and immanence is to pursue an ethos of agonistic respect for each other:
What mediates between philosophy and politics is an aesthetic sensibility or affect that cannot be rationalized without being lost. One
of the reasons why the current philosophical discourse about ontology has become increasingly entrenched may be the disregard of its
affective qualities. Hallward, for example, considers his politics of prescription "indifferent to the manipulations of passionate
attachment." Even though he acknowledges that "politics is always affective," he nonetheless insists that "even the most affective
prescription can be sustained only at a critical distance from the 'passionate' or 'emotional'" ("Politics" 785). And Laclau, too,
considers affect "not something which exists on its own, independently of language; it constitutes itself only through the differential
cathexes of a signifying chain" (Populist Reason 111). In other words, affect is the result of an equivalential logic; it
is born of articulation instead of preceding it. In contrast, I believe it is crucial to maintain Brian Massumi's
affect and emotion: the latter refers to the linguistic representation of the raw, impersonal energy engendered by the former. After leaving behind traditional metaphysics and essentialist thinking, contemporary political
ontology must now turn toward the affective realm of human existence as the new challenge for active thought.
The pursuit of such an ethos is grounded in the assumption that residing between a fundamental image of the world as either created or
uncreated and a specific ethico-political stance resides a sensibility that colors how that creed is expressed and portrayed to
others . . . . An existing faith thus consists of a creed or philosophy plus the sensibility infused into it. (47-48)
Department of German and Russian Studies
University of Missouri-Columbia
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1. For a different position arguing the renewed importance of Hegel in the context of neo-left
ontology, see Nathan Widder, "Two Routes from Hegel," in Tønder and Thomassen 32-49.
2. This is also Oliver Marchart's central point in "The Absence at the Heart of Presence:
Radical Democracy and the 'Ontology of Lack'," in Tønder and Thomassen 17-31.
3. Eva Geulen notes the strong ambivalence and hesitation that
characterizes Agamben's effort to dissociate Heidegger from Nazism. See Geulen 118-23.
4. See also Adorno 73, as well as the subtitle of Adorno's earlier essay on the
"Jargon of Authenticity," which explicitly categorizes Heidegger's philosophy as a "German Ideology."
5. Cf. Adorno 104-25.
6. In a brief review of Herbert Marcuse's study of Hegel's
Ontology in 1932, Adorno praises Marcuse's book precisely because it advocates this Marxist move away
from "foundational ontology [Fundamentalontologie] toward the philosophy of history, from historicity
to history" (Adorno 204). But he also criticizes Marcuse for holding fast to the ontological question at all:
"one might wonder: why should the ontological question precede the interpretation of the real historical facts
at all" (204)? Indeed, it should not, according to Marxist thought. For what trumps ontology are
"real historical facts" and their critical reflection in the mind of the thinking subject.
7. The emphasis here remains on the Marxist tradition as
opposed to the actual writings of Marx, who uses the term "dialectics" only rarely and does not
subscribe to the scientific Weltanschauung later proclaimed by orthodox Marxism. In fact, the term
"dialectical materialism" is absent from the writings of Marx and Engels. Marx does not refer to the "laws" of history,
but to mere "tendencies" inherent in historical developments. Nonetheless, dialectics is a crucial
term for Engels, particularly for his attempted refutation of Kant's transcendentalism in his
Anti-Dühring (1878) and the later Dialectics of Nature (1883). And clearly dialectics does play a crucial role in twentieth-century Marxism, from Lenin and Stalin to
Adorno, Althusser, and Jameson. My comments thus focus precisely on this "Persistence of the Dialectic," as
Jameson phrased it in 1990. See Jameson, Late Marxism.
8. I realize that this distinction between contradiction and
paradox is not customary in analytical philosophy, which focuses instead on that between "semantic" and
"logical" paradoxes. According to Bunnin and Yu, "logical paradoxes . . . indicate that there must be something
wrong with our logic and mathematics," whereas semantic paradoxes "arise as a result of some peculiarity of
semantic concepts such as truth, falsity, and definability" (632). From our own deconstructive perspective, of
course, this analytical juxtaposition of "logic" and "semantics" is dubious at best, and Bunnin and Yu rightly
note that this "distinction is not without controversy" (503). In contrast, my own distinction between
contradiction and paradox seems more pertinent in our context. Indeed, Simon Blackburn defines contradiction with explicit reference to
Hegel and Marx: "A contradiction may be a pair of features that together produce an unstable
tension in a political or social system" (81; emphasis added). It is precisely this dualist
understanding of contradiction that I want to distinguish from a single paradoxical proposition such as
"This statement is false."
9. See also Adorno's famous critique of Benjamin's Arcades Project, according to which Benjamin's study "is located at the
crossroads of magic and positivism" because it lacks "mediation" and historical awareness
(Schriften I/3 1096).
10. For a detailed discussion of the term "constitutive outside" and its importance for
radical democracy, see Thomassen.
11. Butler opens the discussion with this question: "Can the
ahistorical recourse to the Lacanian real be reconciled with the strategic question that hegemony poses, or does
it stand as a quasi-transcendental limitation on all possible subject-formations and, hence, as indifferent to
politics?" (Butler et al. 5). In response, both Zizek and Laclau never tire of dismissing this opposition as "a
false one," because, in Zizek's words, "it is the very 'ahistorical' bar as the internal limit of the
process of symbolization that sustains the space of historicity" (Butler et al. 214). Yet, Zizek also
seeks to expose Laclau as a "closet-Kantian" (93), claiming that both Laclau and Butler "silently
accept a set of premises" such as the capitalist market economy and the liberal-democratic political
regime. It follows, for Zizek, that "all the changes they propose are changes within this
economico-political regime" rather than moving beyond it (223). Laclau, in turn, recognizes "Zizek's argument
[as] a variation on Butler's about transcendental limits and historicism . . . . while Butler's charge was
addressed to Zizek's and my own work, Zizek is formulating the same objection against Butler and myself." And
although Laclau asserts that he "will refrain from joining the club and making the same criticism--this time
against Butler and Zizek," he proceeds to do precisely that in his final response (Butler et al., 200). See also
Butler et al. 5, 34, 106, 183-85, 214, 289.
12. I want to emphasize that in spite of Butler's exasperated
claim that Zizek's and Laclau's metaphorical vocabulary "unsettle(s) topography itself" (Butler et al. 141), she
nonetheless shares their overall political goal, which is to facilitate political change. Butler disagrees with them about how best to conceptualize the political field such that this change becomes
conceivable in the first place. Hence, as Laclau rightly notes, at issue in the debate is "the
ontological constitution of the historical as such" (Laclau 2000, 183; emphasis added). Or, in Zizek's
words, "it is the problem . . . [of] how to historicize historicism itself" (Butler et al. 106).
13. This is also the main distinction in Tønder's and
Thomassen's excellent collection of essays on Radical Democracy.
14. Most forcefully in Agamben, State of Exception,1-31
15. Although Agamben at times emphasizes the decisive role of
modernity for the politicization of bare life, he also makes clear "that this transformation is made possible by
the metaphysics of those very ancient categories [zoe and bios]," as Andrew Norris rightly
observes ("Introduction" 2).
16. Cf. Jameson's "Marxism and Dualism in Deleuze," 13-36.
17. See Tønder and Thomassen, eds.
18. As Bosteels puts it: "For Badiou, there emerges a speculative type of leftism whenever
communism is disjoined, and nowadays supposedly set free, from the historicity intrinsic to the various stages of Marxism. The critique
of speculative leftism in this sense is actually a constant throughout Badiou's work" ("Speculative" 754).
19. Paul Patton, for example, emphasizes the illocutionary power that
Deleuze and Guattari attribute to language. In their view, Patton argues, "language use is not primarily the
communication of information but a matter of acting in or upon the world" (4). Similarly Jean-Luc Nancy claims
that, for Deleuze, "to create a concept is not to draw the empirical under a category: but to construct a
universe of its own, an autonomous universe" ("Deleuzian Fold" 110). The connections to Derrida's understanding
of the political dimension of deconstruction are also relevant in this context.
20. See Tønder and Thomassen, "Introduction" 8.
In their own words: "life is what infuses and dominates all
production. In fact, the value of labor and production is determined deep within the viscera of life"
Smith, for example, points to a lack of "extensive comments on
specific debates about rights" (119) and mentions that Laclau in particular "embrace[s] an increasingly formal
conception of hegemony in his recent work" (177) that all too often "does not offer any historically specific
reference to a particular movement's discourse" (190). Similarly, Torfing says that post-Marxist theory
"has no ambition of furnishing a detailed and fully operationalized framework for the study of all kinds of
social, cultural and political relations" (291).
21. Cf. Badiou, Metapolitics 116. In contrast, Jean-Philippe Deranty refers to
Rancière's "paradoxical ontology" as an "anti-ontology."
22. Zizek was among the first to forge a connection between
Laclau and Mouffe's claim about the "impossibility" of the social and Lacanian terminology ("Beyond" 254).
Since then, Laclau has explicitly acknowledged that his understanding of (an empty) universality is
closely tied to Lacan's notion of the Real and of the "petit object a" (cf. Laclau, New Reflections 235; Laclau,
Emancipations 66-83; Butler et al. 64-73).
23. See, for example, Badiou in Hallward, "Appendix" 121.
24. I have discussed Zizek's position at length in "Facing Zizek."
25. Badiou's Ethics deals precisely with this problem.
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