Archives for posts with tag: Hegemony

The deliberative democracy project, in which politics can be governed by rational decision making and the process of public deliberation can be guaranteed to have reasonable outcomes, makes sense only when conditions of ideal discourse prevail. These conditions, however, imply the removal of power relations from discourse; or in other words, they assume that ideal speech situations exist in which discourse is driven communicatively, rather than strategically; a position which must be rejected. One must understand that language use itself is colonized by power. The goal of greater inclusivity through discourse fails to stand up in the face of the undermining of inclusivity by the use of language. What is at stake in the claim that politics is unnecessarily adversarial is the denial of the central role of conflict in politics and collective identity formation. This is the work the concept of hegemony does, as the point of convergence and collapse between objectivity and power. The hegemony of a depoliticized public discourse, that of ‘third way’ politics is that there are correct answers to be had, which politicians are unwilling to take for whatever reason. This is rubbish, the answers in reality become clear only in retrospect ( argues for a similar point, but without being willing to take the final step the argument entails, perhaps the government is not broken, but the point is that social conflict such as #occupywallstreet shows that the polity is not broken. Such movements are properly agonistic rather than adversarial, they still seek to include other members of the polity, unlike an adversarial movement such as the tea party which seeks to expel members from the polity.) And then only because they are now historically imperative. This concept mirrors Foucault’s description of human history:

Humanity does not gradually progress from combat to combat until it arrives at universal reciprocity, where the rule of law finally replaces warfare; humanity installs each of its violences in a system of rules and thus proceeds from domination to domination… Rules are empty in themselves, violent and unfinalized; they are impersonal and can be bent to any purpose… [I]nterpretation is the violent or surreptitious appropriation of a system of rules, which in itself has no essential meaning, in order to impose a direction, to bend it to a new will, to force its participation in a different game. (Language, Counter-memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews)

All language, and by extension politics, is warfare by other means.

Without the presence of the Lacanian master signifier, the signifier of symbolic authority founded only on itself, language has no meaning. The introduction of the master signifier to discourse distorts the symbolic field by introducing the intrinsic violence of language, which is generated by clashes over what constitutes appropriate language use, and who can use it, without which the entire symbolic field would evaporate. Similarly, the same violence is perpetrated, for example when some events are deemed worthy of public attention while others are marginalized through a refusal to acknowledge them. However, if the violent, authoritarian, master-signifier were removed from the symbolic field, then the field itself would vanish.

One must acknowledge the existence of power relations and the desire to alter how power is allocated, but perhaps more importantly one must renounce the illusion that we can ever be completely free from power. The complete dissolution of all power is a naive goal, one must instead see that power is constitutive of human relations and what is contingent is how it is used and by whom it is held. Of course protestors at #occupywallstreet will hold different goals, we already understand that every consensus is merely the temporary result of a provisional hegemony, that is, nothing more than a stabilization of power in the moment which can just as easily fracture the next. When establishment groups joined the protest after 2 weeks what effect can be expected? Will this lead to increased resolve, will the strategic rationality of large organizations give power to the movement, or will it undermine the truly radical potential? These mainstream groups joining the protest provide legitimacy but the ability to speak always already represents recourse to systems of power that give one the authority to speak, and to require the other to listen. By gaining legitimacy in this way the movement gives up part of its status as “outside” the order. To this point, many claims are made that the protestors are just children with nothing better to do, or only the unemployed; but isn’t it obvious that those are exactly the people who capitalism has most let down. The future that past generations have been able to count on is not available to today’s youth, and of course the high rate of unemployment is a symptom of the economic situation. If these are not the voices we should hear, the voices of those most affected, then who should we turn to.

The question is if such a political move is capable of building up a broad coalition of support without diluting its message too far. Will’s recent post brilliantly argues that the true meaning of the protest can be read off from its many messages, that is a disillusionment with the capitalist hegemony. One can read the endless interrogations by commenters online about how the protest is unguided and ask how can they not see the common theme, the solution which is already evident in the protest, but such a question comes about only after making the subjective determination as the one’s role. If one has already committed themselves to such a change then the question is obvious, but for one who still holds onto the ideological blinders of the prevailing hegemony how can such a solution ever appear ready-at-hand? Such a solution is already part of the counter-hegemony (that is a new hegemony, not a naive anti-hegemonic stance).

EDIT: Another interesting post by Daniel Drezner, at Foreign Policy, which moves in a similar manner to my argument, went up several hours after this post went live, for more check it out.


Disclaimer: This posted ended up being much more technical than I had originally envisioned. If the Lacanian discouses are interesting to you I suggest Bruce Fink’s book The Lacanian Subject.

Amy Goodman opened Democracy Now!’s discussion (panel begins around the 24 minute mark) with Julian Assange and Slavoj Žižek by stating “Information is power.” And, if one is willing to grant this truism, then the media’s ability to create and disseminate knowledge in hegemonic contexts (as though there could be a non-hegemonic context) is an obvious point of interest.

So, what is Hegemony? Hegemony, as defined by Chantal Mouffe is the point at which objectivity and power collapse into one. Exactly the point where ideology is so powerful that what is true is defined by power relations. (Social) Power defines what is true, or what can be understood. Žižek, in the discussion with Goodman and Assange, asks, what did we learn from WikiLeaks’ release of collateral murder? The answer is that we learned nothing from the release, but rather that we learned a truth in context, that is, we experienced a truth in a new way. The context is what is relevant, rather than knowing intellectually that terrible things happen during war, but the video acts counter-hegemonically by insisting upon the truth in a new, visceral, way. Truth is mediated by ideology through hegemony. Truth in new contexts has the ability to make us see things differently. Facts are presented in new ways, they are re-presented to us in ways which undermine the current hegemony. Žižek illustrates the importance of the forum of information and the power of ideological hegemony by saying “We may all know that the emperor is naked, but the moment somebody publicly says the emperor is naked: everything changes.” The simple act of saying publicly that the emperor is naked is counter-hegemonic in its challenge to hegemony by insisting on its set of norms and assumptions (its own hegemony). John Cook’s analysis of a memo (A Plan for Putting the GOP on TV News) written by Roger Ailes for the Nixon white house shows how a supposedly neutral arbiter of information, the media, is perhaps the tool par excellence of hegemony. The article indicates just how deeply, in this case, political power and information, or knowledge, were linked.

I would like to illustrate how the Lacanian discourses can be employed to understand various roles of counter-hegemony technically before returning to the Assange, Goodman, Žižek discussion to see their applications.. Lacan accounts for four discourses in his work: the master’s discourse, the university discourse, the analyst’s discourse and the hysteric’s discourse. The master signifier (the signifier of symbolic authority founded only on itself), the Barred Subject (the subject in/of language), the objet a and Knowledge rotate through 4 positions in the matheme of the discourses. The master signifier is represented by S1, the Barred Subject by $, the objet a by a and Knowledge by S2. The general form of each discourse is:


truth       product/loss

That is, the truth underwrites the agent which addresses or interrogates the other. The other produces some object as what is lost from it, that is alienated, placed outside of itself. Thus, the four discourses can be symbolized by the following mathemes:

Master’s Discourse University Discourse Analyst’s Discourse Hysteric’s Discourse


$       a


S1    $


S2   S1


a    S2

In the master’s discourse, which the revolutionary adopts, the master signifier hides the truth of its lack while interrogating the knowledge. This is the traditional understanding of the master slave dialectic in which the master forces the slave to work, which leads to the slaves generation of knowledge. The master signifier is in the driving seat of agency in the master’s discourse. The product of the slave, and that which is lost by him or her, is thus a

In the university discourse knowledge becomes the agent. Knowledge here hides the fact that it is ultimately grounded only on the master signifier and not some universal reason. The reasons exist only after the hegemonic choice signified by the master signifier. Knowledge interrogates surplus value and attempts to rationalize it. The subject-who-knows, in interrogating the surplus value creates the subject-who-does-not-know, the barred subject, $.

In the analysts’ discourse the agent, in this case the analyst, (perhaps the philosopher, or political scientist) plays the role of desire as such. Desire questions the barred subject about the split which divides him or her. The analyst presses on the subject at the points where the split between conscious and unconscious shows. In this way, the analyst makes the patient associate, or bring-into-language, and the product of that association is a new master signifier. The analyst brings the master signifier into a relationship with other signifiers and founds it in language, dialectizes it. This gives rise to a new master signifier. The breaking of one master signifier in analysis always creates another. The master signifier is the product of analysis.

Finally the hysteric’s discourse emerges, by which the barred subject demands that the new master signifier prove itself – that is – prove that it can produce something useful, that it can generate knowledge which will make the world understandable or representable. Once the master signifier has succeeded in rendering the world understandable by no basis but itself, the matheme once again rotates back to the master’s discourse

Returning to the panel, the public announcement Žižek references in which the emperor is called out for being naked is the discourse of the critic, it is the Lacanian analyst’s discourse which must precede the revolutionary’s master discourse. One must note while watching how Žižek repeatedly assigns to Assange the role of the authoritarian master. Assange represents the master discourse, setting out a new master signifier by which we must organize our understanding of the world while Žižek himself is the critical analyst’s discourse which presses the listener to make associations (the Iraq war and the war in Serbia, for example) which will distill a new master signifier. Assange discusses how members of the mainstream media, having interrogated the work of WikiLeaks “have themselves become educated and radicalized.” This is the university discourse. Knowledge, or information interrogates the surplus of the work of WikiLeaks and creates the subject-who-does-not-know, that is the barred subject. A new master signifier has already begun to work for them. Assange claims that this is an “ideological penetration of the truth into all these mainstream media organizations” but what is important to see is that this should not be made with reference to some capital ‘T’ Truth, but instead a penetration of a hegemonic truth, that is, the new master signifier.

The master’s discourse of the revolutionary thus adopts the move suggested by Žižek’s writings through which leftists must make the Leninist move to acknowledge that in their attempts to alter the social order they are using power. They must recognize the master signifier in their actions, while for reformers the master signifier must be hidden behind the facade of reason. In order to successfully affect change the revolutionary adopts the true discourse of the hegemon, that of power, while the reformer instead struggles with the form of rationality which is created by the hegemon only after the fact to justify its own will. The reformer questions from the position that rationality can solve problems, unlike the critic who questions the barred subject at the point of its division. The revolutionary adopts the master’s discourse, the reformer adopts the university discourse and the theorist or critic adopts the analyst’s discourse: put another way, the revolutionary speaks from power, the reformer from knowledge and the critic from the desiring Other, the position which we never fully understand (What does ‘It’ – the Other – want from us?). The position of the hysteric then comes to be the position of the “apolitical” citizen. The subject who just wants things to work.