LACLAU & MOUFFE

Howie Chodos howie at magi.com
Thu Mar 9 18:25:15 MST 1995


Just to clarify the nature of my criticism of Laclau and Mouffe in response
to Philip Goldstein's remark that I "complain that Laclau and Mouffe only
examine epistemology and, because discourse is their central interest,
neglect objective interest." My objection is not that they *only* examine
epistemology, but that they conflate epistemology and ontology. It is the
type of epistemological argument that they make that I take issue with. They
don't simply neglect objective interest, they obliterate it.

I am in agreement with Goldstein that: "discourse is clearly part of life's
material practices, nor can interests be defined independently of any
discourse, ideology, hegemonic values, etc." In fact I think I made a
similar point in an earlier post, which I take the liberty of citing: "One
[of L & M's points] with which I think it is important to agree is that we
can only have the kind of knowledge of the world that we do have, and it is
discursive (Bhaskar's epistemological relativism). But this does not reduce
that world to its discursive interpretation." It is this reduction (in the
name of anti-reductionism, I might add) that seems to me to be the central
philosophical defect of L & M's approach.

As well, I do not think it right to assert, as Goldstein does, that: "The
only ontological commitment of Marxism is to examining the material bases or
practices of social life, rather than according mental ideals some sort of
autonomous existence." This may be true of some Marxisms, but not I think of
that of either Marx or Engels, nor of many of their successors. If this were
the only position compatible with Marxism then I would join L & M in the
ranks of the post-Marxists (which, BTW, would seem to me to be the
appropriate name for any list inspired by their work).

In short, what I am asserting is that it is possible to recognise both the
universality of the discursive, as well as its independent material effects,
on the one hand, and the ontological irreducibility of the material to the
discursive, on the other. Just because we can only know the real world in
discursive terms does not mean that all there is to that world can be
reduced to discourse, or that there is no irreducible material dimension to
what it is in our interests to do. It may not be the only dimension of
interests, but it cannot be totally subsumed under the discursive. I think
that the traditional historical materialist aphorism that people make
history, but not under conditions of their own choosing, speaks to some of
the same dynamics.

Howie Chodos


>From Philip Goldstein:

>3) Howie Chodos -- did I get the name right? -- complains that Laclau and
>Mouffe only examine epistemology and, because discourse is their central
>interest, neglect objective interest. The complaint makes sense if you
>assume that Marxism has an ontology and not just an epistemology. The
>only ontological commitment of Marxism is to examining the material bases
>or practices of social life, rather than according mental ideals some
>sort of autonomous existence. I don't see that this ontology, if it is
>one, excludes epistemology or limits it. What's more, discourse is
>clearly part of life's material practices, nor can interests be defined
>independently of any discourse, ideology, hegemonic values, etc. Since
>this view is defended by L & M, I have a feeling that I don't follow the
>objection.




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