In Loving Memory of Ernesto Laclau
Akbuk, Turkey, Philosophy and Media Seminar, August 2011
14 April 2014
I write to you in deep sadness, on behalf of all of us at World Picture, to ask for your remembrances of the theorist and philosopher Ernesto Laclau. As you must already know, Ernesto passed away quite suddenly on April 13, 2014. The exceptionally important body of work that remains in his wake provides us with some degree of solace. There can be little doubt that his interventions in political theory and continental philosophy had a profound effect on readers from around the world; I know firsthand that many of you (like me) count yourselves among them. In his ground-breaking essay on “The Impossibility of Society,” his transformative book with Chantal Mouffe Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, and many more incisive works from the last two decades, including Emancipation(s), On Populist Reason, and the forthcoming Rhetorical Foundations of Society, among others, Laclau challenged the most deeply held orthodoxies of twentieth-century critical theory and radical political thought. In doing so, he changed the way that many of us understand the meaning of hegemony, the inheritance of Marxism, the politics of rhetoric, the logic of populism, and the link between radical politics and post-structuralist thought more generally. I have no doubt that the unplumbed implications of this work will continue to inspire us, provoke us, and teach us new ways of remaking the often vexing terrain of contemporary political life as we engage it in the years to come.
And yet, this body of work, important as it is to so many of us who both know and do not know one another, is not the only part of Ernesto’s life that ended far too soon—nor is it the only part that remains a vital force of thinking, politics, and collective social feeling in his absence. Those who had the pleasure of studying with Ernesto, or meeting him at World Picture or any other conference, or working with him as a colleague or interlocutor as he moved between his intellectual milieus in Latin America, Europe, the UK, and the US, know that the circumference of his thought and writing was matched only by that of his warmth and generosity as a person—by his endless reservoir of good will, his unforgettable repertoire of stories and jokes, and his vivid accounts of political activism in Argentina and throughout the world (often accompanied by brisk renditions of revolutionary songs). Ernesto, we might say, comes with a very long, very loose, but unusually devoted chain of metonymic attachments—one that is mapped in important but only truncated ways by his long history of collaborative writing, and the diverse geographies of friendship and political involvement that it covers. And anyone who knows Ernesto’s work also knows that such attachments, contingent as they are, inhere most precisely in the radical investment of feeling they generate towards each link in the chain of connections they form, and toward the people, ideas, and political projects that bind them together first in one way, then another. They inhere in fellow feeling, in shared antagonisms, and in the overlapping and incomplete worlds they make, undo, and remake indefinitely. So let it suffice to say that Ernesto Laclau will be missed by an extraordinary array of different people in different places, and that fact alone is the site of both inestimable loss and extraordinary fullness.
The open-access page of notes, stories, pictures, reflections, and anecdotes that we endeavor to build here is above all an effort to honor this fact, and to orchestrate at least a temporary site of togetherness for those of us who feel the incompleteness of the world in a different way than we might have before. We invite anyone who wishes to contribute to this informal archive to do so by clicking on this link or sending it to firstname.lastname@example.org with the name Laclau in the subject line. We will gather responses at regular intervals and add them to the page unedited, posting the first round of responses as soon as possible. So whether or not you are one of the very lucky people whose lives Ernesto Laclau touched directly, I hope you will join me and many others in remembering the incomparable contributions that he made to the world as a thinker, teacher, mentor, activist, interlocutor, and friend; wishing well to the family and friends that survive him; and celebrating the embarrassment of intellectual and personal riches that he leaves us even in passing.
Co-editor, World Picture
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I am not sure if this is what you had in mind, but here two anecdotes that somehow capture something about Ernesto for me:
Sometime around 2005, Andrew Skomra organized a Straub-Huillet screening event at Hallwals in Buffalo, NY. A lot of people associated with the Center showed up, including Joan and Ernesto. After having finished watching “Not Reconciled,” we are chatting with Ernesto. He announces that he actually has a favorite movie. In fact, he told us, he owns only one single film “Casablanca” and watches it once every year. (Inside joke for Sorin: From that moment on, I was convinced that the aesthetic unconscious of his theory of hegemony can be found in this film). I thought there was something very Ernesto about this proposition: the intensity of devotion to one particular aesthetic experience seemed to mirror the intensity of his theoretical ideas. An aesthetic hegemony of sorts.
Driving around in Omaha, NE (which Ernesto really wanted to see because of his interest in the “Omaha Platform” and the launching of the Populist Party), sitting in the passenger seat quietly for most of the trip, all of a sudden Ernesto declares: “Eh. I like Paris better!"
Sorin, Ernesto, and Roland at Northwestern University
in 2006 for “Trope, Affect, Democratic Subjectivity”
18 April 2014
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Sorin Radu Cucu
I’ve been trying to remember some of the stories and anecdotes that Ernesto shared with us in Akbuk, but can’t figure out the narratives with the same precision as Roland did.
Two little stories come to mind. Ernesto didn’t talk much with us about his teaching at Essex, but he amused himself remembering one time that he and his colleagues had to inform a doctoral student that he/she failed his dissertation defense (or maybe it was some critical examination). The phrase stuck in my mind as a dialectical joke rather than as a polite affirmation of British humor: “We would be lying to you—Ernesto apparently had told the student—if we told you that you passed.”
I also see Ernesto as an impressive thinker in action, always showing his theoretical insights on the board where chains of signifiers would surely make a powerful, unforgettable impression. It was in some Buffalo winter, perhaps nine or ten years ago, that I experienced for the first time his performance. I think it was the year that he and Joan Copjec co-taught a class on rhetoric and affect. A few weeks, I think, after Joan fell and broke her hand (maybe), Ernesto also broke his arm, perhaps as he slipped on ice in one of his walks. As he returned to class, Ernesto said, “the only conclusion to be drawn from these events is that the bones of rhetoricians are frail.”
20 April 2014
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I first met Ernesto Laclau in 1992, in Johannesburg. I was an MA student, studying politics, intent on changing the world not merely interpreting it. I struggled though, with party lines, with party discipline, with Marxist theory, and with party hacks who refused even to ask, never mind address, the difficult questions. In the context of apartheid Marxism was the only political discourse which provided both a revolutionary rejection of, and a serious conceptualisation of, the apartheid regime. Knowledge and power fused all too easily in the language of student activists. Those who asked awkward questions were re-educated against residual bourgeois prejudices. In 1989 I read Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. It made sense of my groping attempts to fuse a commitment to the left, with a language and a politics bereft of the politics of certainty, a certainty which rendered so much of the Marxism I read, and saw, just another excuse for those with power to exercise more. Nothing else I had read left me with the visceral excitement I experienced when reading Laclau and Mouffe. Their rigorously argued text allowed me to rethink the organisation of political struggle, to reformulate the relationship between power and knowledge, to take seriously a commitment to contingency. At the same time they embraced a radical democratic imaginary insisting upon the extension of equality and liberty to all. The text responded to two crises. First, the emerging hegemony of a global neoliberal discourse. Many readers forget that the fourth chapter of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy both theorises, and thinks, against the emergence of a triumphalist neo-liberalism, zealous in its platitudinous certainty, but destined to transform every corner of the globe in its own tarnished image. Second, Ernesto had begun to think a radical politics both with and against Marx, a radical politics which echoed the mood of the Eastern European revolts against the one party dictators, and the state capitalist compromise formations which brandished the label ‘communist’ in order to justify the most abhorrent of practices.
I was absorbed in these debates when, in 1992, Ernesto Laclau visited the University. I was so immersed in these textual difficulties, so convinced that everything could be answered, that I had forgotten that contingency cuts through theory as much as practice, that not all answers are to be found in the splendid isolation of words on a page, that the author is neither finally responsible for his own text, nor controls what will later happen with that text when others read and of necessity appropriate it for other ends. That first seminar took place in a seminar room attached to the Department of Anthropology, at Wits University. There were no external windows. Despite the fact that it was bright and sunny in the Johannesburg autumn we gathered in what seemed like dusk to hear Ernesto talk. He spoke with almost no notes, for going on an hour. When he was done we interrogated him. In that context theoretical debates had everything to do with political struggle. I was worried about the theoretical status of contingency—was it a quasi-transcendental, a universal, historically specific? Ernesto responded only that this was an excellent question, still to be properly worked out. Others challenged his reading of Marx, his critique of Althusser, asked about his conceptualisation of the state, and about his relationship to post-colonial scholarship. At every turn his responses were sharp, pertinent, yet open and without rancour even when there was violent disagreement. He was prepared to admit uncertainties, and did not assume that he had all of the answers. Later, I walked with Aletta Norval and Ernesto back to his hotel. They were, I am sure, desperate to be rid of this tall, gangly MA student, intent on questioning without respite, with no apparent concern for their need to eat, rest, have a drink. Yet as I left he said, ‘Why don’t you complete your PhD at Essex?’
The University of Essex in 1994 was a haven for critical scholarship. It was a concrete monstrosity, the worst designed of those 60s Universities, a cold, grey place, which channelled freezing North sea winds through its squares. In this unwelcome environment Ernesto Laclau and Aletta Norval coordinated the PhD and MA programme in Ideology and Discourse Analysis. With Noreen Harburt and Simon Critchley they ran the Centre for Theoretical Studies, hosting weekly seminars, conferences and annual lectures with among others Jacques Derrida, Giorgio Agamben, Linda Zerrili, Jane Bennet, William Connolly…to mention only a few names. On Wednesday afternoons, before these evening lectures students from South Africa, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, the US, Switzerland, Austria, New Zealand, Greece, Canada, China all met to present chapters and to listen to Aletta and Ernesto present their own work, to talk about future activities, to argue with special guests like Slavoj Zizek or Jelica Šumič Riha. In that seminar we were all equally engaged in working through uncertainties, pushing arguments to the point at which they broke, taking on board the criticism of others, but offering criticism in like manner. The conditions were perhaps reminiscent of what Habermas once termed an ideal speech situation, except that all of us recognised the contingency of whatever claim we deemed valid in one week, and never assumed that there was a regulative ideal coordinating our actions. We were there because of our engagement with Ernesto Laclau’s work. We challenged his arguments knowing full well that he would take on board, integrate and recognise such challenges if pertinent. At the same time Ernesto was making space for a new generation of scholars, most obviously in the person of Aletta Norval who had established her own distinctive reputation as a political theorist. Many of those students now populate Humanities and Politics departments around the world. All are marked by their time in those seminars. Yannis Stavrakakis, Jason Glynos, Benjamin Arditi, Oliver Marchart, Urs Staheli, Julia Chryssostalis, Sebatian Barros … the list goes on …
If we were driven by theoretical rigour we were also concerned to think through the politics of the left as neoliberal reform of the University began to take hold. The large number of students, the intellectual force, and the organisational capacities of Aletta and of Simon Critchley meant that a space for intellectual freedom was preserved, even as institutional changes rendered such spaces improper, because their value was not measured in monetary terms. There were others at the University who protected this space, and who themselves generated spaces for engagement – Jay Bernstein, Simon Critchley who later became director of the Centre for Theoretical Studies, Elaine Jordan, Peter Dews, Alex Duttmann… Politics began where we were, in our departments, our offices, our seminars but it extended from the academy across the world to the various places we engaged with, and to the theoretical and critical programmes we were challenging. I sometimes meet colleagues from those days. We inevitably hark back to those extraordinary years during which our political and academic identities were forged.
Ernesto engaged with all of us, both as academics and as individuals. At the end of each term the PhD students had a meal with Ernesto, Aletta and often Simon. Invariably these sessions ended with Ernesto leading a rendition of the Internationale. I sometimes sat with Ernesto on the train back to his home in North London. He was, as always, generous with time, with argument, though on some occasions would insist on dozing off, tired after hours of engagement with a difficult department, with over keen students, and with the writing of his own works. On one occasion I was working in the British Museum Library sitting in that most beautiful of reading rooms where Karl Marx wrote Das Kapital. Ernesto was there, reading Lacan. At lunch time he walked by and whispered ‘Come for a sandwich’ which we had in the Russell Hotel. In those grand surroundings we talked about the real and its relation to antagonism, and Ernesto lent me a book, Gillian Slovo’s Every Secret Thing, her recollection of her Communist parents during the struggle against apartheid. Ernesto had read it, and knew that I would be interested. Such interactions were the rule not the exception. We all completed our PhDs, on any number of topics: Latin American populism; Kemalism in Turkey; Lacan’s conceptualisation of the real; Green Political Ideology; Hobbes and Hegemony; Luhmann’s system’s theory; Habermas’s deliberative democracy; the struggle against apartheid; post-colonialism and post-Marxism; Deleuze and Guattari’s deterritorialisation… The life of an academic is measured by more than their publications. It also concerns their affective relations with students, with the community of which they are a part and which they form. Ernesto’s influence continues through the education that his students now pass on to another generation of scholars in Universities ranging from London, to Buenos Aires, Cape Town to Beijing, from Montreal to Helsinki and Auckland. His passing will be marked, and mourned, in every part of the world, but his legacies will continue precisely as they are worked through in each of these contexts. As with any community many stories of textual and sexual fallouts may be told, but they would all miss what was unique – a theoretical camaraderie developed in a context which was not favourable, and which had immeasurable political and academic consequences around the globe.
There were many stories about Ernesto and his relationship with the Department of Government at Essex University. I will recount only one. The Department was dominated by Political Scientists who, for the most part, disapproved of the theoretical programme defended by Ernesto. There were many instances of argument, of disagreement, of threats and even intimidation. Rumour has it that on one occasion Ernesto was agreeing exam questions for MA students with other academic staff. An academic (since knighted), casually remarked: ‘Ernesto, Althusser killed his wife, Poultantsaz committed suicide, so did Deleuze. Is this not proof that you should stop all this pointless theorising?’ Ernesto replied immediately: ‘No, but I heard that you had sex with Shirley Williams (a prominent liberal in British politics.). Perhaps that explains the abject failure of liberal democracy in Britain?’ Despite his legendary disagreements with Political Scientists in the Department of Government at Essex the programme thrived and contributed to an academic culture unique in my experience. For those of us who completed PhDs at Essex the first question we were confronted with was finding a job. Some returned to the cities from where they had come, others like me, had forged relationships in the UK and stayed on in British academia. Most of us found jobs in Cultural Studies, in Politics or in Humanities departments. We maintained links with Ernesto, and with Essex, sometime intermittent, sometimes more committed, and we formed an extended community around the world, recognising each other at conferences, in seminars and back at Essex for the various conferences in Political Theory and Philosophy organised during the 2000s. These were occasions for debate, for argument, for the recalibration of older disputes and for the marking of new directions in our academic and theoretical work.
During that decade Ernesto lectured around the world, supervised PhD students in North America, and developed his already close ties with the Argentinian left. I invited him to deliver lectures, or attend conferences on a number of occasions. He never refused, though sometimes could not make the relevant dates. Whenever I met him his exuberance, his energy and his determination to continue the self-criticism and development of his own theoretical trajectory were obvious. Sometimes he surprised me, as when listening to a lecture he delivered at the University of Sussex in 2006. Someone asked a question—I have no idea what the questions was, I was not paying attention—and Ernesto responded by saying ‘Well that is something my comrade Mark knows about,’ leaving me floundering, embarrassed by my own distraction, but pleased that not having seen Ernesto for years he still recalled the work I had done. These occasions reminded me of two other aspects of Ernesto’s character. The first was his ability to apparently doze through lectures, only to then ask the one question which cut to the core of the argument. He had obviously listened to every word. The second was the patterns he drew during seminars, either when answering questions or when listening to a presentation. He would fill pages with the same pattern, repeated over and over. Sitting in the wrong place you may have thought he was taking notes, and perhaps this was his way of doing so, because he always knew precisely what the argument was, and could unerringly identify potential problems. During the last decade I often found myself at conferences where someone would say ‘You know Ernesto don’t you? Yes, I worked with him at Northwestern,’ or ‘I was at Essex for my MA,’ or ‘He lectured me in Istanbul.’ The community of scholars Ernesto engaged grew every year.
My most abiding memories of Ernesto are more recent. In 2013 I organised a conference about his work, with colleagues at the University of Brighton. Ernesto agreed immediately when I invited him to come. However, in error he sent his response to the wrong email address. I only realised that he had accepted when Noreen Harburt emailed to say that Ernesto was confused that I had not responded to his acceptance of the invitation. I had wanted to host an event such as this for a long time: an opportunity to bring together scholars from around the world, old friends from Essex University days as well as the global community which Ernesto had established over the decades. It was an opportunity to say thank you, a way to acknowledge the affective ties which he had forged, as well as to interrogate the theoretical programme his work had initiated. We agreed a title: ‘Thinking the Political: The Work of Ernesto Laclau.’ The call for papers elicited over 100 proposals for presentation but we could only cater for 50 papers. Ernesto opened the conference with a retrospective account of the development of his own theoretical work as a response to the crisis of the left in the last decades of the 20th century. It was a perfectly pitched start to a conference. Ernesto attended every session, and spoke to participants about the arguments, the disagreements and the claims that they made. Many of the friends I had made during the 1990s in Essex came to the conference – from Argentina, New Zealand, from Essex, Athens, Turkey, Finland, Slovenia – and I met many more scholars, some now friends, whom Ernesto had either taught or influenced. There were younger academics at the conference, PhD students inspired by his ideas, desperate to have a word with him, to push him, to challenge and to extend his arguments. Ernesto was as patient then as he had been with me 21 years ago. At the conference dinner Ernesto led everyone in a rendition of the Internationale, followed immediately by Italian revolutionary songs, the words of which only he knew. I had no sense that this would be the last academic event at which I would see Ernesto. I was due to meet him at a conference in Leuven, in June of this year. He was due to write replies to papers delivered at the conference, as part of a book project. The last time I spoke to Ernesto he had another idea—a journal about radical theory, aimed specifically at publishing the work of scholars engaged with Agamben, Balibar, Negri, Butler, Brown, Mouffe, Zerilli, Derrida and others. If and when the journal is launched it will be because of his influence, his determination to engage critically with the world in which he lived.
That ultimate contingency, death, means that we will never speak to Ernesto again. We will never watch him draw that diagram demonstrating the logic of the empty signifier, or hear him tell stories about union meetings in Buenos Aires in the 1960s before the dictatorship disrupted his activism. We will never listen to his careful response to criticism, his clarification of an argument wrongly presented, his inimitable description of his own project. I have learnt more from him than from any other individual I have met, and I know that this is true for many others. Farewell Ernesto, and thank you.
20 April 2014
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It is difficult to decide on just one story to tell about Ernesto, especially since it means telling a story that is itself about a story told by Ernesto. So, I want to recount one story, which includes many others, and then offer some video footage.
In 2008, Ernesto made what is not a simple a trip, as many know, to Stillwater, Oklahoma, to deliver a keynote address at the World Picture conference. This was not so terribly long after he had sustained a head injury, and Meghan and I were concerned about all of the steps the trip required. Before he arrived, Ernesto had very graciously read an essay that I had recently published on Heidegger and suggested that we have lunch at some point in the course of his visit and talk about it. Of course, as a conference organizer it is not so simple—and certainly not advisable—to sneak away for an hour, especially when a larger lunch is being staged at the same time; when one is, in many ways, most needed as an organizer. At lunch, and among other things, Ernesto encouraged me to read Richard Rorty. Given what I had said, and what else I was interested in, he felt certain that I would find a real affinity there. Needless to say, I starting reading Rorty immediately and have not yet stopped. But in the course of telling me this, Ernesto also began to speak of his friendship with Rorty, who had passed away the year before. It was obvious that the loss was, for Ernesto, serious and still painful. And yet, two hilarious moments followed from his account of his friendship with Rorty. In response to me saying that I did not know that he knew Rorty, Ernesto said, “Yes, I know all of the young guys: Derrida, Nancy, Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere, Negri.” He may have named others. The early immortals. He then went on to re-tell a story about a lecture that Rorty gave toward the end of his life, in which he was confronted by a hostile member of the audience—a story that resembles a story that Ernesto told many times, and that you may very well know, about an encounter he had during one of his talks at NYU. In this instance, though, Ernesto began by saying that later in his life Rorty had taken to collecting and reading about so-called oriental objects. And on one occasion, at the beginning of a lecture, he found himself talking about these objects. Rorty, the story goes, was interrupted by an audience member who was clearly bothered, clearly offended, by all this talk of oriental objects and demanded to know—demanded an answer from Rorty—how he could possibly be talking about such things. Rorty’s response to the irate man, Ernesto said, and with all due understatement: “Just curious.” It struck me then, just as it does now, that of course Ernesto and Rorty would be friends. The joke was predicated on a dry irony that splits in two incompatible directions: either as seeming confirmation of an orientalist inclination, or else, as proof only that it is the one objecting who is responding in an unthinking way; who, in policing the interests of others, has lost the capacity to be curious, which means, in turn, no more philosophy, only dogma, and no more justice, which is what this person clearly thought he was after. So many of Ernesto’s jokes, it seems to me, work just this way and are in perfect keeping with his conception of hegemony (exactly as Roland has indicated), seem always to point to a problem that some have had in dealing with Ernesto’s bold refusal to guarantee that a hegemonic formation will only ever be put in service of a politics that the left agrees with. It might be nice if that were so, but then we will have to commit to something beyond contingency.
In August of 2011, Ernesto made another difficult trip as the result of an invitation that neither Meghan nor I could help but make, just in case he case he would come. This time, Ernesto came to deliver two talks in an ongoing seminar on Media and Philosophy that a few of us had been running as an extension of a program sponsored by the Open Society Institute, which made possible, in particular, a three-year long exchange between the core faculty and close to thirty graduate students and young professors from the Post-Soviet region. This particular session took place in a very small university in Akbuk, Turkey. It was blistering hot and the campus, while set on the Aegean, was in no way describable as luxurious. Ernesto came, delivered two beautiful seminars, spent time with the participants who had been reading him carefully and consistently, and who were very clearly excited—as we all were—to have him there, could not believe it had, in fact, happened. While the rest of us were showing up to sessions in shorts and sandals, owing to the extreme heat, Ernesto showed up wearing a nice linen suit, and in the time between his sessions carried on with his writing, in longhand, as if his experience there was no hardship whatsoever. The video that I have posted below is of a brief car ride to a small seaside restaurant on the banks of the Aegean. Meghan Sutherland and I are in the backseat, where I recorded Ernesto through the image in the rear view mirror. Ergun Civalek is driving. Olga Blackledge and Sorin Radu Cucu are walking, off-screen, on way to meeting us at dinner. Many other stories were told at that dinner. Many other stories could be told about that dinner. Here's one.
24 April 2014
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Among the many institutional sites transformed by Ernesto’s presence, we would list the Center for the Study of Psychoanalysis and Culture at the University at Buffalo. A Distinguished Visiting Professor in Comparative Literature for several years, Ernesto gravitated toward the Center out of sympathy for its project to elevate psychoanalysis from a regional discourse to the mother language of modernity. He played an absolutely critical role in anchoring the discourse in the political. His contagious enthusiasm for communal endeavors inspired a series of joint seminars (which I had the enormous pleasure of co-teaching with him), and reinvigorated the journal Umbr(a).
Cherished memories of this period will be ours for a very long time, but are too numerous to relate. I have therefore chosen a single memento of his presence at the Center, which will serve vividly, I hope, to evoke him. Ernesto had the habit, as many know, of doodling as he listened to lectures. Each doodle was unique, but to the untrained eye would probably look the same: a maze, timed to reach completion at the end of the lecture. Whatever else it was meant to do, it seems the drawing was an attempt to synch speaker and listener in a complex way that was not without some risk.
This particular doodle was drawn in 2005 and retrieved, at the end of a session of the “Identity and the Social Bond” seminar, by one of the graduates, Nathan Gorelick. He and Lydia Kerr framed it and hung it in their apartment until they left Buffalo, at which point they bequeathed it to the Center. Nate tells me that he regarded the drawing as “a kind of magical object, a literal tracing of the circuitous and interlaced movements of a brilliant
All of us at the Center were enormously saddened by the loss of Ernesto, our co-conspirator.
24 April 2014
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I would like to share a couple of brief stories about Ernesto which are quite different from one another, but I think that they might give a glint of Ernesto.
It was 2008, and Ernesto was in Buenos Aires giving one of his seminars. All of a sudden he turns up with the idea of paying a visit to President Cristina’s small town in Patagonia. He said something like: “I’d like to see where she comes from.” (That is a very small town called Calafate in the deep south of Patagonia, more than 2.000 km away from Buenos Aires city.) So we went out there: Natalia Laclau (Ernesto’s youngest daughter), Gloria Perelló (a researcher at the university) and myself (another researcher at the university). The first thing that called my attention was that—when we gathered at the airport to board our plane—Ernesto was hardly carrying any luggage. The second one was that when arriving to Calafate he said: “It’s cold.” He was only wearing a jacket, but had no sweater, warm socks or wooly hat. In May, Patagonia gets quite cold. So, I lent him my polo neck jumper—which looked pretty hilarious on him because it was far too tight for him—and we bought a good pair of socks and a funny Andean hat, which he adored. I think that Ernesto had almost no record about nature, neither the weather nor the landscape. But everything that surrounded us in Calafate was plain nature. So, after walking around a couple of hours we had almost visited the entire town and there was nothing else to do apart from enjoying nature. Well, that was what we tried to do. The following day we got on a ferry to see the huge glaciers. From the very beginning of the trip I remember Ernesto was reading a book, Snow a novel by Orhan Pamuk, that he said: “It is so-so.” Anyway, he wouldn’t stop reading while an amazing landscape was outside. Once we arrived at the front of the glacier, people went crazy taking pictures, and so did Natalia, Gloria and myself, going from one side of the ferry to the other trying to capture the best view of that incredible wall of ice. After a while, Ernesto yelled to me: “Paula, can you tell me what on earth are we doing here? The ferry had been stopped for almost two hours!” “Yes,” I said, “we are watching the glacier.” Then, he laughed, came outside for a little while, we took some pictures, and then he went back inside to carry on reading.
When Ernesto was a political activist in Argentina before he left Argentina to study in England, he was the editor of the National Left Party’s newspaper (let’s say the left involved with the Latin American popular movements and not the other one, the “Sepoy Left”). The newspaper was called Lucha Obrera (Workers Struggle) and I think that there we can find a lot of writings that showed how Ernesto was—in a way—thinking about the same topics from the very beginning. Please take a look at this fragment that he wrote after the newspaper had suffered an anonymous attack, it was December 1964 in Buenos Aires and the title of the article was La violencia oligárquica no nos intimidará (“The oligarch violence won’t intimidate us”):
“The reliability of a revolutionary politics is measured, in a sense, by its capacity to concentrate over itself the definitive deep hate of all the sectors linked to the prevailing system (…) A truly revolutionary politics must count with this hate and must know that it will be his inseparable mate of all its fights. It is not a true revolutionary that one who seeks a reassurance of his acts in some kind of consensus, because the revolutionary one by building his action over the profound sense of historical process, must quit beforehand at any surface consensus. The first thing that a revolutionary politician has to do, if he is not just playing to be one, is to build for himself an elephant skin that allows him to bear without blinking the calumny and violence and get used to walk around the world without a coat.”
“La seriedad de una política revolucionaria se mide, en gran parte, por su capacidad de concentrar sobre sí el odio profundo y definitivo de todos los sectores vinculados al sistema imperante (…) Una verdadera política revolucionaria debe contar con este odio y saber que será el compañero inseparable de todas sus luchas. No es verdaderamente revolucionario quien busca como reaseguro de sus actos alguna forma de consenso, justamente por edificar su acción sobre el sentido profundo de los procesos históricos, el revolucionario debe renunciar de antemano a cualquier consenso en la superficie. Lo primero que debe hacer un político revolucionario que no juegue simplemente a serlo, es construirse una piel de elefante que le permita soportar sin pestañear la calumnia y la violencia y acostumbrarse a anda por el mundo sin sobretodo” (Laclau, Lucha Obrera, 1964, diciembre 9, 1).
27 April 2014
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Julio Fernández Baraibar
[Note: This reflection was originally published in Tiempo Agentino, under the title “Ernesto Laclau: La naturaleza histórica y social del peronismo fue el centro de todas sus reflexiones,” on 22 April 2014. The author generously agreed to share it with us here as well.]
Ernesto Laclau nació en 1935. Pertenecía, por lo tanto, a la misma generación de Elvis Presley, Woody Allen o el ex agente de la CIA, Philip Agee. Tenía la misma edad de la actriz de Bergman, Bibi Andersson, del carilindo Alain Delon, de nuestra Mónica Cahen D'Anvers, de la locutora Pinky o de la querida Isabel Sarli.
Entre los hombres y mujeres de la política y el pensamiento, Laclau nació el mismo año que el cineasta e investigador Octavio Getino, el ex intendente de Buenos Aires, el radical Julio César Saguier, el también radical Raúl Rabanal, el actual presidente del Uruguay, Pepe Mujica, el semiólogo Eliseo Verón, fallecido dos días después, el gran pensador y ensayista brasileño Luiz Alberto Moniz Bandeira o el boliviano René Zavaleta Mercado.
Esta fatigosa enunciación viene a cuento para ubicar cuál fue el mundo en el que nació y la época en la que creció e inició su actividad universitaria y política el amigo que acaba de fallecer.
Nacido antes del comienzo de la 2° Guerra Mundial, su adolescencia se desarrolló a lo largo de la década peronista, en la época de oro de las grandes orquestas de tango y sus legendarios cantores. Su hogar era fervientemente radical y sólo cinco años habían pasado desde que don Hipólito fue desalojado de la Casa Rosada por un golpe militar, dirigido por un torpe espadón, detrás del cual se movía el poder tradicional e histórico que Yrigoyen había desplazado en 1916. No fueron ajenas a la casa las conspiraciones radicales contra el régimen fraudulento y en varias oportunidades ha recordado Laclau la amistad, nacida de las coincidencias políticas, de su padre con Arturo Jauretche.
Como en tantos hogares radicales de clase media, muerto el caudillo en 1933 e integrada la UCR al sistema de la Década Infame, la guerra fue vivida como un enfrentamiento entre la “democracia” y el “despotismo” y la liberación de París fue festejada con sirenas por los grandes diarios porteños. El golpe militar de 1943 produjo rechazo en los sectores que se consideraban democráticos. Pese al carácter fraudulento de los gobiernos civiles, el lenguaje nacionalista de los militares golpistas y la influencia del catolicismo fascistoide en el aparato ideológico del golpe -ministerio de Educación, intervención en las Universidades- puso a lo que quedaba de la vieja Unión Cívica Radical en la vereda de enfrente del golpe. De ahí, al antiperonismo inmediatamente posterior hubo un sólo paso. La definición del peronismo como la manifestación del fascismo que había sido derrotado en los campos de Francia prendió como una plaga en los círculos académicos, universitarios y bien pensantes. El padre de Ernesto Laclau fue uno de esos radicales que votaron por Tamborini y Mosca y militaron en la oposición durante los diez años de gobierno peronista. Alguna participación debe haber tenido en la Revolución Libertadora para que fuese nombrado, durante un breve tiempo, funcionario de la Secretaría de Agricultura y Ganadería.
Pero esa cuestión irresuelta acerca de la naturaleza del peronismo, su carácter histórico, político y social, definió -podría decirse- toda su actividad intelectual durante su adultez hasta el último hálito de su rica vida. Ninguna de sus profundas investigaciones sobre la hegemonía, el papel de la articulación y la superación de la estrecha visión clasista del marxismo puede entenderse sin referirla al gran movimiento nacional argentino y a las dificultades interpretativas que su aparición y desarrollo ofreció a la intelectualidad académica, local e internacional. Y aquí creo que aparece su vitalicia relación con la Izquierda Nacional y con su principal expresión teórica y política, que fue Jorge Abelardo Ramos.
Desde 1945, Jorge Abelardo Ramos habìa venido desplegando una intensa actividad política e intelectual que, en 1963, cristaliza con la creación del Partido Socialista de la Izquierda Nacional, de declarada filiación marxista en lo conceptual, leninista en lo político y organizativo y trotskista en su oposición a la burocracia soviética, considerando a León Trotsky el legítimo heredero de la tradición surgida de la Revolución de Octubre en Rusia. Esto, que hoy puede sonar altisonante, pretencioso y, hasta, rebuscado, formaba parte de la discusión normal de la izquierda en aquellos años. La Revolución Rusa seguía siendo la referencia obligada, con el paradigma de la toma del poder por parte de la clase obrera. Y el pensamiento de Trotsky era un viento de aire fresco en medio del escolasticismo catequístico en que los partidos comunistas habían convertido el pensamiento marxista.
A ese grupo de militantes, dirigidos férreamente por Ramos, se incorporó Ernesto Laclau en 1965, junto con quien fuera su gran amigo y compañero, incluso cuando la política los alejó momentáneamente, el antropólogo y profesor universitario Blas Alberti. La diputada Adriana Puiggrós, el ex decano de la facultad de Filosofía y Letras de la UBA, Gustavo Schuster, y la socióloga Gloria Bonder, quienes junto a una veintena de estudiantes habían constituido el Frente de Acción Universitaria (FAU) y controlaban el Centro de Estudiantes, acompañaron a Laclau.
Dirá Laclau, muchos años después: “Yo trabajé con Ramos políticamente durante cinco años, y durante ese período trabajamos estrechamente y hubo una gran compenetración para mi formación intelectual. La relación con él fue y es todavía uno de los puntos de referencia. Le decía a Laura Ramos, hace algunos meses, que todavía tengo algunas conversaciones imaginarias con él, en las cuales trato de pensar cómo me hubiera respondido Ramos a cierto tipo de argumentos que yo estaba haciendo.”
Y el eje central a partir del cual Ernesto Laclau replanteó lo que él llama “el determinismo económico y el subjetivismo voluntarista” del marxismo fueron las contradicciones que el reconocimiento del “desarrollo desigual y combinado” generaban en el esquema clasista del marxismo tradicional. Gramsci vino en su ayuda y así lo explicaba Laclau: “Si las banderas democráticas pueden ser adoptadas por sectores sociales muy distintos, lo que vamos a tener como agentes colectivos son individualidades colectivas, sectores populares más amplios y no vamos a tener clases en el sentido tradicional de la palabra. Lo que vamos a tener es lo que él llamaba 'voluntades colectivas'. (…) El pensamiento de JAR en la Argentina, creo, fue la primera realización, el primer reconocimiento, dentro del pensamiento marxista, de que estas identidades populares más amplias eran los verdaderos actores en la escena política.”
Ya fuera de la Argentina, Laclau desarrolló estos conceptos, latentes y potenciales, cruzándolos con las nuevas manifestaciones de las ciencias sociales y lingüísticas, hasta lograr acuñar una categoría que constituye su aporte esencial al pensamiento político latinoamericano, el populismo, sacando del charco del desprecio de los saberes dominantes un concepto al que le agregó para siempre un brillo transformador. Las grandes movilizaciones peronistas, la transformación de la Argentina agroexportadora, la fiesta del pleno empleo y los altos salarios fueron el fondo de una reflexión que convirtió al porteño Ernesto Laclau en una figura obligada en las ciencias sociales contemporáneas.
Queda un recuerdo, traído por el propio Ernesto, que ilumina la naturaleza y el epos de aquellas discusiones en la Argentina de los '60. La ruptura con Ramos fue traumática para ambos. No sólo preocupaciones teóricas se dirimían en la misma. Cuestionar la autoridad de Abelardo era una amenaza de disolución y fragmentación dado el incipiente crecimiento de la organización. De modo que, en algún momento, Ramos y Laclau se encontraron para conversar en el Café Tortoni. Así lo recuerda Ernesto:
“Y después de tres horas de conversación salimos de allí y fuimos caminando por una calle de Buenos Aires y nos despedimos en una esquina. Él cruzó y en un momento dado, desde la esquina que hacía diagonal con la que yo estaba, me grita:
Me doy vuelta y le digo:
Teníamos que gritarnos un poco porque había mucho tráfico y era difícil escucharse. Desde allá Ramos me pregunta:
—¿Usted hubiera perdonado a los insurrectos de Kronstadt?
No sé si hoy se sabe lo que significa Kronstadt. Pero de todos modos para alguien como él y como yo, que veníamos de la tradición leninista significaba algo muy preciso: era el levantamiento de izquierda de los marinos del puerto de Kronstadt, que los bolcheviques, con Lenin y Trotsky a la cabeza, reprimieron de una manera brutal. Siempre fue una espina clavada en el torso de la izquierda. Y entonces me gritó eso, a lo que yo le respondì, siempre a los gritos:
—Bueno, en ciertas circunstancias sí, pero tienen que ser circunstancias muy especiales.
Desde la esquina en diagonal, Ramos me gritó:
—Yo pienso lo mismo, y se fue.
Fue la última vez que hablamos.
El drama de la Revolución de Octubre todavía iluminaba la conciencia de aquellos hombres. Ernesto Laclau continuó hasta el siglo XXI esa tradición libertaria.
Escribió en uno de sus libros: “Retomar la iniciativa política, lo que, desde el punto de vista teórico, significa hacer la política nuevamente pensable. A esta tarea ha estado destinado todo mi esfuerzo intelectual. Es para mí un motivo profundo de optimismo que después de tantos años de frustración política nuestros pueblos latinoamericanos estén en proceso de afirmar con éxito su lucha emancipatoria.”
Y además, después de decir estas cosas, recitaba alguno de los poemas lunfardos de Carlos de la Púa o cantaba “Marionetas”, como solía hacer su amigo Blas Alberti.
22 April 2014
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Roberto Agustín Follari
Desde mi remoto lugar en Mendoza (Argentina) no esperaba conocer personalmente a Laclau. Escribí mi libro La alternativa neopopulista a partir de su obra La razón populista, tomando igual partido político-ideológico, pero con variadas diferencias teóricas. La decisión de don Ernesto de comprometerse directamente en la política latinoamericana, lo trajo sorpresivamente cerca de nosotros. Visitó Mendoza, conoció ese escrito donde yo -desde mis posibilidades- le hago varias críticas; y tuvo luego para conmigo la mejor de las actitudes y afectos, desde ese momento de 2011 donde tuve el enorme honor de compartir palestra con él.
Fue ese un singular ejemplo de sencillez y buena voluntad de su parte, pues no poco común es entre los intelectuales sólo esperar seguidores y repetidores. Desde su muy alto sitial en el concierto internacional de la teoría política, Laclau eligió el diálogo hecho desde la mayor simetría posible, sin engolamientos ni jerarquías.
Una razón más para sostener su recuerdo, su merecida memoria, el afecto que supo ganarse, además del respeto intelectual por una obra que nos acompañará por siempre.
26 April 2014
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Mi noche triste (en memoria del tanguero Ernesto Laclau)
A mediados de los ’90 decidí ponerle forma de tesis de doctorado a una indagación que hacía sobre las bromas pesadas. Se encontraron mi decisión con la lectura de la introducción de Ernesto Laclau al libro de Zizek sobre la ideología. Me costó conseguir su mail. Apenas le escribí para pedirle que fuera director de mi tesis, me respondió de la manera en la que siempre lo habría de encontrar después: desde su cariñosa generosidad. Ernesto sabía que yo bailaba tango y le gustaba, tanguero ferviente como era. Un día me invita a un almuerzo. Con timidez de provinciana me encuentro en un restaurante de la calle Armenia con menos de una decena de monstruos sagrados de la intelectualidad argentina, entre los que recuerdo estaban Horacio González y Nicolás Casullo. El café lo deciden tomar en casa de Leonor Arfuch y allá vamos. Una sobremesa de la cual conservo dos recuerdos imborrables de Ernesto: Por un lado cuando cuenta con vivacidad y memoria prodigiosas su 17 de octubre, el de un niño espiando desde el balcón de su casa el clamor de un pueblo. Cuando ya la charla había agotado su chispa, Ernesto propone bailar tango. Nadie pareció muy interesado en bailar otra cosa que las palabras. Leonor busca afanosamente por su casa algún disco de tango que no aparece, luego hacemos el intento con la radio y nada. Hasta que Ernesto, con las ganas de bailar que tenía, me dice: bailemos cantandow—se sabía todas las letras—. Nos alejamos unos metros y, mientras cantábamos con fervor, nos bailamos unos tangos. Los demás casi ni se dieron cuenta. Para mí esa escena lo pinta tal cual lo conocí: un brillante intelectual atado a la vida en todas sus facetas. Hoy, antes del mediodía, me alegró recibir un cariñoso mail de Ernesto. Hoy, antes de medianoche, recibo la noticia de su muerte. Esta es mi noche triste.
P.D. Se dice que con el tango “Mi noche triste,” en 1917, cantado por Gardel, nace el tango-canción.
13 April 2014
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Lucrecia Escudero Chauvel
Me encontre con Ernesto Laclau muy pocos dias antes de su muerte en el Cafe de la plaza de la Bastilla, lugar en el que solia citar a sus amigos, colegas y conocidos cuando estaba en Paris. Una especie de oficina parisina. Estaba invitado al Salon del Libro este año dedicado a autores argentinos. Cuando lo vi, lo primero que me dijo en tono muy serio fue: “Te tengo que confesar que en realidad yo soy saussureano y no peirciano.” Se referia a una conversacion anterior donde habiamos evocado varias veces al sistema linguistico estructuralista y el pensamiento logico de Peirce. A mi me causo mucha gracia que iniciara el encuentro con esta afirmacion tan perentoria. El inicio de las conversaciones son tan importantes como las despedidas. Yo no sabia que esta iba a ser la ultima vez que iba a ver a Ernesto Laclau.
Nos conocimos en Paris en 1977, en la casa de André Glucksman, en una reunion donde estaba Nicolas Poulanzas. Yo habia ido con Eliseo Veron. Laclau llevaba un saco de terciopelo negro y Poulanzas una botas de granjero, pero no quiero parecer frivola con estos detalles, que sin embargo nunca olvidé. Veron murio dos dias despues de Ernesto, tambien de un ataque al corazon en su casa de Buenos Aires, justo antes de salir para tomar el avion que lo traia a Paris el 15 de abril. El hecho que ambos hayan muerto con dos dias de intervalo a hecho tan dificil poder desarmar estos recuerdos.
Laclau continuo: “En realidad nos volvimos a encontrar en Puerto Rico.” Contado asi parece una narracion de espias, pero el se referia al congreso de la Federacion Latinoamericana de Facultades de Comunicacion donde era el invitado especial. Fue en ese anfiteatro presisamente donde me le acerque y le dije: “Soy la hija de Lucrecia Castagnino” sabia que mi madre, que habia formado parte del Grupo Contorno con Ramon Alcalde, Ismael y David Viñas, lo habia conocido. Esa noche, en el bar de Bastilla, Laclau se quedo callado un largo momento, luego, como si me estuviera contestando diez años despues dijo: “Tu madre era una persona intensa.” Tambien dijo: “Nunca negaré al gobierno de Cristina, nunca me escucharan decir nada critico, ahora, que llueven las criticas.” Me parecio el gesto de un gentelman, pero sobre todo era el comportamiento de un cuadro militante, como fue cuando con una absoluta originalidad y valor volvio a colocar en el escenario la palabra prohibida de “populismo” y le dio sus letras de nobleza teorica. Laclau estaba cansado y me dijo: “Hoy no vamos a cenar, me vuelvo a casa porque tengo frio.” Me levante y lo abrace. Lo abrace profundamente. Lo abrace con un cariño infinito, como quien abraza tambien, curiosamente, a su madre. Se perdio en la calle y pasó por el Passage du Cheval Blanc, se volvió, ¬ siempre hay un ultimo signo ahi donde hay una verdadera despedida ¬ lo salude con la mano y el hizo un gesto con su maletin de cuero usado, muy usado, como si fuera un instrumento de labranza, como las botas de un granjero. Un hombre germinal.
26 April 2014
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When Simon Critchley and I were editing the Critical Laclau Reader in 2004, we ventured the idea of using for the cover a photo of the bombed editorial office of Lucha Obrera. Ernesto was chief editor of Lucha Obrera, and putting the bombed office on the cover would have clarified that an apparently abstract theory, sometimes charged with formalism, did emerge from rather material struggles. To our surprise Ernesto was strictly against it. Instead, he opted for his alma mater, i.e. the beautiful façade of Buenos Aires University. We went along, but I remember that I found it awkward to have a baroque façade on the reader. Not because this was the exact opposite to an image of violent political struggle. But his choice, I thought, would produce something of a riddle for most readers. The deeper meaning of the cover photograph must have appeared as mysterious to them as it appeared to me.
Reflecting back on it, I think that I came to understand why Ernesto chose this photo. There is an obvious and a less obvious explanation. The obvious one is that Buenos Aires University was the place not only of his academic, but also his political formation as a student representative. Hence, the university was not only a place of learning and research, but also a place of politics. This is the obvious explanation. The less obvious explanation is that the university was not only a place of politics, but also a place of learning and research.
To put it this way: There is Ernesto the militant, Ernesto the singer of revolutionary songs who would ask every one of his multi-national crowd of PhD students to sing the Internationale in her native tongue, and of course Ernesto the partisan of Peronism. His life-long devotion to the cause, tempered by irony, could express itself in any moment. For instance, I remember a meeting of former PhD students at Essex University on the occasion of celebrating—was it the 20th?—anniversary of the Ideology and Discourse Analysis programme. At some point, the photographer of the Essex campus newspaper entered the room and asked whether he may take a picture of the group, and that we should position ourselves in front of the white wall of the seminar room. To the astonishment of the man, Ernesto explained to him that this was out of question: We could never line up for a photograph without a portrait of General Peron in our back.
So, there is Ernesto the militant, yet at the very same time there is Ernesto the scholar. And the scholar seemed to be interested, first and foremost, in the development of a coherently argued system of political theory. This was where some may have experienced a contradiction. Just consider the apparent paradox that the most ardent defender of populism was, in his theoretical and pedagogical work, as remote from any populistic attitude as one can be. Neither was there any sophistry to his lectures nor was there anything self-congratulatory, as it is typical for famous academics. It would not have crossed his mind for a second to compromise on the rigour of the argument for the sake of presenting it with more bravado or to produce artificial effects in order to get the message across. No rhetorical device was allowed that would have distracted from the course of reasoning. While he theorized the “rhetorical foundations of society,” his own theory was geared towards reducing, as much as this was possible, its rhetorical foundation.
Of course he knew that ultimately it was impossible. In the introduction to New Reflections he confesses that to present his argument more geometrico flies in the face of everything he believes about language. But if he managed to make his theory intelligible to his audiences, then not by garnishing it with a plethora of examples, stories, jokes etc. He made it intelligible, and in this sense accessible, by presenting it in a clear and precise way, clare et distincte. No fog, no obscurantism, no unnecessary detours, no distractions, no trickery. Ernesto’s thinking was driven by a deep desire for consistency, which is why there was a deep sincerity and honesty to it.
This attitude was scholarly in nearly a medieval sense. No wonder that Ernesto’s preferred theoretical tool was Occam’s razor. Cutting away everything arbitrary, he achieved an unheard-of degree of theoretical condensation (his key article The Impossibility of Society is no more than four pages long). When he was supervising my thesis, I had prepared an outline that contained a somewhat artificial enumeration of categories I wanted to discuss. He said that’s all very well, but my list of categories reminded him of a poem by a Surrealist. This was his way of saying: Don’t introduce any category that is unwarranted. Categories have to be connected in more than a merely associative fashion. And even though, at the end of the day, it is impossible to articulate categories in a fully coherent way, this must not stop you from trying.
Now, I think that his charisma as a teacher and lecturer came from the paradox that in Ernesto the two personas of the militant and of the scholar were clearly distinct, but at the same time were identical. It is not that he ever had to bring his two personas in a balance or to a compromise. Both personas, I had the impression, were total, and he was both of them in one: He was totally immersed in politics, and totally immersed in theory. And there was nothing “hegemonic” to the relation between these two sides, no unstable equilibrium to be established between partiality and universality. He was at once totally partial and totally universal, at once, as they say, a “political animal” and a scholar of quasi-medieval stature.
This, I assume, explains his choice of the cover photograph. For Ernesto, the university was not simply a place where one would have to engage in occasional political fights. The university was an entirely political arena, and at the same time a refuge entirely devoted to scholarship. Therefore, the baroque façade of his alma mater must have appeared to him a symbol of the scholarly as much as a symbol of the political. May other theorists pose on their book-covers as street-fighters in front of burning cars, Ernesto felt no need to demonstrate his own involvement in violent political struggles by putting his bombed editorial office on the cover. It was his old university that for him symbolized the identity of the political and the scholarly of which his life and work gave testimony.
Maybe this was not only a personal attitude. Maybe it was characteristic of Ernesto’s generation of radical intellectuals of the left, even though he brought it to its apogee. Another member of this generation, Stuart Hall, who passed away only weeks before Ernesto, has once described the practice of theorizing as “wrestling with the angels.” For this generation, to wrestle with the angels and to wrestle with the beasts was one and the same thing. With Ernesto one of the last representatives of this generation has died. No matter what phantasy-image later generations wish to create of themselves, the reality is, I’m afraid, that we will always remain ordinary academics, not learned scholars, as much as we will remain occasional activists, not life-long militants. Knowing Ernesto meant knowing the difference.
To add one thing, eventually I realized the meaning of the mysterious dedication placed by Ernesto at the beginning of New Reflections: “To Viamonte 430, where everything began.” It is the street address of his university.
28 April 2014
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I met Ernesto Laclau in the summer of 2011, when he came as a visiting lecturer to a seminar sponsored by the Open Society Institute. The seminar was held in Akbuk, a tiny town in Turkey, and consisted of about thirty participants and permanent faculty. He arrived late in the evening, and looked a bit lost—a long trip from the airport to a place in the middle of nowhere. He introduced himself as Ernesto, and it was difficult to call him Professor Laclau after that, so I, as well as everybody in the seminar group, called him Ernesto. The receptionist, a university student working a summer job, looked at him suspiciously. “Laclau, L-A-C-L-A-U,” said Ernesto with a friendly smile. The receptionist seemed to look at him even more suspiciously. When Ernesto was filling in his check-in form, the receptionist asked me quietly, “Is it the Laclau, Ernesto Laclau? We have his books in our library.”
Ernesto’s seminars were dense but accessible. He very carefully laid out his theory, without oversimplifying or overcomplicating it. He charmed everybody with his humor and openness. He was obviously enjoying the conversation with the group, and the group was overwhelmed by his generosity. We all felt inspired by him, which was absolutely needed in the summer heat.
At the end of his visit, I came up to him for his signature on a contract—we needed it to pay him a modest honorarium. “Am I going to receive money on the top of everything?” Ernesto seemed surprised. Whether he was making a joke or he genuinely forgot about the honorarium—it does not matter. What does matter is that he came to this seminar to generously share his knowledge. He did it because he knew from his friends and former students who invited him there that there is a group of people who is interested in his thinking, and it was enough for him to take this trip to a small town in a different country. When later on I was telling enthusiastically about him to a friend, she said, “It seems like Laclau is one of those people who make academia a place worth being in,” and I could not agree more. Ernesto, by his own example, was making academia a place where thinking and sharing knowledge are the most important things, the only academia worth being in.
5 May 2014
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Diego Hernández Nilson
Esta foto es de setiembre de 2013, cuando Ernesto visitó Uruguay por última vez, para participar de unas jornadas académicas. El día antes de su conferencia organizamos un asado en el parrillero de mi casa de Buceo, junto con colegas y algunos políticos. Temíamos que fuera muy informal, pero a la vez sabíamos que era la mejor opción para que todos pudiéramos conversar con mayor libertad que en un restaurant. Por suerte a Ernesto le gustó la idea.
En la foto, adelante, junto con Ernesto, aparece Lucía Topolansky, la senadora más votada en las elecciones de 2009, esposa del presidente José Mujica y ex guerrillera tupamara. Atrás, de pie, aparecemos los asadores, Alfonso Machado y yo.
Cuando estábamos organizando la visita, Ernesto nos trasmitió su interés en aprovechar la oportunidad para conocer a Lucía, quien con gusto aceptó la invitación. Fue una noche de temporal, que demoró la travesía de nuestro amigo en ferry, a través del Río de la Plata. Llegó a Montevideo muy cansado, pero igualmente ambos conversaron mucho durante todo el asado, que se extendió hasta tarde (creo que nadie pudo seguirles el hilo de toda la charla). Al finalizar, cuando se despidieron, acordaron que él le realizaría una entrevista para un próximo número temático sobre Uruguay de la revista Debates y Combates (que ahora tenemos el desafío de realizar). Él estaba interesado en la experiencia de gobierno de la izquierda uruguaya, los recientes avances en algunas demandas sociales (legalización de la marihuana, del aborto y matrimonio homosexual) y la combinación de tradiciones guerrillera, socialista (tenía un buen recuerdo de Mario Cassinoni, quien en realidad hoy no es considerado una figura destacable de la izquierda uruguaya) y del tercerismo latinoamericano (tenía gran estima por Carlos Quijano y el semanario Marcha). Al día siguiente, en la conferencia, el salón de actos de la Facultad de Ciencias Sociales estaba colmado como nunca lo había visto, con gente sentada en las escaleras e incluso afuera, escuchándolo desde los pasillos.
Realmente, quedamos encantados con ese encuentro entre Ernesto y Lucía. Sin embargo, pocos días después de la conferencia de Ernesto, otro viejo líder tupamaro y actual ministro de Defensa, Eleuterio Fernández Huidobro, dijo: “La izquierda “está discutiendo la nueva agenda de derechos, que los homosexuales se puedan casar y cosas así. Esa agenda la hacen Estados Unidos y la socialdemocracia europea, que inventaron ese radicalismo con las mujeres, los homosexuales, esto y aquello para no hablar de lo que importa realmente. Esa agenda no jode a nadie […]. El problema está en que hay ricos y pobres. Acá lo que pasa es que se olvidaron de la lucha de clases. ¡De la lucha de clases nada menos!”. Moraleja: no todo ex guerrillero está dispuesto a aceptar el post-marxismo.
Montevideo, Uruguay, September 2013. Tres Fotos: Diego Pérez—Unidad de Comunicación y Publicaciones—FCS—Udelar.
[This picture is from September 2013, when Ernesto came to Uruguay for the last time to offer a conference. The day before the conference we made a Rio del Plata-style barbecue in my house, with some colleagues and politicians. We feared it was too casual, but even so we knew that was the best option because everybody could talk more freely than in a restaurant. Thankfully, Ernesto liked the idea.
In the picture, Ernesto is with Lucía Topolansky, a Uruguayan senator, wife of José Mujica (our president), and a Tupamara ex-guerrilla leader. Behind her are Alfonso Machado and me, two young researchers and BBQ chefs.
When we organized the visit, Ernesto expressed interest in meeting Lucía, who gladly accepted the invitation. There was a windstorm over the Rio del Plata on the night of the gathering. It delayed Ernesto’s arrival because he was travelling by ferry boat. He arrived late and tired, but he and Lucia talked a lot all through dinner, until almost midnight (I think no one could keep up with all the threads of the conversation). When everyone said goodbye, Ernesto asked Lucia to do an interview with Debates y Combates, the journal he coordinates in Latin America (now another challenge that he left for us), for an upcoming issue about Uruguay. He was interested in the Uruguayan Left’s experience of the government, the recent advances in some social demands (same sex marriage and legalization of marijuana and abortion), and the integration of the Tupamaros in the Frente Amplio Left coalition. The next day the conference was a success. Our auditorium was filled as I never saw it, with people seated on the stairs and many others outside, just listening to him from the hall.
Really, we were pleased about this meeting between Ernesto and Lucía. However, a few days after the conference Eleuterio Fernandez Huidobro, another old Tupamaro leader and current Defense Minister said, “‘The Left’ is discussing the new rights agenda, that homosexuals can marry and stuff. That agenda is made by the U.S. and European social democracy, which invented this radicalism with women, homosexuals, this and that so they could say nothing of what really matters. This agenda does not fuck anyone . . . The problem is that there are rich and poor. What happens is that they forgot the class struggle. From class struggle!” To me, the moral of this story was clear: not all former guerrillas are willing to accept the post-Marxist view.]
10 May 2014
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[Note: This essay was originally published on Adam David Morton’s blog, “For the Desk Drawer,” and can also be found there online. The author generously agreed to share both his reflections and the sketch that accompanies them on World Picture as well.]
My interest with the concept populism began in 2003, after observing the similarities between the divisive political discourses the governments of Taiwan (Republic of China) and Venezuela were articulating. As I was living in Taiwan during that period, and keeping myself updated on the escalating tensions in Venezuela (before and after the failed April 2002 coup); this led me to investigate why the phenomenon of populism was thriving in two developing countries that are geographically apart, with different histories, cultures, attitudes and values.
To conduct a comparative analysis, with the intention to provide important insights into how popular-democratic ideology works in two diverse settings, seemed to be an uncharted territory. I realized that a comparative element looking for common logics in two apparently different empirical cases could be a contribution and enhance a better political awareness of contemporary populism. However, in order to take this beyond a conventional descriptive analysis, I had to find a theoretical method that could relate to both cases and describe these commonalities. I decided to enroll in a MA in Comparative Politics at the University of Nottingham where I started this qualitative research in my dissertation entitled “Populism in Taiwan”—employing Laclau’s theoretical approach to populism. I felt that the theoretical argument the Taiwanese Prof. Hwang Kwang-Kuo (2003) proposed, which is based on the breakdown of Confucian hierarchy, failed to provide the tools for explaining key elements like the dynamics of political articulation and how discursive practices succeed in mobilizing sectors of the population that have felt antagonized and excluded for many years. Ernesto Laclau’s categories such as “logic of difference” and “logic of equivalence” offered a viewpoint to comprehend how pro-independence political forces crystallized a collective anti-Chinese frontier (i.e. the Kuomintang—KMT as invaders, suppressors, corrupters, supporters of unification, etc., mixed with threats from the Communist Mainland China) therefore effectively labeling ‘Them’ as the enemy of ‘Us’: the people of Taiwan.
As Laclau points out, equivalential popular discourses divide, in this way, the social (the people) into two camps: the powerful against the underdog. Therefore, we are no longer dealing with different (referring to the logic of difference) unfulfilled demands but a “fighting demand.” With “equivalences, popular subjectivity, dichotomic construction of the social around an internal frontier, we have all the structural features to define populism,” as Laclau details in Populism and the Mirror of Democracy.
Influenced by Laclau’s theoretical approach, I decided to continue my studies at a doctoral level in the Ideology Discourse Analysis (IDA) program—known as the Essex School Laclau founded in the early 1980s—where I received a fully funded ESRC scholarship. I met Ernesto shortly after his return from Venezuela, weeks before Chávez’s re-election in December 2006. He realized my relationship with Venezuela and showed interest in my claim that his theory explained the nature of populist practices in an Asian country. This developed into a series of discussions in his house in London, me describing the nature of populist politics in Taiwan, draft chapters of my PhD thesis contextualizing the emergence and crystallization of Chavismo, analyses of the discourse both political camps articulated, and first-hand material gathered during my ethnographic fieldwork visits in Venezuela, e.g. concerning the Cuban healthcare program named Barrio Adentro. As he was not my supervisor, Ernesto kindly offered to stand as an internal examiner for my PhD Viva. This in-depth research has been converted into my book Populism in Venezuela.
The theoretical category “dislocation” is a lens that sheds valuable light on the operations that make populist practices effective. Laclau points out that “every identity is dislocated insofar as it depends on an outside which both denies that identity and provides its condition of possibility at the same time.” In other words, “Them,” which is the outside for Laclau, “threaten identities,” but they also provide the “foundation on which new identities are constituted,” as detailed in New Reflections on the Revolution of Our Time. For example, the February 28, 1947 uprising of Taiwanese against the KMT, which resulted in a massacre of thousands of native Taiwanese, is a traumatic past event populists regularly used to mobilize grassroots supporters, demanding the realization of a “true identity” the KMT authoritarian rule suppressed for many years. This also applies to Venezuela. On February 27, 1989, days after the implementation of neoliberal adjustments, the popular mass, the mob to some, protested. This event, known as the ‘Caracazo’ that involved five days of looting and violent unrest in major cities, was a clear sign of social desperation in a deeply dichotomized society. The number of casualties is thought to be 3,000. Again, this dislocatory event was instrumental for the rise of Chavismo as the “true” identity of Venezuela’s previously excluded population.
Another Laclauian category is “empty signifier.” The universal (or totality) identification embodying a plurality of demands in the equivalential chain requires an impossible object. Laclau notes that this “hegemonic identity becomes something of the order of an empty signifier, its own particularity embodying an unachievable fullness.” Laclau adds in On Populist Reason that this totality “cannot be eradicated but that, as a failed totality, it is a horizon and not a ground.” Phrased differently in Emancipations, “an empty signifier can, consequently, only emerge if there is a structural impossibility in signification as such, and only if this impossibility can signify itself as an interruption (subversion, distortion, etc.) of the structure of the sign.” In other words, an empty signifier (e.g. words, images, symbols) crystallizes the populist collective will/horizon of particularities. For example, after the 2000 election of a pro-independence party in the presidency, the nationalist term “Taiwanese Consciousness” (台灣意識) has become an abiding empty signifier, even though the “full” realization of this identity is unachievable. Also, when the February 4, 1992 coup failed, Chávez’s Por Ahora (For now), announced during a one-minute national “live” media coverage speech to other military officers that they lay down their arms in other key positions in the country, which became an influential socio-political catchphrase. Por Ahora signified no surrender. The phrase became an “empty signifier” that effectively totalized all their differences (e.g. miscellaneous demands). It was constructed by labeling the outside as evil: a repressive regime.
The opportunity to engage fully with Laclau’s theoretical approach to populism and constitute instances of populist politics in two dissimilar cases, has given me the framework to identify and uncover characteristics of this phenomenon. For example, terms Adam Morton presents in his post and elsewhere, engaging Antonio Gramsci’s notion of “passive revolution,” gave me new useful tools to reassess the empirical material analyzed in my book Populism in Venezuela. By mixing Ernesto Laclau’s theoretical categories with the Gramscian terms Adam Morton provides, I provide a theoretical alternative for assessing the extent to which a political project can be described as populist, which is now published in my article in Latin American Perspectives, “From Passive to Radical Revolution in Venezuela’s Populist Project,” available here.
Laclau’s theory of populism has played a critical role in my research. Without his theoretical insights and captivating character, I could not have expanded my initial observations of populist practices to this level. Beside his theoretical legacy and rich intellectual input outside academia, Professor Laclau also contributed to the training and development of students and researchers from different parts of the world—thanks to the IDA program he founded. His death is a great loss.
¡Muchas Gracias Profesor!
1 May 2014
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Alice Casimiro Lopes
I am a professor of Curriculum (Education) who works with the theory of discourse developed by Laclau. One of my PhD students took these photos during a “Theory of Discourse for High School Studies” symposium at State University of Rio de Janeiro (financing by Capes/Brazil) that I organized in 2013. In the first picture, Ernesto is explaining the equivalence chain and the logic of difference. In the second one, I discuss it with him. All the Brazilian students who studied with Laclau miss him. So do I.
5 May 2014
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Alexander García Düttmann
Camarada, that’s how Ernesto used to greet me at the door of his London home almost invariably. I always felt a bit self-conscious and refrained from calling him a comrade in turn. There was a simple reason why I liked to visit Chantal and Ernesto when they were in town and kindly asked me over for dinner—because of the warmth with which I was welcome, a warmth inseparable from the Spanish language we spoke when we did not switch to French or move our conversation into English as a courtesy to other guests. What I remember most about Ernesto is his astonishing memory. He knew long Spanish songs and poems by heart. But he also loved to tell anecdotes as the evening evolved. Chantal must have heard them many times, though they seemed to belong to a rather large repertoire, to a repertoire so vast that in all the years I knew Ernesto only very rarely did I listen to the same anecdote twice. The anecdotes were full of detail. Ernesto told them as if they were cherished and lovingly preserved literary pieces, small gems that could be destroyed if they were not displayed in the right fashion. Actually, when I try to recall his manner of teaching and writing it reminds me of the way in which he used to produce his anecdotes. There was a constant and varied recourse to a repertoire of arguments and ideas developed by others or by himself. Ernesto appears to me as someone who wished to make sense of things, in his life and in his thought, and who in order to do so needed to provide himself with an extended set of malleable elements that could help him in his search for forms. He had built his memory out of a repeated and necessary appeal to comrades who never failed to prove their solidarity. I should have been less reticent.
26 June 2014
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Kurt C.M. Mertel
I was fortunate enough to have attended Ernesto’s graduate seminars during his final years as a Visiting Professor at Northwestern University (2010-13). The first seminar I attended was during my first year in grad school, and was on the notion of Social Antagonism. As expected, there were many students in attendance from a variety of disciplines, including visiting students from the Chicagoland area and abroad. I was immediately impressed by Ernesto’s mastery of the history of philosophy; his seminars would typically begin with an overview of the history of the problem in question and he had an uncanny ability to weave a narrative that situated his position within a historical dialogue that would begin with Ancient Greek Philosophy (Aristotle), with stops in the Medieval (Duns Scotus) and Modern (Kant, Hegel, Schelling, Marx) periods along the way. Ernesto was always a patient and good-humored guide, willing to entertain questions at any point during his presentations to make sure no one was left behind. The blackboard could certainly pay witness to this: there was a hardly a session where Ernesto did not make extensive use of it, diagramming the subtleties of Lacanian psychoanalysis, Hegelian dialectic, and structuralist linguistics with incredible ease (the pictures of his presentation in Akbuk and Montevideo are perfect illustrations of this).
With each passing class, we would get another piece of the bigger picture and a clearer sense of the conclusion toward which Ernesto was building, which had the effect of keeping us glued to our seats, eagerly anticipating the next part of the journey. Along the way, Ernesto’s openness to questions from a variety of perspectives made for some lively discussions and debate. As co-travelers, or better yet co-adventurers, we were always encouraged to approach our guide with questions, concerns, reservations, objections, etc. Indeed, I was initially astonished by the fact that a scholar of his stature would make it a requirement that each student—graduate and undergraduate alike—schedule multiple appointments to visit him during his office hours over the course of the quarter, not only to discuss any issues that could not be raised in class, but more importantly, so that he could get to know us better personally.
During his final quarter at Northwestern, Ernesto invited a number of graduate students to meet with him on a weekly basis to discuss our work in progress. We all benefited from Ernesto’s constructive and insightful comments, and in a spirit of genuine camaraderie, he would often add color to our sessions with anecdotes from his days in France, his time at Essex, and his experiences with the political elite of Latin America. One of my favorite anecdotes has to do with an article in an Argentine newspaper reporting on one of his visits to President Kirchner: according to the article, the real purpose of the visit was that Ernesto Laclau, founder of discourse theory, was giving President Kirchner lessons in oratory!
One of my most memorable experiences as a graduate student took place during one of the aforementioned work-in-progress sessions. After the discussion of a paper had come to and end, Ernesto posed the following question: “Where do you see yourselves in 20-30 years? What would you like to have accomplished?” I was initially taken aback since this was a question I had never been asked before by any professor. Ernesto had invited us to articulate our dreams and aspirations as if each and every one of us already had a place in academia. To be clear, this was not an expression of naiveté about the realities of the current job market; Ernesto was brutally aware of all that. Rather, it was the expression of a genuine interest in the aspirational self-understanding of junior scholars and intellectuals who, from Ernesto’s perspective, already had a valid place in academia and, as such, a voice worth hearing. Olga Blackledge relates in her memorial the impression of her friend viz., “It seems like Laclau is one of those people who make academia a place worth being in.” Indeed, since Ernesto’s passing the radical contingency of ‘place,’ and of one’s bearings within it, has been sharply felt.
23 July 2014
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