Event Date: 21 February 2011
The River Room
King’s College London, Strand Campus
London WC2R 2LS
ESRC Seminar Series- Contemporary Biopolitical Security
Co-sponsored by the Biopolitics of Security Network,
and the Emerging Securities Research Unit @ Keele University
University of Kassel, Germany
The radical outside
My approach to danger rests on Laclau and Mouffe’s theory of hegemony as well as Jessop’s strategic-relational approach. It is based on the assumption that society is constitutively divided. The “radical outside”, represented by antagonistic counterparts, marks the very possibility for stabilizing identities. A reconciled society – a fullness – is always only partially achievable by way of hegemonic struggles trying to represent that fullness. Furthermore, class antagonism (in the singular) marks only one possibility of all sorts of antagonisms (in the plural). These antagonistic divisions potentially cross every social sphere, while no antagonism is a priori more important or dominant than others.
One possibility of such a radical outside – of “the Other” – is danger. Generally, the specific content of danger is not important. A particular danger becomes a radical outside, because it is (strategically) constructed – by language and action – as something radically opposed to society or as something radically threatening society. From this it follows that the social structure of society is the result of historically antecedent social struggles, which involve the drawing of lines of inclusion and exclusion. Different articulations as parts of competing hegemonic projects try to fill – that is, give meaning to – the (empty) concept of danger as well as the (empty) common good.
In this sense, hegemonic struggles constitute the basic principle of social organization. It is therefore necessary not to look for one single antagonistic border, but to be aware of the different positions from which different dangers are constructed. From this perspective, the presence of antagonistic frontiers in the form of certain generally accepted dangers can be a sign of a stable hegemonic discourse or relatively stable social community. This is because, as indicated above, identities do not have a positive identity. They ‘need’ the construction of a radical outside in order to ensure their own long-term existence.
The concept of hegemony as it used here derives from Antonio Gramsci. It deviates from the conventional understanding – the still common tendency to equate hegemony with dominance – in that it rests on the ability to universalize a particular interests of a group as a socio-economic, cultural, and political (etc.) structure. According to Gramsci, the ruling group pursues its interests in ways that lead other groups to regard these interests as common or general interests. Hence, hegemony involves active consent on the part of the ruled.
Gramsci was already aware of the constructiveness of identities. His term catharsis – which is astonishingly close to the term governmentality coined later on by Foucault – indicates that subjects are constructed within the hegemonic process. The struggle for hegemony does not take place among stable subjects, but implies the production of new (collective) identities. What is more, it is a struggle for the hegemonic construction of identities. Accordingly, the hegemonic “collective will” does not confront the subjects in terms of an alienation of their real interests. Instead – at least at this specific spatio-temporal moment – it is the expression of the interests of the majority of people of a certain society. Hegemony is therefore not so much an external and constraining social structure as it is a productive power relation.
According to post-structural hegemony theory, hegemony denotes a specific relation between particularity and universality. In the first place, every hegemony comprises only a definite social and spatio-temporal realm. Correspondingly, it is not possible to speak in general terms of a hegemony of a certain state on a global scale, as is the tendency, for example, in Realist theory. Rather, it is necessary to specify the form, scope, and temporal framework of a hegemony.
Second, it is an imaginary universality which becomes hegemonic, the imaginary status being represented by an empty signifier. Through (strategic) articulations, this signifier tends to lose its particularity – it becomes detached from its previous specific content in order to become the embodiment of fullness, i.e. a universality. Thus, an empty signifier is a hybrid of a particularity and a universality. The empty signifier will always be a universality which is contaminated by a particularity – that is, a tendentially empty signifier – an empty signifier to come. Political actors can try to promote a hegemonic project and attempt to make sure that their respective interests are inscribed within that project at a privileged stage. But in contrast to Gramsci and neo-Gramscian approaches, from a post-structuralist point of view it is not possible – or at least it lacks sufficient complexity – to say that a certain person, class, or political group has become hegemonic. Rather, it is a certain element of common sense, a ‘world-view’, a societal relation, or a specific danger that is or becomes hegemonic. That does not mean that certain actors and political groups do not benefit more than others from a given form of discourse organization. On the contrary, and almost by definition, a particular hegemony expresses and covers the interests of some actors more than others. Third, the concept of hegemony implies making alternatives unthinkable, at least to a certain degree.
In short, the starting point of my approach to danger is grafted on the post-positivist assumption that there is no such thing as objective danger. There is nothing intrinsic to the concept of danger that infers a specific threat, risk, or danger. Accordingly, it is not an intrinsic form of ‘data’, ‘information’, and ‘knowledge’ that constitutes a dangerous subject. Danger is first and foremost an empty category. While this does not suggest that the content of danger is arbitrary or indifferent, it does mean that danger should be understood in terms of its relation to strategy.
From this perspective, the content of danger is the contingent outcome of struggles among competing discourses and articulations. It is a reflection of hegemonic struggles which define what must be seen as endangerment or dis-endangerment. Different articulations as parts of competing hegemonic projects try to fill the (empty) category of danger. Thus, it is a question of strategy. These strategies, in turn, are embedded into a relatively stable spatio-temporal, socio-political, and strategic-selective structure – the contingent and discursive fundament of every society where meaning no longer floats freely but has become largely fixed. It follows that the horizon of strategic possibilities is limited. At the same time, actors have an adaptive capacity. They are able to change their strategies if necessary. (A particular) Danger is thus transformed into a socially and politically relevant concept. According to this line of reasoning, an understanding of endangerment must be based on the comprehension of strategies, power relations, and struggles within a discursive field.
The strategic use of the concept of danger is a dangerous undertaking: if successful, the ‘menacing’ sliding signifier can fill the constitutive lack of society’s identity as the presence of the Other. At the same time, as constitutive outside endangerment threatens (democratic) societies and gives way to potential states of exception.