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A Critique of Neo-Left Ontology

*Carsten Strathausen *
/ University of Missouri-Columbia/
(c) 2006 Carsten Strathausen.
All rights reserved.
-----------------------------------------------------------------------1. The term "ontology" occupies an increasingly prominent place in
current politico-philosophical discourse. "Political philosophy
forces us to enter the terrain of ontology," declare Michael Hardt
and Antonio Negri (Empire (354). Ernesto Laclau recently said that
he has "concentrated on the ontological dimension of social
theory." According to Laclau, his work should be judged at "the
theoretical and philosophical level" ("A Reply" 321) because it
"requires a new ontology" (304). Such investment in ontology is
important in much recent self-avowedly leftist political theory.
Giorgio Agamben's critique of the state of exception and of
today's concentration camps is intimately tied to his ontological
reflections regarding our potential existence beyond sovereign
power: "Until a new and coherent ontology of potentiality" has
been found, he argues, "a political theory freed from the aporias
of sovereignty remains unthinkable" (Homo Sacer 44). Likewise,
Alain Badiou's political writings are intertwined with his
mathematical ontology of set-theory, and Slavoj Zizek's
exhortation to return to the legacy of Lenin in order to combat
global capitalism remains inseparable from his ontological
determination of capital as the real.
2. An early call to re-invent a "first philosophy" was Jean-Luc
Nancy's seminal essay "Being Singular Plural," first published in
1996. Here, Nancy says that we must think "an ontology of
being-with-one-another" (53) as the basis for a new communal
politics beyond sovereignty and domination: "there is no
difference between the ethical and the ontological" (99), he
declares, because "only ontology, in fact, may be ethical in a
consistent manner" (21). In his view, only a radical
recommencement of philosophical thought can move political theory
beyond its current impasse caused by the liberal defense of the
status quo. In particular, Nancy distinguishes his new ontology of
"being-in-common" both from Heideggerianism and from Marxism.
Heidegger, so Nancy, did not take his own analysis of "/Mitsein/"
far enough, but instead remains committed to a thinking in
hierarchies: "The analytic of /Mitsein/ that appears within the
existential analytic remains nothing more than a sketch; that is,
even though /Mitsein/ is coessential with /Dasein/, it remains in
a subordinate position" (93). Against Marxism, Nancy's ontology
insists on dissolving the the various oppositions (between essence
and appearance, base and superstructure) that sustain a
dialectical (i.e. Hegelian) mode of critique: "Both the theory and
the practice of critique demonstrate that, from now on, critique
absolutely needs to rest on some principle other than that of the
ontology of the Other and the Same: it needs an ontology of

being-with-one-another" (53).
3. In this essay, I use Nancy's reflections as a starting point for
examining the reasons for and the significance of the renewed
interest in a "new ontology," particularly among certain leftist
political thinkers. I argue that ontology had become a shunned
concept in traditional leftist discourse because it was tainted by
Heidegger and his involvement in German fascism. Moreover, I
demonstrate that Jameson's recent attempt to revive ontology as a
crucial concept for Marxist theory inevitably leads him back to
embrace the same old (Hegelian) dialectics of self and other, form
and content--that is, precisely the kind of dualist thinking that
Nancy and other neo-left ontologists seek to leave behind.
Contrary to the Marxist belief in the recuperative power of
negativity, they conceive of political ontology as a paradoxical
terrain that "'contradiction,' in its dialectical sense, is
entirely unable to capture," as Laclau argues (Populist Reason
84). "So forget Hegel" (148).[1 <#foot1>]
4. However, in spite of this rejection of traditional Marxism, these
theorists acknowledge the necessity to base their political theory
on explicit assumptions about the "nature" of social life and the
world at large. It is this tension between being and becoming that
gives rise to the paradoxical definitions of ontology as a
"groundless presupposition" (Nancy) or "limiting horizon"
(Laclau)--formulations that seek to describe or conceive of a
de-essentialized ontology, an ontology that recognizes a given
(social or natural) foundation as /both/ structurally given /and/
as historically changing. This, then, is the problem: how to move
beyond Marxist dialectics without falling prey to an essentially
conservative ontology (such as Leo Strauss's firm belief in the
natural superiority of philosophers and gentlemen or Carl
Schmitt's seminal distinction between friends and enemies as
constitutive of the political). Can one choose something other
than (Marxist) dialectics and (Heideggerian) /Dasein/?
5. I believe one can, and this essay introduces some of the major
theoretical positions that have developed in response to this
question. I use the generic term "neo-left" to address them in
unison. I choose "neo-left" primarily because it goes along with
the other two terms that have become widely accepted
today--"neo-conservative" and "neo-liberal." Moreover, the prefix
"neo" connotes some of the drastic changes in global capitalism
and technology, that play an important part in contemporary
politics, while the suffix "left" emphasizes the continuing
commitment of these thinkers to issues of economic justice and
social equality. Thus, the purpose of my essay is to compare the
current use of and reference to "ontology" as a crucial concept in
contemporary political philosophy. Needless to say, such a
comparison can neither be comprehensive nor can it do justice to
the full complexity of the particular works discussed. It must be
satisfied instead with an outline of the major trends and their
underlying assumptions.
6. My overall thesis is that the current interest in ontology
signifies a profound change within the leftist
politico-philosophical tradition, namely the belief that thought

has the intrinsic power to affect and alter (but not to control or
govern) the "nature" of what it thinks: "A thought is an event,"
claims Nancy; "what it thinks happens to it there, where it is
not" (175). Only if Being and thinking are the same can the
creative "reflection" on the "nature" of things be concomitant
with their "change." Put differently, thought neither represents
objective materiality (as some orthodox Marxists would claim) nor
does it /reflect/ the autonomous "dis-appearing" of things (in the
sense of Heidegger's /aletheia/). Rather, thought /partakes/ of
reality; the two are consubstantial. This leads me to embrace what
Stephen K. White has called a "weak ontology" as the basis for
thinking leftist politics. Such an ontology registers the
affective power of theory to influence politics above and beyond
its rational content.
Marxism, Heidegger, and Ontology
7. As exemplified in Nancy's text, Heidegger's work often serves as a
springboard for those envisioning a "new ontology," because
Heidegger was among the first to de-essentialize ontology in his
effort to move beyond classical metaphysics.[2 <#foot2>] For
example, this is how Agamben states the situation:
The fact that must constitute the point of departure for any
discourse on ethics is that there is no essence, no historical
or spiritual vocation, no biological destiny that humans must
enact or realize . . . . This does not mean, however, that
humans are not, and do not have to be, something, that they
are simply consigned to nothingness and therefore can freely
decide whether to be or not to be, to adopt or not to adopt
this or that destiny (nihilism and decisionism coincide at
this point). There is in effect something that humans are and
have to be, but this something is not an essence nor properly
a thing: /It is the simple fact of one's own existence as
possibility or potentiality./ (Coming Community 43)
Here, the debt to Heidegger is as unmistakable as in the work of
Derrida or Levinas. But there is also the deliberate attempt to
move beyond Heidegger and to dissociate his de-essentialized
ontology from the horrors of fascism. Agamben first emphasizes
"that Nazism . . . has its condition of possibility in Western
philosophy itself, and in Heideggerian ontology in particular."
But he soon finds "the point at which Nazism and Heidegger's
thought radically diverge," because the latter allegedly resists
the "biological and eugenic" drive that characterizes the former
(Homo Sacer 152-53). Whether this distinction is ultimately
convincing seems less relevant than Agamben's overall effort to
think with and beyond Heidegger as he searches for a new,
non-foundational and non-relational ontology.[3 <#foot3>]
8. The recent interest in political ontology thus departs from the
traditional leftist position to equate ontological thinking (via
Heidegger) with German fascism. Since Heidegger and up until the
mid-1980's when a deconstructive version of Marxism emerged in the
works of Laclau, Mouffe, Zizek, Badiou, a.o., ontology was
synonymous with Heideggerianism: "Contemporary philosophical

'ontology' is entirely dominated by the name of Heidegger," Alain

Badiou correctly stated in 1988 (Being and Event 9). Badiou
himself, of course, will break with this tradition; yet this
general identification of ontology and Heidegger allowed most
leftist intellectuals at the time to dismiss the entire
ontological tradition as a dangerous aberration in Western
thought. As a philosophical tradition, ontology is not only
suspect among leftist intellectuals. It is part of an oppressive
super-structure that affirms rather than challenges the existing
status quo. "In all its mutually excluding and defaming versions,
ontology is apologetic," Adorno unequivocally states in 1966
(69).[4 <#foot4>] For Adorno, the basic fault of ontology in
general, and of Heidegger's "foundational ontology" in particular,
is its essentialism, which seeks the eternal, self-identical truth
underneath the flow of history. "Heidegger," we read, "refuses to
reflect [the difference between expression and thing]; he stops
after only the first step of the language-philosophical
dialectics" (117).
9. Ontological argument is static, undialectical, and unhistorical.
It apodictically posits a truth that, following Adorno, can only
be thought in and through a continuous process of self-critical
reflection. The truth about ontology, therefore, is its untruth
and philosophical sterility. Ontology begets ideology, because it
refuses to think /through and beyond/ contradiction the way
dialectics does. Instead, Heidegger allegedly praises the mere
existence of paradox as if it were truth itself. In doing so,
ontology succumbs to the apologetic "affirmation of power" (136),
and Adorno spends numerous pages on Heidegger's use of the
predicate "is" to substantiate this claim.[5 <#foot5>] The brute
fact that the world exists and that Being "is," so Adorno, seduces
Heidegger to abandon dialectical reflection in favor of mere
tautologies that refuse to mediate between the constitutive poles
of subject and object, Being and beings. Instead, ontology
ultimately collapses the two into one. "The whole construction of
[Heidegger's] ontological difference is a Potemkin Village" (122),
Adorno concludes, because this alleged difference only serves to
advocate the self-identity and self-righteousness of the way
things always already are in the beginning and will have been in
the end. In Heidegger, "mediation [succumbs] to the unmediated
identity of what mediates and what is being mediated" (Adorno 493).
10. In contrast, the overall goal of critical reflection must be to
"once again liquefy the reified movement of thought" that
characterizes (Heidegger's) ontology (104). The way to do this is
to unveil its "objective," that is, its "truthful" dimension,
which consists of its socio-ideological function. Hence, Adorno
reads Heideggerian "/Fundamentalontologie/" as a symptom for the
fate human subjectivity suffers at the hands of capitalist
society. Although, philosophically speaking, Heidegger's
fetishization of Being along with his renunciation of the
subject's power of critical reflection is "untrue" and
"ideological," it is, at the same time, "true" nonetheless in so
far as it "registers" the "total functionality-complex"
constitutive of modern society (74). (Heidegger's) ontology is a
false thought enabled and sustained by a false human practice.
Only a fundamental change in the latter could prompt the necessary

dissolution of the former.

11. Like Adorno, many traditional Marxists are reluctant to use the
term "ontology" at all because, in their view, this term is part
of the speculative philosophical tradition that the pragmatic
approach of some Marxist theory seeks to upturn from its head onto
its feet. For what distinguishes nineteenth-century Marxism from
eighteenth-century philosophical materialism is precisely this
emphasis on the social-active potential of mankind as opposed to
the mere description of its physical components. If there is
something like a Marxist ontology, it is based on human practice,
which renders /a priori/ attempts to theorize it irrelevant at
best and reactionary at worst. Once again, Heidegger proves an
excellent case in point, as Pierre Bourdieu argues in his 1977
book The Political Ontology of Martin Heidegger. Although Bourdieu
criticizes Adorno's alleged one-dimensional denunciation of
Heidegger, he pursues the same overall goal as does Adorno, namely
to situate Heidegger's ontology within the socio-political context
of his time. Bourdieu's own methodology consists of what he calls
a "political and philosophical double-lecture of Heidegger" that
recognizes the "relative autonomy" of both realms--the political
and the philosophical--without, however, relinquishing the
critical effort to mediate between them (German edition p. 11).
Bourdieu, then, defines "Heidegger's political ontology" as "a
political stance that expresses itself exclusively in
philosophical terms." In other words, the objective of Bourdieu's
investigation is to reconstruct "the comprehensive structure of
the field that governs philosophical productivity" (14-16).
12. Given the prominence of Althusserian Marxism in France at the time
of Bourdieu's essay, his structuralist terminology ("relative
autonomy"; "overdetermination"; "structure of the field of
productivity") and its proclaimed difference from the critical
apparatus of the Frankfurt School should not be overrated. True,
Bourdieu speaks of "habitus" while Adorno speaks of "ideology";
Bourdieu regards Heidegger as a "practical operator" (64) who
mediates between politics and philosophy, whereas Adorno refers to
him as a "reflection" ["/Widerhall/"] or "sign" ("/Abdrcke/"
(73)] of the social in the realm of philosophy. But the crucial
point remains that both Adorno and Bourdieu read Heidegger's
ontology as the unconscious expression of a dynamic social process
whose dynamics it fails to reflect. This failure is constitutive
of ontological discourse, whose preference for stasis over
movement, ground over horizon, Being over becoming is but an
expression of a human "desire" (69) caused by a world that, in
reality, never stands still.
13. In short: while most critics today read Heidegger's philosophy as
a deconstruction of Western metaphysics and essentialist ontology
/avant la lettre/, this is precisely not how Bourdieu, Adorno, or
several leading Marxists understood his work. For them, ontology
is an inherently conservative, if not reactionary concept. Marxist
theory, it follows, should dispense with ontology and turn toward
this changing world instead.[6 <#foot6>] "Always historicize" is
its motto, and the "persistence of the dialectic" (Fredric
Jameson) testifies to the reflective nature of Marxist thought. It
is an attempt literally to /think after/ ["/nach-denken/"] the

real, material events that define human experience and collective

practice. Hence, ...tienne Balibar and Fredric Jameson continue to
argue that "/there is no Marxist philosophy and there never will
be/" (1). Rather, Marxism should "be thought of as a problematic"
(Jameson, "Actually" 175) that continues to develop and change
along with the object of its inquiry, namely capitalism. Only the
dialectical method is able to keep pace with history as it
mediates between the constitutive poles of subject and object,
Being and becoming.[7 <#foot7>] Thus, Marxists do "philosophy in a
materialist way," as Pierre Macherey puts it (8). The goal, after
all, is not to interpret the world, but to change it.
14. In order to further elucidate this crucial philosophical
difference between traditional Marxist and contemporary
ontological discourse, let me briefly discuss their contrary
understanding of paradox and contradiction. Boris Groys argues
that the "central law of dialectical materialism" consists in
thinking simultaneously "the unity and conflict of oppositions,"
which is to say to "think in paradoxes" (35; my translation).
Marxists think in contradictions because the world itself is
contradictory. To quote Lenin: "In essence, dialectics examines
the contradictions at the heart of things themselves" (qtd. in
Groys 47)--a maxim that recalls Hegel's formulation that "all
things are in themselves contradictory in precisely the sense that
this sentence, contrary to all others, expresses the truth and the
essence of things " (286; my translation). Marxist philosophy
destroys rather than sustains paradox: dialectics consists
precisely in the temporalization or dissolution of paradox into
process. The overall aim is to unleash the dynamic tension that
sustains contradiction to achieve a clearly defined goal
(Communism). In so doing, dialectics thinks through
/contradictions/ rather than /paradoxes/; it transforms the latter
into the former.[8 <#foot8>] Paradox is a decayed form of
dialectics, as Adorno puts it. Unlike a contradiction, paradox
remains fixed, a well-defined constellation in thought, whereas
contradiction operates temporally and seeks to liquefy thought in
and through the dialectical method. To ponder a paradox is to be
caught in a circular reflection that seems to lead nowhere--hence
Adorno's repeated charge against Heidegger of producing mere
15. On this point the ontological neo-left differs from traditional
Marxism: it takes paradox seriously by refusing to temporalize it.
Aporias abound in contemporary politico-philosophical
discourse--epitomized in Laclau's claim "that the condition of
possibility of something is also its condition of impossibility"
(Mouffe 48). Walter Benjamin's notion of "dialectics at a
standstill" (578) is an early attempt in this direction. For the
mythically inclined Benjamin, dialectics did not describe a
teleological process toward the end of history, but a sudden
awareness that this end was always already included in the
beginning. Most importantly, this awareness is not "rational" and
cannot be predicted in advance. Benjamin posits the ontological
paradox of a folded space whose "outside" belongs to and emerges
within the "inside" /only after/ the "lightning bolt of
revelation" has struck. Unlike in traditional Marxism, there are
no guarantees for Benjamin that anything will happen at all.

Instead, it is our sudden insight that engenders what we falsely

presume to have been there all along. For it is the mere
inspiration to conceive of things differently that makes them so,
however slight a change this may turn out to be. This emphasis on
the power of inspiration, revelation, and shock puts Benjamin at
odds with traditional Marxism. His Arcades Project promotes a
spatial understanding of paradox that deemphasizes the
developmental nature of dialectical thought, if not of history as
such.[9 <#foot9>]
16. Benjamin's paradoxical space of dialectical stand-still is also
similar to what Derrida has called "the third type of aporia,"
defined as "the impossible, the antinomy, or the contradiction."
This aporia "is a nonpassage because its elementary milieu does
not allow for something that could be called passage, step, walk,
gait, displacement, or replacement, a kinesis in general. There is
no more path . . . . The impasse itself would be impossible"
(Aporias 21). It is within this impassable and impossible space
that the political must be thought, according to Derrida. What
thus remains of ontology is the specter of a haunted place
bewitched by its own non-existence--a "hauntology," as Derrida
calls it: "/(H)auntology/ has theoretical priority" for Derrida,
Simon Critchley contends, "for the claim is that it is from this
spectral drive that something like thought is born" (Ethics 147).
Yet, this also means that ontology will continue to disturb the
thought of deconstruction. The latter can never completely shake
this specter, because hauntology itself is haunted by ontology. I
want to suggest, therefore, that in spite of Derrida's critique of
ontology, the question of (deconstructive or textual) space
remains inseparable from ontological questions. Let me briefly
recall that "/Il n'y a pas d'hors de texte/" means
both that there are only contexts, that nothing /exists/
outside context, as I have often said, but also that the limit
of the frame or the border of the context always entails a
clause of nonclosure. The outside penetrates and thus
determines the inside. (Derrida, Aporias 152-53)
This spatial paradox ("nothing exists outside context," yet "the
outside [of the context] penetrates . . . the inside") between
inside and outside lies at the center of deconstruction and
connects it with the various post-Marxist ontologies discussed
later on in this essay. In spite of--or, rather, precisely because
of--Derrida's explicit refusal to "re-ontologize" thought ("Marx &
Sons" 257), he remains a major contributor to the current debate
about the relationship between ontology and politics.
The Topography of Paradox
17. The philosophical consequences--and, I shall argue, the political
consequences as well--of this shift from dialectics to paradox are
far-reaching. First of all, it differentiates traditional Marxist
from current neo-left discourse. For the paradoxical effort to
think the outside as a constitutive part of the inside from which
it emerges has been crucial to post-Marxist theory ever since the
publication of Ernesto Laclau's and Chantal Mouffe's Hegemony and

Socialist Strategy in 1985.[10 <#foot10>] Insisting on the

possibility of historical change and hegemonic interventions, they
refer to the social field as an ontological "horizon" rather than
an ontological "ground." Whereas ground is a foundationialist term
that reintroduces the surface-depth (or inside-outside)
distinction, horizon implies an ever receding, historically
shifting borderline that remains internal to the social and defies
the internal/external distinction:
This irresoluble interiority/exteriority tension is the
condition of any social practice: necessity only exists as a
partial limitation of the field of contingency. It is in this
terrain, where neither a total interiority nor a total
exteriority is possible, that the social is constituted. (111)
The terrain of the social thus constitutes a self-subversive
totality that, although it can never become total, nonetheless
confronts no limit outside itself. Still an advocate of
post-Marxism in 1996, Zizek described this "/undecidable/
alternative Inside/Outside" ("Introduction: The Spectre" 17) as a
"paradoxical topology" in which surfaces absorb depth, the outside
of discourse emerges on its inside, and ideology becomes "more
real that reality itself" (30).
18. Questions of topography and historical horizons emerge as core
issues in "Contemporary Dialogues on the Left," a series of
discussions among Butler, Laclau, and Zizek published in 2000. In
a bizarre dance of ever-shifting alliances, each of the
participants accuses the others of advocating an "ahistorical" or
"quasi-transcendental" theory that remains unable to account for
historical change.[11 <#foot11>] The central question is this: if
we acknowledge the existence of a structural (or
quasi-transcendental) limit operating /within/ the existing
socio-political field, does this acknowledgment lead to political
impotence (because we cannot change this limit and hence are
condemned to operate within its structural borders), as Butler
implies? Or is it exactly the opposite: does this limit not
actually /enable/ political action and radical change precisely
because it is a purely /structural void/ (an "empty signifier")
whose contours and location are determined by historical shifts
within the entire field, as Laclau and Zizek argue?[12 <#foot12>]
19. Many ontological neo-left thinkers espouse this latter view.
Nonetheless, Laclau's unorthodox understanding of topological
borders continues to irritate not only traditional Marxists, but
also thinkers much more sympathetic to contemporary theory in
general. Critics like Simon Critchley, Judith Butler, and Rodolphe
Gasch continue to understand the relationship between the
universal and the particular in terms of a form/content divide,
according to which the universal functions as a transcendental,
albeit empty, "form" that is filled by some historically
contingent, particular "content." Scrutinizing Laclau's definition
of the universal as an "empty signifier," Gasch, for example,
argues that the universal must, at the very least, possess a "form
of sorts" that guarantees its self-identity and thus somewhat
pre-determines which historical particular can actually occupy its

Once the empty place is thought of /as/ the place of the

universal, does it not, as this very place, betoken a content
of sorts distinct from whatever contents subsequently come to
fill that place? . . . Is it not thanks to this form or
structure that the empty signifier or place can become the
surface of inscription for a diversity of universals? (Gasch
In response, Laclau explicitly distinguishes between emptiness and
abstraction, arguing that the former does not imply the latter. In
his view, the charge of abstraction that Hegel raised against
Kant's dualist philosophy does not apply to his own theory of
hegemony. Universals are empty, Laclau contends, both because they
have no predetermined content of their own and because they do
/not pre-exist/ the chains of particulars from which they emerge:
"particularity and universality are not two ontological orders
opposed to each other but possibilities internal to a discursive
structure" ("A Reply" 282). Put differently, Laclau resists the
separation between the epistemological and the ontological
implicit in Gasch's questions. Whereas Gasch conceives of
universals as some kind of (ontologically present) entities that
subsist as abstract forms devoid of any (epistemologically
determinable) content, Laclau denies the universal any existence
at all apart from the particulars that sustain its meaning: "What
is the result of a historical construction is not the filling of a
transcendentally established place, but the constant production
and displacement of the place itself" (283). The effort to think
this process "requires a new ontology," Laclau concludes, because
it considers the "kinds of relations between entities which cannot
be grasped with the conceptual arsenal of classical ontology"
20. Likewise, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have argued that
"political theory must deal with ontology" because "politics
cannot be constructed from the outside" anymore (Empire 354): "In
Empire . . . all places have been subsumed in a general
'non-place'" of pure immanence (353). Like Laclau, Hardt and Negri
insist that their notion of "ontology is not a theory of
foundation" (Labour 287), for which reason they speak of the
"ontological /horizon/ of Empire" instead of its /ground/ (Empire
355; emphasis added). Yet Hardt's and Negri's account of political
ontology differs from Laclau's in one crucial aspect: it is not
based upon the (Lacanian) notion of structural /lack/, but on
(Foucault's and Deleuze's) bio-political and life-philosophical
belief in the fullness of /life/.[13 <#foot13>]
21. Rather than trying to expose the constitutive void at the center
of global capitalism, Hardt and Negri emphasize the plentitude and
enormous productivity of the current imperial Order. The latter is
able to integrate everything that seeks to establish itself
outside of that Order, because "transcendence is always a product
of immanence," as Deleuze put it (Pure Immanence 31). For Deleuze
and Guattari (as well as for Hardt and Negri), "immanence is
immanent only to itself and consequently captures everything,
absorbs All-One, and leaves nothing remaining to which it could be
immanent" (What is Philosophy? 45). Immanence has no limits,


neither outside nor within itself. Since immanence is all there

is, Negri concludes that "ontology has absorbed the political" so
that "all that which is political is biopolitical" (234).
Political philosophy today is no longer about contemplating "the
good life," as Leo Strauss and other conservatives would argue.
Instead, it is about life as such, about "bare" or "naked life"
itself and its relation to Being. It is about ontology, because
"the 'body' is always already a biopolitical body" (Homo Sacer

22. The latter claims are central to Agamben's work. Agamben, too,
recognizes the increasing interdependence of political philosophy
and ontology that determines the fate of what he calls "/homo
sacer/." A crucial notion in Agamben's overall
politico-philosophical project, /homo sacer/ defines a life that
may be killed but not sacrificed, a life that is neither secular
nor divine and thus "exceeds the sphere both of law and of
sacrifice" (86). Agamben's most frequently used historical example
is life in the German concentration camps (his examples include
the German concentration camps, the Gulag, and Guantanamo Bay):
the inhabitants of the camps are stripped of all civil protection
and thus are the literal referent for--indeed the embodiment
of--"human rights." For what exactly are the "rights" of human
life outside of any concrete juridical order? Situated at "the
zone of indistinction" between the sacred and the profane, between
the (unprotected) biological order of "bare life" (/zoe/) and the
(protected) juridical order of "socio-political life" (/bios/),
/homo sacer/ defines the very "threshold" that both connects and
separates the two spheres.
23. Agamben contends that these human "objects" that have been reduced
to bare life posit a basic ontological challenge to political
philosophy. If the twentieth century has indeed witnessed the
gradual ascension of the state of exception to the overall
paradigm of Western government, as Agamben claims,[14 <#foot14>]
then the very distinction between inside and outside can no longer
be maintained. Instead of trying to reestablish these classical
distinctions, one needs to think beyond categories and
distinctions in general:
Every attempt to rethink the political space of the West must
begin with a clear awareness that we no longer know anything
of the classical distinction between /zoe/ and /bios/, between
private life and political existence, between man as a simple
living being at home in the house and man's political
existence in the city. This is why the restoration of
classical political categories proposed by Leo Strauss . . .
can have only a critical sense. There is no return from the
camps to classical politics. In the camps, city and house
became indistinguishable, and the possibility of
differentiating between our biological body and our political
body . . .was taken from us forever. (187-88)
On the basis of this premise, Agamben calls for a new or "coming
politics" that moves beyond the state of exception as the
contemporary paradigm of governance. Such a new politics, however,
can only emerge in the context of a new metaphysics and a new way

of thinking that "return(s) thought to its practical calling" (5).

Why? Because, in Agamben's view, the current dilemma of a global
state of exception is not a /perversion/ of the classical Greek
distinction between /zoe/ and /bios/, but its logical conclusion.
Only because political philosophy was, from its very beginning,
based upon this life/politics distinction was it possible for the
gradual erosion of the latter to lead to a crisis of the
former.[15 <#foot15>] For once Greek philosophy had stipulated the
separation between life and politics, it was merely a question of
time before this entire scheme would come undone and
self-de(con)struct. Today, the damage is done and there is no
turning back. Instead, Agamben suggests that we seize upon the
contemporary fusion of life and politics as an opportunity to
think about community differently so as to move beyond its
classical metaphysical framework. This task, however, "implies
nothing less than thinking ontology and politics beyond every
figure of relation" (47). Again and again, Agamben returns to this
notion of a "non-relationship" and his effort "to think the
politico-social /factum/ no longer in the form of a relation" at
all (60).
New Ontological Horizons
Our discussion so far has shown that the shift from dialectics to
paradox inaugurates a new meaning of "ontology" in contemporary
political discourse. Ontology no longer describes the ancient
philosophical attempt to define the "essence" or "nature of being"
in positive, non-paradoxical terms. Nor does it claim to provide
an absolute perspective guided by pure thought that operates
beyond the pale of history. Since this Archimedian viewpoint does
not exist--or, more precisely, since such a perspective is always
already located /inside/ rather than /outside/ the (social or
"natural") space it seeks to analyze--, ontology, instead, begins
to function as a heuristic device for the historically contingent
construction of a different "nature" from the one we presently
inhabit. Ontology, in other words, is more than a mere historical
construction; it is also /constructive/ in the sense that it
informs a particular political vision for change.
24. Thus, we may speak of ontology as a ground only in so far as we
understand this "ground" to be constantly shifting and evolving.
One must not confuse this recognition of historical contingency
with the Marxist emphasis on history. The major difference is not
simply the teleological, eschatological nature of
classical-orthodox Marxism, according to which history is a more
or less pre-determined rather than contingent process. Rather, the
difference lies in the fact that non-deconstructive versions of
Marxism assume a structural correlation between philosophical
statements and the sociopolitical field that allegedly generates
them. Both Bourdieu and Adorno regard the emergence and success of
Heidegger's ontology as deeply /significant/ in the sense that it
carries an objective meaning pointing back to the realm of the
social, to history and the real itself--such as it existed in the
middle of the twentieth century, of course. Indeed, Marxists
readily acknowledge that the real changes historically along with
thoughts that reflect the real. But what does not change,

according to traditional Marxism, is the /necessary existence of a

dependency/ between these changes, i.e., between the primary,
economic changes and the secondary changes in thought as it
reflects (upon) the first.
25. Hence, from a Marxist perspective, the current renaissance of
ontological thought must be significant: it must unveil an
objective truth about the current state of global capitalism. To
be sure, there may be some discussion as to what exactly this
truth is. But it is precisely the assumption of an "objective"
significance of a given (theoretical) event that current
ontological discourse leaves behind. If the proclamation of a new
ontology is both constructed and constructive, this can only mean
that whatever sociopolitical significance this proclamation may
attain over time is constructed as well. It is a mere
potentiality. Hence, the seemingly "objective" claims of
ontological neo-left discourse can only emerge as a retrospective
projection from within the new reality potentially inaugurated by
this discourse itself. Otherwise, this discourse becomes
meaningless in the sense that it only serves as a blank screen for
the projection of a pre-established interpretative scheme. It is
reduced to a mere symptom whose meaning is pre-determined by the
old context in which it is made to signify.
26. Put differently, from this perspective, if a theory fails to
affect the reality it ponders, it has no active meaning at all,
objective or otherwise. A thought that fails to alter the
non-discursive, material environment from which it emerges does
not exist as thought. It is nothing but a description or a
symptom. As such, it may be judged accurate or inaccurate. But a
description is not a thought, because the latter emerges only
retrospectively from within the reality it has managed to
transform. I want to emphasize that this idea does not bespeak
Heideggerianism and its effort to identify the nature of Being. It
merely phrases a materialist insight in ontological idioms.
Whereas Heidegger understood thinking as "/Nach-denken,/" the
ontological neo-left focuses on "/mit-denken/" as a part of Being.
Like all thought, this idea remains a construct. Whether or not
this construction is "true" is as yet a meaningless question. Its
future answer would depend on the ability of the construction to
alter its own conditions of emergence such that it /will have/
stepped into being and /will have/ acquired meaning.
27. I now turn to yet another important thinker in the Marxist
tradition to elucidate this point. In his essay on "Ontology and
Utopia," first published in 1994 and reprinted in Archaeologies of
the Future (2005), Fredric Jameson indeed refers to a "Marxian
ontology" (240). One of its major concerns, he claims, is to
account for the possibility that a different collectivity would
emerge from within a given structure. How can something new emerge
from the old? Jameson's answer is to build "eventfulness into the
structure itself" (246) and thus to fold the new (outside) back
into the old (inside)--dialectically, of course: "For, once again,
Marx is ontological in the way in which he grasps the collective
forms as already latent in the capitalist present: they are not
merely desirable (or ethical), nor even possible, but also and
above all /inevitable/, provided we understand the bringing to

emergence of that inevitability as a collective human task and

project" (250; emphasis added).
28. It is precisely this notion of "inevitability" that remains
problematic for the ontological neo-left. If Marxist ontology
consisted of nothing but this belief in immanence--according to
which "what already is, or what is virtual, latent, at the level
of fantasy or half-formed wish or inclination, is also the rockbed
of the social structure itself" (Jameson, Archaeologies 252)--few
would object. One might even grant Jameson's persistent attempt to
align "the great thought of immanence" with Hegel and Marx (251)
or to transform Deleuze into a dialectical thinker.[16 <#foot16>]
But Jameson ultimately wants to square this new version of
dialectical immanence with the scientific aspirations of
traditional Marxism, according to which the emergence of something
new (such as the arrival of socialism) is objectively
"inevitable." Such a claim, however, is forced to disregard the
temporal aporia that governs the relationship between event and
structure. An event can only be judged inevitable once it has
actually occurred and thereby altered the original situation from
which it emerged. Put differently, we might say that an event
/will have been inevitable/ once we look back on it from a later
point in time and space inaugurated by the event. But not before.
29. Jameson comes close to this insight in his latest book when he,
once again, ponders the relationship between base and
superstructure: "Can culture be political, which is to say
critical and even subversive, or is it necessarily reappropriated
and coopted by the social system of which it is a part?" (xv). In
a lengthy footnote that forms part of his response, Jameson
elaborates that "from another standpoint, this discussion of the
ambiguous reality of culture . . . is an ontological one" and has
to do with the "amphibiousness of being and its temporality"
(xv-xvii.). For culture (along with the "desire called utopia"
that sustains Marxism as an ongoing problematic in global
capitalism) is based on a "mixture of being and non-being": on the
one hand, cultural desire testifies to what lacks in the present
such as it currently exists, while, on the other, it imagines a
future that does not yet exist. Although Jameson characterizes
this temporal paradox as "mildly scandalous for analytical
reason," he nonetheless calls for its integration into his
"Marxian ontology" (xv-xvii).
30. Here, it seems, we have moved away from the traditional leftist
disdain for both ontological thinking and paradox, since Jameson
explicitly acknowledges the aporetic structure of utopian desire
(i.e., the desire for improvement) as a constitutive part of
Marxist theory. The question remains what consequences he draws
from this insight for the formulation of a leftist (Marxist)
politics. As mentioned above, the ontological neo-left takes the
constitutive paradox of Being as a starting point for reexamining
the history and goals of political philosophy. But since Jameson
still remains committed to traditional Marxist principles such as
"the primacy of the economic" over "the political (and other)
superstructures" (219), he considers Marxism's "neglect of
political theory . . . a happy consequence" that he refuses to
dismantle. So instead of political theory, he discusses the nature

of what he calls a "Utopian formalism" (xiii) that seeks to

"illuminate its historical conditions of possibility: for it is
certainly of the greatest interest for us today to understand why
Utopias have flourished in one period and dried up in another"


31. Here we return to the kind of Marxist analysis of culture we

encountered in Adorno and Bourdieu. For Jameson, looking into the
future always leads one to gaze at the past--but not in order to
recognize simply what /happened/ (namely a contingent process that
could have unfolded otherwise although it now appears to have been
necessary), but in order to "objectively" determine the
"inevitable" outcome of what allegedly /had to happen./ This
skewed perspective allows him to connect the new to the old in a
seamless, that is, dialectical fashion. Indeed, although Jameson
explicitly welcomes disruption as a "new discursive strategy" to
resist the current status quo, his strategy is ultimately little
more than a formal exercise in dialectical thinking. For since
"Utopia is the form such disruption necessarily takes," Jameson
insists that "the Utopian form proper . . . has its political role
to play, and in fact becomes a new kind of content in its own
right" (231). In the end, Utopian "form becomes content" (212).
Thus we return to Hegel and the dialectical dissolve of paradox
into contradiction.
32. In contrast, the ontological neo-left stops dialectics, embraces
paradox, and ruptures thought. Or, better, it inaugurates a
different kind of thought because it thinks thought's relation to
Being differently. Its goal is to promote new ideas, and although
these ideas need not add up to a particular political program,
they confer upon thought greater independence and material
relevance than even Jameson seems willing to grant it. More
specifically, the ontological neo-left dispenses with the
traditional Marxist idea of the "relative autonomy" of cultural
politics (i.e., of thought) vis--vis the economy. Instead, it
considers the potential productivity of thought to disrupt the
given status quo, including its economic structure. This
disruption can only occur if thought identifies substance rather
than form. Thought must act as (a part of) substance rather than
try to reflect it.
33. So far, I have argued that Marxist theory and contemporary
political philosophy differ substantially with regard to their
understanding of ontology. While traditional Marxists denounce
ontology as an essentialist and ahistorical discourse, the
neo-left conceives of ontology as a de-essentialized discursive
formation that both reflects and informs political acts and
historical events. They can do so only because they accept rather
than dissolve the paradoxical nature of things. Put differently:
for Marxists, there is only way to move beyond paradox, namely
dialectics, with Hegel and Marx lighting the way. But if we accept
that dialectics is only one among many ways to deal with our
ontological paradox, it follows, first, that the way in which we
conceive of this paradox deeply affects the kinds of actions we

are likely to support, and second, that the future result of these
actions remains contingent and unpredictable from our present
position. Marxists cannot endorse either of these propositions.
34. However, on the other side of this divide separating Marxist and
contemporary discourse, there obviously remain vast and crucial
differences among those who (explicitly or implicitly) call for a
"new ontology." Hence, it is hardly surprising to find a variety
of names attached to different groups of thinkers engaged in
political ontology today. Since the term "New Left" is already
taken (it refers to the group of writers and activists around
Herbert Marcuse in the late sixties and early seventies), most
critics associate the current ontological turn with "post-Marxism"
or with the movement toward "radical democracy."[17 <#foot17>]
These terms, however, are also problematic, because they are
strongly linked to the works of Laclau and Mouffe, who originally
promulgated them (and were supported in this, at least initially,
by Zizek). Hence, "post-Marxism" and "radical democracy" are less
apt to describe some of the other theorists who, albeit
confronting the same questions, pursue a somewhat different route
than do Laclau and Mouffe. Alain Badiou, and Bruno Bosteels, for
example, reject what they call "speculative leftism," that is, a
form of "post-Marxist" theory that is severed from the original
communist project.[18 <#foot18>] Bosteels in particular has
criticized "radical democracy" for its actual "lack of politics."
What remains of the project in the end, he argues, is "an
imitation, within philosophy, of the revolutionary act" rather
than the real thing itself ("For Lack" 73).
35. This problem of "naming" remains crucial to contemporary political
philosophy. It is not just an academic but a political issue.
Because if thought and discourse matter in the sense that they are
politically effective, then the question of how to name the
current strand of political ontology will itself have some
influence on our current situation. This is why Badiou (as well as
Jacques Rancire) has advanced the term "metapolitics," which he
opposes to traditional political philosophy. The former is
concerned with "real instances of politics as thought," whereas
the latter believes that "since no such politics exists, it falls
to philosophers to think 'the' political" (Metapolitics xxxix).
Metapolitics describes "what a philosophy declares, with its own
effects in mind, to be worthy of the name 'politics.' Or
alternatively, what a thought declares to be a thought, and under
whose condition it thinks what a thought is" (152). Following
Badiou, Hallward has argued for what he calls a "politics of
prescription." The latter, he claims, can break more radically
with the existing liberal-democratic system than those inspired by
"radical democracy" or by "post-Marxism."
36. Obviously, there will not and there /cannot/ be one name that fits
all, and my own suggestion--the "neo-left"--is hardly an
exception. But I want to insist on the /political/ importance of
what might otherwise appear to be an abstract theoretical debate
about labels. The point is that non-essential ontologies undermine
this very distinction between theory and practice, thought and
action. The same is true for the monist philosophical tradition
(leading from Spinoza to Bergson and Deleuze) that influences many

neo-leftist thinkers. This tradition is based not on the

/separation/, but on the /connection/ of thought and movement. In
a purely immanent universe, /thinking is (a form of) action/, and
the creation of new philosophical concepts itself amounts to an
intervention within the sociopolitical field.[19 <#foot19>]
37. Here we have arrived at a crucial junction in current ontological
discourse. For we might distinguish between what Agamben calls a
"line of immanence and a line of transcendence" (Potentialities
239) in order to delineate the two major camps. Under the latter,
Agamben lists Kant, Husserl, Levinas and Derrida, whereas the
former comprises Spinoza, Nietzsche, Deleuze and Foucault.
Heidegger is situated in between the two lines--an appropriate
position given Heidegger's ambiguous status as one of the first
philosophers to de-essentialize ontology. Since Agamben himself
does not elaborate on this configuration in the context of
political ontology, we might want to add that Deleuze, Hardt,
Negri, and Agamben take their place along the line of immanence,
while Laclau, Mouffe, Badiou, Zizek and Rancire belong to the
line of transcendence.
38. Moreover, Agamben's distinction between immanence and
transcendence remains intimately linked to the distinction between
biological plentitude and structural lack. As Tnder and Thomassen
argue in their excellent analysis of this distinction, an ontology
of lack "emphasizes the hegemonic nature of politics," whereas an
ontology of abundance "cultivates a strategy of pluralization" in
order to realize political demands (7). Put differently, the
latter ontology focuses on /emergent networks of life below--and
thus independent from--representation, whereas the former focuses
on the construction of identities through representation./
According to this scheme, Deleuze, Hardt, Negri, and Agamben
certainly belong to an ontology of abundance, while Laclau,
Mouffe, Badiou, Zizek, and Rancire form part of an ontology of
39. It thus appears that the two lines of distinction--the one
juxtaposing abundance and lack, the other contrasting immanence
and transcendence--overlap and supplement each other perfectly.
However, critics have rightly pointed out that this neat matrix
does not withstand closer examination.[20 <#foot20>] Derrida
refers to the "quasi-transcendence" ("Justice" 282) that sustains
the practice of deconstructive reading, and his work cannot simply
be assimilated to the history of transcendent philosophy.
Likewise, Laclau's and Mouffe's as well as Badiou's and Zizek's
models rely on what might be called a "negative" or "inverted"
form of transcendence--Laclau names it a "failed transcendence"
(Populist Reason 244)--since all of them locate the "realm beyond"
as a void or empty place /within/ rather than outside the social
structure. If this were otherwise, these theorists would violate
or abandon their central premise concerning the non-essentialist
and unstable ground of political ontology. It also seems
noteworthy that Laclau's ontology is based on rhetoric (i.e.,
catachresis) while Badiou's ontology is based on mathematics
(i.e., set theory). The former insists on a linguistic model that
the latter explicitly declares insufficient for ontological
thinking. Finally, one might point out that Zizek, according to

Laclau, pursues "two incompatible ontologies" at the same time

(Populist Reason 235), while Rancire, according to Badiou, does
not develop any ontology at all.[21 <#foot21>]
40. In spite of its great heuristic value, then, the distinction
between abundance and lack also occludes a number of important
differences within these groups. Let me briefly consider the
question of historical change and how to bring it about. I have
already discussed Badiou's critique of Laclau's notion of "radical
democracy," according to which it remains both too "speculative"
and abstract on the one hand and too liberal or anti-revolutionary
on the other. Those sympathetic to Badiou's philosophical
framework, like Peter Hallward and Bruno Bosteels, explicitly
condone this critique. And although Zizek shares Laclau's
theoretical framework and both are influenced by Lacan,[22
<#foot22>] he too has charged Laclau with political quietude and a
complete disregard for "a particular leftist political practice"
(Ticklish 174). A proponent of radical, militant action, Zizek
instead reiterates the Marxist-Leninist rhetoric of class struggle
and socialist revolution. The overall goal for the "ethical,
militant act," Zizek claims, is to disrupt the seemingly
homogeneous terrain of liberal democracy and global capitalism.
Calling for an "ethics of the real" and a "crossing of the social
fantasy," he wants to force people to acknowledge their
unconscious desire for ideological models of culpability (the Jew,
the Other, etc.). In other words, the "ethical act" is meant to
expose the hidden existence of those who are exploited by or
excluded from the current social order. In concrete political
terms, it is a question of exposing the structural void that
underlies the neo-liberal fantasy of the universal order of global
41. Laclau, in contrast, has shown little patience with the
revolutionary rhetoric of Zizek or of Badiou. For him, the only
way to achieve particular political goals is to build "chains of
equivalences" that operate /within/ rather than outside the
existing democratic system. From Laclau's perspective, Zizek's and
Badiou's exhortations to withdraw from rather than engage with the
democratic system run the risk of relinquishing political power to
the right. Given Zizek's belief in the absolute priority of class
struggle and anti-capitalism, Laclau concludes that "Zizek cannot
provide any theory for the emancipatory subject" (Populist Reason
238). He even locates Zizek on the other side of the central
divide between immanence and transcendence. Like Hardt and Negri,
Zizek allegedly remains committed to a (Hegelian rather than
Deleuzian) "form of immanence" (242) that is politically sterile.
For Laclau, all forms of immanence necessarily lead to a
"theoretical framework [in which] politics becomes unthinkable"
("Can Immanence" 4).
42. Hardt and Negri have tried to respond to this and similar
criticism by distinguishing between two different yet interrelated
dimensions of their emancipatory subject, the "multitude." They
discern an ontological dimension that regards "the multitude from
the standpoint of eternity" as that which "acts always in the
present, a perpetual presence," and a political or historical
dimension that "will require a political project to bring it into

being," because it does not yet exist (Multitude 221). This

"strange, double temporality" of the multitude as that which
"always-already and not-yet" exists allows Hardt and Negri to
deflect the charges of philosophical utopianism and of political
vanguardism: "If the multitude were not already latent and
implicit in our social being, we could not even imagine it as a
political project; and, similarly, we can only hope to realize it
today because it already exists as a real potential" (221-22). The
multitude, in other words, is both present and future, real and
imagined. It gradually steps into being as that which it always
already was--an almost Hegelian conclusion that results directly
from Hardt's and Negri's immanent ontology of abundance. In
contrast, Laclau, Badiou, Rancire and Zizek argue that the
subject emerges only in response to or in conjunction with the
inevitable void that constitutes the social structure as a
whole--a void that simply does not exist for Hardt and Negri. It
follows that theorists of lack regard identities as inherently
unstable and contingent. All identities need to be articulated
(i.e., represented) politically; they do not simply unfold their
always already inherent potential of being, as does Hardt's and
Negri's multitude.
43. Yet again, there exist important differences among theorists of
lack in this regard as well, most notably in their respective
reading of Lacan. Like Laclau, Badiou has acknowledged his
indebtedness to Lacan, particularly in regard to their propensity
for mathematical formulae.[23 <#foot23>] Yet Badiou has also
insisted on a crucial difference between his and the Lacanian
notion of the void. The latter relates to the subject, whereas
Badiou's relates to being: "Let us say that philosophy localizes
the void as condition of truth on the side of being qua being,
while psychoanalysis localizes the void in the Subject" (Infinite
Thought 87). For Lacan, the subject figures a structural void
within the symbolic order, Badiou argues. Thus, the Lacanian
subject remains passive and severed from the emergence of an event
that defies structural causality. Lacan's structuralism, in
Badiou's view, does not allow for the possibility of a radically
new beginning (i.e., a truth-event) taking place within a given
Order or historical situation. To avoid this impasse, Badiou's
"evental" philosophy conceives of the subject not as void, but /as
the infinitely extended response to an event that exposes the
void./ This response, the decision of a "subject-to-be" that an
event has taken place, initiates a truth-procedure that breaks
through the reified state of the situation. According to Badiou,
this account of subjectivity can overcome the legacy both of
Lacan's and of Althusser's ahistorical structuralism. In Zizek's
words, both Badiou and Laclau try to resist what they perceive as
the "Lacanian ontologization of the subject," namely to identify
the subject with "the constitutive void of the structure"
(Ticklish 159). In contrast, Laclau and Badiou render the subject
"consubstantial with a contingent act of decision" (159).
44. But Zizek has also charged both Laclau and Badiou with
misunderstanding and simplifying the temporal dynamism at work in
Lacan's structuralist version of subjectivity. According to Zizek,
Lacan's subject is not simply a structural void (as Badiou and
Laclau claim), but emerges at this place only as the retrospective

effect of its failed representation in language. Indeed, once this

temporal paradox of Lacan's "future anterior" is taken into
consideration, Zizek argues, the very "opposition between the
subject /qua/ ontological foundation of the order of Being and the
subject qua contingent particular emergence is [exposed as] . . .
false: the subject is the contingent emergence/act that sustains
the very universal order of Being" (160).
45. Why should all this matter politically? It matters because if the
subject indeed "sustains . . . the order of Being," as Zizek
maintains, then it can hardly go wrong with its actions, which is
why Zizek affords a more militant rhetoric than others. For him,
every authentic, militant act simultaneously alters the ethical
categories by which it could it judged.[24 <#foot24>] Badiou is
more careful at this point. Although he, too, argues for the
interdependency of event and subject(ivity), the latter emerges
/in response/ to an event and not as its /cause./ The subject
/names/ the event and remains faithful to it, but it does not
/create/ the event as such. This opens up the possibility that a
subject might misjudge and support an "event" that turns out to be
catastrophic (for example totalitarianism).[25 <#foot25>] Most
importantly, Badiou's subject does /not/ "sustain . . . the order
of Being." It sustains a particular state of the situation or
supports its rupture, but it remains completely severed from Being
qua Being, that is, from the ontological level of pure
multiplicity that Badiou equates with mathematics. Laclau,
finally, rarely refers to the "subject" at all--he prefers the
term identity instead--nor does he speak of events or
revolutionary change. For him, change always occurs within a given
social structure through a different alignment of already existing
political forces--hence his "reformist" theory as opposed to
Badiou's and Zizek's "radicalism." These differences about how to
conceive of political subjectivity are most evident on the
terminological level: while Zizek holds fast to the traditional
Marxist notion of "class-struggle," Rancire refers to the
"proletariat . . . as the dissolution of all classes"
(Disagreement 18)--and thus, in Laclau's words, talks about
class-struggle only "to add that it is the struggle of classes
that are not classes" (Populist Reason 248)--whereas Laclau
rejects any references to traditional class-struggle /tout court/.
Concluding Remarks
46. I have argued that the two major philosophical distinctions
(immanence vs. transcendence, plentitude vs. lack) called upon to
categorize the various proponents of a new political ontology are
both important and insufficient. They are important because they
help identify the overall goal of the ontological neo-left, which
is political participation and collective inclusion in society.
Their shared objective remains to overcome the inside/outside
dialectic by means of a non-foundational ontology. But they are
insufficient for two reasons: first, because they occlude other
important similarities and distinctions that both sever and
connect these theorists, as shown above. And second, because they
are /philosophical/ distinctions that claim to discern the
/political potential/ allegedly inherent in different ontologies.

But we already know that there is no /pre-determined/ path leading

from philosophy to politics, from thought to action--unless we
return to traditional metaphysics or orthodox Marxism. In Laclau's
and Mouffe's terminology, we can say that there is no
/transparent/ or /rational/ connection between the ontological and
the ontic level. It is precisely this logical gap between
philosophy and politics that enables or sustains the various
efforts to build a bridge between the two. This gap also accounts
for the recurrent charge against the ontological neo-left (and
within the neo-left) of lacking a clear political program.
47. But the existence of this logical gap does not mean that there is
no connection at all between philosophy and politics, or that an
innovative thought will not affect a given situation. It simply
means that there is no rational or scientific proof for this
eventuality, which, in the end, remains a matter of faith alone.
As long as neo-left theorists embrace a non-essentialist ontology,
questions about how best to achieve economic equality and social
justice remain unanswerable--for if they could be answered, the
ontology in question would no longer be "groundless" or unstable,
but provide a dependable basis for how to change the world. For
this reason alone, a non-essentialist ontology must always be
"weak" in the sense that it remains "both fundamental /and/
contestable," as Stephen White has argued (2). Ontologies inspire
and motivate political actors in fundamental ways, but they remain
a matter of belief, not science. From this, White concludes that
ontologies "are not simply cognitive in their constitution and
effects, but also aesthetic-affective" (31)--this is precisely
what makes them contestable in the first place. Ontologies
literally live (i.e., they become embodied and practiced) by the
credo of those who adhere to them, and this credo is not simply a
matter of rational power or philosophical logic. There are other
forces at work here, such as passion, unconscious beliefs and
drives, aesthetics, and, above all, the way in which all of them
are expressed, marketed, and "consumed."
48. I believe that the current discussion of political ontology would
benefit from a stronger emphasis on this aesthetic-affective
dimension of politics. There are some who are moving in this
direction. Jacques Rancire, for one, fully acknowledges that
"politics is a paradoxical form of action" and regards it as
"first and foremost an intervention upon the visible and the
sayable" ("Ten Theses" 34, 135). For Rancire, aesthetics is an
irreducible part of both the political and of politics. Likewise,
William Connolly argues that the best way to deal with the dispute
between transcendence and immanence is to pursue an ethos of
agonistic respect for each other:
The pursuit of such an ethos is grounded in the assumption
that residing between a fundamental image of the world as
either created or uncreated and a specific ethico-political
stance resides a /sensibility/ that colors how that creed is
expressed and portrayed to others . . . . An existing faith
thus consists of a creed or philosophy plus the sensibility
infused into it. (47-48)
What mediates between philosophy and politics is an aesthetic

sensibility or affect that cannot be rationalized without being

lost. One of the reasons why the current philosophical discourse
about ontology has become increasingly entrenched may be the
disregard of its affective qualities. Hallward, for example,
considers his politics of prescription "indifferent to the
manipulations of passionate attachment." Even though he
acknowledges that "politics is always affective," he nonetheless
insists that "even the most affective prescription can be
sustained only at a critical distance from the 'passionate' or
'emotional'" ("Politics" 785). And Laclau, too, considers affect
"not something which exists on its own, independently of language;
it constitutes itself only through the differential cathexes of a
signifying chain" (Populist Reason 111). In other words, affect is
the result of an equivalential logic; it is born of articulation
instead of preceding it. In contrast, I believe it is crucial to
maintain Brian Massumi's distinction between affect and emotion:
the latter refers to the linguistic representation of the raw,
impersonal energy engendered by the former. After leaving behind
traditional metaphysics and essentialist thinking, contemporary
political ontology must now turn toward the affective realm of
human existence as the new challenge for active thought.
/ Department of German and Russian Studies
University of Missouri-Columbia
StrathausenC@missouri.edu /
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<htt://pmc.village.virginia.edu/text-only/> OF THE JOURNAL IS
<http://www.jhu.edu> PRESS.
1 <#ref1>. For a different position arguing the renewed importance
of Hegel in the context of neo-left ontology, see Nathan Widder,

"Two Routes from Hegel," in Tnder and Thomassen 32-49.

2 <#ref2>. This is also Oliver Marchart's central point in "The
Absence at the Heart of Presence: Radical Democracy and the
'Ontology of Lack'," in Tnder and Thomassen 17-31.
3 <#ref3>. Eva Geulen notes the strong ambivalence and hesitation
that characterizes Agamben's effort to dissociate Heidegger from
Nazism. See Geulen 118-23.
4 <#ref4>. See also Adorno 73, as well as the subtitle of Adorno's
earlier essay on the "Jargon of Authenticity," which explicitly
categorizes Heidegger's philosophy as a "German Ideology."
5 <#ref5>. Cf. Adorno 104-25.
6 <#ref6>. In a brief review of Herbert Marcuse's study of Hegel's
Ontology in 1932, Adorno praises Marcuse's book precisely because
it advocates this Marxist move away from "foundational ontology
[/Fundamentalontologie/] toward the philosophy of history, from
historicity to history" (Adorno 204). But he also criticizes
Marcuse for holding fast to the ontological question at all: "one
might wonder: why should the ontological question precede the
interpretation of the real historical facts at all" (204)? Indeed,
it should not, according to Marxist thought. For what trumps
ontology are "real historical facts" and their critical reflection
in the mind of the thinking subject.
7 <#ref7>. The emphasis here remains on the /Marxist tradition/ as
opposed to the actual writings of Marx, who uses the term
"dialectics" only rarely and does not subscribe to the scientific
/Weltanschauung/ later proclaimed by orthodox Marxism. In fact,
the term "dialectical materialism" is absent from the writings of
Marx and Engels. Marx does not refer to the "laws" of history, but
to mere "tendencies" inherent in historical developments.
Nonetheless, dialectics is a crucial term for Engels, particularly
for his attempted refutation of Kant's transcendentalism in his
Anti-Dhring (1878) and the later Dialectics of Nature (1883). And
clearly dialectics /does/ play a crucial role in twentieth-century
Marxism, from Lenin and Stalin to Adorno, Althusser, and Jameson.
My comments thus focus precisely on this "Persistence of the
Dialectic," as Jameson phrased it in 1990. See Jameson, Late
8 <#ref8>. I realize that this distinction between /contradiction/
and /paradox/ is not customary in analytical philosophy, which
focuses instead on that between "semantic" and "logical"
paradoxes. According to Bunnin and Yu, "logical paradoxes . . .
indicate that there must be something wrong with our logic and
mathematics," whereas semantic paradoxes "arise as a result of
some peculiarity of semantic concepts such as truth, falsity, and
definability" (632). From our own deconstructive perspective, of
course, this analytical juxtaposition of "logic" and "semantics"
is dubious at best, and Bunnin and Yu rightly note that this
"distinction is not without controversy" (503). In contrast, my
own distinction between contradiction and paradox seems more
pertinent in our context. Indeed, Simon Blackburn defines

contradiction with explicit reference to Hegel and Marx: "A

contradiction may be a /pair of features/ that /together/ produce
an unstable tension in a political or social system" (81; emphasis
added). It is precisely this /dualist/ understanding of
contradiction that I want to distinguish from a /single/
paradoxical proposition such as "This statement is false."
9 <#ref9>. See also Adorno's famous critique of Benjamin's Arcades
Project, according to which Benjamin's study "is located at the
crossroads of magic and positivism" because it lacks "mediation"
and historical awareness (Schriften I/3 1096).
10 <#ref10>. For a detailed discussion of the term "constitutive
outside" and its importance for radical democracy, see Thomassen.
11 <#ref11>. Butler opens the discussion with this question: "Can
the ahistorical recourse to the Lacanian real be reconciled with
the strategic question that hegemony poses, or does it stand as a
quasi-transcendental limitation on all possible subject-formations
and, hence, as indifferent to politics?" (Butler et al. 5). In
response, both Zizek and Laclau never tire of dismissing this
opposition as "a false one," because, in Zizek's words, "/it is
the very 'ahistorical' bar as the internal limit of the process of
symbolization that sustains the space of historicity/" (Butler et
al. 214). Yet, Zizek also seeks to expose Laclau as a
"closet-Kantian" (93), claiming that both Laclau and Butler
"silently /accept/ a set of premises" such as the capitalist
market economy and the liberal-democratic political regime. It
follows, for Zizek, that "all the changes they propose are changes
/within/ this economico-political regime" rather than moving
beyond it (223). Laclau, in turn, recognizes "Zizek's argument
[as] a variation on Butler's about transcendental limits and
historicism . . . . while Butler's charge was addressed to Zizek's
and my own work, Zizek is formulating the same objection against
Butler and myself." And although Laclau asserts that he "will
refrain from joining the club and making the same criticism--this
time against Butler and Zizek," he proceeds to do precisely that
in his final response (Butler et al., 200). See also Butler et al.
5, 34, 106, 183-85, 214, 289.
12 <#ref12>. I want to emphasize that in spite of Butler's
exasperated claim that Zizek's and Laclau's metaphorical
vocabulary "unsettle(s) topography itself" (Butler et al. 141),
she nonetheless shares their overall political goal, which is to
facilitate political change. Butler disagrees with them about how
best to conceptualize the political field such that this change
becomes conceivable in the first place. Hence, as Laclau rightly
notes, at issue in the debate is "the /ontological/ constitution
of the historical as such" (Laclau 2000, 183; emphasis added). Or,
in Zizek's words, "it is the problem . . . [of] /how to
historicize historicism itself/" (Butler et al. 106).
13 <#ref13>. This is also the main distinction in Tnder's and
Thomassen's excellent collection of essays on Radical Democracy.
14 <#ref14>. Most forcefully in Agamben, State of Exception,1-31
in particular.

15 <#ref15>. Although Agamben at times emphasizes the decisive

role of modernity for the politicization of bare life, he also
makes clear "that this transformation is made possible by the
metaphysics of those very ancient categories [/zoe/ and /bios/],"
as Andrew Norris rightly observes ("Introduction" 2).
16 <#ref16>. Cf. Jameson's "Marxism and Dualism in Deleuze," 13-36.
17 <#ref17>. See Tnder and Thomassen, eds.
18 <#ref18>. As Bosteels puts it: "For Badiou, there emerges a
speculative type of leftism whenever communism is disjoined, and
nowadays supposedly set free, from the historicity intrinsic to
the various stages of Marxism. The critique of speculative leftism
in this sense is actually a constant throughout Badiou's work"
("Speculative" 754).
19 <#ref19>. Paul Patton, for example, emphasizes the
illocutionary power that Deleuze and Guattari attribute to
language. In their view, Patton argues, "language use is not
primarily the communication of information but a matter of acting
in or upon the world" (4). Similarly Jean-Luc Nancy claims that,
for Deleuze, "to create a concept is not to draw the empirical
under a category: but to construct a universe of its own, an
autonomous universe" ("Deleuzian Fold" 110). The connections to
Derrida's understanding of the political dimension of
deconstruction are also relevant in this context.
20 <#ref20>. See Tnder and Thomassen, "Introduction" 8. In their
own words: "life is what infuses and dominates all production. In
fact, the value of labor and production is determined deep within
the viscera of life" (Empire 365). Smith, for example, points to a
lack of "extensive comments on specific debates about rights"
(119) and mentions that Laclau in particular "embrace[s] an
increasingly formal conception of hegemony in his recent work"
(177) that all too often "does not offer any historically specific
reference to a particular movement's discourse" (190). Similarly,
Torfing says that post-Marxist theory "has no ambition of
furnishing a detailed and fully operationalized framework for the
study of all kinds of social, cultural and political relations"
21 <#ref21>. Cf. Badiou, Metapolitics 116. In contrast,
Jean-Philippe Deranty refers to Rancire's "paradoxical ontology"
as an "anti-ontology."
22 <#ref22>. Zizek was among the first to forge a connection
between Laclau and Mouffe's claim about the "impossibility" of the
social and Lacanian terminology ("Beyond" 254). Since then, Laclau
has explicitly acknowledged that his understanding of (an empty)
universality is closely tied to Lacan's notion of the Real and of
the "petit object a" (cf. Laclau, New Reflections 235; Laclau,
Emancipations 66-83; Butler et al. 64-73).
23 <#ref23>. See, for example, Badiou in Hallward, "Appendix" 121.

24 <#ref24>. I have discussed Zizek's position at length in

"Facing Zizek."
25 <#ref25>. Badiou's Ethics deals precisely with this problem.
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