I have spent almost the entirety of my academic career reading, and responding to, Ernesto Laclau, who has died at the age of 78. Ernesto was one of the great systematic thinkers of the past fifty years, possibly the most influential Latin American theorist of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and one of the most significant influences on Anglo-American cultural and political theory as a whole. We all write to some extent in his shadow and in his debt, myself perhaps more than anyone.
“Hegemony” was Laclau’s signature concept. He was not the first theorist of hegemony, but he made the term his own and spent decades elaborating a theoretical structure around the basic recognition of the contingency of political allegiances. This insight first came to him as an activist in 1960s and 1970s Argentina, faced with Peronism’s extraordinary capacity to mobilize people of all classes and every political inclination. Populism thus became the great problem that Laclau addressed. He showed the ways in which populism posed difficult questions for political theory, but also the practical issues it raised for any movement that sought social change. It is worth underlining that, for all the occasional abstraction of his theorizations, first and last Laclau was a militant.
Beyond theorizing hegemony, Laclau added a series of new formulations to our lexicon of political theory, often taking up terms elaborated in other fields (Linguistics, Psychoanalysis, Poststructuralism) and putting them to new uses in an effort to understand the fundamental workings of politics. A mark of his originality and significance is the ways in which he gave new life to notions such as “articulation” or created concepts such as the “empty signifier.” Laclau’s strength was his combination of eclecticism and flexibility in his sources and case studies–he had provocative observations on everything from medieval mysticism to Turkish nationalism–with a steadfast consistency and focussed sense of purpose.
It is no doubt partly thanks to this focus that Laclau was able to enter a lecture hall with half a dozen words scribbled on the back of an envelope for notes, and proceed to give an hour’s fluent, densely argued exposition of his thought. In some ways he was always expounding the same basic intellectual architecture, if always accommodating or responding to critiques while taking on new topics or new issues of pressing political importance.
For Laclau was indeed above all else a systematizer, and the system he constructed had great power and a certain seductiveness. This was perhaps his signal virtue, and it is the reason why I regard his version of hegemony as the strongest and most developed that we have. And it is also why I took issue with it, in a critique that was always driven by respect for what Laclau had accomplished and with acknowledgement and gratitude for what he had made possible.
Back in 1997, as a graduate student, I invited Laclau to Duke, along with his partner (in writing and in life), Chantal Mouffe. I was thrilled to host them for a few days in North Carolina, and very much liked them in their various ways: Mouffe, animated and spiky; Laclau, calm and generous, the very image of the perfect gentleman, thoughtfully playing with his mustache or drawing elaborate patterns with pen and paper as he listened intently to a question offered to him. Both of them were rich conversationalists, and what is more, a lot of fun to be around.
In a long (no doubt over-long) introduction to one of their events, I said among other things the following:
Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe are among the most important thinkers of our time, who have continually redefined the fields of political and cultural theory, philosophy, and ethics. Their visit to Duke will be a major event, especially as they promise to put their theoretical insights to work in the analysis of our current situation in an uncertain world of globalization and political and cultural upheaval.
[. . .]
Indeed, anyone concerned with analyzing social processes, cultural development, the meaning of politics and particularly the effort to enrich and deepen democracy has had to work through the contributions of Laclau and Mouffe in these areas. They have provided perhaps the most thorough and the most challenging general theories of society and culture for a whole generation of researchers and activists. Especially for those on the left, their work marked a watershed between a generation that had remained within the Marxist tradition, and the “new wave” of cultural studies, postcolonial studies, and particularly the work on “new social movements” that has been heavily influenced by Laclau and Mouffe, and that has been a means to understand developments in modern Europe, Latin America and elsewhere in this era of globalization.
[. . .]
In short, Laclau and Mouffe are theorists of the first order, who have shaped not just one but several fields of study and research, and yet who have always remained engaged with the most practical and pressing of contemporary problems. Their influence has been marked for twenty years, but their 1983 masterpiece Hegemony and Socialist Strategy even grows in importance, given the prescience we can now see it showed concerning the challenges posed by world developments of the most recent ten years. Their work since has only deepened and extended their impact and importance. Their visit to Duke will be inspirational and productive for all those working in these areas they did so much to define.
All I would add to that tribute is to note how productive Laclau (and Mouffe) continued to be over the following decade or two. Laclau’s On Populist Reason of 2005, for instance, has every right to be considered on the same level as Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. I look forward to his new book, now to appear posthumously, The Rhetorical Foundations of Society. Indeed, what is striking is not only Laclau’s consistency of purpose, but also the consistently high quality of his work. He was never one to rest on his laurels.
Our paths crossed a few times after that meeting in Duke, if never with quite the same intensity. Last summer a friend told me that my name had come up in conversation with Laclau at a conference in Italy, and I thought to write to him to reiterate my respect and admiration for his work, as well as for him as a person and intellectual of such stature. I am sorry that I failed in the end to write. It is a true loss that someone who has had such profound influence on the landscape of our thought, and perhaps on mine in particular, is with us no more.