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Emancipation and ambiguity

Emancipation as a classical concept of our political imaginary is made up of incommensurable lines of thought, according to Laclau (2007). But instead of dismissing emancipation altogether, Laclau claims that we have to accept the basic ambiguity of emancipation by dismissing the logic of either/or and accepting its unstable nature (Bernstein, 1983).

According to Laclau, emancipation is unstable because it is, first and foremost, to be understood in a concrete social context, and not, as often is the case, abstracted from such a context and understood in terms of either universal or particular in an abstracted theoretical space. The universal is what Laclau calls an empty signifier: it has no pre-decided content outside the particularity of the situation in which it gains meaning.

Universality is nothing in itself, but always an expression of particular aspirations in a social, historical and political context. Universality is the very drive that feeds particular political identities to formulate their aspirations in terms of totality beyond the limits of their social and historical reality. In other words, the totality is an absent which is present in the particular “which forces the particular to be more than itself, to assume a universal role which can only be precarious and unsaturated” (Laclau, 2007, p. 15).

What Laclau especially seems to struggle with in his essay is how to disconnect universal from totalitarian situations that flow from classical emancipation, in both its Christian and Marxist versions. What seems to be following from the totalitarian tendencies in both is an application of what is to be a fully objective process leading to an encompassing representation of the real, either in God or in (the rationality of) history.

Characteristic of this process, which tries to bring together reality with an absolute representation of the same, says Laclau, is that it reduces to its logic the totality of its constitutive moments, which means that the other can only be an internal differentiation of the same, and “as a result, it is entirely subordinated to the latter” (Laclau, 2007, p. 3). But this is not, and cannot be, what emancipation means, since there would be no break, there would be no other that would not only and simply be another version of the same. Emancipation must at least signify a break with what has been or with what is.

Laclau goes on to argue his basic point that history has also brought together incompatible lines of thought, emancipation both as a break and a foundation of the social; both as a possibility and an impossibility, in other words signalling a foundational ambiguity. For Laclau, emancipation is not about either/or, but has to do with an understanding of ambiguity', with the thinkable and unthinkable at the same time.

Therefore I understand Laclau’s argument as an argument for the necessity to leave room for antagonistic forces, for differences, that are not neutralized within a conception of the total, within any idea of the political, of democracy and emancipation. As such, it is close to my reading of Lyotard above. However, more importantly for my understanding in this book, what Laclau argues is that if emancipation is to be restored from its shortcomings, we need to highlight the importance of freedom within any such conception. And freedom for Laclau (2007, p.16) is a “freedom vis-à-vis the different forms of identification, which are impotent to imprison us within the network of unappealable logic”; that is, freedom moves us outside the rationalistic logic of either/or which fixates us in a given order of ‘truth’.

This freedom, though, is difficult freedom, which in a democratic society cannot be freedom within the idea of a total order, “but one which has negotiated in a specific way the duality- freedom/unfreedom” (Laclau, 2007, p. 19). What is made central, as I understand his argument, is ambiguity itself as a condition for freedom as well as democracy and that freedom is dependent on the possibility of both confirming and denying the ways in which one is identified in particular orders of truth. From this follows also that claims of the need to reduce ambiguity or to abolish it altogether, rather than putting us on a secure foundation, are arguments for instilling unfreedom as the basis for the social order as well as threatening to destroy democracy altogether.

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