Monday, May 16, 2011

Ernesto Laclau's On Populist Reason: A Review

I have to confess that I'm extremely disappointed by Laclau's 2005 book On Populist Reason. One thing you need to figure out before you start writing is what your audience will be like. Are you trying to address the specialists in your field or do you want the book to be accessible to any reasonably educated person? Once you have decided who it is that you are writing for, then you need to make sure that both the ideas you express and the language you use to transmit them are on the same level.

In On Populist Reason, Laclau seems to have forgotten how important it is to know your audience. He uses extremely complex, jargon-ridden writing style to transmit ideas that are beyond basic. If I am to struggle through the author's convoluted sentences and displays of erudition, I expect his argument to lead me to something better than the kind of trivialities that Laclau offers in this book.

Laclau begins his study of populism with an overview of the existing definitions of this concept. He points out that  the perception of populism as something that is a priori negative is the only reason why such definitions only succeed in demonizing populism in terms that are as negative as they are vague. Instead of analyzing populism, political theorists attempt to demonstrate how much they condemn it and then allow this condemnation to taint every conclusion they make. Laclau attempts to move away from such facile definitions and offer a more profound analysis of populism. However, he fails at that task quite spectacularly.

More often than not, it felt to me that Laclau was talking to people he considers to be deeply unintelligent and unaware of the most basic tenets of political theory. He does it in the kind of language, though, that would prevent these ignoramuses from following his line of reasoning. Here is one of the many examples:
The complexes which we call 'discursive or hegemonic formations', which articulate differential and equivalential logics, would be unintelligible without the affective component. . . We can conclude that any social whole results froman indissociable articulation between signifying and affective dimensions.
This statement concludes over 100 pages of a very convoluted discussion and does nothing more than announce in this extremely technical language that communities are bound together not just by reason but also by emotions. Well, duh. This idea has been studied, discussed and argued ad nauseam for over 100 years now. There is hardly any need to convince those of us who are capable of reading Laclau's texts of something so banal.

In a similar way, Laclau offers a very plodding discussion that is supposed to lead his readers to the earth-shattering conclusion that - believe it or not - populist movements can exist both on the Left and on the Right of the political spectrum. I am sure that there are people who are unaware of this fact but these are not the same people who can get through 40 pages on floating signifiers.

I have also discovered from On Populist Reason that in the US populism has been hijacked by the Right that, against all reason, managed to convince farmers and blue-collar workers that the Republicans represent the interests of the regular folks as opposed to the Democrats who supposedly only defend the rights of the long-haired East Coast elites. I know that you must have already yawned twice as you have been reading this paragraph. We all know this, we have all heard this said a gazillion times. Why Laclau believes that it needs to be pointed out yet again is beyond me.

The book is filled to the brim with inanities of the most disturbing kind. On page 177 (close to the end of the book), we find out that in order for the populist appeal to be effective, there have to exist some problems in society. A society where institutional stability is complete, will not respond to populism. But, of course, perfect societies do not exist, so this situation is completely hypothetic. "Surprise, surprise!" I wrote on the margins when I read this. For the most part, this was my reaction to the entire book.

3 comments:

profacero said...

You know, I always think Laclau is sort of B.S. warmed over -- you get less than meets the eye.

Spanish prof said...

This is not a defense of Laclau per-se (I've always preferred Gramsci, the original). He is annoying me more and more trying to become the organic intellectual of kirchnerismo.

But I think that the context in which the book arises is the collapse of neoliberalism in Argentina and most of Latin America (it was originally published in 2002, I believe). What he is fighting against is the hegemonic technocratic discourse that was so prevalent in the 90s. Here is an interesting interview: http://www.pagina12.com.ar/diario/suplementos/radar/9-2286-2005-06-09.html

And this is a "chicaneada", with all the love in the world: You complain about Laclau's use of jargon, and you like Zizek?

Clarissa said...

Yes, Zizek has his annoyingly jargon-ridden moments. But he is also capable of expressing himself with brilliant clarity. See this, for example:

"Being loved makes me feel directly the gap between what I am as a determinate being and the unfathomable X in me which causes love."

Or: "What lurks at the horizon. . . is the nightmarish prospect of a society regulated by a perverse pact between religious fundamentalists and the politically correct preachers of tolerance and respect for the other's beliefs: a society immobilised by the concern for not hurting the other, no matter how cruel and superstitious this other is."

Laclau offered me nothing of the kind in compensation for hours of struggling through his text.