Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau, Slavoj Žižek (2000). Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left.

London: Verso. ISBN 185984278X

Paul Bowman

Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau, and Slavoj Žižek’s new collaboration, Contingency, Hegemony, Universality (2000), is an important book, possibly one of the most important ‘post-Marxist’ publications since Laclau and Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (1985) got the name and the movement rolling fifteen years ago. It is also a difficult book to do justice to in a review, for it is 329 pages long, and 329 pages of very wide ranging and quite often contradictory arguments, presented in dense theoretical terms that traverse several theoretical ‘languages’. I can’t possibly cover all the arguments and explicit points raised in Contingency, Hegemony, Universality, and were I to try to do so, the review would end up being longer than the book. So instead, I have opted for a summary reflection on the nature of the ‘event’ (or ‘act’) of this three-way debate, in terms of some, maybe less than explicit, but no less striking features, which are perhaps equally as ‘important’ as the explicit arguments of each of the three contributors.

What (Kettle) Does Žižek Want?

In speaking of an ‘act’, the allusion is already to Žižek. Žižek theorizes the nature of the ‘act’, which he says involves ‘striking at oneself’ (121-123), no longer defending oneself, or accepting an antagonist’s accusation that what one is doing is unacceptable, and thereby ‘changing the very terrain that made it unacceptable’. Žižek seems to believe that he himself has ‘acted’ here (when ‘act’ has the sense of ‘event’, rather than ‘show’), even though he recoils from ‘striking at himself’, or entertaining the possibility that what he has done is unacceptable (in his own former terms, prior to the act); and so, by his own logic, he has failed to ‘act’. Instead, Žižek insists that Laclau and Butler are behaving unacceptably — by not believing him when he asserts that the Lacanian ‘Real’ is ‘class antagonism’ (96, 98, 103-105, 125, 226, 323). Moreover, not only is ‘class’ somehow the Real, but class antagonism is also that which confers seriality onto the series of all other kinds of antagonism (gender, racial, ecological, identitarian, democratic, etc.). For Žižek, a matrix instituted according to the adherence to several propositions structures his discourse:1 that the ‘limit’ placed on ‘postmodern’ political thinking is the Real, which equals capitalism, which equals class antagonism (111, 121-123, 223, 225); (2.) that the seriality of any series is constituted by one of its terms (yes: ‘class’); (3.) that the Hegelian notion of the retroactive positing of presuppositions is always relevant (225, 227-230, 263); (4.) that the notion of ‘suture’ is universally applicable (235, 237); and (5.) that ideology is once again false consciousness (103).

Needless to say, if you have been reading post-Marxism, you will anticipate that Laclau, at least, will have some problems with all of this, as in many ways it amounts to a step backwards into undeconstructed essentialist Marxism, albeit this time with a unique Lacanian twist (206). But, ever since day one, Žižek was primarily interested in Laclau’s work because he saw it as putting the notion of the Lacanian Real to work as a valid category of political analysis. Similarly, Laclau has always been interested in psychoanalysis, so you can see how and why their love affair started. But from day one it was never an ‘equal’ relationship. Žižek always praised Laclau for giving direction and orientation to his thinking, making Laclau into something of a father figure. So to discern an oedipal character to Žižek’s argument may not come as too much of a surprise (although it is perhaps surprising to see this Hegelian theorist of psychoanalysis retroactively or performatively prove the posited presupposition. . .).

Žižek’s first essay in this volume begins with an oblique attack on Laclau for being ‘postmodernist’ and therefore ‘resigned’ and ‘cynical’ in the face of a proper ‘Global goal’ (93). One might already say that Žižek has implicitly misread the deconstructive notion of constitutive ‘mourning’, which is at least akin to Lacanian ‘lack’, that which itself is said to initiate desire. So one could already intimate in Žižek’s argument a certain transgression of his own Lacanianism in attempting to refute deconstruction and postmodernism in this manner. For Žižek, resignation or cynicism (or mourning or lack — therefore desire), should be factored out of the ‘Global goal’ of politics. His reasoning is that ‘our’ resignation is at the ‘heart’ of capitalist ideology; and so, by conceding it at all, we are operating squarely ‘within’ capitalism’s own court (97). (Žižek never troubles himself with a deconstruction of, or reflection on, the implications of the notion of ‘within’, and relies on the simplicity and integrity of the inside/outside binary throughout his arguments. Indeed, he never feels the need to interrogate this constitutive supplement to the notion of ‘antagonism’, even though he insists upon the category.) What soon becomes apparent is that for Žižek, ‘Capitalism’ simply equals ‘Class Antagonism’. This amphibological reduction skews his argument from the outset (97). (Actually, not from the outset: for his opening gambit of proposing to ‘turn around’ the proposition that the separation of the Political from the non-Political is the political gesture par excellence, peculiarly does not involve a ‘turn around’ at all; but merely to a curiously redundant reiteration of the same thesis in the form of a rhetorical question (95).)

Things start to get really odd when Žižek moves on actually to concede the truth of Laclau and Mouffe’s thesis that the democratic revolution constituted the conditions of possibility for many other revolutionary antagonisms (gender, ethnic, religious, etc.), before then going on to try to use this to disprove their argument (the argument it explicitly proves) and prove his own point about ‘class’ structuring the series of all antagonisms (the argument it explicitly refutes). In short, what Žižek cannot demonstrate of class by using ‘class’ as his example, he attempts to show by using a truth about ‘democracy’ and then proposing ‘class’ as an analogy (98). In other words he says: I accept what Laclau and Mouffe say of democracy (and what they refute of class); therefore I say that this proves the same thing of class (and refutes it of democracy), even though I can’t give you an example outside of the case of democracy at all. In this same moment, he ushers in the Hegelian notion that one element of a series constitutes that series as such, by listing a few different sorts of antagonistic struggles and then insisting that ‘class struggle’ is the true name of them all, despite the fact that what they all have in common is nothing other than their being relations of antagonism before being any particular ‘content’.

What happens next is even more peculiar. From suggesting some novelty or newness to the platitude which states that the separation of political from non-political is a political gesture, Žižek, who initially appeared to want to exploit this in some novel fashion, instead recapitulates the first of Marxist complaints about postmodernism (implicitly identified with Laclau and Mouffe’s political theory); namely that whilst postmodern politics ‘repoliticizes’ a great many domains, it does not ‘repoliticize capitalism’ (98). But how might one search for this ‘object’ or referent called ‘capitalism’? Žižek finds it in ‘class’ — although how one might find the object or referent called ‘class’ is the question begged here. Žižek does not say, nor will he answer Laclau’s call for him to tell us where or how it ‘is’ (201).

Moving on to accuse Laclau of advocating ‘gradualist’ and ‘reformist’ politics (101), he tells us that he wants to look for a ‘final resolution’ (111). Here we have a sense of false consciousness entering, stage left (103), and a claim that postmodern politics are not political enough, even though they work to politicize everything (108). The problem is, apparently, that this ‘everything’ is not Everything: it omits its frame, its structural bar, its limit: the Real of capitalism — the fundamental exclusion which sustains the very field (111). As you can see, Žižek likes to speak of unities, completely sutured entities, constituted in an indivisibility, lacking nothing (that must yet be nowhere to be found, if he at all subscribes to his advocated theory of suture (235)). His argument strikes at itself, or its own Lacanianism, as it tries to strike at the allegedly capitalist-complicit theory of hegemony. For Žižek, even the notion of a limit, horizon, or bar, is a simple unitary identity. His argument is riven. When he then goes on to comment on hegemony, although what he says of hegemonic operations is interesting and maybe even true, the problem, as always, is that he uses the veracity he specifies as an argument against the concept. For instance, he implies that the theorists of antagonism attempt to obliterate antagonism. Quite how he ascertains this is not specified. And then, in further agreement with Laclau, but as if against something Laclau has argued, Žižek proposes a model of the subject in ideology (115), which he fleshes out for several pages, in order to have demonstrated that the outside is simply the inside, without any undecidability between the two realms (120). This is a simplification, surely; a domestication. Moreover, it is used as if to contest while yet merely ‘proving’ once again Laclau’s argument about antagonism as the internal limit or self-producing-alterity, which is constitutive and divided ‘against itself’. Once again, Žižek brings ‘capitalism’, which for him is the Real, back within the frames of any given hegemony, which can only mean that any transformations on this presumably superstructural level (204-206) must thereby amount to changes of the Real at the Real level. It gets even more strange when, coupled with what he has done, which is to reproduce the veracity of Laclau’s argument whilst yet claiming to have in some way unsettled it, Žižek moves into the definition of the ‘act’, which involves ‘striking at oneself’ (121-123). Paradoxically, in his own terms, or against himself, Žižek can only have done the opposite of an ‘act’. What he is doing is unacceptable, because it is everything he accuses Laclau and Butler of, albeit in a misrecognised form, and yet he will not no longer defend himself — he will not accept that he shares the premise, nor accept the reproach. He will deny that this is precisely what he is doing, he will not ‘strike at himself’.

He seems to want to keep everything that he’s appropriated from Laclau, and relinquish nothing; as if saying, the theory that I’m presenting to you is brand new, it was broken when I got if from you, I never borrowed anything from you in the first place. It is his precious object. He denies that his adversary ever had it. Accordingly, he is not free, in his own terms. He seems to have succumbed to what he calls the ‘ideological blackmail’ of Laclau, by accepting his premises (123). Maybe he’s right about what an ‘act’ is, but, in conventional terms his ‘act’ is only an act, a charade, that keeps everything in place (124).

Oppositional Structures, Antagonistic Discourses

That being said (or, perhaps, according to this oedipal logic), Žižek is quick to point out Butler’s many ‘misreadings’, including her alleged conflation of ‘antagonism’ with ‘opposition’ (214). It is true that Butler’s contributions are dominated by the formulation of problems and questions in terms of opposing two concepts (contingency/necessity, history/structure, particularity/universality, etc.); but these are always offered in the form of questions that specify problematics devolving on the matter of how we are to understand the relations between such crucial terms (13). For this apparently simplistic ‘opposing’ of terms, Butler takes a lot of flak from Laclau and Žižek, even though, to my mind, she commits fewer crimes of self-contradiction than both Žižek and Laclau.1 She offers a very good deconstructive account of the logic of hegemony (11), in terms of exclusion, haunting, absence, and constitutive incompletion, which, in this way, she also ties to Lacanian theory (12). She pulls apart Žižek’s fascination with the mystical logic of the positing of presuppositions and the retroactive production of necessity from contingency (26-27), taking Žižek to task not for his insistence of the primacy of this formal feature (Laclau will), but for his use of ‘popular culture . . . to illustrate this formal point which is, as it were, already true, prior to its exemplification’ (26). In short, she accuses Žižek of having a kind of ‘theoretical fetish’ (26-27) for proving a theory by examples and for not looking at examples or texts to search for what we don’t already ‘know’. This challenge recurs in her contributions throughout this book.

Laclau, meanwhile, carries out his usual feat of ‘walking between precipices’. As ever, with Laclau, it seems like we’ve heard all of this from him before, but closer inspection shows him to be taking great ‘risks’ by tackling complex problems that threaten to subvert his entire theoretical edifice. He starts from where he is most comfortable, of course — running through his usual history of Marxist thought, although this time identifying in Marx’s own thought the justification for the theory of hegemony (47-50). Normally, Laclau prefers to find the grains of the theory of hegemony in Gramsci. But here, he argues that Marxism was always already a theory of articulation. Yet, as Žižek will not have been the first to point out, Laclau places himself in the speaking position of (as if) omniscient enlightenment, a position implying that he can see the truth to the disjointed nature of history and structure, and their gradual convergence — which, of course is a move that makes Laclau’s position therefore implicitly unsurpassable.

Laclau argues for the inevitability of heterodoxy and unorthodoxy in any theory ‘worth the name’ (64-65) (thereby explicitly contradicting the initiating and initialising statement of analytical procedure in the opening pages of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (Laclau and Mouffe, 1985, 2)). Indeed, he argues for the impossibility of fidelity and the inevitability of transgression and abuse of one’s own guarantors and legitimators (66). But then he has no qualms about simply stating ‘I am a Gramscian’ (75), despite the impossibility of this having a precise meaningful sense or referent, because of the very impossibility that he has just specified. Consider this in conjunction with his claim that Žižek is guilty of a fetishization of Lacan (73), and perhaps you might agree that Laclau’s position is, as ever, precarious, finely balanced, subtle, some may say impossible (of course: but post-Marxism is an anti-Sherlock-Holmesian theory that exploits impossibility through and through as the condition of possibility), and yet still proceeding in an unwaveringly assured tone (some may say a sententious tone). Evidently, though, for Laclau, all of this is balanced or explained thanks to ‘a moment of investment which . . . redefines the terms of the relationship between what is and what ought to be’ (81) — suggesting an illogical investment opening even his own ‘logic’. This complex Khora-like theme opens onto that moment of madness of the decision (79), and then onto the theme of the ethical (81) — themes that I can hardly even broach in this short review, other than to say: Look at these pages on the decision and the ethical. Laclau risks everything here.

In round two, Butler poses for Žižek the question of the relation between psychic and social, or subject and capitalism (139). And, in light of Žižek’s criticisms that the theory of hegemony is only possible within capitalism, and is not antagonistic to it, she points out that even Žižek’s own paradigm is not exempt from the flaw he believes he finds in the theory of hegemony (139). She actually argues that the ‘topographies Žižek offers as a way of clarifying his position must fall apart if his position is to be rightly understood’ (141). In fact, Butler makes several potentially devastating observations about the constitution of Žižek’s theoretical position, not least of which being that ‘the very theoretical postulation of the originary trauma presupposes the structuralist theory of kinship and sociality’ (142), a theory that itself is fraught with essentialisms and is far from unquestionable, as well as criticisms of the ‘quasi-transcendental’ status he accords to sexual difference, and the attendant presumptions these entail ‘about sociality and the symbolic order’. The status of sexual difference for Žižek also somewhat problematizes, to say the least, his claims about the status he desires for class antagonism (142-143). Furthermore, Butler reminds Žižek that in Lacanian terms the Real ‘has no content but is purely formal’ — although she goes on to problematize such a notion, in that ‘certain kinds of formalism are generated by a process of abstraction that is never fully free from the remainder of the content it refuses’ (144-145). That which is ostensibly purely ‘formal’ already has or ‘is’ a ‘content’. Of course, this grants something like more plausibility for Žižek’s assertions about the Real as capitalism; just as, at the same time, it problematizes Laclau’s notion of his logic as ‘essential’ (it is already a context-specific content). But Butler’s primary focus here is Žižek (145). If Žižek identifies in Laclau’s assertion about the hegemonic approach a kind of ‘foreclosure’ on political thought, Butler questions the very status of a structural foreclosure at the origin of subjectivity (148-149), and goes on to point out that ‘foreclosures are not secondarily social . . . foreclosure is a way in which variable social prohibitions work’ — a point that can be applied to the social institution of academic practices too. (Academics certainly value and obsess about certain constitutive exclusions (149-150).)

Babies, Bathwater and Brethren

By now I have represented a little (but still, almost nothing) about what each of the protagonists argues in Contingency, Hegemony, Universality. But you might reasonably accuse me of having missed the point somewhat, in that I have said nothing about at least these three key things:

1. Contingency,
2. Hegemony,
3. Universality.

These three points are, given the title of the volume, clearly crucial. But, as the above allusion to Derrida’s Limited Inc. suggests, I also believe that in any demonstration there is something else going on, which is just as important as that which is explicitly demonstrated. In writing this review, I have foregrounded Žižek’s correlation of capitalism and the Real. This is because (to use an awkward Derridean phrase) this might always possibly come to have been either the most preposterous or the most dazzling ‘event’ in post-Marxist theory for quite some time. As you must have guessed by now, I am presently swayed by a sense that Žižek’s argument is somehow skewed, because it appears to have thrown out, ignored, or forgotten so many of the crucial stages of the development of the theory of articulation and hegemony — in fact, I think that Žižek has thrown out the baby with the bathwater. But, on the other hand, this will mean for Žižek that I am actually a promoter, symptom, or fomite, of the very disease that I would ostensibly hope to be working to cure (for the sake of brevity, that disease called ‘capitalism’). Žižek might say that this reviewer, like Laclau and Butler, is blind to an insight that has been policed and disciplined out of the possibility of emerging. But, Laclau clearly has a point when he notes that Žižek first of all never states what this ‘Global goal’ might be, what it might look like and how it might exist; secondly that Žižek’s argument seems to refute itself; and that where it doesn’t it sounds like a horribly familiar anti-democratic beast (289-290).

Other events in Contingency, Hegemony, Universality include, I believe, the gauntlet ran by Laclau in the face of arguments about the decision and the ethical that threaten to subvert everything he has worked to construct. To speak briefly and in an allusive kind of short hand: Laclau has first decided that there is decision. Then he has decided that, although the name of the founding relation is ‘the political’, the pre-critical (out of step, or out of joint) investment is ethical. These parasites have been allowed to reside in the city of post-Marxism, but they are policed by its ‘logic’, which they have clearly, in some manner, constituted — although this constitution is subsequently disavowed, effaced, or reduced. . .. In addition, the event or act of Butler’s contributions seems to me to amount to a possible erasure (or sous rature) of the possibility of anything like a univocal theory of hegemony or post-Marxism at all. Her investment in the telos is clear, although quite what that telos is, or how it might be conceived, framed, and represented, is the moot point around which this volume has been organised (What, exactly, is our universal here?, is the question). But Butler does not fight to preserve anything like an orthodoxy in reading, prescription and proscription. In short, she is not so invested in the name. Her interests lie squarely ‘out there’, in ‘the real world’. (I have scare-quoted these phrases not to imply that they are hers, but because this is always where her arguments ultimately try to refer, invoke, affect, and land, despite the aporias, paradoxes, and institutional mediations that make impossible any simple knowledge of destination and reception.) And, for me it is Butler who works most hard to further something like the project announced or appealed for in Derrida’s Limited Inc., in terms of that book’s being also always about ‘the ethics of discussion’ or the matter of ‘politeness and politics’. Butler is relentlessly concerned with the tone of the debate, with what is implied about rectitude and propriety, and therefore with all the presuppositions entertained about what the hell anyone thinks they are trying to do here or there, what we or they are blind to, how they or all of us are constitutively compromised, and so on. And, finally, it is Butler who perhaps inadvertently indicates the fundamental or constitutive blind-spot that enables all of the insights in Contingency, Hegemony, Universality. That is to say, in her mention of Spivak’s ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’, Butler reminds her interlocutors that one cannot possibly imagine the condition, experience, context, or desire of the Other (36). By implication, all of this metadiscursive conjecture about ‘universals’ on the part of three Western intellectuals can perhaps only be precisely that — metalinguistic conjecture in a metalanguage or metatheoretical universe (hegemony) that is far from ‘universal’ (being contingent) and which yet necessarily presupposes and folds everything else into itself so as to speak at all. This folding is, as they say, a reduction at the same time as a production. Quite how violent and unethical it is, I am not qualified to say, as I too am Western, and whilst reading the book I accepted almost blindly their mutually held notion of ‘universals’. But no one seems to notice the following: Butler, Laclau, and Žižek’s notions of ‘universality’ are each Catholic through and through. I am not sure of the significance or plausibility of this summary judgement, or whether it is more correct or less offensive to say ‘Judeo-Christian’ (or, Žižek may insist, ‘capitalist-ideological’). But the theorisation of ‘universality’ in Contingency, Hegemony, Universality is undoubtedly Catholic. I know whereof I speak. Doubtless, you may find solace in judging this proposition to be particularly contingent and contextual. But in terms of this particular contingent universal reduction, I think that, in this context, it is now necessary to pose the question of whether, in general, ‘we’ can think otherwise (let’s say, whether we can psychoanalyse or deconstruct other than ‘catholically‘) in general, and, specifically, whether post-Marxism could ever think otherwise in particular. (Let us go in peace to love and serve the particular universal that we will never quite realize. . .)


1 To say that Laclau would contradict himself would be, for someone who so privileges ‘logic’, a terrible accusation. I indicate below one instance where he does indeed contradict a key opening movement of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, but perhaps more suggestive in this volume is the instance in which he opens an essay with a refutation of Žižek’s accusation of gradualism and reformism by arguing that the object of cathectic investment is constantly changing (196) before concluding the very same essay by stating that there is always some object of investment — a ‘Global goal’ — that does not change (209). Contradiction? Antagonism? This requires a lot more analysis, and anyway, we can anticipate that Laclau would never agree with the accusation, despite any analysis. There are always more and other reasons in reserve — an observation whose value is more in terms of academic discourse in general than any academic in particular.


Derrida, J. (1988) Limited Inc., Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press.

Laclau, Ernesto and Mouffe, Chantal (1985) Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards A Radical Democratic Politics, London: Verso.

Paul Bowman lectures in cultural studies at Bath Spa University College, UK.