Ernesto Laclau Public Event at The Birkbeck Institute, London

February 7, 2014

The Argentinian political philosopher Ernesto Laclau gave a very interesting talk yesterday in London at the Birkbeck Institute. Below is a write-up of what he spoke about.


Birkbeck regularly put on public events with world-renowned speakers from all over the world. For a full list of these events see their website here:

Laclau: Heidegger, Lacan, Gramsci

Laclau started by discussing the concept of ‘ontological difference’. Ontology, as a theory of being. He differentiated the word ‘ontics’ from ‘ontology’, using Heidegger’s framework of thinking about Being. In Heidegger, ‘ontics’ designates a paricular being (i.e. a bird, a book, a table) whereas ‘ontology’ refers to the quality of Being itself. For Heidegger, a great source of tension is the relation between ‘Being’ and beings. Laclau speculated that Philosophy comes from an overlapping of these two concepts. An interesting example he gave is in Descartes, where Descartes says that the cogito is exhausted, and therefore it becomes the thing, i.e. a particular being: thought as a thing (Husserl).

Laclau then moved on to a discussion, central to this tension in Heidegger’s work, of the ‘Abgrund’, which is a neologism, a word that Heidegger coined himself, coming to mean a ground-that-is-absent, a source-that-is-abyssal. This is a reversal of traditional theological concepts, such as those of Spinoza, who posited the idea of natura natura, the source of all things, implying God; and natura naturata, the display of all things, having derived from that source. Heidegger’s theory that the source, the ground, is itself an abyss derives from the impossible theological point which asks why a perfect being, a source (natura natura) would move to the imperfect, provisional display (natura naturata). In other words, why would God (perfect, ideal) engage with the world (imperfect, provisional).

For Heidegger then, the ground or source becomes structurally elusive: necessary to explain its derivations, the display of the world; impossible at the same time, because there is nothing to account for its strange movement into the world. Finally then for Heidegger, the abyssal ground is that which you desire to find, and you simultaneously cannot, because it’s an abyss. The final point of this is that many figures can occupy this ground and represent the ground, but any representation of the ground is also a betrayal of it.

The second analysis Laclau presented was of Lacan’s objet petit a: the missing Freudian ‘thing’, or the other (thing) that you lack. He gave background to this concept by discussing Lacan’s theories of the process which leads an infant to self-identification. For the psyche of a baby, there is no distinguishing between his (I’m not using this word uncritically, as it does seem to refer to a male child) body and the body of the mother. It is only through a series of partial, fragmentary encounters that the child splits from the mother, and the visualization of this split also occurs in the Mirror Stage where the child sees himself in the mirror and self-identifies as a unique being, an individual, and separate from the mother. Laclau demonstrated that this theory of identification is centred around a lack: the child desires milk, and then the milk makes him satisfied, but the intervening object or property in this chain of desire-satisfaction is the breast, which accommodates, arbitrates, provides. The breast becomes then, for the child, the unattainable object, because it is at once the particular ‘thing’ the child desires, and simultaneously not quite ‘what’ the child desires. There is difference, in other words between ontics and ontology, between beings and Being.

The objet petit a comes to designate the missing object which stems from the process of identification alongside the desire for the breast. The objet petit a can be a gaze or a smile and it is somehow a way in which the Absolute finds a factual representation, as in Heidegger, where a performative element takes the place of the ground, and therefore betrays the ground.

In this sense love is doomed to failure because it is a projection of the absolute onto a particular which is necessarily betraying the idea of the absolute. 

Laclau then moved into a discussion of linguistics and politics into very interesting ways. He gave the example that in politics there is the overwhelming belief that a particular event, such as the trope of revolution will, in overthrowing an oppressive regime, also bring about a de-repression. He argued that it does not, it only removes an ontic. What had been ontically achieved was revolution. The particular is undermining the ground in the process of investing in it.

In a linguistic sense, the perfect ‘sign’ (in the sense of Saussure) would be the moment of grounding which would be a perfect relation between signifier/signified. In order to break the grounding you would have to removed the link between signifier and signified, so that the signifier and signified would move in opposite directions, away from each other. He used the example of this broken relation between signifier and signified in a political sense in thinking about the phenomenon of what he called American Populism. He speculated that the last century had demonstrated a shifting structure between left/right populism, whereby in the first instance you could characterize American populism as small man against power (bank, etc.) and in the second instance as small man against ‘liberal elite’. So American populism floats between left and right discursivities.


A singular class having a singular opponent, in Marx’s classical framework becomes


Sd Sd

In other words, the signified has become oscillatory/floating. The signified is the conceptual aspect of the sign, dominates the meaning of the sign. If the signifier is oscillatory then the signifier takes on a predomination and a primordiality. He further developed this into a discussion of naming whereby there are two traditional schools 1. The descriptivist school and 2. The anti-descriptivist school.

In the descriptivist school, ‘table’ refers to a set of common characteristics, which can be applied to any suitable later discovery which match those characteristics. Proper names, such as ‘Bismarck’ refer, as in Bertrand Russell to ‘the last German Chancellor’. In the anti-descriptivist school names do not refer to objects but are rather a primary baptism. In this sense names baptize an object without any reference to the conceptual contents which may, or may not, be existent. For Lacan, the contents of the name are the substance of the retroactive function of naming.

In this formation

Sd – Sd – Sd – Sd

A constant sliding of the signified makes it clear that the order of the signifier is not autonomous.

This moved into a discussion of Gramsci, the Italian Marxist, and his ideas about Hegemony. Laclau reformulated the concept of Hegemony to bring it into resonance with the previously discussed concepts of both Heidegger and Lacan. In this sense he was redeploying the idea of Hegemony as the Abgrund (the ground that is an abyss) and the objet petit a (the particular representation of an inaccessible source based on desire). In traditional Marxism, particular classes were linked to both a) particular modes of production, and b) particular socio-political tasks. But these formulations question whether there can be a structural link between agent and task. In the sense of Gramsci, if the tasks are so many and so different, then the agents themselves are created by a plurality of heterogeneous tasks.

To summarise the basic points:

  1. In the case of Heidegger, the ground is the abyss. ‘Factual elements’ take the place of this ground/abyss.
  2. In the case of Lacan, the object is anonymous (without name, despite being named).
  3. In the case of Gramsci, the Hegemonic class is always the presence of an absence.