Gary Hall on Thu, 2 Aug 2018 20:38:53 +0200 (CEST)

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Re: <nettime> Unlocking Proprietorial Systems for Artistic Practice

Hegemony is often taken to refer to the leadership or dominance of one group or class over another. But when it comes to the issue of how to respond to proprietorial systems for artistic production, I wonder if we wouldn’t be better off placing more emphasis on hegemony as a generalised political logic?


The latter understanding of hegemony is perhaps most forcefully articulated in the work of Chantal Mouffe - a political philosopher who has also been integrated into the media/festival art circuit, in part because of the influence of her writing on Syriza and Podemos. Just to quickly rehearse her argument here: from Mouffe’s perspective, a society or culture can institute itself only by virtue of its relation to that which exists on its margins, outside and in excess of it. (Marc’s essay contains numerous different examples of the latter: from First Nation cultures, Third World workers, and witches, to those from working class backgrounds, women, and people who identify as disabled or black and minority ethnic. But grass roots communities and organisations whose radical activist practices are independent of the conventional cultural production models and their systems of monetization might also be included in this category.) As a result, the identity of a given society or culture is constitutively marked by non-closure: the organization of the social can never achieve absolute harmony and stability – or what Ernesto Laclau refers to as ‘fullness’.


It’s here that the theory of hegemony, in which it’s understood as a generalised political logic (rather than the dominance of one group over another), comes into play. Operating in a context where such instability can never be overcome entirely, hegemony in this sense consists of the attempt to provide social relations with a temporary degree of closure and meaning nonetheless, by way of an act of articulation of the excess of the social. This is why every social order is hegemonic in nature, according to Mouffe; why there’s no solving or going beyond hegemony: because ‘power relations are constitutive of the social’.1 Even a socialist or communist society would not be free of hegemony in this respect.


For me, this theory of hegemony has two aspects that are particularly interesting in the context of a discussion of proprietorial systems for artistic production. The first is that, because social relations are the product of continual, precarious, hegemonic politico-economic articulations (i.e. of pragmatic yet temporary decisions involving power, conflict and violence), there is the potential for these articulations to be disarticulated and transformed as a result of struggle and a new form of hegemony indeed established. In fact it’s the latter part of this disarticulation/re-articulation process - that of re-articulation - that is vital as far as counter-hegemonic struggle is concerned. ‘Otherwise, we will be’, as Mouffe says, ‘leaving the door open for attempts at re-articulation by non-progressive forces.’2 Yet it’s this latter part of the process – which would work to organise the different kinds of resistances Marc, Rachel and others have pointed us toward into a ‘chain of equivalence’ with a view to constructing a new hegemony - that is nevertheless missed by those who want to try to resolve the issue of hegemony by sidestepping it altogether and refusing to construct a counter-hegemony.


The second interesting aspect of all this for me is that, because a given hegemony is not necessary but the result of contingent articulations, it means the process of struggle, of disarticulation and re-articulation, is never finished. A society or culture could quite possibly have taken very different forms in the past, and could quite possibly take very different forms in the future.  In fact, the idea that we could ever reach a political agreement once and for all over the nature of society ‘is potentially totalitarian, because it would mean that such an agreement could not be questioned’.3


Of course, there are a number of questions we might want to raise for Mouffe’s political philosophy in turn. For instance, she emphasises that ‘the drawing of the frontier between the legitimate and the illegitimate is always a political decision, and that it should therefore always remain open to contestation’.4 Yet some things are more open to contestation in her thinking than others, with a number of Mouffe’s own political decisions not remaining open to challenge at all.


One is the political decision she makes in favour of democracy because she regards the latter, for all its problems, as preferable to other forms of social organisation, due to the fact it recognises and permits a degree of antagonism. Yet while it may be true that democracy does allow for conflict, and certain other forms of sociality, including those associated with specific forms of totalitarianism and fascism do not, is that to say all other possible forms of sociality do not?


Likewise, there can be conflict within democracy over the way the institutions constitutive of the democratic political association are to be interpreted. But there cannot be conflict over the continuing existence of those democratic institutions in some shape or form. The aim of Mouffe’s agonistic approach to democracy may be ‘a profound transformation of the existing power relations and the establishment of a new hegemony. This is why it can properly be called “radical”’.5 Yet she is careful to stress that it’s not so profound a transformation as to be able to call democracy itself fundamentally into question.


Finally, for now, another political decision she makes that doesn’t remain open to challenge concerns the very idea of hegemony as a generalised political logic itself. We might agree that political antagonism is ineradicable - to the extent we shouldn’t be searching for complete reconciliation between the various conflicting parties in a given culture in order to produce a society of people who “‘live together in unity’”.6 The question is, does that mean politics always takes a hegemonic form? Are there not other ways of being political that do not require hegemonic articulation?

Indeed, if the political for Mouffe really is a decision taken in an undecidable terrain – which it is - how is it that the decision she takes is always more or less the same? No matter what the contingent context, the political for her invariably has to do with the structuring of hegemonic relations and the process of disarticulation-transformation-re-articulation. There is no other political decision to be made, it seems.


Best, Gary






1) Chantal Mouffe, On The Political (London: Routledge, 2005) p.106.


2)  Chantal Mouffe, Agonistics: Thinking The World Politically (London: Verso, 2013) pp.73-74.


3) Chantal Mouffe, in Íñnigo Errejón and Chantal Mouffe, Podemos: In the Name of the People (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2016) p.37.


4) Mouffe, On The Political, p.121.


5) Mouffe, On The Political, p.52.


6) The Bible, Psalm 133:1; quoted by President Donald Trump, 'The Inaugural Address', January 20, 2017;


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