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Laclau, Discourse, Ideology

Armin Beverungen
Centre for Philosophy and Political Economy
University of Leciester

Paper presented at the ‘7th International Conference on Organizational Discourse: Identity, Ideology, and Idiosyncrasy’
Amsterdam, 26th-28th July 2006.


Slavoj Zizek warns us of thinking that we are living in a post-ideological age, and suggests that we need todevelop a concept of ideology which accounts for how ideology works today, in particular through cynicism (see also Fleming and Spicer 2003):

If our concept of ideology remains the classic one in which the illusion is located in knowledge, then today’s society must appear post-ideological: the prevailing ideology is that of cynicism; people no longer believe in ideological truth; they donot take ideological propositions seriously. The fundamental level of ideology, however, is not of an illusion masking the real state of things but that of an (unconscious) fantasy structuring our social reality itself. And at this level, we are of course far from being post-ideological society. Cynical distance is just one way – one of many ways – to blind ourselves to the structuring power ofideological fantasy: even if we do not take things seriously, even if we keep an ironic distance, we are still doing them. (1989: 33)

Why ideology, Laclau, organizational discourse?

The first questions that you might ask me is: ‘why Laclau?’ You might also want to ask: ‘why ideology?’ And: ‘what is the relevance of this to organizational discourse?’ I would want to argue that there are a varietyof reasons for talking about Laclau, ideology, and organization discourse. It is interesting to note here that Laclau’s work only gets mentioned three times, ad passim, in the Sage Handbook of Organizational Discourse (in Grant et al. 2004: 95-6, 284, 302), and reference is made only to his co-authored work with Mouffe (Laclau and Mouffe 1985/2001). His work does not get mentioned at all in thechapter on ‘Discourse, Power and Ideology’ (Mumby 2004). This is despite Mumby’s chapter dealing directly with questions of ideology, and making reference to theorists such as Althusser, Gramsci, and Hall. Do we need Laclau as a commentator on Althusser or Gramsci, and do we need to recognize Laclau’s influence on and appropriation by Hall? Perhaps not – but we cannot simply take these authors asproviding congruent frameworks for the study of ideology in organizations, when such huge debates regarding their work has gone on. We might not want to accept that Laclau’s interpretation of Gramsci is the most productive one, but if we wish to recover the work of Gramsci and others, we are well advised to engage with the criticisms and developments stemming from Laclau’s work. Of course we thenalso need to engage with the wider debates, for example between Laclau’s and Poulantzas’ contrasting interpretations of Gramsci and Althusser, and the conflicts between Hirst and Hindess and Jessop et al. regarding Thatcherism, and so on. An engagement with these theoretical debates should be encouraged in order to develop theory.

This leads us to a related point, which is the espousal oforganizational discourse as a ‘plurivocal project’, as we find it for example in the Sage Handbook of Organizational Discourse (Grant et al. 2004: 2). I do not necessarily want to engage here in a debate about the commensurability of paradigms, the need for plurality and diversity in research approaches, etc. But I would like to make the point that in order to ‘do theory’ we need to engage withtheoretical developments. And this requires not simply mixing and mashing theories and methodologies as we please. This makes a statement as the following, for example, quite problematic:

Drawing on nineteenth- and twentieth-century developments in hermeneutics (Gadamer, 1989; Palmer, 1969), phenomenology (Heidegger, 1977; Merleau-Ponty, 1960), and humanist Marxism (Gramsci, 1971; Habermas,...