Chantal Mouffe, lecture and symposium:

‘The Role of Affects in Agonistic Politics’

Social Sciences and Humanities Distinguishing Faculty Lecture – Tuesday 24 February 2015, University of Westminster

In this talk, Chantal Mouffe laid out her relationship to past and present ‘affective turns’. Taking her departure from Freud and Spinoza, Mouffe explains why she still considers the passions important for politics, despite her disagreements with other affective turns.

The first part of her talk was concerned with distinguishing her conception of ‘agonistic politics’ from three related, but different approaches: Arendt’s, Bonnie Honig’s and William Connolly’s. Arendt’s is different because she ultimately is too Kantian and thinks of agonism without antagonism. Honig’s is too close to Arendt’s. Connolly’s is too close to Nietzsche, and he is misled in thinking that Nietzschean understandings of agonistic politics are compatible with democracy. Mouffe’s notion of agonistic politics built on her understanding of politics as irreducibly antagonistic and as a field in which hegemony is central.

Part two of the talk involved separating her practical ideas from her analytic concepts. Practically, she favours radical democracy, which sees socialism as a radicalization of democracy. Theoretically, she speaks of agonistic democracy as an analytical concept, which challenges consensual ideas of democracy (such as aggregative or deliberative). This is connected to her anti-essentialist views of human nature and concepts of identity (there are no identities, she insists, only acts of identification).

Conceptual clarifications: Mouffe distinguishes passions from emotions. Passions are common affects which reveal the collective and always partisan character of political action. Here, Spinoza comes in (the concept of conatus as a mobilising power). She thinks that excluding the passions from politics is a perilous viewpoint. The passions reveal the agonistic character of politics (us/them), especially through the theme of group psychology, eros etc. Having and sharing affects is a transformative action. In this context, she differentiated between the discursive and affective planes. From this followed some comments about how the right is more open in the use of conatus than the left, even though in doing so, it always ends up stealing ideas from the left. She contrasted Le Pen and the liberals, using movements such as Podemos as a positive example. The Q&A included sympathetic but probing questions from Susan James on Spinoza, on hope and fear and how the use and evolution of these emotions maps onto the distinction between left and right.

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