Building Education for the Commons

Upcoming Seminar: Populism without People? On Ernesto Laclau’s Timely Political Philosophy

The third seminar in the GCAS Series on Resistance, Protest and Social Struggles examines the political theory of the late Ernesto Laclau. Professor of Philosophy at American University and Faculty member at GCAS, Dr. Farhang Erfani will offer a lecture entitled “Populism without People? On Ernesto Laclau’s Timely Political Philosophy” on Saturday February 21st, 2015. Then the following Saturday on February 28th, Professor Erfani will continue the seminar. Both lectures start at 2 pm EST.

The lectures are free and open to the public. To register for the lecture, please go here.

The untimely death of Ernesto Laclau sent shockwaves throughout the global field of critical theory and the humanities. His remarkable theoretical apparatus helped us think political struggles and the field of the social in new ways. His thought won him many accolades amongst contemporary theorists as much as it has brought passionate debate. The last major theoretical text that he published, The Rhetorical Foundations of Society opens with his polemic and ongoing debate with Slavoj Zizek and it includes a chapter on the ethics and politics of Alain Badiou.

Just recently, the left wing coalition Syriza has come to power and in Spain, a similar leftist populist movement called PODEMOS, is preparing for elections where they are looking to garner a majority of the vote. The Guardian ran a piece on Why Ernesto Laclau is the intellectual figurehead for Syriza and Podemos and it points to the prophetic way in which Laclau’s thought is both applicable at the level of political strategy, and unfolding on the ground in the form of these two populist movements.

Professor Farhang Erfani has been deeply involved with Lacalau’s work, corresponding with him when he was alive, and he is currently writing about his work in consideration of the Arab Spring.

A folder of readings has been put together by Professor Erfani to give participants in the course a more foundational understanding of Laclau’s theoretical approach. These essays include:  “Why Do Empty Signifiers Matter to Politics?”; “Hegemony and the Future of Democracy”; Why Constructing a People is the Main Task of Radical Politics”; and “Ethics, Normativity and the Heteronomy of the Law.”

Go to this folder to download the readings.
Lecture Description:

This lecture is conceptually grounded in Ernesto Laclau’s work. I would like to briefly revisit his remarkable trajectory with an eye toward the last decade or so, until his recent and untimely death. The primary focal point is accordingly Laclau’s work on populism, but it will require revisiting his earlier works from the 1970s-80’s on the Gramscian notion of hegemony. The rise of populist movements – at least conceived as such in everyday common parlance – indeed requires us to pay close attention to Laclau’s writings, but this lecture aims to tease out as much his political timeliness as his philosophical contribution.

The earlier work of Laclau – particularly his Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, co-authored with Chantal Mouffe – was rightly but reductively seen as a political “application” of contemporary philosophy and especially Derridean deconstruction. Similarly, his later work is often considered Lacanian. Such philosophical-genealogies, however, undermine Laclau’s innovative contributions. His notion of populism, in particular, is irreducible to either deconstruction or psychoanalysis. Better yet, it attends to some of the shortcomings of Lacan and Derrida, which I will tentatively call “critical political narcissism.” Without renouncing the now widely shared premise of decentered agency, Laclau’s political thought does not stop with a critical denunciation of illusionary mastery. He in fact accounts for the political logic through which the “other” gains a voice.

As much as I will rely on contemporary examples – ranging from the Arab Spring, Occupy, Tea-Party and the rise of the far-right in Europe – to demonstrate that Laclau’s insights are second to none, I will also raise a number of critical questions regarding his sophisticated apparatus. Although Laclau is all too careful not to conflate the categories of people and nation, the tie between the two is worth examining. That far-right movements are often associated with populism is no mere coincidence. That this under theorized tie may prevent the emancipatory goals championed by Laclau makes this critical inquiry all the more necessary.


Instructor: Dr. Farhang Erfani


Farhang Erfani is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the American University in Washington, D.C., Research Associate at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in South Africa, and Faculty at the Global Center for Advanced Studies. He has previously published Aesthetics of Autonomy: Ricœur and Sartre on Emancipation, Authenticity, and Selfhood (2011), an anthology on Paul Ricœur, Shooting Truth: Philosophy and Iranian Cinema (2012), and scholarly articles on continental political philosophy. His current research is on Derrida and new forms of Eurocentrism as well as the Arab Spring and the Iranian Green Movement.

About Daniel Tutt

My theoretical orientation is Lacanian and broadly engaged with the wider continental and Marxist lineage. Much of my research and writing seeks to bridge the Islamicate and Muslim intellectual traditions with the wider field of continental philosophy. I am interested less in examining the ‘what’ in the history of philosophy and more in understanding the ‘how’ — how can thought push boundaries and how does novelty emerge within social and political arrangements? My academic training is in continental philosophy and psychoanalysis and some Islamic studies. As an active member of the D.C. Lacanian Forum I have worked on Lacan’s thought for over 10 years. Participating in numerous workshops on Lacan offered by globally recognized analysts and theorists has given me a familiarity with Lacan’s system and it has enabled me to introduce Lacan’s ideas to a wide audience. My Ph.D. work with Alain Badiou has focused on the way that Lacan influenced his wider system of thought.

3 comments on “Upcoming Seminar: Populism without People? On Ernesto Laclau’s Timely Political Philosophy

  1. Pingback: Laclau Event | Figures of Critique in the Borderlands

  2. felixnorbert
    February 18, 2015

    Hi, will the seminar be podcasted or recorded/ published afterwords?


    • Daniel Tutt
      February 18, 2015

      Yes it will be recorded and posted on our YouTube page.


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