What is to Be Done? Political Ontology, Critique and Democratic Politics Roundtable

University of Edinburgh, 18th November 2016

(L-R: Mihaela Mihai, Oliver Marchart, Aletta Norval, Lois McNay)

On 18th November, the University of Edinburgh hosted a roundtable entitled What is to Be Done? Political Ontology, Critique and Democratic Politics. The roundtable investigated the exciting linkages between inquiries into the ontological underpinnings of politics, and the possibilities and limitations of critique at the present historical juncture. It brought together three renowned scholars on the topic – Aletta Norval (University of Essex), Lois McNay (University of Oxford) and Oliver Marchart (University of Vienna) – who were invited to address three interrelated questions:

  • Is political ontology merely the epochal form of critique at a time when alternatives to capitalism are often thought to be unimaginable?
  • Have we exhausted the intellectual and practical resources of other forms of critique, such as feminist, post-colonial or Marxist approaches?
  • What new forms of political imagination can animate critique and re-invigorate
    democratic practices?

Following introductory comments by the panel chair, Mihaela Mihai, Lois McNay initiated the session by pointing to the unique character of the recent turn towards ontology. If thinkers have previously inquired into the first principles that can illuminate the inherent – and potentially emancipatory – features of political action, she foregrounded the contemporary turn as far more radical in conceiving of all social relations as potential sites of political contestation and transformation. If this critical potential is to be praised, however, McNay also chided it for its lack of more substantive suggestions for alternatives to (neoliberal) globalization. The inquiries into the ontological principles of politics too, as she argued, are not immune to the dangers of abstract theorizing or what she called “socially weightless thinking.” Against this danger, McNay emphasized the prescient relevance of drawing on feminist theory in particular and outlined how it might help us reorient our understanding of the theorist’s role in relation to the public realm. The role of critique, on this account, would not be to seek to prescribe solutions based on universal paradigms, but a practically engaged theorizing, intent on unmasking practices of domination as they manifest themselves in particular socio-political contexts. The talk ended by a Foucaultian appeal not to give up on the present moment. Alternatives to mainstream democratic imagination exist, they thrive in notions like emotion, hope, precarity, and vulnerability, and time is ripe to uncover and sustain through them the will to revolution and possibilities for progressive change.

Aletta Norval likewise started from the question of why ontology emerges as important at precisely the present conjecture. Drawing on Gramsci’s notion of organic crisis as the moment when the old is dying and the new is not yet born, she argued that the particular uncertainties plaguing our world can be seen as imbued with the Heideggerian sense of an, as it were primordial, perplexity at the question of what it means for us to be and act in the first place. Based on Heidegger’s account of the ontico-ontological distinction, Norval inquired into the mutually constitutive and overlapping relationship between the realm of the concrete, local being of specific entities on the one hand and the general conditions of possibility for existence on the other. Rather than viewing the ontological forms of critique as externally opposed to more embedded feminist, Marxist or postcolonial approaches, she in turn called for their treatment as mutually intertwined. The recognition of the interconnectedness of the ontico-ontological dimensions, she argued, constitutes the very root of the possibility to rethink the role of political theory in the political domain. Similarly to McNay, Norval called upon political theorists to descend from any presumption of a privileged standpoint, and rather kindle their attentiveness to particular contexts of struggle found in their worldly environment. It is from such examples of concrete alternative action that theorists might be able to draw broader lessons and disclose the resources for thinking anew and differently.

Oliver Marchart built on the practical relevance of ontological inquiry precisely by uncovering its ability to dislocate the foundational forms of ideology critique – the tendency to derive objective interests of the oppressed and the concomitant rules of action from a foundational ground that is itself located in an unworldly, external vantage point. Instead, he argued for a postfoundational form of critique, which, rather than lapsing into anti-foundationalism, retains the notion of ground, yet also is oriented to keeping alive the awareness that any ground necessarily is contingent. Ethically and politically, this means that our actions are always-already caught between denial and acceptance of groundlessness – a condition of possibility that is not to be seen as an impasse, but that first of all opens new avenues for democratic politics. On the one hand, any action is predicated upon some foundational understanding of the social and so is ideological in the sense that it forecloses other possibilities. On the other hand, however, ethical action also carries a constant reminder of its own ultimately ungrounded nature, and therefore must remain open to revision and refoundation through different, competing claims.

The stimulating presentations inspired a passionate engagement of the audience and led to a fruitful discussion that centred mainly on the precise relationship between ontological forms of inquiry and their political relevance, and so on the practical role of theorizing. McNay further expanded on the need to embed issues of contingency and (antagonistic) power dynamics more firmly in the particular ways these are concretely experienced as vulnerability or disempowerment, and how they can become entrenched and relatively enduring in practical contexts of inequality and domination. Marchart, in turn, emphasized that political ontology is not to be understood as an instrument of social analysis strictly speaking. In its postfoundational form, it can better be understood as a particular way of seeing, a redirection of our perspectives on the social world, which further implies a genuine willingness to engage the conflictual nature of social relations, and expand our standpoints through a consideration of those of others. While questioning any necessary link between ontological contingency and the supposedly conflictual character of politics, Norval similarly argued against the view that political theorists might be able to make decisions on the course of the world. The dignity of political theory, she proposed, lies not merely in direct political activism, but also in responsible intellectual work, committed to challenging entrenched positions and to giving articulation to the democratic potentials present within specific events. The discussion ended in a broader consensus on the need not to underestimate the very real challenges to democratic practices in the present moment, but also to keep in mind the awareness – as Marchart emphasized – that the future of democracy is not foretold, but remains open. In this sense, the roundtable represented an important intervention towards rekindling the emancipatory potentials of political action – itself an important testimony to the utmost relevance of political theory at the current historical conjecture.

The roundtable was part of the broader event series that also included a workshop at the University of St Andrews on 19th November 2016. The event series was organized by Dr Mihaela Mihai (University of Edinburgh), Dr Vassilios Paipais (University of St Andrews), and Dr Mathias Thaler (University of Edinburgh).


Written by Maša Mrvolje, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Politics and member of the GREYZONE European Research Council Starting Grant Project research team.