Discursive Articulations and the Return of “Rational” Interventions

In a review of different theoretical approaches to analyzing the restructuring of space and place in urban regions in Hungary and England, Varro (2010) shows the genealogy of what she called a “Politics of Space Approach” (p. 59) based on application of discourse theory to the analysis of spatial change. Focusing chiefly on discourse theory, she refers to the work of Laclau and Mouffe (1985; see also Andersen, 2003). Laclau and Mouffe draw on Gramsci’s (1992) concept of hegemony, which denoted the capacity of the ruling class to eliminate oppositional forces by incorporating them into a collective will based on a shared system of meanings (values, attitudes, beliefs, and morality). “Laclau and Mouffe acknowledge, and carry forward, Gramsci’s proposition to see collective will as formed through the articulation of various identities, i.e., processes where identities are ‘brought together’ and mutually modify each other” (Varro, 2010, p. 46). But they disapprove of Gramsci’s (1992) class reductionism and the assumed dominance of economic relations in the making of space. Social and spatial identities are thus fundamentally “unfixed” (p. 88) and are only partially fixed through hegemonic practices of articulation. Discourse becomes “an attempt to dominate the field of discursivity, to arrest the flow of differences, to construct a centre” (Laclau & Mouffe, 1985, p. 112). Discourse can therefore be seen as the totality of an act of performance, including linguistic and nonlinguistic elements (Laclau & Mouffe, 1987). This inclusiveness brings in an element of political, strategic, or deliberative interaction and thus opens room for the process of rational deliberation, though Laclau and Mouffe (1985, 1987) refrain from using the qualification rational for this inherently political process of radical democracy. Jessop (1990) and Howarth (2004, p. 271) have criticized Laclau and Mouffe (1985, 1987) for not illustrating how such a radical democracy can be characterized and institutionalized. Mouffe (2005) does not get much further than stating that the crucial issue for democratic politics is not the eradication of conflict via consensus but rather the legitimation of a multiplicity of opinions, attributions of meaning, and identities—in short, the legitimation of conflict or a consensus on difference. His observation seems to imply that the potential hostility and antagonism of political forces is turned into agonism, where opponents are seen not as enemies to be destroyed but as legitimate adversaries whose ideas can be countered (Mouffe, 2005). As Jacob Torfing (1999) observed,

post-structuralist insights might help to sustain an agonistic democracy that is capable of transforming enemies into adversaries....the nomadization and hybridization of identity might contribute to the dissolution of antagonistic frontiers (Mouffe, 1994, pp. 110-111). Nomadization refers to the attempt to undercut the allegiance of a specific identity to a certain place or a certain property, and thereby to show that all identities are constructed in and through hegemonic power struggles. This will tend to denaturalize social and political identities and make them more negotiable. Hybridization refers to the attempt to make people realize that their identity is multiple in the sense of constituting an over-determined ensemble of identifications. (p. 255)

In Laclau and Mouffe’s thinking this idea of an agonistic democracy is also extended to their own normative claim for radical democratization, as the very nature of the process of radical democratization is itself part of an agonistic debate and depends on a contingent, but at least largely shared, symbolic space (Mouffe, 2005, p. 121). This extension, however, still does not explain how such a political debate or deliberation takes place and what the radical democratic politics look like in action, not just as a starting point or outcome. At this juncture the interactionist outlook seems to be more useful. In general it is clear how the different traditions of social theory, ranging from mentalist and interactionist to textualist points of view, each address different complementary aspects of the political praxis put forward by Laclau and Mouffe (1985).

To develop this approach to praxis theory further, it is essential to rethink concepts of reason and rationality so as to create space for pluralistic forms of rationality and for transversal reflections (Welsch, 1999), even for rational interventions. This space seems to have been obscured thus far by the concepts used by Laclau and Mouffe (1985), which were inspired mainly by Marxist and poststructuralist thinking, and by some misinterpretation of the original concept of rationality in this context. Varro (2010) noted a similar misunderstanding with respect to the concept of discourse between critical realist thinkers and discourse theorists.

In the de-essentialized and dynamic, but nevertheless highly structuralist and imprisoning, interpretation of discourses and practices reminiscent of early Foucault (1972) and the practice turn (Schatzki et al., 2001; Visnovsky, 2009), there seems little space for rationality or reason in the traditional modernist sense. In this framework, politics—and thus also spatial politics—seems to be defined primarily as authority and power and seems to deal only with the effects of power relations and not with the structure of the deliberations that take place in the framework of these relations.

As part of the misunderstanding of rationality, rationality is seen only as a foundational universal concept, for it was forwarded by enlightenment at a time when reason had actually been expelled from the view of the human being’s abilities to deliberate about the world. However, Welsch (1997,1999) prompted the question of how to differentiate and judge the various systems of meaning and logics, or the various forms of rationality involved, without some all-embracing perspective. Distinctions and judgments based on any one of these types or paradigms of rationality would necessarily misrepresent the others. Welsch suggested that there must be a different type of functioning that underlies human reflective capacity. It is this type of reflection that he reintroduced as reason, enhancing rationality—or better, enhancing rationalities . In a seminal book written in the Anglo-Saxon tradition, Schrag (1992) took up and endorsed this very specific kind of reason. Both scholars called it transversal reason (Schrag, 1992, p. 148; Welsch, 1997, p. 315). Because transversal reason relates geographic realities and geographic differences to each other, it is crucial for the geographic perspective as well. As the reflexive ability to recognize and clarify the differences as well as the relationships between the various forms of rationality, transversal reason is actually a necessary condition for the theory of plurality and difference.

Related to the current situation of plurality and hybridity, this kind of transversal reason is not a new invention but rather a skill that is increasingly used consciously or unconsciously in everyday practice and that is becoming more and more an inner constituent of people’s reasoning and life designs. The present age is not one seemingly bereft of rationality but rather one in which reason and rationality are reunited as a mental and reflective activity operating at every step of rational deliberation on discursive articulations.

Reason and rationality are not two separate faculties, and in a sense are not faculties at all, but rather signify different layers and functional modes of our reflective activity. ‘Reason’ refers to the basic mechanism, ‘rationality’ to the various concrete, object-directed [or place related] versions of this activity. (Welsch, 1999, Pt. III, sec. 5, par. 2)

From this standpoint geography is primarily about developing these skills of reason and rational deliberation in a situation characterized by social and geographical diversity. The latest advances in social theory and in their operationalization in human geography—possible to outline only very tentatively in this chapter—yield a research program on human geography that combines several schools of thought with that discipline’s political commitment to create a knowledge base and reflective skills for subsequent rational interventions.

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