The political and the school
Mouffe (2005) argues against politics, as opposed to the political, as politics tends to be reduced to an issue of distribution of things (in whatever form) as the prime goal for politics, and such distribution takes place essentially within the same unified worldview in which politics is to make sense. The political, on the other hand, signals an ongoing negotiation between different hegemonies that are mutually exclusive. That is, the political accepts difference, while politics basically takes place within the idea of one unified order, with variations already within that order. The political is better understood at the backdrop of pluralism, that is, the idea that all descriptions of the world cannot be reduced to one, and that the multiplicity of descriptions are more than descriptions.
They are different truths, with small “t”, to refer to Richard Rorty (1980), and as such the very condition for a continuous conversation of humankind. To emphasize this difference, Mouffe (2005) contrasts our common understanding of a universe with what she calls a “pluriverse” (p. 115). That is, a pluriverse in which the basic and fundamentally different worldviews or hegemonies, in her words, exist simultaneously at any given historical point in time, and are recognized as such rather than being understood against a fundamental uniform universe.
The political, making a radical democracy possible by recognizing different and conflictual hegemonies in a pluriverse, is to transfer what Mouffe calls antagonistic conflicts between different worldviews to agonistic conflicts. This means to transform conflicts that are threatening to violently destroy the basis for politics all together, destroying any possible relation between people who hold different worldviews, transfonning conflicts to those forms of agonisms in which the adversary of the other is confirmed as legitimate, and therefore also verifying the other as a speaking being in a meaningful discourse (Mouffe, 2005, p. 20).
That is, transforming them to a controversy in which the other is confirmed as embodying a legitimate worldview (hegemony) and not as representing an evil force in a moral universe, in which there can be only good and evil (Mouffe, 2005, pp. 72—76). The latter moralizing discourse was introduced by the Bush administration in the USA as the “Axis of Evil” was used to address the enemies of the USA.
Mouffe argues that when we conceive conflicts and even wars as basically being between good and evil, we also fundamentally destroy the possibility of political solutions as well as dehumanizing the other (p. 76).
In processes of dehumanization, whose horrifying consequences we have seen too many examples of in history, we also tend to see the good as an unquestionable good, and any opposition to that good as automatically evil. Such moralizing ironically legitimatizes violence towards the other, instead of engagements in antagonistic conflicts, in which the political as such could do its work.
To acknowledge the other as a legitimate adversary not only makes the political possible, but is also a necessary condition to be able to channel conflicts to be resolved through the political process rather than promoting absolute violence as a solution. For Mouffe, democracy itself requires the political, in which the transformation of violent conflicts, of antagonistic conflicts, can be turned into agonistic conflicts in which the other is recognized to exist on his or her terms.
This is also true for more intimate conflicts, that is, for the political to appear in a school, some conditions need to be in place; such as the acceptance of the other as absolutely other, and an understanding of pluralism, and of conflict as political rather than moral. In order for schooling to be democratic in this sense, it needs to be open in its very foundation for pluralism, a manifold of worldviews, at the same time as it has to be able to transform conflicts between wordviews into controversies in which such conflicts can be dealt with without doing violence to the worldview of the other, who may not share your own.
This is a far-reaching requirement, and makes it obvious, to my mind (as discussed in previous chapters), that only with great difficulty can schooling be said to be democratic in this way; and that even if the institution as such cannot work democratically, relations between people can.
That is, I think, why it is so important to make a sharp distinction between the institution and processes of institutionalization on the one hand, and relations between people in a school on the other; that is, those relations can be expressions of democracy, despite the power of the institution, and to the extent they verify equality (Rancière, 1991, 1999). The verification of equality is something of an unrealized possibility in all interactions, in all human endeavours. That is, to the extent to which one can acknowledge the otherness of the other in the political, one also needs to accept the radical otherness of oneself.
By acknowledging one’s otherness (Kristeva, 1991), understanding one’s subjectivity as ambiguous, the point-like subjectivity of a fixed identity communicating with other fixed identities is problematized to its core. If my relation to the self as well as the borders between self and other are always negotiable, then speaking (broadly understood) is necessarily an expression of an ambiguous but distinct process of self-realization. That is, in such a process of self-realization one is also accepting oneself as a speaking being among other beings, acknowledging the capacity of the other to speak as well (Rancière, 1991).
That does not mean that one has to agree with what is said; rather, to acknowledge the other as a speaking being across difference requires a constant negotiation of meaning. Such negotiation of meaning is never fixed, but requires a constant translation of the said. In concrete terms, such translations are in themselves internal to what we call democracy, because democracy is also the form in which the pluralism of the world can be negotiated.
If there can be no fixed meaning, it also follows that when we do understand the meaning as fixed, we are then also confirming the power of fixating meaning (Cherryholmes, 1988). In political conflicts, it is exactly this power of fixing meaning that is the issue in the first place. Therefore, to strive to release certain fixed meanings from words of schooling is to enforce democratization of the discursive space in which students and teachers interact.