Contingent Ontologies

At the outset of On the Political, Mouffe begins by distinguishing between ‘politics’ (the empirical field of political activity) and ‘the political’ (the core essence or primary conceptualization of that field). Specifically, Mouffe suggests that ‘[p]olitics refers to the “ontic” level while “the political” has to do with the “ontological” one. This means that the ontics has to do with the manifold practices of conventional politics, while the ontological concerns the very way in which [political] society is instituted’ (Mouffe 2005: 8).

This distinction, borrowed from Heidegger,2 is central to Mouffe’s overall project and important for agonal democratic theory writ large. The basic argument is that in order to understand and critically engage with the manifold practices of day-to-day politics (the ontic), one must first correctly understand what the political is at its essence (the ontological). According to Mouffe and other theorists of agonal democracy, the problem with much of mainstream contemporary democratic theory is that it fundamentally misunderstands and misrepresents the ‘true’ ontological character of the political.

Of course, the language of ‘ontics’ and ‘ontologies’ can be problematic. Following Heidegger, ‘ontological’ implies the essence or essential character of a thing in objective terms. The ontological character of something is its ‘true’ essence, implying a conception that appears both acultural and ahistorical. However, Mouffe’s discussion of the ontological character of ‘the political’ is less about asserting an objectively true ‘essence’ than about illuminating an essential character as it has been instituted, practiced, and replicated in specific cultural contexts—a sort of contingent ontology. Implying more than a broad generalization, but less than an immutable essence, the notion of a contingent ontology suggests a reference to a core character, which, though historically and culturally produced, nonetheless represents a constituting element of a thing as it has been instituted and practiced. Though Mouffe does not herself use the language of contingency, her account of the ontological character of the political suggests neither the eternal nor the immutable character of a truly ontological claim. Indeed, the critical normative bent of Mouffe’s work hinges on the potential mutability of the political by initially identifying the essential character of the political, and then immediately suggesting the need for its transfiguration.

Building on this notion of contingent ontology, I contend that a critical sociological perspective can similarly distinguish between the multiplicity of interactions, practices, and institutions that constitute any given society and the core—though historically contingent, culturally variable, and politically contestable—‘essence’ of the social. Just as Mouffe claims that ‘[...]the origin of our current incapacity to think in a political way[...]’ (2005: 9) is our misunderstanding of the ontological dimension of the political, I argue that the failure to critically consider the myriad social underpinnings of an agonal conception of democracy fatally impoverishes the inherent critical capacities of such perspectives and obscures the fact that any ontological account of the political relies on a similar, and a priori, account of the social.

That said, it is important to distinguish a historically and culturally contingent ontological account of the social from the call for a consolidated corpus of sociological theory—a normalizing collection of research procedures, conceptualizations, and acknowledged meanings ‘unifying’ the discipline as a whole, which could include a single standardized account of the social (Caille 2007: 179). Nor should it be confused with what Anne Sophie Krossa describes as the attempt to overcome the complexities of contemporary concepts of society by normative means (Krossa 2009: 256), leveraging a particular theoretical understanding of the essence of the social to constrain or modify sociological study. The goal here is not to provide a unifying account of society, but rather to provide a theoretical lens through which to render visible the obscured social dimensions of the political ideal of agon. It is a theoretically pluralistic account that seeks to reintroduce a notion of the social and society (from a sociocentric and social constructivist perspective) into a discussion heretofore exclusively focused on its political dimensions, while actively refusing to assert any sort of paradigmatic dominion over the social (or the political, for that matter), or professing to offer any form of perfect explanation of either the ontic or ontological dimensions of society. It is precisely because sociology is constantly navigating its own theoretical pluralism with regard to its object of inquiry, what Laurent Thevenot described as the result of the founding discordance between the social and the science of social sciences (Thevenot 2007: 242), that it is uniquely qualified to contribute to such a perspective.

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