As a grad student and now junior scholar I have often found myself in situations where outdoing one another on one’s knowledge of the ‘male heavy weights’ (read: Foucault, Derrida, Gramsci in my case) becomes almost a perverse game, the winning of which marks you (in some folks’ minds) as a ‘real scholar’. I hate that game. I could probably play (and win perhaps) but an encyclopedic knowledge of any of the above was not helping me uncover and frame the problem I was researching. If one more person told me how Foucault, Gramsi or Derrida would answer my research aims I was going to have to drop out. These thinkers simply didn’t help me (they have their place, but not in my own work) and trying to crow bar my analysis to fit with these big theorists just for the sake of looking clever was a strategy that to me lacked integrity and was intellectually unsatisfying. Thankfully, I had a superb (male) supervisor who listened to my unformed analysis, listed to what I was trying to say, the disparate ideas I was struggling to connect. A thoughtful pause, a careful consideration of what I was trying to do as a scholar– ‘Read Chantal Mouffe’ he said. Jackpot.
Her work is sophisticated yet accessible (I am comfortable giving it to my undergrads to read but my graduate students value it too). It is structured but radical (it gave me a clear framework for analysis but allowed me to stay true to my own ethics related to progress and justice). When people ask me what scholars I use, saying ‘Mouffe’ generally leads to an uncomfortable silence…. I know they were hoping I would say Foucault! Gramsci! Derrida! so they could reinterpret my findings for me using their own knowledge and approaches. So whilst I share and suggest her work whenever possible, and I value her most for the conceptual clarity she has provided in my own work. I also love that she often feels like my own secret weapon when the ‘big guns’ make their appearance.