I’m fascinated by discourse: the power it can have in society, how it is created, how it is (re)produced, and the effects it can have. However, I’ve always found myself in an interesting position regarding it. For the ease of argument, I’m a critical realist (whether or not I actually am is still up for debate as far as I’m concerned – I think there’s more we can say about the ideational and material – there’s probably a blog post in there somewhere, but my brain is far too fried for that right now). And though discourse analysis (particularly critical discourse analysis) is comfortably compatible with this position, it becomes harder when you delve further in to discourse theory.
Essentially, you cannot seem to pull away from its ideational nature. Obviously for a lot of scholars this is the point of it. An engagement with Foucault for example renders your position firmly in the realm of discourse, which transcends the material. Yet, I cannot get away from the idea that there needs to be a meaningful connection with the material realm. In this respect, with my use of discourse analysis I feel caught between two worlds. Can discourse be used as a bridge in this sense? I think possibly so.
As you will have picked up from this blog so far, my main theoretical preoccupation at the moment is with Gramsci. I find Gramsci and his works almost have an answer for everything (hyperbole warning!), depending on how you read him. One of the reasons Gramsci has been taken up by so many people (in politics, IR, cultural studies, media studies, communications, sociology etc.) is because of the versatility of his work. Of course, there are plenty of people who will disregard any reading they do not consider to be the ‘true’ reading (whatever that might be. Gramsci is, after all, dead; it’s not like we can ask him). Yet if we do not move past such a position, how are we supposed to create new knowledge? That being said, one cannot agree with every reading of a scholar/theorist out there; eventually you will end up assuming contradictory positions, and that can’t last.
One famous development of Gramsci’s work (and by and large the only real foray into discourse analysis) is through Laclau and Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. I have to say I do not accord with their overall argument. I, like many Gramscians, feel that they have divorced Gramsci too radically from his roots and his own socio-political and theoretical positions. However, we can still take from Laclau and Mouffe. I use Laclau in my thesis to begin tying Gramsci to discourse, through taking some of Laclau’s theoretical frames in order to understand how discourse works and develops. Laclau for example talks of logics in a ‘language game’: these logics make up the ‘grammar’ of talk and text, and essentially define the limits of the possible. As an example, a logic of the free market shuts down debates concerning public ownership of the railways. Currently it’s simply not possible to have such a debate in public and have those ideas and discussions seen as rational, in a general sense.
This links somewhat to my view of Gramsci and discourse. His work is so powerful because it takes in to account state formation and maintenance, and what is needed to achieve this: in a nutshell – spontaneous consent. This consent is developed through hegemony – in terms of discourse, this is the universalising of socio-political and cultural values and norms. Here, there is a strong connection to the material: the development of universal norms effectively limit what is acceptable and unacceptable in society – it is the material outcome of the ideational struggle (such as the ‘language game’). If one steps outside of these norms, there will be consequences. Look to those on welfare. Current discourses dictate that those on welfare are essentially the victims of their own dysfunction (this is somewhat paradoxically reinforced by discourses that the ‘majority of people on welfare want to work’). These people are on welfare because they have not respected these norms. They can then be treated outside these norms. A gainful employee of a company would rightly refuse to work for nothing but expenses; current JSA recipients have no such choice in the matter. They have forfeited their right to be treated within such cultural and value norms.
Furthermore, Gramsci trained originally as a linguist. He was heavily interested in and influenced by linguistics and language. Once you know what you are looking for, it is incredibly easy to spot. Think of how Gramsci talks of coercion and consent within hegemony. Hegemony itself is a great example: it is not simply dominance through the use of force, but through the construction of a socio-political unity in whose creation citizens feel directly responsible for. They have resisted some changes and accepted others. Therefore they ‘won’ their battles and will accept the system as a whole. How much of this resistance took place on the streets, or in direct conflict with other groups? An essential element in developing hegemony is the construction of identity, and the construction of identity is the direct result of the interaction between ideational and material forces.
Hegemony relies on the surreptitious and the clandestine – people must voluntarily submit to authority. Revolutions breed counter revolutions, whilst fighting and violence can breed instability. Yet alter the culture, and you alter people’s reactions and beliefs; they can do the hard work for you. And this has undoubted material effects: if we raise taxes the rich will leave and the economy will collapse = low corporation tax. We can’t afford to pay people decent wages because the economy will collapse = 6% cut in wages in real terms. Why don’t people rebel? It’s pointless, it’s not British, we’d only hurt ourselves in the long run. Conversely this throws in to sharp question for me the role of revolutions in the first place. There needs to be fertile ground for any change to take place. That involves building the right conditions. Those conditions cannot be built if they are antithetical to the cultural and socio-political norms in place. Therefore, one must fight hegemony with hegemony.
There is certainly fertile ground to develop an explicitly Gramscian approach to discourse analysis. It’s something I am looking forward to having a go at!