Brief introduction to discourse theory

patrick_de_vosPatrick De Vos has posted the talk with which he will introduce Chantal Mouffe’s keynote lecture at Ghent University College on 11 February.

The talk is an excellent introduction to discourse theory, which he believes is “one of the most advanced models of language and politics available to us today”.

Concise summary:

Discourse Theory is at once a social ontology that avoids any form of essentialism, a theory of political identity constructed through antagonism, and a democratic theory.

Subtly countering the oft-cited objection that in discourse theory “everything is discourse”:

All social phenomena and objects can only acquire meaning within a discourse, but such a discourse can only achieve a partial fixation of meaning, which openmouffe_2801s up the space for all social practices to be articulatory; i.e. to continuously generate new meaning and identity.

On antagonism and identification:

Conflict and antagonism should not be understood as a confrontation between social agents that already possess a fully constituted identity (as liberal theory typically does), but rather, it is seen to occur when the presence of an ‘Other’ prevents me from fully attaining ‘my identity’. This impossibility to accomplish a fully closed identity is seen as a mutual experience. Identities are mutually formed through political struggles: they are mutually constitutive, yet they threaten one another. Antagonisms and conflicts simultaneously form and destabilise identities. Social formations too are constituted through the construction of antagonistic relations, by which political frontiers between social agents are drawn. Here too a fully ‘sutured’ society is seen as impossible.

On hegemony:

The success of any political project can be measured by its ability to fix meaning (at least partially and temporally) within a given context. This is what Laclau and Mouffe have called hegemony. Hegemony is seen as more than just dominance or force over others, and as more than the mere creation of consent among social actors. Hegemony involves the political articulation of different identities into a common project that then becomes our social horizon. Hegemonic articulation is indeed seen as the process of social construction of truth.

On agonism:

But if we accept that we cannot eliminate antagonism or escape the need for mouffe_on_politicalidentity, how are we then to conceive of a democratic society? The alternative proposed by Chantal Mouffe involves the transformation of antagonism into an agonism. In a democracy the friend/enemy relation is to be replaced by an adversarial model that allows us to get rid of the violent character of antagonism, while fully acknowledging the dynamics of group identification. The art of agonistic democracy is thus not to ignore or circumvent social conflict, but to control it, or if you like: sublimate it. Instead of going beyond left and right, where conflict first seems to disappear but is eventually played out in the moral register of good-versus-evil, Mouffe urges us to finally come to terms with the conflictual nature of politics and the ineradictability of antagonism. If we ever wish to escape the present dominance of neo-liberalism, we’d better listen to what she has to say – and learn from it.


4 Responses to “Brief introduction to discourse theory”

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