Posts tagged ‘discourse theory’

4 March 2010

Discourse Theory vs Critical Realism

The full (edited) text of a debate between Ernesto Laclau and Roy Bhaskar, held at the University of Essex some years ago, is available online.

…tip from Radical Reason & Materialism.

6 March 2009

DAAD position at University of Essex

For German post-structuralist discourse theorists: the DAAD (Deutscher Akademischer Austausch Dienst) is sponsoring a temporary lectureship (min 2 years; max 4 years) in political science at the Department of Government, University of Essex, Colchester, England. Not that all the Essex political scientists are of discourse theoretical colour (by no means). But still.

Deadline: 20.03.2009. Position starts Sept/Oct 2009. Applicants must have doctorate.

Der Lektor / Die Lektorin wird im Undergraduate- und Postgraduatebereich
eines der renommiertesten politikwissenschaftlichen Departments des
Landes tätig sein.

Lehraufgaben: Lehrveranstaltungen vorwiegend in englischer Sprache,
darunter Vorlesungen, Seminare und Tutorien zu Themenbereichen deutscher
und europäischer Politik, v.a. EU-Politik. Mögliche Schwerpunkte: das
politische System Deutschlands, die Politik der Bundesrepublik
Deutschland, deutsche Außenpolitik und EU-Beziehungen, die Politik der
BRD in vergleichender Perspektive.

25 February 2009

NDSU and discourse theory

Fascinating glimpse into non-transparent discourse on “Composition Theory: Me, Thou, Us and Nobody”. It seems to be the course blog for a composition class at North Dakota State University. And of course, since the participants are reacting to readings and discussions they are having, it is a perfect example of a “long conversation” (Janet Maybin) from which I am excluded.

They are currently encountering discourse theory, and I am fascinated by their posts, which in addition to (i) their intrinsic interest, (ii) the successful detective feeling I get when I manage to work out what issue is at hand, and (iii) the feeling of illicitness my reading evokes, illustrate once more that “discourse theory” can have 100 meanings for 100 different people.

The class is not, as far as I can tell, engaging in Laclau and Mouffe’s poststructuralist discourse theory, nor in Habermas. Perhaps CDA, though? And I’d bet on James Paul Gee.

7 February 2009

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.

30 September 2008

Putin’s popularity

One question dominated a recent workshop on New Stability, Democracy and Nationalism in Contemporary Russia’ at the University of Basel. How did Vladimir Putin manage to gain the trust of the population and such impressive popularity figures? And how has he managed to sustain the public trust in his person throughout his presidency and into his position as prime minster today? The latter question is easier to answer: constant economic growth, increased feelings of stability, the re-emergence of the Russian Federation as an important global political power. But the first question?

Speaker after speaker expressed the view that traditional/conventional (western) political science models, methods and theories are simply unable to explain why Putin suddenly attracted such support when he was promoted to Yeltsin’s Prime Minister in 1999.

This seems to be the gap in the literature that a discourse theoretical approach may be able to fill. We will be watching the output of Philipp Casula, the workshop’s central organiser, keenly to see which proposals he makes, drawing perhaps on Ernesto Laclau’s theorising of populism in On Populist Reason (i.e., did Putin and his advisors manage to unite a wide range of popular demands; something that Yeltsin and his ‘Family’ clearly failed to do?).

Full workshop programme available as pdf file.

Selected data from the Levada Centre (March 2008):

Relation to Vladimir Putin

Results: largely favourable (mid blue), largely unfavourable (dark blue), don’t know enough about the issue (light blue).

Trust, Optimism and Wellbeing

Results: Index of Trust in the Presidency (green), Index of Economic Optimism (red), Index of National Wellbeing (blue).

24 September 2008

Thank You for Smoking

Thank You for Smoking is a satirical film that should be required viewing for all NGO spokespeople or grassroots activists. Hugely entertaining and highly informative on how to debate, persuade and — above all — never lose an argument.

In discourse theoretical terminology, the key is to create chains of equivalence, that is, to ‘divide social space by condensing meanings around two antagonistic poles’ [1]. Nick Naylor, Vice President of the American Tobacco Academy, i.e., spokesman for the US tobacco lobby, constantly creates frontiers in the social space so that he is on the side of the good and ethical, with his opponents merging into one single antagonistic position.

He links the rights of smokers to general civil liberties (against those who try to deny them those liberties); he connects the defense of beleaguered tobacco corporations to the universal right of the global oppressed to a competent defence (against the powerful oppressors), and presents himself as a man of the people (against the political/health advocacy elites who only aim for personal gain).

A simplified model of equivalential chains is provided by Ernesto Laclau in On Populist Reason [2]

The example I had in mind was that of an oppressive regime – in that case Tsarism – separated by a political frontier from the demands of most sectors of society (D1, D2, D3, … etc). Each of these demands, in its particularity, is different from all the others (this particularity is shown in the diagram by the lower semicircle in the representation of each of them). All of them, however, are equivalent to each other in their common opposition to the oppresive regime (this is what the upper cemicircle represents). This, as we have seen, leads to one of the demands stepping in and becoming the signifier of the whole chain – a tendentially empty signifier. But the whole model depends on the presence of the dichotomic frontier: without this, the equivalential relation would collapse and the identity ogf each demand would be exhausted in its differential particularity.

More on empty signifiers, and an exploration of a less simplified model to follow…

[1] Howarth, D., & Stavrakakis, Y. (2000). Introducing discourse theory and political analysis. In D. Howarth, A. J. Norval & Y. Stavrakakis (Eds.), Discourse Theory and Political Analysis: Identities, hegemonies and social change (pp. 1-23). Manchester: Manchester University Press, p. 11.

[2] Laclau, E. (2005). On Populist Reason. London: Verso, p. 130-131.

Thank You For Smoking, 2006. Directed by Jason Reitman. Produced by David O. Sacks. Nominated for the Golden Globe Award.

15 September 2008

Discourse Theory and Cultural Analysis

A timely new book has just been published – the first collection of papers exporing ways in which discourse theory, as inspired by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, can aid the analysis of media and other cultural forms. Following an introduction by the editors, Nico Carpentier and Erik Spinoy (From the political to the cultural), the fifteen substantive chapters are divided into five sections: TV, Radio & Print // Arts/Film // Ads // ICT // Literature.

Nico Carpentier & Erik Spinoy (Eds.) (2008) Discourse Theory and Cultural Analysis: Media, Arts and Literature. Hampton Press

Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe’s discourse theory has been successfully used in the study of many areas of the political-ideological, including Apartheid, populism, fascism, new social movements, ecology and revolutionary discourses. Surprisingly, the attempts to move beyond the confines of political theory and research are still very rare.

This book’s main objective is to expand discourse theory into the realm of the cultural, by focusing on specific discursive machines and mechanisms in the fields of the media and the arts & literature. The themes vary from war to gaming culture, from new realist poetry to Mario Toral’s mural painting, and from literary history to Mexican cinema. The greater number of chapters in this volume deals with a variety of media, including television, newspapers, film, ads, press communiqués, online forums and videogames. Content-wise these chapters are majoritarily discourse-theoretical analyses of a wide range of conflicts and their representations. Although the application of discourse theory is virtually non-existent within the realm of Literary and Art Studies, a substantial number of chapters introduces key discourse-theoretical notions as antagonism and agonism, hegemony, and indeterminacy into these fields.

All in all, the operationalisation of discourse theory in the study of media, literature and other artistic fields allows for a dry-eyed, sobered-up continuation of earlier poststructuralist and deconstructionist research. It proves, moreover, to be an asset in paving the way for innovative approaches to comparative and multimedia  / interartistic research, and in doing so it offers an important contribution to scholarly debates in a wide range of disciplines.