Is the discursive material? (At last)

Howie Chodos howie at
Thu Jul 6 23:27:38 MDT 1995

Leo's post seems to me to raise important issues regarding questions of
social ontology. What types of things can be held to be causal forces that
shape social evolution? I agree that the discursive should be seen as causal
and as having a material impact. But I think certain formulations in the
post at least imply a kind of primacy of the discursive, which seems to me
to entail the flip error to materialistic determinism.

What seems to me to be at stake is whether there can be an immanent logic to
a given process without it necessarily determining the outcome. Both Leo and
his opponents think not. Leo draws the conclusion that any talk of immanent
logic is therefore essentialist, deterministic and must be rejected. His
opponents embrace the immanent logic and say that because it is immanent it
must be realised, and our freedom lies in acting in accordance with this
recognition. Both of these approaches strike me as flawed.

Leo writes:

> But where does that leave us? The discursive theory of
>Laclau and Mouffe claims something quite different -- that the object has no
>'being', no 'meaning' outside of the discursive. And being is not existence.

And then:

>Insofar as Marx affirms the
>Hegelian principle that the "real is the rational, and the rational is the
>real" which is precisely what the notion of an immanent logic in history does
>(be that logic the spirit or the development of the productive process), he
>remains on the ground of idealism. It is only when essentialism in all of its
>forms is rejected, when the notion that all being is relational and
>contingent is grasped, that the ground of idealism has been left. In this
>respect, it is Marxism -- rather than the discursive theory of radical
>democracy -- which is open to the charge of idealism.

And further on:

>Rather, I (and Laclau and Mouffe, if I read
>them correctly) reject the categorical separation of the two terms, with
>social existence determining consciousness, and with consciousness clearly
>exterior and posterior to social existence. The discursive disrupts the
>notion of separate consciousness and existence -- there is no being, social
>meaning outside of its relational field.

What I get from this is that existence can have no meaning outside the
discursive, and that by recognising the contingency of being we can escape
from all essentialisms. But this seems to me to attach a certain primacy to
the discursive in the definition of being, which strikes me as an
essentialist approach to both discourse and being. Wouldn't a
non-essentialist approach see the relationship between the discursive and
non-discursive as itself being contingent, and therefore refuse to attach
any a priori primacy to either of the two terms?

Leo's approach still seems to me to be a version of what Bhaskar calls the
epistemic fallacy, the collapsing of the non-discursive into the discursive.
It is to define being as discursive, which, on the one hand, seems to me to
beg the question of the nature of being; on the other, it strikes me as an
essentialist notion of being (complementing the essentialist notion of
discourse). I do not see why we cannot hold that discourse is one aspect of
being among many, as are diverse aspects of our individual physical makeup
and our patterns of social interaction, without assigning it a pre-eminent
role in the definition of being. In a sense it is true that there is no
(human) being outside of discourse, but this does not seem to me to exhaust
what can be said about being, human or otherwise. Discourse may be a
necessary condition for certain kinds of being but even where it is it
cannot be said to be sufficient. And there are many cases of being which do
not depend on the discursive, because their existence does not depend on
their interaction with discursive beings.

I share Leo's desire to go beyond certain oppositions such as
material/ideal. The only plausible way to do this that I can see is to
refuse to accord theoretical primacy to either term while at the same time
looking for the way in which primacy comes to be established in practice, in
a historically contingent way. There will be some factors that are more
important than others, but which they are cannot always be told in advance,
based on purely theoretical arguments. There will always be both material
and ideal dimensions to any concrete dimension of human social activity, but
the relationship between the two, their relative causal force, depends on
the circumstances.

Howie Chodos

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