Is the discursive material? (At last)

LeoCasey at LeoCasey at
Fri Jul 7 09:40:58 MDT 1995

As usual, Howie has provided a very thoughtful and thought provoking response
to my posting. If I understood him correctly, the crux of his position lies
in these paragraphs:

>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?


> 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.

Let me try to respond through some inquiries seeking clarification.

First, what is meant here by the _non-discursive_? It is presented as a
residual category, and it is hard to figure out exactly what is in it, and
therefore what to make of the argument generally. For example, is nature in
this framework somehow non-discursive? I could not agree to that formulation.
Certainly, natural phenomena exists outside of human discourse (trees do fall
in the forest whether or not we are there to witness it), but human
interaction with nature is necessarily discursive in form, whether it
involves cutting trees for lumber or 'enjoying' a nature walk. Indeed,
everything we now know about the development of the category of 'nature'
(itself an historical-discursive product) and the nature of the natural
scientific enterprise indicates that the 'natural' in both of these contexts
is a 'discursive' construct. This is not to say, of course, that the natural
scientist can look at the atom and give it any meaning she/he wants, as some
on this list would have us understand discourse theory. It does mean,
however, that the very process of interaction which gives meaning, indeed the
very selection of the object as something which can have meaning, is
inherently discursive.

Second, if we say that discourse is the _form_ in which all meaning and being
take shape, how is that essentialist? What would be an example of meaning and
being outside of this form? This issue reminds me of the charge that there is
something essentialist about my suggestion that modern racism, anti-Semitism
and heterosexism are homologous forms of oppression, relating the commonality
of form to the nature of the political in modernity. Maybe I am missing
something, but I just don't see how an analysis of form is necessarily
essentialist; certainly, there are types of analysis of forms which smuggle
in essentialist categories (mode of production would be one such form), but
it does not follow that all such analysis is. I haven't seen any specific
claims about the essentialist categories being used in discourse analysis,
and so it is hard to respond. (Now if we were talking about Habermas'
coomunicative ethics, I do think that a convincing argument can be made there
that language is used in an essentialist fashion.)

In principle, I would accept the premise that the modes of analysis we use,
including discourse analysis, are historically contigent, but I don't how far
that takes us -- just because our horizon is limited, does not mean that we
have any choice but to labor in the fields before us. There is a certain
misapplication of discourse analysis which I do not see as very fruitful --
the notion, for example, that because identity can never be closed, we should
reject all notions of specific political identities ( worker, woman,
African-American, Jew, gay), and take as our stance some polymorphous,
perpetually fluid subjectivity. For me, the disavowal of provisional closure,
of  historically contingent but nonetheles "real" _particular_ identities, is
the rejection of meaningful politics altogether. Subjectivity must always be
articulated with objectivity, must always have a particular form, to exist.
The point is to understand that those particular forms are constantly
changing, and to be able to intervene in that process of change.

     --- from list marxism at ---


More information about the Marxism mailing list