Is the discursive material?

LeoCasey at LeoCasey at
Thu Jul 13 23:47:53 MDT 1995

I want to thank Howie, John, Gerry, Bryan and Justin (whom I haven't heard
from in a while, and miss) for the spirit in which they have taken up the
questions I raised in this thread. I know that I learn the most -- and I
doubt that I am alone -- when we "think together" as critical comrades and
friends raising important issues in a cooperative exchange. Let me see if I
can contribute to this process by addressing some of the questions raised in
the latest series of postings.

1. What is discourse and the discursive?
Discourse or the discursive (which is just a adjectival description of the
field of discourse) is the form of all social practice. Discourse analysis is
thus an analysis of the form of social practice. By defining social practice
in these terms, one highlights a certain non-essentialist understanding of
social practice, one which seeks to transcend the opposition between base and
superstructure, between being and consciousness, between object and subject,
etc. (There are many different ways in which this opposition can be
formulated.) For discourse analysis, all social practice is necessarily
meaning laden; we do not first engage in a practice, and then, in a
subsequent and subsidiary moment, give it meaning. The meaning is implicit,
contained within, the practice itself.

For example, there is not an pre-discursive productive process, free of
meaning, from which 'purely' objective laws ensue, followed by discursive
understandings of that process. Production itself -- interaction with nature,
the fashioning of useful objects, etc. -- takes place within a discursive
framework, and has meaning imbued within it. When we fashion lumber out of
trees, or put together computers, we are engaging in meaningful social
practices, in discursive activity. Our theories about the nature of
production are, if you will, second-order discourses, social practice of a
particular type which reflects upon the nature of the discourses we call
production. It is a classic misunderstanding of discourse analysis to equate
all discourse with what are in effect second order discourses, and thus to
charge discourse theory with reducing the base to the superstructure, being
to consciousness, object to subject; the point of discourse theory is to move
beyond these oppositions.

2. Is there an extra-discursive (a world outside of discourse), and if so,
what is its significance?

Here I think my exchange with Howie is making some progress. I posed the
following question to him:
>>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.

Howie responded:
>I think the crux of our disagreement, which in practical terms may >only be
one of emphasis, lies here. It is precisely the fact that >"trees do fall in
the forest whether or not we are there to witness it" >that gives nature a
non-discursive dimension. I don't know that this >clarifies what I mean by
non-discursive, but I do wonder whether Leo >has room for the non-discursive
to have any meaning at all. It would >seem not, since for him all meaning is
discursive. And this strikes >me as another instance of collapsing one
category into the other. >Do we not need some notion of the non-discursive,
if only to be able >to make sense of the discursive, to define its
boundaries? If there >are no boundaries then all that there is is the
discursive, which is >precisely what I meant by this position tending to
replicate the >problems of the "epistemic fallacy". It is not the analysis of
form, or >comparisons which suggest commonalities between forms which I >am
sugesting is essentialist, but the reduction of that which is >expressed via
a certain form to the form itself.

Howie makes some interesting points, which speak to some important issues.
Frankly, I don't know if I worked through all of the issues he raises to my
own satisfaction, but let me run through my thinking, making an effort to be
clear, and maybe we can make some progress together.

There clearly is a need for the boundaries, and for the recognition of some
non-discursive/extra-discursive reality. Philosophically this is the view I
have called realist -- the view that there exists a world which is
independent of social practice, of human interaction with it. I would even go
so far as to say that there is, in principle, some relation of limitation
between that non-discursive world and the discursive. For example, while
there are clearly a number of different discursive frames through which
social practices have engaged/ defined and could engage/define 'trees' (as a
repository of the spirits of the ancestors, as a source of lumber, as a
provider of shade, as a vital element in the natural ecology, as a laboratory
of photosynthesis, etc.), the discursive can not be constructed in a
completely arbitrary fashion -- it always bears some logical relationship to
prior and related social practices, as well as to the non-discursive aspects
of 'trees'.

But if we accept that it is not possible to know 'trees-in-themselves'
outside of human interaction with them, that in other words, there is no
extra-discursive or non-discursive knowledge of 'trees' and that 'trees' have
no meaning except through social practice,  I do not see how that
relationship of limitation can be established as anything more than a general
principle. The only way out of this conundrum, as I see it, would be to
return to some form of essentialism in which the thing-in-itself is knowable
because its immanent nature is manifest to us in some way ("the rational is
the real, the real is the rational"). For a whole series of reasons, a number
of which have been discussed in this thread, I do not find a return to
essentialism to be viable. Rather, I think we need to recognize the limited
nature of human reason, and the unavoidable role of social practice/social
construction in all human knowledge. The horizons of our knowledge will
change with history, but they will not disappear. In this way, the
non-discursive is the outside of meaning, beyond the reach of our knowledge.

I don't know if that meets Howie's concerns, but it is the best I have come
up with to date.

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