Does discursive=social?

Howie Chodos howie at
Fri Jul 14 19:30:04 MDT 1995

Some reactions to Lisa's questions.

>Howie, the way I read this is that Leo is indeed defining discourse
>more broadly than you are.  If discourse is about meaning, which is
>itself a social thing, and meaning/knowledge is all from human/social
>point of view, and everything that humans think or claim to know is
>socially conditioned and socially relevant, then yes, it seems that
>"discourse" covers all human thought/behavior/search for knowledge.
>Then, by definition, everything outside of human/social
>knowledge/meaning/thought is non-discursive.  And by bringing our
>attention to bear upon anything, we are entering into discourse
>with/about it, so it is no longer non-discursive.

I think that the question at the heart of my discussion with Leo is what
significance do we attach to our entering into a discursive relationship
with the non-human. The point I have been trying to make is that our
discursive appropriation of the non-human world does not by itself alter
that world (except perhaps at the level of quantum events). It is not the
fact that we attach meaning to things that transforms them. All living
organisms interact with their environment and transform it. That would seem
to me to be in the very nature of life. In this we are no different from
other forms of life. I also agree with Leo that the form of our interaction
is necessarily discursive, and I think that we also agree on a basic realist
view that the world out there does exist independently of our knowledge of it.

>In effect, it seems that the categories of Leo's discourse theory cut
>boundaries across the categories of Howie's thought.  This is a
>common phenomenon in my experience, when comparing different theories
>and orientations towards any topic, including "the social."  Just as
>Howie finds an important distinction between natural and social,
>because of something about consciousness where I don't really see it.

The distinction between the natural and the social that I have been trying
to draw does indeed relate in one sense to the question of consciousness,
but it is not limited to that. The basis for the distinction as I see it is
that social processes reproduce themselves in and through our activity as
living breathing beings. Natural ones do not. And one characteristic of us
as a species is that we can understand the world around us and are motivated
to act on the basis of that understanding. To put it in cost/benefit terms,
the discursive meanings that we attach to different kinds of behaviour
constitute one reference point for establishing the relative costs and
benefits which apply to different possible courses of action. Think of the
possibility of self-sacrifice for ideological reasons (to be prepared to die
for a cause, for one's country, for one's religion). This would seem to me
to be an instance where a social process (a particular set of beliefs)
causes us to choose sacrificing our physical existence. I think this can be
a perfectly rational application of cost/benefit analysis despite the fact
that it results in our individual death (regardless of considerations of
reproductive success of ourselves or our offspring).

>Howie, I'm curious about "social practice" as "conscious activity in
>a social context".  Do you mean by conscious/intentional that people
>are aware of or desire all the social consequences of their behavior?
>Is there also unconscious activity with social causes/consequences?
>Where do you draw the boundary of "social context"?  Isn't it a
>common argument on the list and among many 'social scientists' and
>such that everything humans do is in social context in some sense?  I
>think that is something like what Leo is saying, or Leo's is one
>version of it.

What I was trying to get at is that is that while I agree that everything
that humans do takes place in a social context, this leaves open whether the
social context is constituted by things other than that which humans do. And
I argued that it is. It is also constituted by what humans have done. (I
think this might be roughly analogous to Marx's distinction between living
and dead labour). The fact that our individual (conscious, intentional)
activity takes place in a social context which we do not create, which we do
not choose and which we do not necessarily control has important
implications for the nature of that activity. I did not intend to suggest
that there are no unintentional consequences to people's actions, or that we
are perfectly aware of our motivations for our behaviour. On the contrary.

(I will probably think of a less abrupt way to end this post later, but I
think it is probably best sent as is.)

Howie Chodos

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