Post-Structuralism and Discourse Theory

Post-structuralist thinkers conceive of the social space (organisations, institutions, social categories, concepts, identities and relationships, etc.) and the world of material objects as discursive in nature. This claim, also commonly known as there is nothing outside the text, has often been misconstrued, as if it would entail an idealistic denial of the existence of the material world. In the words of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe (1985:108):

     LACLAU Ernesto & MOUFFE Chantal, 1985. Hegemony and socialist strategy. Towards a radical democratic politics. London: Verso.
    The fact that every object is constituted as an object of discourse has nothing to do with whether there is a world external to thought, or with the realism/idealism opposition. An earthquake or the falling of a brick is an event that certainly exists, in the sense that it occurs here and now, independently of my will. But whether their specificity as objects is constructed in terms of 'natural phenomena' or 'expressions of the wrath of God' depends upon the structuring of a discursive field. What is denied is not that such objects exist externally to thought, but the rather different assertion that they could constitute themselves as objects outside any discursive conditions of emergence.

A second, basic tenet of post-structuralist theory of discourse is that the process of meaning making in relation to people and objects is caught up in an infinite play of "horizontal" difference/equivalence. Meaning is never finally fixed; it is always in an unstable flux.

    HOWARTH, David. Discourse. Buckingham: Open University Press.
    Laclau and Mouffe challenge the 'closure' of the [structuralist] linguistic model, which reduces all elements to the internal moments of the system. This [closure] implies that every social action repeats an already existing system of meanings and practices, in which case there is no possibility of constructing new nodal points that 'partially fix meaning', which is the chief characteristic of an articulatory practice.

Thus, the stress on openness is balanced (at least in the discourse theoretical work of Laclau and Mouffe and a number of others) by the assumption that objects and social subjects and the relations between them may emerge in partially stable configurations which last for a longer or shorter period of time. Privileged discursive points which partially fix the meaning in a chain of signification are called nodal points (Lacan's point de capiton, lit: quilting points; in Jacob Torfing's words (1999: 98-99 TORFING, Jacob, 1999. New Theories of Discourse. Laclau, Mouffe and Žižek. Oxford: Blackwell. ), points "which sustain the identity of a certain discourse by constructing a knot of definite meanings" - e.g. god, nation, party, class, etc.). Nodal points are capable of concealing ambiguities. They are


    TORFING, Jacob, 1999. New Theories of Discourse. Laclau, Mouffe and Žižek. Oxford: Blackwell.
    not characterised by a supreme density of meaning, but rather by a certain empyting of their contents, which facilitates their structural role of unifying a discursive terrain [...] What happens is this: a variety of signifiers are floating within the field of discursivity; suddently some master signifier intervenes and retroactively reconstitutes their identity by fixing the floating signifiers within a paradigmatic chain of equivalence.

Echoing S. Freud & J. Lacan, this is called the moment of over-determination in articulatory practice. The constructions of nodal points which partially fix meaning are crystalised in particular discourses and this makes social hegemony possible. However, a discourse can never succeed in completely imposing social order and continues to be subvertable by a contingent surplus in meaning outside itself ('a discursive exterior'). Note that Laclau and Mouffe's discourse theoretical model has a political ontology: its teleology centres on an understanding of how historically-specific dislocations 'break' a chain of signification, leading to the undermining/creation of old/new social antagonisms/hegemony in the disruption/establishment of old/new nodal points. Their theory is post-Marxist in the abandonment of class-essentialism and in the recognition of the contingency of social struggles. The openness/partial closure of the social is expressed in terms of a field of tension between meaning fixations and discourses being constantly overflown by a contingent infinitude of ambivalence.

One of the achievements of post-structuralism is the radical way in which it has placed discourse analysis at the heart of the social-scientific endeavour. Its consequences for disciplines as diverse as anthropology, history, law, social psychology, sociology, etc. have been enormous. For instance, a post-structuralist logic advocates the view that "historic facts" or "legal facts" are discursive constructions. As a consequence, scientific historic writing falls within the scope of, say, narrative analysis, while judicial decisions can be viewed as outcomes of discursive practices which are socio-historically contingent (in this respect, post-structuralism shares a number of characteristics with conversation analysis and ethnomethodology - despite obvious differences in the underlying assumptions). Needless to add, a "truth/rationality"-crisis has been one of the effects.

 One of the weaknesses of post-structuralist discourse theory is undeniably its failure to be explicit about how to engage with the analysis of actual instances of text or social interaction-in-context. Note that this is not a straightforward matter of complementing discourse theory with empirical analyses of text and talk. The main challenge here seems to be how to reconcile the need to be explicit about methodology with a non-essentialist and non-positivist view on the production of knowledge. One proposal (Howarth 2000 HOWARTH, David. Discourse. Buckingham: Open University Press. ) is based on an elaboration of Michel Foucault's genealogical method: to focus on the deconstruction of conditions of possibility of dominant problematisations in a specific socio-political context, in short, an interest in dissolving power/knowledge complexes.



Post-structuralist theory is conventionally (and, at times, almost stereotypically) associated with the work of Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan. One other name stands out: Mikhail Bakhtin and he truly deserves a separate website of his own. Although he is not a post-structuralist in the strict sense of the term (his writings date from the first half of the previous century), his work became very influential within Western Europe through the post-structuralist movement (from the late sixties onwards). Key-terms associated with the work of Bakhtin include dialogicity and heteroglossia. Most important of all is probably his critique of Saussurean linguistics, following from his insistence on a dialogic view on language use.

Writing shortly after de Saussure, Bakhtin developed a truly, pragmatic theory of language use. He did so, at a time when there was little interest in mundane everyday talk and without being able to rely on recorded data of speech. At the heart of this theory is the view that language is an intrinsically dialogic phenomenon. This means that the basic unit of language is the utterance and the utterance can not be isolated from the sequence in which occurs. Bakhtin's axiomatic claim that "two voices is the minimum for life, the minimum for existence" (Bakhtin 1973 Bakthin, Mikhail, 1973. Problems of Dostoevky’s Poetics. Ardis. ) claim echoes one of the axioms of conversation analysis but it has to be added that the use of the use of the term "sequence" as understood in conversation analysis is an anachronism in the context of Bakhtin's writings. For Bakhtin, the utterance always stands in a dialogic relationship to previous utterances which have been voiced or which are presupposed (in the words of V. Voloshinov, the utterance is a reception of ... as well as a response to ...; Voloshinov 1985 VOLOSHINOV, Valentin, 1985 (orig. 1929), Marxism and the Philosophy of Language [translated by L. Mateijka & I. Titunik]. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. ).

Important "spin-offs" include:

  • An invitation to focus theoretically and empirically on tendencies in reported speech. One of the obvious ways in which different voices may be simultaneously present in a piece of discourse is when someone else's speech is quoted, reported or alluded to. Especially in the work of Bakhtin's close associate, Valentin Voloshinov (1985 VOLOSHINOV, Valentin, 1985 (orig. 1929), Marxism and the Philosophy of Language [translated by L. Mateijka & I. Titunik]. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. ), the idea is promoted that a truly social linguistics must concentrate on the historically and diatypically shifting tendencies in the report of speech as imbued with ideology.
  • An invitation to concentrate on the heteroglossic dimensions of discursive practice - how discourse is permeated by other voices and the ways these are constitutive for particular social positions which are being expressed. This view can be applied in a number of ways. For instance, one may examine how in a social worker's narrative of a case of child abuse one finds traces of medical discourse, administrative discourse, troubles talk, therapeutic discourse. Heteroglossia then applies not only in the sense that social workers cite and refer to what doctors, teachers, family therapists, etc. have said about the case (Fairclough 1992a FAIRCLOUGH, Norman, 1992a. Discourse and Social Change. Cambridge: Polity Press. ) calls this manifest intertextuality), but also in the sense that it is difficult for a social worker to construct a narrative of the case without making use of the categories and forms of knowledge embodied in the discourses of other professions ((Fairclough 1992a FAIRCLOUGH, Norman, 1992a. Discourse and Social Change. Cambridge: Polity Press. ) calls this constitutive intertextuality ; see also M. Foucault - CLICK HERE for an example analysis).

A dialogic view of language goes against the Saussurean-inherited idea that language can be viewed as an autonomous system which can be described by recourse to relationships between signs which are internal to the system. A dialogic view on language prioritises texts which are impure in their make-up. In this view, the boundaries between "language systems" exist by virtue of social acts which establish, deny or maintain difference (e.g. the use of scare quotes or particular hedges may signal the dialect origins of a lexical item or that it belongs to another code and/or register). Such boundaries are a constant source of contention and struggle and there is only an indirect relationship with how language users perceive and rationalise difference (cf. Heller (2000 HELLER, Monica, 2000. 'Bilingualism and identity in the post-modern world'. Estudios de Sociolinguistica, 1/2.  ) on ideologies of bilingualism as "two monolingualisms stuck together"). This position has resulted into an interest in code-slippage as a by-product of language performance which indexes a speaker's life history (cf. Blommaert & Slembrouck (2000 BLOMMAERT, Jan & SLEMBROUCK, Stef, 2000. 'Data formulation as text and context: the (aesth)etics of analysing asylum seekers' narratives'. LPI Working Papers No. 2, Gent. ) as well as an interest in playful re-accentuations as a resource of "behavioural ideology" (cf. Rampton's work on liminality and situated stylisations of non-standard accents - e.g. hyper-Cockney - by youngsters from diverse ethnic backgrounds in London, e.g. Rampton (1999 RAMPTON, Ben, 1999, 'Sociolinguistics and cultural studies: new ethnicities, liminality and interaction'. Social Semiotics, 9/3, 355-373. , 2001 RAMPTON, Ben, 2001, 'Critique in interaction'. Critique of Anthropology, 21/1.  ). Bakthin's writings have been very influential in European forms of discourse analysis but also in linguistic anthropology. As to the first, it is not surprising for discussions/illustrations of heteroglossia to focus more often on literary uses and data from advertising, because these are dicursive domains where double-voicedness tends to be exploited more actively and visibly and where genres come with the expectation that the interpretation of textual cues requires a more or less active recognition of double-voiced constituents (CLICK HERE for an example analysis). However, a clear understanding of more routine heteroglossic tendencies in the context of social and discursive change tends to be harder to arrive at, and yet this is the area where Bakhtin's influence is at its most challenging. It is a problem of a theory of genre (see in particular Bakhtin's (1986 BAKHTIN, Mikhail M., 1986, 'The problem of speech genre'. In: Speech Genre and Other Essays, Austin: University of Texas Press, 60-102. ) heuristic distinction between primary and secondary genres) and of explicating how changes in situated forms of language use are implicated in social change (see for instance Hanks (1988 HANKS, William, 1988. 'Discourse genre in a theory of practice'. American Ethnologist, 14:4, 688-692. ), which offers an analysis of a number of written texts produced by native officials in early colonial Maya society (Mexico) in terms of blending Maya and Spanish discourse forms into new genres). As discussed in detail in Fairclough (1992b FAIRCLOUGH, Norman, 1992b. 'Discourse and text: linguistic and intertextual analysis within discourse analysis'. Discourse and Society, 3, 192-217. ), Bakhtin invites us to view genres metaphorically as "the drive belts between the history of language and the history of society". Shifts and transformations in particular genre-conventions are both indexical of social change and contribute accumulatively to social change. Languages change through transformations within genre-conventions, while social change is first felt at the level of the genre.

[continue to the contributions from COMMUNICATION STUDIES and SEMIOTICS]