Post lecture notes for students of IR 6901: (Week 7, part 2) Introduction to Discourse Analysis, with a special reference to religio-political discourse

By Farish A. Noor ~ April 21st, 2010. Filed under: Lecture Notes.

Laclau and Mouffe: The A, B, C of Discourse Analysis

Now as we discussed in class yesterday, for our purposes we need not be overly concerned with the politics of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe in their Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (1985) but rather more concerned about the theoretical schema as it was laid out in chapters 3 and 4 of their work.
Here we find the key concepts and ideas that will serve as the framework for what we call discourse analysis, and which will be part of the vocabulary we need to use when applying discourse analysis – as a methodology – in our own work.
For that sake I’ve put together this simple A,B,C of discourse analysis for all of us:

Chain/s of Equivalence:

A ‘chain of equivalences’ refers to a discursive strategy (See: Discursive strategy) whereby a number of signifiers are strung together in a chain of mutually related and mutually supportive references.
Such chains of equivalences are often found in religio-political discourses and come in a variety of forms. Examples include sentences/phrases like:

  • ‘They hate us (the West) because they hate our values, our democracy, our freedom’;
  • ‘Hinduism as a religion and a way of life is essentially linked to India, the motherland of Hinduism’;
  • ‘Islam has always been a religion and culture of science, technology, knowledge’, etc.

In cases such as these, we can see how the speaker/enunciator is deliberately identifying a range of concepts/ideas and word-signs in a manner in which one signifier is linked to others, forming a chain of equivalences. In the first sentence the word-sign ‘The West’ is being equated with democracy and freedom; in the second Hinduism is being equated with Indian identity; in the third sentence Islam is being equated with progress and science.

Such discursive strategies are common in religious, political and religio-political discourse; and when analysing them we need to identify the discursive strategy and intention of such narrative articulations rather than ascertain their truth/epistemic value. For the purposes of religious politics, it doesn’t matter even if such sentences/phrases do not make sense or have no epistemic truth-value; as their intended ideological effects are more important. (See: instrumental fiction/s)

Discourse/Discursive Economy:

Following from the late Wittgensteinian notion of language-games (see: Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations), ‘discourse’ refers to rule-governed uses of language that are set in specific social contexts whereby the context of use determines the meaning/value of word/signs that are employed in the discourse.
The range of possible discourses are infinite, as the range of discourses corresponds to the infinite range of situational contexts that may arise. But they share common features that include: their rule-governed use of word/signs and their correlation to the contexts in which such discourses are used.

Here it is important to remember the premises of Wittgenstein’s argument: That specific word-signs have different meanings depending on the context in which one uses the word-sign. Thus the meaning of ‘Jihad’ is different when it is used in the context of Jihadist discourse from the context of Sufi/mystical discourse. Likewise the meaning of ‘Socialism’ is different when it is used in Left-wing socialist discourse as compared to its use by right-wing national socialists. Context determines meaning as it also determines the range of possible uses/deployment of signifiers.

What this also means is that discourses are not and never entirely independent of context. This related to Wittgenstein (and Frege’s) understanding of language as organic, socially-contextualised and evolving systems of signification and communication. This implies that discourses may arise in certain contexts, and some discourses may become redundant if and when the social context that once sustained them no longer pertain. (An example would be the discourses of colonialism, imperialism and the pseudo-scientific discourses of racial difference that had meaning up to the 19th century, but which today strike us as out of date and ‘dead languages’.)

Sometimes the term ‘discursive economy’ is used and this implies the double-meaning of ‘economy’: That in discourses word-signs have currency (epistemic value) according to their circulation within the referential system of that particular discourse. The terms ‘discourse’ and ‘discursive economy’ are sometimes used interchangeably in Anglo-American critical theory circles.

Discursive Strategies and Discursive Effects:

Without have to commit ourselves to a radical division between discourse and structure (or the linguistic and the extra-linguistic) we need to remember that one of the premises of discourse analysis is that discourse can only be regulated by/with/within discourse itself. The term ‘discursive strategy’ refers to the various and manifold ways in which phrases and narrative devices can be used to have particular intended discursive effects in the context of their respective discourses.

One example of such a discursive strategy is the sentence: “Only those who know the meaning of Islam/Christianity/Hinduism etc can talk about it”. This is a fairly common sort of refrain that we often find in the discourse of conservative Muslims, Hindus, Christians etc.
When applying discourse analysis to such discourse, we should not be concerned with trying to establish the epistemic value of such claims (i.e. their truth value), but rather look at their intended discursive effect. What does such a statement intend to say? And what is its effect? In the case of the abovementioned sentence, its truth value is irrelevant and what is more important is its strategic purpose and intended effect, which is to close off avenues of speech and discussion, and to narrow/close the arena of debate on religion.

So when applying discourse analysis to the respective discourses you study, focus more on the discursive strategies and intended discursive effects that such language may have. And note that there are a myriad of possible discursive strategies that are being used all the time: to close the arena of discourse, to fix meanings, to fix nodal points, to form chains of equivalences, etc. (see: Semantic arrest/closure; chain/s of equivalences; nodal points)

Instrumental Fiction/s:

A term coined by Edward Said, to again re-state the fact that political and religious claims are to be understood and analysed in terms of their discursive effects and ideological/political functions rather than their truth value. Examples include terms like ‘terror’/’terrorist’ in anti-terror discourse and the discourse of the ‘war on terror’; where the concept ‘terror/terrorism’ is often left vague and undefined, but which nonetheless is a highly political discourse that can be made to work for political reasons even if it is meaningless/has no empirical referents.

Again, remember the premises of Wittgenstein’s argument in Philosophical Investigations: That in the framework of language-games/discourses, word-signs have meaning according to their use in the appropriate context. Wittgenstein argues that the rule-governed nature of public language in public language-games/discourses means that word-signs no longer need ostensive definition, but are rather defined in terms of rule-governed use and context. As such terms like ‘terror/terrorism’ do not require ostensible definition via reference to positivist/empirically-identifiable objects, but rather gain their meaning from normative use in contexts.

Master Signifier/s:

A sign/signifier that plays a role in determining/fixing the meaning and signifying relationship of other signifiers. (See: Nodal Point/s)

Nodal point/s:

A ‘nodal point’ refers to any particular Sign in a discourse that serves the role of ‘fixing’ the logic of that discourse together. It is, in short, a nodal point that holds the discourse together by virtue of its fixity in that discourse. This refers to key concepts/ideas/symbols in any discursive system that are fixed, and whose meaning/signification is reduced through the use of discursive strategies that are intended to prevent/control/limit the free-flow of meaning/signification of that particular word-sign.
Examples are easily found in all sorts of religio-political discourses. For instance, consider the following sentences:

  • ‘The working class is the vanguard of the class revolution’;
  • ‘Shariah is a sacred concept and cannot be discussed’;
  • ‘Hinduism as a religion and a way of life is essentially linked to India, the motherland of Hinduism’;
  • ‘Societal relations and all modes of social production are determined by the workings of Capital’, etc.

In the sentences above, word-signs like ‘working class’, ‘Shariah’, ‘Hinduism’, ‘India’, ‘Capital’ etc. have been discursively fixed to serve as the nodal points of their respective discourses. As a result of such discursive fixity, these nodal points become the central points of their respective discursive economies. As Laclau and Mouffe note:

“The impossibility of ultimate fixity of meaning implies that there has to be partial fixations – Any discourse is constituted as an attempt to dominate a field of discursivity, to arrest the flow of differences, to construct a centre. We will call the privileged discursive points of this partial fixation, nodal points”. (Laclau and Mouffe, pg. 112)

Now of course as we recall from our reading of Saussure that no signifying relationship between Signifier and Signified can be permanently fixed and there are no essential signifying relations. So what Laclau and Mouffe mean by ‘partial fixity’ is not a quirk of language or certain signs, but rather refers to the discursive strategies used to foreclose the possibility of multiple deployments/interpretations of key word-signs. (see: Discursive Strategy/ Discursive Effect)

Semantic Arrest/Fixity:
see: Nodal Point/s

Semantic Slippage:

The ‘slippage’ of meaning, often over time, as a result of the non-fixed and non-essentialist nature of signification in the relationship between Signifier and Signified. This, as we have seen in Saussure, is a common universal feature of all Signs as the signifying relationship for any word-sign can never be permanently fixed.
Saussure added the notion of diachrony: i.e. the shifts in meaning over time as a result of changing use of signs in changing/evolving contexts.
And example would be the contemporary use of the word ‘kaffir’ in Islamic discourse, to refer to unbelievers. Yet the etymological root of the word/sign is ‘kufr’ a term that was found in a totally different context – agriculture, and to refer to the covering of a seed with earth after it is planted.
The shift from ‘kufr’ (to cover the seed with soil) to ‘kaffir’ (to cover one’s heart with disbelief) is a semantic shift that takes place over time, and reminds us of the potential of slippage of meaning of all word-signs.

1 Response to Post lecture notes for students of IR 6901: (Week 7, part 2) Introduction to Discourse Analysis, with a special reference to religio-political discourse

  1. Simon Wong

    Hi Farish,

    Where, or how, can I keep track of your latest books, articles, etc. ?

    Hopefully you will point me in the right direction.

    Many thanks,

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