Political Discourse Research Paper

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1. Introduction

Discourse in general is a way of organizing human experience. It establishes frames of meaning by the recounting and interpreting of events and situations. It constructs systems of order. Political discourse applies such frames to the exercise of power—including principles of hierarchy, representation, and accountability. It deals with the narrative interpretation of events and ideas, logical and mythic, and establishes criteria and contexts for comparing and evaluating political systems. In these terms, political discourse is as old as politics, its pedigree going back at least as far as Plato for whom discourse took the form of a dialectical logic. Plato used this method to derive a model system composed of appropriate connections between truth, knowledge, virtue, and justice that he used to evaluate and rank different polities. Plato made explicit what might best be referred to as the relationship between discourse as rationality and rationality as discourse. But he also recognized that there were limits to the role and place of rationality in human affairs. Where the rational leaves off, he invoked a revelatory higher power, religious, mythic, magical, numerological—a Pythagorean idea of myth, (Cassirer 1946). One can say that Plato defined political discourse in terms of a mytho-logic that he regarded foundational for the functioning of any political community. For Plato the state, or better, the city, is a discourse community.

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For Aristotle political discourse was an emergent teleological process embodying final causes, the shape, purpose, and meaning of the polity. This established a basis for a purposeful history of ideas—a narrative realizing itself in the evolution of democracy of which there are several versions. One starts with Athenian democracy as a defining and classic polity, Rome representing natural and positive law (with interpretive exegesis by Glossators and Commentators). The Schoolmen raised the issue of revelation, ecclesiastical law vis-a-vis natural law. Medieval corporatism established the principle of conciliarism (and the kings ‘two bodies’) (Kantorowicz 1981). Social contract theorists, from Hobbes, Locke, and Mill, defined a political spectrum, which at one end was autocratic, the other democratic. Another version uses ages: classic, ecclesiastical, enlightenment, romantic, democratic. The end of history is modern, secular, democratic government. Which makes a better story than a good history.

Although hardly a corpus or a stable body of knowledge, modern political discourse theory is composed of a variety of concepts and ideas from many disciplines. As a form of critique it tries to penetrate below the surface of the good stories that people tell themselves about politics. Discourse theories may differ but they are all concerned with what it is that people come to believe about power and its exercise, and how they come to think that way. Political science and sociology analyze different ideologies, dogmas, and belief systems in terms of their content and the extent and intensity of their support to understand threats and opposition to democracy and democratic principles.

As with Durkheim’s treatment of social facts, political beliefs are no different from any political perceptions and preferences, loyalties and affiliations. Examining them requires operational techniques, quantitative analysis. Belief systems are amenable to survey methods, questionnaires, and statistical techniques (Lane 1962, Converse 1964; Putnam 1973, Tilly 1978, Sidney Tarrow 1994).

In contrast, several other disciplines break up concepts like ideology, belief systems, or culture into components on the grounds that they have become ‘overkill’; that by explaining too much they explain too little. How political discourse establishes order and control and organizes and mobilizes social groups and organizations requires more differentiated categories and more interpretive knowledge. How is it that words can kill? When does ecclesiastical belief lead to murder in the cathedral? How much was Nazi ideology the cause of the Holocaust? How and when does ethnicity, religion, language, or other differentiating social criteria that establish exclusivity define ‘others’ in negative terms—the extreme consequence being genocide? Similarly, when do such circumstances reverse themselves? When do the same defining characteristics constitute pluralism, multiculturalism, or diversity? How does confession within the framework of legal discourse connect guilt with justice, and by so doing change the contours of the permissible? How was Apartheid in South Africa, with its biblical racism, its Boer myths of a chosen people replaced by a Truth and Reconciliation Commission? These and similar questions have led to a virtual explosion of concepts, categories, and theories: structuralist, phenomenological, linguistic, psychological.

Despite differences among approaches, all favor the analysis of events as more than chance, i.e., as coherent and meaningfully and internally connected. In terms of political discourse theory, events are social texts. They can be read as language including words, of course, what people say about each other and their condition, but also as signs, symbols, rhetoric—as semiotics. Discourse theory addresses the problem of how best precisely to read events. It is less concerned with the content of particular ideologies than ‘the content of the form’ (White 1987) and the ‘narrative construction of reality’ (Bruner 1991).

Political discourse theory occupies a position on a continuum, the opposite end of which is political economy and rational choice. Like those approaches, it responds to a calculus of costs and benefits, losses and gains. Unlike them what is exchanged is outside the normal range of interest competition and bargaining—symbolic rather than economic capital. If so, then an important purpose of political discourse theory is to identify the coin by which different rationalities are measured.

While the substance of political narratives varies widely, they follow certain fairly standard trajectories, including the recounting of events in the form of retrievals and projections. Events serve as signifiers and metaphors in which meanings are transmitted in terms of past and similar situations, real or fancied; and as metonymies in which the event is a fragment or representation of some larger logical theoretical or revelatory belief system. By this means the past provides evidence for a projected and transcending state of affairs, including millennial outcomes, promised lands, states of grace, or a condition of political virtue or justice. This suggests a central question: when does political discourse lead away from a politics of give and take associated with rational economic behavior and when does it generate symbolic capital? (Bourdieu 1977). It is this question that will be discussed here.

First the intellectual pedigree of political discourse will be examined, indicating ways that discourse affects the way people think about politics, act on what they think, and, as a part of such action, how they form discourse communities using symbolic capital, in contrast to those predominantly organized around economic and political exchange followed by a critique and assessment of future trends.

2. An Intellectual Pedigree

Modern concern with political discourse might be said to begin with the semiotic revolution. To name only a few contributors (and leaving out forebears like Peirce, Saussure, Wittgenstein, and others), one might include linguists like Roman Jacobson, Dell Hymes, and Umberto Eco; sociologists like Basil Bernstein, Erving Goffman, and Herbert Garfinkel; philosophers like Alfred Schuetz, John Austin, Ernest Gellner, and John Searle; anthropologists such as Claude Levi-Strauss, Clifford Geertz, Victor Turner, Mary Douglas, and Jack Goody; historians such as Robert Darnton, Pierre Nora, Le Roy Ladurie and of course many others. Political scientists include Benedict Anderson, David E. Apter, and James Scott. In literary theory there is a very large cohort concerned with narrative and interpretation (Mitchell 1982): Kenneth Burke, Roland Barthes, Hayden White, Frederic Jameson, Terry Eagleton.

Which brings up the question of the range of concepts that such thinkers apply to the analysis of political discourse theory. Walter Benjamin, examining the relation between memory and the crafted story, the potentiality for what might be called the fictive use of recounting, implies the significance of the imaginary real. Levi-Strauss laid out the structural properties or better, the isomorphic ordering properties of myth and theory in the form of binaries which literally compose the order of the universe, providing rules of appropriate intermediation: between man and the cosmos, men and women, kin and family, earth and sky, land and water, etc. (Levi-Strauss 1955). Similarly in Umberto Eco’s theories of semiotics, with their emphasis on codes and codex, signs and signification, and what he called sign production.

In a more literary vein Hayden White refers in his analysis of narrative to the poetic troping of the facts in which certain events become in effect what Eagleton called drenched signifiers, images and metaphors so symbolically powerful that they become incentives to action. Foucault examines the way certain discursive codes establish authority and power. For François Furet political discourse becomes a nonscientific representational strategy or a structure of time, or time consciousness. Ricoeur emphasizes discourse as sin, confession, and purification, negative poles and overcoming and the uses of metaphor. Henri Lefebvre deals with space as terrain and jurisdiction as agora—a theater of intersection between addressor and addressee. For Baudrillard an appropriate discourse produces symbolically dense miniaturized versions of state and society, encampments, staging areas, fortresses, neighborhoods, which form the moral center for what is yet to be. Guy Debord emphasizes political discourse as theater, drama, spectacle.

While each of these and many other thinkers contribute in very different ways to political discourse theory, it is possible to identify one common and underlying concern. People make stories out of events. They do so individually and collectively. Recounting individual stories makes for sociability. Collective stories have political consequences when, as myths they purport to be history, as history they are reinterpreted as theories, and as theories they make up stories about events. Theories that become stories create fictive truths. Since in politics, truth-telling and story-telling are part of the same process, it becomes possible to interrogate the past in order to transform the future.

There are of course many ways to examine such matters. A useful place to begin is with the actual ways and circumstances in which individuals recount their own stories. As a process, this becomes politically interesting if such stories are collectivized, systematized, and formed into what have been called master narratives. For this purpose agency is required, a public figure able to play the special role of ‘storyteller’ whether in the form of philosopher-kings, cosmocratic figures, politicians, soothsayers, diviners, or others (Benjamin 1969).

Agency, a form of authoritative recounting, begins with some benchmark, a state of grace which then defines a negative pole, loss, suffering, struggle, on the basis of projecting an overcoming project, a preferred goal. Such recounting is intrinsically dramatistic— exceptional experiences punctuated by promontory events. Events may be tragic, including suffering, torture, betrayal, murder, and death. They can also result in superior insight, knowledge through struggle, purification, and redemption. Recounting renders the unimaginable manageable. It builds into the narrative imaginary reals, necessary fictions which establish boundaries and borders, affiliations and loyalties, terrains and jurisdictions, defines insiders and outsiders, separates the good citizen from the pariah. The narrative establishes boundaries and clienteles, identifying relevant markers, ethnic, religious, racial, kin, clan, and class, or other categories. It locates surrogates, negative (but redeeming) others, Genet’s thief, or homosexual, Fanon’s colonial African, Foucault’s madman or prisoner, etc. (Foucault 1979).

It deals too with ritual endowments, insignia, votary paraphernalia that go with them, flags, and uniforms. It emphasizes the theater of the absurd, or the solemn occasions, the mass, the funeral, the parade, votary ceremonies, candle light parades, pistols, whips, massed guns and technology; anything which permits symbolic intensification. Ordinary terrain, transformed into sacred space, serves as metaphors or better simulacra for the national patrimony (old and new Jerusalems). Politics is the stage on which leaders perform, recapitulating historical events as theater and choreography (Plant 1992).

Time becomes crucial, especially in disjunctive and transformational moments, when leaders propose a fresh start. The French revolution tried to reinvent the calendar in its desire to start the world all over again. Time foreshortened becomes space, a geomancy of space, enclosure as architecture, the placement of buildings, squares, parks, transportation, homes, meeting places, amphitheaters all taking on new meaning as potential rallying ground, or as Agora’s or forums, staging areas, embattled zones, etc. So too with monuments, statues, shrines, graveyards, jails, public buildings, this pub, that hideout, this square, street, neighborhood. Virtually any ordinary thing can take on significance, disrupting the daily or routine business of commerce, its taken-for-grantedness, in favor of the exceptional moment in the exceptional space (Lefebvre 1986).

Similarly with clothes, uniforms, medals, gestures (verbal and other), hair, Jacobin hats, red flags, insignia, swastikas. These emphasize the body as reference point; exaggerated posture, sexual affronts, cross dressing, racial inversions. The body politic takes on the characteristics of the individual body. It can be violated, penetrated, tortured, mobilized, transformed.

Opportunities for such recounting include the founding of new nations and states, revolutionary and redemptive breaks, a turning of the world upside down. In effect, political discourse helps produce such breaks. It also capitalizes on them when the opportunity arises. In such moments political discourse creates its own rationality, defining sharply what it is against and what it is for. It contains within itself a disordering effect in rejecting established political beliefs and institutions, and an ordering principle designed to negate and transcend the disordering condition it helped to create.

Political discourse then is bound up with history as conflict and struggle. Typical circumstances are one or other form of inversion; revolutionary, ecclesiastical. A classic device is some variation on Hegel’s master and slave, or, more redemptive, the last becoming first. One can find both in the speeches and texts of early church fathers, fifteenth century mystics, and radical political revolutionaries from the Jacobins, to the Levellers and Diggers, not least of all including what Hobsbawm called social banditry (Hobsbawm 1959). Such situations lead to exceptional acts of daring and devotion. They involve a tension between purity and danger such that the words of the recounted narratives resonate.

Recounting is thus a way of both periodizing the past and incorporating it within a series of performances in which singular and distinctive individual events and actions stand out, the whole inspiring urgency, martyrs and heroes not to speak of loyalty, obligation, and what Bernard Yack has called political ‘yearning’ (Yack 1986).

Narrative is half the process. Text is the other. Both are required if political discourse is to become an active ingredient in political life. Required of texts in relation to symbolic capital is that they provide exegetical opportunities. Textualization, the transition from orality to writing, requires not only a narrator but a writer. Both are essential if those documents designated as sacral are to serve as symbolic centers of power, complete with their coterie of interpreters devoted to locating hidden meanings, logical and magical, thus providing those esoteric nuances that make a discourse community unique and which give it its moral center. Text and coterie, with the agent at the center, suggest truth as insider knowledge. They create an iconography of words and objects worthy of worship and respect. So virtually all societies and social movements have certain texts which become canonical, whether they take the form of a constitution or a ‘little red book.’

Whether as Marxist texts or canonical or biblical texts, the word as written embodies both logical truths and mythic or fictive ones. Some are enshrined in sanctuaries. Others as authorizing documents are on suitable display (as for example the constitution in the United States or the Magna Carta in Britain). Hence, one might say that political discourse involves the alteration of original meanings by means of mythic retrieval and logical projection, what Roland Barthes and Claude Levi-Strauss referred to as ‘mytho-logics’ (and what Malinowski called a mythic charter).

Which returns us to the question raised above. How can history as a representation of symbolic events become simply history—exceptional moments becoming unexceptional? Or, to put it differently, how can symbolic capital be converted into normal interest competition and bargaining within a framework of constitutional authority and law? It is a question that comes up in the context of wars, nationalist, separatist, and revolutionary movements, the rise of cults, persistent and organized protest—matters which if anything are more important today than ever before. In this sense one can say that political discourse is about how to change the world by reinterpreting it, and political discourse theories are about how to interpret the interpretations.

3. Applications And Implications

The twentieth century has perhaps been more witness to powerful and consequential political occasions than any previous one, not least of all because of the connection between terror and utopianism. If one includes the power of nationalism, the mobilization of its rhetoric, which accompanied the decline of colonialism and the founding of new states in Asia and Africa, one thinks too of a virtual explosion of political agents like Nkrumah, Senghor, Sekou Toure, and Nyerere, leaders all of whom, in the name of anticolonialism, nationalism, and independence, created their own political vernacular texts, doctrines by which they claimed exceptional and continuing political privileges (emulated by their putative descendants). In these terms too political discourse was very much a phenomenon of such populist dictatorships as Peron’s Argentina not to speak of De Gaulle’s myth of a glorious (and largely fictive) France.

Perhaps the exemplary defining event or historical moment, or disjunctive break, was the Russian revolution with Lenin its agent, surrounded by a band of intellectuals forming a coterie. In the texts so formed the strong elements are orality and textuality. Dramatic public spaces were carefully selected for delivery. What began in speeches was translated, that is, words became converted and modified in the form of writings many of which became canonical. As the redemptive and prophetary figure of the revolution, he wrote the bible of revolutionary principles and tactics, not simply for his own followers but subsequent generations and putative descendants. Perhaps the most significant of these disciples was Mao Zedong who ‘rewrote’ China’s history in the form of three narratives: long, intermediate, and short; each fitted inside the other, contextualizing in the form of radical revolution and militant nationalism, converting time into immediacy, forming a fictive factual basis for revolutionary discourse (Apter and Saich 1994).

Political discourse not only precipitates conflict and foreshortens time but also can extend the disjunctive moment and keep it alive. Examples of conflicts of the long duree include the IRA in Northern Ireland, and between the Israelis and Palestinians (where two diasporic populations remain locked together in their hostility). In both cases the parties are divided by their discourses, their retrievals of the past determining their view of the future, and so making mutual accommodation difficult as long as their territorial claims are to the same physical space. Each discourse has the same contours as the other, similar themes of loss and displacement. Each makes salvational, redemptive, and recuperative national claims. For one side to give way to the other is considered betrayal.

There are innumerable examples. The rise of fundamentalism or integralism enables the preaching of the word as scripture, something to be pored over and through a process of exegesis made to reveal hidden, deeper, and higher meanings. For some such words will be profound, for others ritualized, both appearing to offer magical depth, a common sensibility. By this means, the individual is linked to the state or sect and by multiple references and reciprocities. Virtually any categories will do, religion, ethnicity, clan, family, or region, village, town, or cult, political program, ideology, etc. All potentially are condensed symbols, complex, with multiple references and signifiers, providing opportunities for exegetical bonding— establishing boundaries in the mind that constitute boundaries on the ground.

There are certain recurrent themes: an original and negative condition to be transcended, a mythical past to be redeemed, a frame within which certain primary symbols are characteristic, loss, defilement, sin, stain. Grievance is converted to intentionality, time into space, and space into particular places, symbolically endowed terrains. By this means individual stories are collectivized and conveyed as master narratives to a group as a whole. Hence the narrative process itself creates political leaders acting as agents who validate preferred outcomes embodied in texts. Such narratives contain a story within a story, the storyteller or agent figuring in his or her own story. Prototypical exilic figures are Odysseus or Moses. Forced to suffer the loss of the patrimony, wandering far from their homes, they learn to outwit enemies. By means of knowledge gained from experience, they regain the power necessary to reclaim the patrimony in the first instance or a Promised Land in the second.

The more cosmocratic the impulse, the larger than life the principal agent, the greater the moral density of the text, the more likely are the doctrines to intensify differences, separating believers and nonbelievers; the saved and the damned, divided by a potential millennial accomplishment. Some are privileged at the expense of others. A chosen people will claim superiority, whether by class, ethnicity, religion, nationality, race, or doctrinal persuasion. Each such group becomes both surrogate for higher truths and a symbol or representation of them. Loyalty is thus moral obligation, affiliation deep seated, binding groups together. Hence political discourse theory constitutes as its subject matter all those cleavages of human association, which especially in a context of violence acquire durable properties reinforced rather than undermined in subsequent events. In these terms, discourse communities generate their own objects, symbolic capital possessing its own exchange value.

There are certain serious weaknesses to political discourse theory so considered. It works best in conjunction with intensive case studies in depth. It depends on depth interviewing or political anthropology. It is not very amenable to operational techniques, survey, path analysis, and other statistical methods. Its relativism is less concerned with the content of ideologies, the conventional interest of political scientists, than in the structure of beliefs, what forms them, and how they become adopted. There is also a bias that over time rationality will triumph over nonrationality, logic over revelation, theory over myth, facts over appearances.

However one approaches it, discourse theory is not likely to disappear in the foreseeable future. It has moved in several different general directions: toward postmodernism in the connection between narration and legitimation (Lyotard 1984); cultural studies, with respect to the symbolization of violence and the state (Bhabha 1990); sociolinguistics, itself divided into three main strands, psychological, linguistic, and sociological (Giglioli 1982); towards an intermediate position between comprehensive structural theory and the concrete explanations (or justifications) people give for their actions and beliefs—what has been called ‘critical hermeneutics’ (Habermas 1979). Finally, for those interested in politics, power, and rational choice theory, some attention is now being paid to how symbolic capital fits into much the same framework as economic capital, using narrative to show how the two represent different forms of the same rationality (Bates et al. 1998). Indeed, if ‘money’ is itself the symbolic form of utility influence is the consequence of symbolic capital. If so, rational choice theory and discourse theory instead of occupying opposite ends of the same continuum may come to constitute their own hermeneutic circle.


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