Linguistic Turn And Discourse Analysis Research Paper

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1. The Linguistic Turn And The Post-Modern Epistemological Crisis

The term ‘linguistic turn’ emerged as common currency in discussions among historians during the 1980s and 1990s to designate a sweeping, but vehemently contested, shift in the framework within which both the object or content of historical investigation (the ‘past’) and the methods of achieving historical knowledge of this content were defined. In its weaker, least contentious, form the linguistic turn referred to a more intense and focused attentiveness to the opacity and complexity of the linguistic forms through which all evidence of the past was mediated, and the ‘truth’ of the past represented, reconstructed, and communicated. The term itself was appropriated from discussions among philosophers, where it had been used as a general description of the turn in twentieth-century philosophy toward reformulating the epistemological problem of the relationship between thought and reality in terms of a relationship between language and reality. In the stronger and more contentious form that surfaced in debates among historians, however, the linguistic turn came to designate a shift away from the conventional view that language was a passive, potentially transparent instrument for transmitting content, for organizing, representing or expressing the truth of a reality outside of itself, and toward a view of language as the dense, fertile and autonomous site in and through which the objective reality of the world as well as the subjective reality of language users was actively produced or constructed. From this latter perspective, the act of taking the linguistic turn was synonymous with the claim that the production and communication of historical knowledge was inextricably entangled in the epistemological crisis associated with the transition from a modern to a ‘postmodern’ cultural condition.

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As a particular disciplinary expression of this epochal transition to postmodernism the linguistic turn in history was grounded on three major premises. First, it accepted the ultimate futility of the historical quest to reconstruct a single, coherent narrative of human history whose pattern or structure could somehow be grasped and mapped in its totality from a transcendent position outside of the particular, contingent meanings that human beings in specific times and places had imposed on the material traces of the past, a quest most recently articulated in the national liberation narratives, global modernization theories, and Marxian historical dialectics of the Cold War decades. Second, the linguistic turn appropriated from poststructuralist theory the sweeping critique of residual beliefs in the existence of noncontingent stable identities (whether natural kinds or metaphysical essences) whose fates might be traced historically through paths of accident, evolution, repression, resistance, and liberation. National, ethnic, racial, sexual, gender, and class identities were not treated as material or metaphysical realities expressed in language and culture, but contingent, constantly changing, constructions produced in language and culture. Third, this dissolution of essential identities implied a transformation in the methods of historical representation. Access to a reality not already shaped and constructed by the linguistic medium in which it was always presented to the knower, either as subjectively lived experience or objectively perceived external object or event, was considered impossible. The historian could only interpret interpretations, could only redescribe and thus reconstruct in his or her own language the linguistic constructions of others.

Various elements of the epistemological crisis associated with the linguistic turn had been present in muted and sometimes more extreme forms within the Western historical tradition since the beginnings of the modern professionalization of history in the early nineteenth century. During the post-World War II era the disconcerting relativist implications of self-consciousness about the density and relative autonomy of the linguistic medium that mediated reality as meaningful was reined in by a broadly shared disciplinary consensus concerning the reality of the past and the methods that provided access to its truth. The more radical linguistic turn of the 1980s, with its implications that the historian’s past was a construction grounded on ethical and political choices, rather than on epistemological criteria, was associated with the breakdown of this consensus, as the increasingly effective voices of previously excluded perspectives, particularly those of women, ethnic minorities, and former colonial subjects, mounted a powerful critique of established professional conventions. The linguistic turn was embedded deeply in the feminist, multiculturalist, and postcolonial ‘turns’ among dissident members of the disciplinary community, and connected to a new series of interdisciplinary liaisons with literary theory, cultural anthropology, and philosophy.

A major difficulty standing in the way of providing a concise description of the linguistic turn in history stems from the diverse meanings assigned to the term ‘language.’ The everyday conventional meaning of language as a native or vernacular language is rarely what contemporary historians have in mind. In fact, the use of the term has been extended broadly beyond the rules and practices of verbal communication in speech and writing to include nonlinguistic structures of exchange and all signifying practices through which meaning is produced, transmitted, and communicated. As the totality of meaningful action or signifying practices, ‘language’ becomes virtually indistinguishable from ‘culture.’ The favored model for organizing discussions of language by proponents of the linguistic turn during the 1980s and 1990s was the semiotic model derived from the linguistic theories of Ferdinand de Saussure and Charles Sanders Pierce, in which language is conceived as a structured system of ‘signs’ whose meanings are determined by their relations to each other rather than their relation to a ‘transcendental’ object or subject. Most influential for historians has been the development of this semiotic model in cultural anthropology and especially the French structuralist and poststructuralist theory of Louis Althusser, Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, and Michel Foucault. Although ‘language’ and ‘discourse’ are still often used interchangeably in debates concerning the linguistic turn, the attempt to provide some kind of theoretical focus on the analysis of language in history has increasingly been organized around the term ‘discourse.’ Historians who have taken the linguistic turn tend to define the distinctiveness of their own signifying practice as ‘discourse analysis.’

2. Discourse Analysis: Enabling Structures And Communicative Practices

Despite the widespread use of ‘discourse’ as an organizing concept within a variety of the humanistic and social scientific disciplines, its meanings have remained fluid, flexible, and often indefinite. However, the two general meanings of the term in common usage—(a) a formal speech or treatise that presents a theme or object in a systematic and authoritative manner, and (b) a conversation or discussion involving a communicative exchange among a number of speakers—provide a framework for the more technical, disciplinary uses within current historical work.

2.1 Discourse As The Historical A Priori Of Thought, Speech, And Action

The more formal, systematic, and authoritative dimension of discourse is articulated in historical studies in the attempt to outline the formal structures of rules, codes, categories, and procedures (the relatively stable aggregate of conventions, usages, idioms, tropes, vocabularies) that define a particular communicative space, delimiting the field of possible statements and actions, enabling what can be meaningfully and effectively articulated. Historical discourses in this sense are impersonal formal structures operating anonymously behind the backs of speakers and actors, constituting the world of objective reality and subjective agency by making certain types of speech or behavior possible and other types impossible, by recognizing certain speakers and actors as legitimate or effective, and excluding others as illegitimate or ineffective, by defining certain objects and events as real or objective, and others as fictional and subjective. Different discourses constitute the world of experience in different ways, and are thus incommensurable with each other. They produce homogeneity (within their field of power) and heterogeneity in relation to other discursive fields. Specific statements or actions are only meaningful as instances of the rules and regularities governing the discourse in which they occur. Discourses become markers of the stable, synchronic, self-contained, incommensurable, discontinuous dimension in historical systems of meaning or cultural formations. For the historian, mapping the structures or codes of particular discourses defines historical action and historical actors as determined by those structures, as events and agents in a foreign world that has its own criteria for determining what is true or real, who is an effective agent, whose speech is meaningful. Discourses may thus, in Foucault’s terms, create specific historical ‘regimes’ of truth and systems of power.

Discourse analysis can be a way for the historian to establish the otherness of the past, as it has been by practitioners of the new cultural history who imagine the past as a ‘foreign country.’ Textual traces from the past can be provided with their own reality, differentiated from the realities of other times and places, by inserting them into the discourses that originally defined their significance. By recognizing the strangeness, the alien character of the ‘voices’ or ‘traces’ from the past deposited in the archival record, the present also comes into focus as a particular historical moment with its own sets of systematic enabling and limiting conditions. In this sense the deployment of an ahistorical, formal conception of discourse can produce a very concrete historical consciousness, an awareness of the contingent historicity of present existence. It provides few guidelines for reconstructing the developmental processes that lead from the past to the present.

2.2 Discourse As Communicative Process

As a constitutive system of categories and codes that differentiates historical worlds or cultures from each other, discourse becomes a tool for the reconstruction of past as different, for marking historical distance and avoiding anachronism. But it also freezes systems of meaning into static cross-sectional snapshots that allow analysis of the self-relating structures of individual systems, but do not illuminate the interaction among systems or the processes of transformation from one system to another. Moreover, the employment of the structural definition of discourse as a closed semiotic system seems to dissolve historical agency. The identity of agents is called forth or constituted by the discourse itself and their statements and actions remain mere instances of the discursive rules that produce the reality in which they operate. A second dimension of discourse analysis, however, breaks apart the apparent stasis and structural determinism of this stance. Conceived on a conversational or dialogical model in which signifying practices operate in continuous processes of confrontation, exchange, and transformation, discourse becomes a term for conceptualizing historical change, communicative interaction, and the dynamics of historical agency. From this point of view, linguistic or signifying actions are not authorless events in language but actions on language by individual and collective agents who appropriate inherited possibilities contained in existing discursive structures in order to both modify those structures and to transform themselves as agents. But how could the agents, the individual, and collective identities contingently and historically constructed within the structures of discourse, become themselves the creative transformers of discourse? One possible answer to this question could be constructed from within discourse theory itself, but ultimately it does raise the issue: what is the ‘other’ of discourse? and how is discourse changed and transformed in its relationship to its other?

3. Discourse And Discourses: Pluralism And Heterogeneity

In an early manifesto of discourse analysis, Foucault (1972) distinguished between a general domain that included all meaningful or signifying actions and their formal or structural conditions, and more individualized, singular groups of signifying practices organized in a focused disciplinary fashion around the construction of a coherent regime of truth. Historians have not been completely disinterested in the more sweeping, universalizing or totalizing notions of discourse that define the historical a priori of whole epochs or cultures, like the discourse of ‘man’ or secular historical humanism that rules over the ‘modern’ epoch, but they have tended to gravitate toward a practice of discourse analysis that emphasizes both the plurality of discourses and the conflict among discourses within a general discursive domain. Three forms of such heterogeneity in discourse analysis are particularly obvious. First, discourses can be differentiated in terms of the social and cultural dimensions or spheres in which they operate or are effective. Thus, one might differentiate among public, official, popular, literary, elite, urban, or religious variants of discourses of class or madness or justice or gender at any particular time or in any particular geographic area. Second, discourses obviously are differentiated in terms of the specific domains of meaning and action—the objects, subjects, and rules of relationship—which they construct. Thus, orientalist discourse constructs ‘the east’ as well as the ‘orientalist’; psychiatric discourse constructs the psyche and the psychiatrist. Differentiations of this type are often imagined as analogous to academic disciplines that produced their putative objects of analysis in the way that the discipline of history constructs ‘the past,’ or sociology constructs ‘society’ or ‘the social.’ Third, historians tend to differentiate competing or alternative discourses that operate within these various dimensions and domains. Within the dimension of public discourse, for example, there may not only exist separate discourses pertaining to the spheres of political authority, citizenship, social hierarchy, or legal structures, but also dominant and oppositional, liberal and conservative, patriarchal and feminist, bourgeois and working class discourses that delineate the boundaries of this sphere and organize and define its contents and relations in competing and conflicting ways.

This proliferation of difference in the discursive realm is one of the major conditions of creativity and historical change. At any particular moment in time an historical actor will inhabit a heterogeneous compound of discourses, dissolving the apparent formal disassociation of discourses from each other, allowing for creative performances in which the inner logics of different discourses are brought in contact with each other in transformative ways. Just as a scholar can inhabit an interdisciplinary space in which various disciplinary discourses can be brought into interaction in order to transform conventional, dominant discourses about a particular issue or problem, an actor in the public sphere might exploit the plurality of existing constructions of citizenship in various inherited discourses to imagine and act out innovative forms of membership and responsibility in a political community. The first task for the historian engaged in discourse analysis is to identify a discourse within a given body of evidence, to map out its boundaries, and reconstruct its inner logic or structure. A discourse is not simply a synoptic summary of the aggregate of statements that refer to some specific theme, like references to the work of women in France between 1815 and 1848. To identify the discourse in such thematically associated material would be to reconstruct the formal dimensions within the signifying practices informing the evidence. Discourse would be the organizing power that constructs the ‘world’ the evidence assumes and provides effective power to certain statements. Once such a discourse has been mapped or reconstructed, the map can be used, like an ‘ideal type’ or ‘paradigm’ to identify or discover its presence in other texts or bodies of evidence. Such reconstructive mapping of historical a prioris establishes historical difference, marks off the conditions of possible action and expression in different worlds. The second task of the historian of discourse, however, would be to cut through or modify the radical difference produced in the first operation—to describe the ways in which the specific actions—linguistic and nonlinguistic performances with communicative intent—within the formal conditions of a discourse create changes in that discourse and reveal the porous, contingent nature of discursive boundaries. This model of discourse analysis as a constant oscillation between the reconstructions of formal contexts and concrete, innovative performances in a dialogical, communicative context has been highly developed within specific realms of intellectual history—like the history of political theory, public opinion, and ideology, but its expansion into a broader analysis of the whole range of historical practices has highlighted a number of problems, problems that have become the center of the controversies dividing historians about the validity of discourse analysis per se.

4. Discourse And Its ‘Others’

Discourse and discourse analysis only attain distinctive, specifiable definition if they are placed in relation to something which they are not. What are the ‘others’ of discourse? This question is directly relevant to two questions that are of particular interest to historians: How can one explain the stability and/or hegemony of certain discursive formations among specific populations over extended periods of time, and how can one explain changes within specific discourses, the shifting relationships among discourses, and the emergence of new discourses in time?

4.1 Discourse And The Material World

The polemical thrust of discourse analysis when it emerged as an articulated position in debates among historians during the 1980s was directed primarily against dominant conventions of historical analysis which portrayed the realm of the production, reproduction and transmission of meaning in linguistic and other signifying actions as a product, effect or expression of the structures and transformations of material practices. Despite the complexities within and obvious differences among class oriented British cultural Marxism, the sociologically grounded modernization narratives prevalent in the US and Germany, or the structuralist ‘total histories’ of the French Annales school, all were viewed as ultimately reducing the production and transformation of meaning to an effect, however indirect, of changes occurring outside of the linguistic and more broadly cultural sphere. Concepts like ‘ideology’ or ‘collective mentality’ were criticized and often rejected outright because of their implication that the production of meaning in language could only be grasped with reference to a reality or truth that was situated in material social practices outside of language. In its initial stages the linguistic turn often appeared as an attempt to resist the absorption of the cultural into the social, to insist on the autonomy of processes of meaning production, to assert the autonomy (no longer ‘relative’) of intellectual and cultural history. More serious tensions among historians developed, however, when the realm of discourse was conceived as creating the categories and identities through which people lived their social being and defined their social interests. Class identities were not defined as public expressions of the ways in which groups articulated social interests grounded in the way they lived their relation to nature in systems of production, but identities produced in discourse that determined how interests were defined and the ways in which economic and social relations were experienced. Gender differentiation in public discourse, or medical discourse, or class discourse was not conceived as representing the contrasting realities of social experience of physically differentiated bodies but as constructed forms in which bodies were experienced as sexually different. Histories of the experiences of classes, of the sexes, of races, ethnic groups, nationalities, colonial subjects, etc., were transformed into historical reconstructions of the discursive processes through which class, sexual, racial, ethnic, national, and colonial identities were constructed.

It would be misleading however, to treat this new cultural history, grounded in discourse analysis, as some historians have tried to do, as a new form of idealism based on a belief that language makes the material world, that thought creates existence. First, in discourse analysis, discourse itself is conceived as a dense network of signifying practices, a material Activity embedded in the communicative interactive relations between producers and consumers of meaning and articulated in institutional structures. The linguistic turn did not simply exalt the status of language but changed the conception of what language is and how it works in history. Second, the ‘other’ of discourse analysis is not the empirical analysis of concrete evidence: discourse analysts certainly are as attentive to archival evidence as any social historian. The other of discourse analysis is a belief in the ultimate accessibility of an ‘unmediated’ meaningful reality on the other side of discourse which determines the truth of the meanings produced within discourse. Discourse analysts restrict the historical task to reconstructing the conflicted process of the cultural mediation of meaningless ‘reality,’ the practical human Activity of meaning construction, transmission, and transformation. Yet the actual practice of discourse analysis may raise doubts about historians’ ability to finally extirpate the metaphysical impulse to represent a truth beyond the represented ‘truths’ of human cultural practices. In the work of Michel Foucault and many of the historians who follow his lead, for example, one finds an assumption that the actual workings of discourse are determined by a prior will-to-power, by a universal drive to impose meaningful order on meaningless ‘reality,’ to narrativize the disassociated fragments of experience, to stabilize the endless proliferation of contingent identities. Discourse analysis, thus, not only marks a turn from the social to the cultural, but also a turn toward the political in the ubiquitous sense that all practices in the world have a political intent, that the legitimation, expansion, and consolidation of power is not a particular sphere of historical action, but the form of all historical practice. Discourse analysis has also been characterized by a renewed and transformed interest in the history of the body and of nature. Both the human body and the world of external nature are constituted within discourse, but at the same time are primary sites of resistance to any particular discursive construction. Within the framework of discourse analysis human and nonhuman physicality cannot have a positive unmediated reality of their own, a reality capable of self-representation within its own nondiscursive, transcendental ‘language.’ Bodies may be constantly inscribed and re-inscribed as meaningful in various discursive networks, as laboring organisms, as reproductive mechanisms, as emblems of spiritual content, but their sheer intractable existence also marks the limits of discursive constitution and thus fuels an infinite process of re-inscription and re-constitution.

5. Discourse Analysis And The Problem Of Historical Agency

Discourse analysis is premised on the claim that effective historical agency, and thus the existence of individual and collective subjects who are capable of productive, creative, transformative action in the world, is produced in history rather than expressed in history. It is not subjects who produce meaning, but the networks of meaning that create subjects. In some earlier forms of discourse analysis, which was heavily tilted toward an analysis of the homogenizing, totalizing regularities in discursive structures, subjects, or authors often appeared as nothing more than anonymous, replaceable bearers (Trager) of the structures that defined them. In many ways this conception of discourse as a systematic process of meaning production mirrored the position of social historians who defined individual and collective agents in history as the inhabitants of social functions, or as bearers of the process of material production. Historians who took the linguistic turn in the 1980s and 1990s, however, were concerned with revealing the historical contingency of determining structures, with deconstructing systems of meaning production that allowed certain identities—of class, race, gender, ethnicity, and so on—to be experienced as natural realities or metaphysical essences. Attentiveness to the conflictual, dialogical, communicative dimensions of discourses in which historical identities were constantly constructed, modified, dissolved, and transformed did assume the effective agency of historical subjects (both individual and collective) who were able not only to negotiate among conflicting, multivocal, sometimes contradictory discourses, but also to redefine themselves as subjective agents.

Discursive agency, however, was decentered and contingent, the agency of constantly shifting ‘identities’ that were the creations of discursive practices themselves. Historical subjects were ‘subjected’ to the logics of the various discursive networks that they inhabited. But within the limitations defined by historical situation and status they made choices that might ultimately change that situation and status, and thus also their own identities. The question of agency in discourse analysis was not so much whether or not agency was possible within its terms, but what kind of agency was imaginable. Within the complex heterogeneous compounds of any cultural or discursive formation, a particular individual might simultaneously inhabit a whole series of dispersed, fragmented subject positions. Within each of them—as parent, worker, consumer, or as sexual, racial, or national subject—the individual could act, either individually or by identifying himself with other individuals similarly positioned in various discourses, to shift the hierarchical relations among identities, and to change the identities themselves. In discourse analysis, human agency, the identity and effectiveness of the individual and collective subject, was construed as an always coming-to-be in worldly particularly, as historical through and through.

This historicization of agency was at the same time a politicization of agency. The effective construction of specific collective identities, like nation, class, or race was described as a conflictual political process in which certain subject positions were excluded or privileged, became dominant or were repressed, attained stability through forceful imposition on others, or were negotiated in a more consensual fashion. The historicization and de-centering of human agency in the many historical works devoted to the cultural or discursive constructions of class, gender, national, or racial identities written during the late 1980s and through the 1990s did not fully expunge questions concerning the extralinguistic, culturally ‘transcendent’ grounding or foundation of human agency among historians. The writings of intellectual mentors of the linguistic turn, like Foucault, Walter Benjamin, or Jacques Lacan (and, in the1990s, Slavoj Zizek), were replete with references to the problematic nature not only of the physicality of the body but of the transcendent autonomy of some form of unmediated subjectivity—that which sought or was given shape and identity in the various ‘subject positions’ constituted in discourse—which appeared to be a necessary condition for the historical differentiation and transformation of subject identities. Historians might modestly decline professional competency in addressing such questions. But that which was outside discourse analysis inevitably shaped what occurred inside discourse analysis. The metaphysical limits of discourse analysis suggested that discourse analysis was itself a historical, that is, contingent and particular identity, a ‘subject position’ for historians of a particular place and time.

6. Discourse Analysis And The Discourse Of Historians

The linguistic turn in history began with, and has continued to be characterized by, an intensive self-reflexive focus. With the publication of Metahistory, White (1973) introduced many historians to discourse analysis as an analysis of the discourse of historians. The primary object of concern was not so much the reconstruction of the way past identities were produced in language, as the construction of the individual and collective identities of historians through their discourses about the past. Stories historians told about the past were unveiled as stories in which they fashioned themselves, and possibly their readers, in the present. In the discourse on historical theory and historiography instigated by White’s work, historians’ texts are analyzed as linguistic artifacts akin to the rhetorical and fictional texts of literature, in which the structures of the linguistic form determine the ‘objectivity’ of the content. The discourse of objective realistic representation that had conventionally legitimated entry into the disciplinary community devoted to knowledge of the past was displayed as a mystifying, self-deceiving attempt to portray the subjective (that is, based on ethical and political considerations) construction of its object as a true representation of its object. The goal of such analysis was self-recognition and emancipation.

Once the burdens of determination by the putative objective reality of the past were recognized as self-imposed limitations, historians were free to imagine and construct alternative pasts in terms of their ethical and political commitments in the present and their visions of alternative futures. Moreover, as soon as the texts inherited from the past were grasped as historically contingent discursive constructions of meaningful identity in time, the inhabitants of the present could recognize themselves in them, not just constitute themselves through them. History could become a discovery of the ‘reality’ of the human past which was in itself a constantly reformulated attempt to represent reality as meaningful.

Two major questions continue to fuel the debate instigated by the analysis of the historical discipline as a discursive community. The first concerns the politics of this disciplinary community. How should the boundaries of legitimate historical discourse be determined in relation to other disciplinary discourses, or what are the limits of interdisciplinary crossing if history is to maintain a distinctive identity? Within the terms of discourse analysis this question must be decided through the communicative practices of historians rather than through an appeal to the object of analysis. The question then becomes one of defining the discursive process in which historical reality and truth are represented. Who is recognized as a ‘subject’ with rights to participate fully in the discourse, and how are the negotiations within this discourse to be regulated? The problem of reconstituting a common past becomes a political issue of extending membership and of democratizing power within the profession. Solidarity and objectivity are inextricably bound up with each other. One of the reasons that the linguistic turn and discourse analysis have become such contentious issues among historians is that they pertain directly to the identity of history and the identity of historians.

The second issue raised by the reflexive moment in historical discourse analysis relates to the more general issue that troubles the whole debate surrounding the linguistic turn. What are the ethical (and political) implications of construing the past as a construction of discourse? Is the creation of an inclusive, democratically negotiated consensus about the nature of the past adequate to the goal of recreating the reality of the object of historical investigation and defining the criteria of historical knowledge? As the ongoing debates about historicizing the Holocaust have suggested, discourse about the truth of the past must involve the dead as well as the living. To converse with the dead entails a recognition not only of their physical existence, their extradiscursive ‘reality’ as bodies that transcend all the meanings inscribed on them, but also their status as actual or potential subjects of a discourse of their own that must be taken into account in any discourse we might construct about them. It would seem that an adequate conception of historical discourse would need to include some recognition that historians’ discursive production of the past can be interrupted by the voices of the dead, and that a part of the ethical obligation of the historian is to listen to those voices.


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