On Poststructuralism and ‘Pragmatic’ Theories of Discourse

Here are some notes and quotations from an old article by Nancy Fraser I liked and have returned to, The Uses and Abuses of French Discourse Theories for Feminist Politics (Boundary 2 17:2 [Summer 1990]: 82-101). Fraser wonders why feminists have been using Lacan to theorize the construction of subjectivity in discourse, and explains why she does not like him – or Kristeva, or Saussure, or Derrida.

1. Discourse theories, she reminds us, can help explain a great deal about subjectivity and social identities, the formation of collective agents, the ways in which the cultural hegemony of dominant groups are secured and contested, and the prospects for emancipatory change. (83)

2. “The notion of hegemony points to the intersection of power, inequality, and discourse. However, it does not entail that the ensemble of descriptions that circulate in society comprise a monolityic and seamless web… (85)

2.5. “[Saussure] posited that langue was indeed a single system; he made its unity and systematicity consist in the putative fact that every signifier, every material, signifying element of the code, derives its meaning positionally by way of its difference from all of the others.” (87)

3. Structuralist models of discourse are not very useful for feminist politics, in part bedcause they privilege langue over parole. (86-87) The structuralist model thus “brackets questions of practice, agency, and the speaking subject.” (87) That has several implications, including the establishment of a “monolityic view of signification that denies tensions and contradictions among social meanings.” (87) Because it reduces discourse to a symbolic system or closed system of signs, this model “evacuates social agency, social conflict, and social practice.” (87)

3.5. Note from PZ: that is why the locus of enunciation is so important.

4. Like many poststructuralist theorists, Lacan’s attempts to break free of structuralism only tie him more irrevocably to it. (88)

5. Lacan tries to join Freud and Saussure, thus curing, it is hoped, the deficiencies of each. Yet Lacan is viciously circular (and deterministic) because in the end, it is the “Law of the Father” which counts. (88) The symbolic order acquires quasi-divine status. (89) It also gets conflated with historical phenomena or cultural practices which vary according to place and shift over time (90). Social identities are in fact woven from many discursive strands, but Lacan sees it all as part of one symbolic system; this leads to “a unitary view of the human condition as inherently tragic.” (90)

6. Another problem with Lacan is that he places affilitations “under the rubric of the imaginary.” (91) This essentially means there can be no politics, and we already know that there is esentially no communication outside the “Law.” The speaking subject is merely a grammatical “I” subject to the symbolic order. The ego can only “tilt at windmills” and the unconscious / (l’Autre) can never be a social agent. (91) This is to say that Lacan’s speaking subject “is not the agent of discursive practice.” (93) Lacan’s introduction of it as a concept does not helop us theorize discursive practice. The speaking subject “is simly an effect of the symbolic order conjoined to some repressed libidinal drives,” and “a reified conception of language as system has colonized the speaking subject. (93)

7. Fraser thinks the “pragmatic model” is more useful for feminist politics than the structural model of language. The pragmatic view considers language to be a social practice in a social context; it takes discourses, not structures, as its object; it recognizes that discourses are historically specific and socially situated. (What she means by “pragmatic model” is ordinary language philosophy and speech act theory, I discern.) Identities in this model can be non-monolithic. (This was once and perhaps still is important for my own purposes. In this model it is not a question of having a unitary subject or going off into the land of ‘l’Autre’ or ‘la jouissance.’)

8. Kristeva started out as a critic of structuralism and took the ‘pragmatic’ view but came under the sway of Lacan. Fraser thinks she is interesting when pragmatic, and less so when structuralist / poststructuralist.

9. Kristeva’s speaking subject as proposed in her paper “The System and the Speaking Subject” (1973; it is in the Kristeva Reader, by the way, ed. Toril Moi) is capable of innovative practice. There are two problems, however. One is that what is non-conforming is necessarily ‘revolutionary’ and good. Another is her association of transgression with poetry. Avant-garde aesthetic practice is transgressive is emancipatory is good. Oppositional practice takes place somewhere less aesthetically oriented, Fraser points out. (95)

10. Fraser is also not content with Kristeva’s “additive approach to theorizing,” which traps her in structuralism even when this is not her intention. There is an interesting discussion of Kristeva’s symbolic / semiotic distinction on 96-98: the “semiotic” may disrupt, but the symbolic order rules. Kristeva focuses on intrasubjective tensions, but does not really address intersubjectivity. And her speaking subject, half semiotic and half symbolic, implies only “a paralyzing oscillation between identity and non-identity without any determinate practical issue.” (98-99) Thus hers is a “radically nominalist, anti-essentialist approach that stresses that ‘women’ don’t exist and that collective identities are dangerous fictions.” (99)

11. Since Kristeva also associates femininity with maternity, and this with the symbolic, then maternity is smiotically transgressive (and also depoliticized). She refuses sociohistorical context, on the one hand, and essentializes on the other.

12. Therefore, says Fraser, we should not pay attention to Lacan / Kristeva but to pragmatic theories. These will allow us to think of social identities as complex, changing, and discursively constructed, and rescue us from this oscillation between essentialization / reification on the one hand, and negations and dispersals of identity on the other.


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