Thursday, December 13, 2012

Having fun with discourse

In their fun but somewhat overwrought book Contingency, hegemony, universality: contemporary dialogues on the left, the three authors Butler, Laclau and Zizek discusses contingency, hegemony and universality. At some length. For our purposes, we only need to extract their sense of hegemony, which goes something like this: of all the things that is theoretically possible to think, only a few of them are actually thought, and those things that are actually thought constitute what might be called hegemony.

They go on quite a while about it, but that's the gist of it.

This notion of hegemony opens up for the notion of certain people being pariah. People who, for whatever reason, are not accepted in a certain social setting, yet which are for that very reason a part of that same social setting. As Hannah Arendt described so acutely in her work Rahel Varnhagen, there is very much a difference between being present in a society and being part of it, and never is that difference more pronounced than when one is a visitor in them.

As any guest worker can tell you.

While it might, in theoretical fact, be very possible indeed to conceive of a notion of (actual) citizenship that includes those who are at present excluded, the presence of hegemony precludes this possibility from undergoing the formality of actually occurring. It may be a good idea to go through with this expansion of citizenship for the community in question, but, again - hegemony.

If we want to understand this hegemonic power over what is and isn't thinkable, we could do worse than to turn to Michel Foucault. In the Archaeology of Knowledge, he talks about the discursive conditions that form and inform our social practices, which in turn forms and informs what is thinkable and what isn't. Depending on what contingent (there's that word again) factors once served to shape our discourse was, our present takes on forms they wouldn't have taken on otherwise.

(As any who has studied anything at all about ancient Greeks know, there's really no getting around the fact that you have to know the context of the Ancients to really understand their thoughts. Socrates didn't die due to lack of a will to live, after all, and this death has inspired many a possible thought into hegemony -)

Well. Back to our times. From Foucault, we can take two directions. We can either go with Bourdieu, and discuss the habitus as the ultimate expression of hegemonic being - whatever you happen to be, you are in some sense a hegemonic being, and cannot be otherwise. Not due to personal failings, but due to the limitations of the human body - you do have to be someone, no matter how many indecisions you commit in a daily basis.

Or, we can go with Hanna Fenichel Pitkin's notion of the anti-blob. Which is to say - society is not a blob, and regardless of how brutally hegemony may affect our lives, change is  possible. Society may be big, slow-moving and prone to mind numbing inefficiencies, but it is possible to make things happen. In spite of and indeed because of these very things.

I usually return to Nancy Fraser's Rethinking the public sphere at this point. There is hegemony, yes, and there are things that simply cannot be said and/or done in society as we know it today. The solution to this - the correct answer, if you will - is not to despair, but to build our own hegemony, where new things are thinkable and new ways of being are made possible. Not a global hegemony, to be sure, but a small one, a local one. One where we, the local people, can talk to each other as the people, about the people we really are -

And thus, reforming our respective habituses into something new.

There is, of course, somewhat of a risk of becoming pariah in the course of building this subaltern discourse of ours. But as any fan of Doctor Who can tell you - it won't matter.

So go out there and have fun. Remix that discourse with a smile, and prove the current hegemony wrong once and again.

Not once and for all, though. We do still want change to be possible, after all. -

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