Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

The discursive forces that shape our lives

The 21st-century world, and with it, our lives, are shaped by powerful discursive forces that are distinct from one another, but are nevertheless interrelated in complex ways. Sometimes they intertwine and reinforce one another, and sometimes they conflict, and the clash between discourses often spills over into the lives of ordinary (and sometimes high-profile) individuals who are mostly powerless to control such consequences.

I have written on discourses on this site before, but to recap briefly what it means to say that discourses — or discursive forces — shape us and our world, think of it this way. Most discourse-theorists (and those with the most sophisticated theories of discourse are, to my mind, Foucault, Lacan and, although he tends to use a different idiom, Ranciére) posit a link between language, power and agency, which simply means this: Our subjectivity, including our actions, is configured or “shaped” by the language and related images to which we are exposed from infancy.

Someone who is raised a Christian, for example, learns to view the world and their actions in it through the powerful discursive complex of Christian imagery and language — the death of Christ on the cross and what it means for humanity, backed up and reinforced by images depicting his suffering and the salvation of humankind. On the other hand, someone who grows up in present-day consumer societies (that means most people) are shaped by the discourse of neo-liberal capitalism, probably the most powerful and pervasive discourse structuring people’s behaviour today.

By this I mean that, even if it is intertwined with other discourses, such as that of Christianity, or of technology, the mass media, or of the military-industrial complex, or of patriarchy — and usually these interweavings do function in social relations — it seems to me that the dominant discourse is that of capitalism. This is debatable, of course, and perhaps it would be more accurate to say that certain complex intertwinements comprise the dominant discursive forces in global society today. The ones I would pick out are and amalgam of capitalism, technology, mass media, the military-industrial complex and patriarchy.

Existing in a kind of agonistic tension with this configuration of mutually-reinforcing discourses there are numerous counter-discourses that challenge their dominance. Different strands of feminism combat the excesses of patriarchy, different kinds of culture or religion-based discourses oppose and sometimes violently engage with the dominant discourses of capitalism and global military interventionism (which is driven by, and in turn drives the military-industrial complex). As Hardt and Negri point out in Empire (2001: 146-150), this happens when certain cultures perceive the dominant discursive regimes as threatening the destruction of their life-worlds, and turn to fundamentalist discourses.

What some people, like Paul Roberts, see as a worrying trend in the US, namely to subject its (in many ways still) democratic discursive foundation to increasing “police (or security) control”, is intimately connected to the discursive entanglement of military technological development and capitalism, being driven by the constant need for technological innovation for military purposes as well as for profit through consumerism. A case in point is the enormous recent growth in the development of so-called “drones”, not only for military purposes, but also for commercial and private use.

In Pakistan, where thousands of people have been killed by drone-attacks, constantly hovering US military drones have become such a ubiquitous feature of villagers’ lives that all kinds of detrimental psychological effects may be identified on the part of the villagers. And the military-interventionist discourse is so powerful that this continues, despite no formal permission having been granted to the US under international law. A recent TIME magazine (February 11) features a cover article that explores not only the military uses of drones, but also its use in businesses like real estate and photography. Clearly, what Foucault called “panopticism”, has been taken up a level or two. The point is that these practices of surveillance would not come into being without the discourses which justify and make them possible — and in the US these discourses are so powerful that even a wide spectrum of discursive opposition does not seem to have any impact on their global rule.

In addition to the ones already mentioned, the oldest and probably most pervasive discourse in the world — patriarchy — still exercises its lethal force, with women and children being at the receiving end. And don’t think that it is not connected with the other dominant discourses — the fascination that guns hold for many men is intimately connected to the military-industrial discursive complex, to the valorisation of hunting as a “manly” thing to do, as well as to capitalist profit from rifle, pistol and other arms manufacturing. It is no accident that the National Rifle Association in the US is such a powerful lobby group on Capitol Hill — unless the discourse of “the right to carry arms” were regularly reinforced in debates on gun control, the profits of the manufacturers would dwindle to unacceptable levels.

This discourse — where constitutional rights to carry guns and personal security converge — lurks behind many of the fatal shootings that so puzzle observers in the US. And it operates in South Africa too, for many complex reasons involving the media-valorisation of self-defence by means of guns, and reinforced by the discourse surrounding crime. Consider this: in mainstream Hollywood movies as well as many television series the discursive imperative that comes across explicitly and forcefully, is that problems are best resolved through the use of guns.

A discourse-analysis of films, and even of movie-posters advertising them, makes this unambiguously clear. I recall a recent poster for the film, Jack Reacher, with Tom Cruise staring at the onlooker with a look of implacable resolve, holding a handgun, with a caption suggesting that Reacher (his character) is the one who will “reach” further than anyone to rectify and avenge wrongs and crimes — with a gun, of course.

If this is the image that holds people captive — that interpersonal problems should always be approached with a gun in your hand — is it at all surprising that people with heaven knows what personal grievances and resentments follow its discursive imperative to the letter, going to schools and other places where people gather, and allowing their bodies to become the instruments of these fundamental, inescapable discursive forces by raining bullets on the hapless victims?

Those among us who try to do our share in promoting a humane, tolerant society, where to be caring, reasonable and communicative is valorised — especially where women and children are concerned — and where human solidarity instead of private profit at all costs is promoted, had better speak up and act visibly in accordance with a different discursive complex, one that bears the imprint of what goes by an ancient name: love. Not just love of your lover, partner, wife or husband and children, but of all people, in the sense of care (caritas), and ultimately of all living things according to their natures. After all, we all belong to the same extended family.

For a more substantial treatment of this theme, see my “Discourse, agency and the question of evil” (A discourse-analysis of the so-called “ripper-rapist” case), in Philosophy and Psychoanalytic theory, Collected essays, London and Frankfurt: Peter Lang Publishers, 2009.

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