Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

The discourses directing our actions

During a discussion at a staff seminar today one of the participants, who teaches public administration, was explaining to the rest of us that in his research on, broadly speaking, the communication between government officials (including ministers) and ordinary citizens comprising various constituencies, he constantly comes across communicational gaps — between the documents released by officials, pertaining to specific constituencies or communities (such as audit reports) and the constituencies concerned, between the officials or ministers themselves and the communities involved when they occasionally meet face to face, and between the members of the constituencies and the officials, when the former try to “get through” to officials or ministers.

Our discussion explored various reasons for this, some of which centred on the concept of discourses or “language games”, which are very different where reports, governed by technical, bureaucratic rules of reporting, and ordinary language attempts to understand these, come up against each other. This points to one reason why communicational gaps exist: terminological exclusion through specialised discourse.

There is no reason why officials or ministers, assisted by someone who is linguistically adept in the language of the constituency concerned, could not approach the latter and use every available avenue to make technical reports or “white papers” accessible to them. (I have alluded to Jacques Ranciére before, who believes (for good reason) that all people are capable of making sense of something when given the opportunity, no matter what class or educational differences separate them, and in cases like this one it can be put to the test, as it were.) One of our members pointed out that this is precisely what many individuals — and not only state officials or ministers — are not willing to do — to go out of their way to make certain information accessible to others, because it would remove a (discursive) barrier behind which they feel protected.

Does this sound familiar? How many of us have been exposed to lecturers and teachers who have hidden behind a palisade of technical jargon to protect themselves from the possibility of being questioned with too much understanding on the part of students, or of members of a community who have a stake in the smooth running of a government department? In other words, the phenomenon of individuals throwing up a smokescreen for protection when they do not feel entirely confident in themselves regarding the field of their accountability, is not at all foreign to us.

Reinforcing this evasive behaviour born of lack of confidence there is the further scourge of hierarchical thinking — the appeal to (often unfounded) “authority” — which functions as an almost insurmountable obstacle to, among other things, productive communication, or research, when senior researchers or people in research development adopt a condescending attitude to junior staff members or — in the case of postgraduate student-supervisors — to students. Prescriptive behaviour usually accompanies this hierarchical approach, which never frees postgraduate students to find their own way in their field. Even the most adequate supervision, understood as guidance of less experienced people, cannot afford to keep the “apprentice” on a string forever.

To be able to “free” students for discovering their own angle of incidence into a discipline, one has to have confidence and the willingness to learn from someone else, albeit a student, that your own approach is not the only possible one. Again, anyone who lacks confidence in their own ability to confront the new, and to assimilate it into one’s own frame of reference — or better, to modify and amplify your own frame of comprehension — would resist such openness and hide behind established edifices of supposed “knowledge”. I say “supposed” because it is not really knowledge unless it is put to the test in the face of something novel, which could easily come from students (something I have experienced on many occasions). Needless to say, one’s approach to student guidance is intimately related to one’s own way of doing research — your own “style” or approach to gaining insight into the disciplines that interest you.

The more fundamental question is, of course, why some people adopt hierarchical positions towards others — in diverse contexts, from business to education to civil service — and others seem entirely at ease with a situation, even a very informal one, where they treat others as equals (regardless of whether such others are as “knowledgeable” as they are in a discipline). The answer has to do, firstly, with confidence (as argued earlier), but secondly also with what the German philosopher Fichte once remarked, namely: “The kind of philosophy one chooses depends on the kind of person you are.”

There are many theories of personality articulated by people such as Freud, Jung, and others, which is not what I want to go into here, given their terminological differences. “What kind of person one is” nevertheless plays a decisive role in one’s approach to virtually everything in life, and not only the situations referred to above. Some time ago I posted a piece on Lacan’s theory of the four discourses: “What Lacan can teach one about capitalism” — I would suggest reading that in conjunction with this, given the space-limitations.

Every one of the four discourses — the discourse of the master, of the university, of the hysteric and of the analyst — denotes a specific subject position. To put it simply: every discourse is a particular way of approaching the world, society, or other individuals. And different people behave under the sway or dominance of a different discourse, mostly, although one can also switch discursive positions (deliberately, or involuntarily) in different situations.

Individuals who tend to be hierarchical in their approach are invariably in thrall to the master’s discourse in one of its embodiments, of which there are many. (Every one of the four discourses is a TYPE of discourse.) Patriarchy is a widespread master’s discourse — the discourse of the “rule of the father” — which functions in government, in education, in business and in the churches (the Roman Catholic Church being an exemplar of a patriarchal, hierarchical organisation, although not the only one). Needless to say, individuals interpellated by this discourse, would find evidence of it in the readiness with which they submit to “authority” in their own lives, including in research.

The discourse of the university is the discourse of knowledge — ironically not of a critical, questioning conception of knowledge, but the kind that supports the status quo, for example standard theories of economics that maintain present economic power relations. The true representative of critical, questioning science is the discourse of the hysteric, and one can recognise oneself as acting under its aegis when one’s style of communicating (including teaching) or of research is a questioning one. The discourse of the analyst is recognisable in the actions of those who are not satisfied with incessant questioning (of the master’s and the university discourses), but find that a questioning alternation between different master’s discourses (which are therefore relativised) yields the best communicational or research results and the most beneficial human or social relations.

Self-knowledge as far as one’s own “discursive dominant” is concerned can therefore be very productive. Whatever the case may be, knowing the weakness and the strengths of a discursive position can assist towards modifying one’s communicational behaviour as well as one’s teaching and research in the case of academics.

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