chapter  2
19 Pages

DISCOURSE AND IDEOLOGY

For all cultural and critical theorists there has been intense theoretical difficulty in deciding whether to draw on work which is based around the notion of ideology or work which refers to discourse. These problems have to do with political orientation, which, in the pessimistic political climate of the 1990s, has meant that many theorists have found themselves more comfortable dealing with notions of discourse than aligning themselves with Marxist-inflected theories through the use of the term ideology. This is not to suggest that discourse is necessarily an apolitical term, or that it signals a lack of political commitment, since, as I argue in Chapters 4 and 5, it is possible to conduct a politically informed analysis based on the use of discourse theory, but this political commitment is in no way as straightforwardly formulated as it is when using the term ideology. Thus, many theorists, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the seeming world-wide collapse of communism as a viable political system, wanted to develop an intellectual practice concerned to analyse the determinants of

thinking and behaviour in a more complex way than is possible when using terms like ideology. For many working with a vulgar Marxist model, ideology implied a simplistic and negative process whereby individuals were duped into using conceptual systems which were not in their own interests. Discourse, because of its lack of alliance to a clear political agenda, offered a way of thinking about hegemony – people’s compliance in their own oppression – without assuming that individuals are necessarily simply passive victims of systems of thought. For those who work within discourse theory, the model of political activity and the perceived outcomes of that activity are very different from those developed within schools of thought informed by notions of ideology. Whereas Marxist views of history and progress tend to lead to fairly clear-cut Utopian views of what is to be achieved (a revolution, a remodelling of the economy, an alleviation of oppression of the working class, a widespread critique of consumerism and capitalism), models of action formulated using discourse tend to formulate rather messy, complex visions of the future. This is because, as I hope to show in this chapter, within discourse theory, questions of agency are less clear and, as a consequence, questions of how much control one has over what happens as a result of one’s own actions are very much to the fore. Therefore, whilst political action can be accounted for theoretically within discourse theory, at the same time it is clear that one’s actions may have several effects which do not match one’s intentions. For example, you might intend simply to prevent the live export of veal calves through demonstrating outside British ports; this might in fact be one of the outcomes of your presence in the demonstration. However, another outcome might also be that you are photographed by the police and a file is opened on you as a potential agitator. Exporters might decide to employ security guards and also to use air freight rather than sea transport. The government might decide to bring in new legislation aimed at restricting the number of people allowed to demonstrate at any one time. Whereas a Marxist analysis of collective actions such as

demonstrations would only be concerned with the immediate effects in relation to live animal export (the effect that had been intended), discourse theory would be as interested in the other outcomes, which it would see as similarly entailed by such action.