Monday, 6 March 2017

Discourse, sociology & how we fit in the world! (Updated 27-03-2017).

Searching the internet for inspiration on Deleuze and Guattari, I stumbled on a useful web-site that also talks about Chantal Mouffe's and Ernesto Laclau's works and compares some ideas of these two pairs of philosophers.  This is important for me to examine ideas of various contemporary thinkers, in concerning the work we are doing for Dr Liam Devlin (the ROTOR exhibition of "Discursive Documents" at Huddersfield Gallery).

Starting with some thinking and analysis of the work of Giles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, (and their famous book "A Thousand Plateaus" (1981) Translated by Brian Massumi (1987), they talk about the ideas that the knowable world around us, can be conceived as consisting of three primary layers. These layers, or 'Strata' as they prefer to call them, are made up of;
A) the 'inorganic' (that is the geological foundation of the world itself), that is arguably un-movable and permanent and as such, consists of the minerals and elements of geology. Equally too, this foundational 'first' strata, can be considered as "set in stone" or can sometimes be referred to as 'concrete', (as an alternative expression that is sometimes used and often found in philosophical discourse).
B) The second layer above the inorganic layer is the 'organic' strata (that is, all the vegetable matter and animal matter; from single cell bacteria through to mammals and primates, and ultimately us as human beings).
C) And finally, the top layer of strata, which is of particular interest to Deleuze and Guattari in their philosophical analysis, which they refer to as the alloplastic (social) strata.

The term alloplastic, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED, 2017) comes from the Greek word "allos", which is often used to combine with other words to form nouns and adjectives, with the sense of "otherness, different or differently". In this case, it is conjoined with the adjective, 'plastic', where "plastic" is used in the sense of moulding or shaping. Together, the word 'alloplastic', therefore means (particularly in a philosophical and psychoanalytic sense), 'relating to or involving alteration of the external environment to meet the needs of the individual' (or people as a collective, which here can be considered as the society). Therefore, in the case of Deleuze and Guattari, this 3rd stratum, the 'alloplastic strata', is in a sense, the idea of society moulding, sculpting and arguably manipulating the environment to better suit its' (their/our?) needs.

Deleuze and Guattari's analysis of society posits that "alloplastic strata" consists of at least two articulations of 'expression' and 'content'.

Within this dynamic, they state that the articulation of expression (- and that is the human speech), is 'linguistic' rather than genetic.  In other words, it is through linguistic variance and analysis (over time, or temporal) that expression is made or can be analysed, rather than through some deep-seated 'biological' (hence genetic) variance or analysis. (Which would, therefore, arguably, exist within the second organic strata, if it were).  

These linguistic expressions are built with signs (semiotics) or symbols, and so they can be recorded, understood, and transmitted, but just as importantly can be modified. When these forms of expression (or enunciation) are collected together, they create assemblages or "expression" as a whole.

Now, if we were to combine what Deleuze and Guattari call the mechinic assemblages (that is the physical things that we build and adapt by using tools and our own hands), they form what Deleuze and Guattari think of as the "content" of the 3rd "alloplastic" strata.

This 'content', has both form and substance. With much further philosophical deconstruction, analysis and reinterpretation, Deleuze and Guattari find similarities in their machinic assemblages of "content" with their linguistic interpretation of "expressions". Ultimately tools (and hence technology) therefore construct the 'alloplastic' strata, but those tools (and technology) are themselves constructed from alloplastic strata. This conveniently repositions the idea of 'technological determinism' and 'social determinism' as (again, arguably) being one and the same.

This radical construct or 'constructivist materialism' is the foundation on which Deleuze and Guattari go on to provide detailed commentary on society as a whole, and their interpretations of the social world that we live within. This is different from say 'social constructivism', which in brief is about how society (and hence as humans) make sense of the world.  To Deleuze and Guattari, they argue that it is necessary to understand how the world is 'literally' constructed.  That is, it is built 'literally' through text(s).

To underline what has already been deduced from the above, this linguistic interpretation cannot apply to the 1st & 2nd strata of 'Inorganic' and 'Organic' levels, as it resides entirely within a domain of the social or 'alloplastic strata'. However, and here is another of their critical positions, Deleuze & Guattari suggest that the 'form of content' is no longer a human adaptation of the world around them on its' own, but a modification through 'it' (the alloplastic strata) acting upon itself. (That is, through an alloplastic response to its' own environment).

Bringing Deleuze and Guattari's constructivist materialism to bear on the idea of discourse then, if photography can be considered as text, then it follows that discussion forms part of that text, and hence photographs can be 'discursive documents'.

Mouffe & LacLau
With the introduction above (based on the work of Deleuze and Guattari) in mind, we can now move on to comparing their work with that of the work of Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto LacLau.

In contrast to Deleuze & Guattari,  in Mouffe & LacLau's position on social constructivism, they believe in a slightly different representation of construct about society or "social life", and hence their position is that humans give meaning to the world directly, rather than through a mediation of text (as per D&G).

They borrow this ancient word known as 'hegemony' to articulate a kind of hierarchical view of society, where hegemony is the dominance or "leadership or rule through political, economic or military control of one state over others" (OED 2107). - In ancient Greece this idea of a particular city-state being dominant over other cities and/ or states, where the ruling city-state was known as the hegemon. This hegemonic rule and/or control has many examples and has been a subject of social commentary and analysis throughout history.

In their book, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics (2003), Verso Books, London (2nd Edition), Mouffe and LacLau talk in terms of an alternative to the 'crisis' or 'collapse of what would have been a 'normal' historical development' (2003, p7). (- Whatever 'normal' historical development might be, I interpret this to mean non-revolutionary?).  The book is also seeking to propose 'change' in the context of a response to "The crisis of Marxism" (2003, p29).

In the 20th century work by the Italian, Antonio Gramsci (1891 -1937), he revised some of the notions of Marx and Engles (and of economic determinism), in favour of a more sophisticated construct of society, through a 'cultural hegemony'.  This was a theory in which Gramsci was influenced by a variety of thinkers, not only Marxists, but also other Italians, such as Niccolo Machiavelli (1469–1527) amongst others, and even capitalists such as Henry Ford (of Ford Automobiles), together with Italian and other European histories.  Gramsci's Cultural Hegemony suggests that the state and the ruling Bourgeoise (and here, he means the capitalist elite), use cultural institutions to control and maintain power in capitalist societies.  Hence, the ruling classes could, in turn, influence the values of the larger society (i.e. culturally) so that the elite's views become the 'world-views' of society as a whole.

Again, more recent history and world events can be shown to support the notion that various types or forms of hegemony do exist (regardless of whether that is right or wrong), and it can be demonstrated that such 'hegemony' works through language.  In a capitalist society, there is a constant tension of division, not only between the financially powerful elite, but also within the 'non-elite', the 'providers' of labour (or working class as it has been known), that is exploited (through various means of hegemony) for the benefit of the elite.   It is here then, that we can properly turn to Mouffe and LacLau specifically, and their interpretation of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy.  In their book, of the same name, they state (on page 7), that;
 'Finally, with Gramsci, the term acquires a new type of centrality that transcends its tactical or strategic uses: 'hegemony' becomes the key concept in understanding the very unity existing in a concrete social formation." (Mouffe & LacLau, 2003).
In societal terms then, (and now we are drilling down to the heart of the matter in connection to 'social discourse' with respect to Dr Devlin's notions and exhibition), Laclau and Mouffe are interested in the idea that there is an absolute elite within society that governs, dictates and shapes the rest of society, and hence, it is not as a direct result of the ruling elite or 'hegemony'.

They go on to say, through various analysis of other contemporary thinkers and writers, and 19th / 20th Century events within Europe, in particular, Russia and Germany, (Mouffe & LacLau, 2003, p8-10) that nothing resides at the centre of a social hegemony, as a conclusion is reached where they cite Eduard Bernstein (1850 - 1932), who was viewing trade unions within a democratic society to be central for its' control and the centre being;
"according to Bernstein, it is the party. Thus, he speaks of the 'necessity of an organ of the class struggle which holds the entire class together in spite of its fragmentation through different employment, and that is the Social Democracy as a political party. In it, the special interest of the economic group is submerged in favour of the general interest of those who depend on income for their labour, of all the underprivileged.' 
However, they go on to point out that "if the working class appears increasingly divided in the
economic sphere, and if its unity is autonomously constructed at the political level, in what sense is this political unity a class unity?"

Through this and other comparisons (such as Rosa Luxemburg (1871–1919, Marxist Theorist), Mouffe and LacLau are able to show their argument is centred upon their theory that there is not a foundational centre within the social nor is there a "signifier of the transcendental" within society. (I'm not sure if by this they mean some religious focal point or God as a foundation, - indeed, they state the following "the effects of God's presence in the world are drastically reduced" on Page 29).  Nevertheless, without that central hub, they argue that our individual interpretations and therefore 'forms' of articulation and expression can both coexist and compete at the same time, in an infinitely variable structure. They refer to this as the "structural undecidability of the social".

Much of the work (by M&L) is clearly influenced by other French and continental philosophers of their time, and in particular, that by Jaques Derrida. He used the notion of 'deconstruction' as a way to re-articulate all the elements of society around us.  Ultimately, when rebuilding the deconstructed, he was able to conclude that in the thinking about culture, it is possible to regard everything linguistically, and therefore as text, which compares favourably with Deleuze and Guattari.

Mouffe and LacLau do use Derrida's idea of text since an interpretation of text contains a discourse. Indeed when interpreting any important text, by using Derrida's deconstructionist method, the initial reading tends to provide the writer's 'dominant' message contained within it. However, when a second or subsequent reading of the same text is made, an individual is able to critique or argue against the writer's original intent or message.  By defining and comparing 'what is missing' in the text with regards to a particular subject or thesis,  a new interpretation can be formulated, within which the exclusions or repressions or just the neglected issues or connections are more clearly articulated.

 It is through these ideas of text containing a discourse, that we can apply a deconstructionist approach to photography as documents or texts.  Therefore, LacLau and Mouffe's notions also apply equally to the ideas of Dr Devlin, in as much as photographs are "discursive documents".


"alloplastic, adj.". OED Online. March 2017. Oxford University Press. (accessed March 27, 2017).

Deleuze, G.; Guattari, F., (1980),  A Thousand Plateaus Trans. Massumi, B;(1993). A Thousand Plateaus. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

Laclau, Ernest; Mouffe, Chantal (2001). Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (Second ed.). London: Verso. pp.  7-34, 40–59, 125–144.

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