James Rogers is a PhD student at Cambridge University. In the first part of a series of three interviews, he discusses the methodology and concepts of his recent research regarding the global strategy and foreign policy of the European Union. Mr Rogers addresses the last two topics in the second and third interviews.
Here, he first addresses the discourse theory of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, explaining its possibilities, limits and the difference between the analytical tools equivalence-difference and dislocation. Then he explains the concepts discourse coalition, geopolitical othering and chronopolitical othering.
This part forms an introduction to the second and third parts of the series where Mr Rogers discusses the results of the related research.
For more information about Mr Rogers, please check:
Methodology and Concepts
What is discourse theory?
“Discourse theory sees all conditions of possibility as politically constituted through acts of power, whose aim it is to establish an form of order through a hegemonic relationship.”
Discourse theory is a form of radical constructivism. It was first articulated in the 1980s by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe as a response to the dislocation of Marxism over the preceding two decades. It is an anti-essentialist and anti-foundationalist approach, and it sees discourse in both a material and ideational way. Physical objects are as much part of discourse as policies and ideas. Central to its understanding of the world is the primacy of politics and hegemonic intervention; that is to say, it sees all conditions of possibility as politically constituted through acts of power, whose aim it is to establish a form of order through a hegemonic relationship.
How can discourse theory help in understanding political processes?
“The equivalence-difference logic can be used to show how political groups are formed and broken down: equivalential projects aim to erect barriers between different groups to produce an ‘us’ and a ‘them’, whereas the aim of differential projects is to break down the friend-foe distinction and replace it with a more fragmented but harmonious order.”
Laclau and Mouffe’s discourse theory comes into its own in the analysis of political processes. It brings to the table a number of powerful logics, which can be used to work out how and why any particular political process came about and how it is sustained through acts of power. Two of its most powerful analytical tools are equivalence-difference and dislocation. The former logic can be used to show how political groups are formed and broken down: equivalential projects aim to erect barriers between different groups to produce an ‘us’ and a ‘them’, whereas the aim of differential projects is to break down the friend-foe distinction and replace it with a more fragmented but harmonious order. The latter logic – dislocation – is a concept that helps us to account for change: in this respect, discourse theory has a unique conception of structure and agency. While subjects identify with discursive orders, they are understood to be a part of a discursive structure (they are subject positions). But under the conditions of dislocation, when a traumatic event occurs that cannot be domesticated into an existing discourse, subjects cease to identify with that order, ‘slip out’ of the structure, and become what is known in discourse theory as political subjectivities. This is their moment of freedom. Partially free from structural constraints, they are now agents, and might articulate and/or identify with other political projects, which should lead, in turn, to the emergence of new discursive structures.
What are the limits of discourse theory?
The limits of discourse theory are twofold: firstly, if one believes that there are essences or foundations to objects and subjects, it would be hard to accept the ontological and epistemological approach taken by the theory; secondly, the often dense writing style of discourse theorists can dissuade people from reading more into the theory itself.
What is a discourse coalition?
“Broadly speaking, a discourse coalition is a group of people, groups and societies that have emerged to partake in some form of hegemonic project.”
Broadly speaking, a discourse coalition is a group of people, groups and societies that have emerged to partake in some form of hegemonic project. That is to say, when a society suffers ‘dislocation’ – i.e. when some form of traumatic event occurs that cannot be explained within the confines of an existing discourse – the structure breaks down and out of it ‘slip’ people who previously might have identified with that structure. These people will then seek to re-establish a new order and thereby a range of tactical interventions occur between them to establish a new group to press for their new political demands.
What is the difference between a ‘chronopolitical othering’ and a ‘geopolitical othering’?
“Chronopolitical othering is a form of antagonism when a political community defines itself against a proscribed period of history.”
This is a term that I have developed. All political orders are predicated on a difference or a social antagonism (i.e. a perceived hostile opponent). A State is a discursive political order, and it too is propped-up by a difference, or more often, an antagonism. Normally, a State tends towards geopolitical othering; it defines itself from what is outside of it, geopolitically. Chronopolitical othering, on the other hand, is a form of antagonism when a political community defines itself against a proscribed period of history. For example, from the 1950s to the 2000s, the European Union was defined against the horrors of the Second World War; today, however, this is declining and it is increasingly defined geopolitically against what it is not, whether it is Turkey, Russia, the ‘Islamic world’, or the wider world in general.