Discourse All the Way Down

IMG_1120-e1369190127646In Sex/Gender: Biology in a Social World, Anne Fausto-Sterling provides us with an interesting metaphor with which to think about the nature/nurture debate. Sometimes the discussion is framed in terms of how much nature and nurture each contribute, as if they’re taking turns filling a bucket. Imagine a 100 gallon bucket:

Suppose two people (oh call one Mr. Nature and the other Ms. Nurture) are filling up that bucket with separate hoses. If Mr. Nature added 70 gallons and Ms Nurture 30, then we could say that the 100 gallons is due 70 percent to nature and 30 percent to nurture. (113)

However, this is not the only way we could frame the conversation.

But suppose instead that Mr. Nature supplies the hose, while Ms. Nurture brings the bucket. Then what percentage is due to nature and what to nurture? The truth is, the question doesn’t make any sense. (113)

Framing the metaphor in the latter way suggests that “nurture” contributes to the entire process, as does “nature.” There’s no way to create a pie chart reflecting each’s contribution.

Arguably, the discussion about the extent to which our world is just out there vs. the extent to which it is socially constructed is similar. Some people seem to want to pin down how much of it is “real” and how much of it is discursive, as if material reality contributed 70 gallons to our bucket and discourse contributed 30. By contrast, I’d allege that reality is socially constructed all the way down, insofar as discourse contributes to the entire process for us. This does not mean the world is made up of words—as if an insult and a punch were the same thing—but rather that discourses operate at every level of our reality.

dog-chasing-cat-300x268The usual objection, of course, is that things are there independently of discourse. Dogs may not have discourse, but that doesn’t prevent them from seeing—and chasing—cats, right? But try the experiment suggested by Donald Davidson: swap out the word for one less familiar to a monolingual English speaker, a speaker without feline breeding expertise: does the dog see—or identify—an American Polydactyl, an Arabian Mau, a macksa (Hungarian) or a 貓 (Chinese)? Could you identify an Arabian Mau in a feline police lineup? I couldn’t. I don’t know what the dog “sees,” but I’m fairly certain that seeing or identifying an American Polydactyl requires the deployment of a set of concepts that the dog does not have. The same is true of “cat,” which is also discursive. It seems that we forget that fact when using words or concepts that are so familiar to us as to have become naturalized.

r4wct1_lSome seem to fear the idea that the world—at least the world for us—is discursive all the way down because it implies that words and concepts somehow get between us and the world. It’s presumed that discourse is a lens through which we perceive the world. But discourse is not a lens that gets between us and the world. Concepts sort our world. Discourse doesn’t get between us and the world any more than the sorter in a silverware drawer gets between us and our forks and spoons. One could, of course, use a different sorter; perhaps we’re holding a garage sale and we want one that separates out silver from stainless steel utensils. Using different categories we get a different drawer—a different world—but that doesn’t mean that the categories prevent us access to the forks or the spoons, the stainless steel or the silver.

Can you spot the pikseliä in the image below (from Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics)? If you successfully spot them, you’ve had to use concepts—you couldn’t identify them without concepts—but those concepts did not get between you and the pikseliä. Those pikseliä are, for us, discursive all the way down.


5 Replies to “Discourse All the Way Down”

  1. “Using different categories we get a different drawer – a different world – but that doesn’t mean that the categories prevent us access to the forks or the spoons, the stainless steel or the silver.”

    This sounds like we’re still dealing with pre-determined categories (“forks” and “spoons” – which may be made of a whole range of different materials, but are still definitely identifiable by other criteria, as well as differentiated from each other. How many tines does a spoon have?).

    I suspect this is in part where naming (and the exercise of power) come in. What makes a fork not a deformed, defective spoon, for example?

    1. If I follow you, I think I agree. It’s the scheme of classification that makes the fork a fork and the spoon a spoon. And yes, the application of one classification grid over another is an act of power …

  2. Glad I followed what you were saying. I thought I had tripped over the fallacy of misplaced concreteness there! Have you ever read Steven Katz? He edited a volume on Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis in which there was a really good article (I thought) on perception, conceptualization, and meaning. (name of the author escapes me now, but he was a philosopher at McGill, I believe). At any rate, the argument made does not rely on discursive construction, but develops a similar point (with regard to a policeman in a waxworks exhibit), namely, that we don’t see “something” that we then interpret into a category, we see what the category demarcates.

    1. Let me know if you remember the reference. It sounds like an argument that Hilary Putnam makes in “A Defense of Conceptual Relativity” in his Ethics without Ontology (a chapter I’ve learned a lot from!).

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