Saturday, February 24, 2007

Talk about Talk: Discourse-Oriented Analysis

Language. Among all the creatures that inhabit our planet, humans are the ones that take the fore with the ability to express themselves on a scale that far outweighs anything else we've come across. One of the prerequistes for the idea of "intelligent" life is the ability to communicate through language, through signs and sounds that signify ideas. Language-- mathematic and linguistic-- has enabled civilization. Writing and mathematics: these were the foundations of empires. The progress of history, the marvels of engineering, philosophy, the Bible, Google, the ideas of Jacques Derrida, the United Nations... all possible because of our ability to community. When one really considers it, language truly is a powerful thing; it is the vehicle of ideas, the expression of personhood. It can be used as a weapon, it can be used to create weapons. Take a National Socialist Party (Nazi) rally in 1939. The words of one man turned an entire country into a weapon that forced the world into global war. On September 21, 1972, President Ferdinand Marcos used words to bring about some of the darkest days of the Filipino people, and a regime that lasted nearly fifteen years, and until now manifests its insidious influence on our economy and government. Words can bring people together as well. The writings on the UN Charter have created the first sustained attempt to bring the countries of the world together against the barbaric action of war. The teachings of Mahatma Gandhi brought about the impossible dream of a revolution without blood, laying the foundation of what is today one of the fastest growing countries in Asia. Words express the very human quality of love in the poems of Pablo Neruda. This power isn't limited to linguistics; another form of human expression is found in the abstractions of mathematics. Arithmetic forms the baseline for economic operation. Algebra lets us explore the relationships of energy and matter in the physical world. Calculus lets us create aircraft, and Chaos math and phase-space models let us explore the uncertainty of the real world.

But lets not get too lofty with the whole discussion of language in general. It's enough for us to realize that what people express has the ability to influence or even create realities that will not be immediately apparent from the face-value of what is being expressed. It is important to understand, not only what people are saying, but the nature of its discourse, that is to say, the way the ideas are crafted, expressed, understood and the organic way in which discourse evolves in the process of its transmission.

An example of this sort of analysis is present in the lectures of Michel Foucault in his lectures on power and war at the College de France in 1975-76 (transcribed and published in English as the book "Society Must be Defended", by Picador publishing). In his lecture dated 28 January 1976, Foucault talks about the binary of historical discourse: the discourse of power, and the discourse of the enslaved. He uses the example of Roman history for the former, and the Biblical account of the Hebrews for the latter. What makes this distinction interesting is the conflict that arises between the two, antithetical histories. The discourse of power seeks to maintain the status quo, perpetuating the insitutions of power by establishing historical precedence as well as surrounding present institutions with a sort of razzle-dazzle cloak of myth and greatness. This sort of history, according to Foucault, creates and is challenged by the discourse of of the enslaved, of the hidden, which arises in the language of the revolution, of the reversal of power structures.

I think that one should begin to realize how important it is to characterize and be critical about the sort of discourse that is present in a society. On one hand, it is an indicator of realities that are. In other words, realities in the present state. I think that the discourse of Filipino political culture reveals certain themes that reflect realities of Filipino politics: its irrelevance to day-to-day life, its corruption, its unreliability, its inability to respond to the basic needs of the people. However, not only does an examination of discourse reveal present realities, but evolving realities as well. Again, I refer back to the idea of Filipino political culture. Here, we see two discursive forces in conflict with one another, one of power and one of enslavement: the former is that of apathy, resigned acceptance, as well as the want for stability and unity. On the other hand, we see a discourse that seeks reform, change, and participation. It's the sort of talk that takes the fore in the idealistic setting of the university and in the columns of indignant writers.

I think that it is important to approach discourse with a critical mind, taking into account the power of language. Again, like I've written about before, our world is a world of information. The vehicle of that information is language. It is important for us, those of us who wish to find the best solutions to the problems of our country, to be able to differentiate and critically approach the things being said by the people around us.


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