Andrew Robinson - Theory Blog

Monday, November 15, 2004



Source: Trevor Pateman, Language, Truth and Politics chapter 3 (originally Bronislaw Malinowski). (NB this is NOT identical with Jakobson's concept of phatic function).

What is it?: Phatic (or "idle") discourse arises when language fulfils a function of preventing silence between two people, and does not have a communicative function. Phatic discourse has a ritualistic role which establishes an appearance of a communicative consensus or agreement without any actual communication taking place, through a repetitive use of particular statements or types of statement. Phatic exchanges usually permit very few responses and are resistant to the contestation or politicisation of their terms. Although they often involve claims of an empirical or normative nature, they tend to foreclose or repress challenges to or debate about such claims.

"In order for it to remain Idle Discourse, the subject matter of a conversation must be drawn from a range of conventionally non-controversial subjects, of which the paradigm is The Weather. The range of permissible material will vary with the context and the persons involved" (Pateman p. 40). Phatic communication is "a type of speech in which ties of union are created by a mere exchange of words", and "[e]ach utterance is an act serving the direct aim of binding the hearer to the speaker by a tie of some social sentiment or other" (Malinowski, cited Pateman p. 41). Through phaticity, people can use language without having to be concerned about significance (meaning) and disagreement about meaning (argument).

What is wrong with it?: Not every phatic exchange is repressive; however, phaticity can act as a breeding-ground for other oppressive discourses, particularly when "political" claims become embedded in it. Several directly oppressive forms of discourse, such as myth, self-alterity and invalidation, rely on phaticity as a field of operation, a generative focus or a basis to which they refer. Talk about the weather is as far as I can tell politically harmless (although if it passes over into naturalisation, this could load discussions on climate change). However, much phatic discourse has political effects.

Phaticity tends to exclude or push out communicative uses of language, which may become secondary, or have to pass the test of phatic acceptability before being considered. Much phatic discourse precludes or is loaded against particular responses. For instance, phatic discourse on crime focusses on how terrible it is for victims, and usually includes reference to punitive and vindictive responses; statements such as "Actually, crime is a product of the deprivation caused by global capitalism" and "street crime is a way in which alienated people reclaim the dignity which has been taken from them" is framed out of the discussion (NOT answered, but simply not included in the set of phatic references). The existence of a phatic discourse on issues such as crime (also asylum, "race", the family, etc.) tends to prevent the emergence of political, empirical and normative debate on such issues. Political propagandists and even despots can gain a support-base by appealing to phatic discourses (eg. by being "tough on crime"), because they can thereby claim to represent what "everyone" wants. The precluded responses are often unable to enter everyday discourse at all and become subject to invalidatory discourses.

Phatic discourse tends to create an illusory sense of a "we", i.e. of agreement, despite the absence of substantive agreement. This illusory "we" can be used in politically repressive ways. Also, phatic discourse is oppressive towards those who cannot, or who refuse to, give the usual responses. It is central to the exclusion of the psychologically different. Also, since the content of phatic discourse is culturally or subculturally specific, it is often exclusionary of other cultural or subcultural groups.

Phatic discourse also permits inconsistent, tautological, dogmatic, and other illogical devices to operate. "Tone of voice, length of utterance and pauses, exchange of speaker/hearer roles, are likely to be more significant than either syntactic or semantic features" (Pateman p. 40).

Phatic discourse is also "alienated" in the sense that it is not under the control of the speaker or hearer; both are obeying rules which, in principle, may be accepted by neither of them (Pateman p. 41).

Example: Racism is often highly phatic. "On a train journey, you strike up a conversation with a person sitting opposite. The conversation remains chatty... But then your companion introduces into the conversation some prejudiced remarks about black people... if, for you his auditor, his remarks are controversial and incompatible with idle discourse, a threefold choice presents itself: (i) you can challenge the offensive remarks, thereby altering the nature of the conversation (and risking misunderstanding and unpleasantness); (ii) you can preserve the nature of the conversation by going along with what has been said... (iii) you can react non-committally, change the subject etc. ...[sometimes] I feel that strategy (i) would be worth a try, but what I lack is courage to adopt it. I require courage, I think, because the bias of conventional conversational norms is against the adoption of strategy (i)". As a result, "racism could become as unproblematic as the British Weather just because anti-racists kept their mouths shut" (Pateman p. 40-1).

Racist humour is also basically phatic. They rely on prior assumptions within everyday discourse: "it is difficult to know how racist (and sexist) jokes can be funny unless you share the underlying assumptions". As Hall puts it: "the same old categories of racially-defined characteristics and qualities, and the same relations of superior and inferior, provide the pivots on which the jokes actually turn... The comic register in which they are set, however, protects and defends viewers from acknowledging their incipient racism. It creates disavowal" (Errol Lawrence, "Just Plain Common Sense: The Roots of Racism", in Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, The Empire Strikes Back).

It is from this phatic basis that racism as a social and political phenomenon emerges. "****" (racist remarks occur in the context of mundane everyday discussions in Nazi groups) (Sleepers: Undercover with the Racists, Channel 4, 9-10 PM, 29-11-01).


Source: Roland Barthes, Mythologies (especially "Operation Margarine").

What is it?: An alibi or inoculation is a form of discourse in which someone admits some of the evils of an oppressive institution so as to cover its generally oppressive character. "One immunizes the contents of the collective imagination by means of a small inoculation of acknowledged evil; one thus protects it from the risk of a generalized subversion" (Barthes p. 150). This device is particularly common in liberal and related perspectives.

Barthes describes inoculation as follows: "take the established value which you want to restore or develop, and first lavishly display its pettiness, the injustices which it produces, the vexations to which it gives rise... then, at the last moment, save it in spite of, or rather by the heavy curse of its blemishes" (p. 41). One cures doubts by the very ills which cause them; "One inoculates the public with a contingent evil to prevent or cure an essential one... A little 'confessed' evil saves one from admitting a lot of hidden evil" (p. 42).

What's wrong with it?: Inoculation is similar to repressive tolerance in that it allows the discursive existence of subversive claims while eliminating their actual effectiveness. Through inoculations, a discourse of revolt can be incorporated without the revolt which logically stems from it. Where inoculations operate extensively, almost any piece of evidence undermining a particular social system can be rendered safe for it. Inoculations break the link between evidence and action.

Some inoculations are directly illogical: one cannot derive a case for something from evidence against it. Often, they are more subtle: the admitted "evils" are relativised and compared to some supposed higher good. In these cases, inoculation is fused with other oppressive discourses, particularly naturalisation, reification, etc. A particular set of priorities is treated as natural and used to eliminate the effects of particular claims. Often the highest priorities are hurrah-words, myths, etc. In such cases, an inoculation serves to 'justify' anything a particular actor does. Normative assessments are removed from the field of possible argument and placed beyond the reach of evidence. (For instance: if any other evil can be justified by "preservation of order", and "order" is undefined, operating as a hurrah-word connected to particular actors, then any evidence of other unjustified actions by this actor are rendered discursively and actually ineffective; the emergence, for instance, that these actors are using torture would not seriously discredit them). On the level of propaganda, inoculation is particularly useful in robbing opponents of a distinct set of empirical claims and in allowing powerful groups to avoid the risks involved in obvious lying. Also, inoculations are often used to cover up more substantial counter-evidence. (Admitting police "heavy-handedness" with protesters can prevent the need to admit the existence of a consistent agenda of repression and violence against protesters).

Example: Since September 11th, concerns for democracy, human rights, etc. have been attacked by the US and UK governments via inoculations. These governments admit some of the effects of their policies (eg. killing civilians), but use this as an inoculation via the argument "What else can we do? Defeating terrorism is more important". "Terrorism" is undefined, and clearly a boo-word, since the "terror" involved in western policies is presumably not covered by the term. For instance, after the Qala-i-Jhangi massacre, a UK government spokesperson refused an inquiry on the grounds that "bad things happen in war". The implication is that the war is justified, and this justification inoculates against accusations of atrocities. In this case, the inoculating discourse is inconsistent in relation to the normative attitude to atrocities (since an atrocity is also used to justify the war), involves a naturalisation of the order of priorities (since the statement "bad things happen in war" could as easily be a case against the whole war as a case for the massacre), and also downplays the extent of the evil (the Qala-i-Jhangi incident was portrayed as a remorseless response to an armed attack by prisoners, which provides a narrative close enough to the evidence given by the media to avoid having to admit a massacre). Since some of the dead had their hands tied, evidence suggests the incident was an attempted massacre, and that this massacre provoked the revolt; this is of crucial importance since the west claims to be fighting against terror and for human rights etc.


Source: original (although similar critiques, eg. of "dogmatism" and "absolutism", are widespread)

What is it?: Impositional discourse is one of the simplest and most immediate forms of oppressive discourse. It occurs when one person or group insists on the acceptance of a particular phrase or set of phrases as a prerequisite for initiating communication; or (which amounts to the same thing) when a person or group insists that the speech or action of another person or group is reducible to categories internal to the former's discourse (regardless of the meaning of the speech or action to the latter). I am using this concept to cover a variety of related types of discourse including dogmas (eg. refusing to discuss anything with someone unless they accept one's own authority, or a particular religious faith), absolutism (refusing to discuss a few issues which one considers to be self-evident, foundational or otherwise beyond criticism), and labelling (the imposition of a particular interpretation as the only possible meaning of an act or even an actor).

This is one of the most obviously oppressive forms of discourse, probably because it is already widely seen as oppressive; it is rejected by liberal theorists such as JS Mill. Nevertheless, it continues to operate in a "disavowed" way, both in liberal theory (eg. Mill on children and "primitives" and in 'liberal' societies (eg. the discourse on criminality, "mental illness", etc.).

What is wrong with it?: Impositional discourse is one of the most immediately oppressive forms, since it involves rendering anyone and any statement beyond its limits voiceless. It involves arbitrarily and illogically closing the field to a particular set of people or claims. The basis for this closure is necessarily extra-empirical, at least in the sense of being non-falsifiable (since a falsifying discourse would itself be rendered voiceless). The possibility of being wrong is written out of the impositional discourse.

Impositional discourse is a recipe for insoluble conflicts and ongoing oppressions, since it removes the very space in which possible persuasion, debate and rearticulation could occur. Faced with an impositional discourse, a dissident is forced to choose between submitting to an externally-imposed arbitrary criterion as a prerequisite of their speech, and putting her or himself beyond discussion with the imposer. Since it removes the ground for persuasion, and since it also implies an extra-empirical orientation, impositional discourse corrodes its own capacity to influence factors in the causality of the beliefs or actions it condemns. It often crops up in contexts where leaders and others wish to eliminate harmful or oppressive actions, but it is structurally almost incapable of doing so. The rigid carving of the field, and especially the labelling of others, tends to produce an equally rigid "other" for whom the terms of the imposition are inverted (eg. anathemas become positive dogmas); cf. the literature on "deviance amplification" (Lemert, Miller, Cohen, etc.).

Impositional discourse also imposes an outer limit on where discourse may go, which acts as a constraint on those within the sphere of legitimate dissent as well as a threat to those beyond it. It can load arguments, function as a trump card for whoever holds a particular dogma most strongly or consistently, and generate a slippery slope of exclusions (cf. McCarthyism).

Example: Discourse on criminality (especially of the form "x act is necessarily criminal and nothing else, and therefore need not be addressed politically") is impositional. For instance, after the Oldham uprising, government ministers tried to dodge the issue of its political causes by simply labelling it 'criminal': for Blair, the acts of the insurrectionaries were simply "unacceptable" and for Straw, politicians cannot by definition be to blame for stoking racism since only "those who perpetrated the violence" could possibly be responsible (27-05-01). Thus, they do not wish to answer the voices of those who rebelled, even to oppose the rebellion; they simply wish to push the insurrectionaries beyond the field of discourse with which they engage. In this way, empirical issues (eg. here, the role of politicians in stoking racism) are simply dismissed, without being engaged with. The impositional discourse also implicitly legitimates police violence, since it rules out both causal and persuasive responses (even though police violence renders the discourse, which supposedly rejects violence on principle) self-contradictory.


Source: Marx (1844 manuscripts and elsewhere), Sartre (Critique of Dialectical Reason), Baudrillard (The Consumer Society) and others. (NB this is my attempt at a non-essentialist reformulation of the concepts of "alienation", existential "authenticity", etc.).

What is it?: Self-alterity is a logically self-contradictory phenomenon which, however, is widespread in contemporary societies (especially westen ones). It occurs when a person adopts a role, mode of action, or position of enunciation which directly or indirectly goes against her or himself. It usually involves an application of signs (especially mythically-loaded signs) which signify a particular status in relation to the self, in a context where the corresponding subjective attributes of this status do not arise. In discourses of self-alterity, someone may believe that a particular set of signs are equivalent to "fun", and pursue these signs, even when they do not produce subjective "fun" for this particular person. Alternatively, someone might support freedom by committing to a set of institutions which they see as embodying it, even if these institutions render them, in their own experience, unfree.

I am also using this concept to cover cases where entry into a social relation (eg. wage labour, or market competition) means that a particular person's action turns against its own goal (eg. in a market, if someone wishes to buy, i.e. generates "demand" for, particular goods, her or his expression of this wish contributes to increasing the price of these goods and thereby reducing the availability of the goods for him or her).

I suspect self-alterity generates, or relies on, a conception of a "self-in-alterity", i.e. a "mirror" self who exists within the social system from which the actual self is alienated; while the actual self gains nothing from the situation of self-alterity, the self-in-alterity is perceived as gaining something (eg. as having fun, or as having freedom in the market). Self-alterity is necessarily frustrating to and alienating for the actual self, even though one may gain some substitute gratification through the idea of a self-in-alterity.

What is wrong with it?: Self-alterity leaves the real self defeated and frustrated. The goal of one's action (finality) transmutes into its opposite (counter-finality), and one loses both power and the appearance of it. Self-alterity is hopelessly illogical, although, since this illogicality rests on the level of the relation between signifiers (eg. words) and what they refer to, it often remains invisible and can produce confusion and desperation. The "mood of fatalism" (see Matza) resulting from such frustration and hopelessness generates nihilistic lashings-out - what Vaneigem calls "the wasteland of the suicide and the solitary killer". Self-alterity, even when actively endorsed, also acts as a barrier to actual pleasure, freedom, etc.

Also, self-alterity leaves the actual self voiceless, since only the self-in-alterity is apparent in expressive social relations. (For instance, a person who pursues the signs of "fun" whenever he/she is with others is, throughout such discourse, precluded from communicating directly with them). This can lead to situations where all members of a group are sustained by a common submission to a discourse of alterity which leaves none of them able to communicate effectively or gain actualisation within the group. Discourses of self-alterity also operate as a barrier to those who are pursuing the same goals by different means - a barrier which is hard to overcome, since those involved in self-alterity put themselves at least partially beyond communication, and since they give contradictory signals on whether (for instance) they feel "free".

Example: Formal education often offers a kind of "learning-in-alterity". Signs of "learning", such as marks, grades and performance records, often substitute for actual processes of learning. The result is that many people leave school with a feeling that learning is frustrating and alienating, and remembering little of what they have supposedly learnt. (see Reimer, Illich, Postman and Weingartner, Freire, Goodman, etc.).


Sources: Numerous, including Gramsci, Errol Lawrence ("Just Plain Common Sense"), etc. Critiques of naturalisation are common in sociological studies of oppressive discourses such as racism and sexism, and in related general theories such as constructivism and neo-Marxism.

What is it?: A naturalisation in the full sense occurs when a person places a particular historically-constructed discourse beyond challenge because she/he believes it to be "natural", and that, therefore, no alternative to it can possibly exist in the world or in thought. Such strong naturalisations were common in (eg.) feudal Europe. Gramsci reports that some peasants were so convinced that humans are naturally and necessarily Christian that they assumed non-Christians to have animal-like characteristics such as horns and tails. This type of naturalisation is very vulnerable to constructivist critiques and visible counter-examples.

This type of naturalisation is difficult to sustain in situations with high rates of information flow and substantial diversity (including dissent). Contemporary naturalisations are more likely to be of a hybrid type, encompassing aspects of invalidation. The core assumption - that a particular set of beliefs and practices are natural and therefore beyond challenge - remains unchanged, but the empirical existence of the "unnatural" is recognised within the naturalising discourse - as something which, however, is placed beyond discussion. This type of naturalisation is less vulnerable to unusual displays and constructivism.

What's wrong with it?: In common with reification, deagentification, etc., naturalisation involves making a communicative statement without a possibility of a communicative response. The term "natural" (which carries almost invocatory significance in naturalising discourses) is used to end discussion. Usually, the attachment of the label has no foundation; most of the beliefs and practices labelled "natural" are of extremely limited historical duration and resulted from contingent historical situations. (However, naturalisation is problematic even in relation to nature, since ecosystems and the like are in practice vulnerable to human intervention; naturalisation is a barrier, not an aid, to ecological concerns, since it implies that what is part of nature will always remain in existence regardless of human actions). Often, naturalisation privileges particular people who conform most closely to the model of what is "natural". Sexism, racism, and homophobia in particular tend to rely on naturalising discourses (about "women's place", natural links between a particular group and an area of land, "natural" and "unnatural" sexual practices, etc.).

As well as directly imposing voicelessness on advocates of "unnatural" beliefs or practices, naturalisation operates as a line of defence for invalidations against such groups. It may keep bystanders ignorant or silent about the oppression of such a group. The claim made in naturalisations is sometimes logically contradictory (since a strict naturalisation denying the existence of a practice in "nature" is incompatible with the actual occurrence of the practice; the compatibility of the two would require a space beyond nature, whereas naturalisation tends to deny this). Also, the word "natural", as well as often fusing ethical concerns with empirical questions in an uncritical way, is often a weasel-word: naturalisers may invoke animal activity in one case (eg. survival of the fittest, or the necessity of "growing up") while denying its relevance in another (eg. monogamy). Naturalisations often coexist in a contradictory way with anathemas using "nature" as the negative pole in a culture/nature binary.

Example: Much of the mainstream media still portrays a particular version of the family as a natural institution. It is seen as the site where 'normal' social and moral beliefs and actions are generated, with the result that it can be used to displace discussion of social conflict. After the 1981 Toxteth uprising, Merseyside Chief Constable Kenneth Oxford complained, "Are the parents not interested in the future of these young people?", the Daily Express said "parents must take a firmer hand", Tory MP Jill Knight blamed social problems on bad parents, and the Daily Telegraph asked "What were these children doing in riot?". This explanation was used to legitimate police repression, since the police were portrayed as applying the 'discipline' parents had failed to instil. This discourse operates despite considerable variations in forms of the family historically, between different societies, and even within western societies. Naturalisation in this case allowed political causes and issues of police repression to be marginalised (source: Erroll Lawrence, p. 50-5).


Source: Roland Barthes and others

What is it?: In the sense in which I am using the term, essentialism occurs when a particular word or symbol applied to a person, object or situation is assumed to express what it really 'is' better than the person, object or situation it expresses. In essentialism, a first-order sign (through which a particular signifier, eg. a word, is attached to some un-speakable content at the level of sensation or emotion) undergoes a second displacement, with the sign becoming a a sign for an 'essence'; for instance, a 'triangle' becomes a sign of 'triangularity' (instead of a descriptive term for particular 'triangles'). Barthes sees essentialism as an attempt to 'freeze-dry' reality (Structuralism and Post-Structuralism for Beginners, p. 52) by fitting it into fixed categories. It involves ignoring or repressing the aspects of a particular person, object or situation which do not fit the 'essence', refusing oneself and others the right to assess a given case in terms of different signifiers, and, in human relations, leads to pressures to conform to the 'essence' of some label one has adopted or been lumbered with. In essentialism, an image of what x really is - xness - substitutes for x and crowds out other possible ways of speaking, or speaking about, it (cf. Barthes, Mythologies p121).

In social life, essentialism becomes the 'role'. In a world of roles, life becomes a 'pathetic series of cliches' (Vaneigem, Revolution of Everyday Life p. 133). Roles operate to fit people into a 'well-policed order of things' (p. 134), and they provide an illusion of participation in which 'I possess badges of power, therefore I am' (p. 142). Much of the present society operates through a system of roles and through the reduction of people to names and/or other signs (145). Essentialism is also manifested in the dominance of carceral, pathologising, and disciplinary logics, or instrumental-possessive approaches to 'nature', etc. Eternalisation is a closely related discourse which consists in positing the eternal existence of some object, fact or category, on the basis of historically-limited evidence or no evidence at all. Eternalisation is similar to naturalisation.

What's wrong with it?: Essentialism leads to voicelessness in several ways. An essentialist discourse refuses a voice to anyone who wishes to adopt a vocabulary other that its own, or to use its own vocabulary while also recognising other aspects in what it describes. In essentialism, words bear down on what they describe, crushing it. When applied to people, essentialism renders voiceless any person who slips beyond what their 'essence' allows, usually by slipping over into naturalising and invalidatory discourses of inferiority, the perverse and the abnormal. Furthermore, this leads to irreducible antagonism when two people immersed in essentialist discourse collide, since both claim to discursively possess the whole of a person, object or situation. People who judge by 'essences' are also likely to engage in stereotyping and stereotyped reactions, and may support sweeping violence against entire groups perceived as 'essentially' bad.

Essentialism also leads to a self-repressed, 'inauthentic' existence. One lives 'according to the ideas of others; we would live an imaginary life, and to this end we cultivate appearances. Yet in striving to beautify and preserve this imaginary being we neglect everything authentic' (Pascal, cited Vaneigem p131-2). One ends up pursuing actuality through means in contradiction with it (Vaneigem 134; cf. SELF-ALTERITY). Institutions such as mental asylums and prisons, which rely on essentialist categories and in many ways sustain essentialism in general by concealing what overflows it, are directly repressive and rely on immediate imposition of voicelessness.

Example: The Stalinist practice of ascriptive discourse, whereby some aspects of working-class existence and belief are abstracted by the Party and turned back against the working class, are a good example of the functioning of essentialism. Mao, for instance, advocates an approach of 'from the masses, to the masses': taking mass ideas, systematising them (extracting an essence?), and then returning them to the masses as propaganda and policy (Selected Works vol. 3 p. 119-20). In transmuting into an 'essence', mass ideas lose their character and become in effect extensions of Party power.
It is not difficult to find examples of roles; job categories are perhaps the most obvious, but cultural labels, family positions ("wife", "father"), and just about anything else can serve as a role. Eternalisation appears to be rarer in common sense but is common in philosophy; an example in the former is the 'inevitability fo war' line of argument against anti-war movements.

Source: Marcuse, Trevor Pateman. (NB however that my use of this term is more precise than Marcuse's; Marcuse is unclear on whether he is giving a case against tolerance per se or only a particular kind, and some of his formulations imply that 'tolerance which allows repression to continue' is directly 'repressive tolerance', a position I deny).

What is it?: Repressive tolerance is tolerance which operates to prevent communication by re-encoding truth-claims and appeals for action as 'opinions' to be tolerated but ignored. Repressive (as opposed to reciprocal) tolerance is a passive rather than an active state (Marcuse, "Repressive Tolerance" p. 82), which uses a framework (form) of passive exchange of ideas which favours the status quo. In such a situation, tolerance effectively becomes a form of phatic discourse and is emptied of communicative content. All ideas included in repressive tolerance are treated as equivalent, and people are discouraged from evaluating (as opposed to choosing between) them (94-5). Claims to knowledge (eg. statements of 'fact') are treated as expressions of opinion (Pateman, "Language, Truth and Politics" p. 93-4). This redefinition can allow an opponent's claim to be heard and replied to, without its status as a knowledge-claim being discussed or debunked; indeed, this status is implicitly invalidated by its relegation to the status of an 'opinion' among others. '[T]he interpretation of knowledge claims as expressions of opinion is a way of halting an interchange which might oblige the hearer to change his beliefs' (Pateman p94). Further, repressive tolerance functions as a double bind, since, while maintaining that all opinions are equal, it rests on the assumption on a deeper level that certain opinions (i.e. those which constitute repressive tolerance itself) are more equal than others (Pateman p99), as well as functioning to preserve the persistence of existing dominant ideas (p94). Pateman differentiates repressive tolerance from an idea of reciprocal tolerance implicit in classical notions of tolerance: 'Reciprocal tolerance involves recognition of the right to reply, even decisive reply, whereas unilateral tolerance stops practice and analysis at the point of the initial utterance' (p94-5). Repressive tolerance is typically a form of discourse used by liberal and 'democratic' individuals and systems, as an alternative to overtly impositional discourse. It is in many ways a subspecies of form-imposition (which interpretively imposes the discursive form of 'opinion-assertion' on all statements).

What's wrong with it?: Repressive tolerance is oppressive in a number of ways. Firstly, it is oppressive in that it effectively imposes voicelessness on knowledge-claims and appeals for action. These are robbed of their original character and transmuted into 'opinions', a process which may also co-opt them into the sphere of legitimacy of the existing socio-political system. To reply to a truth-claim with the phrase 'I respect your opinion' is 'invalidation of the claim to knowledge... in mystified (repressive) form' (Pateman p94). Secondly, repressive tolerance involves an evasion of arguments, and it can be used to legitimate other, more obvious oppressions: while opponents are allowed their 'opinion', oppressive practices continue as before, perhaps even strengthened by the channelling of opponents into ineffective debate and the reassurance for supporters of the claim to tolerance. Thirdly, repressive tolerance produces generalised voicelessness because, although it guarantees a right to speak, it removes a right - and often even a possibility - of being heard. This is particularly problematic for those whose position is unusual or some distance from existing dominant discourses. Fourthly, repressive tolerance may be directly repressive of the (forceful) reply, on the grounds that (for example) demanding evidence to back claims or suggesting that someone is deceiving her/himself or others is 'intolerant' by its standards (Pateman p94-5). Repressive tolerance also encourages other forms of oppressive discourse such as self-alterity, and tends to preclude the critique of oppressive discourse in general. (Jose Nun's denouncement of Gramsci's theory of common sense as 'totalitarian' is a good example of how such an application works: because critics of common sense question the validity of particular views, we can be labelled as 'intolerant' by standards of repressive tolerance).

Example: Trevor Pateman provides the example of a reply to a factual statement ('The US Government refused to allow elections to be held in Vietnam after the Geneva agreements') with a statement such as 'Well, I respect your opinion' (Pateman p. 94)..


Source: original (but with influences from Marx and Deleuze).

What is it?: Whereas impositional discourse is a form of discourse which imposes a particular discursive content, form-imposition occurs when a particular form of discourse is imposed (interpretively or as a rerequisite for being listened to) on speech or actions which are not, or may not, take this form. Often, this also limits or distorts the nature of the content. Form-imposition is common in liberal systems and especially in discourses of the technical type (i.e. in the narrower of Foucault's uses of the term), such as psychiatry (which imposes the form of 'symptom' on discourse), the mass media (which imposes the form of separated, unconnected and brief snippets on its material), schooling (which insists on small segments of testable 'knowledge') and law (see below). Form-impositional discourse is a term, not for the imposed form of discourse (which may in some cases be appropriate for some contents), but for the imposition of this form via a discursive refusal of alternatives to it. Form-imposition operates by (for instance) positing the universality or arbitrarily asserting the validity of a particular form.

There are several types of form-imposition. Deleuze and Guattari discuss at least two in Anti-Oedipus. The state operates via a practice termed "overcoding". "Overcoding" retains existing ideas and practices 'flows', but re-signifies them as part of a systemic machine, rendering them rigid and fixed. The old practices are 'mobilised' and 'requisitioned' by the state and 'put in the service of other ends' (Anti-Oedipus p. 196), and this effectively places them in self-alterity. Capital, in contrast, rests on "axiomatisation". This process turns all flows into quasi-naturalised intuitions (axiomatics) which are integrated into a potentially indefitinely expandable technical discourse. Although this process can integrate anything which does not affect capital's rule, it also requires special organisations to regulate flows according to the capitalist axiomatic, including the state (Anti-Oedipus p. 251-5). Evan Watkins (Everyday Exhchanges) presents a different image, in which capitalism engages in overcoding, giving or denying legitimacy to production practices as a way of controlling access to resources and exercising power. Marx also has a conception of form-imposition, i.e. his concepts of formal and real sublation. Sublation is the process through which capitalist assumptions become embedded in the world.

What's wrong with it?: Form-imposition is often accepted by those promoting a particular discursive content, as a translation or rephrasing of their case. However, it distorts and limits what content can be promoted, and it can lead to particular claims being distorted so drastically that the process of distortion effectively denies a voice to the original claim. For instance, when workers demand (for instance) a shorter working week, this can (in principle, notwithstanding deceit) be delivered as well by bosses as by themselves; but when the demand for workers' management for production is taken over by the existing capitalist model, it becomes 'workforce consultation', which is an entirely different matter. According to some accounts, management concessions on the issue of 'workers' management' which operated in this way were crucial to defusing the France 1968 factory occupations.

Also, while many people are most concerned about discursive content, it should be emphasised that restrictions on discursive form may also be directly repressive in some cases. In a case such as bureaucracy, some people may, for reasons of disability, psychological difference, or even temperament, find it very difficult or even impossible to fill in large quantities of paperwork, so that the transmutation of other discourses into bureaucratic discourse discriminates against or excludes them. Asylum seekers are often victims of this kind of practice.

Form-imposition also precludes discussion or debate of the form it imposes (usually even on the level of content), and this can lead to direct repression and exclusion. For instance, a patient who challenges psychiatric discourse may be penalised for doing so.

Example: Legal discourse ("the law") involves form-imposition as well as direct imposition, since any claim either as victim or accused is filtered through a set procedure which is liable to distort it. As a result, a claim which is intended to explain an action may be re-encoded in a different way. According to Matza, appeals to an ethics of collective solidarity by members of youth gangs are often re-encoded by courts as evidence of subcultural criminality. Also, legal discourse precludes certain kinds of argument entirely, usually at the level of form. Because the form of legal discourse is built around guilt/innocence relative to supposedly fixed criteria, disagreement with or even incomprehensibility of legal standards is excluded on principle, and causal accounts - which, taken seriously, provide a strong case against punitive responses as a form of action - are excluded or re-encoded (eg. as 'mitigation') so as not to challenge the forms of discourse used in law. That law relies principally on form-imposition despite the impositional character of its content is shown by the prevalence of defence of 'law' which defend its general form (a 'need' for law in general) rather than its content or specific forms.

Edward Sa‹d suggests something similar about Christian representations of Islam: "One constraint acting upon Christian thinkers who tried to understand Islam was an analogical one; since Christ is the basis of the Christian faith, it was assumed - quite incorrectly - that Mohammed was to Islam as Christ was to Christianity. Hence the polemic name 'Mohammedanism' given to Islam, and the automatic epithet 'impostor' given to Mohammed. Out of such and many other misconceptions [says Norman Daniel], 'there formed a circle which was never broken by imaginative exteriorisation... The Christian concept of Islam was integral and self-sufficient' . Islam became an image... whose function was not so much to represent Islam in itself as to represent it for the medieval Christian" (Orientalism, p. 60). Thus, Christian readings distorted the content of Islam in their representations indirectly, by imposing onto it the structure of Christianity and judging it on these terms. In such a case, the ideas of the audience such readings were intended for were affirmed: Islam was unlikely to be a plausible alternative within the terms of a form of discourse it did not itself adopt. Through the imposition of a form of discourse, difference is reinterpreted as inferiority.


Source: Repressive "we": original (but cf. Pateman, Benedict Anderson); Hurrah- and Boo-words: propaganda theory, Pateman; ritual: Ivan Illich, Sartre.

What is it?: All four of these forms are sub-types of phatic discourse. RITUAL discourse is a particular form of phatic discourse which arises in institutional settings, usually when an institution fails to meet its supposed purpose. In such contexts, the unthinking repetition of its official discourse operates as a substitute for problem-solving and keeps people's minds off the institution's failure. Through the successful maintenance of ritual, the institution can be the proof of its own success. For Sartre, this kind of practice is typical of how people re-enter self-alterity following the defeat or reincorporation of attempts at group-formation (Critique of Dialectical Reason).

Hurrah- and boo-words are words (or symbols or phrases) with no definite meaning, which are, however, encoded as something 'everyone' agrees to support (in the case of hurrah-words) or oppose (in the case of boo-words). These words are repeated by those with access to means of propagation of ideas to gain almost automatic support or acceptance and/or to drum up hostility to their opponents. In the strong form, boo-words become anathemas, which are used to blackmail opponents into not stepping outside particular forms or systems of discourse for fear of being branded with such labels.

A repressive "we" occurs when the word "we" or something similar is used to posit a priori the audience's acceptance of a message, and/or to make a threat based on exclusion against those who disagree with one's own position based on a sense of belonging to an in-group. It involves an unstated demand of the kind, 'Be like me!' (Pateman p. 53).

What is wrong with it?: All these forms of discourse share the general problems with phatic discourse. Ritual tends particularly to preclude discussion of itself per se, and also to prevent discussion of the institution or its supposed goals. Hurrah-words strip particular concepts of their meaning-content and associate them simply with pure power-relations, so that their use can mobilise support without any need for reference to a signified. The transmutation of concepts into hurrah-words also allows such concepts to be used as doublespeak vis-a-vis their original meaning, and opens the door to the definitional elimination of linguistic oppositions. The use of words as boo-words precludes their serious consideration or discussion; for instance, the use of 'communism' as an anathema makes 'communist' claims seem invalid regardless of their content, which renders those who identify, or are tarred, with this label voiceless. Also, boo- and hurrah-words tend to block, or load, use of the same words as analytical concepts, by attaching emotional weight to them which may not be justified by their context of use. Anathemas are directly oppressive and exclusionary, usually involving a refusal to listen to, and/or penalties against, someone who adopts or is effectively tarred with an anathema. A repressive "we" may operate to preclude discussion of spheres in which it operates, by creating a pressure not ro oppose what "we" believe.

Examples: Parliamentary procedures in a context of strong executive power (eg. Russia) is an example of ritual. The concepts of boo- and hurrah-words were originally developed for use in the critique of official Soviet ideology, which uses these constantly, although it could equally be applied to McCarthyism. Cases of a "repressive we" would include, for instance, cases where politicians claim to speak for 'the entire British nation'. (After September 11th, Tony Blair sent the condolences of the entire British nation to the victims and to America. Yet other people's condolences do not always look anything like Blair's).


Source: Reich, Deleuze and others (originally Freud)

What is it?: Not all the forms of discourse which produce and sustain oppressive discourses occur at the level of conscious argument and logic. Some occur at the level of the relationship between the cognitive-logical or linguistic system and emotional alignments. Often, particular words or symbols can produce a direct emotional effect, which indicates that the word or symbol has had emotional significance attached to it. The term 'libidinal investment' is derived from the psychoanalytic tradition. The 'libido' - the focal point of sexual and therefore emotional energies - can in such theories be focussed in a number of different places, including different body-parts and, in some versions, external objects, people, symbols, institutions, etc. When the libido is attached to something, it is said to be 'libidinally invested'. Something which has been 'libidinally invested' produces emotional reactions, often of an extreme type, if it is invoked or challenged. The kind of idea expressed by the idea of 'libidinal investment' also crops up in discourses other than psychoanalysis, eg. Matza's 'emotional commitment', Butler's 'passionate attachments', Korzybski's 'semantic reactions'.

Libidinal investment is a part of most or all variants of the process of production of desire, commitment and action; it is not in itself repressive. However, problems begin when an actually or potentially repressive institution or system, or symbols associated with these, are libidinally invested. Libidinal investment can occur in the form of excitement about or commitment to an institution, in which case the institution can substitute for what it is intended to provide, leading to a more-or-less uncritical commitment to it. 'A psychiatrist tells us that "Recognition by society leads the individual to expend his [sic] sexual drives on cultural goals, and this is the best way for him to defend himself against his drives". Read: the aim of roles is to absorb vital energies, to reduce erotic energy by ensuring its permanent sublimation. The less erotic reality there is, the more seuxalised forms appear in the spectacle. Roles... guarantee orgiastic impotence' (Vaneigem, Revolution of Everyday Life p. 138).

Sometimes, libidinal investment involves negative rather than positive reasons for commitment, based on avoidance of fear, pain or anxiety (which in a psychoanalytic model may even be 'repressed' and unknown to an actor). Punishment of sexuality, rebellious impulses, or anything else, is usually insufficient to curb them; however, it can produce an unwelcome anxiety in connection with the banned actions; this anxiety may then be transferred onto the activities themselves in the form of guilt, leading to a situation where one's desires are repugnant to one's conscience and one's conscience is repugnant to one's desires. The repressed desires continue to operate in a subterranean way, and psychological energy which could otherwise be used constructively is expended suppressing the banned desires (Maurice Brinton, The Irrational in Politics, pp. 25-7). Further, one may identify with the repressive force, producing reactionary political alignments. One's repression of one's own desires may turn outwards; the 'repressed' may be projected onto others who in some way symbolise the banned desire, and repression in then turned outwards against this group. As Wilhelm Reich puts it: 'Sexual repression aids political reaction, not only through this process which makes the mass individual passive and unpolitical, but also by creating in his structure an interest in actively supporting the authoritarian order' (cited Brinton p29).

There are many versions of this kind of thesis. Deleuze and Guattari, for instance, see the Oedipus complex and the resultant neurotic/normal character-structure as a 'trap', which contains the potentially free flows of desire within the existing social system, thereby preventing radical alternatives from emerging (Anti-Oedipus). Nietzsche provides an account of a structure he terms "ressentiment", in which people whose activity in the world is blocked turns inwards, into a recording of guilt, grudges and vendettas against themselves and others. Erich Fromm sees authoritarian social and family structures as producing a "fear of freedom" which blocks radical desires by turning them into self-repression. Adorno has an account of the harmless defusing of frustration and emancipatory desires through mass culture. Paolo Freire suggests that many people identify with oppressors, which encourages them to adopt similar attitudes and to support repression against others.
What is wrong with it?: Psychological repression is a difficult issue for a theory of oppressive discourse, because it occurs mainly within an individual. In a sense, someone who represses her/his desires thereby renders her/himself partially voiceless; but since this occurs internally, it does not directly involve the oppression of one group by another. It is often difficult to uncover processes of repression and of libidinal investment, and it is important that attempts to do so avoid becoming oppressive themselves, by imposing clinical labels, making substitutionist claims on behalf of (what they believe to be) the repressed material, and the like.

Nevertheless, libidinal investment and psychological repression appears to be a major basis for oppressive discourse. In particular, it produces support for repressive institutions independently of the arguments in favour of them; it provides an emotional basis for supporting the oppression of others, directly or indirectly, or for overlooking evidence against dominant institutions or on behalf of unpopular groups; and it is also destructive on the level of one's own discourse, acting as a possible emotional genesis of attempts to use other forms of oppressive discourse. Further, the self-reproducing character of psychological repression and libidinal investments in oppression means that it is oppressive of others as well as of the self.

Example: Franz Fanon (Black Skin, White Masks) provides an account of racism based partly on libidinal investment. For Fanon, racism often involves a white person projecting their own repressed material onto black people, so the repression of the latter is an acting-out of the repression of their own desires. Further, the organisations through which racist oppression is perpetrated - such as the police, colonising armies, and paramilitary bands - are libidinally invested through an imaginary equivalence of the nation and the family.


Source: Mainly Wilhelm Reich, Maurice Brinton, and the book "Unorthodox Marxism" by Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel.

What is is?: At its broadest, 'character-structure' is a reference to how one's emotional and cognitive reactions are structured, and does not specifically imply repression. However, some forms of character-structure - roughyl equivalent to those which Reich terms 'character-armour' - are indirectly oppressive. Character-armour arises as a long-term effect of struggles to repress emotions or desire (see LIBIDINAL INVESTMENT). Such attempts can produce a deep-rooted set of reactions which insulate an individual from potentially disturbing, upsetting or disruptive discourse or encounters, which could put her or his libidinal structure at risk by undermining commitment to dominant institutions or getting too close to repressed material. (In Reich's account, the primary operative repression is directed against sexuality, especially genital sexuality. Although some accounts - eg. Baudrillard, The Consumer Society - suggest that sexual 'liberation' has been no such thing, and that sexuality is still more-or-less repressed through its entrapment in a field of alterity, the broad Reichean thesis is not necessarily dependent on the assumption of sexual repression. One could write more broadly of the repression of 'intensities', i.e. excessive emotional states, as portrayed by Deleuze. For instance, sex is probably less of a source of fear in contemporary society than a fear of "extremes" linked to the issue of "violence").

For Reich: 'The vassal-structure is a mixture of sexual impotence, helplessness, longing for a Fuhrer, fear of authority, fear of life, and mysticism... People with such a structure are incapable of democratic living. Their structure nullifies all attempts at establishing or maintaining organisations run along truly democratic principles' (cited Brinton p35). Such a structure may initially develop as a defence against parental repression, but it also functions as a defence of the capitalist work-process. Faced with an absurd social system, argues Brinton, people rationalise their existence; to sustain this rationalisation, they repress anything which may disturb them and acquire a character-structure adapted to their conditions of life. This has the unfortunate effect of blocking discourse which aims at changing such conditions (56-7). For instance, those whose character-structures are adapted to the 'necessity' of work must actively avoid literature and experiences which call their work-life into question, and thereby threaten their 'fit' into the system (Albert and Hahnel 198).

What's wrong with it?: In addition to its self-denying effects, character-armour of this type involves rendering anything which may challenge one's 'fit' voiceless. Since the process involves psychological repression, and since conformists may be aware of the tentativeness of their 'fit', anything which could disrupt this 'fit' becomes 'dangerous' to them. At best, they merely avoid it; at worst, they may support other oppressive discourses, including terror, to keep such 'subversive' material silent. Furthermore, character-armour operates to block on, and as an alternative to, other forms of discourse, and therefore impedes communicative exchanges. The energy spent maintaining it is removed from other tasks, including understanding others' views, and character-armour therefore reinforces oppressive discourse in general. In spite of such effects, it should be kept in mind that character-armour is a survival strategy and as such should be handled carefully.

Example: Everett Reimer (School is Dead) speaks of "reactive stupidity", which is effectively a form of character-armour. Reactive stupidity develops as a defence against tedium and irrelevance, as a low-risk response requiring neither rebellion nor adaptation. Reimer's discussion is of reactive stupidity in a classroom setting. Here, it involves ignoring all questions or responding noncommittally to them, and doing work one is assigned in an equally noncommittal and half-hearted way. In this way, one reclaims a sense of agency and evades the need to commit to the social situation, without risking open rebellion. Reactive stupidity, if reproduced in other situations, acts as a block on any attempt to open serious discussion on difficult questions, and may thereby make it more difficult to persuade someone to overcome existing beliefs.


Source: Ernest Mandel (originally Trotsky)

What is it?: Substitution is a form of confusion-conflation based on asserting or assuming an identity between a (real or imagined) original entity and an institution which claims to represent it. Originally developed as a critique of hierarchic party structures and Stalinism, it can also be applied to any situation where an institution claims to be acting for, or as, some broader category which is not identical with the institution itself (eg. the government acting for the 'public' or 'nation', American public prosecutors posing as 'The People versus whoever', etc.). The claim of identity in such cases is illogical and leads to a particular type of doublespeak against the original group where one exists; where one does not, the simulated reference-point can operate oppressively against other identities.

Substitutionism usually operates by a process of slippage: the original group is reduced to or identified with a set of (eg.) "interests" separable from its actual members; these "interests" are posited as being best served by a particular organisation; defence of this organisation is posited as equivalent to or the same as defence of the original group. (There does not need to be a "real" original group for its "interests" to be posited in this way; often, indeed, the construction of the primary identity-category - eg. in Nazism, the racial volksgemeinschaft - is itself part of the same process of political incorporation as the substitutionist distortion of it; thus, substitutionism can be either an "alienation" or a "simulation" in Baudrillard's sense, depending on the status of its original reference-point). Mandel says about Stalinism: 'The ultimate result of this nightmarish logic is massive repression of communists and workers on the grounds that they are dominated, or "objectively driven", by bourgeois ideology. Repression of the workers "in reality" means repression of the bourgeoisie. So the axiom "the party = the working class" leads to the conclusion that under certain circumstances "the actually-existing working class = the bourgeoisie" (Power and Money p. 107; cf. Castoriadis, Political and Social Writings vol. 1 p. 210-11).

What's wrong with it?: Substitutionism is illogical, since it involves confusion of actually distinct groups of people. It constructs voicelessness in various ways. Firstly, it tends to crowd out those who adhere to the substituted identity-group but who do not belong to or support this group. For instance, a Stalinist approach to workers leaves actual workers voiceless. Secondly, since the substituting group often itself defines the group it substitutes for, it also tends to block other identity-categories by insisting that all ascribed members should identify with its preferred label and with the substituted version of it. Thirdly, it can construct a repressive "we", which is, however, purely internal to the substituting group's discourse, and which does not require any structural, formal or actual representative relation between this group and those it claims to represent. If effective, such a discourse traps members of the ascribed identity-group into supporting persecution, both against out-groups and against members of the in-group who the substituting group define as "objectively" outsiders, at the whim of the substituting group. It is unsurprising, therefore, that substitutionism is so common in "totalitarian" social systems, although it is also fairly common in "liberal democracies" in more subtle ways.

Example: When Blair declares war or some equivalent (eg. against Afghanistan), he is de facto acting on the basis of a decision of a small clique within the British state (in the narrow sense, i.e. the coercive-bureaucratic-governmental apparatuses); in most cases he is not even accountable to his party or to parliament in an actually-effective way. Nevertheless, he claims to be making a decision on behalf of the 'nation' or 'public', who are then expected to stick to this decision as if they had made it themselves. For instance, there has been official and media talk of bringing "treason" prosecutions against members of the British public (as a statistical category, i.e. residents in the geographical area which the UK state claims to rule) who fight for the Taleban. In such a case, for official discourse and its many supporters, the elite = the public and actually-existing members of the public = traitors against the public.


Source: Ivan Illich, Michel Foucault

What is it?: Escalation and utopian duplication are a particular form of doublespeak in which the failure of an institution becomes proof of its success. Discourses of escalation occur when the assumption of the effectiveness of an institution or mode of action are so entrenched that failure is necessarily interpreted as quantitative, i.e., as a lack of sufficient quantity. Thus, when a particular kind of action fails to 'get results', the same kind of action is repeated, typically in greater quantity. Originally a description for the U.S. attitude to military intervention in Vietnam, Illich suggests that it is typical of predominant attitudes to "packaged" solutions to social problems, including such as increased schooling as a response to inequality, and cars and roads as a response to transport problems. Illich feels that the packaged institutions cause or reinforce, or at best cannot eliminate, the problems they are supposed to solve (eg. schooling involving selection reproduces inequality regardless of the amount of schooling involved, and road-building reinforces car use), so escalatory logics become self-reinforcing.

'Utopian duplication' is a similar concept, used by Foucault to describe the way criticisms of prisons often lead to prison reform programmes which restore the goals, ideals, structures etc. of prisons. 'In a very strange way, the history of imprisonment does not obey a chronology in which one sees, in orderly succession, the establishment of a penality of detention, then the recognition of its failure; then... projects of reform... [T]he critique of the prison and its methods appeared very early on' (Discipline and Punish, 264-5). 'The answer to these criticisms was invariably the same: the reintroduction of the invariable principles of penitentiary technique. For a century and a half the prison has been offered as its own remedy: the reactivation of the penitentiary techniques as the only means of overcoming their perpetual failure; the realisation of the corrective project as the only method of overcoming the impossibility of implementing it' (268). 'One must not, therefore, regard the prison, its "failure" and its subsequent reform as three successive stages. One should think rather of a simultaneous system... [including] the repetition of a "reform" that is isomorphic, despite its "idealism", with the disciplinary functioning of the prison - the element of utopian duplication' (271). Utopian duplication occurs when an institution or mode of action is proposed as the solution to its own perceived failure.

What's wrong with it?: Both escalation and utopian duplication are illogical and refuse the possibility of empirically falsifying the effectiveness of a mode of action (since they posit both failure and success as proof of effectiveness). Also, escalation in particular tends to lead to self-reinforcing processes of increased resource consumption which suck energy and resources from elsewhere in an endless process, and which have ecocidal implications.

They impose voicelessness on the level of preventing empirical cases against particular practices from being effectively heard, regardless of their truth-status. Both forms of discourse block the emergence of alternatives in theory and practice. Also, both forms of discourse frequently conceal the power-struggles which result from the imposition of institutions and modes of practice which are (in other ways) oppressive; the presumed effectiveness of what is duplicated tends to impose voicelessness on those who actively resist it.

Example: The crackdown culture is an example of escalation. This phenomenon, common in politicians' discourse, involves a response to 'crime' based on the principle 'we must do something', combined with a preference for punitive responses. When 'crime' becomes a serious problem for politicians (which usually means when there is a media panic about it), new repressive laws or 'stiffer' sentences are brought in. These may not reduce the incidence of the 'crime' in question, but they allow politicians to appear to act. Without opposing pressures to reduce or abolish repressive laws or sentences, the process of escalation continues indefinitely, since each new panic produces a new response.

"Utopian duplication" occurs when governments respond to problems of bureaucracy ("red tape" etc.) by setting up bureaucratic organisations (watchdogs, inspectorates, etc.). This, for instance, has been the main official response to bureaucracy in the education and health systems.

Source: Roland Barthes, "Mythologies"

What is it?: I am using "myth" as a blanket category to cover the grouping of discourses (including reification, naturalisation, essentialism, eternalisation, and otehrs discussed elsewhere, as well as some which I have not developed as separate categories) which share the characteristic of a "second-order" distortion of a "first-order" sign, to add ideological meaning to it which appears to be present in the original sign but is actually added by a second signification, and which operate to impose, limit or restructure what the original sign can 'mean'. Myth conceals the socio-political construction of phenomena, and their contestability both conceptually and in practice, by implanting additional claims in apparently factual statements. 'Myth does not deny things, on the contrary, its function is to talk about them; simply, it purifies them, it makes them innocent, it gives them a natural and eternal justification, it gives them a clarity which is not that of an explanation but that of a statement of fact' (Mythologies p. 143). A first-order sign is constructed by the combination of a signifier (a word or symbol) with a signified, a set of sensory or emotional information which is un-speakable except through a signifier; the result is a "sign". However, such a sign can then be subject to a second signification: the word, with its first-order meaning embedded in it, can be attached to a second signified, which may be an abstract or ideological construct. In Barthes's classic example, for instance, an image of a black man saluting the French flag combines a signifier and signified (a set of physical images, and the words "black man saluting", for instance); but it is also mythical because a second meaning is added, since this image signifies the non-racism and naturalness of French colonialism. This second meaning is made to appear 'natural' by its unconscious association with the first-order sign.

Myths take many forms. For instance, the myth of balance involves reading social phenomena in relation to a (usually unspoken) assumption of a primary balance or equilibrium which is upset by disasters and deviance. In this way, an act is (mis-)interpreted as an attack on, or crime against, this primordial balance, when the assumption of balance may be absent in its origins and in its meaning for participants.

What's wrong with it?: Myths are problematic in several ways. Firstly, since they are not conscious, they are projected into significations uncritically. Secondly, because of this, they tend to block debate on higher-order resignifications of first-order signs. The myth of balance, for instance, can act as a blocking factor in discussions of deviance, since it establishes one interpretation as 'natural' in the minds of many people. This produces voicelessness in relation to people with alternative interpretations. Thirdly, myths often lead to inappropriate responses to statements and actions by others, because of the uncritical distortion they introduce. Fourthly, they can make communication and debate very difficult, both between someone who holds a myth and someone who does not, and between holders of different myths. Myths are often expressed by tautologies ("business is business", "Racine is Racine"), which Barthes terms 'a choleric break between the intelligence and its object, the arrogant threat of an order not to think' (Eiffel Tower and Other Mythologies, p. 59). Such an order not to think is implicit in the functioning of myth in general, since the mythical formulation is usually presented as directly expressing reality. In general, also, myths tend to exclude, because communication which uses them is only open to those who uncritically share the myth in question.

Example: Barthes provides a series of examples of myths in his two "mythologies" books. Others can be found in works on the media such as Masterman (ed.), "Television Mythologies"; Bignell, "Media Semiotics"; and th Glasgow Media Group studies ("Bad News", etc.). Blairism is a highly mythical formation, since it relies on a sense of a "middle" path of balance and reconciliation expressing supposedly apolitical or consensus concerns. The assumption, for instance, that anti-'crime' discourse has a status which is different from and superior to concerns about civil liberties, on the basis that the latter is 'chatter' (Blunkett') whereas the former is immediately real, is a classical example of a Barthesian myth.


Source: Original ( but cf. Korzybski and others)

What is it?: Confusion-conflation discourse arises when someone places a discursive block on the possibility of conceptually distinguishing two ideas, actions etc., particularly when this takes a form such as "x = y" blocked by a refusal to consider differences between x and y. It may take the form of an implicit inability to distinguish two concepts, such as is operative in discourses which use "state" and "society" interchangeably (confusion); or it may involve deliberate attempts to fuse two concepts into one, usually to validate or discredit one of them (eg. treating all "crimes" as equivalent, and refusing to consider motives or causality). While it is possible to carry out comparisons on a methodological level which (for instance) establish that "poodles" and "wolfhounds" are equally "dogs", and this involves a limited assertion of similarity, it does not preclude one also discussing differences between "poodles" and "wolfhounds", or reclassifying either under another label (eg. "wolfhounds" and "wolves" are "grey"). A confusion-conflation discursive form arises when one refuses the possibility of distinguishing or reclassifying what is established, and when one denies differences between different individual cases classified under a label.

Confusion of orders of abstraction is a special type of confusion-conflation discourse. Because language is multi-layered and multiordinal (i.e. many terms, such as "good", can be applied to objects of different kinds and also to statements about them; eg. a statement about a "false" statement can nevertheless be "true"), one word can often be used in several ways. When one assumes that the word must have a single meaning at all levels of abstraction, and blocks a priori all attempts to differentiate between different levels or senses of a word (eg. by using arguments about law-in-general as a case for particular laws or a particular legal system), one confuses orders of abstraction.

What's wrong with it?: Because it occurs at the level of the classification of objects, confusion-conflation discourse often is not strictly in contradiction with formal logic. However, it is based on an unfounded attitude to one's own linguistic categories, and often involves concealing or repressing empirical or actual characteristics in what is confused and conflated. Applied to human beings, confusion-conflation tends to repress people's own meanings in assessing their actions; it allows a case against one action, claim or group to pass over onto other superficially similar actions, claims or groups; it can easily cross over into labelling; and it also imposes voicelessness through a refusal to listen to any discourse which falls outside its categories. In general, confusion-conflation discourse blocks or represses discussion at the level of the constitution of concepts.

Those who use confusion-conflation discourse make discussion conditional on accepting prior confusions or conflations, which leads to exclusion. Differences which confound the confusion or conflation are repressed or concealed, and anyone who acts for, or in, or through such differences is rendered voiceless.

Example: Some versions of the concept of totalitarianism involve confusion-conflation discourse, because they assume that some similarities between Stalinist and fascist systems prove their identicality, and repress differences between such systems. Also, the term "totalitarianism" may slip over into discussions of other phenomena, particularly of a leftist type, which are not identical with Stalinism. This is one basis for the slippage involved in anti-left discourse, and it tends to establish anathemas rather than to encourage historical analysis (eg. of the discourse or origins of Stalinism and fascism).


Source: Trevor Pateman (originally Gregory Bateson)

What is it?: I am following the technical use of this term, which is distinct from the idea of 'competing injunctions', implying a specific process. Although originally designed as a causal account of schizophrenia, the double-bind is prevalent in many family situations, and also elsewhere in society. It is characterised by the following elements, according to Bateson et al: '1. Two or more persons... 2. Repeated experience... 3. A primary negative injunction. This may have either of two forms: (a) "Do not do so and so, or I will punish you" or (b) "if you do not do so and so, I will punish you"... 4. A secondary injunction conflicting with the first at a more abstract level, and like the first enforced by punishment or signals which threaten survival. This secondary injunction is more difficult to describe than the primary for two reasons... [It] is commonly communicated... non-verbally... [and] may impinge upon any aspect of the primary prohobition. Verbalisation of the secondary injunction may, therefore, include a wide variety of forms; for example, "Do not see this as punishment", "Do not see me as the punishing agent", "Do not submit to my prohibitions", "Do not think of what you must not do", "Do not question my love of which the primary prohibition is (or is not) an example"... 5. A tertiary negative injunction prohobiting the victim from escaping from the field... 6. [T]he complete set of ingredients is no longer necessary when the victim has learned to perceive his universe in double-bind patterns" (cited Pateman 55-6).

A double-bind therefore occurs when two contradictory injunctions, transmitted on different levels, emanate from the same agent, in an apparently inescapable field.

What's wrong with it?: Double-binds tend to block the development of conceptual abilities, especially in relation to metacommunicating (i.e. communicating about communication) (Pateman p. 55). As a power-relation, a double-bind has disastrous effects for its vitcim, and may be at the root of several other forms of oppressive discourse, eg. character-armour. While either injunction, taken alone, would probably be a form of impositional discourse, their combination is such as to attempt to impose two contradictory outcomes, which apparently more than doubles their oppressive force.

Since double-binds place a particular sphere of consideration beyond discussion, they have a similar effect to character-armour in terms of their knock-on effects for interpersonal oppression. Someone who is double-bound is, Bateson suggests, unable to discuss others' messages so as to clarify or decontest their meaning; as a result, she or he is likely to block out or messages, or interpret them via a consistent standard (eg. assuming a deceptive hidden message) which often leads to misinterpretation (cited Pateman 56-7).

Examples: Although originally developed in discussions of parent-child relations, a number of other cases of double-binds and similar phenomena can be located in contemporary society. These include: people who are encouraged to succeed, while also expected to fail to conform to their role; imperatives against violence and deviance, combined with a more subtle message that they are inevitable and therefore justified; explicit calls by capitalists to save, combined with more disguised (via adverts) calls to spend endlessly; attacking a population by bombing it, while simultaneously denying that "the Serbian/Iraqi/Afghan people" are "our enemy"; and official legal discourse which assumes individual responsibility and free will, combined with a determinist subtext derived from the social sciences, which suggests all acts result from social causes. All these discourses emerge from a single group, whose influence is sufficient as to render them almost inescapable. To take one of these examples: mainstream discourse on violence and deviance is projected widely, especially through the media (fiction as well as news and documentaries), both directly and by allegory. On the one hand, acts of this kind are condemned vociferously, and those who commit them are threatened with punishment. But on the other, there is also a message that deviance is inherent in human nature. For instance, there is a subtle Hobbesian subtext underlying many discussions of policing; the idea of a barely-contained human nature prone to violence is strong. This provides a secondary imperative to commit such acts, to conform to a normalised conception of human nature.
INVALIDATION (aka Disconfirmation)

Source: Trevor Pateman, "Language, Truth and Politics"

What is it?: Invalidatory discourse is not to be confused with proving a statement to be 'invalid' by evidence or logic. Invalidation occurs when a (usually status-based or anathematising) prohibitory statement or silence is used to avoid responding to the substantive content of a statement. Invalidations put particular statements, and their speakers, beyond communication. Pateman's examples include "Don't be cheeky" (vs. children) and ignoring particular questions by mental asylum inmates or rephrasing truth-claims as symptoms (Pateman 61-3; in the case of symptoms, it overlaps with form-imposition, of which it is probably a precondition). As Foucault puts it, madness is "reduced to silence by positivism": it is put beyond both social and discursive 'communities'. Once put beyond communication, statements need no longer be tested for their truth or falsehood; users of invalidatory discourse evade empirical issues and issues of the status of a claim (eg. whether it is a joke, metaphor etc.). Victims of invalidation are also likely to be oppressed in other ways, to maintain their silence. Invalidation of statements easily passes over into invalidation of people (as invalid speakers unable to make claims requiring a response).

Invalidation is NOT simply claiming that a view is wrong, an action is harmful or a discourse is oppressive. It specifically involves attempting to place the wrong, harmful, oppressive, "absurd", "mad", etc. statement beyond the possibility of discussion, dialogue and communication. It involves refusing to engage with a statement, claim or action as a statement, claim or action, and insisting on treating it as a silence or absence.

What's wrong with it?: Invalidatory discourse is one of the most obviously oppressive forms of discourse, since it openly imposes voicelessness on both speakers and statements. At its simplest, it prohibits a particular kind of statement, delimiting communication in a way which oppresses one party (who is restricted in speech) while presumably benefitting the other. Most often, furthermore, invalidation also invalidates speakers, constructing a situation of voicelessness as a threat to those who break the prohibition introduced by the invalidation of statements.

Also, one cannot show a statement to be something other than an empirical claim except by acting as if it is (Pateman p. 63). Further, a claim which seems absurd may still be true, expressing an existential situation, mode of experience, mode of thought and action, or aspect of the world which is not presently conceptualised in one's own belief-system. Even if not, cutting off dialogue means cutting off the possibility of persuasion in both directions. This undermines the claims of (for instance) mental asylums and prisons to "cure" and "rehabilitate": the voicelessness they impose necessarily prevents such changes, unless the model of voicelessness is somewhere weakened (as it sometimes is). Also, invalidation can reinforce discursive blank spots. If an someone cannot answer particular criticisms, or cannot understand a discourse due to a double-bind, character-armour, lack of conceptual abilities, etc., invalidation offers a means for them to (appear to) reply in a manner which satisfies her/himself and her/his supporters.

Invalidation - especially in the form of condemnation and resultant refusal to debate - is often attractive to those who wish to distance themselves from some action they consider to be evil, inhuman or whatever. But invalidation condemns oneself to persuasive impotence: one is left with no choices except oppressive actions or silence as a response. As a result, invalidation of actions, even oppressive actions, is a way of reinforcing oppression, both via one's own discourse and via the ineffectiveness resulting from the refusal to persuade. Invalidation necessitates that one use other oppressive discourses (including actions) to avoid communicating. Entire oppressive systems, such as the prison and its adjuncts, have arisen from attempts to establish and sustain a few core invalidatory discourses.

Example: George Bush during the weeks after September 11th, on attempts by the Taleban and others to arrange for a third-country trial for bin Laden in return for his handover: "When I said no negotiations, I meant no negotiations" (Ceefax p105, 14-10-01). This is clearly an attempt to make American opponents (and even allies) voiceless: if there are no negotiations, there is only a US imperative, which produces oppression either way (either submission or bombing).

Take also the following examples from BBC coverage of Orgreave: 'Throughout the Orgreave coverage the differential credibility accorded to police representatives and miners as sources is revealing. [On the BCC's Sixty Minutes, a] miner's eye-witness story is dismissed as astonishing, whilst the police's spokesperson is asked in all seriousness for his assessment of a situation at which he was not present. Similarly, the police statement that Scargill 'slipped' in injuring his head... is privileged against Scargill's mere 'claims' that he was struck by a riot shield' (Len Masterman, "The Battle of Orgreave", in Masterman ed., "Television Mythologies" p105). Indeed, the miner 'has to break with the pre-formulated framework' to even express his claims (p105). Even in relation to BBC's own footage, it is only remarked that it 'seemed to show one policeman striking a picket several times across the head with a truncheon' (p108). In this case, acceptance of a pre-determined, pro-police framework is taken as a condition of communicating meaningfully. (This framework - 'what happened at Orgreave today' (p105) - was constructed in the news broadcasts earlier in the day, with a spurious claim to objectivity - see section on REPRESSIVE DISCOURSE).


Source: Steven D. Brown, "Poster, Placard, Property"; articles by Derek Summerfield, especially "The Social Experience of War", in Bracken and Petty, "Rethinking the Trauma of War"

What is it?: I am using the concept of terror (which is a practice rather than a form of language, but remains within "discourse") is the communicative use of force/violence, fear and pain in a deliberate or de facto attempt to territorialise a social space. The use of force/violence can be used to eliminate alternatives and/or challenges to a particular conception of the world. In such contexts, force/violence usually appears as a communicative act, conceived as (for instance) teaching or rectifying those who are victimised. Terror is a subvariant of territorialisation.

Terror in this sense is a common phenomenon (and need not necessarily be limited to the most extreme cases: the idea of using force or repression to "send a message" is common even in "liberal democracies"). 'A key element of modern political violence is the creation of states of terror to penetrate the entire fabric of economic, sociocultural and political relations as a means of social control... In El Salvador it was said that the military wanted to kill anyone with a thought in his or her head. The targeting of ordinary people, politicised or not, and their ways of life is not incidental but central to the modus operandi of most modern conflict... [Those killed, tortured and exiled] were props in a political theatre meant to render whole communities a stunned audience' (Summerfield p. 10). This is not 'irrational' or 'senseless', but is a calculated means of control (11). Attacks may include attempts to destroy existing social forms; in the Phillipines, extrajudicial executions and death threats 'were intended to "politicise" [health] clincs... and make local people afraid to attend' (14). Attacks on intellectual resources, organic intellectuals, cultural foci, etc. are also common (16).

The communicative use of force/violence involves the imposition of a conception of the world in which force/violence plays an assigned communicative/narrative role. Stephen D. Brown says of the Stanford Prison Experiment: 'It is remarkable... how many references there are to literature and popular culture... There is great emphasis on dramatising human behaviour through the creaton of novel and unusual settings... [T]here is something cinematic about the whole experiment... All involved are clearly drawing upon popular scripts of what a guard does, what a prisoner does' (11-12). According to Elaine Scarry, 'torture proceeds through the disintegration of the everyday world, breaking up the relationship between victim and objects... [T]urn everyday objects against the victim, every aspect of the familiar world must be a source of pain' (Brown p. 13). Possibilities of abuse and control can also be placed in an environment, via objects and architecture (14).

What's wrong with it?: Terror is one of the most obviously oppressive forms of discourse. It not only attempts to induce total voicelessness and even total submission, but it does so by inflicting harm and fear. The discursive use of force/violence introduces distortions into discourse, which implicitly conflate issues of communication with issues of one's capacity to cause pain and harm. The last-instance reliance on some form of terror lurks behind almost all other oppressive forms of discourse, to prevent them being drowned out by the voices of the oppressed. Terror creates voicelessness in at least two ways: directly, by killing or forcibly/violently silencing those who would otherwise speak (eg. executions), and indirectly, through fear.

Examples: Terror is not simply identical with force/violence; the elements of discursive use, territorialisation, and attempts to destroy alternatives are crucial. Terror as I have defined it is therefore irreducibly distinct from self-defence, and even from most cases of use of force/violence in anger, which are immediately active and less directly communicative. Extreme cases of terror are easy to list (eg. the Holocaust, the Russian purges, El Salvador's "dirty war", the activities of the Russian army in Chechnya, the Taleban religious police, etc.), although I also intend for the concept to cover less extreme instances of the same kind of logic (communicative use of violence to territorialise a space by eliminating possible alternatives). For instance, the police eviction and demolition of the Old Button Factory shortly before Mayday 2001, in an attempt to disrupt preparations for Mayday and demoralise activists by disrupting support-networks and services within the movement (residential space for travellers to London, planning space, etc.), is a less 'extreme' example of the same logic.

Source: Steven D. Brown, "Poster, Placard, Property" (originally Deleuze and Guattari)

What it is?: At its broadest, territorialisation simply refers to any establishment of a set of relations between people and an environment of objects, spaces, etc. In the broad sense, territorialisation is not necessarily oppressive. However, in a narrower sense, it refers to the imposition of categories on others, which are enforced through organisations of social and physical space. 'The general formula might be put in the following way: isolate a quality, extract it from a non-discursive mass, reformulate the quality as a discursive statement, use that statement to guide the reorganisation of the mass' (Brown p 17). 'Territorialisation of this kind is more than simply finding a position in a particular discourse. It subjects the individual to an economy of content and expression. The prisoner... will... have to relate to a territory made up of relationships with chains, restricted movement, sweating head, enclosed space, abusive guards. Their own body is now visible to themselves only in terms of that territory... The individual's qualities and personal powers become narrowly redefined by the territory' (17). Expressive elements - qualities of the body which hold meaning within a given discourse - become 'boundary stones' (18). In the case of delinquents, 'various qualities are peeled away from the person - "roguish", "disobedient", "hot-headed", and... the "villainous smile". These qualities are seized upon as expressive of the individual's character... Once extracted, the qualities are transformed within the discourse of penal law into a composite notion of delinquency. This notion is then reapplied back to the individual, who is henceforth a "delinquent"... The key to this is that qualities are taken from their personal context and taken as expressions of a discursive phenomenon which is then fixed within the individual criminal through their insertion into the penal system' (17).

Deleuze and Guattari's "Oedipal cage" functions in a similar way. The closure established by enclosed family situations can territorialise people in such a way that "flows" (what people do, want, say, etc.) becomes trapped and turned inwards, into the family situation or the self. This turning-inwards is one of the factors involved in the development of character-armour.

What's wrong with it?: Through territorialisation, a person's ability to experience and perceive is constrained and modified; this is oppressive in terms of imposition of voicelessness, and also imposes oppressions on the body and mind on the level of harm, pain, subordination, etc. The control-relation involved in territorialisation is asymmetrical, and the effect of such processes on the diversity, creativity and organicity (in Gramsci's sense) of social relations is disastrous. Territorialisation is not so much illogical as destructive of the conditions of logical discourse.

Territorialisation is not strictly speaking a destruction of the self, since it relocates the self in a particular way in relation to its environment. However, it is a clear-cut instance of the self being used as a "means". Deleuze and Guattari's accounts also suggest that territorialisation can have a destructive effect on the relationship between the production of desire and the production of social systems, institutions and produced goods, separating them and subordinating the former to the latter - a process which leads to psychological repression.

Examples: Virtually all the technical forms of discourse, each of which has been subjected to critiques specific to it, are forms of territorialisation. The carceral as a regime of surveillance and discipline (Foucault), propaganda as a network of (potentially) total information control (Jacques Ellul), pathologisation as a means of controlling subject populations (Summerfield etc.), schooling as a system of regimentation (eg. Illich, Reimer, Goodman), mental asylums (Foucault, Goffman), and even consumer society as a totalising system of signs (Baudrillard) are attempts at territorialisation.

A number of theorists of labelling and deviance amplification (eg. Lemert) show how territorialisation generates phenomena which fit its categories. Matza's "Becoming Deviant" provides an account of how the restrictions and meanings projected into a situation by labelling are interpreted by those labelled as deviant in ways which may lead to the formation of deviant identities in line with such territorialisation.


Source: Trevor Pateman, "Language, Truth and Politics"

What is it?: Repressive discourse is a blanket term for a number of forms of discourse which operate to prevent discussion of oppressive discourses. In distinction from impositional types of discourse, they do not involve openly proposing oppressive social relations, but conceal such relations beneath statements of a different type. '[E]ssential to a repressive relationship is the element of disguise. Either the oppressive nature of a relationship is disguised... or the relationship aims to disguise or has the effect of disguising from the oppressed either their own power or their needs, or both' (Pateman p49). An order, for instance, may be oppressive even if not repressive; it becomes repressive if it disguises its own status as an order or if it conceals the basis on which the order can "legitimately" be given (p50) - for instance, if an order is disguised as a request (p51), or an appearance of communication is created through gestures of communication presented as 'meaningful' but which are deeply flawed, in a context where these statements are treated as valid and reply is impossible (p51). Several forms listed separately here, such as double-binds and the repressive "we", are special cases of repressive discourse. (To translate Pateman's statements into non-essentialist terms, minus references to 'meaning' and 'reason' as positive poles, one could stress how repressive discourse conceals the social construction of itself, i.e. its roots in particular social relations and its status as a claim by a particular person in a particular context. Refusal of reply and concealing of status tend to preclude ALL response, including but not limited to 'rational' responses).

Repressive discourse includes cases of the use of so-called "restricted linguistic codes" are used to avoid expressing relations and context by abbreviating a statement (eg. "Shut up!" conceals the question of why the speaker, and not the listener, has the right to order an end to discussion). It also includes cases of metacommunicative statements (i.e. communication about communication) which contains prohibitions on statements (Pateman p61). Repressive discourse often contains formal possibilities of response which it de facto rules out (eg. refusing a request).

What's wrong with it?: Repressive discourse in some situations makes it harder for those subject to oppressive relations to recognise these relations and therefore may mean that these relations are taken for granted (p51). 'The repressive forms of discourse reduce a person's freedom insofar as they reduce the possibility of rational appraisal of either social institutions or utterances or both' (p52). Those subject to repressive discourse may be kept in a state of voicelessness by their inability to perceive this situation; they may also become vulnerable to various kinds of manipulative appeals. Repressive discourse arises to conceal and defend oppressive situations, as a means of concealing or 'mystifying' relations which, described directly, would be described in impositional terms. It can even be used to make a deeply oppressive situation, awash with impositional logics which directly produce voicelessness, appear to be situations of "free speech" (because the prohibitions and threats are concealed in repressive forms). I also suspect that the frustration resulting from voicelessness which is generated in repressive situations does not disappear even though its source in the repressive relation is concealed; rather, it develops into character-armour or is projected onto vulnerable targets, creating a spiral of oppression.

Example: The news media typically veils its claims in repressive ways. It uses symbolic cues and structures to present particular standpoints selected by journalists or editors as if they are the objective place from which to view a situation, thereby concealing the process of production of news - from "news values" to overt censorship - and the social relations within which it is produced and distributed. Common devices include the use of "we" and the selective positioning of cameras or photographers so that events are viewed (for instance) from the cockpit of a U.N. transport in Bosnia, from behind police lines during an uprising, or from inside scab buses during the Miners' Strike. Since the selective nature of such editing decisions is unspoken, such forms of presentation are repressive, and are part of an asymmetrical power-relation between the media and its audience. This stands in contrast with the non-repressive approach of those alternative news media, from IndyMedia to Action for Solidarity, which openly admit a standpoint and relational context in their reporting. The former type of approach involves concealing power-relations whereas the latter tends to open them up for discussion.

Source: Original

What is it?: Deagentification occurs when the action (usually an action which is oppressive, harmful or uses force/violence against someone else, or is inconsistent with its agent's declared world-view) of a particular agent is discursively concealed to make it seem independent of this agent, thereby heading off debate about whether the action was justified, useful, etc. Deagentification can include treatment of specific agents' actions in passive voice (eg. "clashes occurred"); treatment of actions as agents (eg. "violence spiralled out of control"); treatment of context as agent (eg. 'the streets erupted'); and/or projection of actions onto other agents (usually the victim of the action in the case of oppressive discourses), who can be portrayed as necessitating, provoking or even directly causing the act (eg. rapists and child abusers blaming their victims).

Deagentification operates to preclude discussion of actions except as something which abstractly "happened"; it particularly disguises and represses ethical critique, which the form of deagentifying discourse can be used to simply dismiss. In addition to being used to evade critiques of one's own actions, it can also be used to impose voicelessness on others' actions by treating them as if a human agent were absent, or as if human agents were acting in a humanly incomprehensible way.

What's wrong with it?: Deagentification is a repressive form of discourse, which conceals the agent who carries out an action. As such, it is open to the general criticisms of repressive discourse. It also directly imposes voicelessness in relation to ethical and even pragmatic critiques of the actions it conceals. Further, it usually operates as a cover for directly oppressive relations. Deagentification in a context of agentification (even hyper-agentification) of other discourses involves the creation of a systematic situation of asymmetry. Further, deagentification is also oppressive of those whose actions are denied. This is particularly clear in those cases where it is used to avoid seeking meaning in others' actions.

Example: Deagentification is particularly common in discussions of state repressive institutions such as the police. 'The pickets knew what to expect. They had been warned that it could turn nasty, and it did' (ITN on Orgreave). In this case, 'The decision to "turn nasty" was one deliberately made by the police' (Len Masterman, "The Battle of Orgreave", in Masterman (ed.), "Television Mythologies" p102). Thus, the replacement of the police with an "it" which "turned nasty" is a deagentifying statement; threats by the police to use violence are thereby reinterpreted as "warnings", almost as if altruistic; and the battle is implicitly blamed on the pickets, who "knew what to expect" from the deagentified situation, as if they had gone out on a rainy day and then complained about getting wet. Deagentification thereby allows ITN to invert the meaning of the situation (and this in a report generally seem as sympathetic to the strike!). NB how deagentification of the police is combined with hyper-agentification (in this case, blame for non-proximal effects of actions) of the pickets.

This kind of discourse is widespread in media coverage of police violence. 'One protester is dead in rioting' (C4 News, Genoa); 'force is being met with force' (BBC, Genoa); 'What we are seeing is wanton violence' (cop during Bradford uprising); 'angry scenes' as 'demonstrators tried to break through a cordon enforced by riot police' (Ceefax, Salzburg); 'our worst fears have been proved true' (Gothenburg cop chief); police 'braced for violence' (Quebec etc.); protesters 'leaving police no option but to use tear gas' (C5 News, Quebec); a standoff before 'water cannons were turned on' and 'used' to 'disperse' protesters (Ceefax, Davos); events 'turned ugly' (The Mirror, Mayday); 'London erupted into predictable chaos' (Oracle, Mayday); etc. These statements are all deagentifying in various ways.


Source: Karl Marx (1844 Manuscripts, Capital, and elsewhere); Lukacs; Sartre, Critique of Dialectical Reason; other Marxists

What is it?: In Marx's formulation, commodity fetishism operates when 'relationships between the producers, within which the social characteristics of their labour are manifested, take on the form of a social relation between the products of labour' (Capital 1, Penguin, p164). It is 'a relation between persons... concealed beneath a material shell' (167). Due to a set of assumptions of which people are generally unaware, commodities (and other fetishised phenomena) are perceived as universally valid and as existing in the real world, independently of people. For those who fetishise commodities, 'Their own movement within society has for them the form of a movement between things, and these things... in fact control them' (167-8). It is a repressive device which conceals the process of expropriation: beneath the commodity form lies a relation of expropriation of workers by capitalists. Lukacs later extended this model into a general critique of "reification", showing how similar principles are at work in, for example, attempts to make the validity of law independent of its origins (History and Class Consciousness, p. 107-9).

Reification or fetishism occurs when conceptual or social constructs, such as language, ideals, social institutions, produced goods, and/or methodological/taxonomical divisions, are mistakenly perceived as actual expressions of reality. As a result of such misperception, the socially-produced ot -constructed phenomena develop, or appear to develop, a force of their own, which is alien to humans and acts as a crushing weight on human activity. Human relations come to be perceived as characteristics of an unchanging and usually unchangeable non-human external reality, and claims about them are couched in terms of descriptions of objective facts. In Marx's account, reified phenomena become, via the use of force to actualise capitalist ideas, characteristic of real social relations, and the barriers they pose become real.

What's wrong with it?: Marxist critiques of fetishism, reification, and the resultant alienation abound, and the criticisms they make of it are wide-ranging, from its destructive effects on human creativity and the sense of powerlessness it causes, to the economic inefficiencies which such misperception generates.

Reification/fetishism is a repressive form of discourse, because it conceals power-relations beneath factual statements. Re-cast in terms of 'objective' processes, power-relations are potentially immunised from ethical and practical criticism, and even from challenge. Objects cannot be argued with, so misidentifying social relations as objects is a way to make it impossible to talk to (rather than about) them. Couching something in 'objective' terms does not necessarily put it beyond change, as technological changes linked to natural science show. However, reified formulations most often posit their object as being of unchangeable nature. Further, attempts to modify social relations by means suited to handling objects are likely to be highly ineffective. Reification is therefore directly oppressive - in addition to its usual role of concealing other relations which are oppressive.

Example: The concept of globalisation is widespread in contemporary mainstream political discourse, and is often used in a reified way. Some uses of the term treat globalisation as a thing - an 'it' - which acts, and which one must submit to. 'Globalisation' is portrayed as 'compelling' governments to act, for instance. The concept of 'globalisation' is partly conflative (its users tend to assume that there is no difference between, for instance, global Internet links and the world trade system), but it is basically a description of human relations (i.e. a project by financial and other elites to increase global flows of production, distribution and exchange, partly for political purposes, e.g. to bypass labour and environmental laws, and partly for ideological reasons). Treating globalisation as an 'it' is therefore a form of reification, which has the effect of putting the activities of a particular group, and the power-relations such activities generate and are located in, beyond criticism.


Oppressive discourse does not occur in a void; it is connected to and draws on other forms of discourse, both oppressive and not. Linking a discourse to others is often necessary to make it translatable into the terms of others' discourse, and therefore to make it, in Gramsci's sense, "organic" (part of everyday beliefs and practices). The existence of oppressive discourse is not, therefore, restricted to oppressive forms of discourse themselves, but is also a question of how these forms fit into a broader socio-discursive context.

Systemic arrangements of oppressive discourse: I have presented oppressive forms of discourse in distinct 'pieces' to enable each to be isolated and analysed. In actual social situations, a practice of oppression does not usually derive from a single oppressive form, but uses several different forms concurrently. Repressive discourse can be used to conceal the more obviously impositional forms of discourse from criticism. Terror can be used to prevent the prohibited challenged to repressive discourse being realised. Confusion-conflation discourse can be used to legitimate the extension of other oppressive discourses against new groups (eg. the recent attempts to conflate activism with terrorism to justify increased repression).

To take the case of media coverage of Orgreave, for instance: I have discussed this case in relation to invalidation (eg. the remark that an eyewitness account was "astonishing"). However, this discourse operates in the context of others, which help to keep its oppressive character invisible: repressive discourse is mobilised to present media discourse as unquestionable, a status necessary for the invalidation of claims falling outside it; within this repressive discourse, and protected by its veil of 'objectivity', directly normative claims of an impositional nature are introduced - for instance, the description of pickets' acts of self-defence as "horrifying". Further, the effective functioning of media discourse operates partly through appeals to phatic discourse on two levels (general trust in the media, treated in phatic discourse as a neutral source; and the repetition of phatic statements or depiction of media statements as phatic), and also partly through appeals to character-structure (with pickets acting as an uncomfortable reminder of the repressed possibility of opposing the system). Furthermore, the entire media discourse is largely constructed as a defence of a different, but clearly related, discourse: i.e. the police use of invalidation, impositional discourse and terror in an attempt to defeat the pickets. And so on.

Thus, although the discussion of specific forms of discourse is useful for analytical purposes, allowing particular claims to be examined and shown to be oppressive or not, in practice one is not dealing with specific statements but with entire networks of oppressive discourses arranged so as to reinforce each other. The carceral, the so-called "justice" system, the military "world order", institutions which pathologise, the system of schooling, the propaganda system, and other such cases are particularly large-scale examples of such systems of oppression, although such a system can also operate on a micropolitical scale, eg. within a family (cf. the section on double-binds). The complexity of the systems of discourse (in contrast to the structural simplicity of, say, a political treatise) is a strength but also a weakness. It turns them into discursive and organisational "trenches and fortifications" (Gramsci), where a breach at one point - eg. a particular individual who trusts her or his friend who was on the picket line more than she or he trusts the media, and who therefore sees dramatically through several layers of mystification, and who may even identify some of the forms - can easily be controlled by the numerous other layers of oppressive discourse preventing the breach from being generalised. However, this leaves open the possibility of other kinds of challenge, based on what Gramsci terms "war of position". The general network of oppressive discourse is subject to constant breaches at various points, which can become a lever for a political and pedagogic process of consolidating opposition to oppressive discourses in general. The mechanisms of control can be offset when individuals or groups engage in careful analysis of whichever cases of oppression they have already rejected, and the formal similarities between different systems of oppression give such general critique a corrosive power against the social system as a whole. Further, the existence of numerous apparently minor breaches creates constant difficulties for all the various systems of oppression, and creates the possibility for effective challenges to emerge at various points, as attempts to increase control come up against rival discourses.

Gleichschaltung: Dominant institutions often try to consolidate systems of control and oppression by extending their reach into whatever spaces are not within their control. In Nazi Germany, this process was known by the term "Gleichschaltung", an analogy with processes where someone attempts to push an electric flow through a resistant material. I use the term more broadly, to refer to attempts to actualise relations of domination by pushing official edicts into everyday life. Gleichschaltung involves some combination of the destruction of alternative spaces, the overcoding of everyday relations, and the active territoralisation of social spaces. Gleichschaltung is usually confronted by resistenz (see Resistance section).

Transformism: Transformism is a process which prevents the emergence of challenges to existing systems of control by 'beheading' movements which could challenge such systems. It involves offering various concessions, sometimes including conditions of power, to leaders of opposition movements - on condition that these leaders partly break with the demands of their own movement or that they act as a moderating force on this movement, preventing its critical and transformative potential from developing.

Atidesa: From a Sanskrit term, this term is used in Ranajit Guha's term to refer to a way in which oppressive (and resisting) discourses can reinforce each other. It operates by establishing an equivalence between two or more relations (for instance, "apprentice is to master as child is to parent"). As long as one of the relations is accepted, and as long as they are structurally similar, this process can use a form of oppression in one field to expand oppression into other fields. Attacks on libertarian and democratic demands on the grounds that they are like "lunatics taking over the asylum" is a good example of the use of atidesa to legitimate oppression.

Articulation: Laclau's concept of articulation refers to how identity-categories and other discursive phenomena can be interlinked in political projects. Articulation is not necessarily oppressive. However, oppressive discourses, embedded in particular identity-categories, can be concealed or legitimated by being linked to other categories, which need not themselves be oppressive. This may be the root of displacement phenomena, whereby those who are oppressed by one group (eg. capitalists) mistakenly blame another (eg. Jews or black people). Such displacements can occur if a situational identity involving frustration (eg. "ordinary person") is linked to the oppressor-pole of the relation in which the frustration originates (eg. "nation", and therefore, linked to national bourgeoisie), and also to an oppressed-pole of an artificially-constructed discourse, perhaps drawn from a different relation of oppression (eg. white-black).

Decontestation: Another value-neutral term, this time from Michael Freeden. Decontestation involves attaching situationally-specific meanings to high-level abstract terms. It is not necessarily oppressive, but its use is a necessary part of the functioning of discourses such as boo- and hurrah-words.


Source: Derived from George Orwell's concepts of "Newspeak" and "Doublethink". My account of it is derived partly from Herbert Marcuse (especially "One-Dimensional Man" and "Essay on Liberation").

What is it?: Doublespeak is a general term for a number of related forms of discourse which have at least two crucial components: 1) they operate on the basis of a strong binary opposition (eg. war/peace) and 2) they simultaneously claim to express both poles, or assert their identity ("war=peace"). Since language is a system of differences, doublespeak is a way of refusing to allow a linguistic existence to anything outside a particular discourse by reducing difference to a strong binary and then claiming to express both poles of the binary. Operationalism, substitutionism and escalation are in many ways variants of doublespeak, although there are other examples which do not fall into these categories.

Doublespeak occurs rarely in its most literal form (such as "war=peace"), but is often present via more subtle versions of the same phenomenon. Claims that a war is also a humanitarian intervention, or that war is a means to pacification, are basically assertions that war and peace are identical, albeit in slightly disguised form. Doublespeak as an oppressive discourse is not the same as challenging or deconstructing a binary; it is restricted to those cases where the binary remains active but is simultaneously identified. Sometimes, doublespeak operates through the device of Smallest Marginal Difference, in which oppositions are trapped by being reduced to two vehemently opposed but almost identical entities (cf. Baudrillard).

There are also other distinct but related forms of oppressive discourse, such as dual language which operates by classifying one set of phenomena under several different labels while asserting each label to be merely a descriptive term for the phenomena. Usually, the several terms have different normative implications, and the pretence at their descriptive application is repressive, since the act of applying one or another term is arbitrary on a descriptive level. eg. liberty/license, authority/despotism, justice/vengeance. Similarly, vice-concepts operate like the tool I have named them after, closing in upon a supposedly correct space by means of anathemas directed in both directions (Barthes's "neither-norism" - see Mythologies). Since the two poles are more-or-less adequate for descriptive purposes, the middle term becomes arbitrary and assertive, despite its claim to be located in an opposition with the two 'extremes'. Example: "tyranny" versus "anarchy". (This critique only applies to uses of neither-nor which use a continuum model, not to neither-nor approaches which use more than two poles).

What's wrong with it?: Doublespeak is a highly illogical form of discourse. Its basic structure is logically inconsistent, and its simultaneous reliance on and negation of formal logic is similar to Bateson's descriptions of the double-bind. Doublespeak is not open to empirical evidence, since any proof (eg. of war or peace) is compatible with its terms.

Doublespeak operates to appropriate and thereby close language. It imposes voicelessness both explicitly, by refusing opponents the use of either pole of a binary, and implicitly, by placing limits on the range of phenomena language is able to express and constraining language-use within the limits of existing institutions.

Examples: Examples of doublespeak are surprisingly widespread. For instance: David Blunkett, after September 11th, expressed the view that attacks on civil liberties are really a defence, rather than a limitation, of freedom (ostensibly on the grounds that the threat to freedom is primarily from the outside). When America started bombing Afghanistan, the U.N. asserted America's right to 'attack' in 'self-defence'. Freedom and repression, attack and defence operate as strong binaries in their usual usage, and in all of these cases, at least one pole has to be taken in the sense of a strong binary for the statement to make sense. However, both statements assert the identity of the two poles.


Source: Herbert Marcuse, "One Dimensional Man"

What is it?: Operationalism - a term Marcuse draws from an actual school of thought, but extends to similar discourse elsewhere - involves a syntax which abridges and condenses the structure of sentences in such a way that 'no tension, no "space" is left between the parts of the sentence' (1DM p86). It involves an abridging of language whereby concepts are made equivalent with a corresponding set of operations, and names of things are treated as identical with their manner of functioning (86-7). In operationalist discourse, word-usage is expected to fit with a limited, standardised set of routine behaviours (87). In it, names become tyrants: 'the functionalization of language expresses an abridgement of meaning which has a political connotation. The names of things are not only "indicative of their manner of functioning", but their (actual) manner of functioning also defines and "closes" the meaning of the thing, excluding other manners of functioning. The noun governs the sentence in an authoritarian and totalitarian fashion, and the sentence becomes a declaration to be accepted - it repels demonstration, qualification, negation of its codified and declared meaning' (p87).

Via this kind of linguistic structure, one gets an Orwellian discourse (doublespeak), but with the contradictory claim (eg. "peace is war") enclosed in the noun. The "syntax of abridgement", built around catchphrases and soundbites, allows this by fusing opposites, such as "clean bomb" and "harmless fall-out" (89). The overtly Orwellian instances are "extreme creations of a normal style" (89). According to Marcuse, operationalism reduces the tension between thought and reality by weakening the negative power of thought (104). For instance, operationalism defuses potential tensions between managers and workers by extracting complaints from workers, redefining them in operational terms, and then meeting the (now defused) demand, thereby arresting workers' demands before they can be articulated to broader projects (109-11). In political science, operationalism prevents criticisms of existing systems.

For instance, democracy defined operationally is identified with particular existing regimes; this is achieved simply by dismissing other definitions as "unrealistic". As a result, attempts to test whether a particular regime is 'democratic' become self-validating and tautological. The analysis of democracy is locked into a set of facts, excluding the discussion of their context. 'If "democratic" is defined in the limited but realistic terms of the actual process of election, then this process is democratic prior to the results of an investigation... [An] election can be more or less democratic according to the ascertained degree of consent and manipulation... [but research] cannot raise the decisive question whether the consent itself was not the work of manipulation' (116). Marcuse eerily foresees the recent Goldhagen controversy when he remarks that such ap|proaches would render fascism a form of democratic consent (118).

What's wrong with it?: Operationalism creates voicelessness by the back-door, denying potential opponents the vocabulary in which to formulate dissent. As Marcuse argues, official discourse closes itself and, by openly displaying its self-contradictions, it denies others the right word to criticise it. The abridged form of language it involves imposes upon its users the abridged and slanted meaning, limited content, and normative conformism it carries. Further, the technical or soundbite character of its language associates words so hypnotically with a particular context that other uses of words become unthinkable (89-91). Operationalism involves a 'repressive reduction of thought' which reduces thought to the present (108), and its tendencies in interpersonal relations are towards therapeutic approaches which analyse individuals in relation to their behavioural adjustment to the existing society (107). It is also repressive in the sense of concealing its context and the power-relations which structure its subject-matter. For instance, operationalised definitions of 'political activity' frequently ignore links between businesspeople and governments, the effects of officially 'unpolitical' communication processes and the differential impacts of particular organisations (119).

Operationalism tends to render opponents voiceless by monopolising and incorporating language, closing the space of discussion (so that any alternative conceptions which emerge tend to occur beyond a space of discussion with the existing system and its supporters), and creating a shell of tautology and self-contradiction which tends to repel criticism. Furthermore, the 'things' which operationalism defines functionally include human beings, whose role is thereby delimited. Voicelessness is induced by the constant connection of a right to speak to the adoption of a function or role. Also, the limits placed on non-human objects by their exclusively functional definition act as a restriction on human creative capacities. Instead of opening possibilities for creative action, or occurring (as in Deleuze) as points in flows between people and the world, things become inert representatives of the existing order, limiting rather than enabling creativity. Also, operationalism appears to be the main oppressive discourse operative in relation to the environment and animals. The reduction of things to functions is an extremely ecocidal approach, and also a dangerous one (since characteristics of particular objects which overflow their functional use are simply ignored, leading to disasters).

Examples: Operationalist vocabularies continue to grow and flourish. There is an entire self-validating rhetoric of neo-liberal economics used by international businesspeople and organisations such as the WTO and IMF. Characterised by terms such as "structural adjustment", "good governance", "restructuring", "economic liberalisation", "downsizing" and "flexibility", this vocabulary is able to 'prove' the validity of neo-liberal economics without any reference to the actual effects of neo-liberal policies.

Military language remains a major source of operationalist terms, including overtly contradictory ones. Terms such as "friendly fire", "humanitarian intervention", and "collateral damage" are good examples of the kind of term Marcuse discusses, since they are constructed completely within a set of functions.


Source: Various, including Cohen, "Folk Devils and Moral Panics" and Hall et al, "Policing the Crisis"

What is it?: Moral panics arise in the context of existing discourses of invalidation and anathematisation. A strong anathema, either a new one or an existing but vague one, is decontested or invented to describe a supposedly new, or growing, phenomenon, usually by the media or politicians. A continual rate of a particular activity, or a minor incident of little significance, or occasionally a serious but isolated incident, is turned into a symbol of a general threat of breakdown, which is blamed on symbolic enemies, "folk devils" (Cohen), usually drawn from existing categories of quasi-invalidated groups (the young, anathematised ethnics groups, real or imagined deviant subcultures, foreigners, etc.). A moral panic tends to be self-escalating once initiated; for instance, media concern triggers politicians to become involved, and politicians instruct police to be on the lookout for activities fitting the model of the panic's core anathema. Media and police concern usually leads to a big increase in reported and recorded instances of acts fitting the anathema (especially since the latter is usually vague and its application is extended), which reinforces the spiral of panic. Moral panics usually die down after the introduction of new laws or the passing of 'exemplary' sentences, although some are intermittent and are revived at intervals (eg. "terrorism" scares), and a few continue to operate until they self-destruct (eg. McCarthyism).

Moral panics lead to the victimisation of anyone who is, or can plausibly (or even implausibly) be labelled as, a member of the "folk-devil" group. There is often a witch-hunt against members of this group, who are victimised through public ostracism and condemnation, media vilification, "exemplary" punishments by the state, and/or reprisals in other fields (eg. losing one's job). Panics may focus on a real but ongoing problem given sudden, extraordinary status (eg. child abuse), or an imagined crisis generated within simulatory discourses (eg. the 'flood' of asylum seekers).

What's wrong with it?: Moral panics operate in such a way as to create a climate of fear. The core target of the panic, which is usually a group which is already vilified and excluded to some extent, become a focus for persecution, which is often excessive even by usual official standards. This group is rendered even more voiceless than usual by the climate of hostility, while critics of a moral panic are often drowned out or even directly punished for falling outside the repressive "we" a panic creates. Moral panics often lead to, or act as a cover for, repressive laws, policies and crackdowns. Attempts by the police to generate a moral panic in the run-up to Mayday 2001 were almost certainly a calculated attempt to build up support for police repression and violence on the day. Many of the most repressive laws - in Britain, for instance, the Criminal Justice Act, the Anti-Terrorism Act and the Public Order Act, as well as the unworkable Child Support and Dangerous Dogs acts - were brought in during moral panics. Moral panics can also operate as repressive discourse, deflecting attention from and sometimes even threatening those who concentrate on problems other than those highlighted in the panic; this means that energy generated by (for instance) an economic crisis can be turned harmlessly against out-groups or even against dissidents who point out the crisis. Moral panics are the exceptional, explosive form of the general climate of fear which is constituted by the phenomenon of character-armour, with the same kind of logic of exclusion taken towards its logical conclusion.

Examples: The concept of "moral panic" has been fairly widely used in sociological works, which have revealed panics around a number of issues: Mods and Rockers (directed at young people), mugging (directed at young people and black people), drug use, the peace movement, football 'hooliganism', and others. Panics during the 1980s and early 1990s included ones against rave and acid house music, single parents, benefit fraud, and others. Recent panics have targeted among others anti-capitalists, 'terrorism', child abuse, and most frequently, asylum seekers. The logic of moral panics seems to have been normalised in areas such as education policy, with repeated mini-panics about 'discipline', 'failing teachers', 'failing schools' and the like. The earlier phenomenon of sudden, spectacular panics may now have been replaced by a steadier, more regular, but equally menacing crackdown culture, with rapid-pace identification and victimisation of folk devils parallelling similar processes elsewhere in the world of information flows.

The dominance of oppressive discourse is not inevitable; rather, it is constantly contested by those who are potentially rendered voiceless by it, those who are in solidarity with this group, and people who see through particular oppressive forms of discourse, either generally or in particular cases. The perpetual contestation of the boundaries of oppressive discourse means that the use of particular discourses in particular areas is tentative; the relation between the discourses and particular fields of activity is shifting and often conflictual; and the boundaries of exclusion change over time. Also, the existence of more-or-less permanent resistance to oppressive discourse provides a basis for the development of struggles and strategies with the potential to overcome oppressive discourse and oppression in general. As Scott's research shows, the development of challenges to systems of oppression emerges from the radicalisation of existing petty resistances, and not as a metaphysical refusal emerging ex nihilo.

It is therefore important to examine particular fields of resistance which impede the operation of oppressive discourses in everyday life.

Drift, Becoming-Other

Matza's study "Delinquency and Drift" shows how actions which are usually classified as deviant can emerge from within dominant belief-systems through different interpretations and applications. This leads to a process of transition in which people can move away from dominant beliefs in a cumulative way. In my view, drift does not represent merely a weakening of dominant beliefs, but rather, a tendency of development towards an alternative mode of thought and action (which is not to say that all drift is good). A similar dynamic is involved in Deleuze and Guattari's concepts of becoming-other (becoming-animal, becoming-woman, etc.) which suggest that people can develop away from dominant conceptions of the world by appropriating identities, attributes and actions of groups defined as 'minority' within the existing system. This can weaken the hold of dominant structures and set in motion processes of deterritorialisation.

Good Sense

As Antonio Gramsci rightly notes, common sense as a whole is a multiform, confused and contradictory set of ideas irreducible to unity even in a single consciousness. Most of the beliefs and practices it involves are complicit in or controlled by dominant systems of oppression; common sense racism, for instance, is the main source of racist practices in societies controlled by nominally multiculturalist states. However, some elements within common sense and everyday beliefs are not of this kind. Precisely because common sense is so confused and contradictory, some of its elements offer visions and potentialities of change for the better. Alternative conceptions, arising in contradiction to dominant discursive systems, can arise from sources as diverse as personal 'experiences' which contradict official claims, communities of solidarity established at a local or workplace level, the results of counterhegemonic practices by opposition groups, and the syncretic use of aspects of dominant belief-systems. This set of potentially progressive beliefs within everyday life, which Gramsci terms 'good sense', is the discursive root of most everyday resistances to dominant discourses. While it is at present undeveloped and largely subordinate to pro-system aspects of common sense, it provides a space of translatability through which a progressive pedagogic practice could elaborate a new conception of the world and overcome common sense.

Hidden and Public Transcripts

James Scott's theory of resistance, developed from empirical study of peasant belief-systems, involves the existence of two distinct systems of theory and practice among subaltern strata. The public transcript is a nominal shared space in which subaltern people communicate with the powerful. Subaltern participation in this space is typified by parodic performances and grudging conformity. The hidden transcript, however, which arises when subaltern strata are able to make themselves invisible to the powerful, is more overtly hostile to existing power-relations, and generates overt acts of resistance. When open challenges to elite power emerge, they result from hidden transcripts entering the 'public' space. Goffman's work also emphasises the importance of concealment as a way of resisting control.


"Resistenz" is a term coined by historians of Nazi Germany to describe a wide variety of practices of petty and partial resistance in everyday life, resistances which were very widespread in Nazi Germany (and also in the U.S.S.R. and similar regimes). Distinct from "Widerstand", resistance of the overt, immediately political type, the concept of "resistenz" is based on an analogy to the resistance of objects to electrical flows. Since the dominant mode of control in 'totalitarian' societies involes gleichschaltung - the attempt to push flows through institutions and into everyday life - resistenz is well-suited to limit the effects of official control. Like hidden transcripts, resistenz provides a basis for activities which can be extended into generalised resistance, as eventually happened in the Stalinist countries, Francoist Spain and today in Iran. Resistenz basically involves using unofficial "trenches and fieldworks" of everyday life as an insulation against official power (whereas glechschaltung turns them into extensions of the state). cf. Vaneigem (Rev. of Everyday Life, p. 130): 'Roles are eroded by the resistance put up by lived experience, and spontaneity will eventually lance the abscess of inauthenticity and pseudo-activity'.

Atidesa, Articulation

Atidesa and articulation are strategies common to discourses of oppression and discourses of resistance/emancipation. Articulation of different fields of resistance to each other is a crucial means of linking together instances of resistenz into a more generalised resistance. Atidesa between different forms of discourse which resist or refuse particular oppressive forms produces a general rejection of oppressive discourse. For instance, "rule by the people is like lunatics taking over the asylum" can be reversed into "dictatorship by psychiatrists is like dictatorship by tyrants".


Gramsci states that a new society must be "ideally active" in the minds of those who fight for it, before it can be realised in practice. Imagination, which constitutes the possibility of the "not-real", is a central part of the development of resistance, since it provides a counterpoint to the various logics of limitation, impossibility, and reduction of thought to the present which characterise oppressive discourse.

Fused Group, Rhizomatic Networks

The Sartrean model of a "fused group", which emerges directly from self-other equivalence in a struggle against a particular form of oppression, and the Deleuzian concept of rhizomatic multitudes, linked by numerous horizontal connections without reference to a 'shared' core, express two ways of conceiving the possibility of developing forms of social discourse which are not bound by a repressive "we" or by other oppressive discourses. The formation of networks and relationships of this type is therefore subversive of the operation of oppressive discourse.

Towards Emancipation

The possibility of a better world requires a generalised challenge to all oppressive forms of discourse, as well as the oppressive social relations which they express/cause/embody. The various discourses of resistance show the possibility in principle of developing alternative modes of thinking and acting which do not rely on oppressive discourse. Strategies to overcome oppressive discourse should therefore concentrate on mobilising, elaborating, expanding and developing such resistant forms into a more comprehensive rejection of oppressive discourse. The existence of apparently purely negative resistances, such as resistenz and drift, implies the existence, at least 'ideally', of conceptions of something to be defended or promoted against particular oppressive discourses. This 'something' should be elaborated into a general challenge to oppression.

Strategies for extending resistances and overcoming oppressive discourse need to vary between the different forms. Many oppressive forms of discourse operate at the level of language, and others exist in many people's lives only in a linguistically-mediated balance with their partial rejection. In such cases, the overcoming of oppressive discourse requires the development of a pedagogic practice directed at overcoming existing beliefs by developing conceptual abilities to enable people to critique common sense and oppressive discourse. This requires the formation of organic intellectuals - people linked emotionally and cognitively to the subaltern strata, and committed to overcoming oppression by elaborating the resistant discourse of such strata - although it is important that such a practice should be mutual, that 'the educator is also educated', and that the relation does not become a new form of oppression, either of the oppressed by the organic intellectuals (elitism), or of the organic intellectuals by the commonsensical discourse of the oppressed (populism).

However, while some forms of discourse (eg. deagentification and naturalisation) are vulnerable to evidence and/or critique, others are not in the first instance linguistic (eg. terror, character-armour), and some of those which are linguistic operate in such a way as to preclude linguistic challenge (eg. invalidation, fetishism, impositional discourse, form-imposition, repressive tolerance). Furthermore, many of the former kind of discourse operate as 'rationalisations' within oppressive systems in which the latter types of discourse also operate to restrict or preclude linguistic responses. As Marx points out in relation to fetishism, the character of a discourse as misunderstanding does not prevent it from operating in an apparently material fashion, and challenges must therefore extend into 'reality' and not restrict themselves to linguistic critique. Simultaneously with the use of persuasion, pedagogy and dialogue to overcome oppressive discourse, people should also try to develop a strategy of disruption of the functioning of the less linguistic and more dogmatic types of oppressive discourse. Often, for instance, impositional discourse depends on the practical ability to impose a particular territorialisation on reality; resistances, both partial and general, to such territorialisation therefore pose a threat to the impositional form of discourse, which becomes more and more implausible the more its power-basis deteriorates.

Responses to oppressive discourse should therefore be multiple and layered. The operation of particular forms in the discourse of a particular person or group can be established, or at least estimated, empirically, and careful examination of particular discourses is a prerequisite to effectively overcoming them. One should not assume that any particular person or group is necessarily free from, or trapped by, particular forms of discourse.


Source: Cornelius Castoriadis, Trevor Pateman, Benedict Anderson

What it is?: Discourses which construct impossibility as an atemporal, extra-historical absolute are multiple in form. I have chosen the term 'negative imaginaries' to denote those forms which restrict thought through imaginary representations of absoluteness built into the imaginative, creative and fictive practices which structure involement in present institutions. Similar to Castoriadis's concept of a socially instituting imaginary, but different in the sense that it posits limits to rather than possibilities of the social, a negative imaginary operates to close discursive space by imagining anything beyond it to be impossible, threatening or undesirable. It operates on the level of imagination (i.e. distinct from empirical assessment of proposed alternatives, and determinant of the outcome of such assessments). There is also a related form of discourse which operates within overt language, related to naturalisation, eternalisation and reification, which posits impossibility directly (impossibilising discourse?).

Trevor Pateman also refers to a number of ways in which people can be encouraged out of the use of particular linguistic or cognitive abilities (Language, Truth and Politics p68). ' "Thought control" and control over possible action can be achieved not just by the unvaried repetition of the same ideological message, but also by making it impossible for a person to understand certain sorts of message' (p68). People can be confined to particular kinds of world-views, not by choice, but by an ignorance of, or incapacity to understand and therefore assess, alternatives (p69). Blocks may be placed on the development of a vocabulary in which alternatives could be understood (p71), discursive orderings can be confused (p74-5) and concepts can be contracted into descriptive terms or impeded by doublespeak (p71). Intermediary levels of conceptualisation can go missing, leading to short-circuits between high-level normative abstractions and individual instances (p79). At its simplest, 'impossible discourse' is an absence, not a discourse (i.e. a reference to the absence of substantial political vocabulary among ordinary people), but what makes it an oppressive form is that the absence is constructed by a series of mechanisms of education and propaganda which prevent, impede or limit the development of such a vocabulary and which conceal knowledge of its absence (for, while people may be aware of their relative ignorance of physics, most assume knowledge of politics, society, etc.).

What's wrong with it?: The barriers which make particular discourse impossible are directly repressive of such discourse. Making political discourse impossible is a way of excluding ordinary people from effective participation in politics. As Paolo Freire argues, subaltern strata are oppressed because they are denied the right, and the ability, to 'speak their own word'. Blocking the development of vocabularies is a means of keeping people in a state of subordination.

'Impossible discourse' is also exclusionary towards individuals and groups who have already broken with dominant conceptions and developed their own vocabulary. Such groups come up against perpetual barriers and hurdles in trying to persuade others to adopt their views - hurdles far in excess of those which are present in most dialogical situations as a barrier to manipulation, and which extend into a blockage on political activity. Also, people whose development of a vocabulary is blocked will use whatever vocabulary they have available to express their demands and experiences. The absent political vocabulary may be replaced by vocabularies drawn from existing elites, massified prejudices and the media, producing manipulability and a variety of actions against excluded groups mistakenly blamed for problems. Those denied their own 'word' become agents in the process of denying a 'word' to others.

Example: 'There is no alternative' was a core slogan of Thatcherism. Justifications of the present war in Afghanistan also frequently operate on the basis of 'no alternative'. The absence of a vocabulary in which to conceive alternatives, or the existence of imagined limits on the possible established in line with the existing system, thereby become positive justifications for particular actions.


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