Media as Discourse – Lacau and Mouffe’s social constructivism ‘message without a medium’

In a follow up to a previous post on Deleuze and Guattari’s third major group of strata – alloplastic strata – I will now critique LacLau and Mouffe’s social constructivism. In general, while I see the merits of discourse analysis, I cannot but help feel it is a limited approach to understanding how the world is literally constructed, which is a limitation found in other forms of social constructivism.  The aim of considering Deleuze and Guattari’s model, or diagram, of stratification is it offers one a way out of language-dependent understanding of how the world is constructed and a more comprehensive idea of articulation. Hopefully, Deleuze and Guattari can help to demonstrate the limitations of Laclau and Mouffe specifically and social constructivism in general. 


            Laclau and Mouffe’s discourse analysis is an example postmodern theorising that insists on what Derrida terms as the structural undecidability of the social. Laclau and Mouffe do no deny that there is meaning and grounds in ‘social life.’ Instead, their point is the social lacks a foundational centre, or transcendental signifier. This lack within the social allows for an infinite play of meaning and different forms of articulation to co-exist and compete with one another. This is what Laclau and Mouffe, in Derridean terminology, refer to as the structural undecidability of the social.  To demonstrate the structural undecidability of the social Laclau and Mouffe embrace deconstruction as a methodology and adopt the view that everything can be regarded as a text (in the Derridian sense of text). In a deconstructionist reading a double reading of a text is preformed. It is at this point the text is thought to contain a discourse. The first reading of the text is faithful and attempts to follow the dominant interpretation. The second reading is unfaithful; attempting to find what is excluded, neglected, and repressed within the text. It is the second reading that is crucial for undercutting the first reading, demonstrating how the dominant interpretation depends on what it excludes. Ultimately, LacLau and Mouffe’s deconstruction is a textual analysis, and argues that any object can be discursively constructed. How then do Laclau and Mouffe define a discourses?

            Overall, a discourse is defined as a ‘differential ensemble of signifying sequences in which meaning is constantly renegotiated.’ Discourses, in Deleuzian terminology, are regimes of statements that attempt to signify and give meaning to the world. For example, there are neo-liberal discourses that are composed of statements (regimes of signs) that contain views about trade, freedom, human rights, states, and so on. These (multiple) neo-liberal discourses function to give meaning to social life and compete with other discourses to achieve dominance in a discursive field. It is this attempt, and tendency, of discourses to dominant discursive fields that allows Laclau and Mouffe to discuss the practice of articulation.

            On the whole, articulation (and especially hegemonic articulation) seeks to define meaning within a discursive field. Articulation acts to both modify and fixed identities. A Caribbean example can help explain the process of articulation. Imagine a newspaper reporter was asked to compose a summary of the Jamaican sprinters performance in the Beijing Olympics. What is being asked of the reporter is for a regime of statements to be produced that articulate how the sprinters’ performed. LacLau and Mouffe’s structural undecidability and infinite play is evident from there being no ‘correct’ way to articulate the sprinters’ performance. Theoretically, a multitude (even infinite) ways of articulation are available for the reporter. What could emerge is a dominant/hegemonic discourse in the discursive field. For example, the reporter, and other media, might predominantly articulate the success of the Jamaican sprinters through focusing on Usian Bolt. The effect of this dominant discourse would restrict, repress, and neglect other forms of articulation that become marginal discourses. The Jamaican women sprinters, for example, could become marginalised as the dominant articulation of the Jamaican sprinters is a discourse constructed on the ‘nodal point’ of Usain Bolt.

            The aim of Laclau and Mouffe deconstructionist discourse analysis is to reveal the dominate discourse in a discursive field (first reading) and identify what is excluded in the articulations of these dominant discourses (second reading). In terms of media analysis LacLau and Mouffe offer a textual/deconstructionist method that concentrates on the ‘messages’ (articulation) within the media. The major problem Laclau and Mouffe’s discourse analysis is it fails to move beyond a language-centred approach and remains in what Frederic Jameson refers to as the ‘prison-house of language.‘ Despite defenders claiming that Laclau and Mouffe are not reductionists, their approach has little to say about the content (i.e. first articulation) in the stratification process. It is for this reason that LacLau and Mouffe are idealists.

            It would be error to agree with Norman Gera’s claim that LacLau and Mouffe are invoking a shamefaced idealism. However, it would also be an error to claim that LacLau and Mouffe’s discourse analysis is a path towards a non-idealist constructivism. Instead it would be more appropriate to label LacLau and Mouffe as idealist because their discourse analysis concentrates on how interpretations and meanings are given to the world from humans. This is their ‘constructivist idealism’ and is based upon the argument that objects (or the world) do not reveal their meaning to us in a direct and automatic fashion; their meaning has to be given and articulated. Laclau and Mouffe’s discourse analysis is therefore interested on how meaning is socially articulated and given to the world. Unlike Deleuze and Guattari, Laclau and Mouffe are more concerned with discourse than they are about geology (inorganic), biology (organic), and technology (alloplastic). It is for this reason that Laclau and Mouffe are not radical constructivists and remain social constructivists. Their discourse analysis can only explain the construction of the world when there is discourses and articulation of meaning. Deleuze and Guattari radical constructivism moves beyond this limitation, evident in their abstract diagram of stratification, and account for how construction of the world occurs geologically, biologically and socially. A radical constructivist approach, therefore, does not ask what discourses are constructing the social and analyses what processes of stratification are constructing the world.

            An additional problem of Laclau and Mouffe is there structural undecidability and claims of an open (non-totalising) world are constructed on the impossibility of a discourse achieving complete dominance and closure. The objection is not against there position of structural undecidability, or there claim of an open world. Instead, the problem is Laclau and Mouffe cannot explain their positions outside the realms of discourse analysis. It is language, and the impossibility of meaning, that provides Laclau and Mouffe with evidence that the (social) world is structurally undecidable and open. In contrast, Deleuzian complexity theory, as a process ontology, offers a more complete, and convincing, account of structurally undecidability and openness of the world (and not only the social world), which is achieved from the incorporation of non-linear dynamics in DeLanda’s assemblage theory. Arguable, where Laclau and Mouffe only achieve openness and structural undecidability in language, Deleuzian complexity theory achieves a material openness and undecidability. [I explain is this material openness in another section, which will focus on Deleuze and complexity theory]

            Why is this problem? In terms of political transformation Laclau and Mouffe only provide a project that is interested in the politics of meaning. For Laclau and Mouffe the structural undecidability of the social provides the opportunity to transform and challenge dominant discourses. Politics is therefore about a fight over meaning and interpretation. However, LacLau and Mouffe’s (radical) political project is limited from concentrating the significance of meaning. DeLanda provides a critique of such social constructivist projects:


The reason such a change is important for members of a given movement is not because categories directly shape our perception (as social constructivists would have it) but because of unequal legal rights and obligations which are attached by government organisations to a given classification, as well as practices of exclusion, segregation and hoarding of opportunities which sort people out into ranked groups. Thus, activists trying to change a given category are not negotiating over meanings, as if changing the semantic content of a word automatically meant a real change in the opportunities and risks faced by a given social group, but over access to resources (income, education, health, services) and relief from constraints


The point of DeLanda’s critique is that political struggles are largely aimed as transforming the machinic intermingling of bodies and not only caught in a dispute about semantic meaning. Political struggle is not only the construction of new meanings, but, and more importantly, about the construction of new realities achieved from deterritorialisation and reterritorialisation. Struggles about racism, for example, were not only about the meaning of a categorical definition (black/white), but were about constructing new machinic assemblages of bodies where access to resources and relief from constraints was not hierarchically ranked in terms of ones race. It is because Deleuze and Guattari’s account for the intermingly of bodies in alloplastic strata that they offer a way out of LacLau and Mouffe’s politics of meanings, which is a language-oriented approach to politics. Deleuze and Guattari do not deny there are discourses in alloplastic strata (i.e. regime of signs), it is just that Deleuze and Guattari identify that the ‘social’ is more complex than is present in Laclau and Mouffe discourse analysis.

            Following DeLanda critique of social contrustivism I can also identify the constraints of LacLau and Mouffe’s discourse analysis when it comes to analysing technology. In McLuhanian terminology Laclau and Mouffe only provide a means to understand the message (i.e. expression) and not the medium (i.e. content). If the dissertation were to adopt Laclau and Mouffe’s discourse analysis it would fail to move beyond classifying technology as a text. This is a fundamental problem for any research that is attempting to examine technology. Technology, and specifically, media technology, is not merely mediums that disseminate meanings and discourses. It is important to recognize that new media technologies actualize a new reality (e.g. the simulation of virtual reality). Deleuze, in his book on foucault, refers to this as the construction of new visibilities. 

            Overall, Laclau and Mouffe provide an effective framework for achieving a discourse analysis of media. In terms of alloplastic strata, to a certain extent, Laclau and Mouffe can help for analysing the expressive components of alloplastic strata, providing the second articulation is a discourse. However, as the Google chapter illustrates, the second articulation is not always in the form of a discourse. It is at this point that Laclau and Mouffe ideas of articulation become ineffective and limited in comparison to Deleuze and Guattari’s defining articulation as (at least) a double articulation process. In conjunction, Laclau and Mouffe are unhelpful for understanding the content (first articulation) of alloplastic strata. Their language-centred discourse analysis fails to provide a method for analysing (media) technology and how it literally constructs the world from focusing on the messages and not the (material) mediums (e.g. the symbiotic relationships/assemblages formed with technology).  

See Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (London: Verso, 1985), Ernesto LacLau, New Reflections on the Revolution of Our Time (London: Verso, 1990), Jacob Torfing, New Theories of Discourse: LacLau, Mouffe, and Zizek (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999), and Martin, J. 2002. “The Political Logic of Discourse: A Neo-Gramscian View”. History of European Ideas. 28, 21-31

Jacob Torfing, New Theories of Discourse: Laclau, Mouffe, and Zizek (Oxford: Blackwell) p62

Jacob Torfing, New Theories of Discourse: Laclau, Mouffe and Zizek p65

Jacob Torfing, New Theories of Discourse: Laclau, Mouffe and Zizek p85

Cited in Mark Bonta & John Protevi, Deleuze and Geophilosophy: A Guide and Glossary p8

Norman Geras, “Post-Marxism?” New Left Review 163: 1987 40-82, p65

Jacob Torfing, New Theories of Discourse: LacLau, Mouffe, and Zizek p45

Manuel DeLanda, A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity p62