Ernesto Laclau, 1991, Intellectual Strategies; Memorandum to PhD Students in the IDA Programme*, Essex University

Laclau headshot

There are two misconceptions that have to be carefully avoided when writing a PhD thesis in the IDA programme. These I will call: (a) the myth of the case study; (b) the myth of “methodology”.

The myth of the case study
This consists of the assumption that there is something such as a “theoretical framework” that one applies to some particular empirical material. In actual fact, such an application is not an entirely invalid exercise: it is what one expects from a good MA dissertation, in which the student has to show that he/she has understood a theoretical approach and knows how to relate it, in a preliminary fashion, to the analysis of a concrete situation. But this is totally insufficient in a PhD thesis, which is only successful if it manages to overcome the relation of exteriority between “theoretical approach” and “case study”. If this subversion of the separation between the two aspects does not take place, one could end in a situation in which the theoretical chapters of all the theses could be the same and the only difference would be given by the cases to which the applied – the application becoming an exceedingly mechanical and boring exercise. A successful thesis is one that advances both at the theoretical level and at the level of the concrete analysis. Wittgenstein’s assertion that there is no “application” of a rule because the instance of the application is internal to the rule itself and, as a consequence, transforms the latter, is fully valid as a guiding principle for writing a thesis.

How should this process work in practice? There are various aspects here:
1. The most important aspect refers to the acquisition and development of a theoretical perspective. Here the main danger is what we could call “widespread superficial acquaintance with a field” – eg. To read one chapter Foucault, one book by Derrida, an essay by Barthes, a resume of Hegel’s philosophy, etc. In other words, to be a jack of all trades and master of none. This kind of reading – which is unavoidable when one is following courses – has to be resolutely abandoned when one develops the theoretical perspective of a thesis. The centre of the latter has to be the study in depth of a few fundamental texts, which will be different in each thesis. Without the effort and discipline which requires going through complex and fundamental texts, a thesis will be necessarily superficial.

2. In the three to four year period which the student has to complete a thesis, there is in most cases time to read in depth only one main author. By reading in depth I mean: (i) going to his/her texts over and over again each time asking more complex questions; (ii) to exhaust the secondary literature concerning that author; (iii) to locate the author in the intellectual background in which he/she is writing. Now, it is essential that from the beginning that reading is an intertextual reading. There is no way of constructing a meaning for a text except by comparing it with other texts. My advice is to have two other authors, apart from the main one, who are read less in depth but enough to let them operate as solid points of comparison. Let us suppose, as an example, that the main author chosen is Derrida, and that the two secondary authors are Wittgenstein and Hegel. One can start asking questions to the Derridean texts in terms of the two author’s problematics and try to think of what the answers of the original texts would be; whether they could be constructed in terms of the latter as valid questions or not and why, etc. Through this lateral questioning concealed assumptions of the Derridean text can become visible. In that way, the apparent self-reference and closeness of the original texts start to melt away and the latter show to be, instead the place of contingent and plural strategies.

3. But the decisive point is to realise that this deconstruction of the text through intertextual strategies, operates exactly the same way as far as the relation between the “case study” and the “theoretical framework” is concerned. A thesis in discourse analysis does not proceed through the formulation of hypotheses that one tries to test with “facts” (whatever that means), but through the reconstruction of discursive sequences governing the action of social actors, which are at the same level as the discursive sequences that constitute the theoretical framework. Let us suppose that we start a thesis with a notion of “constitutive outside” as presented in deconstruction, on the one hand, and with the discourses of Latin American populism, on the other. This is the point where the intertextual game starts. Through the category of “constitutive outside” some aspects some aspects of Latin American populism will become visible but, if there is no instance of “application” of a rule which is not internal to the rule itself, it is impossible that Latin American populism will not make visible some aspects of the category of “constitutive outside” as well. When this intertextual game has operated in both directions, the distinction between the theoretical and the empirical collapses. This is the moment in which the thesis is finished.

As far as the original theoretical framework is concerned, this process of mutual illumination can adopt two forms. The first, to show new distinctions that are not merely empirical but logical possibilities of the framework which had not been previously perceived. The second, to de-centre the original framework. Let us suppose that by comparing the discursive sequences of some political discourses in Cambodia one makes visible that the coherence of the Rousseauian discourse on the general will depends on some unexpressed social assumptions which apply only to the European situation in the XVIIIth century. In that case, The Rousseauian discourse will lose its centrality and will become one possibility among many others, to which no a priori privilege should be attributed.

4. As can be seen, the expanding space of an intertextuality has no possible limits, given that no new discursive sequence can fail to illuminate new aspects of the previous discourses. An intellectual life progresses on the basis of constantly expanding the horizon of intertextuality. As far as the IDA theses are concerned, some “family resemblances” between them will certainly exist, given that there are some theoretical references likely to be present in the work of all students, but as far as the other components of the space of intertextuality will be different in each case, each theoretical framework will constitute an exclusive intellectual universe.

The myth of methodology
There is a widespread opinion that there is a spread of orderly procedures to be followed in carrying out any particular research. Nothing could be more erroneous. The specificity of each case and the “language games” that one wants to play within it will decide how one should proceed. If anyone has any illusions concerning methodology, my advice is to read P Feyerabend’s “Against Method”, which will dispel them very quickly. This is not to say that methods don not exist for the treatment of the material which could be useful in some circumstances in dealing with the latter – logic of argumentation, rhetorics, syntactic and semantic analysis, theory of enunciation, etc. But the important point is that these are tools that the researcher can decide ad hoc to use in each case for pragmatic reasons, and that they are not unified in an established and orderly system of procedures called “methodology”. A lot of time will be saved if the researcher knows from the beginning that nothing can substitute his/her personal intuition.

There is, behind my preceding points, a certain intellectual strategy which could be characterized as a systematic exercise in de-centering. I want to refer briefly to two dimensions of this exercise.
1. There is, in the first place, a de-centering of the privileged place of philosophical discourse vis-à-vis other kinds of discursive construction. The theoretical framework no longer has the status of a “superhard transcendentality”, separated in terms of an essence/accident distinction from the case study. On the one hand, political discourses have an internal complexity which is no less than that of the discourses of philosophy; on the other, the discourse of Philosophy cannot be constituted without some “accidental” assumptions. To show these assumptions is to de-center the discourse of Philosophy vis-à-vis itself – ie. vis-à-vis its ambitions to constitute a ground. The kind of exercise that I am suggesting proposes, consequently, that each thesis, – whether it refers to South Africa, Islam, the military regime in Argentina or to black politics in Britain – should be a contribution to the radical deconstruction of the dichotomies through which the metaphysics of presence constitutes itself.

2. The de-centering which is the result of the deconstruction of a dichotomy is a very different exercise from the dialectical inversion of the latter. Let us suppose a third-worldist discourse which operates fully within the West/Third World dichotomy: here there is no de-centering of the West; in making it a negative pole within an exclusive alternative, its central position is reinforced and the contingent character of the articulations that have constituted its unity is even more concealed. To show clearly these articulations is a discourse analysis in the deconstructive sense.

18 June 1991

  • * The Ideology and Discourse Analysis Programme at Essex University.
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