I believe that discourse analysis—as a theory and a practice—could and should be central to issues of justice, peace, and the many crises we face today.  However, this claim requires a reconceptualization of discourse analysis in terms that will please neither traditionalists nor postmodern relativists.  I want to engage in this reconceptualization in small steps, because the issues are complex, controversial, and easily misunderstood.  So here is Step 1 of what will be a continuing project.

Step 1

Imagine two early humans staring at a tree; let’s call them Eve and Adam (yes, the serpent is there, too).  Eve draws a picture of the tree in the sand with a stick—she is quite the artist, it turns out.  We could say that this picture is a “signifier” (or “symbol”) for the tree and that the tree is the thing “signified”.  But this is not a very useful signifier for communication, because it might blow away and, in any case, the tree and the picture are right there together.  Eve could have just pointed to the tree.

So, let’s say, Eve has paper (made from the bark of the Tree of Knowledge) and she draws a picture of the tree on the paper with some charcoal (this, too, from the Tree of Knowledge, which, it turns out, has burned down).  This is a better signifier for communication because Eve and Adam can take it away and use it to remember and communicate about the tree when the tree is no longer in sight.  Indeed, they could use the picture to remember and communicate about the tree even when it too has burned down and is gone forever. [Yes, we now have one of Bruno Latour’s “inscriptions” and we have Latourian “mobility”—we have “moved” the tree while still leaving it in place.  Latour reminds us that “we have never been modern,” but we could equally say we have always been modern.]

However, this picture is still not all that useful for communication because it is a picture of one specific tree.  Eve and Adam have no good way to communicate about different trees and trees in general and not just this one specific tree.  And they certainly do not want to draw a picture of every single tree in the world or even just in the Garden of Eden.  So now imagine Eve (the serpent whispering in her ear) draws a much more generic or abstract picture of a tree—say, such a “stick drawing” of a tree (!) and waves the picture at all sorts of different looking trees until Adam gets the point that it is signifier (symbol) for trees in general, not just one specific tree.  It is a signifier for the category tree, we might say.

This is much better.  But there is still a problem.  How do Eve and Adam know exactly what counts as a tree and what doesn’t?  Is the category of tree rigidly defined with clear boundaries so that they will always be sure, come what may, what is a tree and what is not?  Or is the category squishy, with vague boundaries, more like a wave (where the center is clear but the edges slowly fade out and away) than like a box?

Well here is the way Eve and Adam (fatefully) solve this problem:  They decide that “anything that is sufficiently like this picture” counts as a tree.  This clause “anything that is sufficiently like this picture” is the beginning of language as we humans know it.  I will call this monumentally important invention that Eve and Adam have hit on “the principle. of sufficient reason”. The picture is, for reasons I will develop later, now a word.

This word (that is, this new picture) has what I will call a “semantic meaning” and a “situational meaning.”  Its semantic meaning is anything that sufficiently resembles this picture is a tree.  Its situational meaning, though, is what in a particular situation of interaction and communication Eve and Adam decide to apply this picture to, when, at a specific time and place, they negotiate and make the decision that THIS THING RIGHT THERE is sufficiently like the picture to count as a tree.

Semantics lives only in language as a system.  Situational meanings live in the world.  The bridge between the two is negotiation, contestation, discussion, communal agreement or disagreements over what is sufficiently like what to count as getting a given word (signifier, symbol) applied to it.  All this seems innocent enough, but I assure you it is not.  HERE, in the sufficient reason clause, is where the serpent lies.  HERE is the root of many of our deepest human, cultural, social, and political problems worldwide now and in the past.  Here is the root of hate and war and religious intolerance.  Here was the FALL.

{to be continued …}