Doing ‘Discourse’ (Part I): Situating and Qualifying CDA

The main problems Chilton considers in his chapter on ‘Missing links in mainstream CDA’ (published in this volume) have to do with CDA’s foundational claims. Taking inspiration from Chilton’s book chapter, I would identify three of these claims, namely that:

  1. Language-use is, among other things, social practice.
  2. CDA is useful or otherwise valuable to human society.
  3. Discourses exist, we know what they are, they are analyzable, and they are worth analyzing.

I see these claims as being ‘foundational’ in that they situate CDA relative to some starting point in the preexisting literature, as well as motivate (i.e. provide a rationale for) the project of CDA.

Beginning with the first claim, if language-use (and language-constituted ‘discourse’) is social practice, then one implication is that CDA is as relevant as anything else that has come in the tradition of social theory (power, consent, etc.) and social critique (exposing power structures, demystifying previously ‘opaque’ concepts, etc.). If one accepts the relevance, validity, or usefulness of the body of social theory I have broadly alluded to, it follows that one would appreciate the significance of the CDA project at least along those dimensions.

This particular implication is also relevant to the second claim I identify, about the usefulness of CDA. Thus, when Chilton brings the ’emancipatory’ mission and ‘demystifying’ function of CDA into question, we have a ready response, insofar as language is indeed social practice, and insofar as we buy into the general body of social theory. In our class discussion, as well, I found many of the arguments for the usefulness of CDA to be true for the usefulness of social theory in general, e.g. the value of being able to analyze and discuss social processes.

This is one sense in which ‘CDA’ claims to be ‘Critical’ – but we see that the function of ‘Critical’ here is also to situate CDA relative to the tradition of social critique. (Although I would also argue that the main ‘Critical’ it situates itself against is theory of literary criticism, as developed in the Western academy; Chilton doesn’t question this move in his article, however.)

However, even if we are able to achieve some understanding of social processes as enacted through language through the practice of CDA in the mode it currently adopts, Chilton questions our readiness to affirm the potential of this understanding in enacting social change. Can we really claim to be able to understand the bases of linguistic behavior and social behavior in a way that is comparable to how a financial analyst or policy-maker might claim to understand the behavior of economic actors in a certain system, or how a chemical engineer might claim to understand the physical principles governing the efficiency of a production process? Are social and linguistic behaviors ‘manageable’ in similar ways, and can we indeed claim to be contributing to the achievement of some socially beneficial outome(s) when we do CDA?

In Chilton’s evaluation, mainstream CDA has not addressed these questions, leaving an explanatory gap that undermines CDA’s claims about the ’emancipatory effects’ of the enterprise, and its claims about the social utility of the enterprise more generally. In comparison, Chilton discusses how an evolutionary-biological theory of cognition has greater explanatory power than CDA, when it comes to explaining social behavior and linguistic behavior (e.g. in the model explaining how apparently small ‘cultural inputs’ are enough to lead to persistent and significant cognitive biases).

But ultimately it is the third foundational claim which I wish to expand on, partly because I didn’t hear it come up during class discussion very much, and partly because Chilton is quite oblique when he alludes to this problem, to the point that it almost doesn’t appear as a problem in the discussion. I will expand on this in Part II.

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