How Discourse Organizes Sheep

Postmodernism is one of those terms that is difficult to define. It seems to mean different things in different contexts. I have been looking at the nature of postmodernism in the context of the social sciences and particularly how it affects organisation theory. For the purposes of this discussion I shall leave aside the meaning of the term in other contexts.

Postmodernism is a paradigm, which means that it is a way of looking at the world. In historical times there have been three overarching paradigms. In the medieval world there was the theocratic paradigm which placed a notion of deity at the centre of its world view. The existence of deity was not available for questioning because it was the foundation upon which everything else rested. All other questions followed from this in the form, “How does this phenomenon show us the will of god?”

This view of the world began to be challenged during the Renaissance and a real alternative was developed during the Enligtenment. This alternative was humanism which placed a notion of man at the centre of its world view. This paradigm became the primary one in the west from about the mid-nineteenth century. In this paradigm the question of enquiry became “What does this tell us about mankind; what use is this phenomenon to mankind or what does this tell us about mankind’s place in the universe?” This paradigm may be termed the ‘modernist’ paradigm.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century the modernist paradigm became challenged by such thinkers as Neitszche and Heiddeger. It was developed during a period of intense activity during the mid-twentieth century by such thinkers as Bakhtin, Foucault and Derrida. This paradigm places the notion of discourse at the centre of its world view. This paradigm assumes that discourse is the means by which the world that people experience comes into existence. In this paradigm the question of enquiry becomes, “How does discourse create and maintain this?” This paradigm is known as the ‘postmodernist’ paradigm.

The characteristics of postmodernist view have been characterised as “becoming, formlessness, flux, difference, deferral and change” (Chia 2003). Postmodernism seems to be about moral relativism, uncertainty in epistemology, shifting meaning, lack of the possibility of truth. Postmodernists have talked about these aspects of the world to the confusion of most of their audience who find it all rather depressing. For example, there is the sophisticated and apparently tortuous method of postmodernist textual analysis called ‘deconstruction’ but once the text has been deconstructed, what then? Nothing seems to follow from it, no possibility for action. In this way postmodernists have given the impression that their agenda is nihilistic. This view is a caricature and presents a falsity.

Postmodernist theory has not been well developed since the flurry of activity in the mid-twentieth century and postmodernism has been undervalued. Though it was accused by many who were the most alarmed by it as being a mere fad or fashion, it has refused to go away.

These are early days in the life of a paradigm. A paradigm may take a century or several to develop. I suggest that the way for postmodernism to develop is to be clear about what the paradigm is and not, as has tended to happen, to try to answer modernist questions in the postmodernist paradigm. We need to constantly bear in mind that the centre of the postmodernist paradigm is discourse and the questions that arise from this are about how discourse works.

Immediately we run into problems of terminology. If you are going to think in a different way, you have to develop a language, and a battery of concepts, that will assist. We have ‘deconstruction’ for example but what about ‘discourse’ itself.

Here is discourse, there is discourse, far away there is discourse, in the past there was discourse and in the future there will be discourse. So what is the plural of ‘discourse’, surely it must be ‘discourses’ but it is all ‘discourse’. So, the plural of ‘discourse’ must be ‘discourse’. This is confusing. Perhaps where there appeared to be one word, there is really two words. But, what is the difference between them?

Shepherds don’t have this problem. Their flocks are out there in the fields, even when the shepherds are home in bed. Their flocks are an objective fact independent of human experience, as all modernists would agree. So, here we have a ‘sheep’ and the plural of ‘sheep’ is ‘sheep’ even when we are talking about all the sheep in the universe. Is it a semantic accident that the plural of ‘discourse’ is ‘discourse’ like the plural of ‘sheep’ is ‘sheep’?

But the shepherd, unlike the discourse scholar, has another level between this sheep and sheep in general and it is ‘flock’. If we pause for a moment and look at ‘flock’ we may find, perhaps, there is a concept that we can transfer to discourse. How can you tell that a specific sheep belongs to this flock and not another one? It may be to do with the field that the sheep is in, its geographical location, its point in history. The sheep in this field on this date belong to farmer A; they are part of his flock. Or it might be that the sheep are marked with dye and the ones with a blue mark in this shape belong to farmer A whereas those with a red mark in that shape belong to farmer B.

But, let us pause again. We said that these flocks are an objective fact yet they are defined discursively with reference to human classification. Now let us consider the sheep that aren’t in a flock. Well, on close inspection we find that sheep are a domesticated animal and that there are no wild sheep: there are sheep that belong to a flock and sheep that have escaped from a flock but there are no sheep which are not in some way defined by a flock. ‘Sheep’ and ‘flock’ are necessary to each other’s definition. In this way discourse organizes the universe in which we live and what appears to be objective fact ‘out there’ turns out to be a human construction ‘in here, within discourse’.

For the postmodernist, it is absolutely necessary to pay attention to what language is doing, particularly to what it conceals, to what it invites us to take for granted. In normal usage there is discourse in general and there are many discourses but the postmodernist must seize on the fact that these are two different words masquerading as one and reveal the assumptions that have been made. If there are many discourses, what is the difference between them? When someone says a few sentences is it possible for them not to be in a discourse, obviously not. If these words must be part of a discourse, how can we tell which one?

I would like to suggest that Foucault’s rather neglected and forgotten concept of discursive formation is what we require. Discursive formations are a kind of language game, each one with its own set of rules. These discursive formations are shaped by power which creates meaning by supressing the vast body of possible meaning. Discursive formations create subjects, knowledge, authority, objects and so on.

Let us suppose that an organization is defined by a discursive formation, certain questions seem to follow. What are the rules of the discursive formation? How can a new organization come into being? What are the relationships between different discursive formations? I suggest that it is these questions which should be used to form the basis of a postmodernist organization theory.

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