Flexibility II - Norman Fairclough’s Critical Language Awareness

Norman Fairclough, it seems, might follow Bourdieu in suggesting that a critical awareness of language, or CLA, can serve to challenge the dominant discourses of global capitalism. Citing an earlier paper of his, he writes, CLA should be “a prerequisite for effective democratic citizenship, and should therefore be seen as an entitlement for citizens, especially children developing towards citizenship in the educational system.” (Fairclough 1999: 71) The example he uses, fruitful for our purposes here, is the discourse of flexibility, and Fairclough retraces the general arguments put forth by Harvey I covered in a previous blog post concerning the shift between Fordism and flexible accumulation. Flexibility, he argues, is not an inevitable feature of global capitalism, but rather “a real feature of contemporary economies for which there is ample scientific evidence.” (ibid.: 72) Here, both the discourse of flexibility and its real effects are inextricably intertwined;

the discourse is an irreducible part of the reality. The change from Fordism to flexible accumulation is inconceivable without the change in economic discourse. Why? Because the emerging global economy is the site of a struggle between the old and the new, and the discourse of flexibility is a vital symbolic weapon in that struggle. It is as Bourdieu (1998) has put it a ‘strong discourse,’ that is a discourse which is backed by the strength of all the economic and social forces (the banks, the multinational corporations, politicians and so on) who are trying to make flexibility – the new global capitalism – even more of a reality than it already is (Fairclough 1999: 72).

Fairclough then sends about finding examples through a wide variety of texts in what Leigh Claire La Berge has called ‘financial print culture,’ (2014: 8) everything from books written by ‘management gurus’ to economic and noneconomic discourses in the press.

However, he notes, flexibility also permeates everyday language. Fairclough gives here the example of ‘Stephen,’ who works illegally doing small, flexible ‘fiddly’ jobs while collecting social security, who uses the discourse of flexibility in explaining his position. “It’s a matter of us being cheaper… It’s just the flexibility. You’re just there for when the jobs come up, and he [the ‘hirer and firer’] will come and get you when you’re needed.” (Fairclough 1999: 73) Here, Fairclough writes, is not just a case of everyday language becoming colonized by the language of the powerful: “here is ‘Stephen’ appropriating the discourse in construing his own perfectly coherent rationale for his (illegal) way of living. One aspect of economic flexibility from his perspective is that companies need the flexibility of workers doing fiddly jobs.” (ibid.) A critical awareness of language, then, allows people to reflect on dominant discourses such as that of flexibility, allows them to ask questions such as “what insights [flexibility] gives us into the way economies work or could work, and what other insights it cuts us off from; whose discourse it is, and what they gain from its use; what other discourses there are around, and how this one has become so dominant.” (ibid.)

When observation is thought in terms of this critical reflection, as does the Odft, it challenges the hegemony of dominant discourses and fosters the invention of new possibilities and knowledges of life in its oikoi. “If on the other hand language and other semiotic modalities are viewed as simply transparent media for reflecting what is, the development of knowledge is likely to be impeded.” (ibid.: 75) But the fact that all social life is textually mediated opens onto a dangerous dialectic, he writes, of colonization and appropriation on the one hand and emancipation on the other.

It opens up unprecedented resources for people to shape their lives in new ways drawing upon knowledges, perspectives and discourses which are generated all over the world. But in so doing it opens up new areas of their lives to the play of power. There is a colonisation-appropriation dialectic at work… if people are to live in this complex world rather than just be carried along by it, they need resources to examine their placing within this dialectic… and those resources include a critical awareness of language and discourse which can only come through language education (ibid.: 75-76).

Here again is reiterated the key problematic of this excursus; what grounds the opposition between living in the world and being carried along by the world as concerns language or discourse? Does the discourse of flexibility carry people along in the world, preventing them from living it (as Bourdieu at times seems to suggest), or does it also convince people they are indeed living in the world when they are really just being carried along by it? If activity and passivity, the performative and constative, normative and descriptive aren’t so dissociable here, it’s perhaps because capital itself also works in blurring these distinctions, as Derrida hints at in his seminar La Peine de mort (2015: 268). If I’m still in the spirit of Fairclough’s argument, the object of a critical awareness of language would not be to restitute activity and passivity, etc., to their proper positions beyond a logic of capital, but to work through their contamination in making dominant discourses foreign to themselves, to take into account the perhaps infinitely differentiated contexts within which their tropes occur. Context, then, is an inextricable condition of resisting neoliberalism, but what is context? Does it offer any clarification on the subjective/objective, the act and its others in observing and thinking about how the tropes of neoliberal discourse are translated in and out of financial print culture?

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