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The 'chain of equivalence'. Cultural studies and Laclau & Mouffe's discourse theory

1. Introduction

Cultural studies frequently addresses discourse theory. Remarkably however, the work of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe so far seems to have been neglected most of the time [1], while I am convinced that it is particularly relevant for research on the formation of cultural identity. The aim of this article is to illustrate how the discourse theory of Laclau & Mouffe can be adapted for research that takes cultural studies as its starting point.

One of the few attempts to extract Laclau & Mouffe from political studies in order to make it applicable to cultural analysis is by Carpentier & Spinoy (2008); in fact, Carpentier & Spinoy claim that their collection of case studies is actually the first structural attempt (2008: 20). They make it plausible that with the aid of Laclau & Mouffe, research can be done into media, conflicts and identity (politics) (2008: 17). Carpentier & Spinoy bring forth five arguments to support the claim that the discourse theory of Laclau & Mouffe can be integrated into cultural studies research. I will discuss two of them. Firstly cultural studies examines the relations between culture, politics and identity, something that has been researched by Laclau & Mouffe extensively although that has not been recognized on any major scale in cultural studies (2008: 3). Secondly Laclau & Mouffe state that discourse theory is a ‘toolbox’ that can be applied to several research areas. Carpentier & Spinoy sustain this with reference to Howarth, who argues that qualitative research methods can be incorporated into discourse analysis to empirically underpin the latter (Howarth, 2000: 140 in: Carpentier & Spinoy, 2008: 21) [2].

I think Carpentier & Spinoy have a strong point regarding this ‘toolbox’ idea. However the complexity of combining Laclau & Mouffe with different research methods and theories requires the formulation of the prerequisites under which that is possible. Building on Carpentier & Spinoy it is therefore appropriate to go more deeply into two aspects: the relation between the concepts of Laclau & Mouffe and cultural studies, and the ‘toolbox’ idea, that was developed by Foucault, of combining their discourse theory with other theories.

2. Relevance of Laclau & Mouffe for cultural studies

As, according to Carpentier & Spinoy, Laclau & Mouffe are not yet frequently used in research concerned with media, conflicts and identity (politics) even though they are extremely suitable for that purpose, it is appropriate to position their discourse theory explicitly in corrolation with cultural studies. The integration of both is possible because, as Bowman (2007) states, both are ‘politicised’ approaches: post-Marxist discourse theory, as that of Laclau & Mouffe, has developed a political strategy, whereas cultural studies is characterised by politicising practices [3]. I believe that cultural studies can partly because of this find a fruitful body of theory in Laclau & Mouffe that is also directive for future research.

One of the basic assumptions of Laclau & Mouffe (e.g. 1985, 1990a, 1990b) is that research should be carried out into ‘meanings’; this closely relates to a fundamental issue within cultural studies. Gray, for instance, defines culture in terms of meaning making: “Culture is understood as being actively produced through complex processes. It is broadly the production of meaning or ‘signifying practice’ that happens at every level of the social and at every moment within cultural processes” (Gray, 2003: 12)[4]. In industrial societies dominant groups try to defend their interests not (only) through repressive power but by neutralising them to ‘common sense’ with the aim of preserving the existing social structure. This activity exists on the level of meanings: “A set of social relations obviously requires meanings and frameworks which underpin them and hold them in place” (Hall in Fiske, 1987: 52). But subaltern groups offer resistance: their attempts are aimed at converting meanings to serve their own interests. This results in a ‘social struggle’: every group wants to see its own interests served by society as a whole. These assumptions, according to Corner (1991), limit the questions of cultural studies to a threefold: what  meaning is being construed, why is it this particular meaning and how does this particular meaning relate to power, knowledge, identity, etc?[5]

Cultural studies has not only channeled the basic questions but has also provided the directions for formulating answers. They are based on notions of a ‘negotiating’ of meanings, which in turn is based on the work of Gramsci. This ‘meaning-struggle’, often seen as a class-struggle, has been defined by Gramsci as hegemony. “The concept of hegemony is used by Gramsci to refer to a condition in progress, in which a dominant class (in alliance with other classes or class fractions) does not merely rule a society but leads it through the exercise of  ‘moral and intellectual leadership’” (Storey, 2001: 103. Emphasis in original). To Storey (1999) the importance of Gramsci’s hegemony to cultural studies is so great that he speaks of ‘Gramscian cultural studies’. Storey (2001) later rephrases this to ‘neo-Gramscian cultural studies’ because cultural studies, unlike Gramsci, also looks at themes other than classes: race, ethnicity, gender, age, religion, etc.

Understanding cultural studies in terms of meanings, social struggle and Gramsci, already implies that Laclau & Mouffe are not out of place. My argument is that their discourse theory is valuable because it enables us to apply a single theory to the Neo-Gramscian need for a diversity of themes that play a role in the struggle for social power, and that unlike Foucault, understands the whole cultural field as also being discursive. After all, while much quoted thinkers in cultural studies such as Foucault recognize non-discursive elements, Laclau & Mouffe make it possible to also approach these as discourses. Because they consider a determinant principle to be absent everything can be viewed as discourse (or as Derrida (1978: 280) states: “everything becomes discourse”). Laclau & Mouffe therefore apply the term discourse to show that every social configuration is meaningful (Laclau & Mouffe, 1990: 100). The meaning of every material object (from a grain of sand to the human body) is articulated within discourses so that there is nothing in nature itself that determines the being of an object; the same applies to systems such as the ‘economic order’. This does not imply that material objects do not exist, but that:

“[t]he fact that every object is constituted as an object of discourse has nothing to do with whether there is a world external to thought, or with that realism / idealism opposition. An earthquake or the falling of a brick is an event that certainly exists in the sense that it occurs here and now, independently of my will. But whether their specificity as objects is constructed in terms of ‘natural phenomena’ or ‘expressions of the wrath of God’, depends upon the structuring of a discursive field. What is denied is not that such objects exist externally to thought, but the rather different assertion that they could constitute themselves as objects outside any discursive conditions of emergence.” (Laclau & Mouffe, 1985: 108)

Because the struggle for social power, with its great diversity of themes, can be approached with one specific theory, and especially because everything can be approached as discourse, the cultural studies project of showing social struggle can be radicalized in term of ‘conflict’: if all the aspects of the struggle for social power are discursive, this means an expansion of (a.o. antagonistic) meaning relations. In contrast to what present research does on the basis of, for example, Foucault, this approach enables future research to put a greater emphasis on politicized struggle and shifts in meaning. Finding answers to the aforementioned three questions that have been raised by Corner, will be provided with a new impuls. When Laclau & Mouffe’s discourse theory becomes more common in cultural studies, we will hopefully see more fruitful research projects that combine the high level of abstraction of Laclau & Mouffe with the attention cultural studies pays to particular cases[6].

To complete this argument, aspects where Laclau & Mouffe partly diverge from cultural studies also need to be taken into consideration[7]. The most important difference being that their work is completely non-essentialist. Under the denomination of cultural studies there are a limited number of neo-marxist studies that take social class as a starting point. It is not my intention to reduce neo-marxism to a mere ‘essentialisation of social class’. I would rather argue that social class is one of the historical fundamentals of the neo-marxist thinking that is still very much alive in a number of studies (even though the large majority of cultural studies research no longer takes this neo-marxist class-essentialism as a basic assumption). Taking neo-marxist themes (especially the uncovering of alternative meanings through a deconstruction of naturalisations) Laclau & Mouffe have come closer to a post-marxism that is entirely discourse analytical and therefore non-essentialist. This can be a fruitful ground for cultural studies research.

3. Discourse theory as ‘toolbox’

If the discourse theory of  Laclau & Mouffe is applicable to cultural studies research the next question is how we can use it. In section 1. of this article I mentioned that discourse theory is sometimes seen as a ‘toolbox’: as theory that can be combined and enriched with other research approaches. That is tempting and sometimes necessary because Laclau & Mouffe are “short on specific methodical guidelines and illustrative examples” (Jørgensen & Phillips, 2002: 8); also discourse theory might need to be supplemented with specific theories about a studied social phenomenon. In that case the aim of combining discourse theory with other theories and methods is twofold: to generate specific knowledge through all the theories that have been used, and to derive an explanatory power from the combination of the different approaches (Jørgensen & Phillips, 2002: 154).

Although it is possible and sometimes necessary to combine discourse theory with something else, in using Laclau & Mouffe it is thus only possible to do that under  restricting conditions: three conditions have to be met to make the ‘toolbox’ idea valid in the specific case of Laclau & Mouffe. Firstly, other theories have to be ‘translated’ into discourse analytical terms. This is because the basic philosophical assumption of Laclau & Mouffe is that everything is always part of the discursive (and thus essentialism must be rejected); theories that isolate non-discursive aspects (such as ‘the body’ or ‘the economic order’) from the discursive need to be adapted to the assumptions of Laclau & Mouffe if they are to be suitably combined. Secondly, it should be observed that, as Jørgensen & Phillips state (they also acknowledge the first condition), the above implies that the employed approach determines the object of research instead of the other way round. Since, (a) in the version of Laclau & Mouffe discourse theory states that knowledge originates from the employed perspective; research  without context (for instance where the object of study is indicated first) is not possible, and (b) critical research recognizes that the social world can be construed and understood in different ways, and consequently that social change can occur through the choice of a different perspective (Jørgensen & Phillips, 2002: 154-155). Thirdly, the ‘toolbox’ idea ought not lead to eclecticism, but to an explicit comparative assessment of the different approaches in relation to their philosophical, methodological and theoretical aspects. In short, what requires explication is the relation between the approaches that are to be combined.

To conclude, the ‘toolbox’ idea in relation to Laclau & Mouffe is valuable in so far other approaches can contribute to providing insight. However the philosophical basis of this particular form of discourse theory makes that it can only be done provided the above conditions are observed. The value of using Laclau & Mouffe in cultural studies would then be the possibility of radicalising the research of social struggle in terms of politicized conflict: an expansion of (antagonistic) meaning relations is made possible because Laclau & Mouffe approach the entire cultural field as discourse. This enables future research in cultural studies to emphasize the politicized struggle of shifting meanings. Attempts to answer the three aformentioned cultural studies questions posed by Corner will acquire new impetus; this is already visible in the work done by Carpentier & Spinoy. If their discourse theory is taken up more broadly, we will hopefully see more fruitful research projects that combine the high level of abstraction of Laclau & Mouffe with the attention cultural studies pays to particular cases.


Bowman, P. (2007) Post-Marxism versus cultural studies. Theory, politics and intervention. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Carpentier, N., E. Spinoy (Eds.; 2008) Discourse theory and cultural analysis. Media, arts and literature. Creskill: Hampton Press.

Corner, J. (1991) ‘Meaning, genre and context. The problematics of “public knowledge” in the new audience studies,’ in J. Curran and M. Gurrevitch (Eds.) Mass media and society. London: Edward Arnold.

Derrida, J. (1978) Writing and difference. London: Routledge.

Fiske, J. (1987) Television culture. London: Routledge.

Gray, A. (1999) ‘Audience and reception research in retrospect. The trouble with audiences,’ in P. Alasuutari (Ed.) Rethinking the media audience. London: Sage.

Gray, A. (2003) Research practice for cultural studies. Ethnographic methods and lived cultures. London: Sage.

Hermes, J. (1995) Reading women’s magazines. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Howarth, D. (2000) Discourse. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Jørgensen, M., Phillips, L. (2002) Discourse analysis as theory and method. London: Sage.

Laclau, E. (1990) ‘The impossibility of society,’ in E. Laclau (Ed.) New reflections on the revolution of our time. London: Verso.

Laclau, E., Mouffe, C. (1985) Hegemony and socialist strategy. Towards a radical democratic politics. London: Verso.

Laclau, E., Mouffe, C. (1990) ‘Post-Marxism without apologies,’ in E. Laclau (Ed.) New reflections on the revolution of our time. London: Verso.

Leurs, R. (2009) ‘The cultural sublime and the temporal dimension of media. And the case of child murderer Marc Dutroux,’ International Journal of Cultural Studies, 12 (4): 395-414.

Storey, J. (1999) Cultural consumption and everyday life. London: Edward Arnold.

Storey, J. (2001) Cultural theory and popular culture. 3rd ed. Harlow: Prentice Hall.


[1] Carpentier & Spinoy (2008). On page 16-18 Carpentier & Spinoy list the exceptions (which are not always explicitly based on Laclau & Mouffe).

[2] The other three arguments concern Laclau & Mouffe’s definition of ‘politics’ that resembles cultural studies concepts of ‘culture’, their engagement with (high) culture, and the incorporation by cultural studies of other poststructuralist and discourse analytical approaches (Carpentier & Spinoy 2008: 2).

[3] See amongst others the section ‘The discourse of post-Marxism’ in chapter one of Bowman (2007: 10-24).

[4] For the two conditions to obtain meaning making successfully, see Hermes (1995: 7). For problematic meaning making and the corresponding temporal structure, see Leurs (2009).

[5] Though Corner does not distance himself from the primacy of meaning making, he merely makes it problematical. This primacy causes the whole body of cultural studies research to consist of research into ‘negotiated reading’ (Gray, 1999: 27).

[6] Though cultural studies also makes frequent use of abstract theories as those of Foucault.

[7] For a survey of general critique on Laclau & Mouffe (as well as counter arguments), see: Carpentier & Spinoy (2008: 13-16) and Jørgensen & Phillips (2002: 179-185).

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