Enriching Discourse Theory

Cypriot memorials as an example of the workings of the discursive-material knot

Nico Carpentier

One of the issues where Laclau and Mouffe’s discourse theory has been struggling with, is its relationship with the material. This struggle is not caused by the lack of acknowledgement of the significance of the material in their discourse theory, on the contrary. From the very beginning, discourse theory has made it clear that the material matters, and that it cannot be equated with, or subsumed by, the discursive. Moreover, for Laclau and Mouffe, discourse is not the same as language, a position that opens up considerable opportunities for acknowledging the communicative capacities of objects and bodies. But that is not where the issue is situated. Even though Laclau and Mouffe emphasize the importance of the material, it remains a bit hidden under the theoretical weight of the discourse-theoretical vocabulary, and receives little specific conceptual attention. If the material matters, then there is also a need to have a vocabulary that allows to think through the role of the material. And if the material and the discursive interact, or, in other words, if the material and discursive are knotted or entangled, then there is a need to think through the knot and to develop a theory (or theories) of entanglement.

…new materialism’s acknowledgement of the discursive also has its limits…

One resource that can provide help in enriching discourse theory is new materialism, which has strongly thematized material agency, without ignoring the role of the discursive (or the representational, as it is often called in this field of study). Interestingly, new materialism’s acknowledgement of the discursive also has its limits, in the very same way as discourse theory’s relationship to the material has remained underdeveloped. This is why a non-hierarchical reconciliation of the material and the discursive requires a gentle reworking of both traditions, without moving too far away from their respective comfort zones.

In the search for a more developed theoretical-conceptual vocabulary, there are some obvious candidates. One example is the dislocation, a discourse-theoretical concept that captures the capacity of the material to disrupt a discourse, forcing it into discursive repair or sometimes even destroying it. Arguably, there is also the need for a more positive version of the dislocation, which is the invitation. Materials can extend invitations towards particular discourses, exactly through their material characteristics. This does not imply that invitations cannot be declined; other discourses can still be invoked to generate meanings to materials. One other useful concept that has more stronger roots in new materialism, is the assemblage, which can be used to think about the translation of the ontological principles of the discursive-material knot to the ontic level, where particular discourses and materials become (seen as) part of equally particular assemblages. Finally, the attention for contingency unifies both traditions, and structurally matters to our understanding of entangled discourses and materials, where discourses, materials and their assemblages are fixated through socio-political practices, but never in unchangeable and definitive ways.

One way to illustrate the workings of the discursive-material knot is through the “Iconoclastic Controversies” photography exhibitions, which took place in Cyprus in the autumn of 2015 (Nicosia), the beginning of 2016 (Limassol) and the autumn of 2018 (Brasilia). This video shows a 2-minute report of the Brasilia exhibition, which ran from 17 September to 5 October 2018 at the University of Brasilia:

The “Iconoclastic Controversies” exhibitions included between 20 and 23 photographs of memorials—more specifically: statutes and commemoration sites—related to the Cyprus Problem, and more in particular to the Cypriot Independence War of 1955-59, and the Turkish invasion of 1974. These photographs are investigations of the hegemonic forces of Greek-Cypriot antagonistic nationalism, and of the condensation of this discourse into memorials that celebrate heroism, militarism and nationalism. The materials of these memorials are invested with meanings produced by these particular discourses, and become part of the antagonistic nationalist assemblage. At the same time, the memorials extend an invitation through their materiality—e.g., the display of triumphant male fighters, connected to the Greek-Cypriot nation—to identify with this nationalist discourse.

…these exhibitions also show that this identification is not to be taken for granted

But these exhibitions also show that this identification is not to be taken for granted. First, the invitation can simply be declined, and a different discourse can be used to give meaning to a memorial. For instance, a war hero can become articulated as a war criminal. Second, the practices of everyday life often lead to memorials not being noticed and respected. The photographs show how in some cases, memorials are used as gathering place for sunbathers and swimmers, ideally situated to leave towels behind. In other cases, the ever-expanding tourist industry encroached on memorial sites, hiding them from sight.

The strength of the antagonistic nationalism assemblage is also weakened by the presence of counter-hegemonic memorials, that attempt to dislocate this assemblage by paying tribute to peace-building initiatives, or to peace in general. One photograph in the “Iconoclastic Controversies” exhibitions shows the Kavazoğlu-Misiaoulis statues in Athienou, a Greek-Cypriot village north of Larnaca, one of the four villages in the buffer zone. Beneath the two busts is inscribed a text which summons passers-by to remember the “heroic martyrs of the Greek-Turkish friendship”. These statues not only commemorate the violent deaths of these two labour union activists (the first of whom was Turkish Cypriot and the second one Greek Cypriot), they also show that the antagonism between both communities can be overcome by collaboration. But the photograph, taken after the Kavazoğlu bust was stolen by metal thieves, also symbolizes the vulnerability of these counter-hegemonic memorials in the South Cypriot landscape.

As a series of exhibitions—and an assemblage in its own right—“Iconoclastic Controversies” explicitly reflects on the discursive-material knot, and shows how memorials are part of particular assemblages, but also how these assemblages are contingent and contested. Embedded in one approach toward the development of a theory of entanglement, it is also a call to continue our work on the further development of this theoretical and empirical field, leaving behind the need to privilege one of the knot’s components over the other.

Nico Carpentier is Docent at the Institute of Communication Studies and Journalism of Charles University in Prague; he also holds part-time positions at Uppsala University and the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB – Free University of Brussels).

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