Discursive Strategy

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portrait juergen martschukat

by Jürgen Martschukat

Jürgen Martschukat is Professor of North American History at the University of Erfurt.

According to the OED, the term “strategy” is commonly used to denote “the art or practice of planning the future direction or outcome of something; the formulation or implementation of a plan, scheme, or course of action, esp. of a long-term or ambitious nature.“ Thus, reference to a strategy assumes the existence of an institution, group, or individual pulling the strings behind the scenes. At first glance, the notion of strategy presupposes a planning mastermind behind it.

The concept of a discursive strategy poses the problem that an understanding of discourse inspired by Michel Foucault leaves no room for a strategically planning mastermind behind the scenes. Discourse, we are told in the Archaeology of Knowledge, should not “be situated in relation to a sovereign subjectivity,” but must be understood “without reference to a cogito” (pp. 121f.) or to the “conscious activity” and “the intention of a speaking subject” (p. 27). Rather than assuming a subject as the mastermind behind discourse, we are asked to explore how certain subject positions are discursively shaped, such as the subject position of the democratic citizen or of the refugee who voluntarily returns to their home country.

This raises the question of whether a discursive strategy is not a contradiction in terms. However, in the Archaeology of Knowledge, Foucault himself explores the “formation of [discursive] strategies” (pp. 64-70). He uses the term strategy to denote a certain direction taken by a discourse, and to describe the formation of certain themes within a discursive field. Yet these discursive strategies should not be seen as devised by a strategist beyond discourse, who implements a long-term plan, but rather as the effect of interactions between various discursive statements, of overlaps between different discursive fields, of interdependencies between discursive and non-discursive practices, and so on. Discursive strategies are strategies without a strategist. 

Furthermore, the oxymoronic tone of the discursive strategy draws attention to dimensions of human agency in discourse. In recent decades, agency has been the object of highly controversial debates in the humanities and social sciences. In spite of these debates, there appears to be broad agreement that agency does not denote an ability to act autonomously, independently of and uninfluenced by forces outside of us, in other words to pull the strings behind the scenes. Instead, agency points to actors’ leeway and choices within a field of possible actions, to their ability to act without being compelled to act in a certain manner. Agency means the ability to productively relate to the power of discourse and its normalizing effects, to practice what Foucault in his later essay What Is Critique? called “voluntary insubordination” and “the will not to be governed thusly.”

However, reference to a discursive strategy points beyond this understanding of agency and demands more than the diagnosis of “voluntary insubordination” to discourse and its truth/power effects. It prompts us to think about whether and if so how individual and collective actors can actively use discourse as means to achieve their ends. To deploy a discursive strategy, human actors somehow need to be able to comprehend the discourse they are determined by so that they can make use of it in a strategic manner to mold “the future direction” of their existence. When it comes to political and other collective actors, the concept of a discursive strategy raises the question of the extent to which they can comprehend and employ prevalent discourses in order to structure the field of others’ possible actions. This means, for instance, that they can make the political practice (of voluntary repatriation, for example) seem more in accordance with liberal values than it actually is, or/and make certain voluntary choices (by those to be governed) more likely than others.

Further Reading

Suggested Citation: Martschukat, Jürgen: “Discursive Strategy”, Voluntariness: History – Society – Theory, December 2021, https://www.voluntariness.org/discursive-strategy/

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