Cda : a discipline Come of Age ?



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CDA : A Discipline Come of Age ?
MICHAEL TOOLAN (ed.). Critical Discourse Analysis. Critical Concepts in Linguistics. London / New York: Routledge. 2002. 4-vol. set (ISBN 0-415-18992-6), xxvi + 1748 pp.
Jean-Pierre van Noppen

Université Libre de Bruxelles, Brussels, Belgium.




There was a time when philologists held a high-profile position in society: it was they who could decipher and give access to the sacred texts or other classical authorities which helped shape people’s thought and ideologies. Those times are now over, and linguists today fill a much more modest niche, where they command a smaller audience and force less respect, admiration and interest than, say, scholars who clone sheep, discover vaccines, or develop processor units that are even faster, lighter and (sometimes) cheaper than the previous ones. Although we live in a world which to many of us is a daily Niagara of words, linguists have all too easily been brushed aside as nostalgic nit-pickers more concerned with commas than with communication, as rearguard militants passionately committed to peripheral issues like deciding whether one should or should not split infinitives while actually (according to other nostalgics) they ought to busy themselves maintaining high standards of language and turning out grammar-school graduates who speak and write like Shakespeare or the King James Bible -- a demand, incidentally, that sounds more like an epideictic statement of national pride than a realistic assessment of our century’s linguistic needs.
Yet there remains an essential function that the linguist is pre-eminently qualified to fulfil in a free society, namely to give people the necessary language-awareness to cast a critical glance on the verbal universe in which they live, move and have their being, and in which they are constantly showered with myriads of messages which deliberately or unwittingly affect their cognition, thought and action.


Shedding the Shackles



Even in a “free” democratic society, a citizen is truly free only if he or she can make conscious choices instead of being cunningly carried away on comforting waves of clever clauses, whether into a consumers’ cornucopia or towards a promised political paradise. In Franz Boas’s words (1938:204), «if we can recognise the shackles that tradition has placed upon us, we are also able to break them». The recognition that those shackles are made of words, that «inequalities and injustices are enacted, reproduced and legitimated by text and talk» (Van Dijk 1993: 132), has led to the emergence of Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA), a complex cluster of practices and approaches at the crossroads of several disciplines, guided by the laudable motive to describe and analyse the linguistic reality to which we are exposed, which conditions our vision of the world, but which at times is made subservient to particular, political or corporative interests. The more practical-minded branch of CDA seeks to reach beyond description to «change the world», or at least our perception of it, through critical analysis of texts and discourses.
Routledge have felt that the time has come to provide a Baedeker guide to this new continent -- although “guide” is perhaps not the proper image to use, inasmuch as the reader is given very little “guidance”, to the extent where one wonders whether the books are aimed at readers, or at the library’s reference shelf. Perhaps one should speak of an anthology: the morceaux are clearly choisis, but the compilation covers a sufficiently wide range, both in time and in scope, to give one a fair idea of what CDA is all about: its basic assumptions about language, its theoretical underpinnings, its analytical practices, the controversies (methodological as well as ideological) that have divided its practitioners, and the stages that the discipline has moved through in its development to eventually reach what some believe is its present adult-come-of-age status.
The choice of the Birmingham-based stylistician Michael Toolan to carry out this substantial compilation is not surprising. Stylisticians, whose attempts at objectivity have not infrequently been given the cold shoulder by their literary colleagues, have found a warmer welcome, and a profounder sense of their own usefulness, in non-literary stylistics and in CDA. Toolan has argued in favour of CDA, advocated greater clarity and thoroughness in the discipline, and has himself written various essays in a critical spirit. He has addressed the prickly issues of whether CDA is as useful as its advocates claim, whether it contributes new insights and whether it actually helps “change the world”; but also the related questions whether its approach is genuinely scientific, in the sense of being guided by objective criteria leading to verifiable and reproductible results; whether analytical procedures and political options are separable, and whether to be credible, the discipline requires as heavy and abstruse a conceptual instrumentarium as it is sometimes burdened with. Toolan’s own answer is that CDA is more useful when it is kept relatively simple, and that it should have no qualms about being prescriptive to achieve better (fairer, less misleading) communication (III: 219-241)1. But seeing Toolan’s own commitment elsewhere, it is all the more surprising that his voice should be so subdued here. The editor gives very little idea of the vision that has presided over his choice of papers. This strengthens the impression that the four volumes of the book are intended, not as a reader, but rather as a collection giving students access to (the main ?) documents in the history of CDA which, admittedly, it would take some effort and expense to gather otherwise. Comparisons between books have only limited argumentative value, especially when they seek to fill different slots on the market; but when one compares the massive collection offered here to the considerably smaller, but enlightening Discourse Reader (1999) edited by Jaworski & Coupland under the same Routledge imprint, one easily appreciates the insight that can be generated by a well-wrought introduction showing where, how and why the essays chosen relate to each other and fit into the volume as a whole. In this respect, Toolan’s 3000-word introduction to the massive 1750-page collection is bound to be disappointing, no matter how impressive the table of contents may be.
Precursors and Pioneers
The compilation is articulated in 4 volumes, the first and shortest of which is devoted to Precursors and Inspirations. Toolan has chosen to trace the genealogy of CDA all the way back to its grandparents: not only to the pioneers, but beyond these to some thinkers to whom the discipline pays continual or occasional lip-service, and whose key concepts have practically grown into postulates; such as Sapir’s insight that language is a guide to social reality, and his constructivist theory that the “real world” is to a large extent conditioned by one’s linguistic habits (I: 1-7); or Whorf’s paper illustrating how languages may condition their speakers’ thought and action (I: 8-28). Stubbs will point out however that this is not tantamount to not a clear claim about how different patterns of use within a single language affect habitual thought -- a postulate taken for granted, but insufficiently supported, by CDA (III: 211).
In more directly practical terms, Orwell’s Politics and the English Language (I : 29-39) might have constituted a pioneering attempt at constructive critical linguistics, had his criticism of political discourse not shaded off into an advocacy of plain English, free of dreary clichés, mixed metaphors and passives. But on his own terms, Orwell was right, of course: it does not take much reading, even in Toolan’s collection, to be convinced that simplicity and clarity of expression are virtues, and that an inflated, abstract idiom may be a smokescreen, not only to hide lies and unpleasant truths, but also to give basically simple ideas an additional veneer of academic credibility.
Bakhtin’s ideas of polyphony (the multiplicity of voices, notably in the novel), of speech genres (forms of utterance conditioning the meanings of words as well as expectations and interpretations) and intertextual links (discourse as the recontextualising of already existing forms) have become key notions in critical linguistics; but Toolan’s selection of passages here seems to make Bakhtin (I: 40-90) more relevant to literature than to the concerns of CDA, despite the inspiring but abstract proposition that “genres are the drive belts from the history of society to the history of language” (I: 79). The usefulness of genre as the recontextualization of social practices will become clearer in Theo Van Leeuwen’s analysis of texts about “going to school for the first time” (II: 166-199), where it is put to practical use. Another Bhaktinian theme, which will recur throughout the collection like a compulsive Leitmotiv, is the active role of the listener/reader in the construction of meaning.
From Bernstein (I: 91-107), CDA has inherited the idea that the class system acts upon the structure of communication in the process of socialization; here, in contrast to Whorf, the link between language, culture and thought is mediated through the social structure, as different classes and cultures do not speak (and hence teach) the same language; but at this stage, no allowance is made for relationships of power. The “different languages” argument is also resorted to, albeit in a more lexical vein, by Raymond Williams in his “Keywords” (I: 108-120). His approach and its critical potential are usefully illustrated by the short paper on “Democracy”, (I: 121-124) a word which has only in recent times received the favourable overtones with which it is invested today.
Bourdieu’s paper from Language and Symbolic Power (I: 125-148) comes even closer to the critical target: it uses the market metaphors of price and profit to argue that linguistic exchanges, in addition to being vehicles of meaning, are signs of power relationships which condition expressive style; and that thus, stylistic variations (and definitions of acceptability) may be read as symbols of social relationships. Bourdieu’s post-Saussurian view of language will, however, be seriously questioned by Ruquaia Hasan (IV: 95-161) because, as she sees it, his model of the relations between language and society implies a literacy pedagogy emptied of any liberating force.
Halliday’s “Language and Social Man” (I: 149-179) is a classic, in which he bases his functional interpretation of language on the observation that linguistic codes are sociosemantic in nature; yet the “critical” import of the paper does not reach further than Mary Douglas’s insight that “a common speech form transmits a hidden baggage of shared assumptions” (I: 168). It is in this text, also, that Halliday breaks down the notion of register into field, mode and tenor. This notion, however, will be criticised by Norman Fairclough (I: 304-320), because, writes he, the correlation between social groups and their respective codes fails to make provision for the relationship between language variation and social power, i.e. the capacity to impose and maintain relations of dominance between registers. Fairclough will redefine register as an ideologically particular, situation-specific meaning potential (I: 305). He is understandably suspicious of references to “the” register of X or Y (I: 308), because these tend to ignore or obscure ideological diversity, and may thus come to canonize dominant modes of expression.
While Halliday’s paper itself is not explicitly CDA, the critical prong of DA is more heavily marked in the following papers: Tony Trew (I: 180-201) observes that opposing ideologies (i.e. representations of reality) resort to systematic linguistic differences (here, the contrasts active/passive and transactional/non-transactional), but modestly concedes that these may not be generally applicable: linguistic analysis alone cannot provide understanding of ideology in the media, but it can be used as a means of revealing the ideological processes at work, and point towards the questions to be asked. Roger Fowler (I: 202-237) takes the stylistic approach out of its literary confines to extrapolate from clusters of linguistic regularities pointers to a rhetorical function described as point of view, which may in turn be reflected in a formal text grammar.

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