On schools of fish, or Open-heart surgery as an encounter with (post-)Theory

What if
It was as simple
As the gentle terror
Of falling snow[…]

The jury is in – I got the feedback on my Political Discourse Theory course assignment, and now I have no excuse not to write about the experience of my first head-on collision with theory.

Despite discovering early on that Laclau and Mouffe go down so much better with a glass of wine, I swallowed most of Political Discourse Theory of the ‘Essex School’ with tea, consumed by the pint (I have a teapot marked ‘1 Pt’), and, when things went from bad to worse, coffee.

And they did. Go from bad to worse, that is. After all, it’s hardly a joke, to be staring into the void of poststructuralism enhanced with psychoanalysis for three months on end. The experience is not, strictly speaking, for the faint-hearted.

For those  who have no clue what I am talking about: the Political Discourse Theory (PDT) of the ‘Essex School’ is an anti-essentialist, post-foundationalist, post-structuralist, Post-Marxist social theory (sometimes referred to as post-theory). It builds upon (and transforms in the process) Marxist analysis of power and domination, structural linguistics, and psychoanalysis to explain societal processes and structures. If this confused you even further – if I were to describe in one sentence what PDT ‘says’ (I have been asked to), it would be this: society is not a fixed structure but is continuously re-created through discourse (any practice which uses symbols, including but not limited to language), and there is an antagonism always present in and defining the nature of societal processes. (I am not showing this oversimplified description to my course instructors for the fear of them revoking my grade.)

It all began fairly innocently. As before any course, I, as a good student, diligently collected what I needed to read, took out a virgin notebook, and sharpened my pencil. I made my first pint of tea, opened the first chapter of the book, and put my pencil to paper (ok, it’s actually a ‘Remove by Friction’ Pilot pen, the only pen I am able to write more than a sentence with).

And that was pretty much the end of normalcy.

As I was negotiating the argument by Laclau, starting somewhere in Marx’s approaches to ideology and leading to the ‘impossibility of society’, my notebook’s pristine pages disappeared under the messy smir of  arrows, loops and brackets – despite the ‘Remove by Friction’ function of my pen. Somewhere in the middle of the third page my handwriting suddenly changed. From the centred handwriting I’d had for the past twenty years I, without any warning, went back to the slanted handwriting of my late teens. This was the first incidence of the dislocatory, disfiguring effect of PDT I experienced and literally incorporated.

My understanding of PDT was informed as much, if not more, by misunderstandings, the reading I didn’t do, the gaps, the silences, the puzzled question marks, as it was by the things I actually took trouble to read and partially understand. A typical PDT note-taking included reading twenty pages by Laclau on Foucault, corresponding in my notebook to the title ‘Foucault’ and an empty page with a big question mark. Those pages still gape there, and they are dearer to me than the frantic slanted handwriting of the pages I actually managed to fill.

But other than that, I found the theory highly intuitive. A lot of it was guesswork. Usually by the time we went into the fourth hour, well exceeding the schedule time, I would start to feel like I was getting on the other side of it, guessing the endings of the sentences. ‘You can leave any time, if you need to’, said David – but most of us stayed way beyond the schedule time, mesmerised by the Theory: its charisma, close to seductiveness, and poetry.

For many weeks, every Thursday, I drank my tea, listened to David or Jenny, and looked at the falling snow. I observed the snow, the pallid sunshine, the other side of the inlet, barely visible through the haze of crystals hanging in the air. ‘It is through the demonisation of a section of the population that a society reaches a sense of its own cohesion’, said David, quoting Laclau, and a tight string burst in me. I imagined an open-heart surgery being performed on my heart. The snow mixed with the words of the Theory, which fell into my heart, melting.

All this time on the other side of the Baltic some kind of demonisation was happening. Two columns were lining the main street of my city: one of police cars, and the other of military trucks. ‘Where did they all come from?’ I asked. ‘I don’t know, they just… materialised’, my friend answered on the other side of the phone line. As if woven overnight from frost and blizzard.

I looked at the Swedish news app and saw a picture of a military truck blocking a street in St. Petersburg. The media was reporting on St. Petersburg citizens walking to work along the frozen canals – how exotic – typical of the Western media. But that’s not what attracted my attention. The truck donned a smug coat of arms which I had never seen before. It read: ‘Rosgvardia’. What on earth is Rosgvardia, thought I? I asked Wiki, and Wiki obligingly told me that it was a new military division created in the last couple of years. But to my utter befuddlement, Wiki also matter-of-factly told me that this wasn’t the only military division created in the last couple of years. In fact, there has emerged about half a dozen other new military divisions, all bearing smug brands, and articulating their functions very nicely. More precisely, all of them articulated essentially one function: to protect the citizens from any kind of disturbance to their peace of mind and well-being.

No-one talked about it. We don’t talk about it, because it is mauvais ton. We don’t talk about it, because Laclau said: ‘One speaks in order to say something that is essentially unsayable’, and we don’t want to try to say the unsayable. We don’t talk for many reasons, one of them being alienation. I wrote on Facebook: ‘No comment’, and a friend replied: ‘Better not to’ – with a smiley face. But we meant the opposite things. And we both knew that we meant the opposite things. We were divided by the gap, the split, the ‘radical negativity’, the ‘irreducible antagonism’ of the Theory. And we said it without saying it. And this is how I became the Other – not radically so, just a little bit. (And not only because of the vague remarks on the political situation, but because I mentioned the Theory; I used words which don’t exist in plain English, and did so in inappropriate contexts. And I again became the Other. Not irreducibly so, just a trifle.)

No-one talked about Russia, except Laclau and Mouffe. They open the first chapter of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy by placing the ‘humble origins’ of hegemony in Russian social democracy. What they don’t mention is the Russian Constituent Assembly of 1917 – a perfect textbook example of a ‘populist moment’, an infinite horizon of possibilities where anything was truly, authentically possible; the light shining through a split in the fabric, if only for a short moment, between the oppression of absolutism and the darkness of the Civil War and Terror. The arrival of a ‘hegemony’, which then was ‘re-articulated’ again. Which is being re-articulated again. Which will be re-articulated again.

I went to a seminar outside university and used plain language – Swedish this time – to talk about the ‘the social’ and ‘the political’. I used a photo in my presentation of a policeman, clad in black, beating a man lying on the snow. The man was wearing a face mask. A few people stood in the background, wearing face masks – protests or not, no-one cancelled Covid. Flurries of snow swirled up in the air from the police boots. The snow fell on the frozen surface of the inlet outside my window, and it fell on the military trucks lining the frozen canals in St. Petersburg, and it fell on the columns of military trucks and police cars in my home city, disappearing into horizon behind the veil of falling snow.

When the course was over, I was left alone with the Theory. There was no one to shield me from it anymore, and I stared right into the abyss. Writing the course assignment was one of the scariest things. It was happening as if against my will. The words of my interviewees were thrown into a meat-grinder of theory and spat out, unrecognisable – or rather, grotesquely recognisable in their deformity. I threw them in, phrase by phrase, and when none were left to be thrown in, I jumped in myself. I came out on the other side, poststructuralised, like a Picasso painting – and there was no going back.

‘Power analysis seems almost a given in academic research – but when we come to poststructuralists, it kind of fizzles out…’ – I carefully suggested, almost complainingly. ‘Yes’, my supervisor said, also carefully. ‘These theories are… subtler’. Even though I completely understand what she means and agree in theory (excuse the pun), in reality there was nothing subtle about the meat-grinder experience.

But the radically negative nature of it was offset, with a huge surplus, by the benevolence of the course instructors. They made radical negativity enormously positive. I don’t know how I would have managed to remain (relatively) sane in the insulation of the Zoom universe of my first PhD year, if it wasn’t, in part, for them. They, and the other students in the course, were parts of my carefully woven lifeline.

At the very end, the last five minutes of the course, as everyone was expressing their sadness over it being over, David pronounced: ‘We are a small school of fish’. At this point there was some commotion, as he was checking with Jenny if it was the right term. A school of fish? A group of fish? (Apparently, poststructuralist discourse theory doesn’t always lead to proficiency in biodiversity discourse.) ‘I’m not sure’, said Jenny, ‘and neither am I sure where you’re going with this, David…’ ‘Well’, David continued, ‘we are a small school of fish, and there are a lot of sharks out there’. He didn’t name the sharks, and a silence (‘discursive, non-linguistic’) ensued.

(I surmise who some of the sharks might be, and I drafted a comprehensive list of the usual suspects, but I was dissuaded by my censor from publicly sharing it… It’s a very large ocean, indeed.)

‘Will you be part of the school of fish?’ – asked a fellow PhD student later, when we got together to talk about the Theory. I laughed and said ‘maybe, and you?’ He said ‘yes’. My post ‘On theoretical promiscuity and methodological agnosticism’ is yet to be written, and I am ready to open the docks any time, swimming into the sea with the other poststructuralist fishes.

What are/were your encounters with theory, and what helped you to live to tell the story?

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