4 Contradictions in practice

The four strands of theoretical work that inform research in the Discourse Unit have a complicated and shifting internal relationship with one another. Focussing on the tensions between the different approaches is, in practice, more productive than an attempt to synthesise them into one agreed and shared position. This is partly because each strand is necessarily critical of the other three.

Let us briefly review some of those disagreements. Marxism attempts to place feminism only within a socialist feminist framework, finds in Foucault much abstract talk about power which ignores class privilege in capitalist society, and sees psychoanalysis as the reflection of and prison of individualised misery. Feminism in turn is concerned at the way Marxism conceals the oppression of women in its narrative of the history of classes, the way foucauldians sabotage the idea of gender solidarity and consciousness, and the way psychoanalysis keeps smuggling in normative accounts of sexual desire. Foucauldians meanwhile are indignant at Marxism's continued adherence to totalising grand theory, at feminism's identification of power only with male designs, and at the psychoanalytic spiral of oppressive and self-blaming confession. Psychoanalysis then responds by characterising Marxism as the infantile search for ideal conflict-free worlds, feminism as pathological denial of sexual difference, and foucauldian work as a warrant for perversity. Against all of these, literary theories and postmodern writers who have helped us to interpret these resources themselves take fright at Marxism's seeming certain belief in the stories it weaves, feminism's supposed lack of playful irony, Foucault's continual attempt to tie texts to practices, and the psychoanalytic obsession with real reasons for things below the surface.

We are happy to work with the conflicts this mixture of positions sets up. Different researchers in the Unit have different allegiances to aspects of the frameworks, and would want to select and layer them upon one another in various contradictory ways. We are contradictory people. This does not mean, however, that we follow postmodernists and do not care which theory is used. We do not think, with psychoanalysis, that things are so buried in the unconscious as to be always mysterious and irretrievable. We do not believe that only the exercise of the one powerful will over another, as Foucault seems to recommend, should determine which account we adopt. We do not want to respond by following some liberal varieties of feminist research into methodological pluralism in which all approaches are valid. And we will not want to wait, as some Marxists do, for the revolution to address these things.

We are making an intervention in psychology and the social order, sometimes in its theoretical apparatus, and sometimes more directly in the institutions of the discipline (see Burman et al., 1996b). New directions in critical discursive research may take the form of a more thorough grounding in semiotics and social practice (e.g., Parker and the Bolton Discourse Network, 1999) or practical intervention in service provision (e.g., Chantler et al., 2001), but the key question is how we make use of academic space for radical work not how we can best adapt to that space. In that sense, the ‘future’ of the Discourse Unit depends on the trajectories of those conducting quite disparate types of research whose overall shape cannot be determined in advance. We say in our publicity that members of the unit were involved in Psychology Politics Resistance, and now in Asylum magazine for example, but the political agendas of the researchers we have brought together are quite diverse. The paper frames what we do around ‘discourse’, and so the kinds of links that will be most relevant here can be followed from the Discourse Unit website. However, the word ‘critical’ here also connects us to political projects in and against the psy-complex, and this is sometimes, but not always, what is meant nowadays by ‘critical psychology’. For radical resources in critical psychology follow the links in the Critical Psychology website (and for a review of theoretical resources in ‘critical psychology’ see Parker, 1999b). What the theoretical resources do is to lay open a field of debate, and we then try, in different ways to structure that debate for a research community suspicious of traditional psychology and wanting to produce something more critical, more useful.

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