Critical Discourse Analysis in China

21 Sep 2006

I had my third Critical Discourse Analysis (批评性话语分析 or CDA) class today. I was really starting to wonder what was up with that class, but I finally got it straight. You see, having no prior significant exposure to the field, I had this simple understanding of “discourse analysis” as basically “analyzing discourse.” It goes a bit beyond that. But CDA is even further removed:

> Critical discourse analysis has made the study of language into an interdisciplinary tool and can be used by scholars with various backgrounds, including media criticism. Most significantly, it offers the opportunity to adopt a social perspective in the cross-cultural study of media texts. As Gunter Kress points out, CDA has an “overtly political agenda,” which “serves to set CDA off…from other kinds of discourse analysis” and text linguistics, “as well as pragmatics and sociolinguistics.” While most forms of discourse analysis “aim to provide a better understanding of socio-cultural aspects of texts,” CDA “aims to provide accounts of the production, internal structure, and overall organization of texts.” One crucial difference is that CDA “aims to provide a critical dimension in its theoretical and descriptive accounts of texts.” [source]

Hmmm, so that explains why the first two weeks we kept talking about ideology (意识形态) rather than discourse itself. The key theorists we have examined already are:

Karl Marx (马克思) – assumed background knowledge
Antonio Gramsci (葛兰西)
Louis Althusser (阿尔都塞)
Jürgen Habermas (哈贝马斯)
Michel Foucault (福柯)

Can you see why the Chinese might be into this stuff? They even have a great word for it: 西马. That means something like “modern Western Marxist theory.” I get a kick out of that term. It seems like such a simple word, made up of two very basic characters, but it represents such a complex body of theory.

My current teacher has a philosophical crush on Foucault just like my first semester teacher had a philosophical crush on Wittgenstein. (In my personal experience, all female Chinese professors have a thing for brilliant gay philosophers.)

Before today’s class I had to read Althusser’s Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (意识形态与意识形态国家机器). These days I’m kinda short on time, though, so I had a little help. I don’t feel guilty… I think by “cheating” I understood the content better than my classmates, whose comments on the text mostly amounted to, “it was confusing.”

I’m not the kind of person that gets off on this kind of philosophical stuff. Sometimes I feel like an anti-intellectual (or maybe I’m just simple-minded?). To tell the truth, I’m rather disappointed with this semester’s classes. My major is “applied linguistics,” and I really am looking for material with application. I’m no longer a wide-eyed student eager to soak up any and all knowledge; I readily discard the information I feel I have no use for, and I don’t have a high tolerance for material I find overly theoretical with little practical value.

Today, though, CDA got a little more interesting. We starting actually applying the ideological framework we’d been discussing. It looks like we’re going to be looking at a lot of advertisements and analyzing them in the contexts of gender roles, social values, consumerism, etc. I was a little disappointed that our scope was going to be so focused, but I’ll certainly take analysis of ads over analysis of things like “the reproduction of the conditions of production” (Althusser) any day.

I suggested that we analyze TV commercials from past American presidential campaigns, and my teacher liked the idea, but she asked me to find them. Does anyone know where I can get that kind of video? I need the actual files, not just YouTube links (and the classroom computer is not going to support weird .flv files). Thanks!

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John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

Comments

  1. You’ve finally hit the motherlode of communist indoctrination. It’s tougher to come by at the undergraduate level in China. My friend had to study a lot of that bs too, also for a degree in a subject having nothing to do with his masters. Except he studied in America.

    The reason why you feel like an anti-intellectual and “don’t get this stuff” is because there’s nothing to get. It’s a giant pile of bullcrap.

  2. Ach, nonsense. It’s anything but bullcrap. In fact, an understanding of the concept of discourse is what I miss from most people posting on the internet, in, let’s say, semi-intellectual environments. The truth is that none of us writes or thinks truly individually; we all place ourselves into some kind of discourse. As long as you’re talking with your fellow villagepeople, that’s not of any importance, because you all grew up in and think in the same discourse. But as soon as people from all kinds of different backgrounds meet and discuss (like on the internet), it starts to get interesting. Sometimes it’s near impossible for them to communicate, because their views of how the world functions and why thinks are the way they are (the discourses they’re in) are so far removed from each other. Yet they continue to try and convince others of their viewpoint. In my opinion, all the flamewars and heated discussions on internet forums would be reduced to a minimum if people had a proper sense of discourse.

    It’s got nothing to do with communist indoctrination, by the way. The fact that the Chinese primarily analyze 西马 (very nice term) makes perfect sense, because Marxist discourse is the major Western school of thought that shaped their own society. If anything, it’s even the opposite of indoctrination, because it gives them the ability to think beyond prescriptive slogans and propaganda and discover the prevalent discourse behind them. To recognize discourses is one of the fundamental steps towards critical thinking, so again, it’s a pity that so few people can do so.

    John, I can see that reading all this stuff is not the most exciting thing on earth (I couldn’t read Althusser either, it made me fall asleep). Yet, if you can recognize a certain discourse by the words used alone, I think that’s a very valuable skill (and that’s truly applied linguistics). Linguist CDA is really the royal discipline of any research relating to discourses. I wish I could do it myself really.

  3. I forgot to say that this was a fantastic post, thanks for that.

  4. I sympathize with you, having to wade through all those absurdly esoteric philisophical texts in order to prove to your professors how badly you want that degree. Whatever you do, don’t let on what you really think about all that stuff! 🙂 Try to make it look like you love it as much as they do!

    I have to admit that that is one of the things that sapped a fair bit of my inspiration during my two semesters of graduate studies in Asian History (in TX). It seemed that everything had to be identified as either problematic, post-modern, or at least faux or ersatz in order to sufficiently impress the professors. I found myself envying friends in science or engineering graduate programs –where nothing is EVER dialectical or even post-modern.

    I often think that I could have gotten further by adopting the point of view that the actual usefulness of studying all that pseudo-intellectual BS might actually come from acquainting oneself with it well enough to be able to demonstrate to people who think it is the highest expression of culture just how irrelevant most of it actually is to the subject in question.

    Scott
    in Taipei

  5. You might try contacting the various presidential libraries. That might get only the winners’ ads tho. Any school w/ a media major should have an archive.

  6. If you find them on YouTube, you can download them with a Firefox plugin and then convert them to something more manageable from there with a conversion program.

    That should work.

  7. Matt, it’s entirely possible to think these philosophers are worth studying, even if you don’t support Communist government. In this day and age, how many Americans genuinely support Communism, anyway? I certainly don’t, and I still think elements of Marxist theory are pretty much self-evident, and have firmly entrenched itself into Western thought.

    “A giant pile of bullcrap” – I suspect you are, simply, anti-intellectual.

  8. Da Xiangchang Says: September 21, 2006 at 11:19 pm

    The only philosopher I know here is Marx. I’ve heard of Foucault, but can’t tell you what he stands for; the others are completely unknown to me. But if they’re anything like Marx, I would definitely say it’s “a giant pile of bullcrap.” Cuz anyone who tries to construct a government based on the idea that human beings would work for a common good over their own well-being is an idiot.

    Presidential ads should be good. Interesting ones include the Reagan ones where he’s practically made into the Marlboro Man–riding a horse, chopping wood, etc.–with absolutely NO policy explanations! That’ll tell you a lot about American values. 😉 And the Swiftboating ads should be good; cheap little, low-rent ads that destroyed John Kerry. The Willie Horton ad that derailed Dukakis’s presidential bid is also good; a lot of juicy race/class issues there. If you google “swiftboat ad” or “Willie Horton ad,” you should be able to come up with those.

  9. I think the whole “don’t bother me with theory, just show me an application now” attitude is pretty anti-intellectual, or at least anti-science.

    In the late 19th century, dozens of business men, politicians and various other non-intellectuals were asked what technological areas they felt were the most deserving of research over the next 50 years. Their answers were very similar. Many felt that steam engine design and various steel processes were the areas most worthy of research investment. Little did they know that the “overly theoretical” fields in physics and chemistry would yield planes, jets, rockets, space ships, nuclear power, lasers and many other wonders over the same half century.

  10. BTW, before giving up on youtube or worrying about file formats, you might want to look at Javimoya. It can help you download videos from Youtube, Google Video, and over a dozen different other sites. It can convert .flv files into a host of other formats, too.

  11. On the contrary, Matt is a true intellectual.

  12. Da Xiangchang Says: September 22, 2006 at 2:57 am

    “I think the whole ‘don’t bother me with theory, just show me an application now’ attitude is pretty anti-intellectual, or at least anti-science.” Well, I don’t think anybody is anti-theory but rather anti-BAD theory. And Marxism is just bad theory. And just because you don’t believe in Marx doesn’t mean you don’t believe in science; quite the opposite, I’d imagine. Because as a social scientist, you’d know people are generally selfish and would NEVER work for the common good over their own happiness, and any society based on such utopian ideas is bound to fail.

  13. That’s OK, it can be pretty rough being an intellectual in China 😉

  14. davesgonechina Says: September 22, 2006 at 10:53 am

    I’d search for bittorrents. John Edwards put bittorrents of his 2004 campaign ads, and after, on the web:

    http://download.movedigital.com/johnedwards/

    And there’s a motherlode over at Stanford’s Political Communication Lab.

    http://pcl.stanford.edu/campaigns/campaign2004/archive.html

    All in MP3 – burn ’em to a CD and pop it in a DVD player.

    As for the philosophers, I think it’s fantastic that stuff is being covered in a Chinese graduate program. Take Habermas, for example: his notion of the public sphere takes as a goal the ideal of unfettered discussion of issues between all people without ideological rhetoric. Who doesn’t want that idea to get traction in China? Or anywhere? I only wish that everyone of all walks of life was taught to pick apart media, and without the deep philosophical readings. Unfortunately most 20th century philosophers were insufferable prats when it came to using everyday language.

    Of course, it’s kinda far afield of applied linguistics. But worth thinking about; in translation work, for instance, its necessary to consider the social and cultural context of the message when considering which words to use. Not sure if it’s worth a whole semester though.

  15. Ben said:

    John, I can see that reading all this stuff is not the most exciting thing on earth (I couldn’t read Althusser either, it made me fall asleep). Yet, if you can recognize a certain discourse by the words used alone, I think that’s a very valuable skill (and that’s truly applied linguistics). Linguist CDA is really the royal discipline of any research relating to discourses. I wish I could do it myself really.

    I do agree with you there. Don’t worry, I haven’t given up on CDA, I was just a little frustrated after two classes on Marxist/Neo-Marxist ideology.

  16. Kit,

    Yes, that should work, but I’m going to save that as my last resort.

  17. Mark said:

    I think the whole “don’t bother me with theory, just show me an application now” attitude is pretty anti-intellectual, or at least anti-science.

    I’m not sure if you’re referring to me or not here, but I’m certainly not anti-theory. I love theory that I can use. A great example of that would be Krashen’s theories.

    I also don’t believe that theory that turns me off is worthless; I just don’t have much interest in studying it if I can’t use it in any way.

    It’s important to have focus, and rejecting theories is a part of one’s focus. Besides, that’s what theories are for: to be accepted or rejected.

  18. I have a graduate degree in philosophy (don’t laugh!), which compels me to chime in: it’s a giant pile of bullcrap. Some people find this particular kind of bullcrap interesting. Some don’t. I wouldn’t automatically label those who don’t “anti-intellectual.” Anyway, that’s hardly a bad thing to be at times. Also, there are probably more true Marxists in western academe than in China, but Foucault was definitely not one of them.

    …Ugh, Marx and Foucault — you simply can’t escape those bastards….two-thirds of the Holy Trinity in the University Church.

  19. Well, I don’t think anybody is anti-theory but rather anti-BAD theory.

    Good point, Da Xiangchang

    I’m not sure if you’re referring to me or not here, but I’m certainly not anti-theory. I love theory that I can use. A great example of that would be Krashen’s theories.

    I also don’t believe that theory that turns me off is worthless; I just don’t have much interest in studying it if I can’t use it in any way.

    I wasn’t refering to you specifically, John. Actually, I had engineers and business people in mind when I wrote it. Your comment just got me thinking along those lines. My point, though, which may be very unwelcome for an already busy grad student like yourself, was that applications for theoretical science and philosophy often pop-up when you least expect them to. In other words, I guess I still am “a wide-eyed student eager to soak up any and all knowledge”.

  20. 88, Da Xiangchang are correct with regards to my opinion. Life is short and I don’t want anyone forced – and that is the key word, because most people have these classes as requirements in graduate school- not electives. My friend had two or three Marxist/ post modern theory classes for a masters in literature. The point is, when you’re studying literature (reading Goethe or Milton, or Shakespeare), marxism doesn’t exactly come into play as much as maybe, Christian theology and Greek philosophy. Am I anti-intellectual because I dislike one group of intellectuals? No, I simply agree with Orwell’s quote that goes something like, “Only an intellectual could believe such nonsense.”

  21. I took a DA (discourse analysis) class before, I guess the approach was different because we had a completely different reading list. It was interesting but in the end it just got too practical to me, almost without structural basis (quite the opposite from how you feel). I mean they do have a framework, but different people just get different readings and interpretations from the same piece of data, as long as you can justify it. It’s not a rare thing for social science studies.

    (btw, you might want to check out Goffman, Goodwin, Sacks and Schegloff etc. for discourse and conversation analysis stuff if you are interested).

  22. [quote]The point is, when you’re studying literature (reading Goethe or Milton, or Shakespeare), marxism doesn’t exactly come into play as much as maybe, Christian theology and Greek philosophy.[/quote]

    That’s not a maybe but a definitely in regards to Christian theology and Neo-Platonism.

    Tough luck, John. Habermas and some of Foucault’s stuff can be interesting, but Marx and Gramsci and Althusser are almost total trash. How they relate to Applied Linguistics God only knows.

  23. Da Xiangchang Says: September 26, 2006 at 6:32 am

    This topic reminds me of the time I was in Nanjing in 1999 and I met this girl who was taking English classes at some school. I checked out her English books, and it had sentences like–and I ain’t kidding you here–“Before Liberation, we had nothing. After Liberation, we had hospitals, hotels, and nice apartments.” I was like, Whoa, I can’t believe there are actual countries that conform to the West’s often cartoonish image of communism!

  24. John, did you ever follow thru on Tim’s or Aidan’s suggestions for past presidential campaign ads? Aidan suggested the campaign PR person; I thought you might be able to find out who those people were from the party chairs at the time. Let us know if you hit pay dirt, but i bet you’ve been too busy otherwise to follow up, right?

  25. I am a Chinese grad student in Sociolinguistics. My paper has something to do with CDA. I really need some relevant materials and data to finish it. Could you offer me some? thank you very very much!

  26. To John: Hey, I am excited to see your blog, because it is my first time to discover someone talking about CDA in their blogs. I have got my MA degree in applied linguistics and my dissertation applies theories of CDA in analysing texts. I am interested in CDA field. As regards to the theorists you mentioned above, I know something about them indirectly and I find it difficult to get some books or other kind of materials relevant to their theories written in English. So if you can do me a favor and off me some relevant information, I will really appreciate your help. Thanks.

  27. hey John, it’s nice to see sb’s talking CDA in the blog. I accidently googled ur blog by searhcing some info. abt CDA as I’m doing lots reading commetaries abt it for 2moro’s lecture. I was doing the one wriiten by Van Dijk, T. A. and was like totaly blowed away….but luckily i got ur blog and found that u kinda explianed it in a simple n clear way (hope they’r all correct 🙂 anyway, there is no really RIT OR WRONG in acdemic field, everybody’s arguing and critisizing.

    BTW, i’m a chinese girl currently stuyding Public Relations in N.Z. right now, dont quite understand why we’ve got to go through all these CDA stuff coz seem to me it’s have nothing to do with PR :-p well i’ll figure it out in 2moro’s lecture. It’s nice to find ur blog n i wonder whcih uni r u stuyding in rit now, i’ll keep an eye on ur blog 🙂

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