The Discursive Gap

“I came to identify as asexual this way: I have never understood the desire to engage in the acts that define sex, from kissing on down the list. My body doesn’t function that way – it doesn’t excite me. Other things excite me: a good protest, a fine steak, reaching the top of a mountain after a long climb. Sex doesn’t excite me. It’s not fun for me, it’s not interesting. This issue haunted me for years until finally, when I was engaged to be married, I knew that I couldn’t walk down the aisle until I solved what we called the sex issue. So I went into therapy. I explored every corner and crevice of my childhood. After psychological reasons were ruled out, I took hormone tests to see if my body was functioning properly. When the tests came back as “normal”, I still lobbied to be prescribed low-levels of testosterone. I got the prescription and took testosterone to jump start my sex drive. The testosterone didn’t work, so I switched to progesterone after a few months. I lamented the feeling that I was somehow “broken”, that I was somehow “less of a person”. I continued to look for psychological reasons in therapy. I continued to engage in sexual activities even though I’d rather take the LSATs or swim the Pacific than be naked with another human. After over a year of hormone therapy, after exclusive sex therapy with my partner, after the kind of lament and struggle that so many of the kids I mentor experience when they’re struggling with their sexuality, my relationship ended. I continued in therapy, and I continued to wonder why I was broken.”

The respondent was led to actively search for explanations of her experienced difference. Underlying the journey she undertook was a discursive gap between her emotional experience and the resources that were socially and culturally available to articulate that experience both to herself and to others. The lack of congruence between what she was experiencing and the terms available within and through which to think/speak about those experiences led her to seek out new terms. This is a somewhat subtle cognitive process and one which, given the theoretical excesses which characterize social theory after the linguistic turn, often finds itself occluded. The process of making our way through the world necessitates internal conversation, particularly given the intensification of individual choice which characterizes late capitalism, as daily life poses a plethora of questions – ranging from the practical to the existential – which demand internal deliberation about what to do and who to be (Archer 2003, 2007). Similarly, in so far as we are social beings, we converse with others and, where they are close to us, we spend much time giving an account of ourselves and engaging with the account others give of us. In all cases we rely on cultural resources (ideas, concepts, terms, metaphors, analogies etc) in these activities and these exercise powers of constraint and enablement in relation to our attempts to articulate or elaborate an underlying experiential reality. It is important to note that, given “our internal conversation is constituted as much by symbols, images, emotions and remembered sensations as it is by components of limitation” this account does not entail a deterministic relation between language and thought (Archer 2007: 72). But nonetheless our capacity for making sense of our experience is shaped by the characteristics of the cultural resources available to us.

The experiences of the respondent above illustrate the biographical significance of the discursive gap. While the account in question was reported retrospectively, thus coming to possess narrative characteristics, it can be analyzed in terms of distinct stages (synchronic) in order to understand the dynamics which lead to biographical change (diachronic). In this case the respondent spent many years searching for a satisfying and sustainable explanation for her personal experience. The ongoing assumption that this was a pathology led her to seek medical and therapeutic explanations of this state of affairs. However having searched for such explanations on a number of occasions, the subsequent incongruence of these medical-therapeutic categories with her lived experience compelled her to continue this search. The categories socio-culturally available to her at a given point in time (synchronic) were inadequate for making sense of her lived experience, thus prompting her to negotiate a path through the world in search for new categories which would be congruent with her lived experience (diachronic).

The movement is agential: it is deliberate, chosen and conscious. Yet if it is construed in an excessively rationalistic or cognitive way, the underlying dynamic is lost. Her movement over time isn’t driven by intellectualised reflection upon her situation – although she undoubtedly is intellectually reflecting upon it – rather it is driven by the gap between she is moved to try and say and what she is able to say. It is a struggle to articulate who she is and what she experiences. The direction her life takes is driven by a lack of the cultural resources she contingently needs to express an important experience of who she is, both in internal conversation and to external others. Without an appreciation of the disjuncture between cognition and categories (what we’re trying to ‘say’ and the terms available to us within and through which to ‘say’ it), as well as between the synchronic and diachronic (the situations we’re in at particular times and the responses they provoke in us and our lives over time) our accounts of human agency, as well as how it plays itself out over the life course, are going to be lop-sided: either over-cognitive or under-cognitive, missing a crucial and universal aspect of human experience which because of its ambiguous status vis-a-vis language – it is neither linguistic nor non-linguistic – too often escapes attention by theorists and researchers alike.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.