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Review of  Posthumanism and Deconstructing Arguments


Reviewer: Kristin Terrill
Book Title: Posthumanism and Deconstructing Arguments
Book Author: Kieran O'Halloran
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Discourse Analysis
Issue Number: 29.3235

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Review:
SUMMARY

In “Posthumanism and Deconstructing Arguments: Corpora and Digitally-Driven Critical Analysis,” Kieran O’Halloran provides an elegant method for doing critical discourse analysis (CDA) in the context of digital humanities. CDA can be a challenge for instructors and learners in that it depends on extensive knowledge of both linguistic structures and political subjectivities. Corpus tools can be perceived as inaccessible as well, given that many corpus studies rely on computer programming and, again, expertise in linguistics. The method O’Halloran describes is geared toward learners, in that it does not depend on advanced study in linguistics, critical theory, or corpus methods.

The text type O’Halloran targets for demonstrations of this method is public sphere arguments. He employs a dialectic approach to argument analysis, identifying the major propositions in an argument and comparing these to refutations in counter-arguments. He then appropriates Jacques Derrida’s deconstructive reading practices in terms of selecting specific keywords to explore the multiple meanings and associations thereof. These analyses are aided by various corpus analysis software tools. The ultimate goal is identifying ‘straw man’ fallacies in public sphere arguments. The primary audience for this book is argument analysis instructors. The book is divided into an introduction and four parts: three chapters in part one explain the philosophical basis, two chapters in part two demonstrate the first strand of the proposed method, three chapters in part three demonstrate the second strand of the proposed method, and the two chapters in the fourth part discuss the implications of the proposed method in terms of argument analysis and posthumanism.

In the introduction, O’Halloran states that the overarching philosophical perspectives underlying the method are the concept of ‘deterritorialization’ proposed by Deleuze and Guattari in “A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia” (1987) and the cultural theory of posthumanism. ‘Deterritorialization’ is, crudely put (by me) the practice of appropriating an idea or thing and applying it productively outside its original context. A related concept is the ‘rhizome’ (of which this book is an example). The author defines it thus: “Deleuze and Guattari view the rhizome as a productive image of creative thought, as unpredictable, growing in various directions from multiple inputs and outputs, leading to fresh connections and discoveries” (p. 8). Lastly, this book is situated in posthumanism, a school of thought concerned with decentering humanity and moving away from positionalities that view humanity as inherently separate and hierarchically superior to machines, other animals, and nature (pp. 256-257).

Part One of the book describes the scholarly and philosophical basis for O’Halloran’s corpus analysis method. The basic ideas that make up his method include dialectic analysis and argument reconstruction. Chapter two provides a succinct, yet detailed explanation of various ways to approach argument analysis, including dialectic, rhetorical, and CDA. Each method is demonstrated using sample public sphere arguments, such as a 1998 speech by Tony Blair about diverging from entrenched political ideologies in the twenty-first century. In this chapter, the author introduces some key concepts for his method, including strawman fallacies, the distinction between discourse (i.e. any particular text) and Discourse (i.e. the whole set of texts dealing with related ideas), relevance and irrelevance in argument, and cohesion vs. coherence. In Chapter Three, he explains the concept of Derridean deconstruction, and why some aspects of Derrida’s philosophy of language are rejected. His explanation is situated in the context of DeSaussure and Kant. The last chapter in part one introduces the reader to the tradition of corpus linguistics situating these approaches with respect to language theory and argument analysis, and introducing the technical concepts of corpus linguistics that the book deals with: corpus, n-grams, keywords, and tagging, to illustrate how corpus methods reduce arbitrariness compared to other qualitative analytical methods.

The next two parts of this book contain various demonstrations of O’Halloran’s proposed method. Because these five chapters follow similar structures and have similar goals, I will not summarize each chapter individually. In general, the method consists of a) identifying a public sphere argument that represents a relatively powerful standpoint in a way that seems generally coherent; b) reconstructing the argument dialectically (to the extent possible) and generating a summary; c) identifying the critical concepts that contribute to the coherence of the argument; and d) using corpus tools to compare the ways that these concepts are presented outside the target text. The goal of this method is to determine whether an argument is ‘relevant,’ i.e. whether it responds to the actual concerns of the relatively powerless standpoint. Here, a key concept from the introduction is elaborated on: the positioning of the analyst within a ‘discursive subjectivity’ (part two) and an ‘ethical subjectivity’ (part three) as opposed to a ‘political subjectivity’ (traditional CDA). The ‘discursive subjectivity’ positions the analyst to understand how an argument’s use of a key idea reflects or distorts the way that idea is reflected generally . The ‘ethical subjectivity’ reflects the primary concerns about the topic as they are represented in the particular discourse of “relatively powerless Others” (p. 154). ‘Ethical subjectivity’ diverges from the overtly political bias described by van Dijk, 2001 (whom O’Halloran references) in that it does not require the analyst to have already-established political commitments. As such, this method may be more appropriate for learners compared to more politically-charged approaches to CDA.

Part Two contains the presentation of the ‘first strand’ of the method, which involves generating a ‘discursive subjectivity.’ This strand uses a large, general corpus to construct a “[familiarity] with the habitual discourse of a particular topic” (p. 99). For these demonstrations, the author selects essays about genetically modified agriculture and the second Iraq war and reconstructs the arguments dialectically. He then identifies the terms and concepts that are critical for the argument’s cohesive structure, and uses a large, general corpus (the 1.5 billion word UKWaC corpus [Ferraresi, Zanchetta, Baroni, & Bernardini, 2008] and the 2 billion word Oxford English Corpus [Oxford, 2005], respectively) to learn how those terms are typically presented in discourse.

Part three demonstrates the ‘second strand’ of the method, in which an analyst attempts to inhabit the ‘standpoint of the criticized,’ i.e. to see the argument from the perspective that the selected article/essay opposes. This ‘standpoint of the criticized’ is in turn the basis for developing an ‘ethical subjectivity.’ To accomplish this, O’Halloran constructed corpora based on prompts from the target essays: in one case, he used a hyperlink included in the selected argument and constructed a corpus of words used on the linked website; in another, he constructed a corpus from the texts in the comments section of the selected article; lastly, he used a webcrawler Visual Web Spider (NewProSoft, 2014), to construct a corpus from websites that articulate the opposing viewpoint. The author identified the goal of both strands as determining whether the argument made in the selected essay frames the opposition’s perspective completely and accurately. In all five demonstrations, he shows that the arguments hinge on depicting the opposing perspective inaccurately.

In the fourth and final part of the book, O’Halloran provides discussion and implications of the method. In this section he engages with some of the major limitations of dialectical analysis and CDA, suggesting that the proposed method overcomes these limitations. He also develops an argument for using technology in CDA, which is situated in the philosophy of posthumanism.

EVALUATION

This book presents a persuasive case for using corpus tools to teach CDA. The most compelling reasons include the comparative ease of using corpus tools versus traditional dialectical analysis, especially given that many argumentative writers do not explicitly state all of the premises of their arguments. O’Halloran also emphasizes the usefulness of his method for analysts who do not come to the argument with a well-informed political standpoint, which is a necessity for effective criticism, and also beyond the scope of most beginner discourse analysts (undergraduate students). Perhaps most importantly, he provides a means of harnessing the many affordances of digital discourse. His vision of the posthumanities (humanities, reconceived in posthumanism) is not limited to using computers to do what humans have already done, only faster. Rather, this method allows the computer to seek information by its own logic, following in its path and making suggestions intermittently. In this way an optimistic posthumanism is suggested, which is uplifted by the values and norms of the Enlightenment and supercharged with artificial intelligence.

O’Halloran also situates the method by providing accessible and relevant context. He describes the evolution of discourse analysis from Kant to de Saussure to Derrida. He provides those without a strong background in corpus linguistics with succinct and straightforward summaries of some of the important concepts that follow from the scholarship of John Sinclair. Perhaps most importantly, he provides a moving argument for evolving CDA from its roots in the works of Bloor & Bloor and Fairclough into the posthuman age. In keeping with the theme of “deterritorialization,” the author holds onto what is essential from CDA—advocacy for powerless Others, critical thinking, and systematic linguistic analysis—and moves beyond the constraints of political subjectivities to explore the full array of minoritarian voices amplified by emerging technologies. Philosophical discussion is not relegated to the introduction and conclusion sections, but is revisited and developed in each demonstration of the proposed method. In this way, the volume achieves coherence.

The modified version of CDA provided in this book suits the needs and affordances of twenty-first century scholarship. Ever mindful of pedagogical applications, he includes, especially in the fourth part, helpful guidance for teachers of discourse analysis. This guidance reflects the subscription to posthumanism that informs the entire text and the awareness that future discourse analysis will be conducted by scholars who are digital natives. Many of these readers and scholars may never need to develop comprehensive expertise on contemporary political subjectivities. Moreover, it is unethical (or at least, ethically questionable) to teach critical thinking by indoctrinating students into political subjectivities, even when these subjectivities are fundamental to entire schools of thought. Future scholars do need to develop critical thinking skills, and O’Halloran’s view is that these can be taught without sanitizing or glossing political ideologies. For instructors who share this view, this book contains a roadmap for teaching CDA without indoctrination. Analysts do not need to have picked a ‘side’ in order to engage in this posthuman CDA; the learner can, it is suggested, take a stance of “hospitality to the Other.” This stance, which Derrida adapts from “Levinas’ ethics of responsibility to the Other” (O’Halloran, 2017, p. 161), permits one to temporarily inhabit the standpoint of a relatively powerless Other to assess discourse from their perspective. Rather than commit to this perspective, the analyst is later able to return to the integrity of their own identity (whatever that might be, i.e. irrespective of the analyst’s identity/ies and privileges) having expanded their awareness.

That the method is independent from pre-existing political positionalities also makes it more widely applicable than traditional CDA. As political identities and perspectives continuously emerge and cause schisms among traditional groups, systems such as feminism, progressivism, and socialism fracture. The notion of ‘ethical subjectivity’ (as opposed to ‘political subjectivity’) accommodates this process of emergence and fracture, in fact, it depends on it. Thus, the method is not only posthuman in its use of technology, but also in its accommodation of emergent humanities. This method is not packaged as is ‘future-proof,’ but it does seem highly resistant to cultural evolution.

One important limitation of this book is that it remains to be seen whether the method can be effectively applied by other analysts, especially learners. O’Halloran deftly handles the multiple steps of his discourse analysis method, and clearly explains how he comes to each of his conclusions. Nevertheless, the method seems to require foundational knowledge in classical dialectical analysis and an ability to parse subtle differences in meaning among related terms. For instance, his analysis of an argument against ‘the New Atheism’ hinges on perceiving the difference between ‘religion’ and ‘religious faith’ (pp. 193-194). While this distinction is explained, it seems dubious whether an inexperienced analyst would be likely to notice a discrepancy in the use of such terms without having their attention drawn to it. The various applications of his method are conveyed concisely and convincingly; however, at times the analyses become complex and technical. Overall, the author’s explanations of complex and abstract ideas are remarkably accessible; however, passages which detail analytical processes are more challenging. This issue doesn’t negatively impact the persuasiveness of the sample analyses, but it does raise concerns about the usability of the method by learners.

In closing, I would like to comment that this is an immensely enjoyable book to read. I will disclose my own positionality as a graduate student, a learner of discourse analysis studies, and a newcomer to the idea of posthumanism. O’Halloran’s thoughtful, lively writing style is both engaging and informative. It is highly accessible for readers who have limited knowledge of the topics listed in the title. Finally, it thoroughly changed the way I think about argument analysis, and the directions this practice will take in the 21st century.

REFERENCES

Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. 1987. “A Thousand Plateaus : Capitalism and Schizophrenia.” Translation and foreword by Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Ferraresi, A., Zanchetta, E., Baroni, M., & Bernardini, S. 2008. ‘Introducing and evaluating UKWac’, in “Proceedings of the 4th Web as Corpus Workshop”, LREC, pp. 47-54. Available at http://clic.cimec.unitn.it/marco/publications/lrec2008/lrec08-ukwac.pdf.

O’Halloran, K. 2017. “Posthumanism and Deconstructing Arguments: Corpora and Digitally-Driven Critical Analysis.” Oxford: Routledge.

Oxford. 2005. “Oxford English Corpus,” Oxford: Oxford UP.

Dijk, T. van 2001. ‘Multidisciplinary CDA: A plea for diversity’, in R. Wodak and M. Meyer (eds), “Methods of Critical Discourse Analysis”, London: SAGE Publications, pp. 95-120.

NewProSoft, 2014. “Visual Web Spider.” Version 7.3. Available at https://visual-web-spider.en.uptodown.com/windows.
 
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Kristin Ilene Terrill is a PhD student of Applied Linguistics and Technology at Iowa State University. Her research interests include discourse analysis and language acquisition. Her goal is to teach linguistics at a university.

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ISBN-13: 9780415708777
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