In search of a non-violent discourse of development

The previous two articles on development discussed the origins of the concept of development and its critique by post-development thinkers as an outcome of a discourse on knowledge and power. Inherent in this line of thinking is the notion that knowledge entails ‘violence’ in which certain forms of knowledge are suppressed and others are exalted. If, as enunciated by Foucault, knowledge is an outcome of power, then how are we to make judgments? For example, if development is an outcome of a discourse on power, so are the critiques of development. What are the reasons to choose one over the other? There is no frame of reference, an arche to rest on and make value judgments of right and wrong. Are we then to accept knowledge as being relative? If then, relative to what?

This brings us to the search for a ‘democratic’ and ‘non-violent’ discourse that takes into account power and other relations in the creation of knowledge[1] while avoiding the trap of absolutism.

Saussure, the founder of linguistics, claimed that the relationship between the sign and the object (what it signifies) was arbitrary and that speech was more fundamental than writing. For example, there is no natural relationship between the actual object ‘table’ and the sign ‘table’. Nothing about the actual ‘table’ motivates us to choose the sign ‘table’ to signify it. The sign is denoted by convention. The establishment of convention is by repetition and acceptance. In other words, as Derrida puts it, a sign is associated with what it signifies, due to it being ‘iterable’. Therefore, a sign, whether in the spoken form or the written form, is instituted rather than being natural. Saussure’s contention that speech was primary in comparison to writing was based on the argument that the latter represented an imperfect adaptation of the former and that speech was more effective in communicating meaning than writing. However, if both speech and writing are instituted rather than being natural, Saussure has no basis for saying that the spoken form is more natural than the written form. Both are equally unnatural and arbitrary. Derrida introduces the category called ‘arche writing’ which includes both the written and the spoken word to denote that both are instituted and that they must be iterable so that what they signify is learnt. At the same time they carry the possibility of being misinterpreted or misunderstood with the result of a loss or change of meaning.

Therefore, according to Derrida, the common characteristics of signs are institution, iterability and possibility for misinterpretation. Derrida argues that if signs are to convey meaning, they have to be iterable, which means that they have to be used in different contexts. The nuances of meaning of a sign will change from one context to another and with it the possibility of misinterpretation. In other words, a sign must have iterability for it to gain meaning but the same iterability (in different contexts) results in a loss/change of meaning. This double edged process affects all our efforts to institute knowledge. For example, the sign ‘table’ is conventionalized when it is repeatedly used but in different contexts it can mean different types of tables and with time can be referred to a totally different object than was originally intended.

Knowledge is established through a process where concepts, arguments, incidents etc. which are deemed relevant are carried forward while those (concepts, arguments, incidents etc.) deemed irrelevant or unknown/unavailable are excluded[2]. The knowledge that is excluded will in turn return to destabilize the existing knowledge. Therefore, according to Derrida, what constitutes knowledge is essentially a decision that makes exclusions. In other words, the process of constitution of knowledge includes violence. However, such violence is necessary for us to have knowledge.

What Derrida means when he says ‘economy of violence’ is that the extent of violence can vary according to the status we give our decisions. When we create knowledge, should we account for it as absolute truth or the best knowledge that we have at that particular moment in time? Derrida’s analysis clearly suggests the latter. Derrida tries to avoid the main tendency in ontology to create complete theories of the human condition (deemed as objective and absolute) such as in Marxism or the neo-liberalism of the Washington Consensus. Derrida terms this ‘ontological totalizing.’ He argues that there is nothing called an absolute condition. For example, a notion such as a ‘pure/full democracy’ is a mirage as is a fully sovereign nation in that it excludes possibilities of exclusions. While a practicing democracy having ‘pure/full democracy’ as its ultimate goal is constantly questioning itself and including its exclusions, if at a time a society claims to have reached ‘pure/full democracy’ the society would no longer accept and respond to its exclusions. In other words, a move to create a pure/full democracy will result in the death of democracy! Derrida states that the attempt to identify a pure concept or create an ultimate society is impossible because ‘its condition of possibility is also its condition of impossibility’.

This approach is fundamentally different from accepting concepts as objective and absolute and for ‘development’ essentially means that there is no unique one-size-fits-all model of development. It also accepts that the concepts and models one arrives at are non-absolutes that can be revised and refined as appropriate. 

With ‘development’ having failed us, every society/country should endeavour to create its own models of development with the end goals[3] clearly in sight. These end-goals should be formulated relative to one’s world-view and culture. Next, we will look at one such world-view. This is not falling into the trap of relativism but evolving models based on fundamentals different to those based on consumerism, greed and economic growth. In the next blog, we shall look at the principles for one such model for my motherland, Sri Lanka.


[1] Knowledge is not reductionist and is not created in a vacuum but in a cultural setting within a Chinthanaya – See the 3 blog posts ‘On creation of knowledge.’   

[2] See the similarities to Foucault’s theorizing of knowledge and power

[3] End-goals that answer the question, ‘Development for what and for whom?’


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