Imaginary power: the discursive formation of expert positions as political identities

To illustrate imaginary power, an example from economic expert discourses on the possible economic effects of Brexit on the UK economy will be selected. The following excerpt is taken from a response by one group of economists to another group called “Economists for Brexit". Patrick Minford, professor at Cardiff University and one of the “Economists for Brexit”, predicts a welfare gain from Brexit of 4% GDP growth, provided by a “British Alone” strategy that would mean removing all barriers to world trade. The authors of the response, from which the following excerpt is taken, are appointed by the Centre for Economic Performance (a research centre at the London School of Economics) and reject Minford s expertise as follows:

Minford s results stem from assuming that small changes in trade costs have tremendously large effects on trade volumes: according to his model, the falls in tariffs become enormously magnified because each country purchases only from the lowest cost supplier.

In reality, everyone does not simply bu y from the cheapest supplier

Products are different when made by different countries and trade is affected by the distance between countries, their size, history and wealth (the ‘gravity relationship’). Trade costs are not just government-created trade barriers. Product differentiation and gravity is incorporated into modern trade models — these predict that after Brexit the UK will continue to trade more with the EU than other countries as it remains our geographically closest neighbour. Consequently, we will be worse off because we will face higher trade costs with the EU.

(Economists for Brexit: A Critique by Sampson et ah, 2016)

In the following discourse analysis of the excerpt I want to show how enun- ciative markers form speaker positions which are a discursive precondition for social role and identity formation (Angermuller, 2014; Flottum, 2005; Zien- kowski, 2016). Enunciative markers evoke linguistic speaker roles that can be adopted by diverse social actors in order to create identity' images. The image of “me” and the images of “others” are important parts of an actors identity'/ image. They are created as discursive roles. The idea of this approach is that such discursive roles always operate with diverse images of the speaker and the other (Goffman, 1974). Based on Lacan’s and Foucault’s discourse theory (Foucault, 1972; Lacan, 1991), the following analysis shows how such images are formed by the textual use of deixis, negation, booster and hedges in the aforementioned discourse.

For illustrative reasons, I only take one sentence (in italics) which is of central importance in this process of identity' and image formation. Whereas the first part presents Minford’s thesis very quickly', the authors use this sentence to bridge the argumentation from Minford’s argument to their own standpoint. The linguistic modalities that are at work in this sentence have nothing to do with the conceptual content of either expert statement (Minford’s and their own). Rather, it works as a discursive-cognitive tool that directs the consciousness of any potential reader to certain images of opponent (Minford) and proponent (authors). Those discursive markers produce a certain ethos, as Maingueneau would put it (Maingueneau, 1999), and they introduce the dimension of political struggle into expert discourses (Maesse, 2017a; Piih- ringer & Hirte, 2015). Therefore, economic expert discourses are not simply representing ideas, concepts and arguments; they are also a tool in social conflicts over hegemony (O’Rourke & Hogan, 2014).

In reality, everyone does not simply buy from the cheapest supplier

In a first step, let’s take a look at the formal level of this short utterance. The speaker’s position is basically produced by antagonism to Minford’s economic view. This antagonism is evoked by an operator of negation (“not”), a presupposition booster (“in reality”) and a hedger (“simply”). What does it mean for the production of certain images? In a first move, the authors create their own image by opposing Minford’s position. In order to reject that image, an image of “Minford" (the other) must be produced first. Two discursive perspectives (points of view: pov) represent this image of the other (where (a) refers to the “other” of the discourse and (1) to the position of the speaker):

pov,(a): “small changes in trade costs have tremendously large effects on trade volumes (since) the falls in tariffs become enormously magnified because each country purchases only from the lowest cost supplier” (presupposed here, taken from the aforementioned statement [in italics])

Point of view, introduces the voice of Minford in this sentence via implication in order to oppose it:

pov,(l): NO pov,, BECAUSE = “not real” (presupposition: true statements must be “real”, evoked by “in reality'’)

Therefore, the formulation “in reality” evokes a two-step cognitive process: in a first step, the initial statement is reintroduced; and in a second step, the speaker goes on to distance themselves from it. But this second step is only made possible by making a positive reference to something that is “real”. This comes in the statement: “everyone does not simply buy from the cheapest supplier”. Thus, the solidarity' with speaker 2 is represented by the (1) in pov,, whereas opposition to the image of the opponent is indicated by' the (a) in pov,. Now, the discourse reaches its final moment because the image of the “me” position is developing:

pov,(a): “every'one does buy from the cheapest supplier”

But before the speaker comes to their argument (“Products are different when made by different countries and trade is affected by the distance between countries, their size, history and wealth (the ‘gravity relationship’)”) the opponent is again evoked by the discourse through negation (“not”):

pov4(l): NO pov.

This is even highlighted by a booster (“simply”):

pov.(l): pov, IS OBVIOUSLY CORRECT BECAUSE pov, IS SO RIDICULOUS (implicit comment on pov4, evoked by “simply”)

What we can learn from this discourse is that the “me” image (all pov with (1)) cannot be produced without permanently repeating and reintroducing the image of the “other” (Minford, all pov with (a)). Furthermore, both discursive images are obviously the result of a certain polemical rhetoric. The other is not only presented twice (pov!,) but is three times rejected (pov,45). Strictly speaking, it can be said that the other has five images: two positive images and three rejections of them.

Depending on the emotional contexts in which those statements are read and used for further discourses, polemical modalities create huge gaps between political and professional counterparties. In this example, it is easily imaginable how “rational people” with “obvious and simple economic arguments” enter into strict opposition to a group of economists who have “lost contact with reality”. On the other hand, in a situation where the institutional infrastructure of the UK reality becomes more and more precarious, people such as Minford can easily present “old-fashioned” economic arguments that are, in the eyes of many other experts, far away from the data and the current economic discussion. The moment of institutional disintegration might be when “zombies” (Zizek) enter the scene, because the Lacanian “real” suspends the “symbolic reality” (guaranteed by the institutional order).

However one reads this situation, depending on the standpoint and possible contexts of controversy, economic expert discourses can produce strong images of social actors. And these images can have a huge influence on how certain economic arguments are presented and perceived. This is basically the idea of imaginary power. Imaginary power cannot make certain things true or false. It is, rather, a way of producing images of real actors, and the potential reputation of these real social actors highly depends on the image that we have in mind when we listen to a speech, argumentation or an economic expert proposal. Discursive markers such as deixis, negation, boosters and hedges (and many more) can contribute to creating those identity images.

Symbolic power: how economic experts get reputation and legitimacy

In processes of formation and attribution of reputation, the image is only one aspect, even if this aspect is fundamentally important to construct social individuals as professional actors. In addition, symbolic power can support (or hinder) the formation of power connected to certain actors in discourses. Whereas the linguistic dimension forms images as power devices, symbolic power is not solely produced by ordinary speech acts. It rather presupposes the existence and operation of an institutionalised field that is not immediately involved in these politico-economic struggles. According to the sociology of professions, experts are always recognised by non-experts. For this reason, symbolic power must be produced in a place where it is not used, and it must be used in a place where it is not directly produced. The fields of production (the “factories of symbolic goods” as places of value creation) are not the fields of consumption (“the markets” as sites of price realisation). The structural condition for the possibility of legitimacy of expertise as such is based on the existence of a constellation of different sub-fields between academia and society (Hirschfeld & Gengnagel, 2017). The formation of reputation is finally the product of various discourses taking place at the interface of these sub-fields between academia and society.

Therefore, the world of economic experts is embedded in a trans-epistemic field that reaches across academia, politics, media and the economy (Maesse, 2015), and it produces diverse sources of legitimacy (Schmidt-Wellenburg, 2017b). Symbolic power is the product of discursive interplay between the academic field, the political field, the economic field and public discourses in the media. The possibility to confer respect, prestige and legitimacy on an economic expert in public political discourse is based on the production of “excellence” and “elite” labels as “mythical capital” in academia (Maesse, 2017b). According to this model, almost all economists who are involved in societal discourses on economic policy — such as the Minford debate presented earlier — can profit from “discourses of excellence” produced within academic daily life. Academia is like a “political production facility” for manufacturing symbolic capital to be used in political and media discourses.

In economics, discourses of excellence emerge within strong academic hierarchies that are formed by diverse concentric networks. The most important mechanism at work in these hierarchisations and elitisations is the mutual interaction of research rankings, excellence-oriented funding from the Research Excellence Framework (REF), the de facto dominance of only a few economics departments in the UK (such as the London School of Economics (LSE), Oxford, University College London, Warwick and a few others) and the role of exclusive clubs and networks such as the Centre for Economic Policy Research (CEPR) and other informal settings (Lee, Pham, & Gu, 2013; Maesse, 2018b). The detailed interplay of these technologies cannot be analysed here, but what can be said is that those elite networks do not simply produce academic elite positions. What they actually form is the idea of excellence, i.e. the material exemplification of the possibility that academic exceptionalism - as “excellence” — can exist.

Many economists from these elite networks obtain powerful positions within academia, and many of them move on to work in banks, international organisations, governments and central banks. Symbolic power is not attached to a single position in these kinds of networks. It is rather a structural effect of the entire network, and in discourses it can be easily attached to any sort of economic statement. For example, Patrick Minford is an economics professor at Cardiff University and simultaneously a Fellow of the CEPR network. The authors of the “response” to Minford’s Brexit position are appointed by the LSE, which has a highly prestigious economics department. Therefore, both opponents and proponents of the previously analysed discourse may benefit from the institutional reputation of the very same elite structure. Symbolic power is therefore not connected to “true concepts” or “functioning ideas”. Rather, it privileges, authorises and legitimises economic experts’ speaker positions in discourses.

 
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