It is currently a favorite complaint and/or explanation: a “hegemonic discourse” is repressing someone. Thus, for instance, it is said that “patriarchal” societies practice a hegemonic masculinist discourse, and that this is why when gender-feminists try to say their truth they are driven to such linguistic enormities. Or again, Christians who actually believe the gospel are said to bind the religious impulses of their fellow denominationalists with dogmatically grammared language, which is why when the latter try to express the depths within them these come out seeming so paltry. Et cetera.
A hegemonic discourse, we are told, makes things that ought to be said unsayable; therefore those who nevertheless try to say them find themselves uttering nonsense though they know they have sense to say. The phrase “hegemonic discourse” is well established (in a hegemonic discourse?), and is equally beloved of charlatans and genuine thinkers; in view of the latter, there must be something to it.
But what is a hegemonic discourse? So soon as the question is allowed, its answer is-embarrassingly?-apparent: it is the way those talk who at any given time and place happen to be doing the talking. Perhaps they have come to be or remain in this position by shutting others up, by manipulating them, or by doing something else reprehensible. But it is not apparent that this must always be so. Maybe others just like to hear them.
There is of course the possibility that everyone could be doing the talking, that there would be no outsiders at all. The realization of this possibility is awaited by Jewish or Christian faith as the Kingdom of Heaven.
It is important to notice: nothing would necessarily be different about discourse in itself merely because it had no outsiders. It is just that nobody would complain of hegemony. Even in the Kingdom of Heaven there could still be governing linguistic rules of which someone could complain if, impossibly, there were anyone who wanted to.
If some of us at a time and place short of the Kingdom are not among those doing the talking and are unwillingly in that position, we have two recourses. We can join the going conversation, learning to talk its way. Or we can try to replace the way of the going conversation with the way we would talk if we were doing the talking; such an attempt is known as a revolution. By neither move can we create a discourse that is not hegemonic. Until the Kingdom comes, somebody will still be doing the talking and somebody else will still not be doing the talking. Unless, of course, nobody at all is talking anymore.
All discourse is enabled by grammar, by implicit rules that let us, e.g., put “horse” and “fast”/”slow” together but not “horse” and “vaporous”/”condensed.” Grammar is primarily learned and enforced not by direct study-recalling junior high, that would be a lost cause indeed- but by apprenticed practice. Some people know not to say “My horse is condensed,” and those who do not, learn it by trying to talk to them. Listen to a clever child with a new word try it out in endless combinations, alert to every response showing which work and which do not-and mourn the irremediable suffering of the child with no practiced talkers to talk to.
Thus a hegemonic discourse is finally just the way those talk from whom we learn to talk at all. Absent a hegemonic discourse and short of the Kingdom, there could only be silence. This could be the pre-linguistic silence of mystic experience. Or it could be the post-linguistic silence of fascist cacophony, in which speech has ceased to be discourse and has become simply one way in which we try to cause one another to behave as we want.
This does not mean that hegemonic discourses are not in fact oppressive, that we can never legitimately complain of a going hegemony and should attempt no revolutions. It is the human condition after the fall: what enables us is also what oppresses us. There are several such complaints I have been myself making for decades. To choose an example that is materially almost irrelevant to this article, I have urged the metaphysically revolutionary proposition, “God has plenty of time. It is we who want to be timeless.” And I am indeed oppressed by the fact that folk adamantly presume a semantic rule of the very discourse I am assaulting, that for them the word “God” is assumed beyond question to be equivalent to “timeless entity,” so that they “hear me saying” the nonsense, “The timeless one has plenty of time.”
So if I can cry, “Down with the hegemony of Hellenic theological discourse, which hinders my saying what must be said,” why should not others cry, “Down with the hegemony of patriarchal discourse”? Or “capitalist discourse.” Or whatever. And of course there is no reason why not. Those who disapprove of such revolutions can then oppose them.
There is, however, one current cry that transfers to another genus. “Down with the hegemony of hegemonic discourse” is on its face only an especially inept pleonasm. But its actual force is desperate: it must be a demand either for silence or for the Kingdom of Heaven. The Kingdom not being in our achieving, and the silence of real mysticism being not commonly wanted, the demand works out as a plea for fascism’s substitution of causation for discourse, for the replacement of politics by verbal manipulation.
Two questions present themselves. In what discourse do we complain of or defend a hegemonic discourse? And what would a non-hegemonic discourse be like? I will take up the second first.
If and when a non-hegemonic discourse comes to pass, perhaps it will prove different simply as discourse, in ways now unspecifiable. Perhaps it will have an altogether new kind of grammar. But this need not happen for there to be a non-hegemonic discourse. The necessary and sufficient condition is simply that those doing the talking do not merely by so doing come to fill the role we now call hegemonic. That is, a non- hegemonic discourse will come to pass when nobody any longer must be taught to talk. In other words, it will come to pass when history is no longer constituted by a succession of generations. A non-hegemonic discourse could therefore only be the discourse of the biblical Eschaton. Karl Marx noted this point, and repackaged it as the doctrine of ideology.
Marx’s hypothesis that the biblical expectation of the Kingdom could be separated from biblical faith in God has-lamentably-been tested in a massive historical experiment and has been falsified. We may therefore assert with fully public confidence: there will be a non-hegemonic discourse only if there is the Bible’s God and only if and when he achieves his final Kingdom and its discourse. This is of course a bitter pill for most who now complain of hegemonic discourse: there can be non- hegemonic discourse only if there is what they most dread, a real Hegemon. Those who first marshalled the noun on which the adjective depends were fathers of the Church, who used it for God, or an apostle or angel as a guide to God, or the deepest part of the soul as the place where God rules.
Discourse that was not oppressive would be a discourse with two characteristics. It would be the way people talked who were all those who wanted to talk. And all its actual sentences would be true, so that it repelled no other truth there was to say. As St. Thomas observed, such a doctrine could only be that of God and his perfected saints. Do we in this world want to cultivate a less oppressive-though still, of course, hegemonic-discourse? Then we must work at approximating the discourse of the saints in heaven. According to the Bible there is a way to do that: belong to one community with the saints and talk with them, join the people of the Lord (which is En glish for Adonai which is Hebrew for Hegemon).
And now we can turn also to the first question. How can it be that a hegemonic discourse only hinders what cannot be said within it? How can it be that, in however strangulated a fashion, we do sometimes manage to say what cannot be said in the going conversation? In what discourse do we protest a hegemonic discourse? Or oppose such a protest?
Evidently there must be a meta-hegemonic discourse (take that, fellow neologists!), a discourse that enables both any given ruling discourse and language beyond the latter’s sway. If there is God, and if he talks to us and lets us answer, there is just such a discourse. Indeed, vice versa: if there is a transcending discourse, the one sustaining it must simply thereby be God. Precisely the possibility of protesting a human linguistic hegemony, whether wisely or foolishly, is an evidence of God. Those who want no Hegemon must, and regularly do, finally deny the possibility of transcending the going human conversation and despairingly acquiesce in its hegemony.
The reason we are not fully enslaved to the fellow humans from whom we learn to talk is that finally it is not they but God who so talks as to enable talking. There can be rebellion against, or defense of, any given discourse if and only if there is a Word before all human conversation that is the latter’s possibility and beginning.
According to the heart of Christian interpretation-the doctrine that God is triune-there is indeed a meta-hegemonic discourse, a Conversation in progress before all created conversations. (This heart of Christian doctrine, one should note, is not so foreign to Judaism as might be supposed.) According to Genesis, in and as the beginning, God says, “Let there be” and whatever is, is. According to John’s version of Genesis, in the beginning God’s Word is with God so utterly as to be God, and all things come to be by being mentioned in this Word. God speaks his Word, which so completely is his truth as to be like him a person, who then must respond. This conversation, prototypically for any good conversation, has a Spirit that is of one being with the conversants. Thus God is a Conversation.
It is by being called into this Discourse that all who ever talk learn to talk. Creatures talk because God has decided to make room in himself for others to join in the Conversation he himself is. God creates all things by calling them in the third person: “Let there be.” But some he not only speaks about but speaks to and asks for response. Just thereby, those creatures themselves come to speak, and so are human.
The one meta-hegemonic Discourse is thus not itself a monologue; no one lays down the first and last grammar, since God himself is not merely one. The meta-hegemonic Discourse is antecedently in itself a true conversation. And moreover it is, in the contingency of the divine choice, a conversation that includes us. Therefore we live, move, and have our being in and over against a discourse that is liberating rather than oppressive. There will be a great discourse-indeed, a la the Book of Revelation, a great liturgy-in which all join with perfect freedom. And insofar as we can hope already to speak freely, it is by anticipatory joining in that liturgy.
Therefore the penultimate enterprise of seeking less oppressive linguistic polities is not hopeless. We must only be aware of what a tremendous thing we are then attempting, and of the true possibilities and limits of human enterprise on such lines. My suspicion is that if we achieve such awareness, we will stop worrying about “hegemonic discourse.
Robert W. Jenson teaches in the Department of Religion at St. Olaf College.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?