Who's in charge?: Text, cognition, socialization and the freedom of spirit


This paper investigates the conflict between two models of text and cognition available to and made use of by those who take a critical approach to discourse analysis. The first model treats text and discourse as a repository of “concealed” messages that lead us in certain inevitable conceptual and practical directions and over which we have little if any control (cf. Lakoff, van Dijk). The opposing model looks at text as an unconscious reflection of our mind and therefore its ‘scientific’ study will reveal hidden truths about our biases (cf. Fairclough, Wodak). These assumptions are so ingrained that, in fact, many discourse analysts would not even recognize them as two opposing models of text and cognition. However, this paper claims that it is precisely the conflict between these two models (frames) that contributes to many of the issues critical approaches to discourse analysis have been criticized for by scholars like Stubbs and Widdowson. The solution lies, I will argue, in adopting a sociologically realistic theory of cognition and cognitively realistic theory of text (based on an essentially constructionist theory of grammar, cf. Croft, Langacker, Goldberg, Lakoff). Otherwise, it is impossible to account for the many real instances of discourse cognition to which neither of the above models applies, as well as the often ignored problem of the role of the analyst.
An analysis of the reactions to Barack Obama’s speech on race relations during the US presidential primaries (February 2008) will reveal that the relationship between the text, cognition and the agency of the discourse participants is much more dynamic and multifaceted than is usually assumed by critical discourse analysts. The struggle over control between text, cognition and socialization can be seen played out in the space of just several weeks over vast expanses of text but not a text devoid of human agency, as is usually the case in traditional analyses, but rather text exhibiting a remarkable freedom of human spirit within the constraints of the cognitive and social structures within which our existence is embedded.