Object of Discourse

The concept of object of discourse (Fr. “objet de discours”; also translated as discursive object or discourse object) was introduced by Jean-Blaise Grize, in relation to the schematization process. An object of discourse is basically a thing, a situation, as characterized by its plasticity, that is to say, permanently re-designed throughout the discourse or the interaction.

1. Cluster of a word

At the language level, the cluster of an object [“faisceau d’objet”] is investigated on the basis of the word designating that object. It is defined as:

[The] set of aspects normally attached to the object. Its elements are of three kinds: properties, relations and patterns of action. So the cluster of “rose” brings together properties like ‘to be red’ […], relationships like […] ‘to be more beautiful than’, patterns of action like ‘to fade’.” (Grize 1990, p. 78-79)

The cluster attracted by an object is defined at the notional level and does not coincide either with linguistic categories such as those used in semantic analysis (id., p. 79), with lexicographical elements used in dictionaries, with elements psychologically associated with the object, or with ontological features claiming to grasp the being of the object, S. Categorization. The cluster of a word results from an aggregation of discourses using this word (id., p. 78), S. Orientation; Words as Arguments; Inference; Polyphony. This concept can be compared with the stereotypes associated with a word, or, better, to the set of its favorite linguistic collocations, as established in corpus linguistics.

2. Cluster of an object of discourse

At the discourse level, the elements which make up the cluster attached to a specific object of discourse are not known a priori, but are empirically constructed, on the basis of the examination of the actual discourse under analysis. A specific object of discourse is developed via the progressive aggregation of the contextual properties attributed to it, the beings it is associated with, the events in which it participates, etc.

The study of objects of discourse focuses on their plasticity, as they are progressively produced and transformed in discourse: their mode of introduction, the evolution of the contexts to which they are attached. It overlaps with the grammatical study of designation paradigms (Mortureux 1993); a designation paradigm is the set of words and expressions constituting the anaphoric chain related to an evolving object of discourse. It is part of the study of textual cohesion and coherence, and overlaps essential observations of the rhetoric on the displacements of meaning.

Objects of discourse may be opposed to “logical objects”. Classical logic references stable objects; according to the principle of identity every occurrence of the sign (signifier) “a” is strictly equivalent to another one. As a consequence, any variation in the scope of the reference of “a” introduced in the development of discourse are considered fallacious. S. Fallacy; Ambiguity.

3. Objects of discourse in argumentative situations

A discourse may concern a large number of objects, and to study the development of each one might turn out to be unworkable; boundaries must be set. As far as argumentation studies are concerned, they must focus on the most relevant objects, that is on conflicting objects, and primarily on those mentioned in the formulation of the argumentative question. Just as peaceful, undisputed, affirmations are considered to be true, undisputed objects are considered to be real and stable in their reference.
Conflicting objects are associated with conflicting claims. The observation of their discursive development, and the correlative establishment of their contrastive characterization is a simple and practical method used to expose their argumentative relevance.

The following data is taken from a discussion between students, and concerns the conditions a person must fulfill to obtain French citizenship; the key question “who? who can obtain French citizenship?” immediately structures the debate. The two antagonistic positions taken by the participants are clearly mirrored by the two systems of designations they use to construct this “who?”.

— All the students agree that there is an unproblematic group, who should have an automatic right to French citizenship, that being, “the persecuted”.

— One group of students supports the claim that “the process of obtaining citizenship should be facilitated”. Immigrants are constructed as people having a right to French citizenship; this group is further specified as:

workforce; people who came to work in periods of prosperity
people we asked to come;
people we welcomed;
people who have been there for a very long time
their relatives
their children     – born in France – born in another country

— Another group of students support the claim that “the process of obtaining citizenship should be toughened”. In this set of co-oriented discourses, immigrants are constructed as people having no right to French citizenship, and these individuals are referred to as:

undocumented immigrants
people with problems; having or creating problems
illegal immigrants;
immigrants by “practicality” (economic migrants)
“anyone”, (that is indiscriminate foreign people asking for citizenship).

In reality, one can certainly observe that among the people applying for French citizenship there are certainly both undocumented people and people who came to France many years ago in order to work. Despite this, each group of students schematizes immigrants (as a group) as either one or the other.

For another example of diverging constructions of causality as an object of discourse, S. Cause — Effect.

This method shows how a specific light is cast on an object of discourse, how it is “spotlighted” (Grize), or given a discursive “presence”, in Perelman & Olbrechts-Tyteca’s terminology ([1958], 115-120).