Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Summary - Foucault: The Discourse on Language

Power and Discourse
  • Discourse is a  central terms in Michel Foucault’s work—he was particularly interested in knowledge of human beings and power that acts on human beings

  • Power and knowledge are intrinsically related

  • In his “Discourse on Language” Foucault introduces us to power and knowledge through analysis of control of discourse

  • In broadest sense, discourse anything written, said or communicated using signs

  • Specifically: writing in an area of technical knowledge, ie, areas in which there are specialists, specialized or technical knowledge and specialized or technical vocabulary

  • Each era will define its own discourses, and these definitions may vary (even radically) overtime

  • Technical specialists work together to establish their field & its dominant ideas and have ever-increasing power over people

  • And these discourses have shaped the structure of society
    • consider, for example, the discourse on madness
    • it’s produced by psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and other experts
    • it defines the roles of madness--what it is, who has it, how to address it . . .
    • and so defines the roles of normalcy that structure society

A Discourse on Language

  • was his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France, where he was appointed in 1970

  • serves as a kind of introductory essay for the work he proposed to do, which appears later as The Archaeology of Knowledge

  • An explanation of his own aims and methods

  • Foucault writes that he would like "freed from the obligation to begin." Instead, "speech would proceed from me, while I stood in its path-a slender gap-the point of its possible disappearance" (215). 

  • FOUCAULT is commenting here on two of central concepts, "discourse" and "the author function." Heidegger had said that "language speaks through us," but FOUCAULT will suggest that discourses provide the limits to what can and can't be said or heard.
  • The author function is what FOUCAULT prefers to the romantic, humanist, modern notion of the author. 

  • For instance, we wouldn't consider a grocery list by Vonnegut to be "authored" by him. 

  • So it's not the "author" that produces the oeuvre but rather the oeuvre that produces the author or the author function. 

  • So, in these opening paragraphs, FOUCAULT is illustrating the way in which this particular "discourse" on language is capable of producing him as author. 

  • In more general terms for FOUCAULT it is discourse as a medium for power that produces subjects or, as he puts it, "speaking subjects," which, for him, are the only kind there are.

Foucault’s Hypothesis
  • in every society the production of discourse is at once
    • controlled,
    • selected,
    • organized and
    • redistributed
  • according to a certain number of procedures, whose role is "to avert its powers and its dangers, to cope with chance events, to evade its ponderous, awesome materiality."

  • Discourse is controlled in order to have its transformative potential checked, in order to limit the occurrence of the unexpected, and to limit the substance of discourse as an event in itselFoucault

  • Discourse is controlled externally through the rules of exclusion, which include prohibition.

The Control of Discourse
  • Rules of Exclusion (external delimitations)
  • Discourse operates by "rules of exclusion" concerning what is prohibited. 

  • We know perfectly well that we are not free to say just anything, when we like or where we like.
  • There are three types of prohibition:
    • objects (what can be spoken of)
    • ritual (where and how one may speak), and
    • the privileged or exclusive right to speak of certain subjects (who may speak).

The Control of Discourse

These prohibitions interrelate, reinforce and complement each other, forming a complex web, continually subject to modification. 

The areas most tightly woven today are politics & sexuality.

The prohibitions surrounding speech reveal its links with desire and power.

The opposition of reason and madness
·      old division, which used to count mad speech either as wholly irrational, therefore devoid of truth, or revealing a hidden rationality, therefore almost preternaturally true, is still here, but proceeds along different lines--institutions, psychiatrists, etc. The psychiatrist listens to speech invested with desire, crediting itself--for its greater exaltation or its greater anguish--with terrible powers.

The opposition between true and false.

              That helps to show the "rules of exclusion" that govern discourses and do not-cannot-recognize a whole range of thoughts or speech that do not conform in terms of object, ritual, or right to speak. 

              Will to truth - the final rule of exclusion, and one becoming increasingly central is the division into true and false.

§  The will to truth, a changing system of inclusion into truthfulness that governs scope and use of knowledge.

§  The will to knowledge determines what truth is and what kind of truth is important.

§  Foucault documents the shift from truth being manifest in the speaker to being manifests in the content of speech and the subjects to be discussed.

§  The will to truth exerts constant pressure on discourse but yet is invisible.

Internal Systems   
  • Discourse employs a system of internal rules dealing with classification, ordering, and distribution in the control of events and chance. Although Foucault calls them rules, they are best understood as forms.

  • One such rule is commentary.
i.              Commentary, commenting on a primary text, allows new discourse while controlling the content of the discourse.
ii.             Foucault discusses the myths and stories that color or shape our national discourses; at the same time, the discourse shapes the ways in which we understand the stories, the "commentary" on the seminal stories like The Odyssey, for instance.
iii.            Ultimately commentary is nothing but recitation as commentators are merely announcing what has already been stated, albeit less explicitly, in the primary text.
for the control & delimitation of discourse

Here, discourse exercises its own control, rules regarding principles of classification, ordering and distribution. It is as though we were now involved in the mastery of another dimension of discourse: that of events and chance.

Internal Systems
  1. Another such rule is the author.
i.              The author also is directed at chance events by imposing the limit of individuality (the author’s ‘I’).

ii.             While the function of the scientific author as an index of truthfulness has declined over time, the author is increasingly important in literature.

iii.            Thus the literary author is lead to consider what to write, less in relation to the individual work under construction, but instead in relation to an oeuvre, or life’s work.

  • The principle does not deny the existence of individuals who write, however when they write, they put on the author-function, and texts are organized respectively around the function, not the individual.


  • Another mechanism of control internal to discourse is the disciplines.
    1. Disciplines are anonymous (unlike author) and not repetitious (unlike commentary).
    2. They constitute a field in which there is a shared set of definitions, methods, and/or subject matter.

  • Discourse is also controlled by rules governing “the conditions under which discourse may be employed.”

  • Such rules limit access to discourse.

  •  Education is the means whereby discourse is appropriated by society as educational systems maintain the divisions within society (disciplines, fellowships of discourse, etc.).

o   Furthermore, only some speaking subjects may deploy certain discourses: "none may enter into discourse on a specific subject unless he has satisfied certain conditions or if he is not, from the outset, qualified to do so.

Conditions of Deployment
Conditions under which discourse can be employed
Who is qualified to enter into the discourse on a specific subject?
Not all areas of discourse are equally open & penetrable.
Moreover, exchange and communication probably cannot operate independently of complex but restrictive systems.

1.    Ritual defines the qualifications and role of the speaker, lays down the gestures to be made, the behavior, circumstances and a whole range of signs, and the supposed or imposed significance of the words, their effect on those addressed, the limitation of their constraining validity. 

2.    Fellowship of discourse, whose function is to preserve or to reproduce discourse, but in order that it should circulate within a closed community, according to strict regulations, without those in possession being dispossessed by this very distribution. It functions through various schema of exclusivity and disclosure.

3.    Doctrine (religious, political, philosophical, etc)

Doctrine is opposed to fellowship of discourse, which limits class of speakers

4.    Education: the social appropriation of discourse

------Most of the time these four conditions are linked together, constituting great edifices that distribute speakers among the different types of discourse, and which appropriate those types of discourse to certain categories of subject

...these are the main rules for the subjection of discourse.

Philosophical Themes
  • conforming to & reinforcing the activity of limitation and exclusion: i.e. eliding the reality of discourse
1.    The theme of the founding subject

--------The task of the founding subject is to animate the empty forms of language with his objectives; through the thickness and inertia of empty things, he grasps intuitively the meanings lying within them.

-------conforming to & reinforcing the activity of limitation and exclusion: i.e. eliding the reality of discourse
2.    The theme of originating experience 

(the opposing theme to 1.)

-------This asserts, in the case of experience, that even before it could be grasped in the form of a cogito, prior significations, in some ways already spoken, were circulating in the world. i.e. there is meaning out there which we find
3.    The theme of universal mediation

------The logos is already discourse, or things and events which insensibly become discourse in the unfolding of essential secrets.

The result of any of these is that discourse is seen only as an activity, or writing
1.    Reading
2.    or exchange
3.    involving only and exchange of signs. 

Discourse in placing itself as the signified of a signifier, disappears itselFoucault

Elucidation of Discourse
  • Logophobia
    • The apparent supremacy given discourse in our culture masks a fear; all our forms of discourse serve to control it, to relieve its richness of its most dangerous elements; to organize its disorder.
    • This logophobia is a fear of the mass of spoken things, the possibility of errant, unrestrained discourse.

o   Decisions in order to erase logophobia
§  In order to analyze the conditions of this fear, we need to resolve ourselves to accept three conditions, which our current thinking rather tends to resist, and which belong to the three groups of function Foucault has just mentioned:

1.     to question our will to truth;
2.     to restore to discourse its character as an event;
3.     to abolish the sovereignty of the signifier.

Methodological Demands
  • We are a civilization absolutely dependent on discourse-logophilia seems to define us (228). 

  • But FOUCAULT suggests that behind the logophilia is logophobia, a fear that, without all these discursive "taboos, . . . barriers, thresholds and limits," discourse might be dangerous and uncontrollable-a fear "of everything that could possibly be violent, discontinuous, querulous, disordered even and perilous in it [discourse], of the incessant, disorderly buzzing of discourse" (228, 229).

  • To counter this fear (and, presumably, our subject to disciplines and discourses), we must "question our will to truth; . . . restore to discourse its character as an event; . . . [and] abolish the sovereignty of the signifier" (229). We can do this through these tasks:

  1. The principle of reversal
    Reversal: rather than thinking we can identify the source of a discourse and its principles, we must rather "recognize the negative activity of the cut-out and rarefaction of discourse.”

  2. The principle of discontinuity
    Discontinuity: we must not imagine that as an alternative to the negative activity of discourse there is some kind of place of "limitless discourse, continuous and silent, repressed and driven back" which it is our task to restore. Rather, we must recognize discourse as a "discontinuous activity."

  3. The principle of specificity
    Specificity: we must not imagine that we can make sense of or decipher a particular discourse by a "prior system of significations" that is more true to reality, one that will reveal all and make sense of everything; the world does not present us with "a legible face." Rather, discourse is "a violence that we do to things, or, at all events, . . . a practice we impose upon them.”

  4. The principle of exteriority
    Exteriority: there is no center, no core, no heart of a discourse where true meaning resides. Rather, discourses must be understood by their "external conditions of existence."

  • Through the mechanisms and rules just described, the true nature of discourse is concealed. “It would have appeared to have ensured that to discourse should appear merely as a certain interjection between speaking and thinking” (p. 227).
i.              Discourse is an event imbued with power.
ii.             Accordingly, discourse is afforded its particular status and meaning because it is feared and must be controlled.
  • Therefore, in order to undertake analysis of the discourse, one must:
iv.           question the will to truth
v.            restore to discourse its character as an event
vi.           dispense with the belief that meaning is discovered and not created.

More about Foucault:

Recommended books by and on Foucault:


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