Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Foucault on the functioning of discourse in society

If Foucault and other poststructuralist thinkers are right (and I believe they are), one is never outside of countervailing power relations in society, which means that, ineluctably, one is always enmeshed in multilayered, overlapping grids of discourses that function in an ambivalent manner to enable, and simultaneously control, direct, disseminate and domesticate human action and behaviour.

Nowhere has Foucault mapped these multiple functions of discourse in a more condensed, suggestive, and programmatic fashion than in his inaugural lecture (at the College de France), titled “The order of discourse” (translated as “The discourse on language”; in The Archaeology of Knowledge & The Discourse on Language. Trans. Smith, A.M.S. New York: Pantheon Books, pp. 215-237; 1972).

What Foucault shows here is that, at best one’s striving for freedom (which always presupposes the quasi-transcendental human condition of being free and not-free, spoken by discourse and able to challenge this very discourse) is articulated within a network of strategic relations and tactical moves. These are themselves made possible in accordance with the mechanisms regulated by a number of distinct, but overlapping principles with a double function, namely to allow discourses to operate in a productive manner, but simultaneously to control them.

A skeletal reconstruction of “The order of discourse” would look as follows: Foucault intimates that there are several principles that serve to control what would otherwise be a fearsome proliferation, in the guise of “ponderous materiality”, of discourses in society. These principles are classified under three main headings, which are themselves further subdivided into several groups (three under the first and second heading, and four under the last).

The three main headings, and their subdivisions are: principles or rules of exclusion (including prohibition, the division between reason and unreason or madness, and the opposition between truth and falsity); internal rules of control, or principles for classification, ordering and distribution (including commentary, the author and disciplines); and lastly, rules for the conditions of employment or application of discourse (including ritual, fellowships of discourse, doctrine and social appropriations of discourse, for example education).

What makes Foucault’s programmatic explication of these principles – which operate in every society in a very complex manner – so compelling, is his paradigmatically poststructuralist articulation of discursive-linguistic structures which, because they are invariably productive of power relations, impart a stable, if dizzyingly complex web or grid for understanding social and political relations. At the same time they intimate that these structures are, at a diachronic level, changing all the time in their specificity. In this way he accommodates both stability and change, being and becoming.

As an aside, this gives the lie to those commentators who have insisted that poststructuralist thinkers like Foucault, Lacan, Derrida, Kristeva and Deleuze are beyond the pale as far as rationality is concerned, decrying their work as being simply “irrational”. In fact their work is a multifaceted and complex interweaving or analysis, exploration and elaboration of those aspects of human life and subjectivity that strike one as being paradoxical or aporetic, and hence is predicated on a differentiated conception of rationality.

Returning to Foucault, “prohibition” has always operated in every society, but in a manner that displays an evolution and cultural specificity all its own. Similarly – and here the paradoxical nature of the way these principles function is clearly apparent – “commentary” functions in relation to what is regarded in every culture or different cultural domains (such as literature, science, philosophy and religion) as “fundamental texts”, but in such a way that it is premised on the assumption that no commentary (for example the Talmud) on such a fundamental text (here, the Torah) can say anything that is, strictly speaking, new in the sense of not being contained in the fundamental text already. But if this were the case, no commentary would be necessary, and yet, such commentaries flourish in relation to fundamental texts.

Moreover, although this distinction between commentaries and fundamental texts remains intact in every era, from time to time what was regarded as a commentary before, shifts into the position of a fundamental text which, in its turn, elicits commentaries; Derrida’s “commentary” on Husserl’s The origin of geometry (1978), which is an early articulation of deconstruction, would be a representative example.

For South African universities the most conspicuously relevant part of Foucault’s “The order of discourse” is one of the principles specified under rules for the conditions of employment of discourse, namely “social appropriations of discourse”, of which Foucault specifically names education. It is significant that he elaborates on it as follows (1972: 227):

“Education may well be, as of right, the instrument whereby every individual, in a society like our own, can gain access to any kind of discourse. But we well know that in its distribution, in what it permits and in what it prevents, it follows the well-trodden battle-lines of social conflict. Every educational system is a political means of maintaining or of modifying the appropriation of discourse, with the knowledge and the powers it carries with it.”

Elaborating on this, one could say that in the present era, bureaucracy, through its systematic, encompassing implementation, provides or imposes the “rules for the conditions of employment” and application of all those discourses that comprise university education. Moreover, corporatist discourse, although not essential to bureaucracy (which could operate just as well under fascist, or under socialist conditions), contingently, in the present era, fulfills a legitimating function regarding the former, and universities are not exempted from this.

Is it at all still possible, in the light of these compelling thoughts on the part of one of the most innovative thinkers of the 20th century, to doubt whether universities, as educational institutions, play a crucial role in the “maintenance” or “modification” of the manner in which different discourses are “appropriated” – through increasing bureaucratisation, which happens to be tacitly complicit with the principles of corporatisation – with undeniable cratological (power-related) or political consequences?

Apart from the possibility that always remains for the “specific intellectual”, namely to use the resources of the system to destabilise it through questioning, undermining assumptions of self-evidence, and so on (as several thinkers, using Foucault’s work, have shown), could one, through the employment of a certain kind of discourse, mitigate what might otherwise be the irresistible disciplining cratological effects of all these discursive networks within which one is inescapably enmeshed? I believe that one could, and there is more than one such discourse or discursive ensemble available to one. The point is not only to introduce it, but to expand on it wherever possible, letting it proliferate until it is everywhere available to everyone who seeks an alternative to bureaucracy and corporatism.*

*This is an excerpt from my chapter in a recently published book: “Truth, power, intellectuals and universities”. In African Philosophy and the Future of Africa, Presbey, G.M (Series editor), Walmsley, G. (Vol. Editor). Washington, DC: Council for Research in Values and Philosophy, Cultural Heritage and Contemporary Change, Series II, Africa, Vol. 14, 2011.

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  • 8 Responses to “Foucault on the functioning of discourse in society”

    1. Maria #

      “The order of discourse” instantiates a mobile grid the dynamic structure of which enables scholars to get to grips with many, if not most, of the salient social and political spheres of activity in societies past and present. It is Foucault at his genius best. Readers who are interested, should read the whole thing (not long), for although your “skeletal” reconstruction gives a good indication of what to expect there, the dense, or condensed, detail of Foucault’s “grid” is what makes it so fascinating, and virtually irrefutable. It has to be read together with “The Order of Things” and “The Archaeology of Knowledge”, though.

      March 19, 2012 at 4:52 pm
    2. Bert Olivier
      Bert #

      Sure, Maria; I agree with you – well said. You obviously know your Foucault.

      March 20, 2012 at 9:28 am
    3. Luther Blisset #

      This is all well and good but it does not say what kind of ‘anti-disciplinary’ discourse you are talking about? Also, having spent my life in universities (locally/ abroad) I feel the chances of this system (and the individuals in it) actually producing such a discourse is virtually nothing. These days I mostly feel like an atheist trapped in the church of academia. I guess, as Deleuze might say, I should go for a walk more often!

      March 20, 2012 at 10:29 am
    4. Values and systems of thought and the institutions that exist to promote them can only be self-confirming and change necessarily slow (and then not in a direction that will please everyone)..

      But as Luther Blisset points out, the alternative is always unclear and, being unclear, it is impossible to say or know how the proposal for one would improve things. On the other hand, no one can deny the possibility of a better world or demonstrate the invalidity of ‘a differentiated conception of rationality’. The two sides have only the same tools at their disposal.

      Where this conundrum confronts the individual with horrid choices, all it seems possible to say is that (s)he must work them through and take one.

      March 21, 2012 at 9:15 am
    5. Maria #

      Luther, the discourse(s) in question has (have) already been started, and is (are) already “circulating” – Foucault’s is only one of them. It is a matter of participating in it, always remembering that “discourse” is not a neutral thing – it is a coherent set of actions, interbraided with mutually reinforcing linguistic utterances. Mind you, if one REALLY wants change – fundamental change – in this world, one has to adopt such a discourse, with its accompanying modification in one’s actions. For many reasons I for one am convinced that, unless this happens, we are heading for a social meltdown of sorts.

      March 21, 2012 at 10:13 am
    6. Richard #

      Is this not simply evidence that academia operates in the same way as all other human structures, namely that there is a prevailing power-structure, which remains constant until assailed, after which a new power-structure will prevail? In some way it seems almost necessary in our primate world for the power-holders to hold hegemony. It is not necessarily even explicit. Lyotard uses an illustration from the visual arts (excuse the pun): can a figure in landscape ever be disguised to render it invisible but present, without it simply being the case that there is no figure present? Or perhaps economics is more salient: can one really imagine a world in which people simply work to produce, and don’t think of the exchange-value of their manufacture? A system of economics in which people simply produce almost like non-sentient organisms, and have their needs met, does not really seem possible. The human need for power relationships and hierarchical definition expressed even minutely in commercial branding and aesthetic projection make that seem unreachable. Surely this is similar in academia? As a one-time student, I well recall academic squabbles about names on papers, attributions, orders of precedence, etc., that revealed the overwhelming desire for pecking-order, even greater in academia than in commerce. Kuhn revealed how paradigms define science; power operates under the guise of rational discourse. This is all quite Nietzschean…

      March 26, 2012 at 4:16 am
    7. Bert Olivier
      Bert #

      Richard – Glad to encounter another person who seems to like Lyotard’s work! Wonderful illustrations of the workings of (the desire for) power that you provide here. In the same essay that I referred to, Foucault says something like, that the desire to ‘seize discourse’, if I recall correctly, is basic, and indicates the route to power. This is probably why communism, did not work as a supposed attempt at a political system without class differences – it seems impossible to eradicate the desire for (hierarchical) power. And yet, some of us don’t desire that at all – do you? I certainly don’t – the only kind of power that has ever attracted me, and still does, is intellectual power, which is also a kind of power. I have always declined the opportunity to be a head of department, or a director of a school, precisely because that kind of (illusion of) institutional power has always seemed to me to stand in the way of being a good academic. All the power-games in academia were so well explained by – was it Kissinger who said? – ‘The power struggles (or infighting?) in academia are so bitter because the stakes involved are so low’. Indeed very Nietzschean.

      March 26, 2012 at 12:24 pm
    8. Richard #

      I personally see no need for the power hierarchy, but I suppose the next logical step that would effect would be the imposition of a non-power hierarchy, which would in itself be a hierarchy. History seems to be nothing but the procession of power in various guises, be they tribal, religious, political, economic, ad infinitum. The odd thing about the current incarnation of power in the modern world – at least the American, and now the Chinese modern world (both of which are idealised in their own ways) – is that so many people aspire to what they represent, which is really simply a power hierarchy which is disguised as a meritocracy, but in reality is anything but. The pursuit of money as a vehicle to power has replaced the more easily recognised parliamentary route; the acquisition of that money is something to which anybody can aspire, but it is an aspiration not rooted in realism, since so many forms of patronage are required to make it possible. Odd how dangling the possibility of power in front of people (even if unrealistic) makes them more willing to accept its exercise by others. On a biological level, I suppose it is all explained by the intelligence-distribution curve (particularly the male one, if memory is correct), which has flattened middle and fairly thick tails, set up to have leaders and followers. The female curve is much more evenly distributed, with slimmer tails: more cluster around the middle and so females have more consensus and less need for leaders.

      March 26, 2012 at 2:12 pm

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