Michel Foucault: Discourse

Key Concept

The idea of discourse constitutes a central element of Michel Foucault’s oeuvre, and one of the most readily appropriated Foucaultian terms, such that ‘Foucaultian discourse analysis’ now constitutes an academic field in its own right. This post therefore sets out to describe Foucault’s notion of discourse, and to define in broad terms the task of Foucaultian discourse analysis.

Foucault adopted the term ‘discourse’ to denote a historically contingent social system that produces knowledge and meaning. He notes that discourse is distinctly material in effect, producing what he calls ‘practices that systematically form the objects of which they speak’.1 Discourse is, thus, a way of organising knowledge that structures the constitution of social (and progressively global) relations through the collective understanding of the discursive logic and the acceptance of the discourse as social fact.2 For Foucault, the logic produced by a discourse is structurally related to the broader episteme (structure of knowledge) of the historical period in which it arises. However, discourses are produced by effects of power within a social order, and this power prescribes particular rules and categories which define the criteria for legitimating knowledge and truth within the discursive order. These rules and categories are considered a priori; that is, coming before the discourse.3 It is in this way that discourse masks its construction and capacity to produce knowledge and meaning. It is also in this way that discourse claims an irrefutable a‒historicity.4 Further, through its reiteration in society, the rules of discourse fix the meaning of statements or text to be conducive to the political rationality that underlies its production.5 Yet at the same time, the discourse hides both its capacity to fix meaning and its political intentions. It is as such that a discourse can mask itself as a-historical, universal, and scientific – that is, objective and stable. Accordingly, Stephen Gill describes Foucault’s concept of discourse as ‘a set of ideas and practices with particular conditions of existence, which are more or less institutionalised, but which may only be partially understood by those that they encompass.’6

As a discourse fixes text7 with a specific meaning, it disqualifies other meanings and interpretations. Foucault speaks of this discursive process as reducing the contingencies (the other meanings) of text, in order to eliminate the differences which could challenge or destabilise the meaning and power of the discourse:

In every society the production of discourse is at once controlled, selected, organised and redistributed by a certain number of procedures whose role is to ward off its powers and dangers, to gain mastery over its chance events, to evade its ponderous, formidable materiality.8

One of the ways in which this is achieved is through the commentaries of discourse: the statements or texts which continually reaffirm the meanings enacted by the discourse, without ever breaching the discursive paradigm. Foucault explains thus:

Commentary averts the chance element of discourse by giving it its due: it gives us the opportunity to say something other than the text itself, but on condition that it is the text itself which is uttered [re-iterated] and, in some ways, finalised. The open multiplicity, the fortuitousness, is transferred, by the principle of commentary, from what is liable to be said to the number, the form, the masks and the circumstances of repetition. The novelty lies no longer in what is said, but in its reappearance.9

Through this reiterative process discourse normalises and homogenises, including upon the bodies and subjectivities of those it dominates, as Foucault explores in Discipline and Punish 91975), and in some of his later lecture series.10 By fixing the meaning of text, and by pre-determining the categories of reason by which statements are accepted as knowledge, a discourse creates an epistemic reality and becomes a technique of control and discipline.11 That which does not conform to the enunciated truth of discourse is rendered deviant, that is, outside of discourse, and outside of society, sociality or the ‘sociable’. With effect, Foucault demonstrated these discursive practices of exclusion in the categories of reason and madness in his first major work, Madness and Civilisation.12

However, it is in one of his last published works that we find a compelling description of the function of discourse analysis as a technique of critique and problematisation: The Will to Knowledge: History of Sexuality Volume I.13 With respect to sexuality and the discourse which produces its historical meaning, Foucault writes:

Why has sexuality been so widely discussed, and what has been said about it? What were the effects of power generated by what was said? […] The central issue, then, is […] to account for the fact that it is spoken about, to discover who does the speaking, the positions and viewpoints from which they speak, the institutions which prompt people to speak about it and which store and distribute the things that are said. What is at issue, briefly, is the over‒all ‘discursive fact’, the way in which sex is ‘put into discourse’.14

What Foucault sets out in broad terms is the task of discourse analysis, for it must ‘account for the fact that [the discourse in question] is spoken about’, and analyse the effects of power that are produced by what is said. Moreover discourse analysis must seek to unfix and destabilise the accepted meanings, and to reveal the ways in which dominant discourses excludes, marginalises and oppresses realities that constitute, at least, equally valid claims to the question of how power could and should be exercised.

Rachel Adams is a Chief Researcher at the Human Sciences Research Council, South Africa

Show 14 footnotes

  1. Michel Foucault, Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language (1969) (trans. AM Sheridan Smith, 1972), 135-140 and 49. See also M Foucault ‘The Order of Discourse’ in R Young (ed) Untying the Text: A Post-Structuralist Reader (1981).
  2. In this aspect, Foucault and Jacques Lacan’s ‘discourses’ on discourse overlap, although their focus diverge. Whereas Lacan considers discourse from the point of view of psychoanalysis and, thus, the inter-subjective setting, Foucault considers discourse from the structural point of view of institutions and power. See J Lacan The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book XVII: The Other Side of Psychoanalysis (2007) (trans. R Grigg).
  3. Foucault Archaeology of Knowledge (note 1 above).
  4. Foucault Archaeology of Knowledge (note 1 above) 126-134.
  5. Foucault Archaeology of Knowledge (note 1 above) 126-134. 
  6. S Gill ‘Globalization, Market Civilisation and Disciplinary Neoliberalism’ (1995) 24 Millennium – Journal of International Studies 399, 402.
  7. Following Derrida, I use ‘text’ to denote both the written and the spoken word. See, GC Spivak ‘Translator’s Preface’ in J Derrida Of Grammatology (1967) (trans GC Spivak, 1997) ix.
  8. Foucault ‘The Order of Discourse’ (note 1 above), 53.
  9. Foucault Archaeology of Knowledge (note 1 above), 221.
  10. In his later work Foucault discusses how subjects internalise the order of discourse and reproduce its meaning and truth outwardly through confession or even through their own discourse. See, particularly, M Foucault On the Government of the Living: Lectures at the Collège de France 1979-1980 (trans. G Burchell, 2014).
  11. Foucault ‘The Order of Discourse’ (note 1 above).
  12. M Foucault Madness and Civilisation: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (1961) (trans. R Howard, 1973).
  13. M Foucault The Will to Knowledge: The History of Sexuality Volume 1 (1976) (trans. R Hurley, 1998).
  14. Ibid, 11.
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