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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