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Jan 15, 2014

The Order of Discourse: Foucault


Michel Foucault, from “The Order of Discourse
R. Young, ed. Untying the Text (1971), pp. 52-64

In a refreshing change in structure from that of many other theorists, Foucault actually begins this excerpt with a thesis that he proceeds to explain and explore in the remainder of the piece: “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” (210).

From there, Foucault goes on to detail what he calls the “procedures of exclusion” (210). He notes that the prohibition of discussing certain topics (namely sexuality and politics) “very soon reveal [discourse's] link with desire and with power” (211); that is, “discourse is not simply that which translates struggles or systems of domination, but is the thing for which and by which there is struggle, discourse is the power which is to be seized” (211).

Next, Foucault discusses the exclusive procedure inherent in the reason / madness binary, noting that the terms are, to a certain extent, defined (or perhaps delineated) arbitrarily and that how and where that distinction is made determines the manner in which one accepts the discourse coming from either side of the binary. In a bold move, he then asks if one could not, in a similar manner, “consider the opposition between true and false as a third system of exclusion” (212). To make this move, one must not think “on the level of a proposition, on the inside of a discourse” but instead “on a different scale [by asking] what this will to truth has been and constantly is, across our discourses, this will to truth which has crossed so many centuries of our history” (212). Just as standards of reason and madness can vary from one society or era to another, Foucault argues, standards of how truth and falsehood are measured can change. To be more specific, a given society’s value system can directly affect what is and is not considered true; to demonstrate this phenomenon, Foucault notes that “a day came [in the course of Western history] when truth was displaced from the ritualised, efficacious and just act of enunciations, towards the utterance itself, its meaning, its form, its object, its relation to its reference” (212).

The will to truth, which Foucault calls “that prodigious machinery designed to exclude” (214), is institutionally supported and reinforced (by libraries, laboratories, etc.). Furthermore, while the will to truth “exerts a sort of pressure and something like a power of constraint… on other discourses” (213), it is also the procedure least noticed, for “‘true’ discourse, freed from desire and power by the necessity of its form, cannot recognise the will to truth which pervades it” (214).

Having thus discussed “procedures for controlling and delimiting discourse [which] operate in a sense from the exterior,” Foucault moves on to discuss “internal procedures… which function rather as principles of classification, of ordering, of distribution, as if this time another dimension of discourse had to be mastered: that of events and chance” (214). These internal procedures include commentary (“a kind of gradation among discourses” (215)), the author (“a principle of grouping of discourses, conceived as the unity and origin of their meanings, as the focus of their coherence” (216)), and disciplines (a principle of organization “defined by a domain of objects, a set of methods, a corpus of propositions considered to be true, which Foucault asserts “is itself relative and mobile; which permits construction, but within narrow confines” (217)). The most significant of these three is the procedure of disciplines, because it allows Foucault to make the following observation: “Within its own limits, each discipline recognises true and false propositions: but it pushes back a whole teratology of knowledge beyond its margins… In short, a proposition must fulfil complex and heavy requirements to be able to belong to the grouping of a discipline: before it can be called true or false, it must be ‘in the true,’ as Canguilhelm would say” (218). Clearly, this notion of being “within the true” limits truly radical progress within disciplines; if an idea is so strange as to be outside of the true, it, no matter how much validity or usefulness it caries, will nevertheless be viewed as false.

Finally, Foucault discusses “a third group of procedures which permit the control of discourses [which operates by] determining the condition of [discourses'] application, of imposing a certain number of rules on the individuals who hold them, and thus of not permitting everyone to have access to them” (219). These final procedures are rituals, societies of discourse, doctrines, and social appropriation of discourses. “Ritual defines the qualification which must be possessed by individuals who speak” (220). “‘[S]ocieties of discourse’ …. function to preserve or produce discourses, but in order to make them circulate in a closed space [distribute] them only according to strict rules, and without the holders being dispossessed by this distribution” (220). “Doctrine… tends to be diffused, and it is by the holding in common of one and the same discursive ensemble that individuals (as many as one cares to imagine) define their reciprocal allegiance” (221). The social appropriation of discourses refers to the fact that “[a]ny system of education is a political way of maintaining or modifying the appropriation of discourses [that is, the transference of discourse(s) from one person / social group to another], along with knowledges and powers which they carry” (222).

Foucault, then, could possibly be called a superdeconstructionist, that is, one who deconstructs the social superstructures in which language (the structure on which deconstruction focuses and which a pure deconstructionist would see as inclusive of all of reality) operates. Foucault’s work is more (for lack of a better word) practical than the seemingly abstract work of most deconstructionist; rather than a concern for any theoretical underlying linguistic foundation, a careful eye for observable but often unobserved phenomena controls Foucault’s work, and it is through this more material grounding that Foucault may have found friends where Derrida was met with skepticism or frustration.

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