Foucault's Discourse Karl Rogers

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Foucault's Discourse

Karl Rogers

This paper is written in reference to The Order Of Things with additional text taken from The Archaeology Of Knowledge and Discourse On Language.

How should the text be approached? Which interpretative style should be brought to bear on the text? Whatever is said is a reduction of all that could be said. Given the finitude of description this is unavoidable - an act of precis must be performed. What are the essential features of the text? What is important and unimportant? Bias is inevitably brought to bear in answering these questions as the text is enframed within a perspective. The text is silent until it is read and only when it is read does it have a voice - then it has the reader's voice and not Foucault's. In an alchemical moment the writer's words are turned into the reader's, this alchemical transmutation has breathed life into the static text, and two interpretations arise. One is the reader's interpretation of the text, by no means a definitive one, which for the purpose of easy identification shall be called Foucault's discourse, shorthanded to Foucault; the other is the reader's reaction to Foucault's discourse, which shall be called On Foucault's discourse. This is not intended to place authority upon the reader, as the reader is engaged in a cultural discourse which extends beyond the reader, but in the activity of reading, the reader is the point of interaction between a living language and a static text.

It is not my intention to determine the truth or falsehood of Foucault, as that would be nothing more than privileging On Foucault's discourse over Foucault. It is my intention to explore the congruency of the two interpretations. How much do they overlap or diverge? What is said in one but not the other? An interpretation of the text is just that, but what is of interest is in what Foucault does not say in comparison to what it does; then an assessment of the value of Foucault, in it's capacity to affirm a prior (but not necessarily a priori) commitment to environmental values, can be made.

Foucault begins with silence. What does Foucault say about silence? Until the discourse arises out of the silence of undifferentiated existence there is no distinction between "self" and "other", "signified" and "signifier", "subject" and "object", "sign" and "meaning", "true" and "false", or "different" and "same" - there are no distinctions at all! Distinctions are manifest within the discourse and arise out of the discourse. The very notion that there is a differentiated reality, a reality which reveals itself to prediscursive perception, is part of the discourse. Foucault denies the concreteness of the referent - there is no differentiated reality except within discourse. But this is not of the silence as of the silence discourse can say nothing without breaking the silence - "silence" breaks the silence. On the silence of undifferentiated existence Foucault says too much. If there cannot be any concrete referents outside discourse then the "silence" of which Foucault speaks must be within discourse - there cannot be the silence of undifferentiated existence but there can be "the silence of undifferentiated existence". Only of "silence" can discourse speak - on silence, discourse must remain silent.

What does Foucault say about discourse? Without a differentiated prediscursive reality upon which to found the discourse, without concrete referents, discourse is without prediscursive content. It cannot refer to anything outside of discourse. It is all surface without depth; a depth that can only occur when discourse lays claim to be reference to a concrete referent outside itself, to privilege the referee - the speaker. This depth is a manifestation of the power of discourse to anchor itself by attributing concreteness to its referents. In this way discourse can maintain itself and spread, to become the dominant discourse by claiming to be the necessary discourse. All depth is symptomatic of authority and organised power; of the desire to define and control. In this way, the speakers of a dominant discourse can claim to be the arbiters of discourse, experts, and hence authority. In this way they can make themselves necessary. To maintain this crafted illusion of necessity, discourse must silence, marginalise and obscure any discourse which claims that all distinctions are products of the discursive event; the speakers must conceal the arbitrariness of discourse. The speakers, the authorities, must mask their "creation of truth" in order to "speak the truth" and "know the truth". These speakers do not control discourse as they are within a discourse which precedes them; the speakers are created by discourse and as such are only the "torch bearers" of discourse; their "creation of truth" is masked from them most of all. Discourse unfolds throughout every society, constructing restraints and imperatives which manifest as rules, norms and maxims. These rules determine who has the right to speak and what can be legitimately said. These rules determine what are reasonable, sane and proper actions and what are not. Wherever depth arises, a struggle arises between those groups which claim the right to discourse and those which are denied the right to their own discourse. This is inevitable whilst the claim to depth is made and accepted.

What if this claim to depth is not made or accepted? Foucault claims to be shallow in the sense of being all surface, devoid of depth and incapable of referring to anything outside itself. It is not a claim to truth about discourse, discourse is not a referent outside of this discourse on discourse, but it is an attempt to break up and dissolve dominant discourses. It attempts to do this by denying concrete referents and hence the necessity of the discourse of authority. Foucault, one which makes no claim to authority, reveals itself to be arbitrary, in its attempt to create free-play rather than knowledge. This creation of the conditions for free-play is a manifestation of the power of discourse. If Foucault were to have any depth then it would immediately make claim to authority and hence fail its own aim. The power of discourse lies in its style and ability to deny the right of authority to monopolise speech. As such Foucault does not ground itself on "facts" or "logic" as these are the hallmarks of depth and authority - it cannot ground itself at all as it seeks to deny all ground. It is a discourse of rhetorical style, a vacuous discourse, completely without outside referents but full of creative potential. It consists of metaphorical "poetic utterances" where no distinction is made between content and style. The utterance is the content. "All is speech!"

This discourse of metaphorical poetic utterances is set against the discourses of science and reason; these discourses of organised power in Western culture have constructed their authority by creating the distinction between surface and depth; a distinction between the arbitrary and the necessary. It is the change of these discourses since "the Renaissance" which Foucault uses as a metaphor to show how this distinction can be made and unmade. Foucault's discourse dissolves this distinction to show how it can emerge as authority is constructed. In The Order Of Things, no attempt to reconstruct the past is necessary, but an attempt to construct "the unthinkable" is made to demonstrate that the unthinkable can become thinkable. In this sense, The Order Of Things is not a portrayal of the history of thought, or thought at different times, but is a fiction designed to induce an exercise in thinking differently. This is not to say that The Order Of Things is not a history book but highlights the fictional nature of all history books by way of a deliberate metaphor. Foucault does not "speak the truth" but shows the way in which the sleight of speech, the creation of the distinction between surface and depth, or fiction and fact, can be made, by doing it. In this sense,The Order of Things is a demonstration of the power of discourse. Foucault can escape being a manifestation of "the will to truth" by demonstrating the power, arbitrariness and illusion of truth by using deliberate metaphor. Foucault's discourse provides a description of "the past" to perform the conjuring trick to show the skill of conjurers, and in its capability to indirectly reveal how truth can be created Foucault is more than a trite, and nihilistic claim that "there is no truth". Being deliberately rhetorical Foucault

is trying to operate a decentring that leaves no privilege to any centre

and as such

it does not set out to be a recollection of the original or a memory of the truth. (Foucault)

Foucault frees any discourse from dominance by the discourse of authority by generating a scepticism toward the ability to make knowledge claims, but still remain capable of speech. Any discourse is permissible. This is not explicitly declared but is demonstrated by revealing the ease by which the boundaries of permissibility can be mutated or moved completely.

In The Order Of Things dominant discourses of social power at different periods perceived, classified and distributed knowledge by making distinctions between "truth" and "error". The "will to truth" in operation throughout history is portrayed as an endless interaction between desire and power rather than a progressive development toward enlightenment. It is this interaction which has made different discourses possible. How? By coupling "the will to truth", as a satisfaction of the "will to power", to speech. Foucault distinguishes five distinct ages: Medieval, Renaissance, Classical, Nineteenth Century, and the present. Each of these ages is presented archaeologically rather than historically. Texts are taken from a given age and a distinctive discourse shared by them is identified. Foucault is primarily interested in the texts which are at the beginning of an era rather than texts already established within a discourse. Hence layers are identified rather than a temporal continuum; each layer being called an episteme. This concept of the episteme is an important one in Foucault. This is defined as

the total set of relations that unite, at a given period, the discursive practices that give rise to epistemological figures, sciences and possible formalised systems for knowledge (Foucault).

Foucault emphasises the archaeological approach over an historical approach, as this extrapolation of discrete disciplines back through time only arose, as a methodology, within the Nineteenth Century episteme. An historical analysis claims that there are connecting threads which unite otherwise disconnected events and hence weaves the illusion that there is a common referent to otherwise incongruous studies. By doing this, the historical analysis can treat the past as a concrete referent and methods which reveal the hidden as those which have a necessary claim to depth, rather than adopting the approach which claims that the past only exists, within an interpretation of source material and discourse, as a phenomenon of the present.

How does Foucault describe the different epistemes? The Medieval age formed a strange and almost unthinkable age. An age focused entirely on suffering and pleasure in which an exegesis was to be performed to orientate the human within it. An age in which the world was to be read like a book for signs and portents on how one should live one's life in accordance with the logos of God; a benign God who gave clues on how to solve the riddle of exegesis on the world. To redeem the human, after the fall from paradise into a world of suffering, by teaching the human how to find the key to the paradise of heaven. Here the acquisition of Original Sin is an exemplary case of the power of discourse. Knowledge was an unending chain of Resemblances and Similarities which were connected to determine the human's, a by no mean's privileged, place in God's creation. A system which allowed the medicinal properties of herbs to be known by the resemblance between the shape of a flower and the afflicted organ; a poultice to induce bravery to be made from the heart of a lion; the aphrodisiac properties of rhino horn to be deduced from the resemblance between the horn and a phallus. These similarities were placed there by God to allow people to understand God's world. The systematic categorisation and collection of the divine schemata and its interpretation was the right of the Church. A Church which was both created by and custodians of this exegesis. For the Church this exegesis was as much a political as an hermeneutic one.

There is no difference between marks and works in the sense that there is between observation and accepted authority, or between verifiable fact and tradition. The process is everywhere the same: that of the sign and its likeness, and this is why nature and the word can intertwine with one another to infinity, forming, for those who can read it, one vast single text (Foucault).

The Medieval episteme formed a discourse in which the world and discourse were the same.

With the Renaissance all this changed. The failure of the Church to maintain itself as custodians of the exegesis led to a mutation of discourse. This mutation opened up a gap between words and things. Thought, Language, and the World became distinct from one another. It became possible for words to represent things; a separation existed between the meaning of words and their referent. This new episteme which "situated language within representation" allowed words to become "signs" of the "things" which made up "reality". This mutation was a mutation of both "the structure of language" and "the structure of reality" in such as way as to untangle the two structures from one another. It was only when this bifurcation of the same occurred could the "structure of language" be used as a grid to be placed upon "the structure of reality". It was only when this mutation had occurred could the human be separated from the world, and hence it was only at this point could objective thought and science become possible. Science and reason could only exist because of this gap.

The profound kinship of language with the world was thus dissolved. The primacy of the written word went into abeyance. And that uniform layer, in which the seen and the read, the visible and expressible, were endlessly interwoven, vanished too. Things and words were to be separated from one another. The eye was thenceforth destined to see and only to see, the ear to hear and only to hear. Discourse was still to have the task of speaking that which is, but it was no longer to be anything more than that what is said (Foucault).

The Classical Age could now identify and order the elements of the world into a table of relationships. This systematic ordering, this mathesis universalis, formed a new episteme. Language, knowledge and order were regarded as timeless and universal; in the construction of Contiguities and Tables reality was revealed. Within this grid, language was able to order general grammar, the analysis of wealth, and natural history. The grammar, syntax, simple elements, species and genera of the world were unambiguously identified and known. Within this episteme the Name was sovereign,

the entire Classical theory of language is organised around this central and privileged entity

and the Classical discourse was hence one of nominalisation.

One might say that it is the Name that organises all Classical discourse; to speak or to write is not to say things or to express oneself, it is not a matter of playing with language, it is to make one's way to the sovereign act of nomination, to move, through language, toward the place where things and words are conjoined in their common essence and which makes it possible to give them a name (Foucault).

Man arose from this discourse, as an invention of the Classical episteme, of course does not imply that men, women, peoples did not exist before then, but it was only possible then, for them to become particular examples of an ideal: Man. The discourse of the Enlightenment began with the promising and exciting prospect of success in finding the essential order of things, it grew to the threshold of that supreme act of nominalisation of everything, and akin to the Tower of Babel reached its dizzy heights but fell short of its goal and came crashing down into the Nineteenth Century.

The discourse of the Classical episteme reached its limit in the Nineteenth Century. Words became variable in what they could represent, taxonomies revealed their incapacity to accommodate certain borderline cases and "monsters" and the combinatory rules failed to provide precise predictions. At the beginning of the Nineteenth Century philology, biology and political economics emerged. Things no longer obeyed the principles of representation but obeyed the laws of their own development.

The Classical order distributed across a permanent space the non-quantitative identities and differences that separated and unified things: it was this order that held sway - though in each case in accordance with slightly differing forms and laws - over men's discourse, the table of natural beings, and the exchanges of wealth. from the Nineteenth century, History was to deploy, in a temporal sense, the analogies that connect distinct organic structures to one another. This same History will also, progressively, impose its laws on the analysis of linguistic groups. History gives place to analogical organic structures, just as Order opened the way to successive identities and differences (Foucault).

An awareness of History in life, labour and language arose and with it the shattering realisation that the Classical episteme had no place for Time. For Foucault's discourse this "time anxiety" was not an advancement in learning as it too was incapable of finding the origin or the subject of its activities:

wherever the Nineteenth century looked all it could find was infinite differences and endless change (Foucault).

The Nineteenth Century ordered its knowledge in terms of Analogies and Succession. No longer were the relationships between things determined by their identities and differences as they were during the Classical Age; in the Nineteenth Century an agreement, in certain respects, between things, otherwise different, and the evolution of these Analogies through Time were the content of discourse, and with this, the belief in the possibility of finding the unity of things in Time became manifest. This awareness of the failure of the Classical episteme to accommodate Time made Cuvier, Ricardo, and Bopp possible. Within Foucault's discourse these three are the "inventors" of the new disciplines of biology, economics, and philology, respectively. This is not to say that histories hadn't been written before the Nineteenth Century but that it was only then possible for History too become external to the text and to become the referent, with its own development, which could be examined and understood. History became not only a concrete referent but a force, a Will, open to discourse; a discourse in which the philosophies of Spirit, Will and History of Hegel and Schopenhauer became possible. The Will, Spirit and History of humanity was a force of its own in which Man rode, destined to participate for better, or worse in the humanity of the future. Even in those philosophies which had some space for human freedom, an extrapolation of the present into the past was necessary for a proper orientation into the future. This allowed the invention of "progress" and the future became something towards which people should strive. This sense of History ultimately led to Nietzsche's "exegesis of a few Greek words" - an exegesis which finished where Foucault began.

In the present era - the era of Foucault and Foucault's discourse - a new anxiety became manifest. This anxiety is a "language anxiety" and with it comes a new episteme. In this episteme, knowledge takes the form of either Formulations or Interpretations. This language anxiety produces a new awareness. There arises the awareness of "the silence of undifferentiated existence" from which all the forms of discourse arise; an awareness of consciousness' incapacity to locate its own origin, and of language's inability to reveal a subject; and an awareness of the inevitable interposition of discourse between "the subject" and "the subject-matter".

The whole curiosity of our thought now resides in that question: what is language, and, how can we find a way round it in order to make it appear in itself; in all its plenitude?

This curiosity can never be satisfied because

the object of the human sciences is not language; it is that being which, from the interior of language, by which he is surrounded, represents to himself, by speaking, the sense of the words or propositions he utters, and finally provides himself with a representation of language itself (Foucault).

What language must be in order to structure... what is... not in itself either word or discourse, and in order to articulate itself on the pure forms of knowledge... we are led back to the place where Nietzsche and Malarme signposted when the first asked: Who Speaks?, and the second saw his glittering answer in The Word itself (Foucault).

We are led back to this place not by science but by literature.

This literature which presses beyond madness to that formless, mute, unsignifying region where language can find its freedom, signals the disappearance of man (Foucault).

This language anxiety of Foucault allows it to diagnose a crisis

that concerns that transcendental reflection with which philosophy since Kant has identified itself; which concerns the theme of the origin, the promise of the return, by which we avoid the differences of our present; which concerns an anthropological idea that orders all these questions around the questions of man's being, and allows us to avoid our analysis of practice; which above all, concerns that status of the subject (Foucault).

This transcendental reflection is itself dependent on the existence of the distinction between thought, language and the world. In thinking thought through to find the unthought quintesstential thought on thought, thought races after thought, in a dualistic dance with itself, after itself, with itself, and before itself, as two identical poles of the same magnet which can never connect to form a unity, repelling each other with equal force but because they are of a unity in the magnet they are driven back to one another. The question: what is thought? can never be finally answered as each answer is itself a thought. The same can be said for the questions: what is the world?, and, what is language? Each answer to the question is an example of the questioned, and hence one is forced into circular thinking. These questions can contain all possible answers to them. Thought-language-world are arbitrary distinctions of an insurmountable, unfathomable, inencapsulatable, untranscendable unity. A unity without distinction, in which thought, language, and the world are examples of, and contained within, each other - once the distinction between then is dissolved then the illusion of transcendental reflection is revealed.

This articulation of a crisis is not necessarily an act of transcending Western Culture, as it is an expression of a language anxiety; as such it is an expression of Western Culture and a manifestation of the crisis. Here discourse has turned against itself; a discourse which 'self-consciously' creates a tension, a scepticism towards itself. Again it must be reiterated that this is not an articulation of 'truth' but is an expression which begins where Nietzsche ended - in the 'madness' of all 'wisdom' and the 'folly' of all 'knowledge' - where the 'will to truth' is put aside by the question: What is the value of truth? What would be the value of any final description of language? When language predicates itself, when language becomes self-reflective, it speaks all possible self-predications and gazes with wonder at its own plenitude and inencapsulability and stands aghast in silence. It not only can find no final answers to its self-questioning, no final way of recognising and selecting from any potential final answers but finds its own existence in its lack of finality. Finalisation would be its end.

Foucault uses a rhetorical theory of language. Distinctions arise within a tropological space, a figurative, metaphorical space comprised of tropes. A trope is a figure of speech in which a word, or expression, is used in other than its literal sense. In Foucault every word is a figurative use, as literal sense can only occur within a discourse of authority. All language is a misuse - a catachresis - and as such all distinctions are arbitrary. Foucault claims that all traditional theories of language deny the status of discourse as merely arbitrary speech in order to ground themselves; this, of course, is not a truth claim but a deliberate device, a metaphor, to deny them their ground. They ground themselves in a "subject" such as the "author", in "originating experience" or in an activity between "consciousness" and "the world". These traditional theories of language are dismissed as manifestations of the power of discourse to become invisible by placing itself at the disposal of "the subject". Discourse has the power to reveal, in free rhetorical play, the arbitrariness of every rule and norm, even those on which culture itself, with all its rules of exclusion, is founded. In order to free discourse from these arbitrary rules and open it up once more to the project of saying everything that can be said, Foucault closes the gap between "words" and "things" by denying the concreteness of referents and removing language from representation. With this gap closed there is no space for knowledge, logic, science and authority - their depth is denied. This manipulation of metaphorical space is a demonstration of the power of discourse to create the conditions of free-play. Language metaphorically forms a geodesic dome of tropes, where each juxtaposition of tropes forms the links surrounding the silence of the centre. The tropological cage is formed. This dome is connected with other domes, structures interweave and separate, each dome reconfigurates in response to the differentness of the other and new juxtapositions occur. Stability occurs in the tropological surface of these cages and a game of chinese whispers continues; each whisper reverberates from cage to cage and it is impossible to know where it began. The game continues until a spontaneous mutation can find space within the structures of the cages to fix itself, the cages change to accommodate this new mutation and imperceptibly the chinese whisper has changed. A new episteme has arrived, the epistemic transmutation has entered a new phase of aphasia. This game continues in a fashion, slowly reconfiguring accreted tropes from adjacent cages, thinking each possible thought and in doing so saying all that can be said. Within these reconfigurations gaps, tensions and spontaneous mutations can appear, spreading through the interweaved cages sometimes with such reverberation as to rip the cages into fragments. From these fragments, the space created by the fragmentation leaves room for new structures to arise. Within the surface of the cage clustering can occur, arbitrarily, around certain tropes. These tropes can create a illusionary centre to the cage on its surface like the spot of Jupiter, and become the subject of all discourse. Where are we? We are the aphasiacs locked in the game of chinese whispers. Where is Foucault? Foucault is a ghost in tropological space - a whisper.

Foucault arises from an individualistic and deconstructivist intellectual conscience which manifests itself with Foucault as language anxiety. Foucault's language anxiety diverges from Nietzsche's adamantine literacy as Foucault cannot express anything directly. Foucault's only escape from the constraints of discourse lies in the metaphor. Nietzsche was all to aware of this problem but solved it by the affirmation of the Will to Power, something which Foucault is unable to do. Here Foucault reveals its anxiety towards itself, towards culture, as language is taken to be a form of social disciplining in antithesis to freedom. An existence which within Foucault is "hidden", "unspeakable", and "other than that of which we speak" - an existence which can only be performed but never directly identified. So within Foucault we are compelled to " " whereas in Nietzsche we have a "YES!-AND AGAIN."

This language anxiety of Foucault confines it to the Twentieth Century, and places it in a gap between two epistemes. It lies in the space between Nietzsche and a discourse yet to be uttered - discourse which, perhaps, cannot be uttered whilst any language anxiety remains. A discourse which can only be hinted at by Foucault's intelligent circumnavigation of the unintelligible.

In our day, and once again Nietzsche indicated the turning-point from a long way off, it is not so much the absence or the death of God that is affirmed as the end of man... it becomes apparent, then, that the death of God and the last man are engaged in a contest with more than one round: is it not the last man who announces that he has killed God, thus situating his language, his thought, his laughter in the space of that already dead God, yet positing himself also as he who has killed God and whose existence includes the freedom and the decision of that murder? Thus, the last man is at the same time older and yet younger than the death of God; since he has killed God, it is he himself who must answer for his own finitude; but since it is in the death of God that he speaks, thinks, and exists, his murder itself is doomed to die; new gods, the same gods, are already swelling the future Ocean; man will disappear (Foucault).

The Order Of Things is a deliberately difficult text to read - this is to facilitate slow reading and thinking differently. If we leave the text with previously unthinkable questions then we have gained much from it. We live in an interesting time; the episteme is dissolving - fading down to a single concept in an infinite, fracticular sea of thought; from this bubbling, alchemical ocean new thoughts, new questions are arising. What will they be? What next?

There is just one more question to which Foucault must be submitted, at this stage. Can Foucault support our environmental values? As Foucault is possessed by language anxiety it cannot support any environmental values directly. It lacks the certainty necessary for this task. What Foucault can do, however, is undermine those discourses of authority which prevent us from uttering a critique of our practices, by trying to make it unthinkable to do so. Foucault exposes the illusion of a centre without discourse, as well as the arbitrariness of itself, and in doing so creates the conditions of free-play from which a discourse of environmental value can come forth and speak. We must forget our language anxiety, perhaps an activity rather than erosion, by working such anxiety through, until it no longer possesses us. We will then be free to create a discourse of environmental value in equal measure to our commitment to the project.

Karl Rogers

Copyright 1996

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Directory: users -> philosophy -> awaymave -> onlineresources
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