[journal entry] on Foucault’s “The Order of Discourse” [warning: long post]

In “The Order of Discourse” (1971), Foucault argues that institutions try, in various ways, to control discourse, to avoid its risks and dangers.  He also makes the point that discourse doesn’t always succumb to this regulation: for example, even though the topics of sexuality and politics are considered taboo, it is in fact those topics which exhibit such power (1461).

Foucault describes the procedures whereby discourse is constrained and controlled. 1) Certain subjects are considered taboo (for example, sexuality and politics) (1461); 2) certain conditions are considered unimportant and are thus ignored (for example, madness) (1461); and 3) certain oppositions are established, for example, that between “true” and “false” (1462).

Foucault identifies this division between “true” and “false” as the most powerful principle working against the free-play of discourse (1463). It forms a “will to truth” which, throughout the centuries, has served to become “something like a system of exclusion, a historical, modifiable, and institutionally constraining system” (1462).  This “will to truth,” for Foucault, seems to be the will, first, to believe that there is such a thing as Truth with a capital T, and second, to make that Truth active in everyday discourse – or, to make that Truth at least a participant in everyday discourse.  This is what Plato wanted, and why Plato critiqued the sophists so harshly: he disapproved of how they, as he thought, ignored “Truth” but instead focused on the play of discourse and its role in creating knowledge.

Other procedures for constraining discourse, Foucault discusses, are 4) the use of commentary (i.e., the principle whereby discourse is continually differentiated and gradated, for example, in the hierarchy of primary and secondary texts) (1464).  Commentary serves to control discourse because, basically, it “exorcises the chance element of discourse by giving it its due” (1465); 5) the principle of the “author,” the concept which unites and groups kinds and types of discourses. “The author is what gives the disturbing language of fiction its unities, its modes of coherence, its insertion in the real” (1465); 6) the principle of the “disciplines,” that which may seem to create a free space for inquiry but which in fact creates a tight context in which a proposition must be “in the true” before it will even be considered, in which a proposition must fit within pre-established (but modifiable) theories or it will be considered “error” (even if it turns out to be completely accurate later) (1466-67).

Other methods of constraint, Foucault continues, include ritual (religious, judicial, therapeutic, and political) which defines who and what qualify to speak and “societies of discourse,” for example, rhapsodists, the institutionalized act of writing (authoring, publishing, etc), doctrines (religious political, philosophical), and education (1468-69).  Each of these supports the diffusion of discourse, but equally constrains it as well.

Finally, Foucault discusses the way in which philosophy has circumscribed discourse within a very small arena: “Western thought seems to have made sure that the act of discoursing should appear to be no more than a certain bridging (apport) between thinking and speaking – a thought dressed in its signs and made visible by means of words, or conversely the very structures of language put into action and producing a meaning-effect” (1469).  Philosophy has done this, thinks Foucault, by emphasizing a) the “founding subject,” the “originating experience” and the “universal mediation” over the ways in which those things are discoursed.  The “founding subject,” or what I would call the know-er, is emphasized to the exclusion of the way the know-er knows.  The “originating experience” is emphasized over expression of that experience by the assumption that there are some pre-existing (perhaps eternal) “significations” which supersede the expression of that experience.  And, finally, by emphasizing the “idea of universal mediation” or the logos, philosophers put all the emphasis and importance on a transcendent reality and off of the rich and complex process of discourse which itself has a significant part to play in the creation of knowledge (1469-70).  Foucault is saying that all these emphases away from discourse end up making discourse merely a thing, a tool to be used, rather than a complex knowledge-creating process in itself.  Discourse “is annulled in its reality and put at the disposal of the signifier” (1470).

Foucault concludes by pointing out that even though western society may at first appear to be one in which discourse is particularly celebrated and explored (an apparent “logophilia”), in fact western society hides a deep “logophobia,” a “sort of mute terror against these events [of discourse], against this mass of things said, against the surging-up of all these statements, against all that could be violent, discontinuous, pugnacious, disorderly as well, and perilous about them – against this great incessant and disordered buzzing of discourse” (1470).  And, if we want to understand this fear of ours, Foucault advises us to “call into question our will to truth, restore to discourse its character as an event, and finally throw off the sovereignty of the signifier” (1470).

It seems to me – at least, at first – fairly easy to accomplish the latter two: “restor[ing] to discourse its character as an event” and throw[ing] off the sovereignty of the signifier.” It seems all we would have to do is to find a balance between the emphases of philosophy and those of rhetoric. I don’t think that Foucault is saying that there is no such thing as a transcendent truth. He is mainly saying that we cannot give priority to that truth, we cannot assume that that truth can be worked out in the various forms of material everyday discourse. In other words, we have to give discourse its due. We have to recognize its ability to create real, if modifiable, knowledge.

But whether we should or how we might “call into question our will to truth,” I’m not sure.  If he means we ought to confine that “will to truth” to its own domain (say, the domain of philosophy, though without allowing philosophy to influence other disciplines), that seems possible. That would also help accomplish the latter two goals. But if he means we ought to pretty much give up on the idea of the concepts of “true” and “false” altogether, I don’t see how that is possible or desirable.  On one hand, I can see as he does that the “will to truth” mainly works to separate and exclude much more than it actually seeks truth. Too often, it’s much more of a butcher than a helper. But, on the other hand, I don’t see how we can work without the concepts of “true” and “false.”

The problem, of course, is that western thought cannot (yet) conceive of a concept of “true” that is not metaphysical, not transcendent. If we could begin to use two connotations of “true,” one metaphysical and one provisional, we might be able to use the concept of “true” and “false” in one way for philosophy and in one way for rhetoric.

The trouble, though, is that that may not be possible. It seems another characteristic of western thought to be unwilling NOT to use truth and falseness as tools or weapons of power. It is just too easy to use them to exclude some and give power to others.  Descartes came along and established certainty as the only worthwhile goal of knowledge.  Kant came along later and proved that certainty is not possible.  For Kant, there certainly is a transcendent reality, but there certainly is no way we can access it.  We can “know” phenomena but not the “noumena,” the thing in itself.  I can’t help thinking – at least for now, as this is the first time I’ve read any Foucault! — that the answer to Foucault’s complaint is that we ought to follow Kant’s lead: yes, there are concepts which a “true,” and we ought to do our best to get as close as possible to finding them.  But ultimately all our knowledge is provisional. But discourse is a fine tool to get us as close as possible to better and better knowledge, so we ought to give it its due, understand its power – as well as how institutions try to constrain it.


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