Sunday, May 27, 2007

The Importance of Michel Foucault’s attention to Discourses

In terms of really ‘getting in’ to a philosopher, the first one I seriously read was Michel Foucault (and maybe Antonio Gramsic). With the help of an audio lecture on Michel Foucault by Rick Rodderick from the Teaching Company taken from a series entitled ‘the self under siege’ the work of Foucault has made a lasting presence on my thought.
The first thing I realised about Foucault was how discourses are not negative but positive, making the conditions of possibility possible. Societies, and societies, for them to function, need to create these discourses in order to provide a sort of unity. Discourses of nationalism seem an obvious example of this occurring.
The second thing is discourses are not purely language, but have a materiality, or relate to non-discursive formations (something a lot of contemporary discourse analysis forget).
The third thing, and maybe one of the most important points, is discourses not only create ‘rules’ for inclusion, but also ‘rules’ for exclusion. Foucault clearly spent a lot of his career illustrating this factor, where discourses of reason led to the exclusion of the mad (madness and civilisation), discourses of law excluded the criminal from society (discipline and punish), and so forth.
The fourth thing, power, in its modern ‘western/civilised’ form, is a lot more complex than societies built upon the master/slave dialectic. In today’s world, it is no longer the king’s job to enforce power, but power flows through micro-flows, which creates a situation where people ‘control’ themselves and their actions. A clear example of this, taken from Rick Rodderick audio lecture, is the discourses on body images and skinniness. This creates a (false) image of what the normal body is meant to be like and what society views as the ‘correct’ body. The result is these discourses can cause people to try and achieve these bodies, either by going to the gym, or more drastically, through eating disorders. The person therefore disciplines and punishes their body in order to achieve this state.
Other examples of power are how discourses flow in order to create docile bodies, which educate people so they can be part of the society. There is course the example of the education system for prisoners to reform, but more importantly, there are the schools, which are one of the places the government has the most (indirect) power to create citizens.
The last thing Foucault taught me was beware discourses that are based upon a (human) subject. The reason for this is that it assumes some atemporal transcendental universal subject that can be interpreted. The work of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus has helped me see the difficulties in this approach through there careful attention to presubjective forces (I will speak more about these in a later).
These are only a few of the ways Foucault has helped me in my thought, and later blog entries shall discuss how his thought are important for creating discourses of resistance, something Foucault held close to his heart from his position as a radical anarchist.

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