Post lecture notes for students of IR 6901: (Week 6) Foucault: Writing the history of discourses



By Farish A. Noor ~ April 13th, 2010. Filed under: Lecture Notes.

Post lecture notes for students of IR 6901: (Week 6) Introduction to Discourse Analysis, with a special reference to religio-political discourse:

Foucault: Writing the history of discourses and discursive economies

This week we read Michel Foucault’s (d.1984) Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la Prison, 1975). Along with his Histoire de la Folie (Madness and Civilisation, 1971) and the three-volume work on the History of Sexuality (including L’Usage des plaisirs/The Use of Pleasure, 1984; Le Souci de soi/Care of the Self, 1984, etc.), these works make up the corpus of Foucault’s writings on the history of the modern Self/subject and its evolution from the 17th century to the age of modern industrial capitalism.

Our aim in these readings is to understand and analyse what Foucault was doing in his writing of critical history, which, during his time, came in conjunction with the rise of critical theory, Derrida’s Deconstructionism, post-structuralist theories of discourse and a renewed interest in the constructiveness of narratives and discursive economies.

Reading Foucault’s Discipline and Punish from the perspective of the Wittgensteinian theory of language-games – which we take as the operational definition of discourse – and in the light of the rudimentary statements on linguistics by Saussure, there are several key observations we need to make and remind ourselves of:


A. Foucault’s ‘History’ as a history of discourse:

Foucault can be regarded as a historian of ideas, and that would aptly sum up the focus of much of his writings on the history of the Self, notions of identity/difference, gender politics and sexuality that he concentrated upon throughout much of his career as a critical historian. The leap that begins with Foucault (though it was not an entirely novel development, it should be noted) was his shift of focus from the historical accounting of events and episodes in history to the historical evolution of key ideas and themes that have historically evolved according to shifting contexts of language-use.

From the outset it ought to be noted that Foucault – though cognisant of the underlying role of political economy and the material basis of societal change – was interested in the interplay between the material/institutional apparatus of the state and society and the discursive framing of society that evolved over time: In other words, in the interplay between the linguistic elements of discourse and the extra-linguistic elements of material structures.

So when we read his writings of the historical evolution of the notion and understanding of the ‘Self’ from the late medieval period to the modern age, for instance, we see equal emphasis on the accounting for/of the material/structural changes of society as well as the discursive shifts and changes that took place in the way in which these societies framed their understanding of themselves.

Though Foucault never actually used the term ‘discourse analysis’ per se, in effect his critical history does precisely that: It analyses the discursive evolution of concepts such as the Self, gender, sexuality, truth, power and discipline over time and exposes the diachronic nature of all signs/symbols.
When reading Discipline and Punish we therefore need to bear in mind that this was one of the aims of the work: to trace the origins of the concept of discipline in relation to the general understanding of what constituted the Self in a social context, and then to show how – with the evolution and development of the discourse of discipline and care, a different understanding of subjecthood arises and develops over time.

Foucault’s understanding of discourse situates discourse in the frame of social contexts and public language-use. Remember Wittgenstein’s emphasis on meaning as being found in context(an idea Wittgenstein inherits from Russell and Frege) and how general signs/words derive their particular meanings and sense in the context of their use, which in turn is configured according to rule-governed modes of signification that are contextualised in specific ‘life-worlds’ or modes of social-relations. Here in Discipline and Punish, Foucault looks at how the sign/words Self and Discipline are developed over time according to the context of the specific language-game or discourse that frames the understanding of the Self.
His focus is on the historical development of one particular language-game/discourse: namely, the discourse of discipline and its attendant relationship with/to power. This is what he means when he talks about attempting a genealogy of the concept of the modern Self/Soul: it was an attempt to look at how the material shifts and changes in West European society led to new opportunity structures and new societal and power-relations which allowed for the emergence of a new modes of social control and the disciplining of society were accompanied by a new discourse/language-game of disciplining the Self as well. As he notes:

‘This book is intended as a correlative history of the modern soul and of a new power to judge; a genealogy of the present scientifico-legal complex from which the power to punish derives its bases, justifications and rules, from which it extends its effects and by which it masks its exorbitant singularity’. (pg. 23)

In other words, when Foucault writes about the historical development of the notion of the modern Self (as disciplined subject), he is not referring to the word/sign in its most general, public sense, but rather looking at the manner in which this word/sign has evolved in the context of a particular discourse and context of use: namely, the discourse of discipline and social control and surveillance.
And by ‘correlative history’ Foucault is implying – as he does in all his works – that the study of the discursive history of society is as important as the study of its material/institutional history as well. A discursive approach to history therefore complements our understanding of the material/structural/social developments of society, but cannot be done in a vacuum – discourses have to be situated in context and for Foucault the contexts are always configured/framed by real material power-relations, institutions and structures of power/governance and state control.

B. Discourse is never separated from power: The material and political-economic underpinnings of discourse.

Foucault never loses sight of the complex and intimate relation between discourse and power, and the material workings of power. Early on in Discipline and Punish he makes it evident that he views both power and epistemology/knowledge-claims as being closely related. In his words:

‘We should abandon a whole tradition that allows us to imagine that knowledge can exist only where power relations are suspended and that knowledge can develop outside its injunctions, its demands and its interests. Perhaps we should abandon the belief that power makes (us) mad, and that, by the same token, the renunciation of power is one of the conditions of knowledge. We should admit rather that power produces knowledge; …that power and knowledge directly imply one another; that there is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge’. (emphasis mine, pg. 27)

Foucault’s concern in Discipline and Punish is not to write a history of the concept of the Self/Soul that is couched in the essentialist terms of Classical Scholasticism, but rather to write a history of the development of the concept of the Self/Soul as it emerged in the modern era as a result of real material changes in society and the emergence of new technologies of social control that in turn contributed to new understandings of what the Self was.
[This is a point he elaborates upon at length in the chapters on Discipline in particular, as he accounts for how the shifts and changes in the modes of state punishment and the exercise of state violence on individuals moves from the phenomenon of the social spectacle of the torture of the body to the private exercise of power that focused more on the punishment, disciplining and correction of the interior Self instead.]

Foucault’s point, which he labours on in the course of the book, is that the modern understanding of the Self/Subject is not rooted in any essentialist understanding of a non-material Soul (understood in the classical philosophical as well as traditional religious sense) but rather as an element that is both individualised and public where the effects of homogenising state power can be seen and where individualisation (of the subject/Self) is accompanied by a new regime of power-relations and power-exercises where knowledge of the Self is accompanied by the control of the Self: The modern Self/Subject is therefore the result of a regime of state power and violence, and the result of a regime of disciplining where the modern individual is subject to state control, violence as well as knowledge-claims, as Foucault notes:

‘This is the historical reality of the soul, which, unlike the soul represented by Christian theology, is not born in sin and subject to punishment, but is born rather out of methods of punishment, supervision and constraint. This real, non-corporeal soul, is not a substance; it is the element in which are articulated the effects of a certain type of power and the reference of a certain type of knowledge, the machinery by which the power relations give rise to a possible corpus of knowledge, and knowledge extends and reinforces the effects of this power’. (emphasis mine, pg. 29)

Read in this light, it is important to note that in the works of Foucault the motto of discourse analysis (“Reality is discursively constructed”) does not imply that Discourse supersedes the material basis of society, or that the effects and workings of discourse are independent of the material workings of society and its attendant structures, institutions and power relations.
*Note: At no point in any of Foucault’s work does he suggest that discourse is independent or autonomous of the material-social context in which discourses operate. Foucault’s critical historical analysis of discourses (on power, Self, sexuality, etc.) take as their premise the close inter-dependent relationship between meaning and context, and he constantly frames his analysis of discourse against the macro-historical accounting for the material/economic and societal changes that took place at the same time. We therefore do NOT have an image of discourse as something that is autonomous, ‘floating’ above the reality of society and political-economic structures.

On the contrary, Foucault seems to be implying that it is the structural changes in society (industrialisation, mechanisation, new modes of economic production, etc.) have a correlative impact on the possible ranges discursive articulation/framing/depiction of the world around us. The discourse of discipline and the discourse of the modern Self/subject did not and could not have developed independently from these material changes, but rather we need to understand the formation of discourses in the manner in which Wittgenstein explained the emergence and disappearance of language-games: That some language-games/discourses come into existence as a result of new social contexts being created, while other language-games/discourses fade into oblivion as a result of the extinction of the social contexts that once sustained them.

Here in Discipline and Punish, Foucault has looked at how one specific discourse – namely the discourse of social discipline and the notion of the modern individualised subject/Self – emerged as a result of the historical transformation of Western society, right up to the age of mechanised industrialisation and its regimes of maintenance, surveillance, social control, regimented education, militarisation and imprisonment. He alludes to the importance of these new mechanisms and instruments as the background to the new discourse of social discipline thus:

‘The movement… from the schema of exceptional discipline to one of generalised surveillance, rests on a historical transformation: the gradual extension of the mechanisms of discipline throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, their spread throughout the whole social body, and eventually the formation of what might be called in general the disciplined society’. (pg. 209)

C. Reading Foucault via Wittgenstein:

What our reading of Foucault was meant to do was to reinforce the arguments of Wittgenstein that we looked at earlier, particularly in his Philosophical Investigations. (Week 5.)
It was meant to remind us that when attempting any form of discourse analysis, particular of religio-political discourses, we cannot think of discourses as being autonomous, free-floating systems of signification that are independent of their material/social/normative contexts.
Here in Foucault we have seen how the understanding of the development of the discourse of social disciplining and control of the Self was and remains deeply linked to the workings of state power and the state’s capacity to regulate and control the lives of individual subjects via economic-political structures of individualisation, regimentation, education, mechanisation and so on.

In the following classes when we look at the religio-political discourses of religio-political movements, parties and states, equal emphasis will have to be given to an understanding of how the material conditions of society sustain and frame ‘life-worlds’ where specific religio-political discourses can operate and make sense/meaning.

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