Foucault, “The Discourse on Language”

Foucault, Michel. “The Discourse on Language.” The Archaeology of Knowledge. New York: Pantheon Books, 1972. (Appendix to The Archaeology of Knowledge). (23 pages)

Foucault seeks to outline what discourse is, how it works, how it is invented, and how it functions. His opening discussion reads, “I am supposing that in every society the production of discourse is at once controlled, selected, organized, and redistributed according to a certain number of procedures, whose role is to avert its power and its dangers, to cope with changes events, to evade its ponderous awesome materiality” (216). He focuses, initially, on three ways in which discourse prohibits:

  1. Exclusion: “we know perfectly well that we are not free to say just anything, that we cannot simply speak of anything, when we like or where we like: not just anyone, finally, may speak of just anything” (216)
  2. Division and rejection: Here, Foucault looks at the idea of madness, seemingly “liberated speech” that’s free from the bounds of prohibiting institutions or disciplines. In this sense, the madman’s speech is rejected as speech and relegated to noise since it exists outside the bounds of any discipline. However, his speech—or noise—can also function as meaningful when interpreted as such through the discipline of he interpreter.
  3. True & False: As Foucault writes, this is certainly the most important of the three. Here, he writes about the will to truth is the desire to uncover truth despite recognizing the contingent nature of truth. In other words, the will to truth is especially dangerous since it is incapable of recognizing itself.

Foucault also outlines some key ideas—something of a greatest hits. He discusses the nature of commentary as a way to discuss his idea of the author-function. As he writes, commentary is a central feature (or rule as he writes) of discourse; its function in playing off of or reusing primary texts keeps discourse within certain bounds. For example, he writes that “novelty lies no longer in what is said, but in its reappearance” (221). He uses this as a way to talk about the myth of the author as “the individual who delivered a speech or wrote the text in question” (221). Because all discourse is in some way a composite, such an individual does not exist; however, authors function “as the unifying principle in a particular group of writings or statements, lying at the origins of their significance, as the seat of their coherence” (221). In other words, given that any utterance is impacted with any number of authors—some of which are no longer traceable—an individual can take on the author-function in order to provide coherence and structure.

The central feature of this piece is the idea if a discipline. A discipline, as described by Foucault, is a governing system that monitors discourse made within the discipline: “for a proposition to belong [to a discipline], it has to fulfill certain conditions, in a sense stricter and more complex than pure and simple truth” (223). The power of disciplines divides and rejects (much like Burke’s select and deflect) how we understand reality by controlling the production of discourse through prerequisite structures operating within the discipline—knowledge, in other words, is contingent upon a set of materials and objects that are designed to uphold the expectation of the disciplines: “a discipline is defined by a domain of objects, a set of methods, a corpus of propositions considered to be true, a play of rules and definitions, of techniques and instruments” (222).


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