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Foucaults Conception of Discourse


Why using this concept
Studying indigeneity issues unavoidably will lead to addressing the
problem of competing meanings. In dominant contemporary society,
indigeneity is commonly perceived as the opposite of modernity and often
attached to the issue of backwardness, underdevelopment and other such
derogatory labels. At the same time, it has become an increasingly popular
topic among international agents advocating for indigenous peoples rights
(Persoon, 1998). Thus, while being socially marginalized from the discourse
of modernity and development, the existence of indigenous peoples is
becoming a mainstream global issue of democracy and social justice.
Meanwhile, in a multi-ethnic country such as Indonesia, the concept of
indigeneity has been challenged by the concept of ethnicity that diverted the
issue of human rights and marginalization into cultural poverty. Indigeneity
then emerged as a floating concept with loose meanings, not only in terms of
its linguistic aspect but also in how it is placed within broader issues.
Indigeneity remains an unfixed concept due to on going competing
notions. It is useful then to apply the notion of discourse to this concern.
Indigeneity as a discourse has flexibility and can be directed to a certain
meaning, within a certain context, obtaining affirmation from thoughts subject
to that meaning. This is what McHoul and Grace (1993, p. 36) simply reflect
on as what can be said and what can be thought, which refers to Michel
Foucaults conceptualisation of discourse. This simple notion emphasises the
significance of the specificity of time and place in defining something as a
discourse, which is not only related linguistic aspects, but also any correlated
aspects that prevent someone to think of something beyond what s/he thinks
it should be and, at the same time, direct her/him to only that insight.
Entering a discourse can be analogous to someone finding a direction
and then at once being trapped within it, which prevents her/him from finding
any other directions. Hence, what someone knows, thinks, understands,
speaks, writes and does actually reflects only her/his encounter with the way
s/he passed through. This analogy can be referred to the term discursive
practice, that is, the practice of producing meaning (Hall, 2006, p. 165). And
here, again, this study of indigeneity, which faces the issue of vague
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meanings, will find its relevance with the Foucaults concept of discourse.
What Foucault did through this concept was showing how a meaning is
subjugated under knowledge produced by a discourse and simultaneously
critically deconstructing this established order. According to Young (1981b), it
enables us to do two kinds of analysis: a genealogical analysis that examines
how discourses are constituted, through desire or id, and a critical analysis
that examines how discourses run their exclusion functions, through
institutions or ego. This is reflected from what Foucault (1981, pp. 51-52)
described as a dialogue between desire and institution:

Desire says: I should not like to have to enter this risky order of
discourse; I should not like to be involved in its peremptoriness and
decisiveness; I should like it to be all around me like a calm, deep
transparence, infinitely open, where others would fit in with my
expectations, and from which truths would emerge one by one; I should
only have to let myself be carried, within it and by it, like a happy
wreck. The institution replies: You should not be afraid of beginnings;
we are all here in order to show you that discourse belongs to the order
of law, that we have long been looking after its appearances; that a
place has been made ready for it, a place with honours it but disarms it;
and that if discourse may sometimes have some power, nevertheless it
is from us and us alone that it gets it.

Foucault and the emergence of poststructuralism
Before going any further, nevertheless, it is important to firstly expose
the historical context of how this kind of thought emerged. Seidman (1998)
puts Foucault among the prominent figures of French poststructuralist such as
Jaques Derrida, Jean-Francois Lyotard and Jean Baudrillard. Seidman even
tended to implicitly claim that poststructuralism culminated in the thoughts of
Foucault, considering that he provided more detailed discussion on his
thoughts, compared to other poststructuralists, in his chapter on French
poststructuralists. It might be better if in the beginning of the chapter Seidman
briefly outlines its structure and explains why giving much thought on
Foucault. However, Seidman himself actually acknowledged that Derrida is
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the pioneer of poststructuralism. And this is supported by Howarths (2013)
claim when explaining about Derridas critiques on structuralists concept of
language system. Above all else, positioning Foucaults thoughts among other
poststructuralists and other school of thoughts is important as to better
understand his concept of discourse.
Seidman traced back the chronology of poststructuralism emergence
from the rise of existentialism, whose proponents were straightforwardly
against the social forces concept of Durkhemian sociology for ignoring
individual roles in constituting social realities. This tracing is quite effective to
help us grasping a proper notion of poststructuralism. Existentialism grew by
the end of the Second World War and replaced the domination of Durkheim
sociology by emphasizing humanistic philosophy; individuals as independent
agents are responsible for the construction of social history. Unfortunately,
Seidman did not provide enough explanation of foundational assumption on
which existentialism stood, which is useful to obtain clearer picture of how
poststructuralism can be positioned from this school of thoughts. Tuan (1972)
points out that it is on the concept of nothingness that Sartrean existentialism
centred the view of individual freedom. This nothingness appears in
someones consciousness of her/himself that enables someone to see the
world as separated thing. In other words, s/he can see the gap between
her/himself and the surrounding world. Then, within this gap someone can
make her/his own decision about what action to take.
The eclipse of Durkhemian sociology, however, did not mean the
extinction of its root of thought. Around 1950s, the vision that it is on the social
structure that individuals minds, knowledge and behaviour were constructed
revived as a new school of thoughts, structuralism. It came to the surface as
an alternative to humanistic existentialism around 1950s to 1960s. It is
Ferdinand de Saussure mostly referred as the prominent figure of
structuralism that came up with idea of linguistic formulation (Seidman, 1998;
Young, 1981a). Saussure, according to Young (1981a), centred his method of
analysis on the material of linguistic object, that is, sign. It is composed of two
entities, signifier and signified. These two entities simply represent how a
word links to a thing and together form a sign, which originally has no
meaning. It is through the brains associative bond that the sign obtains its
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meaning. Saussure, as cited by Young (1981a, p. 2), said, since I mean by
the sign the whole that results from the associating of the signifier with the
signified, I can simply say: the linguistic sign is arbitrary. Based on this
Saussurian linguistic, structuralism developed its methodology to draw a
universal social theory from any kind of signifying practices.
It is the structuralisms view of language significance that actually
contributed to the birth of poststructuralism in France. Despite sharing the
same basic view on this, poststructuralism refused to accept what the
structuralists believed as a universal social theory. A Poststructuralist such as
Jaques Derrida, according to Seidman (1998, p. 222), even though has the
same view that signs (words and sounds) got their meanings from what so
called the relation of difference, is distinct in that he saw that meanings are
unstatic and always in flux since they are attached to social and political
contestation. It is from this basic view that the deconstructive characteristc of
poststructuralism came to the surface.
This decostructive characteristic of poststructuralism that also
designated Foucaults thoughts. Seidman presents this figure as an impulsive
deconstructionist by showing how Foucault was able to move from
structuralism to poststructuralism. Foucault is described as very sensitive to
any phenomenon of what he called as normalization. Even with his
homosexuality, as stated by Seidman, Foucault was suspicious with the
emergence of lesbian and gay movements in America, questioning whether
such kind of movements would function as social behaviour control among its
members. And as a postructuralist, he also refused to totally accept the
Saussurian linguistic dualism that ignored the third element, discourse
(Young, 1981a). He revealed it as bellow:
Words and Things is the entirely serious title of a problem; it is the
ironic title of a work that modifies its own form, displaces its own data,
and reveals, at the end of the day, a quite different task. A task that
consist of not of no longer- treating discourses as groups of signs
(signifying elements referring to contents or representations) but as
practices that systematically form the objects of which they speak. Of
course, discourses are composed of signs; but what they do is more
than use these signs to designate things. It is this more that renders
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them irreducible to language (langue) and to speech (parole). It is this
more that we must reveal and describe (Foucault, 1972, p. 49).

Foucault and the power of discourse
The concept of discourse certainly is not the only important thought of
Foucault. Nonetheless, it is very critical to grasp this concept for its strong
correlation with other two primary components of his thought: power and the
subject (McHoul & Grace, 1993). And again, those three components are not
the only essential aspects of his enterprise that covered multidisciplinary
domains from anthropology, psychology, medicine, philosophy and history. He
seemed reluctant, however, to be definitely attached to one of them. He said,
I am no doubt not the only one who write to have no face. Do not ask me who
I am and do not ask me to remain the same: leave it to our bureaucrats and
our police to see that our papers are in order (Foucault, 1972, p. 17).
Concerning this, Sheridan (1980) affirmed that Foucault grappled with those
disciplines from his early career but cannot be rigidly attributed to one of
them. Foucault studied history of ideas intensively during his life but what he
did actually was rupturing its established preconception and named this effort
as archaeology of knowledge. Sheridan points out that it was in 1970, when
he was elected as chairs of philosophy at the College de France, that he
finally made his own term, Professor of the History of System of Thought, to
define himself.
Instead of grappling with the broad domain of Foucaults thought, this
study will be focused on how the concept of discourse can be used to
examine the relation of knowledge and power within it and its function in
producing meanings. Also, this study will be based on Foucaults concept of
discourse that moves away from linguistic context towards what so-called
discipline. According to McHoul and Grace (1993), this concept of discipline is
used in two senses: academic discipline and disciplinary social institutions.
Whilst the former took forms of formal fields of study such as science,
psychology, sociology and etc. that are based on certain bodies of knowledge,
the later manifested as disciplinary practices such as prison, school, hospital
and other kind of such institutions that embrace social control functions. This
conception is elaborated in Foucault (1971) documented inaugural lecture
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titled The Orders of Discourse (translated from Lordre du discours). Hook
(2001, p. 522), referring to Young (1981a), stated that what Foucault
elucidated in this paper is all about the systems, rules and procedures that
constitute, and are constituted by, our will to knowledge.
Interestingly, when looking at this Foucaults lecture paper, some
writers (Escobar, 1984; Hook, 2001; McHoul & Grace, 1993; Young, 1981b)
cited or paid attention to the same part of his statement that In every society
the production of discourse is at once controlled, selected, organised and
redistributed according to certain number of procedures (Foucault, 1971, p.
8). Seemingly, this statement played pivotal role in the development of the
notion of Foucaults concept of discourse. Nevertheless, none of them drew
firm and clear definition of what discourse is. They were more interested in
revealing a concept of discourse as a combination of power and knowledge
and how it constructs and is constructed by society through what they called
discursive practices. Hook (2001, p. 522), referring to Young (1981a), said
that, the effect of discursive practices is to make it virtually impossible to think
outside of them; to be outside of them is, by definition, to be mad, to be
beyond comprehension and therefore reason.

Contestation of discourses

Foucault on Power and Knowledge

Foucault on Governmentality

Escobar, A. (1984). Discourse and Power in Development: Michel Foucault and
the Relevance of His Work to the Third World*. Alternatives: Global, Local,
Political, 10(3), 377-400.
Foucault, M. (1971). Orders of discourse. Social Science Information, 10(2), 7-30.
doi: 10.1177/053901847101000201
Foucault, M. (1972). The archaeology of knowledge (AM Sheridan Smith, Trans.).
New York: Pantheon.
Foucault, M. (1981). The order of discourse (I. McLeod, Trans.). In R. Young (Ed.),
Untying the text: A post-structuralist reader. Boston: Routledge & Kegan
Paul Ltd.
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Hall, S. (2006). The west and the rest: Discourse and power. In R. C. A. Maaka & C.
Andersen (Eds.), The indigenous experience: Global perspectives. Toronto:
Canadian Scholar's Press.
Hook, D. (2001). Discourse, Knowledge, Materiality, History: Foucault and
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154(2), 281.
Seidman, S. (1998). Contested knowledge: Social theory in the postmodern era:
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Sheridan, A., & Foucault, M. (1980). The will to truth. London: Tavistock
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Tuan, Y.-F. (1972). Structuralism, Existentialism, and Environmental Perception.
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Young, R. (1981a). Post-structuralism: An introduction. In R. Young (Ed.),
Untying the text: A post-structuralist reader. Boston: Routledge & Kegan
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Young, R. (1981b). Untying the text: A post-structuralist reader. Boston:
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