Thursday, November 16, 2017

Discourse explained simply

'Discourse' is a term associated most closely with Michel Foucault; it refers to the way in which meaning is formed, expressed and controlled in a culture through its language use. Every culture has particular ways of speaking about and hence conceptualizing experience, and rules for what can and what can not be said and for how talk is controlled and organized. It is through discourse that we constitute our experience, and an analysis of discourse can reveal how we see the world — in the case of Foucault, particularly the changing and multiple ways in which power is distributed and exercised. As language is the base symbol system through which culture is created and maintained, it can be said that everything is discourse, that is, that we only register as being what we attach meaning to, we attach meaning through language, and meaning through language is controlled by the discursive structures of a culture. There is no outside-of-the-text; our experience is constructed by our way of talking about experience, and thus is itself a cultural, linguistic construct.

Discourse is not, however, a unitary phenomenon. One of the great contributions of the Russian theorist of language and literature, Mikhail Bakhtin, is the concept of multivocality. The concept of multivocality might be likened to meteorology: the sky looks like a unitary entity, but if one attempts to measure it or traverse it, it turns out to be full of cross-winds, whirls, temperature variations, updrafts, downdrafts, and so forth. Similarly the language of a culture is full of intersecting language uses — those of class, profession, activity, generation, gender, region and so forth, a rich profusion of interacting significances and inter-texts.

As discourse constructs a world-view and as it inscribes power relations, it is inevitably connected to ideology. As used by Marx, the term referred to the idea that our concepts about the structure of society and of reality, which appear to be matters of fact, are the product of economic relations. More recent thinkers, following Gramsci and Althusser, tend to see ideology more broadly as those social practices and conceptualizations which lead us to experience reality in a certain way. Ideology, writes Althusser, is our imagined relation to the real conditions of existence; our subjectivity is formed by it we are 'hailed' by it, oriented to the world in a certain way. Ideology is an implicit, necessary part of meaning, in how we configure the world. But ideology is always masking, or 'naturalizing', the injustices and omissions it inevitably creates, as power will be wielded by some person or class, and will pressure the understanding of the culture so that the exercise of power looks normal and right and violations appear as inevitabilities. It was clear in time past, for instance, why women were inferior. Women were physically weaker, more emotional, not as rational. The Bible said they were inferior and Nature said so too. Men did not think that [end page 96] they were oppressing women; women's inferiority was simply an obvious matter of fact, as was the inferiority of blacks, of children, the handicapped, the mad, the illiterate, the working classes. The theorist Pierre Macherey showed that it is possible by examining any structure of communication to see its ideological perspective through the breaks, the silences, the contradictions hidden in the text, as well as through all its implicit assumptions about the nature of the world.