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Discourse, ideology? MA assignment

Michel Foucault

Michel Foucault. (Image via Wikipedia)

Thompson’s critical conception of ideology is useful critical analysis due its limited definition of power, in terms of the establishment and sustainment of relations of domination through ‘symbolic forms’. But where this conception is useful in the detection of these relations of domination and the social inequalities that result, Foucault’s more pervasive definition of power in ‘knowledge’ is useful in identifying discourse and its effect on the subject. Additionally, Foucault’s concepts of ‘regimes of truth’ and ‘the subject’ counters aspects of Thompson’s theorisation on the ‘social location’ of the individual in a social hierarchy of power, and both theorists emphasize the social-historical context of an ideology or discourse.

In order to compare and contrast these aspects of the Thompson and Foucault’s theories, I find it useful to briefly describe the concepts of each. Thompson subscribes to a critical conception of ideology, and describes his project as concerned with “the ways in which symbolic forms intersect with relations of power”, but more specifically how ideology shapes meaning in order to “serve and establish relations of domination” (1990: 56). This meaning is shaped through ‘symbolic forms’, according to Thompson, and these are in turn “constitutive of social reality” through their active creation and sustainment of relations of domination in societies (1990: 58). He further emphasises that these symbolic forms are not simple representations that reflect or obfusticate social interests, but are implicated in the “constitution of social relations as such” (Thompson 1990: 58). In Thompson’s broad understanding these symbolic forms include: utterances, actions, texts and images produced by subjects and “recognised by them and others as meaningful constructs” (1990: 59), and which then establish and/or sustain relations of domination.

Foucault’s discourse, on the other hand, was about the rules and practices that formed, or produced, meaningful statements. His use of the term referred to groupings of assertions and actions that provided a way to represent knowledge about a specific topic at a specific moment in time (Hall 1997: 44). By including the notion of practice to his concept of discourse, Foucault attempted to bridge the divide between what is spoken (or written) in language and actions in practice. In Foucault’s discourse however, the perimeters for reasoning about – and therefore for speaking about, writing about and acting on – a topic define not only what is acceptable, but also what is comprehensible. The same applies for how ideas are acted upon and put into practice. Additionally, discourse does not stem from or consist of one source, and as such the same discourse at a specific moment (or episteme) is traceable over a range of texts, practices, and institutions (1997: 44).When these discursive “events” from a pattern, then they belong to a “discursive formation”, according to Hall (1997: 44).

Thompson’s power in ideology is predicated on a top-to-bottom approach where ‘symbolic forms’ act to establish and sustain relations of domination of a specific interest group over another. As such, Thompson’s concept of ideology and power as top-to-bottom through domination does not include the formation of an oppositional ideology to the dominant. For instance, where patriarchy is a dominant ideology wherein men oppress and dominate women, radical feminism, as oppositional force and way of thinking, would not be recognised as an ideology within Thompson’s critical conception of the term. Additionally, this theory further removes power from the ‘oppressed’ or ‘dominated’ groups by its failure to recognise contestation from these groups to the dominant ideology or group.  And in speaking of power relations in terms of domination, Thompson emphasises the negativity hereof in terms of the consequent subordination and exploitation of one group by another though symbolic forms imbued with ideology.

Foucault’s ‘power’ in (and through) discourse is conceptualised as circulating and ‘centre-less’; permeating all levels of social life and working at every site thereof. This concept of ‘power’ as centre-less moves away from the idea of the dominant state or class as the “grand, overall strategies of power” and, without denying them their positions of dominance, Foucault instead focuses on the “micro-physics” of power (Hall 1997: 50). In this definition, power instead operates in a “capillary movement” through behaviour, bodies and local power relations, as opposed to Thompson’s definition of power relations as operating solely through domination. In Foucault’s power definition, contesting discourses are recognised as part of regular transferences of power (and knowledge) between various groups over different moments in social history. Another crucial difference between Thompson’s conceptualisation and that of Foucault’s is that the latter conceptualised power as not only negative and oppressive/suppressive, but also as productive in its creation not only of material to supplement knowledge of and about the discourse (Hall 1997: 50), but also its creation of ‘the subject’.

Foucault became later concerned with the relationship between knowledge and power, and how the former worked through discursive practices to regulate subjects’ actions, and the latter functioned in institutional apparatuses and its techniques (Hall 1997: 47). From this perspective, knowledge was tangled up in relations of power, as it was “always being applied to the regulation of social conduct in practice” (Hall 1997: 47). Knowledge as a form of power also meant that the latter was additionally associated in how knowledge is applied (or not) in differing circumstances (Hall 1997: 48) and, according to Foucault, there “is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time, power relations” (cited in Hall 1997: 49). According to Hall (1997: 49), Foucault believed the function and “effectiveness” of power/knowledge took primacy over its ‘truth’, and knowledge linked to power assumed the “authority of ‘the truth’” and thus has the power to “make itself true” (1997: 49). Additionally, knowledge does not work in a vacuum, and is utilised through technologies and “strategies of application” in specific historical moments and institutional “regimes” (Hall 1997: 49). These applications of knowledge lead to the creation and sustaining of ‘regimes of truth’, and do this via the discursive formations that form that (power-filled) knowledge in the first place. This knowledge becomes ‘true’ in its “real effects, even if in some absolute sense it has never been conclusively proven” (Hall 1997: 49), and becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophesy.

It can be argued that Foucault’s ‘regime of truth’ may be evident in Thompson’s conception of the ‘social location’ of individuals and their associated place in an unequal hierarchy of power. For instance, past ‘regimes of truth’ of the inferiority of women and superiority of men in discursive gender constructs have led to the eventual formation of patriarchy as ideology where men dominate and oppress women. Similarly, early colonial discourses that depicted non-white races as inferior to whiteness did, over time, lead to ‘regimes of truth’ around these discourses, as non-white races were increasingly marginalised. This in turn became an ideology of racism – or more specifically, white supremacy – where relations of domination between white (dominant) and non-white (oppressed) are sustained.

Foucault’s work on ‘the subject’ echoes some aspects of Thompson’s ‘social location’ of individuals, but is more nuanced in terms of effects power has on individuals. Foucault’s ‘subjects’ may produce texts, but these texts ultimately operated within the limited episteme, discursive formation, and regime of ‘truth’ of a specific time and society (Hall 1997: 54). Additionally, Foucault’s subjects cannot be outside discourse “because it [the subject] must be subjected to discourse”, and are instead the ‘bearers of’ the power/knowledge that is produced by discourse, and are therefore also historicised. But Hall also explains how Foucault’s ‘subject’ was also produced through discourse in two ways: the subject as personified through forms of knowledge produced by a discourse; and the subject-positions where the particular knowledge and meanings created by a discourse make the most sense (Hall 1997: 56). The former refers to figures “specific to specific discursive regimes and historical periods”, such as the homosexual or the hysterical woman; while the latter refers to the place for the subject, as produced by discourse, where subjects locate themselves in a position from which the discourse is most comprehensible. Individuals then become the subjects of a discourse by “’subjecting’ [themselves] to its meanings, power and regulation” (Hall 1997: 56) and despite class, gender, and other social differences between individuals, a discourse can make sense. But this is only when these differing individuals have “identified with those positions which the discourse constructs, subjected themselves to its rules, and hence become the subjects of its power/knowledge” (Hall 1997: 56).

A converging point between the two theorists is the historicisation of ideology or discourse in each. Thompson historicises ideology and ideological phenomena, and states that “symbolical phenomena” can only be understood as ideological by placing them in “the socio-historical contexts within which these phenomena may, or may not, serve to establish and sustain relations of domination” (Thompson 1990: 56). This corresponds with Foucault’s radical historicising of discourse, and his emphasis that knowledge about a thing was only ‘true’ within a “specific historical context”. Mental illness, for example, was not an “objective fact”: “It was only within a definite discursive formation that the object, ‘madness’, could appear at all as a meaningful or intelligible construct” (Hall 1997: 46). According to Hall, Foucault saw knowledge about (and the resulting practices around) these objects as “historically and culturally specific” (1997: 47), and could not exist outside how they were represented in discourses, and regulated through discursive practices of particular societies at a moment in time. Additionally, Foucault believed the “radical breaks, ruptures and discontinuities” between consequent periods, and thus consequent discursive formations, to be more significant than trans-historical continuities (Hall 1997: 47).

Foucault’s discourse and Thompson’s ideology are useful in identifying differing kinds of power in a text. Where Thompson’s power is top-to-bottom and requires a dominant party, this is not necessarily in Foucault’s capillary-esque conception of power. Additionally, Foucault’s work on ‘regimes of truth’ provides a possible explanation of how relations of domination through power inequalities – crucial to Thompson’s critical theory of ideology – are formed and take hold in the first place.

Media and Texts assignment submitted May 30, 2011.

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