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FOUCAULT'S UNDERSTANDING OF DISCOURSE

If conceptual metaphors are the “stuff” of myths, myths are the “stuff” of ideological discourses. Language myths, like all other myths, are communally shared stories that, regardless of their factual basis, are believed and propagated as the cultural property of a group. Cameron (1995) argues that people cannot leave their language alone and that it is better for sociolinguists to face up to this fact than to try to convince people of the “error” of their ways. Hence, deconstructing language myths is unlikely to have much effect on how people, on an everyday basis, view language. Language myths that form the basis of discursive ideologies are always present, and no amount of effort will persuade people to relinquish them. With that in mind, I now turn to the notion of “discourse” and the related notions of “ideology” and “archive”.

Foucault’s understanding of a discourse is that it is a body of statements (i.e. a subset of statements) belonging to a single system in the overall formation of statements; that is, it is a system of statements markedly distinct from other systems of statements. Foucault takes statements to be historically situated “events”. No human interaction can take place outside discursive formations, such that the individual comes to accept the statements, the events, as representing a “true” state of affairs, true not in the sense of logically true (i.e. true in a coherent logical system), but rather in the sense of a system of beliefs shared (or believed to be shared) by others. The process of coming to accept a system of statements can be thought of, sociocognitively, as part of the larger cognitive process of socialising individuals into sociocultural groups, and this process takes place principally, but by no means uniquely, below the level of consciousness. In this sense, we are all the prisoners of discourse, or, to put it less dramatically, none of us can avoid the cognitive process of socialisation into discursive formations.

Foucault stresses the fact that although we may feel that the system of statements constituting a discourse is coherent and is characterised by its continuity over time, the fundamental characteristic of discursive statements is their discontinuity. In other words, what we interpret to be a commonsense discursive unity is in fact a dispersion of elements displaying discontinuity, in that groups of statements may occur in any order, with any function, and correlated in any way with other groups of statements. Discontinuity is characteristic of discourse for the simple reason that discourse is constructed not simply of statements involving human language, but also of “statements” involving several other semiotic systems, such as speed of delivery and volume level, gesture and mime, pictorial and filmic representation, and so on. In addition, all of the objects, forms and themes of discursive statements are historically linked to the external conditions of discourse production.

Looked at from the point of view of emergent social interaction, or practice (Bourdieu 1977), discursive production is always conditioned by the context of that production. As we have seen, in Bourdieu’s terms the symbolic power of the discourse resides in its ability to convince people of the orthodox nature of the statements. At the same time, however, it is important to allow for heterodoxy—different or perhaps even subversive or heretical opinions. Although this is never stated explicitly in Bourdieu’s work, he appears to concur with Foucault in the discontinuity of discourse, for the simple reason that there will always be different opinions and beliefs.

In more recent constructionist approaches to the notion of “context” (Duranti & Goodwin 1992; Auer 1995; Silverstein & Urban 1996), context is not taken as a pregiven environment, temporal, local, or cognitive. It is actually constructed emergently by the participants, thus providing an even greater validity to the Foucauldian notion of discontinuity.

In the Archaeology of Knowledge (1972), Foucault represents knowledge as being constructed historically through the production of discourses which can only be pieced together from the surviving textual and non-textual evidence. The discursive evidence “unearthed” displays some of the discontinuities in discourses and may even lead to a sudden shift in the way in which a particular topic is constructed discursively. Some of these shifts are dealt with in later publications by Foucault (e.g. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison; The History of Sexuality Vol. 1). It is important to note that at any historical period and in any culture, a number of different, partially compatible or totally incompatible discourses will coexist or compete with one another, so that it is possible to talk about dominant discourses and “antidiscourses”.

 
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