…it is difficult to express oneself. The act of writing something (which one expects or hopes will be published) is a social act; it becomes—even at its best—all but a lie. To communicate socially (as opposed to communicating personally or humanly) means that one must accept the sluggish fictions of society for at least nine-tenths of one’s expression in order to present deceptively the remaining tenth which may be new. Social communication is the doom of every truly felt thought.

(Norman Mailer, Advertisements for Myself, p. 244)

When I first learned about “discourse” I approached it sort of like ideology. It consisted, I thought, of all the things people said, not because they’re true, but because they are somehow convenient to the powers that be. I thought of discourse as what Mailer above calls “social communication”. But I’ve grown more sophisticated (and more accurate) in my reading of Foucault since then.

It is much more constructive to think of discourse as that which makes it possible to say things that would otherwise be impossible to say, not because they would be suppressed, but because we would lack the epistemic resources to say them. The meaning of words is not defined merely by the system of language, after all. Most sentences can be understood only on the background of a great deal of shared knowledge, and the more specialized your utterances get, the more specialized the relevant body of knowledge must be. In communicating what we know, we depend crucially on the knowledge that our peers already possess. But in order to leverage that opportunity we have to grant them also a great many things that, we think, they merely believe. Things we know in our hearts are false.

This is not “the doom of every truly felt thought”, but it is a very real constraint. In the case of scholarship the trick is to begin and end our thinking inside the limits of discourse, i.e., without entertaining for too long thoughts that will not fly in discourse. Many “truly felt thoughts” after all are simply wrong. They arise in the privacy of our own minds and, when we speak of them to our friends or colleagues, we realize we are talking nonsense. They feel true at first, but they don’t survive scrutiny. While friendships and working relationships are personal, of course, they are also in another sense “social”. So already here we a get a sense of what social communication implies. Scholars, researchers, scientists devote a great deal of time to thinking about things on a socially shared basis. They do not, like novelists, nurture their own private fantasy or nightmare of the society in which they live. Rather, they use their minds to address problems that have already been acknowledged by others, and they undertake to solve those problems in terms that will be useful to the intellectual projects of those others.

A “discourse”, then, is a set of conditions that make it possible to make a particular kind of statement. For Kant, “reason” served a similar function albeit at a more abstract, even “transcendental”, level. Reason constituted the conditions of possibility of the experience of objects — the conditions under which we can experience things as objects of knowledge. Discourse, similarly, determines the particular difficulty of making a statement and this difficulty, fortunately, is positively correlated with the possibility of saying something very precisely. Discourse makes it worth the effort to be precise.

Some things are hard to see. Some things are hard to say. We are not born with the ability to see everything and say anything we want; rather, we acquire specific abilities in this regard through training, through schooling. Here, we overcome the difficulty of observation in part by learning a method and we overcome the difficulty of expression in part by learning a theory. The first gives us access to our objects through data, the second lets us discuss those objects with others through concepts. Foucault says that his studies of discourses “are very different from epistemological or ‘architectonic’ descriptions, which analyse the internal structure of a theory” (Archaeology, IV, 4). Nonetheless, what Foucault is describing is precisely that ordering of immediate experience that scientists themselves would likely call their theory, and thereby the logic of the practice they would call “theorizing”.

Once a theory is approached through discourse, however, we come to see that “mastery” does not just depend on our ability to understand difficult concepts. Heidegger tells us that what Aristotle called zoon logon, which is classically rendered “rational animal” in English, can just as well mean “discursive animal”. Building on this insight, Foucault presented the “historical a priori” of “discursive formations” as a re-interpretation of Kant’s a priori of “pure reason” such that the difficulty (as I’ve put it here) of experiencing objects becomes the difficulty of making a statement, rooted in particular social conditions. The presentation of research results within a theory, on this view, is not a merely “epistemological” matter. It is also a profoundly rhetorical affair; it is difficult and not always pleasant. Indeed, I suspect that many scholars, at least on some days, think of their intellectual community as an intellectually oppressive environment. But what sort of arrangement would they prefer? If you had the luxury of expressing yourself before an audience that held no prior beliefs about the subject and would be happy to believe whatever you tell them, then you would have to explain everything from the ground up every time. This might be good for your ego at first but not for long. You’ll quickly seek out a conversation with someone who is qualified to tell you that you are wrong.

Scholars working within a particular discipline, which is in turn embedded in a broader discourse on the subject, become aware of a range of resources and constraints when discussing their ideas with their peers. They come to understand the viability of certain metaphors, the requirements of sourcing (including the art of tasteful namedropping), and the sometimes idiosyncratic meanings of particular terms. Even in the most “scientific” of disciplines, they may learn that their peers will respond favorably or unfavorably to the expression of certain political views. Through trial and error, they will learn the meaning of “respectful” engagement with their peers. Hopefully, most of the “lies” of discourse are lies of polite omission. We talk about the things it is possible to say within the space of a journal article and, occasionally, a book. We don’t expect to “rock the century on its heels” (as the back cover of my copy of Mailer’s Advertisements brags). We try to make a useful contribution of what we know to what is known.


*This is a reworking of two posts from 2014 at my retired blog, Research as a Second Language.

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