Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Discourse on Language and Rules Controlling Discourse Within Academia

In his conclusion to The Archeology of Knowledge, Foucault addresses various issues that others may have with his work including, for example, potential criticisms of his use of structuralism despite fervently repeated claims of not considering himself a structuralist, as well as his apparent disregard for the role of agency, of “the real action of men and in their possibilities,” in the production of knowledge. In his very last response, he acknowledges why his work would encounter such an overwhelming body of criticisms due to the manner in which they shake the very foundations of much of the intellectual work performed by those reading his work as well as the identity that those individuals procure from the very work that they engage in (208).

In addition to other statements and exclamations made within this closing section illuminating his awareness of the discomfort brought about from his work, Foucault exclaims, “how unpleasant it is to reveal the limitations and necessities of a practice where one is used to seeing, in all its pure transparency, the expression of genius and freedom (210).” My own response: “Indeed!” Upon reading this particular expression, I immediately made a connection between his point and what I have tended to naively refer to as the ‘politics of the academy’ (a term that I admit encompasses many other issues to speak of, but functions as an umbrella term here for the direction in which I wish to move just as well,) as ‘academia,’ an institution which, in a removed point of view through the frame of its own ideal concept, is characterized by if not simply defined as a space in which any number of ideas may possess the room and encouragement to run, skip and leap freely. At closer inspection, perhaps through material encounters with or actual participation in the institution (in which ever form this may take,) it is clear that this ideal notion of higher education and the academy as a purely free space is clearly far from ideal, and that even in such an institution which publicly projects an image-identity of openness and progress, power and control are still very much at work. My intended point here, however, is not to reiterate the obvious (a point that can be easily classified under and explained by such universalized proverbs as “everything isn’t what it seems,”) as it can easily be deduced that such rules controlling discourse as presented in his lecture The Discourse on Language, for example that of exclusion (whether through the prohibition of words or of individuals as speaking subjects through denial of access to positions from which one may be ‘allowed’ to produce knowledge and be established as credible,) are present and operating within the institution of academia, rather it is to expand somewhat upon Foucault’s expression in his conclusion (as quoted above) to discuss the limitations of a scholar to critically analyze the operations of control of knowledge as they function within her own space of work and inform her identity.

As Foucault mentioned in the conclusion, it is particularly difficult to view those things that one has otherwise accepted as a space of freedom, such as the institution of higher education, in which the perpetual birth of new ideas is assumed to be unhindered and promoted with gracious care and praise, through the analytical lens which he is suggesting which may challenge the very defining principles around which such an institution is built is purported to identify. I argue that this is particularly true for the scholar, as an individual who is, through this lens, understood as both an instrument of that institution, contributing to its function and capacity to control discourse and the production of knowledge, but also as a subject of it, limited, shaped, and essentially controlled through this subjection despite having otherwise an impression or assumption of possessing individuality and agency over one’s ideas. To challenge this assumption would be to dismantle the entire notion/identity of ‘the scholar,’ as the manner in which individuals have been defined by their collections (or totalities) of their ‘great works’ (as Foucault would call oeuvres) through which we have traditionally understood and given value to what has often been called the ‘great minds’ of our time, would be highlighted as not only shaped and constructed through the ritual practices of the institution, but also otherwise irrelevant.

I wish to further expound upon the limitations of an individual who would otherwise call themselves (or be called) an academic to critically view the institution of higher education through the lens Foucault sets forth in his work. It may be arguable that such an individual would be in a position that prevents them from engaging in work which would essentially discredit their place and disassemble their identity which enables them to engage in such work in the first place. One might consider instead, the epistemological privilege provided/possessed by those outside of this position, but rather on the outside looking in. (Perhaps not even this, as the phrase “on the outside looking in” presupposes a clear boundary between the two as if there were no interaction or relationship outside of an assumed binary opposition. Instead, perhaps the most fit individual to engage in such analysis would rather be, for example, the student who, as neither fixed in the outside but still prevented access to the positions provided through such ritualized thresholds as obtaining a diploma, publishing work, or making tenure, holds no ‘position’ but rather exists in a transitory state and in doing so, trespasses this boundary.)

Perhaps this is of particular importance in considering Foucault’s position in creating and applying his own work to critical analysis of the institutions to which he belongs as scholar. How can he speak of the operations of power and control of discourse in knowledge production and propose a radical challenge to this operation and yet through his position as a well-respected scholar, embody the very things that he finds fault in and proposes to challenge?

Foucault, Michel. "Conclusion," "Discourse on Language." The Archeology of Knowledge and The Discourse on Language. New York: Harper and Row, 1972. 199-213, 215-238.

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