Reinforced Prohibitions: Foucault and Pre-tensions in Speaking

Foucault opens his 1970 lecture at the Collège de France, entitled L’ordre du discours, translated by Rupert Swyer as The Discourse on Language, by noting his own desire to participate in a discourse without beginnings, for such would surely be the safer prospect.

A good many people, I imagine, harbour a similar desire to be freed from the obligation to begin, a similar desire to find themselves, right from the outside, on the other side of discourse, without having to stand outside it, pondering its particular, fearsome, and even devilish features…

Inclination speaks out: ‘I don’t want to have to enter this risky world of discourse; I want nothing to do with it insofar as it is decisive and final; I would like to feel it all around me, calm and transparent, profound, infinitely open, with others responding to my expectations, and truth emerging, one by one.’

~Discourse, pp. 215-216 (published as an Appendix to The Archaeology of Knowledge (1972) by Pantheon Books, New York)

Similarly any time I begin to deliver a speech or lecture, I find it most difficult to make a beginning – to step into discourse for fear of speaking out unwittingly.  I should like far better to immediately have my terms understood with the proximal definitions I have accepted, at least within the space of my own participation in that discourse.  But such is not the case; our entrance into discourse is rightly the cause of considerable anxiety, and Foucault hones in on those items in society, operable by language, which are experienced as ‘rules of exclusion’.  The first of these is encased simply in the right afforded by or excluded from society to speak of a particular subject:

[T]hese prohibitions interrelate, reinforce and complement each other, forming a complex web, continually subject to modification.  I will note simply that the areas where this web is most tightly woven today, where the danger spots are most numerous, are those dealing with politics and sexuality.  It is as though discussion, far from being a transparent, neutral element, allowing us to disarm sexuality and to pacify politics, were one of those privileged areas in which they exercised some of their more awesome powers.

~ibidem, p. 216

Seriously.  I have been taught implicitly by society not to allow my mis-takes to cross either of these arenas.  I far prefer to note another’s gaffe, rather than to venture a full-blooded response.  Better to make our remarks quickly of the slip-tongued and move along quickly.  My treatment, therefore, shall be short.

Recall his embodiment of inclination through whom Foucault describes the desire to speak with no voice; to communicate purely on a plain of ideas where such ideas are not perceived to be final.  It has particularly occurred to me what place death is afforded in the nature of discourse.  To speak or to publish is to release hold of; as our thoughts, fed by and bred in discourse, enter the arena they are given a chance to speak or silenced on the basis of whether they are pronounced ‘within the true’ (p. 224).  So, if one is to communicate, one must step into the realm of discourse, in which being within the true is something of a moving series of dispersions; shifting in the discursive formations continues even as the systems of exclusion are modified.

Taking the tightly woven points of contact with sexuality and politics, my instinct is to refuse to treat of either subject.  If you doubt the verity of what Foucault is saying on other points, that is well enough but even a mild transgression against another’s political or sexual framework is enough to incur the wrath of exclusion; either active in the form of entering a closed discourse (where neither speaker can establish any means by which to communicate their stances with the other) or in the more active exclusion of being summarily ignored.  I so rarely treat of either subject because, like Foucault’s ‘inclination’ I would wish to speak without closing myself into one of these closed discursive loops or incurring the wrath of one in such loops whose language does not extend away from the center of such discourses.

In this address, late in 1970, he surmised that we “are a very long way from having constituted a unitary, regular discourse concerning sexuality; it may be that we never will, and that we are not even travelling in that direction. (pp. 233-234)”  Though a more generic project, the same could be said of political discourse; and therefore I find myself resisting all urges to enter such conversations because the outcomes are largely decided before a beginning can be made.  Instead I limit myself to observing those particular problems which catch my attention and wish that I had to make no beginning at all.

 

While I desire that we should be able to exercise discourse freely, the very nature of speaking out requires that we speak by means of form; and the forms provided are discursive, and therefore limiting.  I do not possess the energy to engage in the necessary discourse about our discourse because in uttering such a desire, my energies are soon spent in defining everything I am not trying to say.  In such cases, it is far more prudent to choose to be misunderstood so that another is unsure of precisely from which discursive practice my thoughts originate.  When this is achieved, the result is to nudge the respondent unwittingly toward the discourse about discourse; that which might yet prove productive if only we might step a little away from our current definitions.  Misunderstanding therefore may serve as a tool in discourse, not to escape it, but to step to the periphery while evading the defense mechanisms inherent therein and thus lean towards that conversation really worth being had, particularly about subjects so central to our cultures as sexuality and politics.

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