Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Michel Foucault and Discursive Reality

This is inspired by current reading and online conversation with a friend. Unlike my friend, and many commentators, the more I read Foucault the less I see what he is often believed to do. That would be to understand reality in terms of discourse, which would be a form of social constructionism or constructivism. His account of sexuality in particular does not, as far as I can see, understand sexuality as constructed by discourse. ıt looks at the discourse surrounding sexuality, including science. The difference is important. Foucault sees medical, psychiatric, moral, religious, and philosophical discussions of sexuality as belonging to discourse, discourse which cuts across all subject divisions. Saying our knowledge of sexuality is discursive is not saying that sexuality is discursive. It does not deny that discourse is conditioned by observation and physical reality. Who would deny that our sexuality is affected by ideas about limits and the excitement of passing limits. However, despite popular mythology, Foucault does not say that sexuality is constructed by prohibitions. Sexuality is a reality labelled in many ways in different contexts. My friend correctly refers to this as Nominalism. Nomianlism does not deny physical realities though. Nominalism is not constructivism. The constructivist looking parts of Foucault are just as much about the eruption of physical reality in discourse as the definition of reality by discourse. That is why there is no master universal discourse in Foucault. He follows a materialism in which discourse emerges in the attmetps to control physical reality. I'll ask my friend for citations and then I may have more to say.

2 comments:

wringe said...

Just for the record, I think you're right about a lot of this...

Someone from the anglophone tradition who I think is better on Foucault than a lot of his commentators is Ian Hacking. Do you know his stuff at all?

Barry Stocker said...

Good to hear I'm right about a lot of this. What am I wrong about, would you say? I must confess I haven't read Hacking yet, I've only been working very seriously on Foucault recently, but I know about the Hacking stuff and I need to get into it.