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Counter-discourse

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Michel Foucault and Jean-Paul Sartre in a protest via Tumblr

The French philosopher and social historian Michel Foucault maintains that every social discourse contains one or more (small or large-p) politically generated truth claims. Foucault also believes that every discourse encounters a counter-discourse that challenges the original discourse’s legitimacy.

Foucault says that every discourse exists within a given body of social discourses. No truth claim is advanced in total isolation. So naturally, given the range of human opinion, every discourse meets resistance or challenge.

The idea of truth for Foucault is interesting. Instead of claiming to know or discern absolute truth (as religious leaders often do), Foucault suggests that truth is relative to power struggles in society, and to the discourses created within those struggles. So truth in a given area for Foucault often seems to be nothing more than the outcome of struggle among competing discourses. In short, social power produces, creates or, to employ Berger and Luckmann‘s sociological term, constructs notions of truth.

In 2009 A user at Yahoo! Answers, KeitHxS, asked what counter discourse means.

This might be dumb….but I’m working on some homework and it asks if there is any evidence of counter-discourse?

What exactly does counter discourse mean? Like an opposing view?¹

Most professors of semiotics would probably dislike this simple and clean idea of “opposing view.” But it does capture the essence of what counter-discourse means for Foucault. What it lacks, however, is the fullness of Foucault’s analysis of social discourse. On this, a fairly good summary can be found at Wikipedia:

In the humanities and in the social sciences, the term discourse describes a formal way of thinking that can be expressed through language, a social boundary that defines what can be said about a specific topic; as Judith Butler said, “the limits of acceptable speech”, the limits of possible truth.

Discourses are seen to affect our views on all things; it is not possible to avoid discourse. For example, two notably distinct discourses can be used about various guerrilla movements describing them either as “freedom fighters” or “terrorists“. In other words, the chosen discourse provides the vocabulary, expressions and perhaps also the style needed to communicate.

Discourses are embedded in different rhetorical genres and metagenres that constrain and enable them. That is language talking about language, for instance the American Psychiatric Association‘s DSMIV manual tells which terms have to be used in talking about mental health, thereby mediating meanings and dictating practices of the professionals of psychology and psychiatry.

Discourse is closely linked to different theories of power and state, at least as long as defining discourses is seen to mean defining reality itself. This conception of discourse is largely derived from the work of French philosopher Michel Foucault.²

Foucault via Tumblr

The above mentions the very different connotations arising from terms like “freedom fighters” and “terrorists.” Another example can be found in the recent suicide of Aaron Swartz. Instead of calling Swartz a “hacker,” which would be a discourse with mostly negative connotations, there seems to have been a quick and almost general agreement within the media to designate him as an “activist,”  a much softer and respectful term than “hacker.”

Foucault’s belief that social power creates relative notions of truth is reminiscent of the idea that ‘might is right’, an idea that goes back at least to Plato. In the Republic Thrasymachus argues that notions of justice are in the interests of the stronger, and often unjust. Foucault’s view, however, differs in its subtlety and complexity.

Moreover, Foucault seems indifferent to making value judgements, at least at the theoretical level, and more concerned to simply outline his view of “what is.” This ironically creates another social discourse (that of the privileged intellectual, salaried by the university) that can be challenged by any number of counter-discourses.

While some maintain that Foucault’s idea of counter-discourse aligns his thinking with the Hegelian dialectic, Foucault himself argues against such a comparison.³

To bypass the sticky debate as to just what Hegel meant by the dialectic, it does seem fair to say that Hegel’s view involves a teleology in which a World Spirit progresses through history. Foucault, however, does not envision a master plan of teleological unfolding as found in Hegelian thought. Instead, his poststructural perspective is discontinuous and largely open-ended.

¹ http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20101210165854AALeAQ0

² http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Discourse#The_humanities

³ For those interested in the Hegelian dialectic, this Wikipedia entry seems to clear up a lot of ambiguity created by many writers and professors. This ambiguity was reflected in our own 2008 entry, still visible at Yahoo! Answers. So funnily enough, one could argue that this 2013 entry is a counter-discourse to our 2008 entry.

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Author: Earthpages.ca

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6 thoughts on “Counter-discourse

  1. Pingback: Essay | 305mc

  2. Great Post. I have read quite a few posts on this subject and you done the best job. Keep it up!

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  3. Hello to CA from Bill. This is a good 5 star summation article of the noteworthy findings of Michel Foucault.
    Notably…
    1. Quote: “Every discourse encounters a counter-discourse that challenges the original discourse’s legitimacy”.
    2. Quote: “No truth claim is advanced in total isolation. So naturally, given the range of human opinion, every discourse meets resistance or challenge”.
    3. Quote: “So truth in a given area for Foucault often seems to be nothing more than the outcome of struggle among competing discourses”.

    These three quotes suggest a not understood common denominator underlying their criteria. Namely, ‘every action has a reaction’ …as science has claimed. But, what causes every action to have a reaction? Why does an equal force always arise to oppose the initiating force? Why does an argument and its findings always attract a counter argument with different findings? For example, Global Warming. The result being endless argument of for & against and endless claim & counter claim. It would seem amazing that we human beings ever achieve anything as a collective with this perpetuating nemesis.

    As for the meaning of discourse & counter-discourse?
    I like the following twin definition. The formal discussion of a subject V the inevitable opposing formal discussion of that subject. As outlined above?

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    • Hi Bill, thanks for your comments. It’s not too often that I get to talk about this kind of stuff. But I do love it!

      So… why so many different opinions? Well, I guess we could look at the immense variety in the gene pool of humanity. I am starting to believe that genetics plays a significant role in not only hair and skin color, but personality too. There is a case of two ID twins raised apart. When they came together they did the TV circuit and showed a curious similarity of interests and mannerisms. There were differences too, of course. But they, themselves, stressed the similarities.

      So, ID twins aside, with the incredible range (re nature/nurture/spirit) of human beings out there, I’m not surprised that we have so many competing discourses.

      What keeps it all together? On this point I’m coming to appreciate Hegel’s idea that the whole of creation is mysteriously guided by a World Spirit, which in my Christian framework I would call the Holy Spirit… or more properly, The Holy Trinity.

      Most people would just call that “God.” And I would too!

      As for Foucault, like Sartre I think he was an incredibly intelligent French thinker. But I don’t see either of them as being that bright when it came to spirituality. Otherwise, I don’t think they would have given God a backseat… or no seat whatsoever.

      However, I still think about these guys and the impressive social-historical insights they had. Especially Foucault.

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  4. Hello to Mike from Bill.
    Re your comment: Quote…“There is a case of two ID twins raised apart. When they came together they did the TV circuit and showed a curious similarity of interests and mannerisms. There were differences too, of course. But they, themselves, stressed the similarities”.

    Would suggest there are two other factors apart from genes, nurture & home environment, to solve the mystery of similarity. Stepping into astrological reality, the first clue lies in the fact that they were conceived and born at the same time. That means they have almost identical astrological birth charts and star signs. Stepping into spiritual reality, the second clue is that as they were born & brought up as twins, their inherited karma is entwined because of it.

    Quote: “What keeps it all together? On this point I’m coming to appreciate Hegel’s idea that the whole of creation is mysteriously guided by a World Spirit, which in my Christian framework I would call the Holy Spirit… or more properly, The Holy Trinity”.

    Reply: In my dictionary it is call the Cosmic Mind or Cosmic Computer. But Holy Spirit is a very appropriate definition when stepping into religious reality.

    Hope this makes sense, if not it will one day.

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  5. Oh yes, it makes sense in that I think I understand where you are coming from. I just don’t know if your experience is the same as mine. This is a fundamental problem of mysticism. Even in conventional philosophy, we have similar questions, like the color inversion problem. Is your red my blue, etc?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_unsolved_problems_in_philosophy#Qualia

    As for your first point, yes, I tend to look at genetics as a template for greater spiritual connections. Just as a stained glass window lets certain colors come thru, it’s conceivable that genes facilitate certain types of spiritual connections. That’s why I said we have an “incredible range (re nature/nurture/spirit) of human beings.”

    Note the word “spirit” in there. I just didn’t elaborate at the time.

    I actually don’t believe that these connections must be limited by the all-too-human idea of karma. Karma is a just a human theory. One that I believe needs revision, according to modern findings and thought. I think the flexibility of space-time presents are far more attractive and up-to-date theory. The way I see it, spiritual connections don’t always have to be based on the past. They can extend in all directions. Perhaps, even, into the future. 🙂

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