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
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.
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.
- Catherine Malabou. Jacques Derrida’s Critique of Foucault and Agamben (2012) (foucaultnews.com)
- Genealogy as Critique: Foucault and the Problems of Modernity (2013) (foucaultnews.com)
- Foucault.info site redesigned and updated (2013) (foucaultnews.com)
- UChicago professor helps illuminate lost lectures by French philosopher Foucault (news.uchicago.edu)
- Class (earthpages.wordpress.com)
- The Subject of Foucaultian Power (schizosophy.com)
- Catherine Malabou. A critic of Foucault? (schizosophy.com)
- ‘Things don’t have to be this way’ (Part 1) (newleftproject.org)
- Crowd Sourcing Civil Discourse (abullseyeview.com)