… sounds like an utterly complicated French dish that would take way to much structuring, deconstructing, and restructuring for my tastes. I’ll stick with a hamburger for now.

Since I am leading the discussion on Foucault tomorrow, I have been fiercely focused on his works, and poor Barthes has fallen somewhat to the wayside. As such, I’ll say a little about Barthes, but focus on general themes of structuralism and highlights from Foucault. I’ll also be bringing up some of the topics I’d particularly like to discuss tomorrow. Onward!

Barthes’s structuralism, as we saw on Monday, does little to account for instances in which a single signifier embodies more than one signified. The example Natalie gave of Rosie the Riveter demonstrated this point: the image of the strong woman, the signifier (the secondary signifier, or the form) represented both encouragement for women to work to support the men in the war and the notion of a strong, equally-treated woman. Barthes does not quite raise this kind of issue, and structuralism has a hard time dealing with it, since it claims that signification or meaning comes from difference. As we know simply in language, a single signifier has multiple meanings (or signifieds) embedded, and these often cross in other signifiers. Dog is different from canine, yet they are also used as synonyms; the thing we see as “dog” or “canine” could apply in both cases. The strict, structural system of differentiation does little account for gray areas and in its strictest sense produces a system of rigid binaries–the idea of “If it’s not this, then it’s this.” Structuralism is too tidy, too categorical. What’s more, it does little to account for the history within language and the way that different groups struggle to assign meaning to different words. Look at the man/woman binary:

Signifiers? “MAN” and “WOMAN.”

Signifieds? In a structuralist system, different signifiers, by nature of their difference, represent different concepts. So, for man: “rational, active, strong”; for woman: “emotional, passive, weak.”

Problems here? If your answer is “nope!” then allow me to swat your wrist like a grade-school nun (we’ll get to that tomorrow with Foucault).

Both women and men inherently share all of these characteristics because they are all in fact human characteristics (they are empirically observable in men and women). There is difference in the terms, a difference that is fundamentally biological; however, a long history of patriarchal institutions has loaded these signifiers with more signifieds, even though both of the physical objects (MAN and WOMAN) that the words above represent do actually embody all of the different signifieds listed above. In other words, structuralism can’t always handle the history behind language. But FOUCAULT CAN!

For Foucault, history provides a central means of understanding the present, in terms of language itself and in terms of culture and society. History presses on the present, and the present presses back. In his way of thinking, the historically acquired signifieds in the signifiers “man” and “woman” are part of the structuring of language and are the result of power struggles (won for most of history by patriarchy) throughout time.

Foucault’s ideas gave rise to a great many critical theories, one of which was New Historicism, which posits that people/works/events not only shape history but are shaped by history in turn. This notion arises in Foucault’s “What Is an Author?” since his idea of “author” is one of authorial function, of multiple forces creating a work. An writer exists in a specific time and a specific place, with institutional pressures (besides his own, individual thoughts); thus, his/her writing is produced by the surrounding discourse that the writer is a part of. It does not merely spring from the hidden well of genius of the creator (the Romantic poets are weeping in their graves). The writer is not absent, but functions kind of like a narrator; it is a voice, and it could be the voice of a group or an individual, but it is always the voice of a group or individual in a society, in a certain time, in a certain place. In other words, the voice is that of a discourse.

This term, “discourse,” is one that gets perpetuated by Foucault and the critics and theorists after him. It’s a term that I have heard thrown around my English classes since high school. It is, however, also a term that rarely gets defined or explained, and most people I ask have trouble doing so. So, a big question I want to address tomorrow is “what is discourse? It may sound simple, but it’s not as easy as saying “it’s a conversation.” The term has become a charged one, a loaded word that carries some blurry signification. Think about it.

I will abruptly shift gears here and briefly bring up Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. This work seems quite different from “What Is the Author?” but there are some foundational connections between the thematically different works. What are some of these connections in your mind? Think of broad ideas that stretch across Foucault’s work, like subjectivity, discourse, categorization, and identities.

Also, I am looking forward to discussing panopticism tomorrow, so that we can better grasp some of that dense and confusing material about the carceral. (I found Foucault’s 6 main points about prisons and the whole “carceral archipelago” a bit difficult.) So, in the spirit of panopticism and the power of the gaze, I leave you with this panoptic food for thought:


One thought on “Foucault with a Dash of Barthes”

  1. Great post. I wanted to get at the question you brought up here in your blog and in class: what is the meaning of discourse, as used by Foucault? Over the course of his essay, “What Is an Author?”, Foucault uses the term discourse in to two distinct variations of the same general concept. Foucault refers to the broad themes and ideas expressed through an artist’s body of work as what composes an individual’s discourse – in a sense, the overarching “content” that is developed by the author over several separate works. These individual discourses exist within a larger, inclusive system that comprises the entire artistic/philosophical landscape of a given culture. Foucault mentions near the end of his essay the practical benefit of exploring the “typology of discourse…if we hope to distinguish the large categories” (Foucault, pg. 461). This kind of bi-layered definition of discourse brings us full circle to structuralism – which, as we all know from Wednesday’s class, Foucault was definitely not a structuralist (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Nevertheless, his argument does bear more than a passing resemblance to some of the structuralist ideas expressed in Barthes, as Foucault’s discussion of the “categories” of discourse implies that the individual discourses contained within the greater categories are signs that, together, form a larger system, and it is that system which gives the individual signs their significance. The nature of the structural model of discourse reminds me in a way of Adorno and Horkheimer. Signs within a structural system are given meaning through their individual differences, and to me this is reminiscent of Adorno and Horkheimer’s discussion of popular films, as Adorno and Horkheimer point out that though many people might construe one film as being significantly more revolutionary or insightful than others, and yet that is because we only can see those characteristics of the film which differentiate it from others. We miss the fact that most popular films are largely very similar because we are not cognizant of the larger discourse which shapes the film. Obviously Foucault doesn’t put the same overt Marxism in his essay, but I think the overall principle is the same.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *