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Michel Foucault

There is another strand in poststructuralist thought which believes that the world is more than a galaxy
of texts, and that some theories of textuality ignore the fact that discourse is involved in power. They
reduce political and economic forces, and ideological and social control, to aspects of signify- ing
processes. When a Hitler or a Stalin seems to dictate to an entire nation by wielding the power of
discourse, it is absurd to treat the effect as sim- ply occurring within discourse. It is evident that real
power is exercised through discourse, and that this power has real effects. The father of this line of
thought is the German philosopher, Nietzsche, who said that people rst decide what they want and
then t the facts to their aim: Ultimately, man nds in things nothing but what he himself has imported
into them. All knowledge is an expression of the Will to Power. This means that we cannot speak of
any absolute truths or of objective know- ledge. People recognize a particular piece of philosophy or
scientic theory as true only if it ts the descriptions of truth laid down by the intellec- tual or political
authorities of the day, by the members of the ruling elite, or by the prevailing ideologues of knowledge.
Like other poststructuralists Michel Foucault regards discourse as a central human activity, but not as a
universal general text, a vast sea of signication. He is interested in the historical dimension of
discursive change what it is possible to say will change from one era to another. In science a theory is
not recognized in its own period if it does not conform to the power consensus of the institutions and
ofcial organs of science. Mendels genetic theories fell on deaf ears in the 1860s; they were
promulgated in a void and had to wait until the twentieth century for acceptance. It is not enough to
speak the truth; one must be in the truth. In his early work on madness Foucault found it difcult to
nd exam- ples of mad discourse (except in literature: de Sade, Artaud). He deduced that the rules and
procedures which determine what is considered normal or rational successfully silence what they
exclude. Individuals working
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POSTSTRUCTURALIST THEORIES 179
within particular discursive practices cannot think or speak without obeying the unspoken archive of
rules and constraints; otherwise they risk being condemned to madness or silence (Foucaults relevance
to feminism, to postcolonial theory and to gay and lesbian theory is apparent here). This discursive
mastery works not just by exclusion, but also by rarefaction (each practice narrows its content and
meaning by thinking only in terms of author and discipline). Finally, there are the social constraints,
especially the formative power of the education system which denes what is ratio- nal and scholarly.
Foucaults books, especially Madness and Civilization (1961), The Birth of the Clinic (1963), The Order of
Things (1966), Discipline and Punish (1975) and The History of Sexuality (1976), show that various forms
of knowledge about sex, crime, psychiatry and medicine have arisen and been replaced. He
concentrates on the fundamental shifts occurring between epochs. He offers no period generalizations,
but traces the overlapping series of dis- continuous elds. History is this disconnected range of
discursive practices. Each practice is a set of rules and procedures governing writing and thinking in a
particular eld. These rules govern by exclusion and regula- tion. Taken together the elds form a
cultures archive, its positive Unconscious. Although the policing of knowledge is often associated
with individual names (Aristotle, Plato, Aquinas, Locke, and so on), the set of structural rules which
informs the various elds of knowledge is quite beyond any indi- vidual consciousness. The regulation of
specic disciplines involves very rened rules for running institutions, training initiates and transmitting
knowledge. The Will-to-Knowledge exhibited in this regulation is an impersonal force. We can never
know our own eras archive because it is the Unconscious from which we speak. We can understand an
earlier archive only because we are utterly different and remote from it. For ex- ample, when we read
the literature of the Renaissance, we often notice the richness and exuberance of its verbal play. In The
Order of Things, Foucault shows that in this period resemblance played a central role in the structure of
all knowledges. Everything echoed everything else; nothing stood on its own. We see this vividly in the
poetry of John Donne, whose mind never rests on an object but moves back and forth from spiritual to
physical, human to divine, and universal to individual. In his Devotions, Donne describes in cosmic terms
the symptoms of the fever that almost killed him, linking the microcosm (man) and the macrocosm
(universe): his tremblings are earthquakes, his faintings are eclipses and his feverish breath blazing
stars. From our modern standpoint we can see the various kinds of
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180 A READERS GUIDE TO CONTEMPORARY LITERARY THEORY
correspondence which shape Renaissance discourses, but the writers them- selves saw and thought
through them and therefore could not see them as we see them. Following Nietzsche, Foucault denies
that we can ever possess an object- ive knowledge of History. Historical writing will always become
entangled in tropes; it can never be a science. Jeffrey Mehlmans Revolution and Repetition (1979)
shows how Marxs Eighteenth Brumaire presents the revolu- tion of Louis Napoleon as a farcical
repetition of his uncles revolution. Marxs historical account, according to Mehlman, acknowledges the
impossibility of knowledge; there is only the absurd trope of repetition. However, Foucault does not
treat the strategies writers use to make sense of History as merely textual play. Such discourses are
produced within a real world of power struggle. In politics, art and science, power is gained through
discourse: discourse is a violence that we do to things. Claims to objectivity made on behalf of specic
discourses are always spurious: there are no absolutely true discourses, only more or less powerful
ones.