The Style of Discourse

In the same way that we considered the style of things in the previous post, discourse also assumes a particular style of looking at or arranging things. Just as objects have different ways of appearing to subjects, discourses are likely to exhibit a similar pattern. An important distinction to make in regards to discourses is that they are not atemporal, final or terminal. In a similar manner, it is vain to nostalgically search for pure origins or essences to discourses. That is, because discourses are a historical product of choices, decisions, regulations, modes and descriptions that constitute any given perceptual field.

For instance, clinical discourse was gradually altered throughout the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century by usage of rules, perceptual descriptions, procedures, institutional regulations and practices. That is not to say that the content and usage of the medical field at that time was established once and for all. Rather, it points to the fact that it, like other discourses, have always been under constant adaptations and discontinuities. At different times in history it was concerned with different domains of objects, even though they all fell under the same subject of inquiry. It is only ever in appearance that a discourse of established statements, analyses, descriptions, principles and consequences manifests a coherent figure. In reality, it is what lies beneath that gives it its true character: procedures of intervening, translating, transferring, systematizing, and rewriting previous objects in accord with the current configuration of things. Or, more simply, using new modes of organization to rearrange and reconstruct previously formulated elements.

This is no less true for other discursive registers such as disorders, aberrations, disturbances, criminality, grammar, economics, etc. In all these processes, “a variety of objects were named, circumscribed, analysed, then rectified, re-defined, challenged, erased” (Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, pp. 40-41). They were, in short, constituted and delimited by a system of formation that connected, linked, and networked a multiplicity of previously desperate objects into a unified collective. Criminal behavior, delinquency or madness are not self-given, pre-established or necessary categories. They emerge over time and their designation and explanation vary from one social setting to the next. A brief quote by Foucault sums this notion of hybrid constellations that I am attempting to describe in discourse.

What one must characterize and individualize is the coexistence of these dispersed and heterogeneous statements; the system that governs their division, the degree to which they depend upon one another, the way in which they interlock or exclude one another, the transformation that they undergo, and the play of their location, arrangement, and replacement (p. 34)

I think there is an easy parallel here with object-oriented ontologists such as Bruno Latour. What Foucault is saying about discourses here is that they have always been a product of hybridization, whether we have recognized them as such or not. The idea of health, for example, is generated by a complex web of relations between the authority of the medical community, the judiciary system, police information, private clinic practice, social behavior norms, and so on. Foucault, in short, is articulating the need to dispense with and de-specify things by recourse to conjuring up the “rich, heavy, immediate plentitude” that gave rise to their historical emergence. The genealogical task at hand by using this broad scale of study is to “describe the organization of the field of statements where they appeared and circulated” (p. 56). By doing so we will be able to see how groups of statements were combined, classified, and arranged into a particular whole.

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