Michele Barrett, in her text The Politics of Truth: From Marx to Foucault (1991), contextualises Foucault’s concept of ‘discourse’ as the focus of an alternative theoretical model to that of ideology. She defines Foucault as an exemplar of the poststructuralist critique of the theory of ideology, and frames the Foucauldian model within the broader shift from ideology to ‘discourse’ in social theory. Foucault, Barrett argues, rejects the concept of ideology because it has implications for concepts of absolute truth, because it rests on a humanist model of the individual subject, and because it is enmeshed in the Marxist base and superstructure model.

Barrett makes a distinction between ‘discourse’ as it relates to textuality (Barthes, Derrida), and Foucault’s theory of discourse which describes discourse as central in the nexus of relations of power and which is the focus of concern at this point. As Barrett (1991:126) points out, ‘in direct contrast to the concerns associated with “textuality”, Foucault’s use of the concept of discourse and of what we would call discursivity in general is very much related to context’. The key element to grasp about Foucault’s use of the concept of discourse is that it enables us to understand how what is said has its own social and historical context and is a product of specific conditions of existence. His concept of discourse is explained in his major methodological work The Archaeology of Knowledge (1972).

Barrett shows how Foucault’s concept of discourse is embedded in a theoretical system which has developed a range of categories involving an explicit rejection of classical Marxist categories. Peter Dews (1984) reinforces Barrett’s view that Foucault’s concept of power was developed in part as a polemic against Marxist structuralism. Dews (1984:73) maintains that Foucault’s thought represents a highly individual historical vision and is ‘specifically concerned with forms of knowledge and modes of social organisation characteristic of capitalist modernity’. Dews argues that Foucault’s The Birth of the Clinic (1973a) can be seen as an oblique polemic against the Marxist view.

Barrett indicates that her analysis of Foucault’s concept of discourse is framed in the context of categories, including: the issue of determinism; issues concerned with epistemology and the question of knowledge, truth and power; and issues concerned with the definition of the subject and agency. Barrett, having outlined these three issue areas, focuses first on the problem of determination and the issue of discourse and the non-discursive in Foucault. She maintains that in The Order of Things (1973b) Foucault distinguishes between dependencies which are: intra-discursive, i. e. between the objects, operations and concepts within one discursive formation; inter-discursive, i. e. between different discursive formations; and extra-discursive, i. e. between discursive and non-discursive formations. She points out that the way Foucault thought of the relations between the discursive and non-discursive was profoundly different from the conventions of Marxism.

As Foucault (1991:60) himself argues, his approach to the analysis of discourse is ‘To investigate not the laws of construction of discourse as is done by those who use structural methods, but its conditions of existence’. He goes on to say that discourse is related ‘not to a thought, mind or subject which engendered it, but to the practical field in which it is deployed’ (Foucault 1991:161). Foucault refers to this as a ‘discursive field’, which consists of a whole group of regulated practices, so for Foucault ‘discourse’ is a set of ‘practices’ rather than structures. Barrett outlines Foucault’s analysis of discourse in The Archaeology of Knowledge as the production of ‘things’ by ‘words’: i. e. as Barrett (1991:30) indicates, ‘discourses are composed of signs, but they do more than designate things, for they are “practices that systematically form the objects of which they speak”’. She maintains that, in a reversal of the classical materialist hierarchy, Foucault says that the rules of discursive practice ‘define not the dumb existence of a reality, nor the canonical use of a vocabulary, but the ordering of objects’ (Foucault 1972:49).

Barrett highlights some of the significant issues that Foucault’s concept of discourse raises. First, his questioning of the hierarchy of determinism found in Marxism. As Barrett indicates, Foucault saw determination as polymorphous rather than unilinear and he wanted to claim ‘the determinative powers of discourse in constituting practices that are ultimately responsible for—as Said put it—“how people thought, lived and spoke”’ (Barrett 1991:131). Second, Barrett notes that Foucault opposed the conception of social structure although he developed an equally general concept: that of power.

Barrett indicates that Foucault’s concept of discourse was closely connected with his concept of truth, knowledge and power. Foucault’s concept of power as outlined by Barrett does not locate it in agencies—e. g. State, economic forces, or individuals—but sees it in terms of ‘micro’ operations of power. Barrett (1991:135) points out that Foucault’s concept of power was ‘developed as a critique of Marxism’s theory of power as an instrument of class dominance’. Foucault saw power as something that is exercised rather than possessed, i. e. power is not attached to agents and interests but is incorporated in numerous practices. As Barrett (1991:136) notes, ‘the object of analysis changes in Foucault, from power as an absolute, to power in terms of power relations’.

Foucault’s disagreements with Marxism were profound. He rejected the realist epistemology on which the ideology/science distinction had been founded: he also rejected the notion of the subject which Marxism assumed (both individual agent and class subject). Barrett (1991:138) argues that ‘one would say that Foucault is working outside the Marxist problematic of determinism, rather than seeking to retrieve a polymorphous model of causality within it’. As Barrett (1991:139) notes, the materialist premises of Marxism are inadequate as a basis for thinking about political, cultural and social life in late twentieth-century society ‘whose determinations are so different from those of mid-nineteenth century manufacturing capitalism’.

Barrett draws on Barry Smart’s ‘The Politics of Truth and the Problem of Hegemony’ (1986) to extrapolate the relationship between power, ideology and Foucault. As Smart maintains,

Foucault by virtue of critical distance from the limitations of the Marxist problematic has been able to transform the terms of the debate from a preoccupation with the ambiguous concept of ‘ideology’ and its effects, to a consideration of the relations of ‘truth’ and power which are constitutive of hegemony.

(Smart 1986:160)

In discussing Foucault on hegemony, Smart suggests that Foucault’s project was to show ‘the complex multiple processes from which the strategic constitution of forms of hegemony may emerge’ (1986:160).

Nancy Fraser (1989) draws comparisons between Foucault’s concept of genealogy and the concept of ideology. Genealogy and the genealogical method was Foucault’s method of studying history through the analysis of discourse. McNeil (1993) argues that the genealogical method was designed to explore not who had power, but rather the patterns of the exercise of power through the interplay of discourses. Cain (1993) shows how, through his genealogical method, Foucault arrived at the position that it was the exercise of power that created knowledge. The genealogical method enables Foucault to chart the discontinuities of history and the play of power relations in the production of knowledges. Fraser claims that Foucault, in opposing genealogy to ideology, maintains that

genealogy does not concern itself with evaluating the contents of science or systems of knowledge or for that matter with systems of beliefs.. .Rather it is concerned with the processes, procedures and apparatuses whereby truth, knowledge, belief are produced, within what Foucault calls ‘the politics of the discursive regime’.


Fraser proceeds to develop systematically the links between discourse, power/ knowledge, truth and ideology in Foucault’s work. She argues that the functioning of ‘discursive regimes’ in Foucault’s model involves forms of social constraint which can take different forms, such that the constraints themselves and their application will vary depending on the regime. Such forms of heterogeneous constraint, or in Foucault’s terms ‘power’, circulates in and through the production of discourses in societies. Thus, as Fraser (1989:20) maintains, ‘what Foucault is interested in when he claims to be studying the genealogy of power/knowledge regimes [is]…networks of social practices involving the mutual interrelationship of constraint and discourse’.

On the question of ideology, while the terms of the debate may have shifted from the concept of ideology (or the ‘economics of untruth’ as Foucault describes it) to the ‘politics of truth’ in his own work, this is problematic. As Fraser (1989) notes, Foucault’s approach to the study of power/knowledge regimes sidesteps or ignores the categories truth/falsity or truth/ideology. Fraser argues that Foucault does not address the question of whether the knowledge emanating from the discursive regimes he studies is true, adequate or distorted. Rather than assessing the legitimacy of epistemic content, Foucault describes the procedures, practices, apparatuses and institutions of knowledge production.

Barrett (1991) outlines Foucault’s position on the ‘subject’, arguing that Foucault maintained that ‘the subject should be thought of as constituted rather than a given and his interest in the practices constituting that subject (discursive, social, etc.) was much broader than that of many other modern theorists’ (Barrett 1991:146). She focuses on the reasons why Foucault has been so significant for feminism and puts forward two reasons: Foucault’s displacement of social class from the theorisation of subjectivity; and ‘Foucault’s implacable critique of the “sovereign” subject of humanist discourse’ (Barrett 1991:147). Biddy Martin locates Foucault’s critique of humanism in the context of feminist theory, and argues that

feminist analysis demonstrates ever more convincingly that women’s silence and exclusion from struggles over representation have been the condition of possibility for humanist thought: the position of women has indeed been that of an internal exclusion within Western culture, a particularly well- suited point from which to expose the workings of power in the will to truth and identity.

(Martin 1988:13)

In the The Archaeology of Knowledge, Foucault wrote:

discourse is not the majestically unfolding manifestation of a thinking, knowing, speaking subject but, on the contrary, a totality in which the dispersion of the subject and his discontinuity with himself may be determined…[I]t is neither by recourse to a transcendental subject nor by recourse to a psychological subjectivity that the regulation of its enunciations should be defined.

(Foucault 1972:55)

Barrett (1991) points out that Foucault’s rejection of the myth of the transcendental subject, his anti-humanism and his analysis of individualisation in modern society is quite different from Derridean and Lacanian poststructuralism. She argues (1991:150) that ‘the breadth of the Foucauldian perspective means that Foucault’s insights can be set to work across a whole spectrum of work in historical, textual, sociological and critical debates’.

It is the issue of agency, Barrett says, that causes most scepticism about the relevance of Foucault’s concept of power, among both feminists and social theorists generally. Anthony Giddens (1987) outlines the contradictions apparent in Foucault’s work around the question of agency. He argues (1987:98) that Foucault’s history is a history with no active subject. It is a history with the agency removed; the individuals who appear in Foucault’s analyses seem impotent to determine their own destinies. Moreover, as Giddens comments, that reflective appropriation of history, basic to history in modern culture, does not appear at the level of the agents themselves.