Discourse, power and resistance

INTRODUCTION

Poststructuralism, along with postmodernism and psychoanalytic theory, has been among the most important theoretical developments of the twentieth century. Poststructuralist theorists such as Derrida and Foucault have challenged traditional epistemological assumptions about knowledge and truth, in terms of how knowledge can be apprehended and whose knowledge is valorised. The origins of poststructuralism can be traced to a number of theoretical strands as noted by Weedon (1987:13), including ‘the structural linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure and Emile Benveniste, Marxism, particularly Louis Althusser’s theory of ideology and the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan’. Weedon comments that they also

include Jacques Derrida’s theory of ‘difference’ with its critique of the metaphysics of presence, in which the speaking subject’s intention guarantees meaning, and language is a tool for expressing something beyond it, deconstruction based on Derrida’s theory and Michel Foucault’s theory of discourse and power.

(Weedon 1987:13)

Thus the term ‘poststructuralism’ is plural and incorporates a range of theoretical positions.

As has been indicated, Weedon (1987) develops a version of poststructuralism which she calls ‘feminist poststructuralism’. She recognises that there are different forms of poststructuralism and that not all forms are productive for feminism, but she contends that its different forms share certain fundamental assumptions about language, meaning and subjectivity. Weedon maintains that the least ‘a feminist poststructuralism can do is explain the assumptions underlying the questions asked and answered by other forms of feminist theory, making their political assumptions explicit’ (1987:20). She contends that poststructuralism can identify the type of discourse from which particular feminist questions emerge and can locate them socially and institutionally. For a theory to be useful it needs to be able

to address questions of how social power is exercised and how social relations structured around gender, class and race might be transformed. She recognises that this requires an historical perspective, which she notes is absent in many theories of poststructuralism but is central to the work of Michel Foucault.

Foucault’s analysis of power, as outlined by Weedon, presents historical explanations of the development of power as repression and looks to the specific forms taken. As Weedon explains, Foucault understands hegemonic control by the State to extend to a range of interests and investments in different forms of power. Foucault understands the operation of power through institutional arrangements e. g. education, work, the law. Weedon outlines how the operation of social control through these agencies disciplines the body, mind and emotions, constituting hierarchial forms of power such as gender, ethnicity and class. The practices learned in institutional contexts constitute ‘subjective identity’.

The implications for ‘structural’ models of power are clear in Foucault’s analysis. As Weedon (1987:124) argues, in considering ‘patriarchy’, explanations which attempt to account for it only ‘in terms of privileged forms of power such as the capitalist mode of production, the nuclear family or male violence against women, offer necessarily, partial politically limited analyses’. She goes on to consider the implications for a feminist poststructuralist perspective, and maintains that through an analysis of the nature of power and subjective identity created through different discourses, feminism can establish an alternative knowledge base. As Weedon maintains,

the knowledge produced for women through the process of subjugation to such discourses can be the basis for the articulation of alternative meanings which do not marginalise and subordinate women, and which in the process transform the hegemonic structures of masculinity.

(Weedon 1987:127)

This chapter explores the relationship between feminist theory and the Foucauldian concepts of discourse and power. It has been argued that discourse, as used in Foucault’s work, provides for an analysis of power at a more differentiated level and facilitates an analysis of the nature of epistemological power of discursive regimes. The use of the concept of discourse will be considered for feminist theory and politics, and for a broader-based conception ofpower and oppression as analysed within feminist poststructuralism.