Who?               Michel Foucault

When?             Mainly 1960’s – 1970’s



This page continues the development of ideas discussed under Post-Structuralism. Post-Structuralism essentially makes the point that, because of uncertainties in the language, there are corresponding uncertainties in texts and that we, as readers, are free to interpret a text in as many different ways as we wish.


However, we can notice that texts do not, in fact, have an infinite variety of interpretations. There are, in practice, a very small number of interpretations of a text that are accepted as ‘sensible’, ‘rational’ or ‘intelligible’. This raises the question of how we decide what makes something sensible, rational or intelligible and this is where Michel Foucault and his theories about Discourse come in.


Foucault believes that societies are governed or dominated by what he calls a Discourse or ideology. This ideology is generally something that we don’t consciously acknowledge but that unconsciously governs our behaviour. It can be best thought of as a set of rules or constraints that determine what things count as sensible, sane, true or factual. If a play or a novel; an interpretation of a text; a scientific report or someone’s behaviour (in fact anything at all) breaks the rules of this ideology then it falls outside of the set of things that we would normally call sensible or acceptable and we dismiss it as ‘insane’.


To see how this works we can look at a very stereotypical example from the field of science. 500 years ago, before Copernicus proved that the Sun was the centre of the Solar System and not the Earth, it would have been impossible for any ‘sane’ scientist to publish results or discuss theories that suggested that the Earth was not at the centre of the universe. The discourse, or ideology, of the time was principally religious. Human beings were seen as God’s special creations, designed in his image to replace the angels that were expelled from Heaven after the fall of Satan. The universe was designed as their private playground and it would have seemed absurd to suggest that they were not at its centre. In this way a discourse or ideology can determine what it is acceptable to talk about and what it is not. More importantly it silences and dismisses as madness anything that it is not acceptable to talk about.


So, how does this relate to literature? The idea is, broadly speaking, that our first reading of a text is going to be the one that is influenced by our ideology or Discourse. This reading will, in some senses, seem to be the obvious one. In technical terminology, we call this the ‘dominant’ reading. However, because we are now aware of the power of ideology, we can attempt to ‘read against the grain’ of this ideology and reveal the assumptions that it is based on. The Discourse or ideology makes a text portray the world in a certain way and, by asking awkward questions and ‘reading against the grain’ of that ideology, we can make it clear that the world does not have to be that way. Here’s an example.


Take for instance the fairytale of Cinderella. The dominant or obvious reading shows a poor girl who, through being pure hearted and humble of spirit, eventually wins the heart of Prince Charming and with it freedom from the despotism of the evil Ugly Sisters and her Wicked Stepmother. Reading against the grain we might ask the following awkward questions: why is it that only women are portrayed in positions of servitude? Why is it that Cinders is incapable of rescuing herself and has to rely on the magic of her Fairy Godmother in order to escape? Why is it that success for all women in the story is represented as marriage to the prince? Our alternative, or subversive, reading of the text might be, then, that this is not a story about the eventual success of a morally noble character but a story intended to indoctrinate young girls into accepting roles of passive servitude whilst they wait for a ‘happy ending’ which invariably involves being ‘chosen’ by the most handsome or successful man that comes their way. This is ‘subversive’ because it subverts or turns on its head the obvious reading of the story.


So, basically, we need to be aware that a Discourse, ideology, or set of unconscious beliefs governs what is written and how we read texts. Being aware of this fact means that we are no longer so easily controlled by that ideology and it enables us to see the world / read texts in a number of different ways.


This idea is particularly important when discussing minority groups in literature – usually women, homosexuals or non-Europeans. Until relatively recently these groups would broadly speaking have been viewed generally as weak (in the case of women), morally wrong or disgusting (in the case of homosexuals) and in some sense inferior (in the case of non-Europeans). The dominate ideology would make it very difficult for us to find a role for these characters that is not a stereotype. Being able to ‘read against the grain’ of that ideology means that we are able to find alternative, varied and more interesting roles for these otherwise limited characters.


A separate but related idea is that Foucault’s theories highlight the importance of ‘madness’ whenever it appears in texts. In some ways the word ‘mad’ is no more than a label that an ideology gives to someone who is telling truths that that ideology does not want to hear. As such we can view anyone who is ‘mad’ in a text as someone who is just looking at reality from a different perspective, seeing the world in a different way or as someone who has access to truths that are not accepted by the ideology. In this way, ‘mad’ people can have something very interesting to tell us. A good example is Maria Josefa Alba from ‘The House of Bernarda Alba’ who, despite being labelled as mad, is capable of seeing truths that the other characters can’t see or can’t talk about e.g. the girls’ lust for Pepe el Romano and the true nature of Bernarda ‘face of leopard’. Another interesting case of madness is Antoinette Cosway in the ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ who perhaps is defined as mad simply because she comes from a creole Caribbean culture completely at odds with the White European culture of Mr. Rochester.


The idea of Discourse is also related to the ideas of Binary Oppositions and Gaps and Silences, which are discussed elsewhere.


A final interesting question we might ask about Discourse is, if Discourses are as powerful as they seem to be, how can they ever change? It is clear that they do change; we no longer believe that the Earth is at the centre of the Universe, for example, but how does this happen? One answer comes from the philosophy of science. A philosopher / scientist called T.S. Khun claims that if enough people come together with the right evidence at the right time, a ‘paradigm shift’ can occur. A ‘paradigm shift’ is just a massive change in the Discourse or ideology that we have i.e. a massive change in the way that we view our world.


This clearly happens in science. When Copernicus published his theories, there would not have been a gradual change in the beliefs of scientists; either they would have been convinced and believe that the Earth was just another planet in orbit around the Sun or they would not. Scientists would not have gone through a gradual change where on Monday they thought it was at the centre of the universe, by Wednesday it was a bit further out and by Friday they agreed it was just another planet in orbit. This sort of thing is all or nothing.


It is not clear to me that this applies so cleanly in literature. However, it is clear that there has been to a degree a paradigm shift in our treatment of women in texts, less so in the case of non-Europeans and perhaps even less so in the case of homosexuals who seem to me to be the last group to be rehabilitated. This raises the question of who the next group will be or where the next paradigm shift will come from: the question, I suppose is unanswerable, because when you are trapped in an ideology or Discourse, you are unable to see its flaws, its problems or its assumptions and as such any changes will probably come at us out of the blue and, because of that, will probably be fiercely opposed.