Postmodern Theories and Texts


Barthes and Foucault

"From Work 
to Text"
"Myth Today" 
From Language to Discourse
 From Discourse to Power/Knowledge
Representation and Subjectivity 
  1. Introduction
  2. From today's reading we look at two versions of constructionism which concentrated on how language and signification (the use of signs in language) works to produce meanings -- one is after Barthers and Saussure we called semiotics; th other is Foucault who concerned about how discourse produce knowledge. In semiotics, we see the importance of signifier/signified, langue/parole and 'myth', and how the marking of difference and binary oppositions are crucial for meaning. In the discursive approach, we see discursive formations, power/knowledge, the idea of 'a regime of truth', the way discourse also produces the subject and defines the subject-positions from discourse, and also 'the subject' to the field of representation.

I. Some Ideas of Roland Barthes
    A. "From Work to Text"

    In this essay, Barthes argues that the relations of writer, reader and observer is changed by movement from work to text. In this light, we can observe Barthes's propositions of the differences between work and text in terms of method, genres, signs, plurality, filiation, reading, and pleasure.

    First of all, Barthes thought that the Text is a "methodological field" rather then a portion of the space of books", that is the work (170). Like Lacan's distinction between "reality" and "real": the work is displayed (the reality which is out there, concrete), the text is a process of demonstration which is held in language. "The text is experienced only in an activity of production": the text is writable through tracing the flickering of presence and absence of the chain of signifiers. So the text "cannot stop" because the process of language does not come to an end; the meaning is always suspended, something deferred or still to come. Then, the subversive power of the text is that it cannot be contained in a hierarchy or a simple division of genres. The text tries to place itself very exactly behind the limit of genres -- all literary texts are woven out of other literary texts. There is no literary 'originality': all literature is 'intertextual' and paradoxical. Thirdly, the Text can be approached, experienced in reaction to the sign. That is, the work closes on a signified which falls under the scope of an interpretation. The text, on the contrary, practices the infinite deferment of the signified. The infinity of the signifier refers a playing -- to play with the disconnections, overlappings, and variations between signifier and signified. In this respect, the text is filled with symbolic energy -- like language, it is structured but decentered, without closure.

    The fourth idea is the plurality of the Text: an irreducible plurality which answers not to an interpretation. The weave of signifiers in the Text reveals a complex network of sign (citations, references, cultural languages) -- in this extent, no sign is ever 'pure' or 'fully meaningful'. So the Text can be itself only in its differences, not monistic determination. Here we can connect this idea to the filiation of the text -- it can be read without the inscription of the author (Father). The biography of the author is merely another text which does not indicate any privilege -- it is the language which speaks in the Text, not the author himself. Also, it is the reader who focuses the multiplicity of the text, not the author. In this light, the text itself plays and the reader plays twice over through reading -- the text asks of the reader a practical collaboration, then it becomes writable. The final approach to the Text is pleasure. That is, the Text is a space of social utopia which transcends social relations (author, reader, critic) and language relations (no language has a hold over any other).
  Unless otherwise noted, the following text is excerpted from "The Work of Representation."
Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices.  Ed. Stuart Hall.  London: Sage, 1997.

    B. "Myth Today"

    From the Text to Myth, we can see Barthes's contribution through language to culture, from linguistics to semiotics. His Mythologies is constructed by a double theoretical framework: on the one hand, a critique on the language of mass culture; on the other, to analyse semiologically the mechanics of this language. Firstly, Barthes saw the language of mass culture (myth) as a collective representations of sign-systems, a second-order semiological system which is constructed by signifier (eg, clothes like evening dress, a bow tie, jeans), signified (certain concepts like 'elegance', 'formality', 'casual-nerss') and sign (the language of fashion). Also, myth is a metalanguage, in which it speaks about the first. Through the analysis of myth, Barthes treats myth (books and paintings, the slogans, trivia, toys, food and popular rituals like eating, marriage, wrestling matches) as a text to read and tries to demystified the ideology that mass culture's been an universal nature. Meaning, one of the functions of ideology is to 'naturalize' social reality, to make it seems as innocent as Nature itself. Ideology uses the 'natural' sign as one of its weapons -- saluting a flag, or agreeing that Western democracy represents the true meaning of the word 'freedom'. In this sense, ideology is a kind of contemporary mythology.

II. Foucault
    A. From Language to Discourse

    After Barthes, here is a shift of attention in Foucault from 'language' to 'discourse'.

    He studied not language, but discourse as a system of representation. According to Foucault, we see that 'discourse' (a group of statements) is a way of representing the knowledge about a particular topic at a particular historical moment. Discourse constructs the topic. It defines and produces the objects of our knowledge. It also influences how ideas are put into practice and used to regulate the conduct of others. So the meaning is constructed through discourse, nothing has any meaning outside of discourse.

  1. Historicizing Discourse: Discursive practices
  2. The main point here is the way discourse, representation, knowledge and 'truth' are historicized by Foucault, in contrast to the ahistorical tendency in semiotics. That is, things meant something and were 'true' only within a specific historical context. He thought that in each period, discourse produced forms of knowledge, objects, subjects and practices of knowledge which differed from period to period, with no necessary continuity between them. For instance, there may always have been what we now call homosexual forms of behaviour. But 'the homosexual' as a specific kind of social subject which was produced, and could only make its appearance within the moral, legal, medical and psychiatric discourses, practices and institutional apparatuses of the late nineteenth century, with their particular theories of sexual perversity. Knowledge about and practices around all these subjects were historically and culturally specific.

    B. From Discourse to Power/Knowledge
Foucault focus on the relationship between knowledge and power, and how power operated within an institutional apparatus which is always inscribed in a play of power, but it is always linked to certain co-ordinates of knowledge. For example, Foucault's conception of the apparatus of punishment included many elements -- discourses, institutions, regulations, laws, architectural arrangements, laws, administrative measures, moralities, etc. So this is what the apparatus consists in: "strategies of relations of forces supporting and supported by types of knowledge" (47). Moreover, Foucault's main argument against the classical Marxist theory of ideology was that it tended to reduce all the relation between knowledge and power to a question of class power and class interests. Foucault did not deny the existence of classes, but he was strongly opposed to this powerful element of class reductionism in the Marxist theory of ideology. He did not believe that any form of thought could claim an absolute 'truth' outside the play of discourse -- all political and social forms of thought were inevitably caught up in the interplay of knowledge and power.
  1. Knowledge, power and truth
  2. The question of the application and effectiveness of power/knowledge was more important, Foucault thought, than the question of its 'truth'. He thought that knowledge linked to power, not only assumes the authority of 'the truth' but has the power to make itself true. All knowledge, once applied in the real world, has real effects, and in that sense 'becomes true'. So there is no 'Truth' of knowledge in the absolute sense -- a Truth, whatever the period, setting, context, is a discursive formation sustaining a regime of truth (not 'what is true' but 'what counts as true').

  3. New conceptions of power
For Foucault, power does not function as a center but exercise through a net-like organization. This suggests that we are all caught up in the circulation of power relation -- oppressors and oppressed. Power is also productive network which runs through the whole social body because it induces pleasure, forms of knowledge, produces discourse.
    C. Representation and Subjectivity
Foucault's approach to representation is that he concerned with the production of knowledge and meaning through discourse. For him, the production of knowledge is always crossed with questions of power and the body (51), and this expands the scope of what is involved in representation. Now we have traced the shift in Foucault's work from language to discourse and knowledge, and their relation to power. But there is a crucial question that we will ask: where is the 'subject'? Here Saussure tended to abolish the subject from the question of representation -- it is 'language' that speaks us. In one sense, Foucault shares this position. For him, it is discourse, not the subject which produces knowledge. Discourse is enmeshed with power, but it is not necessary to find a 'subject' like the king, the ruling class, the state -- for power/knowledge to operate. Of course Foucault was deeply critical of the traditional conception of the subject (an individual, the core of the self, and the independent, authentic source of action and meaning). His most radical propositions is that the 'subject' is produced within discourse. That is, the subject cannot be outside discourse because it must be subjected to discourse and also exists within the knowledge (which is produced by discourse), the discursive formation of a particular period and culture. So the subject can become the object through which power is relayed, and should be located in the position from which the discourse can make sense of it. Anyhow, individuals may differ as to their social class, gendered, racial characteristics, they will not be able to take meaning until they have identified with those positions which are constructed by the discourse, subjected themselves to its rules, and hence become the subjects of its power/knowledge.