Lecture 5: Representation as Discursive Power

What is Discourse?

  • Discourse refers to the way individuals use language (this includes spoken, written, gestures, and images) in a ritual fashion in order to make sense of the world
  • Discourse is thus a group of statements which provide a language for talking about or a way of representing the knowledge about a particular topic at a particular historical moment
  • Furthermore, Foucault argued that discourse never consists of one statement, one text, one action, or one source. The same discourse, characteristic of the way of thinking or the state of knowledge at any one time (what Foucault called the episteme), will appear across a range of texts, and as forms of conduct, at a number of different institutional sites within society. However, whenever these discursive events refer to the same object, share the same style and support a strategy, a common institutional, administrative or political drift and pattern, then they are said by Foucault to belong to the same discursive formation (Ex. If we want to know if someone loves us, we ask the individual loves you) (Ex. If we want to know if someone is educated, we ask what school the individual went to or what they are studying) (Ex. If we want to know if someone is financially successful, we ask what type of car the individual drives. What his / her occupation is)
  • Thus, discourses are stories people tell themselves. It refers to anytime something (or someone) tells a story about the way things were, the way things are, the way things will be, and the way things should be. People are in the realm of discourse. This definition has been used to describe ideology. When talking about ideology, people try to connect it to the ‘truth’. However, this is a false ‘truth’. Discourse is different from ideology because it cannot be compared with a false representation or story
  • In fact, Foucault does not deny that things can have a real, material existence in the world. What he does argue is that nothing has any meaning outside discourse
  • Discourse is also a main focus of media content which individuals face on an everyday basis
  • Also, discourse is historicized by Foucault. Foucault did not believe that the same phenomena would be found across different historical periods. He thought that, in each period, discourse produced forms of knowledge, objects, subjects and practices of knowledge, which differed from period to period (Ex. For Foucault, mental illness was not an objective fact, which remained in all historical periods, and meant the same in all cultures)

Identity is a Discourse

  • “Express yourself”
  • “Keep it real”
  • “To thine own self, be true”
  • “You know yourself better than anyone else”
  • “Listen to your heart”
  • These are terms and statements that shape peoples’ identities. These are discourses use for different representations

Discourse Both Construct and Limits any Topic

  • Discourse makes it possible to construct the topic in a certain way
  • However, it also limits other ways in which the topic can be constructed (Ex. In the West people limit to understand other identities and expression outside their sphere. When people are able to limit discourse, results to power)
  • The ability to limit equals POWER

Michel Foucault and Discourse

  • Michel Foucault is a French philosopher who lived from 1926 to 1984
  • He specialized in histories of institutions for societal outcasts (prisons, mental hospitals)
  • He was interested in new ways of thinking about power. He rejected the idea that language makes meaning. He instead argued that power operated in a fluid way (there was no specific monarchy that held power) through institutions like education, government etc.
  • For Foucault, discourses are practices that systematically form the objects of which they speak
  • According to Foucault, discourses work in three ways
  • Enable: Discourses enable what can be said about a given object
  • Constrain: Discourse can constraint what can be said about a given object
  • Constitute: Discourse can also constitute what can be said about a given object
  • Ex. Film as an object of study. In terms of economics, it can be seen as a commodity. In terms of literary studies, it can be seen as artistic text similar to literary text. In terms of history, film can be seen as an historical document
  • Power / knowledge: Foucault argues that in the contemporary world, the true power holders are not those who have force (or even money), but those who have been deemed (believed) to have knowledge of particular discourses. Power is what makes things true. Thus, Foucault’s main argument against the classical Marxist theory of ideology was that it tended to reduce all the relations between knowledge and power to a question of class power and class interests. Because Marx argued that the ruling ideas are those of the ruling class which governs a capitalist economy, and correspond to its dominant interests
  • Ex. Which types of knowledge are each of these groups expect to have in relation to one another
  • Teachers: Teachers have knowledge of educational discourses. They have the power to determine what to teach their students
  • Doctors: Medicine, how the body works. They have great amount of power about how individuals should be treated
  • Police: Police have the knowledge of the law. They have the power to practice authority over individuals. They can control the behavior of people. Thus, people constantly surveillance themselves


  • Discourse is decentralized because Foucault says power is not expressed vertically by those on top, but rather horizontally as a rhizome (stem) or a web of knowledge-based relationships. What this means is that power does not come from a single direction (from top to bottom). Instead, power circulates and is exercised through a net-like organization. This suggests that everyone, to some degree, is caught up in its circulation, oppressors and oppressed
  • Also, power is not always negative, containing what it seeks to control. It is also productive by producing things including discourse. It needs to be thought of as a productive network which runs through the whole social body (Ex. The punishment system produces books, treatises, regulations, new strategies of control and resistance, debates in Parliament, conversations, confessions, legal briefs and appeals, training regimes for prison officers, and so on)
  • What sorts of knowledge do you have? What sorts of power might that give you over others?
  • Some people have advantage over others because they have certain expertise (Ex. A mechanic might have power over someone who does not have knowledge about automobiles) (Ex. Parents, who have authority of their children and can teach them how to behave and act)
  • What sorts of knowledge DON’T you have? How does that limit your power?
  • Ex. An individual might not have knowledge regarding finances. Hence, it limits their power because they rely on an expertise, like accountants, for dealing with their finances

How does Power / Knowledge Work in Each of These Two TV Genres?

  • In terms of news on TV, knowledge is constructed because they know what is happening around the world. News on TV has potential for dominant discourse for let us say Black Americans
  • In terms of Oprah and daytime talk shows, they have the knowledge of lifestyle. Daytime talk shows have potential for counter-dominant discourse for Black Americans
  • In each, power is spread by the circulation of discourse as knowledge; the question is knowledge of WHAT, precisely?

What is Dominant Discourse?

  • Dominant discourse refers to anytime individuals speak about “the way things are,” they are imposing power on others by assuming their discourse is linked to knowledge (Ex. It is what everyone knows)
  • Thus, anytime someone speaks to people about “the way things are,” they impose power on them by assuming their discourse is linked to knowledge
  • In Foucault’s terms, this is called the dominant discourse

What is Counter-Dominant Discourse?

  • Counter-dominant discourse refers to anytime people speak about “the way things should be,” but are not right now, they are expressing a counter-dominant discourse
  • Anytime someone speaks to people about “the way things should be,” but are not right now, they are imposing a counter-dominant discourse
  • BOTH dominant and counter-dominant discourses claim knowledge in the hope of gaining power. It is not that dominant discourses are aiming to gain power and not counter-dominant discourse. They both aim to gain knowledge / power
  • The difference between them lies with who is in charge and what time in history

Where is The Subject?

·        Foucault’s ‘subject’ seems to be produced through discourse in two different senses or places. First, the discourse itself produces subjects since these subjects personify the particular forms of knowledge which the discourse produces. These subjects have attributes as expected since they are defined by the discourse: The madman, the hysterical woman, the homosexual, the individualized criminal, and so on. Secondly, the subjects need to locate themselves / ourselves in the position from which the discourse makes the most sense, by subjecting themselves/ourselves to its meanings, power and regulation. Thus, all discourses construct subject-positions, from which alone they make sense (Ex. Individuals may differ based on their social class, gender, racial or ethnic characteristics, but they will not be able to make meaning until they have identified with those positions which the discourse constructs, subjected themselves to its rules, and hence become the subjects of its power / knowledge) (Ex. Pornography produced for men will only work for women, according to this theory, if some sense women put themselves in the position of the desiring male voyeur, which is the ideal subject-position which the discourse of male pornography constructs, and look at the models from this masculine discursive position)

Stuart Hall on Discourse

  • According to Hall, discourses are ways of talking, thinking or representing a particular subject or topic
  • Discourses produce meaningful knowledge about a subject. This is a shift from Saussure’s perspective how knowledge is presented from language. Yet here, knowledge is what produces meaning itself
  • This knowledge influences behavior and has real social effects
  • Thus, discourses always operate in relation to POWER
  • The question of whether a discourse is true or false is less important than whether it is effective in practice. It does not matter if discourse is tied to an objective truth, the important factor is whether or not a discourse is effective in practice
  • When a discourse is effective, it is called a ‘regime of truth’

The West as a Regime of Truth

  • Where is the West? It is referred to the western world including countries like North America, Europe, and Australia. These continents, countries have a shared culture that is western. This leads to westernization where they share capital views
  • Which qualities are associated with westernization? Westernization is used to categorize people based on their historical values and what they share
  • Why would Stuart Hall speak about ‘the West and the Rest’? He is trying to establish that there is a great significance placed on the West, isolating the rest of the world. This makes people think about the world in a different way
  • In his book, Orientalism Edward Said analyzes the various discourses that constructed and produces, as an object of knowledge, that entity called The Orient
  • Said called this discourse, ‘orientalism’. Orientalism was a discourse to think about people from the East. He uses Foucault language to explain how discourse produces certain representations of people. This is deeply powered to Said because it leads to imperialism, where Europeans colonized the East

“Isms” as Regimes of Truth

  • Sexism
  • Racism
  • Classism
  • Ableism
  • Homophobia
  • These are regimes of truth because they are dominant discourses that people believe in

Stereotypes as Regimes of Truth

  • The ‘yummy mummy’
  • The lazy Caribbean running on ‘Island time’
  • The ‘ugly American’
  • The ‘benefits cheat’
  • In turn, stereotypes as discourse allows people to perceive others in certain ways. Thus, they operate as regimes of truth, but there is certain objection about them actually being true

U of T student Code of Conduct as a Discourse

  • What discourse about students is produced by today’s media? Students of the current generation are considered over-privileged, tech-savvy, lack of parental supervision
  • Video clip: The Canadian Council of Chief Executives propose that university enrollment should be cut by 25-30%. Cut enrolment to improve education has become controversial because it can lead to creating inequality. University education is important to gain credentials for employment. However, the issue is that there is lack of jobs for university graduates. This discourse can be either or true or false, but what is important here is that such discourse has power to change education
  • How does the CofC describe and PRESCRIBE your identity as a student here?
  • What does it give you?
  • How does it limit you?

Good Examples for Discussing Discourse and Power

  • Any two examples that can be compared and contrasted with regard to “representations of,” such as class, gender, sexuality, race, nation, globalization, etc. (Ex. Examining US and African coverage of the following adoption story. African adoption by Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. This discourse can represented differently in African news compared to American news)

Poor Examples for Discussing Discourse and Power

  • This includes two examples that speak about completely different discourses with no overlap (Ex. Comparing an article about AIDS to one about roller skating)
  • Also, this includes two examples that say exactly the same thing with regard to representation of (Ex. comparing two makeup ads for women in a magazine and coming to the conclusion they say the exact same thing about women)
  • However, one exception to this rule. Two media forms that appear completely different on the surface but have lots of interesting similarities when viewed through theories of discourse and power (Ex. A Jamie Foxx music video and an episode of Footballer’s Wives. Similarities that could be find here would be how they reproduce women as background decorations, sexualized, unlike men in the two media forms)


  • When writing about discourse and power it is best to compare EITHER
  • Two examples that look the same, but deliver different representations of the same phenomenon (Africa example), OR two examples that seem completely different, but actually say similar things when looked at through discourse theory (Footballer’s Wives example)
  • Questions to Consider When Discussing Discourse: Who, What, When, Where, How
  • Ex. A Possible Who Question
  • Who produced this (Article, statement, image, etc.)?
  • Ex. To whom did it circulate? Who was in its intended audience? Did anyone wind up being part of its unintended audience?
  • Ex. What and When Questions
  • What of significance was said, shown or demonstrated in this (article, statement, image, etc.)?
  • Do you think this showing / saying demonstrating was intentional or unintentional on the part of the author? When was this circulated?
  • Are there larger political issues going on in the world at the time that matter in our understanding of this (article, statement, image, etc.)?
  • Ex. Where Questions
  • Where was it circulated, relative to global geography?
  • Would this (article, statement, image, etc.) be considered part of dominant or counter-dominant discourse in the part of the world where is showed up?
  • Where does this appear within the frame of a text? Is this statement at the beginning, middle, or end of a conversation? Is this advertisement at the front of the magazine, or the back?
  • What stories are running next to it? Who or what does the image feature in the foreground? Who or what I featured in the background?
  • Ex. How and Why Questions
  • How is this speech act / image / article / etc. circulated? What medium is being used (Ex. Magazines, the Web, a television program, a mix of these?)
  • How often does it occur? Is this a one-off affair, or is this something that will be appearing on newsstands or television stations on a regular basis? How regular?
  • Why is this example a significant one to look at with regard to discourse and power?
  • Remember, discourse is more than simple semiotics

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