Michel Foucault & Some of His Thoughts on Representation

by - December 11, 2017

"If madness is the truth of knowledge, it is because knowledge is absurd, and instead of addressing itself to the great book of experience, loses its way in the dust of books and in idle debate; learning becomes madness through the very excess of false learning."
(no I haven't read the book. yet.)

Guess what! #Blogmas day 11 is, once again, very unprepared. HOWEVER for uni the other day I had to give a presentation on representation. As some of you might know I've already discussed representation before in relation to tartan. Unfortunately this presentation wasn't as funky, but it certainly gives a new dimension to the understanding of representation and how to approach it. AND, may luck be on my side, I had to cover one of the philosophers I did mention but didn't really went into when discussing the tartan. That philosopher being *dramatic drum roll* Michel Foucault.

Now I think quite a lot of people, especially students, are in some ways (some in many ways) familiar with the name Foucault. But for those unfamiliar or in need of a quick fresh up: here's Michel Foucault and some of his thoughts on representation...

Foucault with a cat. What else?

Yet another French philosopher

Michel Foucault (1926-1984) was a French philosopher and particularly a so called philosophical historian. His particular look on the role of history was instigated by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche's book Unzeitgemässe Betrachtungen or Untimely Meditations (1873-1876). Foucault first read this book during the summer of 1953, at the age of 27, which opened a whole new intellectual world for him.

The book concerns itself about the 'Uses and Abuses of History for Life' and basically criticises the way we teach and think about history as a 'thing of the past'. However, as Nietzsche argues, it's crucial for us to dig out the ideas, concepts and examples of the past not merely to say 'yeah, that happened', but as a way to help us lead a better life now.

"It's crucial for us to dig out the ideas, concepts and examples of the past not merely to say 'yeah, that happened', but as a way to help us lead a better life now."

Foucault ran away with this idea, together with existentialist theories -which emphasizes the existence of the individual person as a free and responsible agent determining their own development through acts of the will- and with dialectical theories, specifically that of Karl Marx -which concerns itself to find 'the truth' through applying multiple points of views about a subject through 'reasoned arguments'.

He applied these different components onto many different things such as law, prisons, doctors, psychiatrists and art. Central to his work is analysing the relationship between power and knowledge. In true Karl Marx style, which, to remind you, criticises the development of capitalism and the role of class struggles, Foucault tried to peel off the structure of the bourgeoisie modern capitalist state.

Poststructuralim is the place to be

Now you might think: That Foucault guy sounds alright, but what has all of this to do with representation? Well, for those who've read the first chapter of Representation by Stuart Hall (2013) might vaguely remember reading: "Semiotics seemed to confine the process of representation to language, and to treat it as a closed, rather static, system." (p. 27)

This can be called the structuralist approach. However, as was the fashion during the 19th century, Foucault began to criticise this way of thinking and thus -mind you, not single handedly- created a poststructuralist approach. Jacques Derrida (1930-2004), yet another French philosopher, focused within this poststructuralism on meaning as an unendless chain which depends on structural difference but also on temporal relations of before and after. This process will lead to a play of signifier to signifier into eternity, which can never be truly grabbed or controlled.

"Now you might think: That Foucault guy sounds alright, but what has all of this to do with representation?"

However moving on to Foucault, who also incorporated this unendlessness but than more confined to his notion of power and knowledge. Herewith he adds the idea of discourse into representation, which is basically thus a mixture of Nietzsche's idea of the role of history, existentialism and dialectics mixed together. Discourse concerns itself about language (that what we say) and practice (that what we do). As Hall writes:

"What concerned him most was the production of knowledge (rather than just meaning) through what he called discourse (rather than just language). His project, he said, was to analyse 'how human beings understand themselves in our culture' and how our knowledge about 'the social, the embodied individual and shared meanings comes to be produced in different periods'." (p. 28)

To subject or not to subject

Besides introducing the concept of discourse into representation, he also introduced 'the subject'. Who/what/where is the subject? Conventionally the subject is 'an individual who is fully endowed with consiousness'. It suggests that, although other people may misunderstand us, we always understan ourselves because we are the source of meaning in the first place.

Ferdinand de Saussure (1875-1913) mainly ignores 'the subject' except within his idea of parole where the subject influences the way meaning is produced as it is spoken by an individual. But, because this can't be scientifically analysed, he simply left it out in his understanding of language. Foucault also isn't particularly keen on the subject as he finds discourse, which is entangled with power which is the source of knowledge, isn't dependend on a particular subject for power/knowledge to operate. Basically he says that the subject is a product of discourse. So whatever it may produce, they are limited to their time and culture:

"The subject can become the bearer of the kind of knowledge which discourse produces. It can become the object through which power is relayed. But it cannot stand outside power/knowledge as its source and author." (p. 39)

Stuart Hall concludes that Foucault's approach to representation isn't easy to summarise, and I whole heartedly agree. The most important thing to take from Foucault's approach is his introduction of discourse into representation. This broadens the way meaning can be analysed and how the process of meaning is dependent on the discourse in which it's produced and interpreted.

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