Foucault Applications: Discourse & Ideology

McKerrow establishes a theoretical rationale for critical rhetoric. In so doing, critiques of both domination and freedom actuate “the general thrust of critical rhetoric’s analysis of discourse” (McKerrow 92). I found McKerrow’s critique of domination to be particularly compelling. The ruling class, instead of merely considering explicit restraint of contrary ideas, negotiates an accepted “inflammatory rhetoric” within their group (93). Both dominant and dominated groups, it is noted, participate in discourse which affirms actions within their respective classes. Provided with the impossibility to step outside of ideology, both dominators and dominated participate in social structure and thus cannot avoid omnipresent and pluralistic relationships of power. But while Stuart Hall notes that ideologies are not static, operating within an ideology is inevitable. Discourse enables both dominant and dominated to negotiate rhetorics which shape the characteristics of their respective “classes.” It should be noted, however, that power is instrumental in the negotiation of rhetorics through discourse.

As I read the primary readings of Foucault, it was difficult for me to understand the role of discourse in ideology, or rather ideology in discourse. These ideas are still a bit unclear to me, so I decided to investigate an article by Trevor Purvis and Alan Hunt, entitled “Discourse, Ideology, Discourse, Ideology, Discourse, Ideology…” In brief, Purvis and Hunt record the historical distinctions and occasional ambiguity of the concepts in scholarship. In an early discussion of similarities, the authors note that consciousness is shaped by the social construction of knowledge, and in that sense, a mutual relationship between discourse and ideology is necessary:

This consciousness is borne through language and other systems of signs, it is transmitted between people and institutions and, perhaps most important of all, it makes a difference; that is, the way in which people comprehend and make sense of the social world has consequences for the direction and character of their action and inaction. Both ‘discourse’ and ‘ideology’ refer to these aspects of social life. (Purvis and Hunt 474)

The reciprocal nature of both discourse and ideology is complicated by a necessary distinction between their respective traditions. Ideology, for instance, will forever be a concept associated with Marxist ideology, whereas discourse has been adopted as “a linguistic turn” in modern theory and relates to the role, process, and significance which language plays in and among subjects (Purvis and Hunt 474). In composition studies, both discourse and ideology are relevant in not only understanding how discourse works to negotiate identifiable “classes,” but also how ideologies are formed and even reinforced by discourse. To work toward pedagogies which place ideology at the forefront or center of instruction, one may look to the social-epistemic rhetoric suggested by James Berlin or the sensible words of John Clifford. Activities and workshops that emphasize “the writing process as multifaceted, evolving, and exploratory” may be coupled with readings which bring ideology to the fore and encourage critical conversations and written responses (Clifford 868).

A brief discussion of “false consciousness” seems relevant in order to explore areas of intervention. According to McKerrow, “Engels stated the case for a view of ideology predicated on “false consciousness” (99). Further, an ideology that is conceived, in Engels’ view, is inevitably one representing a “false consciousness.” The question of ideology in relation to truth and falsity, McKerrow confirms, is an unnecessary one. A move from Platonic to Sophistic rhetoric represents not the mere argument between universal and referential truth, but one which McKerrow notes as a necessary emphasis on existential truths based on lived experience. Althusser has been noted as instrumental in the movement from “false consciousness” to a linguistic and discursive approach, one which becomes internalized (Purvis and Hunt 483).

When emphasizing Sophistic rhetoric and the expressive nature of truth, we must not ignore that “Concepts of the social are never fully referential, in the sense of identifying a verbal sign that stands for or refers to (and thus comes to represent) some unambiguously identifiable feature of an external reality” (Purvis and Hunt 474). Through the semiotic process, we assign meanings through verbal signs, which then become internalized. As language presents a complex system constructed by this process, a great deal of concepts become socially negotiated according to the activities and discourse communities in which subjects are involved. That said, concepts such as “truth” and “freedom” are no longer merely referential, fluid, and impervious among the social sphere; instead, “approximations” may lend to shared meanings, “an Isocratean sense of “community knowledge” (McKerrow 100). To illuminate the discussion of power, Phillips notes “the dual function of power, allowing us to do as well as limiting our actions, leads some scholars to urge that domination and freedom be seen as unified concepts (334).

Resistance and power must coexist in a continuous relationship of friction. In “Spaces of Invention,” Phillips looks to Foucault’s areas of dissention, freedom, and thought to suggest a new direction for change. Discourse formations are far from static as they are “riddled with incoherence and contingency” (Phillips 333). Contradictions within these discourse formations, it is noted, obstruct them from reaching sovereignty, thus creating “spaces of dissension” (Phillips 333). These spaces are conducive to invention, leading to potential transformations and conceptions of new discourse formations. The materiality of discourse initiates conversations of how subjects may invent these new architectures. The question of the embodied subject leads to a new perception of how discursive invention occurs, reconsidering individual subjects as unconditional agents in the relational process of change. “In practice, invention manifests through the body, for a given body actively participates as an inherent material, alongside other materials, other bodies, in the reading and writing process, in the ever-becoming, ever-shifting engulfment of semiosis” (Garrett, Landrum-Geyer, and Palmeri). This area of rhetoric is fascinating to me. As an instructor of composition, I’m excited to explore ways in which ideologies are placed at the forefront of pedagogy. Further, instruction focused on the literacy performance of bodies illuminates conversations centered on writing in both traditional and multimodal spheres. Critical rhetoric moves “toward a postmodern conception of the relationship between discourse and power” (McKerrow 109).

Discussion Questions


  • Citing Blankenship and Muir, McKerrow states that the future of critical rhetoric encompasses “both the vision of the future and the [instrument] for realizing it” (109). Assuming that McKerrow is referring to his theoretical rationale and his praxis sections, is this a satisfactory way to end to the discussion? If you were to join the discussion and contribute, what would you add?


  • At the end of his article, Phillips notes that “whatever inventional moment preceded these pages has now been lost, disappearing under the weight of the words with which I’ve struggled to capture them” (343). Based on this utterance, one can infer that a gap in Foucault’s discussion led to Phillips’ composition. Do you see a gap in the spaces of invention proposed by Phillips?


  • “Those who know the pleasures and excitement of discovering and writing a truth not in concert with institutional norms are difficult to silence or mystify” (Clifford 869). Will you inspire your students to discover this truth? If so, how?


Works Cited

Garrett, Bre, Landrum-Geyer, Denise, and Palmeri, Jason. “Re-inventing Invention: A Performance in Three Acts.” The New Work of Composing. Computers and Composition Digital Press/Utah State University Press. 2012: n.p. Web. 23 Nov. 2012.

Purvis, Trevor and Alan Hunt. “Discourse, Ideology, Discourse, Ideology, Discourse, Ideology…” The British Journal of Sociology , 44.3 (1993): 473-499. Web.