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Social Life as Discourse

The one school of thought led by French Philosopher Michel Foucult sees society structured like a language, and can be analyzed as a discourse. Here the society is regulated through a series of finely balanced rules. His ideas are complicated but very influential. In a passage from a key early book, The Order of Things (1969: xv), he describes a discourse about classifying and defining things from a Chinese encyclopedia. Here is a classification of animals: they are

(a) Belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame (d) suckling pigs, (e) sirens (f) fabulous (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a fine camel Hairbrush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitchers, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.

Societies depend upon classifications like these – languages, discourses – that help them make sense of themselves to themselves. But they are usually unintelligible to those outside. They are not supremely rational, God-given or natural. They are, rather, unmistakably tied up with the specific historical context.

Foucault wants to us to look at these vast systems of ideas, thoughts, knowledge and the institutions that they work though. He claims that when you do look at them, you will always find that it is power that organizes them. Power is everywhere in language.