Stuart Hall argues meaning and representation depend upon the interpretative side of the human and cultural sciences whose subject matter does not conform to the positivistic approach (discovering scientific laws about society).
Interpretations, in fact, are always followed by other interpretations because they cannot produce the absolute truth. Hall quotes Jacques Derrida as saying that ‘difference’ can never be captured within any binary system. So, the notion of final meaning is endlessly deferred.
Unlike in the semiotic approach, meaning in culture often depends on larger units of analysis – narratives, groups of images, statements, whole discourses, areas of knowledge having widespread authority.
Semiotics depends upon language in representation. But later critics are more concerned with representation as a source for the production of social knowledge connected with social practices and questions of power. Even Foucault’s concern was the production of knowledge through discourse.
Stuart Hall has outlined three of Michel Foucault’s major ideas in order to introduce Foucault’s discursive approach to representation. They are: the concept of discourse; the issue of power and knowledge; and the question of the subject.
From Language to Discourse
Michel Foucault shifted his attention from language to discourse as a system of representation. According to him, discourse means a group of statements which provide a language for talking about – a way of representing the knowledge about a particular topic at a particular historical moment.
Foucault says because all social practices entail meaning and meanings determine what we do, all practices have a discursive aspect. In fact, discourse is about language and practice.
Foucault says that discourse constructs the topic, defines and produces the objects of knowledge, governs the way that a topic can be particularly talked about and reasoned about.
Discourse both ‘rules in’ certain way of talking about a topic, defining an acceptable way to talk, write or conduct, and ‘rules out’, limits and restricts other ways of talking or conducting in relation to the topic.
The same discourse will appear at a range of texts, and at a number of different institutional sites within society. When they refer to the same object, share the same style and support a strategy, they belong to the same ‘discursive formation’.
Michel Foucault does not deny a thing’s existence in the real world but argues that nothing has any meaning out of the discourse. Foucault argues that since we can only have knowledge of things if they have a meaning, it is not the-things-in-themselves but discourse which produces knowledge.
Historicizing Discourse: Discursive Practices
Discourse, knowledge, representation, and truth are radically historicized by Foucault in contrast to ahistorical tendency of semiotics. Things mean something and are true only within a specific historical context.
Foucault thought that discourse produced forms of knowledge, objects, subjects, and practices of knowledge, which differed radically from period to period.
Knowledge about and practices around subjects, according to Foucault, were historically and culturally specific.
From Discourse to Power/ Knowledge
Knowledge, Power, and Truth
Michel Foucault argues that not only is knowledge always a form of power, but power is implicated in the questions of whether and in what circumstances knowledge is to be applied or not.
For Foucault, the question of application and effectiveness of knowledge/ power was more important than the ‘truth’. Knowledge linked to power not only assumes the authority of the truth but has the power to make itself true. In fact, once applied in the real world, all knowledge has real effects and becomes true.
Power relation depends upon a field of knowledge and knowledge presupposes and constitutes power relations. Foucault says that what we think we know in a particular period about crime depends on how we regulate, control and punish criminals.
Knowledge is operated through certain technologies and strategies of application, in specific historical contexts and institutional regimes. Foucault considers ‘Truth’ of knowledge not in the absolute sense but a discursive formation sustaining a regime of truth. He says that each society has its regime of truth, its general politics of truth.
New Conceptions of Power
For Michel Foucault, power does not function in the form of a chain, it rather circulates. Hence, it is never monopolized by one center. Instead, it is deployed and exercised through a net-like organization.
Power relations exist at all levels of society. It can be found operating in the private spheres of family and sexuality as much as in the public sphere of politics, the economy, and the law. In fact, power is both negative and positive.
Foucault agrees that the state, the law, and the dominant class dominate positions but also draws our attention toward the localized circuits, tactics, mechanisms and effects through which power circulates.
Foucault places the body at the center of struggles between different formations of power/ knowledge.