Discourse theorists take discourse, rather than language, as their domain in part because of difficulties with the latter term. The standard definition of “language” in linguistics (a set of units and the rules for combining them to make well-formed sentences) treats language as invariant over domains, occasions, speakers, and purposes; other traditional uses of language do specify for some particulars (the language of the courtroom, insurance policies, advertising, Satan in book I of Paradise Lost, this document), but even these uses share with linguistics a tendency to analyze texts (or transcriptions of speech) in terms of patterns of choices, to objectivize in terms of words and structures. Discourse, for discourse theory, is not sets of formally identified structures but a type of social action. Discourse theory criticizes theories of speech acts for their focus on the acts of individual agents speaking without social determination or constraint.
Because of this orientation toward social action, discourse theory also distinguishes itself sharply from philosophical concerns with the truth of statements and the validity of arguments, substituting a concern for conditions under which one can be judged to have made a serious, sound, true, important, authoritative statement. This program is clearly sketched by Michel Foucault in The Archaelogy of Knowledge and very concisely in his lecture to the Collège de France (“The Discourse of Language”) appended to the Archaelogy. Foucault speaks of “rules” of discourse, but it is widely agreed that the conditions under which one can make serious, authoritative statements include material and social institutions and practices. A theory of discourse therefore implies a theory of society, most particularly a theory of power, legitimacy, and authority. Moreover, since society can to a very large extent be viewed as the sum of discourses, there is a tendency in discourse theory, particularly in its French varieties, for discourse to merge into praxis, undermining the commonsense (“Anglo-Saxon”) distinction between talking and doing.
Broadly construed, discourse theory draws insights and support from three intellectual traditions: hermeneutics, social construction and ethnography, and the analysis of power of the political Left. The tradition of hermeneutics as transmitted by Hans-Georg Gadamer and Jürgen Habermas (and Thomas S. Kuhn) emphasizes that every discourse takes place within a shared horizon of preunderstanding (or “lifeworld”) that cannot be fully or explicitly formulated. No discourse can be completely self-grounded, and the ability to function as a participant cannot be acquired wholly from a book, but arises from initiation and experience. Relevant concepts here include the notions of discourse community and “culture” (in one sense) (see CULTURAL STUDIES).
A second major source for discourse theory is the vein of ethnography and social theory that is concerned with the offering and validating of accounts of cultural practices, including the writings of Clifford Geertz, Erving Goffman, and a host of others supporting the general program of symbolic interaction or social construction. These approaches typically seek to “make strange” or denaturalize or make visible rules and practices underlying various institutions and transactions. They share with hermeneutics a sense of the rootedness of discourse in particular social forms and practices and tend to foreground the uncertain status of the analyst as an outsider and the potential artificiality of accounts of insider understanding. Pierre Bourdieu in Outline of a Theory of Practice emphasizes that practical knowledge and action are rooted in a habitus that resists theorizing or systematization in terms of abstract, “underlying” principles, including those of economic interest. Though Bourdieu is perhaps best known as a social theorist and researcher, one of his research sites is academic discourse, upon the French version of which he has much of interest to say in Reproduction in Education, Society, and Culture and Homo Academicus. He speaks, for example, of acquiring not only language but socially constituted attitudes toward language and so can refer to “bourgeois language,” which, nota bene, is acquired as a habitus by growing up bourgeois, not by explicit, schooled instruction.
Discourse as a mode of power, which in late capitalist societies means the enactment and legitimation of inequality, is the special emphasis of Marxists such as Louis Althusser, Michel Pêcheux, and Fredric Jameson . These Marxist writers have stimulated new interest in V. N. Voloshinov’s Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (1929) and the more general view of discourse as embodying the conflicting values and stances of different groups found in M. M. Bakhtin‘s “Discourse in the Novel.” Discourse as a mode of concealing and perpetuating inequality and of regulating behavior is a theme also of such non-Marxist advocates of resistance to discursive regulation as Foucault and feminists focusing on the silencing and marginalizing effects of hegemonic discourses. Since theorizing itself is an activity not untinged by hegemonic aspirations, feminists such as Hélène Cixous adopt the devices of myth, contradiction, and hyperbole and could be said to refuse to do theory at all.
In addition, most of the very large amount of work on language in institutional settings (medical, legal, educational, media) explores the intertwining of discourse and historical-material fact, either through the shaping and maintaining of the “client” (pupil) role or through the management and manipulation of mass audiences.
So much of discourse theory is oriented toward unmasking, debunking, and raising our consciousness about the ways current discourses serve power that one sympathizes with Foucault’s suggestion that it reflects intellectuals’ uneasiness, embarrassment, or fear of power, which has as much a creative, positive aspect as it does an exclusionary, silencing one. That observation, made late in his life, remains to be fully assimilated into discourse theory.
Louis Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays (trans. Ben Brewster, 1971); M. Μ. Bakhtin, “Discourse in the Novel,” The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays (ed. Michael Holquist, 1981); Pierre Bourdieu, Esquisse d’une théorie de la pratique, précédé de trois études d’ethnologie kabyle (1972, Outline of a Theory of Practice, trans. Richard Nice, 1977), Homo Academicus (1984, Homo Academicus, trans. Peter Collier, 1988); Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron, La Reproduction: Éléments pour une théorie du système d’enseignement (1970, Reproduction in Education, Society, and Culture, trans. Richard Nice, 1977); Hélène Cixous, “Le Rire de la Méduse” (1975, “The Laugh of the Medusa,” trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen, Signs 1 ); Michel Foucault, L’Archéology du savoir (1969, The Archaeology of Knowledge, trans. A. Μ. Sheridan Smith, 1972) , “Truth and Power,” Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977 (ed. and trans. Colin Gordon, 1980); Hans-Georg Gadamer, Wahrheit und Methode: Grundzüge einer philosophischen Hermeneutik (i960,5th ed., Gesammelte Werke, vol. 1, ed. J. C. B. Mohr, 1986, Truth and Method, ed. and trans. Garrett Burden and John Cumming, 1975, 2d ed., trans, rev. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, 1989); Jurgen Habermas, Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns, vol. 1, Handlungsrationalität und gesellschaftliche Rationalisierung (1981, The Theory of Communicative Action, vol. 1, Reason and the Rationalization of Society, trans. Thomas McCarthy, 1983); Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (1981); Michel Pêcheux, Les Vérités de la Palice (1975, Language, Semantics, and Ideology, trans. Harbans Nagpal, 1982); V. N. Voloshinov, Marksizm i filosofiia iazyka (1929, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, trans. Ladislav Matejka and I. R. Titunik, 1973) . Deborah Cameron, Feminism and Linguistic Theory (1985); Diane Macdonnell, Theories of Discourse: An Introduction (1986); Toril Moi, Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory (1985).
Source: Groden, Michael, and Martin Kreiswirth. The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.