Re: discourse

At 17:16 10/05/96 +0100, you wrote:
>A propos of the Judith Butler thread, which is getting a bit warm, I
>would like to know how people define discourse, a term which everyone
>throws around but often doesn't get distinguished from 'language'. Does
>the big F not describe it as a practice?
>Dave Hugh-Jones
>'Yes, that's my mother all right, but my mother's the Virgin Mary, you know.'

Finally an interesting question in this thread that i thought set out to
discuss, and engage with Butler's mobilisation of Foucault's (among others)
work. I think a problem with much of what has been posted thus far is a
general failure to discuss in any detail how Butler is using, and i think to
an extent reworking notions of discursive construction in texts such as
Gender Trouble; and Bodies That Matter. Instead the same tired old
oppositions and accusations are wheeled out reducing quite complex issues
regarding the status of discursive or social construction to discursive or
linguistic idealism (the same old accusation of reducing the 'real' 'the
world' to the status of text or discourse). The most compelling aspect of
Butler's work, for me at any rate, is how she tackles these questions. As
Butler puts it, by questioning the status of the opposition between
sex/gender she is simultaneously rethinking 'constructivism' (Bodies 6). She
refers to the "exasperated debate which many of us have tired of hearing...
[in which] consteructivism is reduced to a position of linguistic monism,
whereby linguistic construction is understood to be generative and
deterministic" (6). Much of the discussion in this thread thus far seems to
remain caught within such tired old assumptions about what theorists such as
Butler mean when they talk about discursive construction; and a noted lack
of any detailed engagement with her work.

I think a few key points that Butler makes in the introduction to Bodies
That Matter could open some interesting possibilities for discussion. First,
she points out that construction operates through a proces of excusion... "a
set of foreclosures, radical erasures, that are, strictly speaking, refused
the possibility of cultural articulation" (8). An interesting quote follows:
"for there is an 'outside' to what is constructed by discourse, but this is
not an absolute 'outside', an ontological thereness that exceeds or counters
the boundaries of discourse; as a constitutive 'outside', it is that which
can only be thought---when it can---in relation to that discourse, at and as
its most tenuous borders. The debate between constructivism and essentialism
thus misses the point of deconstruction altogether, for the point has never
been that 'everything is discursively constructed'; that point, when and
where it is made, belongs to a kind of discursive monism or linguisticism
that refuses the constitutive force of exclusion, erasure, violent
foreclosure, abjection and its disruptive return within the very terms of
discursive legitimacy". I think this establishes quite well how much of the
discussion thus far, as Butler puts it "misses the point".

Against such limited conceptions of construction Butler proposes "a return
to the notion of matter, not as site or surface, but as a process of
materialization that stabilizes over time to produce the effect of boundary,
fixity, and surface we call matter. That matter is always materialzed has, I
think, to be thought in relation to the productive and, indeed,
materializing effects of regulatory power in the Foucaultian sense" (10).

Sorry about the lengthy quotes, but perhaps this can provide something of a
context against which to consider how Butler is mobilising concepts such as
discursive construction, whilst avoiding the limiting opposition between
discursive idealism/the real which thus far seems to be structuring the
discussion. I am probably simplifying to some extent much of the discussion
to date, but i have been struck by the generalising tone and a failure to
engage in any detail with how Butler is mobilising these terms.

John Banks

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