Critical Reflection 3: the notion of discourse

5 03 2010

Elton John recently caused a stir amongst the Catholic Church and other Christian followers when he proclaimed that Jesus Christ was gay. He said, “I think Jesus was a compassionate, super-intelligent gay man who understood human problems” (AFP, 2010).

The Catholic Church responded by saying, “Jesus was certainly compassionate, but to say he was ‘super-intelligent’ is to compare the son of God to a successful game-show contestant […]More seriously, to call Jesus a homosexual is to label him a sexual deviant.” (AFP, 2010).

How do we know Jesus Christ was not a homosexual? And what gives the Church the power to respond to John’s statement with such assertion? Perhaps the better question might be: how have we come to know Jesus Christ was not a homosexual? And what processes shape(d) this understanding?

Our understanding of historical matters is defined by story tellers or experts. It is unlikely that any human living on earth today were alive during the period of Christ. All we have to go on are the stories that have been produced and preserved throughout time. It is the combination of these people, texts and influences that shape way in which we speak about, and have come to understand the world around us. This understanding can be referred to as discourse.

The notion of discourse is one of social reality, construction and power. Foucault remarks that he used term to refer to “the general domain of all statements, sometimes as an individualizable group of statements, and sometimes as a regulated practice that accounts for a number of statements” (Foucault 1972:80). While this might seem like a catchall definition and as such, imprecise, it is really quite poignant. Foucault is suggesting that everything we have come to know is part of overlapping discourses. These overlapping discourses form the reality in which we live.

Foucault placed significant importance on how discourses form (Foucault, 1982). His concern with respect to discourse lay not within the ontological question of what we know as true, though in some respects this is tantamount, but the epistemological question of how any give truth became known as true. Foucault’s interests, then, were focused on the processes through which truth is created and the effects of such processes (Foucault, 1982:210).

Consider the example above. What we know of Jesus Christ is limited to canonical texts like the bible and the work of various historians, who are likely involved in some capacity with an institution of sorts that shares social, political, religious and/or economic ties with other institutions at large. And while historians may differ in their interpretation of historic events, including those enshrined in the bible, the forces behind such enshrinement are what actively define discourse and preserve it in a modern state as a form of knowledge and thus power – for  Foucault, the two were inextricably linked (Mills 2003:69).

In keeping with the above example, a Christian discourse does not begin and end with institution of the church, though this may be its primary vehicle. Religion is also supported by other mechanisms like the state. This is best seen in public addresses and state events when officials of endorse their message by saying, ‘In God we trust’, ‘God bless’ or ‘Godspeed’. And though the separation of church and state has widened in recent years as we continue to liberalise in such ways as removing the Lord’s Prayer from public schools, Christian ideals and philosophies remain entrenched in legislation on murder, adultery, theft and other matters pertaining to personal possession, and slander and libel – all matters that can in some way can be linked to the ten commandments. 

Religion, that being the way in which one conceives their existence and performs in such a way as to conform to the practices of such a system of beliefs, is a discourse in and of itself. Religion provides its followers with ways of making sense of social phenomena like life and death. It provides its followers with a code of conduct. It is positioned in relevant time in history and advocated by a leader. One reinscribes to religion in daily practices alone and with one’s family or friends.  Religion is innately marked by a relation of power – a relation between the subscriber and the various mechanisms which drive it.

It is these compounded ways in which one engages with the discursive regime that one experiences the effects of power (Foucault 1980:113). Power, in this and many other cases, need not be interpreted pejoratively. Religion helps to provide its followers meaning and validation. It provides a forum through which followers can express themselves intimately or in congregation with others. Religion unites people. It produces a sense of belonging.

Religion will always be scrutinized under a scientific eye. The stories and sentiments it produces are real and this truth represents a significant form of power that is endlessly validated by multiple and overlapping fields of institutional expertise – the Church, state, education, media and the family, to name a few. It is this regime, this interconnected and overlapping system that sustains a particular discourse and the power embodied within via the knowledge it produces.

What is interesting in this era of Foucault is the lack of agency he affords to the individual. In earlier works he asserts “He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power” (Foucault, 1977:202). But if power is all encompassing by virtue of the fact that it is represented as knowledge produced by overlapping mechanisms of power, how is it that the individual can assume any responsibility or control of power? Does this perspective not rob all agency of the individual in that power is inescapable?

Works Cited:

 Foucault, M (1977). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Pantheon

Foucault, M. (1980). Truth and Power. In Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977 (pp.109-33). New York: Pantheon.

Foucault, M. (1982). The Subject and Power. In H. Dreyfus and P. Rabinow. Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics (pp. 208-26). Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press

Mills, S. (2003). Power/Knowledge. In Michel Foucault (pp.67-79). London: Routledge.

Agence France Press (2010) Jesus was gay: Elton John. Agence-France Press. Retrieved February 21, 2010 from Google News website: http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5gBwbROWRbXldltplXIFYdsBudvKA

Simon, R. (1991). Hegemony & Ideology. Gramsci’s Political Thought: An Introduction (pp. 22-29 & 59-67). London: Lawrence & Wishart.

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5 03 2010
THE NATURE OF THOUGHT | Future Master Mind

[…] Critical Reflection 3: the notion of discourse « Pennies & Panopticons […]

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