Discourse is generally used to designate the forms of representation, codes, conventions and habits of language that produce specific fields of culturally and historically located meanings. Michel Foucault's early writings ('The Order of Discourse', 1971; The Archaeology of Krlowledge, 1972) were especially influential in this. Foucault's work gave the terms 'discursive practices' and 'discursive formation' to the analysis of particular institutions and their ways of establishing orders of truth, or what is accepted as 'reality' in a given society. An established 'discursive formation' is in fact defined by the contradictory discourses it contains and this tolerance Foucault understands as a sign of stability rather than as it would be understood in Marxism, for exampleÑof conflict and potential change. Thus characterized, a given 'discursive formation' will give definition to a particular historical moment or episteme. 'Discursive formations' do nevertheless display a hierarchical arrangement and are understood as reinforcing certain already established identities or subjectivities (in matters of sexuality, status, or class, for example). These dominant discourses are understood as in turn reinforced by existing systems of law, education and the media.
Evidently this is a generally pessimistic scenario although some recognition is given to the role individuals and pressures within institutions themselves may have in modifying a pattern of dominant meanings. The implication of Foucault's work is that members of a society, including its intellectuals, are implicated in discourse and in the discursive regimes or systems of power and regulation which give them their livelihoods and definition. There is no place to stand outside such systems. At the same time, since discourse and power are anonymous and without centre or single agency, the political role of the critical intellectual is unclear. Foucault's own work offers a model of the intellectual as historian of modes of thought; as a self-effacing cultural analyst rather than prophet, judge or polemicist. This style of work has been influential upon new historicism. Nevertheless, his studies of how forms of knowledge come about and come to govern truth and identities can be seen as fundamentally questioning. In this guise, accompanied by the concepts of ideology and hegemony, his theory has been given a more interventionist turn in cultural materialism and in specific arguments on penal reform, health care and sexuality. In its general use, the term discourse has gained a more dispersed currency than the above might suggest. Both in academic work and elsewhere it can be used variously to denote the modes of thought and vocabularies characterizing institutions, domains of culture or cultural practices (law, medicine, the BBC, information technology, cinema, haute couture, skateboarding, wine tasting); an intellectual mode or tendency (psychoanalysis, poststructuralism, postmodernism); to distinguish different fields of study (theory, philosophy, sociology, literary, film or media study); or to identify the language of different social groups or occasions (the language of management and workers, interviews, weddings, a cup final). .
A number of theorists, most notably John Fiske, have emphasized the potential within discursive practices to fracture, chip away, and subvert the dominant forces that exert the most control over a discourse, given its unstable basis within language (as opposed to openly repressive practices). Other theorists have drawn on Foucault's later writings, especialy the History of Sexuality, to argue that discourses are multivalent and intertwined, and that at any given time an individual may be positioned differently depending on which discourses she is at any given moment emeshed in. In this view, discourses give shape and form to an array of relations of power between a variety of individuals and institutions, but there is no set "dominant ideology" and few with clear claims to a fully oppressed or dominant status in society.
First two paragraphs adapted from Brooker, A Concise Clossary of Cultural Theory
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