Posted by: HAT | October 11, 2007

An essay on discourse

Spent part of yesterday reading:

Samuel R. Delany, “The Rhetoric of Sex, the Discourse of Desire,” in Tobin Siebers, ed., Heterotopia:  Postmodern Utopia and the Body Politic (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1994), 229-272. This was a welcome essay, probably long overdue to be read, in particular for Delany’s take on discourse, and his very clear discussion of the characteristics of discourse.  Discourse precedes the participants, structures perception by structuring interpretation, establishes meaning by positioning some terms as privileged and others as marginal, assigning value, and so on [shades of Geertz’s definition of religion], and is a site of the operation of power.  He’s drawing on Foucault of the Order of Things and Archeology of Knowledge. 

From this discussion, it’s not too hard to see how the shorthand idea of discourse as talk that creates the substance of the subject about which it talks arises.  As we talk (or write, or draw, or “discourse”) about something, and do that in particular ways, and say particular things about it and not other things, call attention to some features and not others, perhaps systematically exaggerate this feature and systematically obscure that feature – all that activity both constitutes discourse, and is productive of the specific phenomenon or phenomena that are the subject of the discourse. 

I’m afraid this might mean is that I shouldn’t really be calling my project “utopian discourse,” because I’m really using discourse here in a pretty limited sense, the sense of talking about and the structure of that talking about.  That is, however, an accepted use of the term, if not maybe its trendy postmodern use.  So I think I will keep on using it this way for now, but with the awareness that there might be more to utopian discourse than would be revealed by a fairly superficial analysis of statements (such as I am probably going to content myself with)! 

Delany’s essay is a nice rich arrangement of observations on anatomical drawing (Leonardo vs. Fallopius), what in another context might be called conceptual schemes – illustrated by a really nice example of the “discourse of light” in the pre-electricity context, as well as “Shakespeare in the Bush” by Laura Bohannan, perception and discourse and the illustration of “peeing standing up” and the involvement of discourse in observation (264-266), and application to [early] AIDS research (267-272). 

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