Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Miles Ogborn: Power and Discourse

Understanding culture in terms of relationships of power is what lies behind the argument that questions of meaning, interpretation, and identity are political issues, and that we can talk about ‘cultural politics’ or ‘the politics of identity.’ Power is often defined in terms of one set of people exerting power over another set of people, or over space, or nature, or the landscape in order to control them and their meanings in various ways. This ‘negative’ definition of power is useful in that it makes it clear that there are different interests and that they can come into conflict (often over cultural issues). It also raises the question of the forms of resistance (again often cultural) which contest the exercise of power. However, we might also understand power as being ‘positive.’ This means that power is not just about preventing things from happening, it is also the capacity to make things happen. Here power is part of all sorts of forms of social and cultural construction. Power is involved in constituting identities (including those of the individuals or social groups who are understood to ‘hold’ power), social relations (such as the relationships between men and women), and cultural geographies (such as the definition of national identities, or of ‘East’ and ‘West’ in Orientalism). (9-10)

Discourse is a way of thinking about the relationship between power, knowledge and language. It is a concept most associated with the work of the French theorist Michel Foucault, who understood discourses as the frameworks that define the possibilities for knowledge. As such, a discourse exists as a set of ‘rules’ (formal or informal, acknowledged or unacknowledged) which determine the sorts of statements that can be made. These ‘rules’ determine what the criteria for truth are, what sort of things can be talked about, and what sorts of things can be said about them. One of the most carefully worked through and explicitly geographical examples is Edward Said’s (1978) Orientalism where he sets out the discourse (which he calls ‘Orientalism’) through which ‘the West’ has made statements about ‘the East,’ defining the sorts of things that get said about ‘the oriental mind,’ ‘the oriental landscape,’ or ‘oriental despotism,’ and defining itself as the opposite in the process. This raises two important points. First, that the aim of the idea of discourse is to suggest that there are many discourses, none of which simply tells the truth about the world. All of these discourses are ways in which our knowledge and language create the world as well as reflecting it … . The second point is that that the discourse that prevails is a matter of power not simply truth. Since discourses define the way things are understood, even whether things can be understood to exist or not, then part of any struggle for power is a struggle over language and knowledge, over discourse. (11)

Ogborn, Miles. “Knowledge is Power: Using Archival Research to Interpret State Formation.” Cultural Geography in Practice. Ed. Alison Blunt, et al. Oxford UP, 2003: 9-22.

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