In chapter four of his Archaeology of Knowledge, Michel Foucault asks three questions to help us understand what the “enunciative modality” of a discourse is. Simplifying somewhat we can state these questions as follows: (1) Who may speak? (2) Where may they speak? (3) How are they supposed to speak? In traditional academic disciplines, we can answer these questions at a general level by saying that (1) professors are authorized to speak in (2) university settings (including classrooms, conferences and academic journals) in (3) a manner that opens their speech to criticism.
Lately, I’ve been most interested in that last question. Too many academics, in my opinion, think of themselves as authorized to speak merely on the basis of their credentials and institutional setting. They are missing the part of academic discourse that is an ability, not just an authority.
Foucault says that the “position of the subject” (i.e., the authority of the professor) is conditioned, in part, by “a certain grid of explicit or implicit interrogations”. That is, when a claim is made in discourse, it may be questioned in specific ways. The meaning of the claim depends on the answers that the speaker is able to offer to these questions. The discourse itself is defined, in part, by what questions are likely to be asked and, in part, by the questions that cannot be asked. (The questioner can risk their authority to participate in the discourse by asking a “stupid question”.) The claim (or what Foucault calls “the statement”) is made with an expectation of being interrogated and is formulated in anticipation of being questioned. It is “open” to those questions and at the same time “braced” for them.
The more I look at academic discourse these days, like I say, the more I wonder how well this is understood. Too often, one sees an academic make a statement and then taking offence at being asked straightforward questions about its basis. It’s not just that the speaker seems unable to answer, they seem unwilling to answer, and they seem bewildered by being held to account. This is not promising for the future of human knowing.