Interrogating the Subject

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.

2 thoughts on “Interrogating the Subject

  1. This is thought-provoking. Today, I experienced three different versions of number (3). The first was the usual classroom teaching moment, when I “set up” the class to critique a point of view that I used (not that I explicitly hold it myself). Done well, I can get 10-12 minutes of active discourse. I got 7… Second, I received the ugly news that a research proposal to a Federal agency was declared “not relevant” by the review panel. As much as the outcome annoyed me, you are correct, Thomas. I had to formulate my written proposal in the understanding that is would be criticized. And by implication, I should expect criticism. Third, I had a rousing 3-hour discussion with a grad student and another member of his doctoral committee. The nature of the criticism was easy to accept, as each of us was making a case around a point associated with a common topic of inquiry — the content and methods associated with the dissertation. But in the end, the criticism — made, assimilated, and understood — helped us craft a better jointly-held understanding… criticism as an element of social epistemology.

    1. Hi Randy, yes, teaching is an important part of it. In fact, it is well known that students learn things better when they are given opportunities to teach what they learn to others. Thinking about how to present material to others helps them master it in their own minds too. It’s interesting that you have a sense of how long a topic should be able to play in the classroom. I’ve long said that knowing something in a scholarly way should support a writing moment that lasts 27 minutes. Not just that you should be able to write it down in that time, but that it should substantive enough that 27 minutes isn’t much more time than you need to get it down. A point of view that is presented to curious, intelligent students who are qualified to be in the room should also provide fodder for a conversation of a certain minimal length. As you know, however, students vary greatly, not just from class to class, but from day to day.

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