Foucault News

News and resources on French thinker Michel Foucault (1926-1984)

Mark G. E. Kelly, Foucault and the Politics of Language Today
Telos Summer 2020 vol. 2020 no. 191 47-68

doi: 10.3817/0620191047

From Editorial summary – Special Issue Telos 191 (Summer 2020): Going Viral
By David Pan · Monday, June 15, 2020

We face such danger with every viral outbreak that underlines the unpredictability of our biological as well as digital lives. The flows of social media are nothing if not capricious, and Mark Kelly analyzes the politics of representation in the controversies about racism in the United States by developing Michel Foucault’s claim that language’s effects are unpredictable. Because both discriminatory language and the attempts to ban such language might have unintended consequences, battles between the right and left about representation and politically correct language do not lead in any clear directions. Though Trump uses a great deal of anti-immigrant rhetoric, the real policy effects have been minimal. Similarly, left-wing attempts to suppress discriminatory language and include more racial diversity in movies and television do not clearly improve the situation of the disadvantaged. The focus on representation may even provide a cover for the reproduction of existing power structures. As this issue of Telos goes to press, protests in reaction to George Floyd’s death continue to spread into an outbreak of rioting and looting, and Kelly’s analysis indicates that the use of violence to oppose hate speech may be counterproductive. As he suggests with regard to left-wing violence, “the danger lurks that it is precisely anti-fascism that is effectively tactically cohering with its supposed enemy in driving its growth as a kind of autoimmune response by the left.”

We find ourselves today in a conjuncture where the use of language has become an object of political concern to a perhaps unprecedented extent, or at least in unprecedented ways. In particular, the words used to refer to individuals and to groups, down to the use of pronouns, have come into intense question, as have the ways in which groups are represented in the media and in positions of power. In light of this situation, I want to bring the analytical tools of a thinker peculiarly concerned with the nexus of language and politics, Michel Foucault, to bear in order…

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