‘Orders of discourse’
The following observations were compiled by Meaghan Morris and are extracted from ‘Fiche Technique’, in Meaghan Morris and Paul Patton (eds.). (1979). Michel Foucault: Power, Truth, Strategy. Sydney: Feral Publications, pp. 102-5. I’ve kept to the same format as appears in the book.
Please note that subsequent to this 1979 publication, another more accurate translation of this text was published: “The order of discourse,” translated by Ian McLeod in R. Young (ed.). (1981). Untying the Text : a Poststructuralist Reader. Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, pp. 48-78.
The reference is Michel Foucault, “Orders of Discourse”, translated by Robert Swyer, Social Science Information, 10/2 (April 1977); page references below are to this edition. The translation was reprinted with the title “The Discourse on Language” in 1972 in The Archaeology of Knowledge, New York: Pantheon Books. First published in 1971 as L’Ordre du discours, Paris: Gallimard.
There are a number of problems with the English translation of L’Ordre du discours, which at many points is quite misleading. Not the least of the difficulties in working with the English text is the way the term “discourse” is variously translated as “speech”, “lecture”, “discussion”, and the way no consistent distinction is drawn between occurrences of “discours” and of “parole” (speech). Another problem is that the French terms for “rule”, “procedure” and “system” seem to be translated as though they were interchangeable, which is awkward given the methodological weight these terms have in this text. However the following list is restricted to some omissions and mistranslations which tend to make the text incomprehensible:
(1) p. 8; “We know perfectly well that we are not free to say just anything, that we cannot simply speak of anything, when we like or where we like; not just anyone, finally, may speak of just anything. We have three types. of prohibition, covering objects, ritual with its surrounding circumstances, the privileged or exclusive right to speak of a particular subject; these prohibitions interrelate, reinforce and complement each other …” Should read:
“We know perfectly well that we do not have the right to say everything, that we cannot speak of anything at all in any circumstance whatsoever; not just anyone, finally, may speak of just anything. In the taboo on the object, the ritual of the circumstance, and the privileged or exclusive right of the speaking subject, we have the play of three types of prohibition which interrelate (“Tabou de l’objet, rituel de la circonstance, droit privilegié ou exclusif du sujet qui parle…” OD p. 11).
(2) p. 10; “Certainly, as a proposition, the division between true and false is neither arbitrary, nor modifiable, nor institutional, nor violent”. The import of the French is rather the opposite;
“Certainly, if we place ourselves on the level of a proposition, inside a discourse, the division between true and false is neither arbitrary, nor modifiable, nor institutional, nor violent.”. (“… si on se place au niveau d’une proposition, à l’intérieur d’un discours…” OD, p. 16).
(3) p. 12; “they concern that part of discourse which deals with power and desire” sounds as though Foucault is referring to a subject matter. In fact the procedures (and not “systems”, as the text has here in English) in question are those which “concern that part of discourse which brings power and desire into play”. (“… qui met en jeu le pouvoir et le désir.” OD, p. 23).
(4) p. 12; “… commentary’s only role is to say finally what has silently been articulated deep down. It must – and the paradox is everchanging yet inescapable – say, for the first time, what has already been said, and repeat tirelessly what was, nevertheless, never said”. A precise point about the function of commentary is effaced here in the English, which should read;
“…commentary’s only role is to say finally that which was silently articulated deep down. It must – according to a paradox which it always displaces but from which it never escapes – say, for the first time…”. (“… selon un paradoxe qu’il déplace toujours mais auquel il n’échappe jamais … ” – OD, p. 27).
(5) p. 14; “But I think that, for some time at least, the individual who sits down to write a text, at the edge of which lurks a possible oeuvre, resumes the functions of the author. What he writes and does not write, what he sketches out, even preliminary sketches for the work, and what he drops as simple mundane remarks, all this interplay of differences is prescribed by the author-function. It is from his new position, as an author, that he will fashion – from all he might have said, from all he says daily, at any time – the still shaky profile of his oeuvre”. The omission of some historical remarks quite distorts the sense of this passage, which says:
“But I think that, at least since a certain historical period (“depuis une certaine époque au moins”), the individual who starts out to write a text, on the horizon of which lurks a possible oeuvre, resumes the functions of the author. What he writes and does not write, what he sketches out, even as preliminary draft, as outline for the work, and what he drops as simple mundane remarks, all this play of differences is prescribed by the author-function such as he receives it from his period, or such as, in his turn, he modifies it. For he can perfectly well overthrow the traditional image held of the author; but it will be from a new position of the author that he will fashion…” (” … tout ce jeu de différences est prescrit par la function auteur, telle qu’il la reçoit de son époque, ou telle qu’à son tour il la modifie. Car il peut bien bouleverser l’image traditionnelle qu’on se fait de l’auteur; c’est à partir d’une nouvelle position de l’auteur qu’il découpera . . . ” – OD, p. 31 ).
(6) p. 22; “As the regulatory principles of analysis, then, we have four notions: event, series, regularity and the possible conditions of existence. Term for term we find the notion of event opposed to that of creation, the possible conditions of existence opposing signification.” Half of the terms of the opposition are missing. This should read:
“Four notions must therefore serve as regulatory principle for analysis: event, series, regularity and condition of possibility. Term, for term, as you see, these notions oppose event to creation, series to unity, regularity to originality, and condition of possibility to signification”. (“Elles s’opposent, on le voit, terme à terme: l’événement à la création, la série à l’unité, la régularité à l’originalité, et la condition de possibilité à la signification.” – OD, p. 56).
(7) p. 23: here an important list of notions linked to the fundamental ones of event and series is effaced. “They are notions, rather, of event and of series, with the group of notions linked to these: it is around such an ensemble that this analysis of discourse I am thinking of is articulated …” should read:
“They are, rather, the notions of event and of series, with the play of notions which are linked to these: regularity, the alea, discontinuity, dependence, transformation; it is by such an ensemble that the analysis of discourse I am thinking of is articulated…” (“… avec le jeu de notions qui leur sont liées; régularité, aléa, discontinuitié, dépendance, transformation; c’est par un tel ensemble que cette analyse… ” – OD, pp. 58-9).
Comment Contributed by Colin Gordon, April 2003.
The mistranslation is cited and used (to support the author’s thesis) in the final pages of James Miller’s biography (p 373).
‘cette existence transitoire vouée a s’éffacer sans doute’.
Michel Foucault. (1971) L’Ordre du discours, Paris: Gallimard, p. 10.
Published English Translation
‘a transitory existence doubtless confessed in order to be effaced’.
Michel Foucault (1972). ‘The discourse on langauge’. In The Archaeology of Knowledge. New York: Pantheon Books, p. 216.
‘this transitory existence, no doubt destined to be effaced’.