Thursday, November 24, 2011

Discourse: a form of social practice


The notion of discourse as a form of social practice that effectively constructs the object it purports to describe was first articulated by Michel Foucault in his 1969 work L'Archeologie du Savoir. This was a revolutionary idea at the time, not only for linguistics (in that it shifted the focus away from the word and sentence to much larger units of text) but also politically, as it suggested that language is always inescapably ideological. That is to say, the syntax and lexis of the simplest sentence can be shown to contain value judgements that relate it synchronically and diachronically to other texts in the system, constructing a complex web of interconnections, which, when institutionalized, may form a coherent 'discursive formation' (Foucault: 2002:41) with its own ideology, history and agenda.

These observations went on to inform an approach to textual analysis that has come to be known as Critical Discourse Theory (Kress & Hodge, Language and Ideology, 1981). Within this perspective, Kress (1985:7) describes discourse as follows:

Discourses are systematically organised sets of statements which give expression to the meanings and values of an institution. Beyond this, they define, describe and delimit what it is possible to say and not possible to say (and by extension - what it is possible to do or not to do) with respect to the area of concern of that institution, whether marginally or centrally. A discourse provides a set of possible statements about a given area, and organises and gives structure to the manner in which a particular topic, object, process is to be talked about. In that it provides descriptions, rules, permissions and prohibitions of social and individual actions ( Kress, 1985:7)

This leads on to another important feature of discourses, namely that they are inherently totalitarian in mission ('discourses tend towards exhaustiveness and inclusiveness', Idem) and imperialistic in reach, constantly aiming to explain and control as much area as possible. This is an important aspect to be borne in mind when attempting to map out the terrain of academic writing practices in Portugal. For EAD has systematically ousted rival academic discourses in many parts of the globe and with them alternative ways of construing knowledge. It is of interest to this study to determine the extent to which the traditional Portuguese approach is now under threat.

When the notion of discourse first began to be applied to the sphere of academic production, the concept of the 'discourse community' soon acquired a central role.

Use of the term 'discourse community' testifies to the increasingly common assumption that discourse operates within conventions defined by communities, be they academic disciplines or social groups. The pedagogies associated with writing across the curriculum and academic English now use the notion of 'discourse communities' to signify a cluster of ideas: that language use in a group is a form of social behaviour, that discourse is a means of maintaining and extending the group's knowledge and of initiating new members into the group, and that discourse is epistemic or constitutive of the group's knowledge. (Herzberg, cit. Swales, 1990:21).

Hence, by the mid '80s, academic writing was no longer considered an individual enterprise, crafted by lone scholars in pursuit of some referential truth. Instead, it was perceived above all as an interpersonal activity, a means of achieving membership of a community that would then endorse one's own production by conferring upon it the status of knowledge.

Karen Benett, Academic Writing in Portugal, 1: Discourses in Conflict, Imprensa da Universidade de Coimbra, 2011


O que aqui é dito ajuda a entender de maneira bastante clara o que é a poesia e o que é a literatura (que são "instituições") em geral:

Discourses are systematically organised sets of statements which give expression to the meanings and values of an institution. Beyond this, they define, describe and delimit what it is possible to say and not possible to say (and by extension - what it is possible to do or not to do) with respect to the area of concern of that institution, whether marginally or centrally.






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