Rene Magritte, The Trechery of Images. Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons
Rene Magritte, The Trechery of Images. Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Warning: The following entry might get downright political.

Foucault, Kuhn and Rorty all wrote in one way or another on education and scientific discourse in our society, which is why while I was completing this week's readings I could not get rid of comparisons to the recent decision by the Indiana Senate to support teaching creationism in the State's classrooms.I felt that Foucault in particular could have predicted such a state of affairs. The controversy surrounding how the origins of the universe should be taught is ultimately a reaction to the need among some to have their beliefs codified into traditional disciplines as well as a passionate reaction to a paradigm shift, to use Kuhn's terminology. How does this relate to visual culture? Science education these days is primarily a visual experience, from the iconic image of evolution forming in a straight line to the use of new gaming technology to dissect a frog. The lessons in science we get in high school have a profound effect on how we visualize the universe for the rest of our lives, particularly if you (like me) pursued a degree in the humanities and don't expect to use biology or astronomy in your daily life at all.

The Indiana Senate wants to control scientific discourse to prevent what has already long occurred - a paradigm shift among scientific minds that now believe in an explanation for life's origin that does not include a god's involvement. Foucault states "the highest truth no longer resided in what discourse was, nor in what it did: it lay in what was said" (Foucault 150). The Indiana Senate may not openly prescribe to this philosophy but their actions provide a perfect illustration; rather than pay attention to the discourse amongst scientists or between scientists and teachers, they hope to simply pressure both groups until their religious sensibilities included among the same lines. We talked last week about how we have been socialized to believe that photographs contain truth - the classroom has been positioned in our society in a similar way. The Indiana Senate wants to control the discourse in the classroom so that students will see both theories as having equal academic value.

It's not just that certain organizations (represented here by the Indiana Senate) want religious texts in classrooms - it's that these organizations want to teach these texts in science classrooms. Foucault's work also elegantly explains this detail. He explains in the "Discourse on Language" that academic disciplines "constitute a system of control in the production of discourse, fixing its limits through the action of an identity taking the form of a permanent reactivation of the rules" (Foucault 155). Contemporary scientists exclude creationism and biblical explanations because they choose not to identify as a religious doctrine (because, as mentioned earlier, we have long shifted from the paradigm where religious doctrine ruled over all). The Indiana Senate wants to force creationism in despite these limits, giving Genesis the perceived stamp of approval that comes with being a text in the science classroom. As Kuhn says, "there is no standard higher than the assent of the relevant community." In this case "assent" is purely an affectation, politically driven rather than a traditional displacement of outdated facts.

Leader in the scientific community are not allowing the paradigm to "shift back" so easily - witness the innumerable scientists who believe in evolution and signed this petition - all named Steve. We shouldn't overlook how powerful this little piece of political discourse is. Here they've returned the discourse to those deemed worthy by those in community, using satire as a potent weapon against their opponents. The visual of so many Steves all in a row, all standing against those that deny evolution, with their credentials all in a row - again, the assent is everything.

Now, Rorty's point about all scientific knowledge being a belief, the same as creationism, may be true. But as a student in the humanties, I'd prefer the model of the disciplines controlling discourse than politicians who don't have the credentials. And there's this lovely satirical graphic...

More at
More at

-Tracy Carlin

Paradigms Lost

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Semantics & the crux of communication
The development of discourse

I have always found words to be such an inefficient way of transferring, communicating and expressing information. From a philosophical standpoint, if we start to understand language as an attempt to bring order or structure to the world around us, it is possible to liken this to the desire to fly yet building a flying apparatus out of cement. As a substantive material it is heavy, porous and the least bit flexible. Its nature does not lend itself to flight but stationary existence. If, as Foucault suggests, discourse is the medium of thought, than semantics and the desire for greater meaning can be equated to noise, with our own personal interpretations providing the feedback (see chart).

This is the crux at the core of our current state of communication. The development of discourse will always be at the mercy of the receivers, those who first encounter the thoughts of another; and it is there, through their own perceived understanding, that they will accept of reject the idea. As Foucault put it, discourse will always be “ at the disposal of the signifier”. It is in our attempts to decode and signify meaning that the error of translation occurs, what Kuhn calls incommensurability. And it is this phenomenon that causes paradigm shifts to be accepted or rejected over time; through greater understanding of terms or what Rorty implies, the eventual obsolescence of old “habits” of vocabulary in exchange for the adapting of new ones.

But this only makes me wonder of all the concepts and ideas that may have been discarded by the prevailing disciplinary systems and their limitations for understanding. In a way I lament for the orphaned theories that may have been lost to history, waiting to be re-introduced and possibly adopted by a more accepting audience.

-Metasebia Yoseph

In this week readings, Foucault talks about the relationship between language and social structures, including how social and historical factors shape the discourse and how discourse affect our society. For example, he talks about the external environment can control our discourses. He discusses “the rule of exclusion” and thinks prohibition is a typical type of exclusion. Some languages are prohibited in some occasions and this is decided by the discipline of the whole society. That is to say, language is not free to say. Foucault mentioned the risky of discourse in the Discourse on Language. There is a rule to shape people how to speak it and this rule is determined by the social, historical and political factors. It reminds me the computer programming language that we have today. It is probably the most normative language we have, because human beings set up a law for a machines and this law is very hard to change. Almost every language has exceptions, but computer language doesn’t have it. As Foucault said that a lunatic’s discourse always ignored by our society, any wrong or prohibited words will be denied by the computer system and you even don’t have a chance to explain to the system.
Programming Language
Programming Language


In programming language, every typical order result in a particular reaction and it constructed as a visual relationship. I don’t know about this language much, however, I leaned html before. HTML is also a language that totally shaped by our society. In HTML, people use lower case letters, because most people use it in daily life. Ever sentence should have an opening and should have an end. Also every reactions of commend is based on our social habits.

Also talking about the discipline, Kuhn talks about the discipline of science. He brings in the term ‘paradigm’. Paradigm helps us to understand how scientific methods and theories can be used in a particular time. When the present discipline of science cannot adapt the development of society, we will transform from one paradigm to another paradigm, which is science and technology revolution. Computer science is the representative of the Third Industrial Revolution, what will be the next? Cloud computing? What stops cloud computing? It is our society. Only after our society gets well prepared, we will get into the next paradigm.

---Xindi Guo

As I read this weeks readings, I tried to relate the ideas presented to this class specifically and our program in general. How is truth presented and thought of in the context of technology (a branch, it could be argued, of science) and, especially, with the advent of the internet?

I was especially interested in the ideas of Richard Rorty, a thinker who I was excited to get a chance to read. While the work we read was written around the time the internet first came into the collective conscious (Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity in 1989), and he died in 2007, after its full diffusion, there doesn't seem to be any reference to its powers of connection and truth creating mentioned in the writing. However, if we are to adopt a positive outlook on the internet, we could see it as a step towards his "liberal ironist utopia", especially with its ability to allow us to understand "strange people as fellow sufferers". With its ability to both spread knowledge and connect people who are far apart, it has a power to help us understand other, different people's plights. This could, of course, be observed in the activist work for starving people in Africa, for example, but it also could be seen in a mental health message board, or a blog about fashion, or in any video on youtube. We can see other people expressing their opinions and beliefs (something Rorty also had issue with, but that is another topic) and grow to understand and appreciate differing opinions. He references novels, moveis, and TV programs as replacing the "sermon and the the treatise as the principal vehicle of moral change and progress." It could be argued that the internet, the now leading form of media delivery, is doing an even better job of this.
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I also found it interesting to think about the internet and ideas of "truth". Rorty talks about truth as being a human construct because, through language, we create meaning and truth that did not exist before had we not been there to describe our surroundings using language. Rorty argues that language is not a medium through which we connect our inner emotions and convictions to the outside reality, but instead it encompasses everything, both in and out. I began to think about ideas regarding language and the internet, especially that of coding language. Is such coding a new language with which to construct truth, truth about a new world which we were, in essence, creating with this new language? Here, my thoughts get fuzzy and I need to work through it more clearly. Clearly, the internet functions in our already-created world, and coding is based on previous languages and is not completely new. Even if it was new, would that make a difference? It would still be just another example of description and language constructing truth.

It's also interesting to think about "truth" and websites like Wikipedia. Wikipedia seems like an open arena where in multiple truths can be added, subtracted, and democratically decided upon by all, not just by those in positions of power. However, how accurate is this? Wikipedia has an interesting policy in relation to what is considered and vetted as "true" on its website. In an article entitled "Wikipedia and the Meaning of Truth" (MIT Technology Review, 2008) Simson Garfinkle writes,

"Wikipedia has evolved a radically different set of epistemological standards--standards that aren't especially surprising given that the site is rooted in a Web-based community, but that should concern those of us who are interested in traditional notions of truth and accuracy. On Wikipedia, objective truth isn't all that important, actually. What makes a fact or statement fit for inclusion is that it appeared in some other publication--ideally, one that is in English and is available free online."

Thus, what appears on the surface to be a call to the people to collectively create and store knowledge, an appeal to their Nietzchean "Will to Truth", in fact, only considers truth to be that which has been already approved by the institutions that Wikipedia purports to circumvent. Foucault's ideas of censorship and truth constructed by those in power, at the expense of exclusions of others, continues. Yet, we, as the reader take these anonymous contributions (which remove the "author-function" altogether) as the only truth in existence and as the veritable gospel. Such ideas hold true on most of the internet, it could be argued. These things must be considered when discussing "truth" and its epistemological meanings in an era of increasing knowledge dispersal.

-Christian Storm

Both Michel Foucault and Thomas Kuhn discuss how discourse is shaped progressively over time. Rather than agree on universal truths and indisputable natural and social laws, Foucault shows how meanings change over time, while Kuhn describes how entire world views rise and fall throughout history. Kuhn famously dealt with only scientific revolutions (hard, serious science – not social ones), but it's fun to see how his ideas would play out in the study of social paradigm formation as well. Kuhn argues that “mop-up work” (p.24), the cleaning up of anomalies and further articulations of a paradigm, is the real work that occupies most scientists for most of their careers. Although we think of scientists as innovators and creators, Kuhn shows that they often must suppress novelty and instead work on honing their discipline, thus making the science even more impenetrable and powerful than before.

Foucault's examples of power within discursive practices function similarly to Kuhn's study of natural scientists. The most powerful institutions present today are often the most developed and specialized ones. Both these institutions and Kuhn's sciences seek to suppress novelty within their system. In doing so, scientists and institutions can solidify their legitimacy and make them harder for dissenters to challenge. Similarly, the very objects of study and development in these organizations are already motivated by “time, equipment, and money”, according to Kuhn (25). This fits in neatly with Foucault's articulation of discursive power. In “The Discourse on Language”, Foucault writes: “It is always possible one could speak the truth in a void; one would only be in the true, however, if one obeyed the rules of some discursive 'policy' which would have to be reactivated every time one spoke.” (155) The circumstances must favor your activity; a firm discourse must be established before work can be done within it.

If, as Foucault writes, “Disciplines constitute a system of control in the production of discourse”, how would Kuhn react? He might argue that there is a more equal relationship to be seen between proliferation of disciplines and proliferation of discourse. Classically, we think of disciplines as emerging naturally from bodies of discourse. However, Foucault posits that it is instead the discipline itself that shapes discursive practices. Through shaping language and meaning, institutions and disciplines shape either our participation within them or our exclusion from them. Foucault writes often of discursive policies of exclusion - that “not all areas of discourse are equally open and penetrable; some are forbidden territory (differentiated and differentiating) while others are virtually open to the winds...” (155). Language is one of the most powerful markers of separation. Jargon, lingo, “industry term”, slang, etc. are also used daily to mark people as insiders within or outsiders from specific communities. In his book, Kuhn describes how science books were once written for the common reader in mind (like Newton's Principia), before turning into hyper-specialized journals and publications that are of no use to the majority of society. Although most of us wouldn't find much use in understanding the latest developments in obscure sciences, the impenetrability of discourse from other institutions can prove quite problematic. The financial crisis of 2008 was largely spurred by a complete disconnect between the specialized discourse of investment bankers and mortgage-traders and the people who bought the stocks and swaps. Through their specialization of language, economists and bankers form communities of exclusion that makes their position and knowledge even more powerful than if they operated within “open and penetrable” discursive practices.

Can you make sense of this?


- Jen Feldman

This week’s reading made me think mostly about News media culture. Foucault would be interested to see how the advancement of information age has changed the landscape of discourse in the media. It seems he was open to accepting change and modifying his theories to accommodate new ideas and realities – taking on the Structuralism of his time is an example. He would have to adjust for the advent of “one to many” to “many to many” and how concepts (from our last class) such as hypermediacy, immediacy, remediation, transmission and communication affect our notions of Truth. I was reminded of Aristotle’s Ethics (one of my favourite books) , in which the philosophical explanations of the search for Truth and wanting to define contrasts with Foucault’s work and how he tries not to define it per se but allow people to discover it.

The above video is an example of how the prevalent culture within our News media can influences our attainment of knowledge, power and information - both Kuhn and Foucault would agree that the News media institutions depicted here have institutional power because they reflect the “social, historical and intellectual context” that create new knowledge (Irvine). Kuhn would probably argue that the extreme hype in News media culture today will only change when there is a paradigm shift where people and institutions recognize the need to consume knowledge differently.

Aside from the fact that quality of the news coverage is heavily influenced by a desire to provide quick and sensationalist images and information, most mainstream news outlets these days almost definitely also engage in Discourse, as Foucault would recognize, in the form of heavy “commentary”. For him, this would be a news story (primary text) intertwined with commentary (secondary text) that “permits us to create new discourses ad infinitum; the top heaviness of the original text, its permanence, its status as discourse ever capable of being brought up to date the multiple of hidden meanings with which it is credited, the reticence and wealth it is believed to contain, all this creates an open possibility for discussion” (Foucault, 152). It is increasingly becoming a standard requirement in News room for “experts” or “policy makers” to provide, as Rorty’s ethical categorization suggest, both “hermeneutical” and “value-free” analyses either on screen or on the web in the form of Blogs.

And speaking of Blogs…. I’d like to be able to apply Foucault, Kuhn and Rorty’s ideas to online/internet News media and not just conventional TV News.

PS 1. Reading Foucault’s translated works was hard! I wonder if the original French text is more palatable…