Coronavirus is not simply a sign. It has become a discourse. A set of discursive practices are being assembled around it. One can easily spot these practices on the television. The lethal virus has steadily become a complex site where battles for knowledge, power, and safety are fought, lost and won. Although the virus is democratic and does not infect humans on the basis of their position in our society, it has unfortunately become a weapon to the vulnerable and poor. Some have also used it for political and economic gains while others have used it to increase the hate decimals of our society.
We have corona heroes, victims as well as villains displaying the good, the bad, and the ugly side of pandemic. Maybe it is important to look at some of the discursive practices to understand our condition of distress and discern how power-knowledge apparatus controls, organises, and distributes these discursive practices and generate our emancipative response to the same. To achieve our ends Michel Foucault can be a good ally as he centres discourse within the field of political action. Here we are particularly attentive to his idea of discourse as one that both enables and constrains, writing, speaking, and being. We may add to this our being and becoming.
What Foucault names as discursive practices have both inhibiting, and productive ways of thinking, speaking, writing, being, and becoming. This means discursive formations or practices are made of choices that include and exclude. We cannot separate these inclusions and exclusion because every choice is also an exclusion of all other choices. A discourse is produced by this play of exclusions and inclusions complimenting each other. Foucault begins his analysis by drawing his attention to the exclusion mechanisms that affect and constitute discourse. Scholars identify two kinds of exclusion mechanisms at work in discourse.
They are external and internal. External exclusions include social procedures of prohibitions that are inscribed into taboos, rituals, and privileges that individuals have as members of society. The second kind of exclusions concerns types of knowledge and beliefs that enjoy institutional legitimacy and hegemony. He offers the instance of legitimacy and hegemony of reason over madness in the society structured by modernity. The third kind of exclusion that Foucault identifies is an opposition between truth and falsehood that is based on our sense of will to truth. Will to truth is contingent and is based on our will to power. This is why it changes according to the shifts in the power dynamics of society. One can discern the will to truth in the manner knowledge is produced, put to work, valorised, and circulated. This makes the truth as a product of discourse and power.
Exclusions that work internally to discourse are the discipline, the author, and the commentary. In terms of commentary Foucault takes on major foundational narratives of our society. These are mainly repeated and re-circulated and work to limit other ways of being/becoming, thinking/speaking/ writing in our society. Foucault thinks that the author unifies bring coherence and meaning to the discourse.
He speaks of author-function, not as a creative/ originative capacity but is a complex ability that points to the existence of a group of discourse and affirms their status within a given society. In fact, the author with their privilege becomes a product of discourse. This is why Gilles Deleuze looks at discourse as a site of an appearance of a subject. Discourse thus gives us a subject-position. Thus, for instance, the discourse of coronavirus has given us a subject position of being both victims as well as the vectors of infection.
The discipline is the third internal principle of internal limitation of a discourse. This means statements made from disciplinary domains have constraints that are specific to them. Discipline authorises ways of being/becoming, speaking/writing / thinking within these limits. We have inhibitive forces within a discipline that discipline and censor the discourse. Besides, considering the discursive limitations, Foucault considers philosophical reinforcements of discourse.
Foucault gives us three predominant and pervasive philosophical themes of limitation and exclusion. They are the founding subject, originating experience, and universal mediation. All three conceal the reality of a discourse. The founding subject is one that is assumed to be one who directly animates the empty forms of language with his and her aims. This assumption forgets that the subject is a product of discourse.
The originating experience turns on the supposition that on the basis of experience there are already prior significations that are wandering around us. It seems to be based on Heideggerian presupposition that things are already murmuring meanings which our language has to just pick up. This assumption idealizes discourse and forgets it produced by knowledge and power dynamics. The universal mediation presumes that the omnipresent logos elevates the things and events to become discourse as they unfold the secrets of their own essence. This assumption forgets that there is an opacity in the things and events that resist our total mastery over them.
It is through these plays of philosophical assumptions discourse marks its place of legitimacy and power and colonises our life and being. This is why Foucault invites us to focus on the performative power of a discourse. This means discourse can be viewed as an action. What it is doing is more important than what it says. This takes us above pan-textualism that we may be inclined to take up as discourse analysis. Our attention to discourse as action takes us to its relations of power and not just to its relations of meaning. it takes us into the material forms of discourse and discursive practices.
Coronavirus has all the ingredients that make it a discourse. It has given us several discursive-positions. Some are called corona-warriors, others are called covid-fools etc. It has successfully pulled together groups of discursive practices under a new episteme. This discursive shift has brought about a disruption of our life and being of the global community. I do not have to know how coronavirus is operating like a discourse in the Foucauldian sense over here. What is more urgent is to check how our philosophical blind spots are reinforcing the discourse to dig out the consequences of the power play that it has set into our society.
While the discursive practice of a general lockdown and the practices of hygiene like that social distancing, wearing of masks and washing of hands get power and legitimacy from science and the practice of medicine of such infection. We seem to have forgotten what it will do to the poor. Lockdown is not democratic. It does not affect everyone in the same way. We are produced as subjects by this enforced lockdown which itself is a discursive practice.
We have already seen how the poor have appeared as a subject of this discursive practice. We can see hungry people, people walking their way to their homes that are thousands of miles away, etc. We saw the appearance of the communal subject and politics that used it as an opportunity to increase their capital. Perhaps, following Deleuze, we have to watch for the emergence of the subjects of discourse to understand the power play that has sent in our society as a result of the discourse of coronavirus.