Foucault calls into question the definition of discourse in his famous, methodological work the Archaeology of Knowledge. While it is traditionally identified as the communicative practice of conversation and talk, Foucault opens up discourse as the systems of thought that reside and manifest themselves in notions, ideas, concepts, ideologies, academic disciplines and the materiality of language (books, film, art etc.). In this sense, discourses exist as separate and dispersed yet overlapping domains that are regimented in how they are constructed and practiced.
If we unhinge discourse as solely a means of oral communication, then a Foucauldian analysis on digital media is in demand. By doing so we can label such an analysis as the exploration of Digital Discourses in which interlocutors participate, construct and act in virtual spaces that cater to certain content and diverge from physical discourse through the utilization of specific and distinct semiotic tools (that is the new, complex and trademarked means of digital communication that vary in their formation but construct a distinct consciousness and sense of practice in how they are utilized with various users and interlocutors).
Foucault stresses the deconstruction of discourse by breaking it down into its most atom-like form. This is what he labels the statement. The statement is not merely a proposition or an analysis of the grammatical components of a sentence, but rather a statement is the last dissectable piece of a discourse configuration. Or, we can say, it is a discourse artifact. Its importance stems from the fact that a statement cannot exist solely by itself, but rather it comes into being by its direct attachment to the past. A statement, therefore is constructed by what has existed before it, what exists now and what can exist in the future. In Foucault’s terms it is what has been said, what is being said and what can be said.
Statements are distinct in their manifestation due to their regimented existence in discourse. While they are influenced by the discourse as a whole, they are also its influencers. This leads us to the contradiction, yet essential insight, of Foucault’s argument in which discourse simultaneously defines and is defined by itself. Statements, therefore can only erupt into existence due to the larger, defining and oscillating contents of the discourse — in this sense, the statements that can be produced are finite as their configuration is dependent on the structures, rules, tactics and practices of a discourse.
Statements, as artifacts, are unchanging once they become formulated. Further or future statements can dismantle other statements’ legitimacy since their construction is also defined by their status in a given discourse (that is to say their validity to the ‘truth’ of the contents). With each statement comes a proposed world, in which a consciousness-worldview is presented and constructed by the discourse in which it occupies. Statements, therefore are the smallest component of discourse but still carry with it the substance of history, previous statements and the future.
Yet, if we look at Digital Discourses we can view interactions as Foucauldian statements, in which the content and structure of virtual spaces define and are defined by the interactions being practiced. Things become regimented and certain content is only able to be displayed, manipulated, and discussed in their properly directed outlets. The history of all that precedes a subject is influenced over the statements that can be made. Their analysis must not only be taken at face value but must be infused by the past, the present and the future. These aspects are crucial to be considered in order to gauge the weight and the substance of Digital Discourses.
For example if there exists an online forum that is concerned with computer malfunctions, the possible discourse must take into account what has been said on computer malfunctions, what is being said on computer malfunctions and what can be said on computer malfunctions. The discussions are locked in so that they are influenced by the past and constricted to always revolve around computer malfunctions.
However, we find a problem with such an analysis due to its strictly deterministic ideals. The objective is thus to disrupt this notion of discourse and to shatter the underlying structures that, one could say, condemn discourse to limit the content within. If we are to enact a proposition that “knowledge acquisition may occur as an unintended consequence of interactions with Digital Discourses”, the question is where is the “unexpected” in Foucault’s discourse? If statements are condensed by the history of their context, then where is the transformative, unintended, residue of knowledge and learning that we are searching for? Where is the agency in which the acquisition of knowledge unexpectedly comes into being by the shattering of the rectilinear screen? Where can the understanding of the power spectrums become acquired as a byproduct of participation within an online forum?
The goal is to find where the unexpected leaks over what is determined as the finite discourse and to see what is happening. For virtual spaces are not limited by time and space – the spatiotemporal; they are different from the physical real – the meatspace; their existence utilizes its own repertoire of distinct semiotic tools (and no Digital Discourse is the same as the other). Where this residue leaks through and pushes past the virtual space and into the consciousness, it can be able to alter, transform and define identity, habitus, language and the social world. Discourses cannot be finite and predictable, but they must produce the unexpected in which language and knowledge are remixed in discursive context in which they can have crucial consequences that are conscious disrupting and enhancing.
Foucault, Michel, and Michel Foucault. The Archaeology of Knowledge ; And, The Discourse on Language. New York: Vintage, 2010.