According to Foucault, discourse creates knowledge (“Michel Foucault on Rhetoric”). In fact, discourse also has the power to create reality. Therefore, the rules that govern discourse play a major role in the content of knowledge, how it is created, and how that knowledge is disseminated. Rhetoric, as a form of discourse, can impact social structures and social norms. Gender norms are among the most pervasive, affecting social hierarchies and access to political power.
The rules of discourse include what topics can and cannot be discussed. For example, many topics of discussion are considered taboo and are banned from public discourse (“Michel Foucault on Rhetoric”). Who is allowed to speak or write also determines a society’s body of knowledge (“Michel Foucault on Rhetoric”). Women have been excluded from formal education and therefore had lacked the ability to read and write throughout much of European history. Without access to the means by which to create knowledge, women have been systematically excluded from social and political power.
Feminist philosophers and scholars like Sonja Foss, Cindy Griffin, and Bell Hooks argue that knowledge construction has been a primarily male domain. Their arguments echo those of Michel Foucault, who understood the importance of rhetoric and how rhetoric creates — and not just reflects — reality. Foucault argues that the way that knowledge is constructed can have powerful and far-reaching effects on culture. Culture, in turn, impacts the way that knowledge is created. The result is a vicious cycle. Bell Hooks and other feminist philosophers would strongly agree with Foucault that rhetoric creates patriarchy and can therefore also eliminate it. The goal of feminist philosophy is to alter the underlying beliefs that create patriarchal social structures. The structures cannot be dismantled before their foundations are examined and re-created in light of new knowledge.
Sonja Foss and Cindy Griffin also acknowledge the way patriarchal rhetoric is a foundation of sexism. Foss and Griffin point out that a “patriarchal bias…undergirds most theories of rhetoric,” (2). Rhetoric relates to the control of knowledge, and thus, the control of social and political power. It is therefore essential to deconstruct rhetoric to discover patriarchal and other forms of bias. Not only do biases lead to distorted knowledge, but biases like sexism also lead to the normalization of misogyny. Bell Hooks also notes that feminist rhetoric deconstructs, challenges, and ultimately eliminates all forms of oppression and not just sexism. Racism and other types of discrimination can be traced to faulty rhetoric.
As Foss and Griffin state, changing rhetoric is an act of empowerment. “The traditional conception of rhetoric,” note Foss and Griffin, “is characterized by efforts to change others and thus gain control over them,” (3-4). Whereas patriarchal rhetoric is a discourse of dominance and control, feminist rhetoric is a discourse of “equality, immanent value, and self-determination,” (4). Switching from a patriarchal to a feminist rhetoric can therefore have the long-term effect of shifting social relations and social norms.
Duncan takes the role of rhetoric a step further, while agreeing with Foucault’s underlying argument about the relationship between knowledge and power. For Duncan, gender itself is socially constructed. Children are immersed in the rhetoric of gender before they are old enough to participate in the process of manufacturing discourse. Society thrusts gender roles and norms upon children, socializing them into their respective genders. When an individual challenges the underlying assumptions of the rhetoric, he or she can be ridiculed for not conforming to the dominant discourse. Therefore, modern feminists agree wholeheartedly with Michel Foucault in the belief that rhetoric creates reality and that reality can change by changing the discourse upon which it is built.
Foss, Sonja K. & Griffin, Cindy L. “Beyond Persuasion: A Proposal for an Invitational Rhetoric.” In Communication Monographs.
Hooks, Bell. Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics. Cambridge: South End Press.
“Michel Foucault on Rhetoric.” Retrieved 10 May 2010 from http://bradley.bradley.edu/~ell/foucfft.html
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