In the work of the late 20th century French philosopher, Michel Foucault, “discourse” and “discipline” are terms used to respectively describe conceptions of knowledge and the nature of power. The terms have a symbiotic relationship and are aspects of Foucault’s theories concerning historical and anthropological explanations of ideology formation. The meanings of these words reach beyond standard definitions to demonstrate the malleability of societal and individual perceptions of accepted truths.
The traditional understanding of discourse is to communicate via speech or written text to produce an informative dialog on any given subject. Foucault however, uses the term to define a certain epistemology, which is to say, discourse is the product of knowledge. In this sense knowledge is not acquired onto a blank slate-like condition of mind, but rather acquired through discriminating filters of social constructs. New knowledge can only be influenced by old knowledge. Eventually, according to an interpretation of this Foucaultian concept by Robert Dale Parker, “knowledge constructs what it purports to know.” In this way, an idea or judgment happens and appeals to a dominant power structure, such as a cultural elite entity. The idea then gets recycled to eventually produce a convention. The original knowledge becomes self-perpetuating and thus produces an epistemic byproduct that develops into accepted truth. Knowledge grows into a caricature of itself through reproductive cycles that solidify its authority. It turns into a dogmatism as a result of its internalization by a society. For Foucault this process and result are a cumulative discourse. Internalized conceptions of truth become absolute and are labeled as “the discourse” in a particular subject. Put differently, an individual’s thinking is effected by the historical zeitgeist they are born into and their thoughts are more the product of discourse than original thought.
The conventional meaning of discipline as a punitive way to deter a behavior is used by Foucault in regard to individuals and societies self-disciplining themselves. Using Jeremy Bentham’s model of the Panopticon, Foucault described a system of control where prisoners self-police themselves under the surveillance of an invisible, but present, authority. Societies work like the Panopticon in that they have norms and socially accepted ways of behaving and thinking. Individuals conform to their societal and cultural traditions by operating within the boundaries of what is considered to be normal for the time and place in which they live. If one is to deviate from a social norm, they are punished in diverse ways until they re-adhere to the norm. The punishments for acting or thinking outside of habituated tradition include; social ostracism and isolation, being labeled as a pariah, misfit, outsider, or criminal, seen as abnormal, freakish, dangerous, and teased, bullied, fined, imprisoned or killed. Discipline and punishment are self-enforced as well as maintained by societal expectations and codes of conduct. This system of regulation is seemingly invisible but nonetheless a powerful structure in which authority governs.
The notion of sexual identity as gender can be used as an example to elucidate Foucault’s use of discourse and discipline. The modern discourse on gender creates accepted gender roles more than it defines gender. Conceptions of femininity and masculinity are indoctrinated into societal norms, and are recycled through generations to become a self-perpetuating discourse. The information on gender is not correct or incorrect, but rather a construct that has been strengthened through repetition. The repetition of the discourse is maintained by discipline. Gender roles are established, or just known, and operate within the discourse by disciplined reinforcement. Hence gender is a description of itself, and not a description of the anatomical differences (or intersexual combination) between the male and female sexes.