A number of theorists are pushed together under the post-structuralist heading in literary theory, and among these we have found Jacques Derrida useful in deconstructing essentialist notions in psychological texts. In derridean deconstruction what appears to be fixed and privileged at one moment can be shown at the next, through a deconstructive reversal, to be dependent on other notions that it tries to dominate or exclude. Deconstruction sometimes works rather like a dialectical reading of texts, exploring contradictions and focussing upon subordinate terms. This sometimes makes it seem rather too much like traditional philosophical games, but it can be usefully connected, like dialectics, to an understanding of the way concepts operate in practice (Spivak, 1990). This then leads us to the most important figure for some of us in post-structuralism, to Foucault.
Not only does Foucault provide a theory of the social and its transformations over long historical periods, but he also provides a critical account of the effects of theory too as a form of discourse. There are, of course, tensions between these two aspects of his work, but both are helpful for a reflection on the practice of psychology as a form of knowledge that promises theoretical and empirical access to the mind. As a theoretical framework, the corpus of Foucault's writing could not have developed without the Marxist intellectual culture in post-war France through to the end of the 1960s. The descriptions he provides of the intensification of practices of surveillance and regulation at the end of the Eighteenth Century are embedded in an account of the concentration of production, and so of human bodies in industrial centres that needed to be observed, counted and controlled. Social and psychological theory has gathered power since that time, and participates in the process of calibration and pacification of working individuals, and their pathologies (Parker et al., 1995). It also thoroughly pathologises those who do not work.
This psychological work has practical effects on the way 'docile bodies' are encouraged to fashion themselves as kinds of subject within this new disciplinary regime in Western culture. The accounts that Foucault provides in his histories of madness (Foucault, 1961) and prisons (Foucault, 1976) sometimes seem to call for spontaneous acts of resistance that presuppose an inner subject, or at least a body with some still remaining untamed 'pleasures'. However, together with the descriptions of discipline in what we would prefer still to think of as capitalist and heteropatriarchal modern society, Foucault's main contribution is in an account of the way subjects are incited to respond. He also invites us to reflect on what we become when we respond as we are bidden. Not only is the subject an ensemble of social relations, and not only does politics penetrate to the core of the subject's most personal habits, but this subject believes, as a condition of being human now, that it must confess its hidden secrets to improve itself (Foucault, 1979). Now, in response to the discipline of psychology perpetually turning the spotlight of the State on the individual subject, we have a theory which turns the spotlight back upon psychology.
Changes in culture are thus revealed to contain within them deep changes in human consciousness, and Foucault thus brings to the heart of Western culture a progressive twist to cross-cultural psychology. Now it is psychology too that is implicated in a way of seeing the world and individuals within it. Whereas past ways of seeing, or 'epistemes', structured our understanding of the world around a relationship to God and looked to the many different reflections of God's work in the resemblances between things in the world, or conceptualised the universe as a huge machine in which the different parts and individuals functioned as mere components, the Modern age plays the double trick of positioning the individual as source of knowledge and as subject of systems of inquiry that try to drag it out of them -- sometimes him, but often her.
Here, the work of discourse becomes paramount in the circulation of images of the self and others, and as a medium through which one tries to convey one's knowledge to others. Foucault's (1969) methodological reflections on discourse turn the traditional psychological endeavour around to look not at how discourse reflects internal mental states and proceses, but rather at how these states and processes are constituted in discourse, and this requires an analysis of systems of meaning broader than speaking and writing (Ian Parker and the Bolton Discourse Network, 1999). The difference between discourses opens the possibility for critical distance, reformulation and transformation of forms of knowledge, but the parameters are always still set by the discourses that are available to us. We do not create discourse in conditions of our own choosing, but have to create something from existing linguistic and theoretical resources.
It is worth mentioning an additional theoretical resource here in wider literary theory that is able to conceptualise the moment by moment struggle in discourse to invest words and phrases with meaning. Mikhail Bakhtin draws our attention to a dialogical process in speech and, by implication, in the mind in which a third term, the 'Other', always intervenes (Sampson, 1994). This third term is the order of language which carries to us cultural connotations and calls us into particular positions, and is necessarily present in a text between a speaker and listener, between writer and reader. The argument that language is not merely a channel of communication but is a form of action which forms subjects is augmented in Bakhtin's work with an account of the way language works as an additional actor in the most simple 'dialogue'. It is possible to read a theological message in this account of the 'Other' in our discourse as well as a psychoanalytic one, a psychoanalytic one derived from the Lacanian tradition at least. Nevertheless, Bakhtin addresses some issues of meaning and positioning in language at a micro-level which connect with some of the concerns we find in Foucault's work.
There is an injunction in both Bakhtin and Foucault's work, then, to take discourse seriously, and, in Foucault's writing to study the way it constitutes 'regimes of truth' that close off alternative accounts. Knowledge is bound up with power, and the responsibility that each individual takes for their actions and experience makes it seem as if that power is enclosed, as if in packets inside people, or as if people could wield bits of power over others at will. Just as the self is held in a web of discourses though, so the powers that are attributed to him or her are ordered and exercised independently, for the most part, of deliberate intention. Foucault highlights the role of the slave in reproducing master-slave relationships, and the capillary action of power as it circulates upward as well as downward holding oppressor and oppressed in its systematic, if not systemic, grip. That may also mean that something unconscious is going on of course.