Monday, June 14, 2010

Master Discourse

The Power of Master Discourse

Four Statements of Michel Foucault
"The imaginary is not formed in opposition to reality as its denial or compensation; it grows among signs, from book to book, in the interstice of repetitions and commentaries; it is born and takes shape in the interval between books. It is the phenomena of the library."

"Justice must always question itself, just as society can exist only by means of the work it does on itself and on its institutions."

"The imaginary is not formed in opposition to reality as its denial or compensation; it grows among signs, from book to book, in the interstice of repetitions and commentaries; it is born and takes shape in the interval between books. It is the phenomena of the library."

"The work of an intellectual is not to mould the political will of others; it is, through the analyses that he does in his own field, to re-examine evidence and assumptions, to shake up habitual ways of working and thinking, to dissipate conventional familiarities, to re-evaluate rules and institutions and to participate in the formation of a political will (where he has his role as citizen to play)."

© 2010 Mukesh Williams

From time immemorial human beings have been fond of telling stories to each other. They have imagined their fears, anxieties, dreams, and have expressed them through words into a composite whole. From childhood to old age we are influenced by stories. We reject some stories as untrue and we accept some stories as true. There are, however, stories we accept tacitly without even analyzing such as “everyone must work hard” or “we are always progressing towards a better future.” Michael Foucault was the first thinker to unravel the power of such stories and their impact on our lives. He called these stories narratives and divided them into master narrative, minor narrative and counter narratives.

Master narratives are most powerful. They are the controlling discourses of modern societies, discourses such as self, ego, gender, class, race and nation. Though they are mostly imagined and constructed through language and signs they in due course acquire a social sanction and legality hard to refute or deny. They provide enormous benefits to the individual when they are followed and punishment when infringed.

Master narratives tell us that we are separate individuals and that our interests are often in opposition to others. The games we play when young teach us to win and take all. We are told not to help others in a competition as it breaks the rule. Winning in life matters and this is further reinforced by T.V. programs where winners are celebrated. We love competition. Our perceptions and language does not connect us with nature and with others but instead separates us from them. We do feel that love gives us happiness. 

Derrida tells us about the power of language. Language reinforces the separate self. It represents everything including ourselves as objects. Language uses signs and signs define objects against each other. White is understood against black. Our first personal narratives define boundaries through personal pronouns such as I, me and mine. These pronouns are different from you and yours.

Culture and society curtail our construction of an autonomous, free self. Though we use out skills, accomplishments, possessions and appearance to create ourselves in opposition to others, it leaves us dissatisfied as we feel we can do better or worse others can do better than us. Master narratives do not clearly define a referent to us which is in the final analysis no other than ourselves. On the one hand we are separate from others and on the other we are intrinsically connected to others. We depend on others for warmth, sustenance and support. Our DNA is connected to others. Our cells do not compete but cooperate.

Individuality is of recent origin. Before the eighteenth century, pre-modern Europe did not see individuality in a positive light. The medieval world saw a preordained hierarchy of kings, feudal lords and church functionaries running the world. This divine worldview was rigidly enforced and you did what your status allowed you to do. Your position in society was predetermined. If anything individual identity worked against you. The eighteenth century writers brought in reason and tried to decenter the master narrative of European aristocracy. The age of democracy developed the concept of the self and gave right to everyone to acquire power. Individualism became more powerful and began to involve creativity, autonomy and a unique personality. But events in Europe such as the Holocaust and existentialism revealed that we cannot escape our moral responsibility and freedom of choice. Even in mature democracies we find that our liberty and freedom are curtailed. Money and politics undermine democracy.

We believe that our understanding of a separate self is associated with notions of freedom and happiness. The notion of individuality though linked to free society and democracy has been forged in the fire of bloody revolutions which in turn has been influenced by counterrevolutions. Though we feel we are free individuals but we fail to create the world we envision. We also believe that competition is healthy. Freud legitimized the idea of the ego and our selfish motives. We feel that everyone must serve us and our needs. When we are infants we just live to satisfy our needs, functioning within an id. Gradually we develop a superego which stands for society. If we can successfully negotiate between id, ego and superego we can lead a healthy life; we can self-evaluate ourselves and self-improve ourselves regularly. The Freudian narrative continues to explain our separate selves as given and legitimate.

Foucault shows us that the ego narrative creates a psychological discourse that both limits and manipulates our freedom. Advertising, marketing and business strategies use methods to create desires and then force us to fulfill them. We think that we are free agents making informed choices. When we imagine ourselves as egos we see everything as an accessory to be used and do not find happiness in connecting with nature or others. Though we do not like to be called egoistic or selfish but in truth we are. As long as we believe that our self is separate from others we cannot but be self-centered.

The master narrative of the ego which is just an imagined idea sees others as objects either helping us in our goals or hindering us. We try to control others, denying them identity or personhood. We understand ego narratives to encompass group identity such as social cliques, tribes and nations and then construct our own sense of superiority and other’s inferiority. At the center of these identities are mental constructions comprising of words. We can create a world, which conforms better to our goals and aspirations.

Gender is the fundamental expression of the ego narrative. Though gender undoubtedly has biological base it is predominantly cultural in nature. Gender generates different responses in people and a lot of it is inherited through language and socialization. We treat boys and girls differently. We hold boys facing outward and girls facing towards us, telling them how they should play their roles in society. Boys will find a place for themselves in the outer world, girls in the inner world. Blue blankets are for boys, pink for girls. Guns and tools are for boys; pretend jewelry and dolls for girls. The feminist movement beginning in the 1950s with Betty Freidan’s The Feminine Mystique defined new gender roles for women. The slogan personal is political took women out into the market place and led them to self-actualize themselves. The Feminist movement of the 1970s tried to show that gender roles were more cultural than biological in nature. Women now acquired the foresight to become lawyers, scientists and teachers.

Obviously males and females are different but culture defines their roles more sharply. Most cultures spend more time in gender socialization. The master narrative tells us that males are expected to dominate women. Boys are therefore allowed to be aggressive, they are persuaded not to cry or be sissy. Women need love and companionship. The problem is that men too need the same. Western literature is filled with the heroic figure of the solitary male hero who seeks to conquer the world alone. We are told that only men face the problem of bonding with other males. Women by nature find it easier to bond with others.

The female narrative grows upon the notion that the feminine ideal embraces the male ego and, therefore, is the very opposite. Hiding below the feminine pursuit of beauty, pleasure and love for baubles is the feminine ideal of service, cooperation and communication. Early in life girls are taught to be cute, speak cheerfully and act caring. The stories told to girls and the games they are expected to play deal with romance and motherly love. They play with dolls to learn the art of mothering and later in life read romantic stories to find a prince charming. From their seniors, such as mother, sisters and friends, they learn to be seductive and by the time they are ready to marry they have become adept in playing psychological, domestic and sexual roles.

We often do not recognize that sexual morality and reproductive function embrace a created language of gender. There is no hierarchy in morality or biology. Male and female both work together to give birth to a child and there is no hierarchy in reproduction. The narrative of dominance does not help us to understand the intimate and the erotic in human relationships. The ego prevents us to participate freely in the emotions of ecstasy, wonder and beauty.

The female narrative also includes a separation of self and belief in order to win in society. Though women do not usually resort to violence they compete quite aggressively to become desirable as a woman or a mother. They also look for success by wearing alluring clothes and wanting an expensive house. They also compete with men in workplace and can ‘play the game’ of currying favor with their boss with equal finesse.

The Victorian model of morality and sexual ethics had once placed strict social control on the behavior of men and women. Promiscuity in men and coquetry in women were reproached. Though sexual behavior per se was freed from social control in the twentieth century we still feel sexual repression. Our heterosexual bias still plays a big role in determining our sexual preferences. We still have not been able to accept same sex love or other sexual relationships which we consider ‘abnormalities.’

Social class constitutes another category of the master narrative. It believes in the survival of the fittest in society and has given greater preference to self-interest than to altruism. Biology however teaches us that cooperation amongst proteins is the key to the survival of living organisms. Our knowledge and belief teach us that we should take as much from nature as we can. The belief that our lives are separate from our surroundings allows us to take everything. Altruism is seen as a foolish thing. Only recently we have come to realize that nature is hitting back at us through global warming and climate change.

The ego narrative also creates an economic system based on the primacy of money and directed by self-achievement. The word economics comes fro the Greek word ekos and nomos which mean the rules of the house. House rules determine our economic relations and are therefore created by us. If we change our house rules (for example in communism) but do not change our master narrative of the ego we will not go far. Communism preaches that individuals can create their own rules through violent revolutions but since the ego narrative remains in communism, it provides a new hierarchy of corruption and economic inequality. However that does not mean that the home rule of capitalism or free enterprise is any better either.

Money decides who lives and who dies, who eats and who goes hungry, who gets education, health care and employment and who remains illiterate, sick and unemployed. Money also decides who can travel and enjoy life and who cannot. The narrative creates a moral climate that allows us to enjoy life without bothering about the poor and down trodden. The free market economy reminds us that by nature we are lazy. So greed is wonderful. The force that helps us over come our laziness is fear. Middle class fear the loss of their livelihood if they do not work hard while the upper class their position. The ego pushes us to get more in order to succeed, but still we need admiration and esteem. We acquire goods to satisfy our desire and get the admiration of others.

We rarely find democratic functioning of institutions. Instead we see people using social position and family connections to succeed. The ego narrative works against all principles of enlightenment. It works for personal gain against the common good. In terms of global relations ego gets translated into economic egoism of developed versus developing nations. Multinational organization use poor countries as a source of cheap labor and refuse bin for toxic wastes.

The master narrative of race gets linked to the ego narrative and tends to exploit others more savagely. Slavery had a great effect on the narrative of race. Africans and Europeans had a history of slavery in their own geographical regions for a long time. The development of maritime trade made possible the growth of inter-regional and intercontinental slavery. Once trading in black slaves began an attempt to justify such trade through scientific racism, eugenics or anthropology also began.

We do not just psychologically imagined Freudian egos but also biological agents looking for emotional comfort and a sense of community. Our post-Enlightenment culture reminds us through the constitutions that we are all equal—“we hold these truths to be self-evident.” Though on a fundamental level we believe that everyone is equal and that birthright does not count, we still see a different truth in the functioning of governments and social systems.


Through master narratives, especially through religious discourses and linguistic paradigms we perceive the world as a place, a terra firma, and the cosmos as the result of some first cause. We call it power, God or force. To be engaged with a subject whose subjectivity is greater than ours leads us into a reference area outside time, space, reason and human understanding. By the late seventeenth century a reaction set in against the kind of religious model. A new secular model used scientific evidence and logic to explain a new cosmology that conformed to human inquiry and laws. In Argument of the Second Epistle Alexander Pope asserted, “Know then thyself, presume not God to scan/The proper study of Mankind is Man.” Now the world of nature was seen as a big machine. Therefore a theory could be developed which could predict and control everything that happened in the future.

The secular model builds a moral world based on Emmanuel Kant’s notion of categorical imperative which posits a universal standard for individual behavior. Though this ethical principle keeps egoism in check by condemning corruption and deceit, it nonetheless perpetuates inequalities by allowing free competition and the victor take all syndrome. Scientific discourses teach us that nature does not function with a mind and we have no responsibility for the various problems of the world. Everything follows a certain law and we are not free to make a moral choice. Obviously all this is changing now. Both the Nobel Prize Committee and the Australian electorate are choosing people who highlight our responsibility for protecting nature. But these two paradigms are more intertwined than separate. There are post modern secularists who believe in the existence of radical evil and pre-modern religionists accepting democracy and human rights. National discourses also prevent us from seeing our larger identity as members of the planet earth.

The ego is more imagined than real. It is more cultural than biological. In the words of Jean-Paul Sartre our ego depends on our consciousness and not the other way round. Both Foucault and Derrida unraveled the mysteries of the master narratives and decentered them for us. If we can change our notion of the ego and pick up other non-ego narratives can have more freedom and be happier.

Representing India: Literature, Politics and Identities

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