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There is no single meaning to the word discourse, even if one takes it in a technical sense. Of course, a “discourse” can mean simply a dialogue between speakers; but it has also come, within linguistics, for instance, to mean the way in which linguistic elements are conjoined so as to constitute a structure of meaning larger than the sum of its parts. Of the various theories that have been put forward, the conceptions of discourse present within the work of Michel Foucault and Jean-François Lyotard are relevant to cultural theory.

In Foucault’s view, various social practices and institutions (education and politics, religion and the law) are both constituted by and situated within forms of discourse (that is, ways of speaking about the world of social experience). A discourse, in this view, is a means of both producing and organising meaning within a social context. Language is therefore a key notion within this view, for it is language which embodies discourses. A key function of a discursive formation, in this view, is not merely its inclusive role but also its exclusive role: discursive formations provide rules of justification for what counts as (for example) knowledge within a particular context, and at the same time stipulate what does not count as knowledge in that context. For Foucault it follows that the realm of discourse can have a repressive function.

Lyotard’s notion of “genres of discourse” (see The Differend: Phrases in Dispute (1983)) has some similarities with Foucault’s conception of discursive formations. However, Lyotard’s view were influenced both by analytic philosophy (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russel, Saul Kripke) and writer from the tradition of continental philosophy).

What is common to conceptions of discourse in the work of figures like Foucault and Lyotard is the notion that language, understood as discourse, is primary when it comes to the issue of how we are to understand questions of culture and society. Moreover, a rational account of social structures is held to be problematised by this approach. Thus, for Lyotard, the plurality of genres of discourse functions to prevent the assertion of any single genre’s primacy with regard to establishing what ought to count as true – since all genres are organised according to particular purposes and there are a multiplicity of purposes it follows that no single genre could be said to be adequate to the task of establishing a meta-narrative for this purpose.