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Philosophy and Rhetoric 35.4 (2002) 328-344

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Spaces of Invention:
Dissension, Freedom, and Thought in Foucault

Kendall R. Phillips

Over the past two decades, invention has become an increasingly difficult concept to discuss. In an age when the free, rational actor has become not only de-centered but viewed as both impossible and undesirable by some social theorists, the traditional conception of invention, especially rhetorical invention, becomes more tenuous. While some continue to promote a rational deliberative model of the human subject—Habermas is a prime example of this school of thought—the harsh and unrelenting critiques of poststructural and postmodern thinkers have cast these recovery efforts in a nostalgic and often negative light. Chief among these critics of the modern, humanist conception of human action is Michel Foucault. Within Foucault's perspective our utterances are governed by underlying rules of discourse formations, our actions are proscribed and authorized by relations of power, and our very conception of our self is circumscribed by technologies of subjectivity. Contained within these intertwined relations of knowledge, power, and subjectivity, the human subject takes on a very different meaning and even the concept of "human subject" is itself a product of these intertwined relations; a product that may, in time, disappear under new relations of discourse and governance.

Despite the apparent centrality of a creative human subject to the study of rhetoric, Foucault has taken his place within the study of rhetoric. Of course, neither this incorporation of Foucault nor the observation of its peculiarity is particularly new. The incorporation of Foucault into rhetoric took its most dramatic turn in 1989 with Raymie McKerrow's "Critical Rhetoric" essay and the implications of this union of Foucault and rhetoric were forcefully raised by Barbara Biesecker in "Michel Foucault and the Question of Rhetoric" (1992). These two important essays made the relationship between Foucault and rhetoric most pressing: McKerrow by offering [End Page 328] a practical agenda for a Foucaultian rhetorical perspective and Biesecker by opening a space for reflection on this type of agenda. In the intervening decade, however, the incorporation of Foucault into rhetoric has outstripped the reflection on this incorporation and Foucault now sits as comfortably in the bibliographies of rhetorical scholars as Burke or McKeon or Perelman.

The purpose of the present essay is to revisit this relationship between Foucault and rhetoric. I pursue this end not in order to critique McKerrow's project or to outstrip Biesecker's reflections, but in order to press the importance of their earlier arguments. The project of a Foucaultian rhetoric should be taken seriously, seriously enough to keep the peculiarity of this union in the forefront of our minds as we pursue it. My present effort furthers this end by seeking within Foucault a space for invention and, in so doing, asks the question: how might invention be rendered within a Foucaultian framework?

My contention is that a space for invention exists within Foucault's studies of knowledge, power, and subjectivity and that this space can be demonstrated by considering the counterpoints to his tripartite understanding of the human condition. The limiting/enabling relations of knowledge/power/subjectivity are counterpointed by three terms that describe the conditions for invention: dissension, freedom, and thought. Before turning to the conditions for these spaces of invention and the unique shape of invention that emerges from them, I will briefly consider previous discussions of Foucault.

Power, resistance, and invention

Rhetoricians, to be clear, are not the first to be concerned with the apparent foreclosing of the possibility of invention within Foucault. Focusing mainly on dominating relations of power/knowledge/subjectivity, Foucault seems to leave little ground for the creation of new ways of acting, speaking, or being. However, what I call a concern for invention has generally not been expressed as such; rather, in rhetoric and in other fields, criticism of Foucault has been largely couched in terms of resistance. Edward Said (1986), for instance, contends that Foucault's work is "not finally as contestatory, or as oppositional as on the surface it seems to be" (152...


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