Foucault presents possibly the best definition of discourse. He says, “Systems of thoughts composed of ideas, attitudes, and courses of action, beliefs and practices that systematically construct the subjects and the worlds of which they speak.”
Originally it has roots in the Latin language. The term assumes slightly different meanings in different contexts but in literature discourse means speech or writing normally longer than sentences which deals with a certain subject formally in the form of writing or speech. In other words, discourse is the presentation of language in its entirety while performing an intellectual inquiry in a particular area or field i.e. theological discourse or cultural discourse.
General Classification of Discourse
Discourse can be classified into four main categories namely:
The main focus of this type of discourse is to make the audience aware about the topic of the discussion. Definitions and comparative analysis of different ideas and beliefs are examples of discourse exposition.
It involves describing something in relation to the senses. Descriptive discourse enables the audience to develop a mental picture of what is being discussed. Descriptive parts of novel or essays are descriptive discourse examples.
This type of discourse is based on valid logic and, through correct reasoning tries to motivate the audience.
Examples of argumentative discourse include lectures, essays, and prose.
It is a type of literary conversation which focuses on the expression of feelings, ideas, imaginations, events and places through specific rhymes and rhythms. Poetic discourse makes use of common words in appealing ways to presents feelings and emotions. The mechanism of poetic discourse involves certain steps starting from different sources, then entering mental process, mental realization and then finally into a finished product as poetry.
I marvel how Nature could ever find space
For so many strange contrasts in one human face:
There’s thought and no thought, and there’s paleness and bloom
And bustle and sluggishness, pleasure and gloom
(A Character by William Wordsworth)
Expressive discourse does not involve the presentation of facts or the motivating of others but is rather a reflection of our emotions which form the foundation of our expressions. This is a form of basic or entry level discourse and is beneficial for beginners in the field of literature or other fields. It primarily deals with generating ideas with no concrete source. Examples are academic essays and diaries.
We met very early at our office this morning to pick out the twenty-five ships which are to be first paid off. After that to Westminster and dined with Mr. Dalton at his office, where we had one great court dish, but our papers not being done we could [not] make an end of our business till Monday next. Mr. Dalton and I over the water to our landlord Vanly, with whom we agree as to Dalton …
(The Diary of Samuel Pepys by Samuel Pepys, 1660)
The basic aim in this kind of discourse is to convey the message in such a way that it is clearly understood without any confusion. Whatever is said has no ambiguity. Everything is clear for the reader. Usually this type of discourse is in active voice.
Examples include: Instructions, Guidelines, Manuals, Privacy Policies, Patient’s Instructions as written by doctors etc.
Functions of Discourse
The role of discourse is hard to ignore in our daily intellectual pursuits, for it provides a basis to conduct a comparative analysis and frame our perceptions about different things. For instance, two competing discourses about the civil war in Syria today can be used thereby either qualifying the war as ‘war against dictatorship’ or ‘war against imperialism’. On the other hand, it could “war against Islam” or “war for humanity”. Thus, both discourses provide a distinct style, vocabulary and presentation which are required to convey the respective ideas to a specific audience.
According to Jacques Lucan and Ferdinand de Saussure, language (Discourse) is the main force which works behind all kinds of human activities and changes in social fabric, whereas the Modernists attribute discourse to development and progress. Another important function of discourse is to generate and preserve truth as argued by the Postmodernist theories.