Foucault and Manifest Destiny: Analyzing the Discourse of Schoolhouse Rock’s “Elbow Room”

In Michel Foucault’s theory of representation, instead of focusing on language, he focuses on the idea that discourse is what ultimately produces knowledge and meaning. In the context of Foucault’s theory, the term discourse refers to “a group of statements which provide a language for talking about …a particular topic at a particular historical moment” (Hall 44). This definition of discourse includes language, communication, and actions. That is to say that words, signs, images, and actions come to have meaning within discourse and only then can people have knowledge of these things.

Most important to Foucault’s theory of discourse is how it has been historicized and the innate relationship of knowledge and power.  Foucault’s theory falls under the constructionist approach to representation which means that discourse, like language and meaning, is socially constructed and therefore always changing. If discourse is the complex system of meaning of objects and actions in a certain time period, then the discourse of today is different than the discourse from 100 years ago.

Further, Foucault argues that knowledge is interwoven with power because knowledge is always used to “regulate the conduct of others” (Hall 47). Since he believes that no meaning or thought exists outside of discourse, Foucault concludes that all forms of thought are ingrained with this knowledge/power system. This leads to the idea of the regime of truth where a “truth” is constructed and supported within a discourse and everyone who is a part of this time and culture agrees it to be true since their knowledge has been shaped by said discourse.

Foucault’s ideas of discourse can be seen in the Schoolhouse Rock’s segment “Elbow Room”. This short clip tells the history of the Westward Expansion of the United States from the perspective of white settlers. In this clip, we can see that everything the song and images are communicating are a part of a discourse that justifies westward exploration with the idea of Manifest Destiny – that white settlers had the God-given right to expand their borders of the country. This clip is a part of the Manifest Destiny discourse because it uses a specialized language of images and words to portray this idea. For example, the words “the west/Oregon or bust” are sung and spelt out on the covered wagons throughout the song (“Elbow Room”). This phrase of “Oregon or bust” suggests the determination these settlers had about going west; they will make it or die trying. With these four simple words, the settlers are portrayed as heroic for their attempts to tame the Wild West. In this discourse, the image of the white settler has become an American hero who risked their life in order to fulfill their God-given right to expand their country.  In turn, these ideas that are repeated within a discourse then become the “truth” because of the inherent power/knowledge relationship. The clip concludes with the implication that the next “land” to be conquered by Americans is the moon which seems to be the main point of the song: to justify the space and Moon exploration (“Elbow Room”). This clip is using the Manifest Destiny discourse that Americans are meant to take possession of the moon just like the West.

What is most troubling about this clip is how this Manifest Destiny discourse completely ignores certain realities such as Native American presence in the Great Plains and West Coast; the Chinese immigrants who helped build the railroads across the country, and the Soviet Union’s participation in the Space Race. According to Foucault, however, this is not accidental because of the power/knowledge relationship. One way power manifests itself in discourse is “whether and in what circumstances knowledge is to be applied or not” (Hall 48). In other words, power is created within a discourse whether knowledge and ideas are either presented or not. By ignoring these certain histories in the “Elbow Room” clip, educational and media institution assert a power through discourse.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do you think the “Elbow Room” clip would have the same meaning or message if it was written and produced today? Why or why not? What would be different?
  2. In this clip, certain aspects of history of Westward expansion are erased or ignored. Why is the absence of this knowledge significant to the idea of discourse? Would this discourse change if this history was included?
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One Response to Foucault and Manifest Destiny: Analyzing the Discourse of Schoolhouse Rock’s “Elbow Room”

  1. cdowens says:

    Thank you for getting us started with the responses! I really appreciate your close reading of the Schoolhouse Rock clip’s representation of settler “heroism”. I also want to use this opportunity to point out the plurality of “discourse.” There are almost always multiple discourses at work in a text (image, video, etc). For example, you point out a few discourses at work in Elbow Room — Manifest Destiny, the Cold War Space Race, etc. Similarly, historical periods don’t have a singular discourse — they are characterized by a network of discourses about all kinds of topics. I look forward to us working through more of this as the course goes on!

    I also look forward to seeing what other people have to say in response to your excellent questions!

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