Foucault – Nietzsche, Genealogy, History

“Genealogy… must expose a body totally inscribed by history, and history’s destruction of the body.” (my translation)

In the depth-first searches of genealogy, Foucault finds an alternative to the systemic failures in History’s pursuit of origins. Linear history is marred by its essentialism, ignoring chaotic or outlying phenomena along with silences. It is shackled by its reification of origins themselves, its teleological obsessions with stable development. And History’s consequent demand for truth-claims in its records frustrates those who would not see any event as final, or even as isolatable. To gather accretions of data on relations of subjects as well as of events, Foucault turns to Nietzsche’s method – and with a close attention to its explanation.

Explanations abound of Foucault’s deployment of the subtleties of Nietzsche’s vocabulary. Suffice, for us, to review the basic differences among the many “origins” at work in this seminal. Ursprung – origin as such – constitutes History’s object.  Two terms from Nietzsche stand in distinction to it. Herkunft – descent – denotes a lineage, heritage or inheritance. It allows the genealogist to leave claims to a self or soul unstable, inchoate, impure: it allows a critique that invests in the historically inscribed body. Entstehung – emergence – gives us a way to talk about discrete historical phenomena in their serial contexts. As the appearance or manifestation of an event, it invites discussions of force and power to enter history, helping genealogy to understand episodic relations of domination. What was precisely missing from Foucault’s archaeological works appears in these paragraphs without delay: power, and the body.

So, when he describes the opposition between genealogy and history, we can also infer that Foucault adopts Nietzsche’s stance in order to move beyond his own self-imposed, archaeological limits. The early notes to Nietzsche’s professional/intellectual changes of heart and inconstancy on the score might make compelling evidence for such a claim, but more salient are the qualities that distinguish between genealogy and history. Simply put, where History is exclusive, privileged, generalizing, abstracted, and teleological, genealogy pursues inclusion, alienation, particularity, embodiment, and reflexivity. That Foucault describes the opposition in such stark terms ought not to surprise, nor is it an empty rhetorical gesture. These slips of meaning – of signification, one might say – between cognates, or even among different uses of the same terms, over the course of an essay, a book, a career, or a discipline, hold as much importance as the various meanings themselves.

This is what the traditional, metaphysical historian overlooks. It is the attention to granularity that genealogy champions, as against the practices of the historian, who makes metaphysical generalizations, who dominates, who rejects subjectivity in favor of a pretended objectivity. And no doubt, these tendencies and behaviors arise from the historian’s alignment with the same play of forces and systems of rules that the genealogist works to disambiguate. Yet the problem of ignored silences extends beyond the locus of the practitioner’s attention. It stems from the assumption of (and reliance upon) an ahistorical ground for the very undertaking of history. So, when genealogy opposes metaphysical history, it seeks out not just different content for its produced knowledge, but different forms for knowledge and the will to knowledge as such. This leads to emphasis on parodic devices, structures of alienation and dissociation between scholar or philosopher and source, and, crucially, the sacrifice of the privileged, dominating roles traditionally assumed by the one who effects history.

In sum, then, genealogy marks the entrance of the political to the realm of history. It cleaves to an embodied, positioned subject even as it traces the annihilation of such subjects, such positions, such bodies through the history of History. As Nietzsche broke from historical traditions, Foucault breaks from his own, archaeological patterns. Closer affiliation to the subjugated, the silenced, the lost, will all mark his work in his later career. Arguably a maturation, certainly the emergence of a shifted paradigm for thought, Foucault’s ‘return to’ Nietzsche begs the further question of a certain Foucault to which (to whom?) contemporary theorists might seek to return.

One thought on “Foucault – Nietzsche, Genealogy, History

  1. In whats sense do you mean “the political”? This will be something to discuss. Also: Doesn’t Foucault attend to silence far earlier than this–in History of Madness, for instance?i

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