Foucault – Key Concepts – Archaeology



These weeks I’ve turned from biographical and summary readings to Foucault’s early works. From here on, these posts will proceed at conceptual levels as much as is possible. Today, we turn to archaeology. In its simplest reduction, the concept denotes a history of discourse. In books such as the History of Madness, the Archaeology of Knowledge, and the Order of Things, Foucault undertakes examinations of discursive formations ranging from health and madness to scientific understanding to aesthetics and perception. Throughout each of these, he frames the conditions of knowledge in a given time period as constrained by the characteristics of that period, a general way of organizing and thinking about the world in each that he names an episteme. So, archaeology is the study of “epistemae,” and an episteme places discourse in historical context.

The two concepts stem from several critical assumptions. First, Foucault assumes that historical periods impose more than mere templates on knowledge; they apply the very rules for its production. Second, he grounds knowledge in a given age (e.g. classical, Renaissance, and early modern) in experience — specifically, the experiences of signs, signification, and language. This leads him to generalize the rules for knowledge in an age as its episteme, and it also brings his research and writing into close focus on the elements of that experience, in other words, its expression through discourse. At one and the same time, archaeology must develop a critical understanding of experience in historical context, and assume that such experience imposes order on knowledge.

No close relationship appears yet between institutions, or discursive regimes of power, and this structured, constrained, ordered knowledge. Instead, experience, language, and historical discontinuity or rupture between ages — each taken as almost given — form the basis of this early argumentation. Moreover (as an aside), although Foucault does not depend deeply on metaphors or analogies to express himself, his prose in these works does drift off on long and often parenthetical descriptions of cultural objects and tropes. ¬†Foucault’s deepest affinities as I understand them at this stage — the traditions of opening questions for further thought, and of attending to hidden (one might almost say structural) themes in one’s archive — emphasizes how significant the failures to think certain ways (often, reflexively) can become under those epistemic constraints. One wonders what becomes impossible to think now, if our own circumstances do imply a new episteme.

In the context of this reading, such a question might stand on its own as an interesting talking point. But there are other motives here. Any specific deployment of these concepts must gather its strengths from as reflexive an approach as possible. So, for example, the most important question of archaeology as it seems to me today: is an archaeology of archaeology a possible, necessary, or fruitful undertaking (perhaps not, if the concept arises in Foucault’s mind alone. Then again…)? And the question concerning episteme: how might we recognize our current episteme — how is it possible to think through the constraints of our general historical and conceptual situation when (if) we are bound by its very constraints on thought? As Foucault pursues the differences between categories of inquiry in varying historical eras — pursuant to the social, geographical, and cultural limits to the scope of his definitions of those eras — he raises the possibility for us, of recognizing where our critiques of order and language can excel, and where they fall flat.

These final questions and more will form the basis of the next post in this series. That will also try to transition from archaeology towards genealogy, and to set the stage for a fuller position paper to follow.

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