Foucault – Archeology of Knowledge

Foucault’s methodological treatise, a decade in the writing, dismantles and reassembles historiography and epistemology. Rather than treat its object — discourse — as evidence of contiguous historical phenomena, Archaeology of Knowledge (AK) situates discourse as the rules that govern our organization and understanding of historical (as well as political, social, and other sets of) knowledge. At the same time, it describes discourse as a practice that encompasses the very making of those rules. True, then, that this abbreviated forum, as always, would fall short of adequate recapitulation of the book’s themes, let alone to float critique. But we can try:

The frontiers of a book are never clear-cut: beyond the title, the first lines, and the last full stop, beyond its internal configuration and its autonomous form, it is caught up in a system of references to other books, other texts, other sentences: it is a node within a network.

To extend, the edges of this text’s network (corpus being node) map to key concepts. These include the infamous “unities of discourse,” and some others: statement, archive, archaeology, history, idea. Centrally, archaeology finds painstaking theoretical elaboration here. Painstaking, because in the works leading up to this treatise, the need for theorization took a firm knock on the ears, pushed back in favor of empirically resolute research. This does not preclude the need for a coherent articulation of the concept, though, so the master-stroke of AK also delineates its deepest contradiction. Following this theory of a method that rejects most theory gives us momentary reflection on the other concepts at work here. Statements, for example, rather than texts, authors, or oeuvres, become the principal units of archaeological analysis. This allows us to forego facile attribution of discursive shifts to one subject’s intentions or one period’s circumstances. History, meanwhile, emerges less as a matter of context and more a function of discursive practices. Archives, collections of statements, can be thought structured by their silences and aporiae as much as by their inclusions. This opens up our questions onto who speaks, what they can say within the bounds of institutional and social conditions, and how they can say it — often, questions only approachable through the recognition of what’s left unsaid. No bird’s-eye view for archaeology, then, but the incremental allocation of patterns to epistemes.

Some increments have more impact than others. One such move in the text comes in the chapter on the  historical a priori and the archive. Foucault concentrates here on establishing the positivity of discourse. His definition of the historical a priori includes its status as a condition of the reality of statements. This stands opposed to conditions for the validity of judgments, a distinction with subtle, but important, merit. He continues by explaining that discourse has meaning, history, and specificity. Here, the ontological priority of statements over speakers finds crucial consequences. Since archaeology cannot track ethical valences for statements, only their material effects and conditions, the historian’s statements come under related fire.  In particular, archaeology reconfigures the archive as a system, of the formation and transformation of statements, not just as a collection of those statements. We must face the impossibility of describing our own archive, and instead approach identification through or as difference.

Archaeology encounters also its fundamental relationship with difference in another section of the text, where Foucault sets it against the history of ideas. This opposition takes three major turns to tell. First, archaeology brooks no discussions of genesis, continuity, or totality. Second, it focuses primarily on the attribution of innovations, the analysis of contradictions, the comparison of descriptions of discourses, and the mapping of discursive transformations. Third, the principles of the two kinds of study clash. Archaeology must avoid reinscribing a diptych between what is concealed and what is revealed. Instead, it must treat discourse in its specificity. This means it cannot make much of grand oppositions, as between an individual and society. Neither can it seek the restoration of or return to ontological origins of any specific discourse. (The last point raises a problematic issue for our present undertaking, which could certainly be said to cleave to hagiography, or at least to sovereign subjectivity, as far as MF ‘himself’ is concerned).

A third key moment in the argument of AK occurs during MF’s prolepsis in the conclusion. The dialog with an imagined critic sheds some more light on (forgive me) Foucault’s intentions for archaeology – particularly, its programmatic, methodological underpinnings. First, he responds to charges of inverted or hidden structuralism. He claims instead to have produced an analysis without those principles, one which does not erase speaking subjects at a distance, but which shows the variety of possible positions of discourse for those subjects. Second, he deflects the objection that discourse cannot transcend origin and teleology, arguing instead that the point is to find an historical approach to the contemporary subject which need not rely on teleology or transcendence. To the related question, of whether, then, he has simply produced a history with an empirical undertaking, or has digressed into (metaphysical) philosophy, he responds in turn. Discourse remains the object of our discourse for archaeology, not a transcendental truth-claim. He goes on to argue that the project is not, itself, a science, but that it is also not separated from science. Finally, he insists that archaeology, at its core, does not accept the sovereignty of the subject in discourse. There can be no reconciliation with political transformation for the historian; neither can there be one in archaeology. At least, he argues, his method can recognize and deal with this as a contradiction.

What remains untenable for archaeology, though, is the ability to describe the conditions of power that undergird such discursive practices and conditions. In its relentless focus on exclusively discursive realms, AK skirts issues of power in three ways. First, it demands that we countenance a subjectless discourse. This precludes analyses of straightforward relations of power such as interpersonal domination, class privilege, or the relations between capital and politics. Second, it makes the role of material bodies subordinate to role of the materiality of discourse in its organization of statements and its analyses of external archives. Third, zeroing in on discontinuity and rupture, as its points of concern, allows less attention to continual concentrations of either those relations or that materiality of power. The turn to power in later works, and to genealogy as against archaeology, may indicate an acknowledgement of these roadblocks.

One thought on “Foucault – Archeology of Knowledge

  1. Why “*infamous* unities of discourse”? Also, I’m not sure about opposing empiricism to theory, either as a narrative of progressive development or even as a characterization of any break in the work. There’s a difference between self-reflection on method and theory, no? Otherwise I find the analysis effective, especially the critique at the end.

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