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The Archaeology of Knowledge

Michel Foucault

Part III, Chapters 4 and 5

Part III, Chapter 3: The Description of Statements.

Part IV: Archeological Description, Chapters 1 and 2

Summary

Chapter 4: Rarity, Exteriority, Accumulation

Typical analyses of discourse take an approach dominated by 'totality and plethora.' They seek to discover a single, unarticulated meaning to which all statements in a given discourse refer (i.e., a totality). For such a totality, the set of statements (whether said or unsaid) appears as a vast plethora of possible articulations. Foucault's method, on the other hand, embraces a principle of 'rarity.' At any point in history, the range of things that could be stated far exceeds the set of statements actually made. The task, then, is to define the 'principle of rarification' that allows some statements to be made instead of others. We are not concerned with the unsaid statements themselves, but with the principles that allow only certain statements to be made. A given discursive formation is not a single, developing thing, but rather 'a distribution of gaps, voids, absences, limits, divisions.'

This rarity of statements is the 'explicit object' of the analysis of discursive formations. Rather than a single set of statements yielding an unending number of interpretations, this analysis seeks to account for statements in their finitude, taking discourse not as an oracle, but as an 'asset.' This means approaching the dispersion of statements in their 'exteriority' rather than attempting to find a secret, interior history (or a kind of historical mentality) within them. Discourse, then, must be treated as an autonomous realm, a set of statements that are 'things' which go through various transformations and appropriations. Discourse, for this method, is not simply a trace or record of something that happens somewhere else. Discourse is analyzed in its anonymity, not as the expression of an individual or collective consciousness (though it does determine the range of possible subject positions).

In its understanding of the ways in which statements and documents are preserved or accumulate, the analysis of discursive formations does not rely on the notion of cultural memory, nor on the sense that documents persist largely by chance. Instead, it understands statements to be preserved or destroyed by virtue of a network of institutions (of which the book and the library are two examples) and a set of discursive rules. The analysis does not seek to resurrect documents in hopes of re-creating the moment of their birth, but rather to describe the specific conditions of their emergence and survival. It is important, in this regard, to pay attention to variations in the form of accumulation of statements in different discourses; mathematical formulae do not accumulate in a body of knowledge in the same way that religious texts do.

Chapter 5: The Historical a priori and the Archive

Rarity, exteriority, and accumulation thus replace the respective models of totality, transcendental consciousness, and the quest for the recovery of origin. Together, this new mode of analysis approaches discourse only in its 'positivity,' only in its visible, traceable relations. It does not seek after anything hidden in or missing from or lying beneath discourse. This positivity, as the sole object of analysis, defines a limited range of things we can say about a given discourse; yet this range is not restricted by the succession of propositions, the interplay of themes, or other traditional means of understanding a discourse. The specific form of positivity that a given discourse has gives that discourse its 'condition of reality,' defining the range of statements that may be made within it. Thus, the positivity of discourse is a kind of 'historical a priori,' the 'specific form of [the] mode of being' of a set of statements. However, the a priori that is the positivity of discourse is not a separate, formal, immutable law or level of existence, but is itself 'transformable' along with specific discourses.

Discursive practices involve systems that allow statements to emerge as 'events' and to be used or ignored as 'things.' Foucault proposes to call these systems of statements, collectively, the 'archive.' Thus, the archive is not just a collection of texts that define a culture, nor even a set of institutions that preserve texts. The archive is 'the law of what can be said' and the law of how what is said is transformed, used, preserved, etc. Thus, the archive is defined as 'the general system of the formulation and transformation of statements.'

Our own, contemporary archive is impossible to describe clearly because it is the very thing that gives what we say its mode of emergence and existence. It is 'that which, outside ourselves, delimits us.' The archive thus becomes more sharply defined the further back we go chronologically, as we are increasingly separated 'from what we can no longer say.' In this apprehension-through- distance, the analysis of the archive shows us that our own identity as discursive beings is defined throughout by differences. 'Difference…is this dispersion that we are and make.' The distance manifested in the archive is what justifies Foucault's naming of his project as an 'archeology.'

Analysis

In these final chapters of Foucault's description of 'The Statement and the Archive,' he turns from the description of statements and discursive formations in and of themselves to the description of these elements as historical material. Now that the analysis of statements has been distinguished from other ways of analyzing language, and now that the analysis of statements has been linked to the analysis of discursive formations (which is set out in Part I), Foucault moves to give us a clearer picture of how these analyses delimit a specific approach to the historical archive.

The description of statements, in their existence solely on the level of the enunciative function, sought to show that Foucault's analysis, even on the micro-level of 'things said,' dealt only with the least obscure, least speculative, most 'positive' aspect of historical documents. In fact, this level of existence, in which statements interact with other statements, is such a basic, given level of existence that it constitutes a historical a priori, something upon which other aspects of language (like grammar or even reference) rest. In the last chapter, Foucault brought this positivity of statements back into play with discursive formations, which are composed of statements as they relate to each other in clearly describable ways.

With this work done, Foucault can now consider the large-scale form of the historical archive whose elements he has so rigorously delimited. If we are to describe statements as 'events' with specific conditions of emergence and as 'things' with specific relations and transformations, how are we to understand the archive? According to Foucault's method, it can no longer be a mere collection of printed material, hanging around in libraries solely by virtue of its material inertia. Nor can it be thought of, on this method, as a record of cultural meaning or a transcription of a set of individual consciousnesses. Any of these descriptions would violate the attempt to describe historical statements solely in and of themselves, at the level of the statement; such descriptions stray beyond the level of the historical a priori.

Foucault's answer is to consider three ways in which the historical archive is usually understood, and to replace each of these descriptions with one that is more positive (i.e., less dependent on hidden continuities or abstractions). First, the archive can no longer be seen as an 'infinite transparency' in which a historical consciousness or 'spirit of the times' can be seen through all of the various statements. Statements, again, are the level at which Foucault's analysis must proceed; they can never be analyzed in the interest of something on a different level. Foucault therefore rejects the model of a transparent archive, in which a 'plethora' of spoken and unspoken statements reveal a single historical 'totality' beneath them. His method will deal with an archive of 'rarity,' in which the historian analyzes the statement in its conditions of uniqueness. Each statement is 'rare,' because only that statement can occupy its specific position in a discursive formation.

Second, Foucault rejects an understanding of the archive as an expression of an individual or collective consciousness. We are familiar with this rejection from the theory of the statement, but here Foucault frames the question slightly differently, in terms of interiority and exteriority. The Foucauldian archive is composed of statements that exist solely in an exterior space, without dependence on a subjective, interior consciousness or a hidden (interior) meaning. In fact, Foucault notes, the exteriority proper to the level of the statement is so pure that it is almost a paradox, since there is no interiority against which that exteriority can be defined. These considerations mean that the description of the archive as a kind of memory (whether individual or collective) is no longer valid.

Finally, Foucault rejects any understanding of the archive as the 'accidental…prolongation of an existence originally intended solely for the moment.' Instead, the accumulation of statements in an archive is itself a highly variable and describable process, dependent on the shifting rules of different discourses and on the institutions that those discourses define. Statements also accumulate or disappear based on the network of other statements with which they are involved; statements recur as citations, for example, or even as examples of things once said but since disproved.

The archive, then, loses its identity as a musty collection of documents that refer to a hidden history. In Foucault's hands, it is brought to life in the wholly visible, discursive processes of which it is constituted. It is no longer a collection, but a system, the 'general system of the formulation and transformation of statements.' The archive thus becomes less distinct from history itself, since history itself is no longer to be sought outside of the statements that form the archive. The archive also becomes something much less familiar than a set of texts that tell us about ourselves as we were and are. The archive that is the system of our present statements is too close to us for us to see it clearly; thus, we only ever know the archive in its distance from us, in the distance of its statements from those we make now. It is this fact of difference that enables the Foucauldian historian to work on the archive at all, and so for Foucault it is a central lesson of history: the difference of the archive 'establishes that we are difference, that our reason is the difference of discourses, our history the difference of times, our selves the difference of masks.'

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Sociology student

by imsocoollalala, September 28, 2013

The study guide doesn't make things easier to understand.

discursive?

by LillyK13, October 02, 2013

I'm really having a hard time understanding what "discursive" means... This isn't helping me at all.

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