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The Archaeology of Knowledge

Michel Foucault

Part IV: Archeological Description, Chapters 1 and 2

Part III, Chapters 4 and 5

Part IV, Chapters 3, 4, and 5

Summary

Chapter 1: Archeology and the History of Ideas

'At the moment, things are rather disturbing.' Foucault has spent hundreds of pages replacing the history of œuvres, authors, books, and themes with a history of discursive formations, but does this history really work? What is its true 'descriptive efficacy?' The first question here is whether Foucault has not simply been creating a lot of 'new fog' to cover a project that is really no different from a well-established mode of history: the history of ideas. In general, the history of ideas operates from two opposed poles. From one, it describes 'the by-ways and margins of history,' the popular, not quite scientific ways in which people understood the world. From the other, it describes the long-lasting, officially recognized, 'great themes' of historical thought. The history of ideas traces the movement of ideas and themes between these two poles. Foucault will devote the next four chapters to describing how his method (archeology) is defined precisely in opposition to the history of ideas. The four main points of divergence are on the issues of historical innovation, contradiction, comparative description, and transformation. Before he addresses these four points, however, Foucault will set out a few basic principles. First, archeology never analyses discourse as the sign for some other, partially hidden discourse to which it obliquely refers. Discourse is treated instead in and of itself, as a 'monument.' Second, archeology does not seek the points at which a given discourse gains or loses its identity in relation to the 'continuous, insensible' progression of history. It describes discourses in their differential specificity, at all points in their transformation. Third, archeology has no use whatsoever for the œuvre; it is neither a psychology nor a sociology. Fourth, archeology is not an attempt to reach back into the past and describe statements as they existed at the moment of their birth; it does not try to re-capture the elusive past. Archeology is 'nothing more than a re-writing…a regulated transformation of what has already been written.'

Chapter 2: The Original and the Regular

The history of ideas is concerned with regularity on the one hand and originality on the other. It seeks to mark the point at which a given idea was born in the midst of all the usual things said. It is, then, a discipline that always seeks origins. In doing so, it takes for granted two notions that are in fact methodologically problematic: resemblance (of one idea to another) and precession (one idea's dependence on a previous one). But statements do not resemble or proceed one another in the same way across different discourses; thus, there is no single way of plotting the origin of ideas that accurately describes the workings of discourse. Any such 'calendar' of origin is thus only relative to the systems of discourse in question.

Similar problems surround assertions that a given statement is regular rather than original, because there is no consistent way to determine if a given formulation has already been said. Statements vary from each other subtly but importantly, and two statements made at different points in history can almost never be said to be 'the same' if we examine not only their content but also their enunciative conditions. If they are found to be the same, this will be an effect of the homogeneity of the discourses in which they are situated, not a judgment on the part of the historian.

Archeology does not use any hierarchy of originality or even of 'merit.' Statements are analyzed in their 'regularity,' but this regularity is not opposed to the irregularity of other statements. The regularity of any statement simply refers to the set of conditions in which that statement is enunciated. The field of statements, on this method, does not admit of a difference between banal, repetitive statements and original moments of discovery or insight; the discursive field is not broken up by innovation, but is 'active throughout.'

The type of regularity of a group of statements (i.e., how it is regulated, caught up in a system of discursive rules) differs from one discursive formation to the next. Two statements may be homogeneous in terms of grammar and logic, but different in their enunciative regularities. Thus, 'enunciative homogeneity' is not tied down to linguistic or logical identity, although it may intersect with them in complex ways.

All this does not mean that archeology cannot describe hierarchies of statements within a given discourse. Such a hierarchy or 'tree of derivation' would place at the top (the 'root') statements that set out broad rules for the practice of the discourse; at the bottom (the tips of the branches) would be statements with a more specific range (technical improvements, minor 'discoveries,' etc). But this archeological hierarchy is autonomous both from hierarchies of deductive systems (in which one statement depends on another, more general one) and chronological hierarchies (in which later statements derive from earlier ones); it may intersect with these other hierarchies, but it is of a different 'order' altogether.

Analysis

Part III ends with a brief description of the archive, the level at which discursive formations (and the statements of which they are comprised) are put in relation to the practice of the historian. In Part IV, Foucault moves further into the realm of historical practice, attempting to show how the field he has defined leads to a unique kind of history. Foucault is testing, then, 'whether [his] machine works, and what it can produce.' More specifically, he is addressing the issue of whether it can produce something new.

The biggest threat here is the history of ideas, a form of history that seems dangerously close to what Foucault's new method would end up describing. Thus, the bulk of Part IV is a critique of the history of ideas, showing its difference from Foucault's 'archeological method.' In Chapter 1, Foucault sets out four 'principles' that limit and define what archeology can do. For the most part, these principles are by now familiar: they all define Foucault's method as one that describes nothing but discourse itself (not a hidden spirit of the times, not a broad, totalizing historical progression, not a psychology, and not points of innovation or origin).

This total dismissal of discourse as something that 'points to' or describes something else has a significant resonance in Foucauldian terms like 'archeology' or 'monument.' Such terms remind us that he is describing discourse almost as an archeologist would describe a physical artifact; although the artifact is distant from our own time, it can be described objectively in great detail, without speculation as to its inner meaning. Again, despite all of Foucault's often vindictive criticisms of other kinds of history or analysis, he never claims that the archeological method tells us everything we might want to know. Other methods simply say something different.

Although most of the principles laid out in this chapter echo principles repeated throughout the book, Foucault pushes his insistence on a positive, fully describable field toward an extreme here. He insists that the archeological method does not seek any kind of return to past events, any kind of discovery of the moment of birth of a given statement. It is in this context that he makes the claim (quoted above) that his method is 'nothing more than a re-writing.' Such a historical practice would be quite radical, since it would claim to do nothing but re-present the archive in a new form. This possibility haunts Foucault now and again, because it would mean that his own written histories are of the same order as the statements they describe. Foucault's own texts would thus become just another part of the vast, anonymous field of discourse. For now, however, this existential issue is left aside.

Chapter 2 is more specific. It addresses the first of the four issues in which Foucault will mark the distance of his approach from that of the history of ideas: the issue of innovation or origin. The history of ideas is constantly seeking after the moment at which an idea was first introduced against the backdrop of all the normal, tired, received ideas that define a given historical worldview. This means that 'original' statements are given a higher value than 'regular' or repetitive statements, and also that we must assume some criteria of sameness versus newness on which the historical importance of a statement can be judged. According to Foucault's method, none of this is the case. The archeologist of discourse avoids any valuation of statements as new, original, well-worn, or typical. If a statement indeed turns out to be 'new,' that newness must be described solely in terms of the way the statement is conditioned or 'regulated' by the discursive field in which it emerges. This form of description means that the 'archeological order' in which statements are put by the Foucauldian historian is independent from any logical or chronological order or sequence in which they might be put using more traditional methods. Two statements that seem to say the same thing in terms of their content might be found to be occupy very different places in the archeological order. It is less about what the statements 'mean' than about how they function within a particular discourse.

A different kind of history emerges when we no longer search for the origins of ideas. Rather than seeing history as a mass of normal, ho-hum statements with the occasional flash of an 'abnormal, prophetic, retarded, pathological,' or brilliant meaning, we see the whole enunciative field as 'both regular and alerted; it never sleeps.' Statements are 'regular' not in the sense of being normal, but in the sense of being 'regulated' by a specific discursive field. It is precisely this regularity that makes statements 'alert' and active, because it defines statements in terms of their active identity within a field outside of themselves.

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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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