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The Archaeology of Knowledge

Michel Foucault

Conclusion

Part IV, Chapter 6: Science and Knowledge

Important Quotes

Summary

The Conclusion is framed as a dialogue between Foucault and a hypothetical critic, in which Foucault answers a variety of broad challenges to his project. For simplicity's sake, I have maintained this structure here in the summary.

Critic: Your method is simply a disguised, twisted structuralism, a structuralism which, in refusing to recognize itself as such, creates a slew of theoretical 'oddities.' Further, you have fantasized a discourse that does not depend on speaking subjects; therefore, you do not take account of the full range of richness and irregularity in discourse. Finally, you have removed discourse from history itself, refusing to acknowledge that it depends on actual things and events that occurred in a historical chronology.

Foucault: My method is not an attempt to move structuralism into a completely isolated region beyond its recognition. 'I never once used the word 'structure' in The Order of Things.' It is, rather, an attempt to outline an analysis that does not follow the principles of structuralism at all. And in any case, the debate over structuralism is dead, carried on only by 'mimes and tumblers.' Moreover, I did not erase the speaking subject, but rather approached the issue at the level of discourse, describing the diversity of positions from which the subject can speak. Neither did I erase history; I simply replaced the blurry, monotone notion of 'change' with a set of specific discursive transformations.

Critic: You are evading the point. Your method is problematic not simply because it resembles structuralism, but because it (like the worst forms of structuralism) attempts to place discourse on a level that totally frees it from its 'constituent activity,' its progression from a real origin and along a fundamental teleology. The subjectivity of discourse means that these factors are essential; discourse cannot transcend them.

Foucault: I'm glad you made that distinction; it is not really structuralism that you're worried about, nor is it the possibility of a transcendence of discourse over the real world of empirical history. You are really concerned with trying to maintain some sort of easy, comforting continuity (through the subject, through teleology, through causality) that structures history. You do this to cover the real 'crisis' we now face as historians: in the face of our decades-old abandonment of a transcendental historical subject, what is the new 'status of the subject?' Archeological analysis offers a new answer to this question, and does so without blending historical difference into broad, unconsidered categories.

Critic: Fine. Let's suppose those are the stakes of our argument, and that it is framed by this 'crisis.' How, then, can you claim any kind of positive truth for your own statements? If 'discourse' includes your own theories, how can you claim to analyze discourses as empirical data? Is your work really history, or is it just philosophy?

Foucault: My method does not seek any fundamental, all-encompassing, original truths in or about discourse; therefore, the fact that my method is itself situated in discourse does not compromise its claims. Archeology seeks to 'deploy a dispersion…a scattering,' to constitute discourses themselves as objects of (our) discourse. In so doing, it 'make[s] differentiations,' not transcendental truths that might be compromised by the relativity of its own discourse. Critic: In that case, you method has no claim to be a science itself. It is just another of those theories that define themselves by what they disown, putting off their definition as coherent systems for a later date.

Foucault: I have never presented archeology as a science, but I have based its theoretical description on the results of my own 'concrete research' in previous works. Archeology is not itself a science, but neither does it claim total separation from certain of the sciences, or from other specific discourses. In its operations (and aside from the 'science-objects' which it describes), it touches on questions posed by psychoanalysis, epistemology, and sociology. These are simply 'correlative spaces' to archeology.

Critic: You have given yourself a very free and open field of inquiry, while finding in other methods a host of self-imposed constraints. You should pay more attention to the conditions of your own method, and have more faith in the ability of other thinkers to challenge constraints.

Foucault: The discursive positivities I describe are not just constraints or limits, but also enabling factors. Individual initiative is not blocked by these positivities, but rather form the field in which that initiative can be articulated. It's just that I have described this field in detail, rather than accepting 'the sovereignty of the subject' in the changing of discourse.

But now I have a question for you: How can you conceive of the power of the individual to change history if that history is always a pre-ordained teleology of some sort? If you deny discourse any position in history but that of a thin layer that traces the real, deeper evolutionary process of human history, how can you have any conviction in transformative politics?

I understand why you are worried about the loss of the consciousness of the subject as the defining term in discourse. It's comforting, after all our recent discoveries about how our history, our language, our mythologies, and our unconscious are not really ours, after all the deaths of what we thought were fundamentals, we try to hold on at least to our own discourse as an immortal expression of ourselves (or at least an immortal trace of ourselves). Thus, archeological analysis is understandably painful to some people, and it is certainly a thankless task. But archeology must claim nevertheless that to write is not to become immortal, but to confirm one's own death in the transformations and disappearances of discourse. 'Discourse is not life: its time is not your time; in it, you will not be reconciled to death.'

Analysis

In this postscript, Foucault resurrects the indictments set out in the Introduction, this time in a final defense of the positivity of his method. The question about structuralism quickly gives way to what Foucault considers his real opponent in historical methodology: the nostalgia for the old, comforting continuities through which history was understood for centuries. Foucault notes the rupture that occurred in the first part of the twentieth century, in which the writing of history ceased to be dominated by a sense of the overall progress of history toward an increasingly enlightened human consciousness. This rupture produced the 'crisis' that he describes in the Introduction as centering around an interrogation of the historical document.

In Foucault's view, critics who worry about the anonymous positivity of archeological discourse are really just nostalgic for the dominance of history by the transcendental subject. This worry simply gets disguised or sublimated into a critique of archeology that accuses it of abandoning not just received unities, but any 'constituent activity' whatsoever. Archeology, to these critics, seems painfully anonymous, a description of discourse that attempts to abstract it from any dependence on real events or things or humans.

In part, Foucault can respond to this concern with a simple 'you are quite right.' He has indeed excluded considerations of referentiality or psychology from his analysis of statements and of discourse; this exclusion serves the purpose of focusing the analysis onto a set of discursive relations that have always been swallowed up by unconsidered continuities or transcendent subjectivism. But the very fact that Foucault so insistently psychologizes potential criticisms as the pained nostalgia of confused reactionaries shows that those criticisms contain a deeper threat to his method than is first apparent.

This is the threat that points out that Foucault, by showing that knowledge is contingent on discourse itself, has undermined his own authority, his own ability to make truth-claims about history. The worry is that Foucault's analyses will turn out to be 'philosophy' rather than history, that they will turn out to be nothing but reasoned speculation rather than positive description. Foucault has his interlocutor put the critique this way: 'if you wish to place your discourse at the level at which we place ourselves, you know very well that it will enter our game, and, in turn, extend the very dimension [contingent discourse] that it is trying to free itself from.'

Foucault admits that 'this question embarrasses me more than your earlier objections.' His response takes us to the heart of a problem that Foucault himself, even though he believes it is the correct path, generally frames in an existentially painful fashion: Foucault's discourse is in fact not claiming any special status outside of discourse, not claiming to be spoken from a transcendental position in which the analyst is capable of elucidating transcendental or hidden truths. His is just another discourse with another set of objects (albeit one in which discourse itself is taken as an object). In fact, Foucault has claimed from the beginning of the book that he does not even seek the status of the author; he writes 'to have no face.' This disappearance is the painful consequence of the recognition that a discourse is not a transcendent expression of the individual, or even a stage in the progression toward total truth. But it is a recognition that must be made if we are to develop a historical analysis that is not based on a nostalgia for 'tender, consoling certainty.' 'I accept,' Foucault writes, 'that my discourse may disappear with the figure that has borne it so far.'

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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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