The Archaeology of Knowledge

by: Michel Foucault

Part II, Chapter 3: The Formation of Objects


Foucault now attempts to give some 'real content' to the notion of 'rules of formation.' He will begin by looking at the formation of objects, using the example of psychopathology from the late nineteenth century onwards (whose objects seem range from major ones like 'madness' to minor, more specific ones like 'sexual aberrations and disturbances' or 'criminality'). The objects of psychopathology arise in different ways, and some get completely erased; all are transformed over time. What rules govern these processes?

First, we can consider 'surfaces of emergence,' the fields in which an object first arises. These can be pre- existing fields like family, social group, work situation, etc., each of which is normative to some degree, each of which has developed a 'margin of tolerance' that roughly defines the field by what it rejects (in the present example, by what it deems 'mad'). There are also markedly new surfaces that begin to emerge in the late nineteenth century, such as art (with a new, strict normativity), sexuality (as an observable field of possible deviations), and penality (in which madness and crime become linked for the first time). All of these serve as surfaces of emergence for the objects of psychopathology; they are fields of 'initial differentiation,' whose 'distances, discontinuities, and thresholds' allow psychiatric discourse to define what it is talking about (thereby creating apparently definite objects of discourse).

Second, the 'authorities of delimitation' must be considered. Who had the authority to 'delimit, designate, name, and define' objects like madness? What was the structure of their power (both in its organization and in how it was publicly perceived), and what were the processes by which they adjudicated the limits of a given object? Finally, we must analyze 'grids of specification,' the systems by which madnesses were described, separated, and classified (for the nineteenth century, Foucault lists 'the soul…the body…the life and history of individuals…[and] the interplays of neuropsychological correlations,' each system with its own organizing principles).

But this picture of the emergence of discursive objects is still only partial, because it fails to address the complexity of the relations between the object and its plane(s) of emergence on the one hand, and between the various planes on the other; none of these are truly separate from each other. To really examine the emergence of discursive objects, our focal point must be not the individual planes of emergence, but their overlaps, tensions, and relations as they give rise to discursive objects. Similarly, we will not find certain 'privileged objects' that define a discourse, but rather a dispersal of many objects. It is thus the complex formation of this dispersed field of objects that characterizes a given discourse (here, psychopathology).

This analysis generates four 'remarks and consequences:' 1. Objects do not pre- exist their emergence under certain complex, relational, discursive conditions. 2. The object is therefore not defined by its internal, conceptual nature, but by its exterior relations, its triangulation or juxtaposition with other objects in a 'field of exteriority.' 3. It becomes important to separate properly 'discursive relations' from 'primary' and 'secondary' relations within a discourse. An example of a primary relation might be the relation between the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie and the judicial system; a secondary one would be a nineteenth-century psychiatrist writing about the relationship between criminality and psychology. Neither level will consistently show us how a discursive object is formed; such levels cannot always 'superposed' on the relations responsible for the formation of objects. These latter relations are 'properly discursive' ones, and they interlock with the other levels in complex ways. 4. Discursive relations are thus not 'within' discourse itself, but neither are they 'exterior' to it; they take place 'at the limit of discourse.'

In this analysis, then, psychopathology as a provisional, reflexive category has given way to a dispersal of objects and discursive relations that cover more ground, and in greater complexity. We have been able to see psychopathology 'as a discipline in a constant state of renewal.' That discipline's constancy lies neither in its objects nor the ways in which those objects emerged or were characterized, but rather 'the relation between the surfaces on which they appear.'

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