Foucault calls his new historical method an “archeology” to designate a kind of impersonal, objective historical analysis that replaces the interpretation of history with a rigorous and detailed description of historical discourse. Contemporary trends in historical studies have been defined, according to Foucault, by a crisis in the status of the document as the basis for reading history. How should documents be interpreted? Foucault’s answer is not to “interpret” them at all, but indeed to relocate the basic element of historical study from the document to the statement (which is only loosely bound to the specific document in which it is read).

This redefinition of the document in terms of positively describable statements (and, ultimately, positive discursive formations) means that Foucault must also redefine the historical archive. The archive, then, can no longer be seen simply as a collection of documents, and can no longer be interpreted as the collective knowledge of a given culture or period. Instead, the archive must be seen in terms of the conditions and relations that define statements and discourses; the archive then appears, to archeology at least, not as a set of things but as a set of general rules concerning the longevity of statements.

Thus, the archive is defined as “the general system of the formation and transformation of statements.” Critics of Foucault argue that the archeological method is impossibly (even obsessively) strict about refusing to see the archive as a sign of something else. Foucault wants to describe statements at a semi-scientific, archeological distance (in fact, he notes that this distance is the only thing that allows us to describe an archive accurately).

Historical statements are then taken not as signs of something else that the historian must read “in” them, but as “monuments” to be described almost as one would describe a physical artifact. Foucault admits that other kinds of analyses of language (like grammar or literary criticism) may have their own validity; he just wants to focus exclusively on the way statements arise and function in discourse. But is such a purifying project possible? Critics have suggested that this anti-interpretive, “archeological” distance of the historian from the archive is impossible, and that Foucault is ignoring the discursive conditions by which his own analysis is defined.

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