The replacement of a psychologized, actual subject of a statement by a subject “position” built into the statement has proved one of the most transformative ideas to come from Foucault’s work. Although The Archeology of Knowledge was written before Foucault’s long, intensive engagement with issues of identity and power, it provides the theoretical ground for that later work.

In analyzing discourse in and of itself, the notion that each statement has an author becomes irrelevant (because the author is not a part of the discourse itself). Instead, what archeology finds is that each statement is coded as coming from a specific position within the discursive and institutional field. This position involves a whole host of factors, among which the most crucial for Foucault’s later work are those of authority and knowledge. The possibility of making statements that count as knowledge (or as expert opinion, or as scientific fact) depends on a wide range of discursive conditions, from the formation of specific “objects” of knowledge to the formation of “strategies” for deploying one theory against another. One such condition is that of the statement’s “enunciative modality,” the specific mode in which it is formulated as coming from a particular subject position.

A given enunciative modality (i.e., a given subject position) does not depend on an attachment to an actual author. One enunciative modality can be used by many authors, and one author can use many different enunciative modalities. The Archeology of Knowledge can recognize this contingent, variable nature of subject positions because it never looks beyond the statement to an actual, psychological author. The resulting idea, that our identities as agents in discourse are themselves aspects of discourse, has been explosively influential, yielding whole academic fields that examine the discursive constitution of identity.

This can also be a profoundly disturbing idea because it emphasizes the extent to which our selfhood is scattered beyond us rather than originating with us. Foucault’s language in The Archeology of Knowledge notes this dissociative effect: “Thus conceived, discourse is not the majestically unfolding manifestation of a thinking, knowing, speaking subject, but, on the contrary, a totality, in which the dispersion of the subject and his discontinuity with himself may be determined.”

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