Part II: The Discursive Regularities: Chapter 1: The Unities of Discourse


The primary historical problems to be examined in this book are listed as "discontinuity, rupture, threshold, limit, series, and transformation." First, however, Foucault must perform the "negative work" of dismantling various received forms of continuity as they appear in historical work. The primary example he gives is the notion of "tradition," with its attendant themes of sameness, permanence, and origin (which is often linked with the idea of innovative "genius"). Related ideas up for critique are those of influence (the linking of ideas over time), development or evolution, and "spirit" (as it serves to associate a period with a collective consciousness, as in "spirit of the times"). In order to begin, we must replace history as it is structured by these "ready-made syntheses" with a mere "population of dispersed events." Also to be thrown out are the extant categories by which historical materials and events are divided up; this includes categories like literary genres, as well as broader divisions like those between politics, philosophy, and literature. Foucault points out that such categories are themselves historically contingent "facts of discourse."

Two of the most important categories to dismantle are those of the book and of the oeuvre. The book is a false unity because its boundaries are unstable and permeable. Is the unity of the book the same, for example, in the case of an anthology, a volume of a history of France, a transcript of a trial, or a novel? Do two books by two authors have the same relationship to each other as two books in a single cycle by the same author? What about the relationship between Joyce's Ulysses and Homer's Odyssey (on which Joyce's novel is structured)? "The frontiers of a book are never clear-cut," Foucault writes. Every book "is caught up in a system of references to other books, other texts, other sentences: it is a node within a network...its unity is variable and relative." Again, the idea of the book as a free-standing work is itself an effect of the field of discourse of which it is a part.

The oeuvre (the totality of texts by a given author) is subject to even greater instability and complexity. The name of the author is a sign attached to each of the texts, but it signifies in different ways if the text is, for example, published under a pseudonym, extant only in unfinished form, or merely a notebook. Should a translation of someone else's text be considered a part of an author's oeuvre? What about a questionnaire he or she filled out? What about works the author abandoned or disowned? In the end, the idea of an oeuvre depends on the imagination of a certain "expressive function," a process that is highly variable.

Two final, "linked, but opposite" forms of continuity must be rejected. The first is a tendency always to avoid "the irruption of a real event" by implying or asserting a vague, fundamental, "secret origin" that precedes it, "an ever-receding point that is never itself present in any history." The second is a tendency to take actual statements and "manifest documents" to be expressions of a deeper, silent "already-said" that makes statements possible. In contrast to origin, we must look for irruption; in contrast to silent movements of collective thought or spirit, we must look to actual statements, "as and when [they] occur."

These forms of continuity are not simply to be thrown out as such, but to be interrogated as effects within "the totality of all effective their dispersion as events." This field of statement-events is the field of Foucault's investigation. This project is not like that of linguistics, which is concerned with finite statements only as instances of general, "infinite" rules of language. Nor is it aligned with the history of thought, which seeks out generalized "discursive totalities." Rather, Foucault seeks to "grasp the statement in the exact specificity of its occurrence," to account for the reasons why a given statement had to be that precise statement and no other.

Even if we end up re-discovering the various forms of continuity via this new project, we will have made at least three important steps. First, we will have advanced the understanding of what a statement is, showing how it is linked to writing and speech, to its own repetitions and transformations in future statements, and to a wide range of other statements that precede or follow it, even while focusing our attention on the unique, irruptive specificity of the statements themselves. Second, we will have removed links between statements from linguistics and from conjectural histories of thought, avoiding restrictive links between the statement and the speculations about the psychology of the author. Finally, this new project will leave us free to discover new forms of continuity, this time via a set of "controlled decisions" rather than a blind acceptance of 'secret' wholenesses.

The central historical field to be addressed by this archeology of knowledge is that of science, which Foucault sees as the densest and (therefore) easiest with which to begin. More specifically, though, the field will be that of the human sciences (the field addressed by Foucault's earlier works), because it allows us to target and critique the central problem of the human subject.


This chapter establishes a twin set of partial metaphors that represent for Foucault the right and wrong ways to approach history. The first is an image of history as a realm of silence and darkness, the space in which all of the immaterial, spiritual, "secret" notions of history posited by traditional historians are supposed to move and function. The two such notions addressed here specifically are the "linked, but opposite" ones of origin and the "already-said." Both of these notions point beyond the actual, specific, material statements of the historical archive toward the "real" but unexpressed ideas or spirit that underlie them. To illustrate origin, we might think of a given statement of seventeenth-century science being read by a historian as a step in the gradual awakening of human consciousness whose origin lies in Aristotelian philosophy. Part of Foucault's point is that such an origin always recedes: that same historian will trace Aristotelian philosophy back through a lineage of human awakenings, perhaps back to Homer or to ancient Sumer. The origin always remains recessional, obscure, and "silent"; it is something un-stated that specific statements only imply or point to. The already-said is a similar notion, in which actual statements are seen to be manifestations of an idea or spirit of the times that was "in the air" before coalescing into an actual articulation. Again, Foucault rejects all of these versions of history, which place what "really counts" about history in the realm of the mysterious, invisible, and abstract ("a voice as silent as breath").

The opposite partial metaphor, representing the field of history as Foucault sees it, is a fully illuminated, two-dimensional, evenly distributed field of statements (in their material form, documents). These statements, each one fully visible, important only in what it says (not some unarticulated idea to which it indirectly points), comprise the "field of discourse," "the totality of all effective statements in their dispersion as events." The historical project Foucault performs on this field is thus "a pure description of discursive events." These two metaphors, of a dark silence and an open, visible field, must be read with a cautionary note, for Foucault never discusses them as metaphors he wants to use; they seem rather to creep into his text at its most expansive moments. Thus, although the field of statements can be usefully thought of as two dimensional (with no statement any "deeper" than any other, and each statement defined only in its relation to other statements), possible "discursive events" include absolutely anything, including the emergence or repetition of all kinds of notions of depth, origin, obscurity, and so on. The trick Foucault performs in this chapter is simply to take all such notions and make them possible things that can be read in the field of related statements, rather than tools used by the historian to understand what those statements "really" mean. The issue of Foucault's own authorship is again in the background here, particularly in light of his rejection of things like the book, the oeuvre, and author psychology as tools of reading history. With this rejection, our own relationship as readers to Foucault as author is also negated. It is as if the historian himself has disappeared along with all of the unities of discourse he's rejected. Again, for Foucault, notions of continuity in history are intimately bound up with notions of the continuity of the subject who reads history.

Unlike the Introduction, this chapter emphasizes the point that certain continuities, certain unities of discourse, may turn up again later. If they do, however, they will have taken a new, much more rigorous form: they will emerge as effects of discourse, read in fully visible statements and relations between statements rather than pseudo-mystical frameworks into which those statements are forced. Foucault's science of history, this chapter declares, is to be first and foremost a science of the statement, the document, and the field of discourse that is made of nothing but these.


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