Part III: The Statement and the Archive: Chapter 2: Discursive Formations (1st half) 


The statement enables rule-governed groups of signs to exist, but it is not fully defined by any of the rules that govern them. This description, however, also applies both to language itself and to material signs (like typewriter keys). In this chapter, Foucault wants to ensure that the statement is not confused with these other two phenomena. There are four main characteristics of statements.

First, let us consider the example of the typewriter keys versus the copying of that series of letters onto a piece of paper. What makes the second a statement and not the first? It is not the fact that the second is a copy (since the keyboard is itself a copy). Neither does the intervention of a subject make the written copy a statement; the statement here does not depend on its origin or immediate cause, but on its relation to the keyboard series, the "relation of the statement to what it states." There must be a "something else" that makes a statement a statement, a "specific relation that concerns itself."

The statement is not a statement by virtue of its propositional content, its referent; its relationship with what it states is not the same as the relationship between a name and what it names. The statement is not governed by the grammatical rules that govern nouns or names, and a repeated name is not necessarily the same statement both times. The statement also exists prior to the propositional content of a sentence; "the golden mountain is in California" is a statement that requires us to examine its "space of correlations" before saying anything about its propositional truth or falsehood. Even a sentence that we can take to be meaningless at the enunciative level (the level of the statement) is still a statement, because its status as a meaningless statement is one of its correlations.

Thus, a given statement (in its existence as statement) is not confronted with a "correlate" in the sense of an object or person or even a state of affairs or a possibility for verification. Rather, its correlate is "a group of domains in which objects may appear and relations may be assigned." This "referential" of the statement forms "the condition, the field of emergence, the authority to differentiate between individuals or objects, states of things and relations that are brought into play by the statement itself." This is the enunciative function that defines the statement.

Second, the statement also differs from any series of linguistic elements because it has a special relationship to the enunciating subject. First of all, the subject can differ widely, not just for different sentences but also for different statements of the same sentence. Even setting aside clear cases in which the author of a statement is not the same as the subject of the statement (as in the case of an actor reading someone else's lines), we must note that the subject of a statement is never the same thing as the person who produced the statement with the intention to convey meaning. A novel, for example, though written by a single author, employs a wide range of statements with a wide range of subjects, even within the various functions of a single omniscient narrator. But the author/subject gap is not just literary. It is "absolutely general." The subject-position of the statement is an "empty function" that can be filled by any one individual; conversely, one individual could occupy many different subject positions in a single series of statements. This extremely variable subject-function is the enunciating subject, who is not identical with the author "either in substance, or in [consistent, authorial] function." This subject-function allows us to identify a series of signs as a statement.


In this analysis of the "enunciative function," Foucault is making a more intense effort to describe the unique aspect of language that he calls the statement. He does this mostly through a process of elimination, taking existing tactics for analyzing a set of written or spoken signs and showing that there is something they miss. Through this process, Foucault is also seeking to draw some boundaries around the idea of the statement, showing what it does not involve. The overall aim is to distinguish the level of the statement from the level of linguistic signs and propositions on the one hand and from the level of simple, physical materiality on the other. The statement is something in between, that Foucault describes rather mysteriously as a "something else" or a "specific relation that concerns itself."

The statement is hard to define concisely because it covers so much ground. Everything from bar graphs to contracts to the opening sentence of a novel can be analyzed as a statement. Thus, our sense of what a statement is depends less on compiling a set of specific examples than it does on taking a specific approach to the analysis of a set of signs. If we take a piece of speech or writing as a statement, what aspects must we pay attention to? What do we want to know about signs in their role as statements? Foucault, in fact, devotes most of this chapter to showing what we don't want to know about statements. We don't, for example, want to know about the propositional content of the sentence, "The golden mountain is in California," nor are we concerned with its external referent (or about whether or not it "really" exists). Instead, we would want to know about the position of this statement in relation to other actual and possible statements. Does the statement occur in a conversation? A novel? What other statements make it possible? What forms of authority does it depend on?

The analysis of statements also excludes any consideration of a human subject as a thinking, intending creator of the set of signs in question. For a given group of signs, the Foucauldian method does not ask how they resulted from an individual psychology, or what the motivation of the author or speaker was. The speaking or writing subject is replaced by an authorial function, a function that tells us from where and from what authority the statement comes without telling us anything about the actual, human author of the statement. Anyone can occupy a given subject-function, and any one person can switch between a wide range of such positions. Thus, in the analysis of the statement, we are not really concerned with 'context' in its traditional sense; the field in which the statement gains its identity is not one of physical objects and intending authors, but of positions, institutions, and above all, other statements.

There is a confusing undercurrent that runs throughout Foucault's separation of the statement from considerations of propositions and authors. The problem is that statements, though they involve much more than either of these things, are quite capable of containing both of them. When we analyze the sentence about the golden mountain, we are not concerned with the sentence as a proposition about an external referent, and we are not concerned with the psychology of the speaker. Yet these considerations can reappear at a different level (the level of the statement and its associated field). If the sentence about the golden mountain is spoken by a patient in an insane asylum, we would not, according to Foucault's method, focus on the likelihood of the mountain being wholly fictional (the propositional content) or on the particular madness of the patient (the psychology of the author). But it would still be crucial to know that the statement is, say, part of a series of statements made by insane people, or part of a diagnostic session.

The difference here is really in where we, as historians, are led when we analyze documents. Considering the golden mountain as a product of a particular psychology might lead us to speculate on what's "really" going on in the head of the author, and perhaps to bolster these speculations with considerations of statements by the same author, or again to examine similarly strange visions in other time periods. Considering the golden mountain as a statement, however, we will be led to consider its place in a different kind of field; we would look for documents written in response to the statement (diagnoses, perhaps, or vehement denials that the golden mountain exists), and our conclusions will be about the rules that define psychiatric discourse rather than about the mind of the particular patient or the actual existence of the golden mountain. Considerations of such psychological or physical elements still exist, but only in other, related statements. The Foucauldian historian takes the field of statements as his or her only and most basic assumption, and the description of statements related in a discourse as his or her only goal.

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