07/12/2006 11:08 AMMichel Foucault's Archeology of KnowledgePage 2 of 10http://www.mun.ca/phil/codgito/vol4/v4doc1.html
At the beginning of
, Foucault tells us that one of his major concerns is the questioningof the document (
6). In the past, he argues, historians aimed at reconstituting, basedon what the documents said, the past from which they emanated and which has now disappeared.In the past "the document was always treated as the language of a voice since reduced to silence,its fragile, but possibly decipherable, trace" (Archaeology 6). With Foucault and the historians of the Annales school, however, the document takes on a different status. History's primary task is nolonger the interpretation of the document and its expressive value, nor the attempt to decide if it istelling the truth - contemporary history's task is to work on the document from within and develop it.History now organizes the document, divides it up, orders it, distinguishes between what is relevantand what is not, defines unities and describes relations. The document is no longer for history aninert material through which it tries to reconstitute what people have done or said, the events of which only the trace remains. History is now the work expended on material documentation (books,texts, accounts, registers, acts, buildings, institutions, laws, techniques, objects, customs, etc.) thatexists in every time and place, in every society, either in a spontaneous or organized form.Foucault writes:The document is not the fortunate tool of a history that is primarily and fundamentally
... In our time, history is that which transforms documents into monuments. Inthat area where, in the past, history deciphered the traces left by men, it now deploys amass of elements that have to be grouped, made relevant, placed in relation to oneanother to form totalities; it might be said, to play on words a little, that in our timehistory aspires to the condition of archaeology, to the intrinsic description of themonument (
7).This new approach to the document, according to Foucault, has several important consequences,the most important of which is the proliferation of discontinuities in the history of ideas. In place of the continuous chronology of reason, which was invariably traced back to some inaccessible origin,there have appeared scales that are sometimes very brief and distinct from one another, irreducibleto a single law, scales that bear a type of history peculiar to each one, and which cannot bereduced to the general model of a consciousness that acquires, progresses, and remembers.Subsequently, this notion of discontinuity takes on increased importance in modern historicalthought. The discontinuous is no longer something that the historian has to explain away. Rather, ithas become both an instrument and an object of research; it divides up the field of which it is theeffect; it enables the historian to individualize different domains but can be established only bycomparing those domains. Discontinuity has become the positive element that determines history'sobject and validates its analysis.Emerging from this notion of discontinuity is the idea of a general, as opposed to a total, history.The problem is now to determine what form of relation may be legitimately described betweendifferent continuities; what interplay of correlation and dominance exists between them. In short,not only what series, but what series of series, or "tables" may possibly be drawn up. Whereas atotal history draws all phenomena around a single centre (a principle, a meaning, a spirit, a world-view, an overall shape) a general history deploys the space of a dispersion.Finally, a number of methodological problems arise out of this new approach to the document: thespecification of a method of analysis, the determination of relations that make it possible tocharacterize a group, and the relation of the 'signifier' (signifiant) to the 'signified' (signifie).