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Michel Foucault's Archeology of Knowledge

Michel Foucault's Archeology of Knowledge

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07/12/2006 11:08 AMMichel Foucault's Archeology of KnowledgePage 1 of 10http://www.mun.ca/phil/codgito/vol4/v4doc1.html
Darren Hynes
Michel Foucault's Archaeology of Knowledge
While Michel Foucault's work has always been about the nature of power in society, his moreparticular concern has been with power's relationship to the
discursive formations
in society thatmake knowledge possible. Power here is not the conventional power of institutions and leaders,but the "capillary" modes of power that controls individuals and their knowledge, the mechanismsby which power "reaches into the very grain of individuals, touches their bodies and inserts itself into their actions and attitudes, their discourses, learning processes and everyday lives."1It is indiscourse, according to Foucault, that power is both most manifest and hardest to identify.Discourse is where everything that relates to power and knowledge, including his own work, isburied.2Thus, in his first three "historical" works,
Madness and Civilization
The Birth of the Clinic 
The Order of Things
,3Foucault examines the discourses surrounding the "development" of psychiatry, medicine, and the human sciences, respectively.I use the words "historical" and "development" guardedly in relation to Foucault's
becausehis approach is not historical in the traditional sense of the word - tracing the development andprogressive refinement of ideas in a particular field. Rather, he tells us, his method focuses ondiscontinuities in the history of thought:Beneath the great continuities of thought... one is now trying to detect the incidence of interruptions. Interruptions whose status and nature vary considerably... they suspendthe continuous accumulation of knowledge, interrupt its slow development, and force itto enter a new time... they direct historical analysis away from the search for silentbeginnings, and the never-ending tracing-back to the original precursors, towards thesearch for a new type of rationality and its various affects... ; they show that the historyof a concept is not wholly and entirely that of its progressive refinement, its continuouslyincreasing rationality, its abstraction gradient, but that of its various fields of constitutionand validity, that of its successive rules of use, that of the many theoretical contexts inwhich it developed and matured (
4). As Foucault points out, such an analysis of discontinuous discourse does not belong to thetraditional history of ideas or of science:... it is rather an enquiry whose aim is to rediscover on what basis knowledge and theorybecame possible; within what space of order knowledge is constituted... Such anenterprise is not so much a history, in the traditional meaning of the word, as an"archaeology" (
, xxi-xxii).This archaeological method, by analyzing discourse, is able to discover discontinuities in theconditions of human knowledge ("episteme"), and thus reveal the "epistemic" space, thepossibilities of, human knowledge in the past. By examining Foucault's archaeological method aspresented theoretically in
, and applied in the three historical works mentioned above,we shall see that the key to Foucault's early work lies within the analysis of the discourse ondiscourse itself.
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).
07/12/2006 11:08 AMMichel Foucault's Archeology of KnowledgePage 3 of 10http://www.mun.ca/phil/codgito/vol4/v4doc1.html
Foucault is at pains to point out that his own archaeological method of analysis is significantlydifferent from even the general history of the Annales school:Genesis, continuity, totalization: these are the great themes of the history of ideas, andthat by which it is attached to a certain, now traditional form of historical analysis... Butarchaeological description is precisely such an abandonment of the history of ideas, asystematic rejection of its postulates and procedures, an attempt to practice quite adifferent history of what men have said (
138). Archaeology rejects any notions of fixed unities or syntheses, such as continuity, book, or evenoeuvre, in order to focus on the specificity of statements within particular discourses.4This history of the discontinuous is one that relies on differences, separations, and dispersions inorder to produce a sort of map of the past. It attempts to conceive of the Otherness of the pastwithin the time of our own thought (
12). Whereas continuous history is theindispensable correlative of the founding function of the subject, in so far as human consciousnessis the original subject of all historical development and action, the history of the discontinuous is aquestioning of subjectivity in this sense.In the proposed analysis, instead of referring back to the synthesis or the unifyingfunction of a subject, the various enunciative modalities manifest his dispersion. To thevarious statuses, the various sites, the various positions that he can occupy or be givenwhen making a discourse. To the discontinuity of the planes from which he speaks...similarly, it must now be recognized that it is neither by recourse to a transcendentalsubject nor by recourse to a psychological subjectivity that the regulation of itsenunciation should be defined (
15).Humans have many different modes of speaking and it is impossible, on the level of historicalanalysis, to form a unity of these or of the speaker. Foucault, however, does not simply rejectsubjects outright; rather, he wants to demonstrate that they are not at the origin and centre of allhistorical processes; his archaeology does not appeal to subjectivity as the source of meaning inthe act of speaking. He states that, "the analysis of statements operates... without reference to a
" because it focuses on specific discursive formations at the level of what is actually said inparticular statements (Archaeology 122).The rules of the formation of a discourse, therefore, are to be found within discourse itself (
79). The analysis of the statement on this level does not pose the question of thespeaking subject who exercises sovereign freedom; rather, it is situated at the level of the 'it issaid':...and we must understand by this a sort of communal opinion, a collectiverepresentation that is imposed on every individual; we must not understand by it a greatanonymous voice that must, of necessity, speak through the discourses of everyone;but we must understand by it the totality of things said, the relations, the regularities,and the transformations that may be observed in them, the domain of which certainfigures, certain intersections indicate the unique place of a speaking subject and maybe given the name of author. 'Anyone who speaks', but what he says is not said fromanywhere. It is necessarily caught up in the play of an exteriority (

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