Michel Foucault (Part Two): The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969)

By Jeanne Willette

foucault_archaeology of knowledge_Like many French intellectuals, Michel Foucault witnessed the now-legendary days of May, 1968 in which the students and later the proletariat or working class rose up against the forces of law and order, against oppressive institutions and against post-war materialistic society itself. During a dramatic month, French society itself seemed to be hanging in the balance, caught between total breakdown and a break away into a new future. Foucault held a prestigious chair in history at the Collège de France and was part of a network of patronage within a system that was rapidly becoming more institutionalized. The old free-wheeling ways of academic freedom and intellectual development among café convocations came to an end with the wave of post-War rise of the university system. Foucault remained, nevertheless, a freewheeling individual, moving back and forth from between Paris and Berkeley where he enjoyed the pleasures of the bathhouses of San Francisco. His life was marked by a suicide attempt, a nervous breakdown, and a police file when he was accused of theft as a student. He was institutionalized and eventually died of AIDS, a disease that was acknowledge in France and denied in America.

Foucault witnessed one of the great events of 20th century French intellectual life, May 1968 and saw its results: the incarceration of intellectual thought in the university. The revolutionaries were caught up in a revolution for which there was no plan of action and without direction the explosive situation fizzled into the status quo.  Charles de Gaulle and his minions regained control and observers, such as Foucault, noted the cooperation of the media with the government in conveying approved information.  Knowledge, Foucault realized, was intertwined with power and the spectacle of the exercise of power during the month of May changed his approach to history.  The grand ideals could not longer be legitimized and the Enlightenment categories failed to come in close contact with reality. The events of May 1968 or “soiyant huitard” created a political opening for transgressive writing. As a result of his experiences as witness to a failed revolution, Foucault took up transgressive writing to disrupt the notion of language as a set of representations, which mirror the world.  He re-looked at the familiar, at the social institutions that (de)form our lives in order to put the audience through the ordeal of de-familiarization. Foucault had long been concerned with how various aspects of culture evolved, but his mature work rejected traditional ways of writing history and became something he called “archaeology.”

The archaeological approach to the past was part of Foucault’s attempt to find a way out of the Marxist explanation of historical forces. For the post-war generation of disillusioned French scholars, the other fortress that needed to be taken was that of Marxism. The failure of Marxist theory and the extent of its limitations became glaringly clear during the events of May 1968. Disillusioned intellectuals emerged from the wreckage of Marxism with an undiminished need for a tool to critique society and Foucault and Barthes were part of that shift in that they understood that the Marxist mode of production had become irrelevant. It was the Mode of Information, as Mark Poster termed it in his (now outdated) 1990 book, The Mode of Information: Poststructuralism and Social Content, that became the key element in social control.

Roland Barthes (1916-1980) was well aware of the role the ordinary discourses, such as mass media, of everyday life played in shaping the public mindset and how these semiotic mechanisms were deployed to to control group thinking. The old form of Marxism had placed the locus of exploitation and alienation in the workplace, but by the late 20th century, it was becoming increasingly clear that oppression was dissipated and existed at many levels, from the family to knowledge itself. Of course oppression had always existed in these sites, but the resulting alienation of women in the family, for example, had always existed but once intellectual attention shifted from class to a more precise view of a complex social world, the old Base-Superstructure model was inadequate.

Once it was clear that it was clear that history had no goal and once it was clear that history was enmeshed in language, the question ceased to be what happened? but how did it became possible to make certain statements at a certain time? The answer did not lie in the historical context, for the search for “origins” had changed over the course of the century. Thanks to Structuralism, it was understood that there was no origin in the singular. There was no one point in time, such as in Greek tragedy, when a human event occurred, like Oedipus killing his father, that could be seen as one event that was preceded by other events and that led to subsequent events. There could only be a certain historical period when a certain social practice manifested itself out of, not one event, but many events. What was significant was not that the practice emerged but that at some point of time it became possible to speak of this condition. Therefore there was no origin, only discourse.

Nothing can come into being, except through language, and discourse is language. Therefore, all objects must necssarily be discursive or formed out of language.  “Archaeology” is the treatment of the human sciences as an object of discourse or a discourse-object, without regard to their presumed external “value.”  The discourse object is neither true nor untrue; it is an object to be studied from a stance of neutrality as to truth or meaning.  In other words, the archaeologist studies not so much the object itself, but how the object was constructed out of discourse. The mechanics of discursive formation, as it were, and how the discourse was created had to be studied without being concerned about what “truth” content the discourse might or might not contain. This was an intellectual move that re-directed the way in which historians treat documents, meaning that if what was analyzed was the mechanisms of creating a discursive object, then the intellectual would be “disengaged” and critique would be re-located to mechanics and away from effects. The subsequent disempowerment of critique would be remedied in Foucault’s later work and The Archaeology of Knowledge should be understood as the second in a series of steps to rethink “history.”

Just as The Order of Things sought, on one hand, to make the past strange while creating a “history of the present,” on the other hand, The Archaeology of Knowledge distances the discursive object, distances it in order to make it strange–to alienate the concept or “serious discourse” from the observer. Although these two books can be seen as a sequence, first, establishing the end of the self dissolved in a new episteme and then second, examining the consequences of the disappearance of the active human agent which is a non-humanistic version of history. Between the two volumes, traditional history was severely challenged by Foucault, who said,

The document, then, is no longer for history and inert material through which it tries to reconstitute what men have done or said, the events of which only the trace remains; history is now trying to define within the documentary material itself unities, totalities, series, relations. History must be detached from the image that satisfied it for so long..history is that which transforms documents in to monuments..history aspires to the condition of archaeology to the intrinsic description of the monument.

This shift in perspective or point of view, from taking monuments and turning them into documents to turning documents into monuments would mean that, for example, instead of using records of slavery to tell the story of slavery in the South one would examine the documents themselves to see how and under what conditions these documents “describe” slavery.

The monumentalizing of documents or the archaeological effect had important consequences: the surface effect which replaces continuity with distinct elements that now need to be organized in a series to find the appropriate relations. The result of focusing on elements, discontinuity is made obvious and the discontinuity itself or the gaps becomes the object of study. With the end of continuity, the idea of total history also disappears and something Foucault called “general history” emerges. This general history is quite at odds with the expected mode of document reading. Foucault went to great length (literally many pages) to explain what he was not doing: he would not “interpret” the contents nor attempt to deduce the intention of the writer. Instead, as with Structuralism, the author disappears so that the discourse can be foregrounded. As Foucault wrote, “We must grasp the statement in the exact specificity of its occurrences; determine its conditions of existence, fix at least its limits,  establish its correlations with other statements that may be connected with it, and show what other forms of statement it excludes.”

Foucault’s concept of discursive formations was perhaps his most fruitful contribution to the humanities. His former professor Georges Canguilhem (1904-1995) felt that Foucault’s archaeological methods constituted an historical a priori for knowledge or the precondition for knowledge. Knowledge is a metaphysical emanation of a “truth,” but the result of a series of statements (enounce or systematic statement) that may not be continuous but are related and eventually form a “discourse” over time, and that discourse becomes “knowledge.” Many scholars adopted Foucault’s ideas. Canadian scholar Ian Hacking became part of a Foucauldrian group of scholars in many areas who used Foucault’s ideas that knowledge was a construction of discourses and that these discourses which shape the world, arbitrarily through the language, construct society. In his 2006 essay “Making up People” in the London Review of Books, Hacking examined the emergence of various types of psychological “disorders” through discursive formations.

In Rules of Art (1992), Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) was another scholar who profited from using Foucauldrian methods in the study of the avant-garde in Paris during the 1830s. One scholar, Hacking, is interested in how discourses form people; the other scholar, Bourdieu, was concerned with how discourse formed cultural attitudes. One of the better known examples of a study of a discourse was Edward Said’s (1935-2003) Orientalism (1978), in which the author asserted that the “Orient” was a Western or Occidental discourse formed for the purposes of dominating the East. Said was the most overtly “structuralist” of these authors and violated Foucault’s strictures against Structuralism by setting up a formal opposition between the “East” and the “West.”

Foucault expended a great deal of space in setting up how and under what linguistic–not social or cultural–circumstances a discourse would be formed. He began with the “enunciative function” in which statements are made and related to one another. The “author,” Foucault cautioned “is not identical with with the subject of the statement,” a point he made over and over. The guide must be whether or not a sentence is a proposition or not and he pointed out that a sentence should not be analyzed in isolation. The sentence becomes a statement only when it is part of an associated field. As Foucault stated, “There is no statement that does not presuppose others; there is no statement that is not surrounded by a field of coexistences, effects of series and succession, a distribution of functions of roles.” The  subsequent “objects” as Foucault called them are placed in “a domain of coordination and coexistence” where they are placed in a space “in which they are used and repeated.” This space is, for Foucault, is “the operational field of the enunciative function.”

The next stage is the organizations of these statements into a “discourse,” which Foucault described as “a group of verbal performances,” “a group of acts of formulations, a series of sentences or propositions.”“A discourse,” Foucault stated, “is constituted by a group of sequences of signs,” which demonstrate “assigned particular modalities of existence.” He further described the function of this series as a “discursive formation..the principle of dispersion and redistribution of statements that “belong to a single system of formation.” Foucault described “that whole mass of texts that belong to a single discursive formation” as the historical a priori, a term he employed in order to shake off the old fashioned notion of a “history of ideas.” Foucault was concerned with “positivity” or what we would also call productivity that produced discursive formations, which are objects and not ephemeral “ideas.” But then Foucault has to determine the “rules” that create a discourse, but he sidesteps once again and formulates, not rules, but the “archive” or “that which determines that all things said do not accumulated endlessly in an amorphous mass..” The archive “defines at the outset the system of enunciabiltiy” and “the system of functioning.” 

The archive is closely linked to “archaeology” and Foucault laid out his steps carefully leading up to describing his method. Given that the archive exists at the level of what he called “practice,” that practice enabled “statements both to survive and to undergo regular modifications, the archive “forms the general horizon to which the description of discursive formations,” which Foucault explained must be uncovered in a search called “archaeology.” Archaeology “designates the general theme of a description that questions the already-said at the level of its existence: of the enunciative function that operates within it, of the discursive formation, and the general archive system to which it belongs. Archaeology describes discourses as practices specified in the element of the archive.”

Foucault ended his book on archaeology by expressing his doubts on the concept of the “author,” an issue that he would take up quickly. The author is not exactly eliminated but must be understood as the agent of a series of statements that in their turn must be properly placed within a discourse. The author is part of a larger practice and is subsumed under the task of examining the rules that allowed the discourse to form. Foucault also expressly distanced himself from Structuralism. Although throughout the book, he used linguistic and semiotic language, discussing sentences, statements and so on, Foucault’s intention was to denounce the Formalism of Structuralism. What he was trying to do was to move away from the major project of Structuralism which was the reading of specific documents and analyzing them through a “close reading” or a Formal analysis. Far from examining the “structure” of the discursive formation, Foucault examined the “practices” or the dynamics of how discourses were formed over time and the mechanisms of their placement (the rules that allowed them to exist) in the archive. Archaeology sought to redirect the gaze of the historian away from the “history of ideas” to the ways in which certain speech acts were gathered together into a specific practice.

Foucault’s position needs to be understood in relation to what he is “not” writing about.  Reading Foucault always involves wading through many sentences that state what he is not doing in order to find a sentence that states what he is doing.  The negative sentences will outnumber the positive sentences.  Foucault’s rather backwards approach–that of backing into his position–is necessary because he must clear away the rubble of past methodologies.  What Foucault is not doing is traditional history.  “History” is not a natural phenomenon but a cultural construct.  We all have a “past”, but the “past” is simply a random un-patterned cacophony of non-events and non-incidents until this jumble of moments is taken up by a historian and is constructed into something called “history.”

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Jeanne Willette

Jeanne Willette

Art historian and art critic, Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette lives and works in Los Angeles. An art historian at Otis College of Art and Design, the widely published author covers the local art scene and is the publisher of the website Art History Unstuffed. With an international audience, this website and its accompanying podcasts provides the 21st version of learning about art, history, philosophy and theory. Synthesizing the most updated research and commentary on topics in modern and contemporary art and theory, the website issues weekly posts which explain challenging concepts for an audience of art history peers and advanced students of art and philosophy. Designed to built knowledge for the reader, the posts are arranged chronologically and categorically. Beginning art history students are invited to view a series of almost thirty videos, written and produced by Dr. Willette, on the survey of art, an Art History Timeline, from the Caves through Romanticism, accessed through iTunesU and YouTube by thousands of readers. In addition to Art History Unstuffed, Dr. Willette has published a book of her podcasts, Art History Unstuffed: The Podcasts is available through the iBooks. Long interested in the creation and construction of discourses, Dr. Willette has published a book on the intellectual matrix of original art critical response to Cubism, The Writing of Cubism: The Construction of a Discourse 1910-1914 and New Artwriting. Creating a Culture of Cyber Criticism, an examination of the production of knowledge in a postmodern age of “little narratives,” both available on her Amazon page.