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Archeological Field Notes from Foucault

I find Foucault to be one of the most useful theoreticians of totalizing systems of power (as I like to call them) and have found his models invaluable for understanding large-scale power structures, epistemologies, and the relationship between discourse/rhetoric and reality-structuring principles. Though I read Archeology of Knowledge after reading several of Foucault’s other works (History of Sexuality, Discipline and Punish, Madness and Civilization) it helped to clarify the basis upon which he formulates his perspective in all of his works. It is also important to understand, I think, that Foucault is not trying to de-legitimize other ways of conceptualizing history, but rather adding his own model into the mix alongside the “seamless narrative” or other linear models. Having an understanding of Foucault actually allows me to integrate other narrative strategies in a more useful way, as I can view them as strands in a tapestry, rather than searching for that which is “true” or “untrue.” In addition, Foucualt’s models have informed my work by demonstrating that even within the local formations and manifestations of history, we can see the strands of power leading to larger systems. Rather than looking for “the one true story,” understanding Foucault’s models of historic understanding of the emergence of discursive formations allows me to step back from reality structures that might otherwise be invisible because of their ubiquity and to interrogate even the most mundane of assumptions through the lens of power and function.

Below are my study notes for this excerpt of Archeology, which help to simplify this theory (as much as that is possible) into a working model to which I can easily refer.

General Premise of The Archaeology of Knowledge:

  • Foucault’s attempt to describe the method he used in first three books
    • Madness and Civilization, Birth of the Clinic, The Order of Things
  • Not a presentation of a formal theory but a description of a particular approach to history
  • Seeks to examine discourse, the “things that were said,” about and through history
  • Is presented as one approach to viewing history and does not attempt to delegitimize other methodologies
  • This approach is not:
    • …interested in linear or cause and effect relationships
    • … focused on individual “makers” of history
    • …interested in “authorized versions” of knowledge or history
    • …invested in a teleological, progressive version of history
  • This approach is:
    • Focused on the relationships between discourse and knowledge
    • Interested in the relationships between institutions, authority, and what constitutes knowledge or “truth”
    • Notes who is authorized to speak and how this affects discourse
    • Inclusive of multiple sites of discourse

Chapter Three – The Formation of Objects

  • Uses example of 19th century discourse of psychopathology
  • Instead of talking about one unified category called “19th century psychopathology,” Foucault shows how the various parts of this discourse interrelate to create a vague but inclusive “formation” that we might label such (1436-7)
  • What has ruled their existence as objects of discourse? (1437)
    • Surfaces of their emergence
      • Where are these individual differences accorded the statues of disease so that they might be analyzed?
      • Psychopathology “emerged from” such normalizing institutions as the family and community based upon their thresholds of tolerance, i.e. what they deemed “mad” and “sane”
      • Other cultural practices, such as the study of sexuality, art, penal systems, etc. are the “surfaces” from which psychopathology “emerges”
      • “In these fields of initial differentiation, in the distances, the discontinuities, and the thresholds that appear within it, psychiatric discourse finds a way of limiting its domain, of defining what it is talking about, of giving it the status of an object – and therefore of making it manifest, namable, and describable” (1437).
    • Authorities of delimitation
      • Overlapping institutions of authority for constituting object
      • Who had the authority to define, name, and delimit “madness” in 19th century Western culture?
      • In this example, medicine was the primary authority for psychopathology but shared that authority with other institutions such as
        • Penal and judicial
        • Religion
        • Literary and art criticism
    • Grids of Specification
      • Systems according to which “kinds of madness” are classified, described, and separated from other forms
  • System (so far) is inadequate for two reasons
    • It does not generate objects for study, inclusion, and classification by psychopathology
      • This is not merely the study of objects that were “already there”
    • It does not describe the relationships between the “several planes of differentiation in which the objects of discourse may appear” (1438).
      • Without links and relations, this is only a series, not a system
  • It is also inadequate to say that these are consequences of a discovery
  • The arising of whole series of objects of knowledge comes about as the result of particular relations adopted for use in psychiatric discourse
  • Complex relationships between medical authority and judicial decisions contributed, for instance:
    • As to what defines crime, its circumstances, punishment it deserves and its relationship to medical authority to deem how much responsibility an individual holds based upon their mental state, etc. Including relationships to family, community, and other normative systems, what those systems will tolerate at any given time and place, what defines pathology, sexual aberration, what is normal, what is not, and the relationships of institutions that regulate these practices all constitute a complex web of multiple discourses that comprise the formation of “19th century psychopathology”
    • There are not privileged objects of discourse, but rather a dispersal of many objects
    • It is the complex dispersal of a field of objects, then, that comprises a given discourse, in this case, psychopathology
  • Remarks and consequences:

1)    An object of discourse does not pre-exist its emergence, but rather exists under a particular set of circumstances and relationships (“madness” as a category did not exist until such and such time.)

2)    An object is not defined by its interior conditions, but rather by its exteriority, i.e. by the conditions, relationships, and other objects within its field of discourse (“madness” is not defined by what is going on inside of the “mad” individual, but rather by those around him who deem him “mad.”)

3)    Differentiate between primary relationships, secondary relationships, and discursive relationships. These relational categories interact in complex ways in the formation of discursive objects. (the relationships between, say, the family and the mad person, the institutions to which they might send him or her, and the label put upon him “as mad” by the psychiatrist are examples)

4)    These relationships are neither inside nor outside discourse but exist at the limits of discourse. (where these relationships “touch” is where discourse and categorization are created – “madness” arises at the site of the relationships between this complex network)

  • Through this lens, psychopathology is no longer a stable “category,” but rather a dynamic, contingent field of discursive relationships and dispersal of interrelated objects that constitute the formation of “psychopathology.”
    • “But let there be no misunderstanding: it is not the objects that remain constant, nor the domain that they form; it is not even their point of emergence or their mode of characterization; but the relation between the surfaces on which they appear, on which they can be delimited, on which they can be analyzed and specified” (1440).
  • Foucault attempts to differentiate his approach to discourse as not being merely the study of meanings or words, or the labeling of things with words. Words are not just rules that define “the dumb existence of a reality” but rather create the ordering of objects and knowledge.
    • “A task that consists of not- of no longer – treating discourses as groups of signs … but as practices that systematically form the objects of which they speak” (1441).

Chapter Four – The Formation of Enunciative Modalities

When examining these myriad relationships between the discourses of 19th century doctors, several questions arise: What links these discourses together? Why these and not others? To answer, Foucault sets out to discover “the law operating behind all these diverse statements, and the place from which they come” (1442).

  • First question: Who is speaking?
    • Given all of the possible speakers, what authorizes those who do the speaking?
    • “What is the status of the individuals who — alone — have the right, sanctioned by law or tradition, juridically defined or spontaneously accepted, to proffer such a discourse?” (1442).
    • Answering this involves “a system of differentiation and relations.., with other individuals or other groups that also possess their own status” (1442).
    • Also involves the specialized status of doctors within society as a whole, their function and place
      • The doctor in not undifferentiated or randomly interchangeable
      • Medical statements would not be such if they were not produced by doctors
      • The authorization of a person as a doctor authorizes them to produce medical discourse
      • This status was profoundly altered at the end of the 18th century with the rise of capitalism, industrialization, and the economic changes these brought about
  • Second consideration: Institutional sites from which the doctor makes discourse
    • The hospital
      • Constant surveillance, hierarchized medical staff, coded systematic observation, etc.
    • Private practice
      • Less systematic, less complete, far less numerous observations
    • Laboratory
      • Autonomous place, distinct from hospital, experimental
    • Library or documentary field
      • Books and treatises recognized as valid, observations and case histories, mass of statistical information, etc., that are produced by those in the medical and other fields
        • This also was profoundly modified in the 19th century
        • Rise of the importance of the document
        • Lessening of importance of books or tradition
        • Integrated the laboratory as the site of discourse with the same norms as those in other scientific fields
  • Third consideration: The positions of the subject
    • Defined by the situation that it is possible or him to occupy in relation to various domains or groups of objects
    • He (medical professional) is simultaneously or serially
      • Questioning subject – What is this madness?
      • Listening subject – What is the sound of one madness babbling?
      • Seeing subject – What does madness look like?
      • Observing subject – I will observe the mad to form my answers…
    • The various positions that the subject of medical discourse might occupy also altered drastically in the 19th century with the alterations in the perceptual field, as well as its relationship to other institutions, practices, and theoretical domains.
    • Doctors both consume and produce medical discourse
    • “If, in clinical discourse, the doctor is in turn the sovereign, direct questioner, the observing eye, the touching finger, the organ that deciphers signs, the point at which previously formulated descriptions are integrated, the laboratory technician, it is because a whole group of relations is involved” (1443).
  • NOTE: No transcendent subject as the ultimate site of knowledge – “the doctor” is a position, a function, a space from which discourse is generated, rather than “a person” in the individualized, conventional sense
    • Rather than viewing documents as arising from specific human authors, Foucault views them as coming from particular sites of relationality. It is the positioning and convergence of complex dynamics that create discourse, not a unified authoritative subject.
    • Discourse is not a phenomena of expression, but rather “a field of regularity for various positions of subjectivity” (1444).
    • Refers to a similar idea as “the author function.”
  • “Thus conceived, discourse is not the majestically unfolding manifestation of a thinking, knowing, speaking subject, but, on the contrary, a totality, in which the dispersion of the subject and his discontinuity with himself may be determined. It is a space of exteriority in which a network of distinct sites is deployed” (1444).
  • People do not create discourse; rather, discourse creates people.

Part III – The Statement and the Archive

Chapter 1 – Defining the Statement

Statements: “the atoms of discourse” (1445). Like atoms, they can be broken down further, but still constitute the basic building blocks of discourse.

Statements – defined negatively, i.e. by what they are not

Statements are not:

1)    Propositions

  • Statements are not propositions because identical propositions can have different characteristics in different discourses

2)    Sentences

  • Not a sentence because statements do not have to be “grammatically correct” to be a statement.

3)    Speech Acts (language as action; something happens as the result of speaking)

  • Not a speech act because multiple statements may need to be utilized in for formation of a speech act

Statements are also not:

4)    Language

  • Language does not exist in the same way that statements exist
  • Language abstract
  • “Language exists only as a system for constructing possible statements” (1448).

5)    Material signs (like typewriter keys)

  • May be tools with which to create statements but are not statements themselves
  • Statements are not object

A statement is:

  • “… a function that cuts across a domain of structures and possible unities, and which revels them, with concrete contents, in time and space” (1449).

Chapter 2 – The Enunciative Function

Four characteristics of statements:

1)    Enuncative level of formulation:

  • The referential of the statement is the field of emergence from which the statement arises; it is the function or action of the statement rather than its meaning or a material object to which it refers
  • The referent of a statement is not made up of things and objects, “but of laws of possibility, rules of existence for the objects that are named, designated, or described within it, and for the relations that are affirmed or denied in it. The referential of the statement forms the place, the condition, the field of emergence, the authority to differentiate between individuals or object, states of things and relations that are brought into play by the statement itself; it defines the possibilities of appearance and delimitation of that which gives meaning to the sentence, a value as truth to the proposition. It is this group that characterizes the enunciative level of formulation, in contrast to its grammatical and logical levels” (1452).
  • Example: When we typically speak, the sign is the language we use, and the referent is the thing to which we refer. The referent of Foucault’s statement is not a concrete object, but rather the field enuciative field from which it emerges with all off its inherent relationships.

2)     Particular relationship to the subject

  • Author and subject of the statement not the same thing
  • The subject of a statement is a particular function but is not necessarily the same from one statement to another
  • It is an “empty function” that can be filled by anyone
  • “If a proposition, a sentence, a group of signs can be called ‘statement’…. it is because the position of the subject can be assigned” (1454).
  • Not a matter of analyzing an author and what he said, but rather by determining what position can and must be occupied by any individual if he is to be the subject of it” (1454).
  • It is not who spoke the statement, but the function of the statement given the position of the subject of it.
  • Example: “I” did not make this statement. Anyone who is in my position could have made it — it does not have to be “me.” What is my position?

3)    The enunciative function cannot operate without the existence of an associated domain

  • Unlike sentences and propositions, statements cannot exist on their own divorced from the discursive field from which it arises
  • For a statement to exist, it must be related to a whole adjacent field
  • A statement is always bordered by other statements and exists in a relational field within and between all statements
  • All statements refer to other statements
  • “Generally speaking, one can say that a sequence of linguistic elements s a statement only if it is immersed in an enunciative field, in which it then appears as a unique element” (1456).
  • There is no statement in general or in isolation; it is always part of a network of statements
  • There is no statement that does not presuppose others
  • Example: What other statements might exist within which this statement has emerged? What other statements border this statement?

4)    A statement must have a material existence

  • The statement is always given through some material medium
  • It is partly constituted by this materiality
  • When the material conditions of a statement change, so does the statement
  • Identity of a statement subjected to conditions and limits:
    • those imposed by other statements
    • by the domain in which it can be used or applied
    • the role and functions that it can perform
  • A statement may be the same before and after a particular event, but that event may significantly alter the relationships of the statement
    • Ex: “the earth is round” before and after Coppernicus
    • Ex: Foucault’s model once linearity is no longer the dominant reality-structuring principle
  • A statement is not something that occurs only in a particular time and place, but neither is it an abstract form that can be actualized at any time, by anyone, in any circumstances.
  • It is both repeatable to be solely identified with its time/place or origin and too bound with its relationships to be pure form.
  • The statement may be repeated, but only in strict conditions.
  • “This repeatable materiality that characterizes the enunciative function reveals the statement as a specific and paradoxical object, but also as one of those objects that men produce, manipulate, use, transform, exchange, combine, decompose and recompose, and possibly destroy” (1460).

In Foucault’s method of analyzing history, the historian studies the relationships of statements and the discourse they produce. Foucault examines the fields in which meanings may happen and what shapes those meanings, rather than defining the potential meanings themselves. These leanings link Foucault to Structuralism (which looks at underlying structures in various fields, rather than the specific, individuated details) though where Structuralism is interested in similarities, Foucault focuses on differences, disruptions, convergences, discontinuity, and contradictions.

History, experience, and discourse are always in dynamic change and flow, and none of it is predetermined. Foucault’s theories reflect this movement, with the push/pull between sites of relationality, mirroring this tension and flow.

Foucault, Michel. “From The Archaeology of Knowledge.” The Rhetorical Tradition:Readings from Classical Times to the Present. 2nd Ed. Ed. Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg. New York: Bedford St. Martin’s, 2001. 1432-1460.


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