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On my first pass, these are extensive summary notes as I needed them to try to be able to make any future sense of Foucault for application or understanding…I have some notes to myself to come back to along the way — but wow…Foucault, you made my brain hurt! 

Michel Foucault - Archaeology of Knowledge Book CoverArchaeology of Knowledge – Michel Foucault

This book has been cited 21,525 times according to Google Scholar.  That may be one of the largest I have seen.  I note these things as I teach about the scholarly conversation and since coming back to school, I have noticed Foucault. A lot. Everywhere.  In fact, to the point where I add a hashtag #foucaultiseverywhere with a photo tag to my FB posts as I see references.  So this term seeing Archaeology of Knowledge on the syllabus was both exciting and terrifying.

How should I approach the book?  Background reading first? Summaries so I don’t miss anything important? I chose overviews, along with my reading, trying to stop at each chapter to get the gist – but knowing as I got deeper into the book that full gists were not going to be possible on a first read, so vague ideas might be a better approach…

Oh yeah, don’t forget to apply to my OoS “First-Year Seminars”. . . so here it goes. First, summary notes so that I have reference points to come back to —

Part I – Introduction: Foucault points out that the study of history in the traditional way is being replaced by disciplines that look at histories of ideas, thought, science, literature and philosophy  where they “evade very largely the work and methods of the historian” where “attention has been turned, on the contrary, away from vast unities like ‘periods’ or ‘centuries’ to the phenomena of rupture, of discontinuity” (4).

He sees history studied traditionally as a focus on “linear successions” — that study of “long periods” that attempt to

“reveal the stable, almost indestructible systems of checks and balances, the irreversible processes, the constant readjustments, the underlying tendencies that gather force, and are then suddenly reversed after centuries of continuity, the movements of accumulation and slow saturation, the great silent, motionless bases that traditional history has covered with a thick layer of event.” (3)

So, rather than continuities that look for patterns, it is the “interplay of transmissions, resumptions, disappearances, and repetitions” that become the points of study (5). BUT – he stresses that it isn’t one type of focus over another, “that these two great forms of description [continuities and discontinuities] have crossed without recognizing  one another” (6) – because the problems are still on “the questioning of the document” (6). Instead of looking for the continuities – the interpretation that provides the truth, there is a push to “work on it [the document/text] from within and to develop it”:

“history now organizes the document, divides it up, distributes it, orders it, arranges it in levels, establishes series, distinguishes between what is relevant and what is not, discovers elements, defines unities, describes relations.” (6-7)

“history, in its traditional form, undertook to ‘memorize’ the monuments of the past, transform them into documents, and lend speech to those traces which, in themselves, are often not verbal, or which say in  silence something other than what they actually say; in our time, history is that which transforms documents into monuments. In that area where, in the past, history deciphered the traces left by men, it now deploys a mass of elements that have to be grouped, made relevant, placed in relation to one another to form totalities.” (7)

Foucault attempts to clarify his aims in the Introduction.  He writes he is not trying to put a “structuralist method” on the study of history or “use the categories of cultural totalities” to impose “forms of structural analysis.” Instead, he is posing ways to “question teleologies and totalizations” and “freed from the anthropological theme” look to “historical possibility” (16).

Terms: Interruptions, displacements, transformations, epistemological acts and thresholds, discontinuity, convergence, structuralism 
Photo of Michel Foucault

Paul Michel Foucault (1926-1984), philosophe français, chez lui. Paris, avril 1984. Credits: http://thissideofsunday.blogspot.com/2013/06/readings-in-race-drama-of-race-foucault.html

Part II -The Discursive Regularities:

It’s time to rid ourselves of the negatives says Foucault – get rid of the “mass of notions” that “diversifies the theme of continuity” that include tradition, influence, development, evolution and spirit, major types of discourse and most of all – the unities of the book and the oeuvre (20-22).

Foucault sees the need for a theory, one that “must be ready to receive every moment of discourse in its sudden irruption” (25). But – what is the purpose he asks for such a theory that breaks down the established unities?  IT is the statement – with discourse as a way to analyze the statement. Discourse then becomes the OoS looking at the things said, and the statement without collective memory.

Knowledge archive – becomes another discursive effect rethinking what they are/do. If we start with the unities, but not from within them, then the forms of continuity can be suspended and the field set free (26).

Instead of chains of influence or tables of difference, look to systems of dispersion.

“Rather than seeking the permanence of themes, images, and opinions through time, rather than retracing the dialectic of their conflicts in order to individualize groups of statements, could one not rather mark out the dispersion of the points of choice, and define prior to any option, to any thematic preference, a field of strategic possibilities?”(37)

Foucault next sets out “rules of formation” for how his theory could be approached. He lays out three “rules” for how objects might have appeared as objects of discourse (40):

  1. the “first surfaces of their emergence” – when they begin to be used and how
  2. the “authorities of delimitation” – groups that are imposing the rules of structure/authority
  3. the “grids of specification” – ways the system is divided, regrouped or classified

But – Foucault grows on me as he is constantly questioning himself – as he notes from the above, that “such a description is still in itself inadequate” (42)  — as

“the problem is how to decide what made them possible, and how these ‘discoveries’ could lead to others that took them up, rectified them, modified them, or even disproved them.” (43)

He offers remarks and consequences for his proposed theory:

Conditions for saying things about an object – the same or different “are many are imposing” – and my favorite point of all –

“is it not easy to say something new; it is not enough for us to open our eyes, to pay attention or to be aware, for new objects suddenly to light up and emerge out of the ground” (43-44).

He gets it!  New knowledge, finding new things to say – it is TOUGH!  Thank you Foucault for recognizing this.

Objects exist “under the positive conditions of a complex group of relations” and they are “not present in the object” – broken down into primary (real) and secondary (reflexive) relations – with the secondary formed through discourse – and a system of relations (discursive) (45).

“Discursive relations are not . . . internal to discourse” – nor are they “exterior to discourse” – they are “at the limit of discourse” (46).  They characterize “discourse itself as a practice” (46). Foucault stresses that “it is not the objects that remain constant . . . but the relation between the surfaces on which they appear” (47).  Discourse then offers not a way to analyze an object, but a way for it to emerge through its own complexity (47).

This limit area that Foucault discusses makes me wonder how much it might be applied to liminal spaces – or boundaries, such as threshold crossings?  [Note for follow-up to see if it comes up in areas of transfer, threshold or liminiality – as all of these are relevant in first-year and information literacy studies].

“what we are concerned with here is not to neutralize discourse, to make it the sign of something else . . .  but on the contrary  to maintain it in its consistency, to make it emerge in its own complexity. What, in short, we wish to do is to dispense with ‘things’. To ‘depresentify’ them. To conjure up their rich, heavy, immediate plenitude,  which we usually regard as the primitive law of a discourse that has become divorced from it through error, oblivion, illusion, ignorance, or the inertia of beliefs and traditions, or even the perhaps  unconscious desire not to see and not to speak. To substitute for the enigmatic treasure of ‘things’ anterior to discourse, the regular formation of objects that emerge only in discourse.” (47-48)

Analyze discourses – comes from ordering of objects – not treating discourses as “groups of signs” – but – “as practices that systematically form the objects of which they speak” (49).

Foucault asks the questions:

  • Who is speaking – who has the right / qualifications to speak about a subject?
  • What are the institutional sites from where discourse “derives its legitimate source and point of application” [he brings in library here – the books, treatises – “documentary field” – later discusses archive]
  • What are the positions of the subject – such as in relation to other groups of objects?

Arrangement of the statements governing things (57-58):

  • Field of presence – what’s acknowledged as truthful, criticized or rejected
  • Field of concomitance – includes other domains
  • Field of memory – statements no longer true

The procedures of intervention aren’t the same for all – there is a preconceptual level – anonymous dispersion through texts, books, oeuvres – “compatibility of differently opposed systems” (61).

Important to look at how the theories and themes  — the strategies are distributed in history – was is successive or chance?  Was there regularity? (64)

Foucault points to the direction of his research (65) through his previous writing, establishing his methodology for why he did/didn’t write/explain things in his previous books. For this book, his research is to

  1. Determine the possible points of diffraction of discourse – points of incompatibility, points of equivalence, alternatives, link points of systematization.
  2. Specify the authorities that guided his choices, as no all of the alternatives could be realized. Choices made – through principle of exclusion and principle of the possibility of choices.
  3. Choices dependent upon authority – function – carried out “in a field of non-discursive practices” and “rules and processes of appropriation,” as well as “possible positions of desire in relation to discourse” (68). [Within this authority is also a power dynamic – how would this apply to the authority and practices applied within FYS?]

Foucault does not see an ideal discourse or “natural taxonomy that has been exact”  — stressing that “one must not relate the formation for theoretical choices either to a fundamental project or to the secondary play of opinions (70).

His section of “Remarks and Consequences” (71) was like a breather chapter where he asks the questions of his own writing, trying to explain his whys, and provide counter interpretations. He asks if his work is worth it?

Interesting note from this chapter – Foucault points out the levels aren’t free from each other, but they are established in a reverse direction – with the lower not dependent on those above – there is coexistence, but not then co-reliance it would seem (73)?  Choices and change stood out for me here, as discourse and systems produce each other – with the concept of boundaries coming up again here as well as a “regularity of a practice” (74).

Terms: unities, discourse, formation, statement, epistemes, discursive formations, historiography, memory, objects, enunciative modalities, concepts, strategies, consequences, irruption (to rush in forcibly or violently), dispersion, interference, interconnexion, rules of formation, signs, succession, orderings of enunciative series,  dependence, coexistence, field of presence, field of concomitance, field of memory, procedures of intervention, methods of transcribing, modes of translating, approximation, delimits, systematizing, dispersion, preconceptual, principle of determination, discursive formation, dispersion of elements, preterminal regularities

Part III – The Statement and the Archive:

Foucault asks what has been his purpose – he does ask that throughout, as I imagine I can’t be the only one that had to keep flipping around in my notes thinking – what? He acknowledges he may have changed his points, or even his focus throughout, but that it is time to “take up the definition of the statement at its very root” – — starting to connect his descriptions.

So … what is a statement?

  • ”A point without a surface, but that can be located in planes of division”
  • “A seed that appear on the surface of a tissue”
  • It is “the atom of discourse”
  • “an elementary unit of discourse”

That then moves into “what is a sentence?” Are a statement and a sentence equivalent?  Foucault says no, despite that “it is difficult to see how one is to recognize sentences that are not statements, or statements that are not sentences” (82). Finally – there is no “structural criteria of unity for a statement” – as it is “not a unit, but a function” (87).

Series of signs become a statement – if they possess “something else.” The relation between the signifier (significant) – to the signified (signifie)  — “the name to what it designates” – or “the relation of the sentence to its meaning” – and the “relation of the proposition to its reference (referent) (89). And yet – the statement is not “superposable on any of these relations”  — ACK!

And this – “A sentence cannot be non-significant; it refers to something, by virtue of the fact that it is a statement” (90).

  • Signs only have to be given for a statement to emerge
  • Statements are not “confronted by a correlate”
  • Statements possess a particular relation with a subject
  • Statements can operate without the existence of an associated domain [characteristic of the enunciative function]
  • Statements are always bordered by other statements
  • Statements aren’t neutral – they belong to a network of statements (99)
  • No statements that don’t presuppose others
  • Statements must have material existence – they are “always given through some material medium, even if that medium is concealed” (100)
  • Statements should not be treated as an event from a specific time or place or an act of memory

Rule of repeatable materiality – example of different editions or printing of a book — but “small differences” not enough to “alter the identity of the statement” (102).

In defining statements – Foucault sees he has to draw from enunciative functions that bear on different units (106).  There is a performance aspect to the statement

Foucault again begins to discuss what it seems he is doing  –

I am trying to show how a domain can be organized, without flaw, without contradiction, without internal arbitrariness, in which statements, their principle of grouping, the great historical unities that they may form, and the methods that make it possible to describe them are all brought into question. (114)

Rather than founding a theory – and perhaps before being able to do so (I do not deny that I regret not yet having succeeded in doing so) – my present concern is to establish a possibility. (115)

Thus, he lays out a number of propositions about discursive formations (116-117) that establish the need for them to be justifiable and reversible, as part of discursive practice.

Foucault places discourses between the “twin poles of totality and plethora” (118).


  • Offers a plurality of meanings
  • Is both plenitude and endless wealth
  • Based on the principle that everything is never said

 Foucault points out that “Our task is not to give voice to the silence that surrounds them, nor to rediscover all that, in them and beside them, had remained silent or had been reduced to silence” (119) – so to what extent is this in contrast to Derrida and making meaning in the void – that blank space between the columns? For Foucault, exclusions are not being linked to repression. His focus in on the said, the spoken – the enunciative domain – that which is on the surface – “to interpret is a way of reacint to enunciative poverty” (120)

To describe a group of statements not as the closed, plethoric totality of a meaning, but as an incomplete, fragmented figure; to describe a group of statements not with reference to the interiority of an intention, a thought, or a subject, but in accordance with the dispersion of an exteriority; to describe a group of statements, in order to rediscover not the moment or the trace of their origin, but the specific forms of an accumulation, is certainly not to uncover an interpretation, to discover a foundation, or to free constituent acts; nor is it to decide on a rationality, or to embrace a teleology. It is to establish what I am quite willing to call a positivity. (125)

 Positivity has a role in historical a priori – which “take[s] account of the fact that discourse has not only a meaning or a truth, but a history, and a specific history that does not refer it back to the laws of an alien development” (127).

The archives are then those “systems of statement” articulated through historical a priori (events or things)

The archive is first the law of what can be said, the system that governs the appearance of statements as unique events. But the archive is also that which determines that all these things said do not accumulate endlessly in an amorphous mass, nor are they inscribed in an unbroken linearity, nor do they disappear at the mercy of chance external accidents; but they are grouped together in distinct figures, composed together in accordance with multiple relations, maintained or blurred in accordance with specific regularities; that which determines that they do not withdraw at the same pace in time, but shine, as it were, like stars, some that seem close to us shining brightly from afar off, while others that are in fact close to us are already growing pale. (129)

An archive is not the “library of all libraries” – “it is the general system of the formation and transformation of statements” (130).

Terms: enunciative function, statement, function, historical a priori, archive, signs, unity, signifie, referent, repeatable materiality, field of stabilization, verbal performance, linguistic performance, formulation, rarity, discursive practice, exteriority, accumulation, additivity, recurrence, remanence

 Part IV – Archaeological Description:

 So…what to do?  Foucault starts this part with a note that this thing he calls archaeology – “are at the moment . . . rather disturbing” (135)

While he writes that he set out with “a relatively simple problem”  (yeah right…), he has gotten out of hand as he has moved into a “whole series of notions”  that

“I have tried to reveal the specificity of a method that is neither formalizing nor interpretative; in short, I have appealed to a whole   apparatus, whose sheer weight and , no doubt, somewhat bizarre machinery are a source of embarrassment.” (135)

And he asks, are more methods needed? Is it “presumptuous” to want to add another? He has a “suspicion” that while he has tried to avoid drawing from the history of ideas, has he “all the time” been in that very space?

“Perhaps I am a historian of ideas after all. But an ashamed, or, if you prefer, a presumptuous historian of ideas. One who set out to renew his discipline from top to bottom; who wanted, no doubt, to achieve a rigour that so many other, similar descriptions have recently acquired; but who, unable to modify in any real way that old form of analysis . . . declares that he had been doing, and wanted to do, something quite different. All this new fog just to hide what remained in the same landscape, fixed to an old patch of ground cultivated to the point of exhaustion.” (136)

But he presses on – as he writes he won’t be satisfied until he has “cut myself off” from the history of ideas and “shown in what way archaeology differs” (136).

This was an interesting section, as one of the classes I teach looks at the history of ideas, especially related to technology and how knowledge/scholarship has developed. Foucault recognizes the necessity for crossing disciplines and sees the “history of ideas . . . [as a] discipline of beginnings and ends, the description of  obscure continuities and returns, the reconstitution of developments in the linear form of history” (137). It can also be seen as the “discipline of interferences” or of “concentric circles.”

So, what is the difference from his archaeology? He sees “a great many points of divergence,” but four discrete differences:

  1. Archaeology doesn’t define thoughts, images, themes, etc… revealed in discourse, but the discourses themselves – as practices obeying certain rules. Its concern is with “discourse as its own volume, as a monument” (138).
  2. Defines discourses in their specificity, showing how the rules are irreducible from any other. It is not a doxology, but a differential analysis of the “modalities” of discourse.
  3. Not ordered in accordance of oeuvres, but rather it “defines types of rules for discursive practices that run through individual oeuvres”
  4. Doesn’t restore what has been thought, experienced at the moment. It is a rewriting – a regulated transformation of what has already been written.

In his approach, Foucault is attempting to open up future exploration – distinguishing between linguistic analogy and enunciative homogeneity –uncovering the regularity of a discursive practice.  This is what archaeology is interested in – the emergence of disconnexions.

In looking for the smallest “point of rupture” – between the already said and the “vivacity of creation” into differences – there are two methodological problems: resemblance and procession (143).

Archaeology is looking to establish the “regularity of statements” as “every statement bears a certain regularity and it cannot be dissociated from it” (144).  It is not in “search of inventions” or “concerned with the average phenomena of opinion” – but rather the enunciative regularities of statements.

Archaeology is concerned with and only with – the homogeneities of linguistic analogy, logical identity and enunciative homogeneity (145) and one of its principal themes  — “may thus constitute the tree of derivation of a discourse” (147) with governing statements at its root.

“Contradictions” [Part IV, Chapter 3] pokes at coherence – and the contradictions that arise within the history of ideas’ use of it, pointing to the need for analysis to “suppress contradiction as best it can” (150).  He looks for his own contradictions in this work, asking if there are only minimal ones at the end, or if there is a “fundamental contradiction” that might emerge that might constitute “the very law of its existence” – as it is on this that discourse emerges  – as the “contradictions…function throughout discourse, as the principle of its historicity” (151).

“Discourse is the path from one contradiction to another” (151)

And in this chapter I found my AHA moment here

Archaeology is looking at how the contradictions derive from a certain domain – that fundamental level that “reveals the place where the two branches of the alternative join”  — “where the two discourses are juxtaposed”  — “to determine the extent and form of the gap that separates them.” Archaeology “describes the different spaces of dissension.” (152)

  • Archaeology study is “always in the plural” (157).
  • Its analysis is “always limited and regional”
  • Its horizon “is not a science, a rationality, a mentality, or a culture; it is a tangle of interpositivities”
  • It wishes to uncover “the play of analogies and differences as they appear at the level of rules of formation” through five tasks”
    • Show how different discursive elements may be formed on the basis of similar rules
    • Show how the rules do/do not apply or are linked, or arranged in the same way
    • Show how different concepts occupy a similar position within positivity
    • Show how a single notion may cover two archaeologically distinct elements – indicating the archaeological shifts
    • Show how from one positivity to the other, relations of subordination or complementarity may be established – archaeological correlations
  • Reveals relations between discursive and non-discursive domains
  • Situates itself at the level of formal analogies or translations of meaning (160-165)

“Archaeology, however, seems to treat history only to freeze it” (166).

  • Rules can’t be established for every statement, as such archaeology “defines the rules of formation of a group of statements” (167).
  • Not all rules of formation for a positivity have the same generality – “some are more specific and derive from others” (168).

For an archaeological history of discourse – two models must be put aside –

  • The linear model of speech – with all events succeeding another without coincidence or superposition
  • The model of stream of consciousness (169)

Instead of homogenous events that make up discourse, archaeology looks at the levels of statements themselves, their derivation, or unique emergence (170), the changes/transformations that occurred.

Responding to perceived questions that might come up, Foucault points out that

  • Archeology does not describe disciplines
  • Positivities do not characterize forms of knowledge

In the section “Different thresholds and their chronology” – this furthers my idea that there are connections to the threshold concepts – post Foucault, as well as liminal spaces – while those terms are never used here – he does forward thresholds – of positivity, epistemologization, and formalization. For Foucault, he notes they are domains for further exploration. He is pushing against a linear movement or passing through for any of these thresholds and  (186 187).  [Come back to these points for case study to align with FYS and IL].

Archaeology is concerned with not describing specific aspects of science, but “the very different domain of knowledge” (195).

Terms: archaeology, contradictions, comparative, change, transformation, resemblance, procession, enunciative homogeneity, disconnexions, regularity, linguistic analogy (translatability), logical identity (equivalence), derivation, totalitarian periodization, spaces of dissension, contradiction, intrinsic oppositions, discursive formation, correlations, positivity, threshold of positivity, threshold of epistemologization, episteme

Part V – Conclusion:

Referring to himself as “you” in the beginning of conclusion as if to speak from the audience’s response to his text – Foucault points to the “great pains” he took to “disassociate” himself “from structuralism,” echoing his original point from his Introduction (199). But here he asks, what was the benefit if he didn’t take advantage of the benefits of structural analysis? Moving back to I, he expands on his misunderstanding – of the “transcendence of discourse” and in refusing “to refer to it as a subjectivity” (200). The “you” and “I” banter continues in the conclusion – as if he is having a conversation with a critic.

He writes that he did not “deny history, but held in suspense the general, empty category of change in order to reveal transformations at different levels” (200). Foucault asks if the discourses he is following are philosophy or history (205)? He’s rather coy here – citing embarrassment in being found out – as if he wanted the suspense to continue – and to be able to draw from both – and “avoiding the ground on which it [his discourse theory] could find support.  This is a “discourse about discourses” (205).

What came across throughout the book was that Foucault wasn’t trying to dictate a new way to think or to respond to history.  In fact, he provides commentary on his own self-doubt as to what he is doing in different parts of the text, such as  the “impotence of his method” (199). He is questioning, offering alternatives and putting it all out there for discussion . . . which at the end was much more appealing for how I might start to think about my own OoS and trying on new theories.  They might work, they might not, but that’s ok.  Thank you Foucault!

Terms: historico-transcendental dominance, teleological, structuralism, transcendence, temporalization, polemics, historical phenomenology, displacements, performance, competence, correlative spaces.

Connections and Thoughts:  Too early…that is my first impression – as I read back through my notes after reading the text, writing the notes, reviewing what’s been said about the text and still – my brain hurts and I’m not sure I even see a “theory” in all of this to compare.

As I start to think about my OoS: FYS and how they tie into networks, the amount of interaction they have with the various constituents on campus – from the disciplinary faculty to the library to the writing, speech and academic skills centers, to CAPS and Civic Engagement, it’s begging for a Popplet of its own [coming soon] that I can then link out to the theories and readings that I will be starting to put together.

For this week, Foucault’s questioning and approach to history [and discourse] drew out some interesting terms I noted throughout – especially as he stressed the discontinuities and transformational offerings that looking at history – or any subject through this different lens might offer new understandings. I admit, I think linearly and when I’m asked to go outside this comfort area to visual approaches, I want to apply my linear way of thinking to a visual medium.  When Foucault writes that moving away from linear ways of thinking is his approach, it is intriguing as he isn’t offering visual in its stead, but rather ruptures and a move back to preconceptual understanding and its irruptions (I hadn’t seen that work before, but I like it!).

Works Cited and Bibliography

Foucault, Michel. The Archaeology of Knowledge & the Discourse on Language. Trans. From the French by A. M. Sheridan Smith. New York: Pantheon Books, 1972.

Gutting, Gary, “Michel Foucault”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).

Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.