The Ledge of Knowing: Foucault’s Indefinable Definition-by-way-of-Discourse

At last I ‘ve crested the next-to-final hillock in the Archaeology of Knowledge by Foucault.  And, finally I ‘m met with a definition of knowledge – so long as I ‘m willing to rearrange the idea of ‘definite’ that is.  Consequently, should I ever step over the ledge that is publishing, I’ll either begin my pagination at p. 182 or put off defining the most important elements of my discourse until the penultimate chapter.  But would n’t it be more properly in line with ‘holism without the whole’ to leave the definition nothing but a sketch, a series of examples?  Oh wait, that ‘s kind of what Foucault did.

This group of elements, formed in a regular manner by a discursive practice, and which are indispensable to the constitution of a science, although they are not necessarily destined to give rise to one, can be called knowledge.

~Archaeology (1972), Pantheon Books, New York (translated by A.M. Sheridan Smith) p. 182

Finally, whew – we ‘re done.  There ‘s nothing more to see here; we can all go home now and ponder how best to apply Foucault’s historical apparatus(es).  Or wait, maybe he ‘s not done.

Knowledge is that of which one can speak in a discursive practice, and which is specified by that fact:

~Ibidem

And now we know where he ‘s going with this; knowledge is the product of discursive practices – many of which Foucault is sure to enumerate.  Oh, and ‘knowledge’ is n’t so much a product of discourse, but the limits made possible by discourse – the possible selections to be made within the pronounced and silent aspects of discourse.

…the domain constituted by the different objects that will or will not acquire a scientific status (the knowledge of psychiatry in the nineteenth century is not the sum of what was thought to be true, but the whole set of practices, singularities, and deviations of which one could speak in psychiatric discourse);

~Ibidem

Okay, that ‘s a helpful illustration.  To possess knowledge in a given field of study is to know the language of study in which that field operates such that you recognize (as a grammarian) abusive or acceptable forms or facts within the realm of that knowledge.  And continue the expositio:

…knowledge is also the space in which one the subject may take up a position and speak of the objects with which he deals in his discourse (in this sense, the knowledge of clinical medicine is the whole group of functions of observation, interrogation, decipherment, recording, and decision that may be exercised by the subject of medical discourse); knowledge is also the field of coordination and subordination of statements in which concepts appear, and are defined, applied and transformed (at this level, the knowledge of Natural History, in the eighteenth century, is not the sum of what was said, but the whole set of modes and sites in accordance with which one can integrate each new statement with the already said);

~Ibidem, pp. 182-183

So knowledge is not merely passively seeing errors and regularities in discourse, but speaking in the locus of that discourse.  Those privileged enough to be recognized by society as having authority to speak in medical discourse then execute its judgments according not only to the facts but to the space that knowledge inhabits.  I.e. they exercise knowledge within that locus by way of interacting according to the discursive limits which constitute that knowledge.

Knowledge as the field of coordination/subordination would mean that knowledge is n’t simply the available possibilities within discourse, but knowledge is also that thing which limits/enables/categorizes such possibilities.  I.e., instead of describing points of discourse A or -A, knowledge specifically decides how what is said of A/-A is to be not only viewed but applied within the system of knowledge.

lastly, knowledge is defined by the possibilities of use and appropriation offered by discourse (thus, the knowledge of political economy, in the Classical period, is not the thesis of the different theses sustained, but the totality of its points of articulation on other discourses or on other practices that are not discursive).  There are bodies of knowledge that are independent of the sciences (which are neither their historical prototypes, nor their practical by-products), but there is no knowledge without a particular discursive practice; and any discursive practice may be defined by the knowledge that it forms.

~Ibidem, p. 183

We ‘ve already touched on how knowledge consists of the possible points of discourse, but also as the aspects of discursive practice which limits their possibility and application; the domain of possibility, the possibilities, and that which allows them to take part in knowledge.

I do n’t pretend to have understood this perfectly (and given the title of this blog, I should hope that such expectations would be diminished), but while I have some clue, having waded through the prior pages so that I can appreciate the embeddedness (to use a term I better understand when applied to Heidegger’s Ontology – Hermeneutics of Facticity) or perhaps better, what it means for Foucault to speak of something ‘discursive’.

Basically (so that my misunderstandings may remain small or forgivable), Foucault wishes to consider history without letting the historical project serve or lend itself to the ‘sovereignty of consciousness’.  Should we be able to extricate one history (either as the sum to which events and technologies at last lead or as the constant, unchangeable flow which those events serve), it will serve this telos.  Yes, writing histories is both political product and that which alters the political discourse by participating within it.  But if we can look at history as histories, as pieces of events as they relate to the other events and not to some Geist or theme, our results may perhaps avoid serving those ends.

So Foucault looks to encounter history as discourse through discourse, by not only entering the conversation to chronicle what was said, but as those mechanisms which limited the conversation, as those items which deviated from the conversation, and as those mechanisms which led to the conversation being held according to such determinations.  In doing so, the product should fail to serve the ends of the ‘sovereignty of consciousness’ because we cannot speak of one ‘product’ but rather the production, production mechanisms, and those items which could not have been produced.  Instead of ‘history’ we have ‘histories of’: histories not of thought but of that which led to thought and those thoughts excluded and the rationality that led to their exclusion.

It is in this sense that knowledge is neither to be spoken of as the object which history seeks to uncover, nor the sum of facts.  Instead, knowledge is the ways we speak about objects and the ways we are n’t allowed to speak.  Knowledge is that which tells us what is understanding and what is misunderstanding, the positions taken, the fields constituting those possibilities, and the mechanisms which change.

 

But the simplest thought to be extricated is simply that knowledge cannot be removed from discourse – for it both serves discourse and is its result (whose value is derived solely from the discourse which it adds or detracts from).  This ghastly ledge descries that horrifying limit which separates knowing from unknowing, but it also is that which exaggerates the dangerous verticality of the separation; the Separationist movement which excludes, but that which will lead one to at last construct a step-ladder with which one may explore the limit that gives knowledge its edge.

If we are to take Foucault seriously, to misunderstand him in the small sense by way of the best available misunderstandings, we will not be so caught in the eschatological vision that we forget that this reaching into the abyss not only will lead to the extension of knowledge in overcoming its limits but also the unseen return which shall yet constrain it in the unseen.  But the purpose here is not to discredit all attempts at understanding – rather it is to cause us to consider what understanding truly is so that we might avoid serving misunderstanding in the pursuit of attaining that knowledge.  Surely to reveal is also to re-veil, but that does not negate the value of seeking revelation.

 

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