A Study in Discontinuity

While recalling little of my last match with Foucault, I barely remember tapping on the mat from that stunted encounter with the Archaeology of Knowledge, still the outline of that which has bested me calls for action.  At last I am equipped to make a beginning where before I had sadly wandered into the wrong arena.  (On a side note, anyone looking to hire someone to narrate significant moments in their life should probably look me up; after all, I don’t believe I minced that metaphor too poorly).  So, for those requiring translation, again I am summoning my meager intellectual prowess in hopes of successfully coming to the other side of Archaeology with some sense of what I ‘ve just ingested.

On the misunderstanding end of things, I am rather inclined to put forward that I ‘m happy to come up a little short here.  Not finishing won’t do for me this time, but we should not judge the quality of our reading by the page count nor by how much of the Stanford Encyclopedia’s synopsis we can critique.  Somewhere in the middle, in the tensions of becoming, a work like this may hint at some significance worth an improved understanding.  Foucault’s words may have painted a picture my poor mind cannot yet grasp, but the way to understanding, I still believe, is through misunderstanding worthy subjects.  Foucault is at least worth disagreeing with, but to agree or disagree first requires a preliminary (mis)understanding.

So now to that which has I find both inspiring and confounding.  At the opening Foucault descries how the values behind the interpretive frameworks of traditional history and the traditional history of ideas (i.e. histories of science, philosophy, thought, and of literature) are encountering the ‘phenomena of rupture’ – that of discontinuity (Archaeology, 1972: p. 4 [trans. by A.M. Sheridan Smith]).  Whereas historians have established the “great continuities of thought…the solid, homogeneous manifestations of a single mind or of a collective mentality” as their science has been “striving to exist and to reach completion at the very outset”, those tracing the history of ideas have been turning toward the ‘displacements and transformations of concepts’ (ibidem, p. 4).  In other words, many in the latter school were considering less the continual progression of titanic, homogeneous thoughts and significances which engulf all else than considering a ‘displacement’, something that goes against the grain, by way of various sub-disciplines of spheres in which that blip in the data showed its influence (or influenza, if you will allow the Lewisan pun).

This translates to looking not so much at the Past but at “several pasts, several forms of connexion, several hierarchies of importance, several networks of determination, several teleologies, for one and the same science, as its present undergoes change: thus historical descriptions are necessarily ordered by the present state of knowledge. (ibidem, p. 5)”  I must now make mention of where I believe Foucault’s finger pointed.  History itself is a construction, one which is at this moment the living product of present communities and receives its values from those social constructs.  History is therefore both product and producer; in other words it is not so much History as a history.  Consequently, the current historical projects are affected even as they define the effects of prior and current events.  Foucault remarks that even as the ‘histories of’ are finding further discontinuities, history itself is rejecting them in favor of stable structures (Archaeology, 1972: p. 6)

Where prior histories sought to have a document speak and reinforce the built up historical structures, a member of the ‘new school’ works on it “from within and to develop it:…divides it up, distributes it, orders it, arranges it in levels, establishes series, distinguishes between what is relevant and what is not…defines unities, describes relations (ibidem, p. 6).”  This is aptly descriptive of what I feel modern doctorates are meant to put themselves through.  Justifying your research methodology becomes a significant part of your research in many fields.

I should note in what little experience I can relate.  I ‘ve been considering my own future thesis now with the added difficulty of not only hearing what the author said and finding the internal coherence I can string together into something snappy, but also with the necessary considerations for where the voice comes from, how it relates to and grates against other local voices and wherein should I find significance: for the author’s community, for that time period, or for something closer to mine own.

This chopping, sorting, and rearranging is exhausting, but I believe the product is worth it.  See, one may misunderstand the formation of History versus histories.  Speaking of histories opens up the possibility of viewing the infinitude of events.  True, some events and thoughts stand out (they tend to stand out by contrast which is partly understood in the prior historical project) but we do the text or the event injustice to understand them in our context primarily.  We may not be able to encounter events so closely, but the truth seems to me to be that the better I understand something the better I understand the distance between myself and it.  Even as I see myself in the light of a tiny trickle of a long flowing stream, continually branching out and converging, in that moment I see distance as well.  Of course not all can be subjected to the microscopic perspective, but while the macroscopic should not be uncritically discarded it should be understood how its seeing is terribly near-sighted.  In this sense such movements in research are disconcerting and refreshing at once.  Regardless, this seems to be the distinction between the possibility of a ‘total history’ and the emergence of a general history (ibid, p. 9).

In reference to this conflict between structure and historical development, Foucault remarks: “it is a long time now since historians uncovered, described, and analysed structures, without ever having occasion to wonder whether they were not allowing the living, fragile, pulsating ‘history’ to slip through their fingers (Archaeology, 1972: p. 11).”  The introduction of the death of history is that which makes it most true to life.

Without discontinuity, Foucault avers, we would find the throne for the ‘sovereignty of consciousness’ immovable.  Time would then, at some point, predictably flow back into continuity.  The wave which rises and crashes must lead to another elsewhere.  Perhaps that was poorly chosen, for I do not mean to suggest preemptively a blow struck against causation, but certainly there is one being struck against predictability.  If Ration rules, then one has only to find the cause prior and one may predict what will follow.  It reminds me somewhat of Chesterton’s talk of determinists, but I surely digress.  In such a system, human consciousness seeks power by way of understanding the inevitable flow of history.  As I tend to appreciate those who poke holes in arguments for causation (or really, understanding causation simply by any means), I ‘m left considering how knowledge and power are interrelated.  More particularly, I wonder how history itself is not only the product of the powerful, but also the means of effecting its intentions.

How might history be the language of power?

And, to introduce a criticism I may regret: how can discontinuity be spoken of except continuously?  I understand that Foucault is more describing the shifts in historical pursuits than arguing directly for a particular, and further I understand (or perhaps thoroughly misunderstand) that speaking of discontinuity requires one to consider the effects of discontinuity on various threads.  In so doing, perhaps what is observed is the flaws in continuity.

Misunderstanding Orthodoxy

Mysticism keeps men sane.  As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you have morbidity.  The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic… He has always cared more for truth than for consistency.  If he saw two truths that seemed to contradict each other, he would take the two truths and the contradiction along with them…  The whole secret of mysticism is this: that man may understand everything by the help of what he does not understand.  The morbid logician seeks to make everything lucid, and succeeds in making everything mysterious.

~Gilbert K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Image Books, Garden City, NY: 1959) p. 28

I recall recently having a prolonged discussion concerning the nature of evil in which, after laying out many facets concerning the reality of evil, I considered one theory in contrast with some others and stated that I considered the theory helpful because it did n’t escape mystery.  I call it mystery because after a short while my analysis goes no further fruitfully.  I ‘ve studied evil enough to believe I do n’t understand it and have come to despise any theory which explains away it’s reality flippantly.  I especially like what Chesterton says here about understanding with the help of what is n’t understood.

G.K.C. certainly does n’t despise logic, his prose is far too careful for this, but he clearly does n’t believe that anything worth knowing can be thoroughly explained by purely logical means.  That is, he does n’t see the meaningful aspects of life through a reductive lens.  For example, one can speak of evil as insanity, and that seems to be a good place in which to consider it, but one can’t quite grasp what insanity is.  Chesterton has returned often to the theme of insanity because reason alone won’t fix insanity.  He speaks of reason as the only thing that has n’t failed the insane, stating: “For the moon is utterly reasonable; and the moon is the mother of lunatics and has given to them all her name” (p. 29).  The lunatic’s description of reality can’t be argued with, for the lunatic pays closer attention to those details they have collected, but it simply does n’t fit the whole picture.

I think most of us also have this ‘stereoscopic’ or 3 dimensional view because we look at reality through at least two dominant poles.  We understand life as more valuable because of death and we can only understand death as non-life (which makes the undead a bit confusing, or almost as confusing as arguing about Lost‘s characters’ status in relation to our world); we identify darkness as light’s absence but would n’t see light if we had no experience of the dark.  In the same vein we could say that those who can explain evil do n’t understand it.  Even if one of us could ration up all grievances by some moral calculus and prove that the numbers weigh out such that ‘the good guys and girls win’, we would notice that reconciling evil is n’t a matter of balancing an equation.  One is much better off to leave some error in one’s calculations for only so many problems can be solved by means of scratchpaper, a sharp pencil and an eraser.  The eraser might be the most important tool when considering such concerns.


But ah well, the point is clear I think that Chesterton has spoken of the healthiest understanding being one which utilizes the best view its available misunderstandings afford to it.  Although we know the image itself not to be accurate to 6 decimals, the overall sense provided is healthier than the singular view which shuts out all others by a violent show of force in logic.  We might compare such calculations with sports statistics meant to separate good performances from bad.  But these numbers are only meaningful when applied back to the game from which they derive their origin.  The numbers elucidate, but only to a small extent.  The eyes tell a truer tale, and the field tells the truest tale – as any athlete will contest.