Chasing Location and Author-ship in Foucault’s Example

In explaining the work undertaken in The Archaeology of Knowledge (L’Archeologie du Savoir) Foucault relates what he is herein attempting to say with that which was said in his prior works (namely Madness and Civilization, Naissance de la clinique, and The Order of Things).  These are his landmarks for the discourse (largely about discourse/discursive practices) he would seek to free ‘from all anthropologism’ (Archaeology trans. A.M. Sheridan Smith p. 17). 

When I first read this (and the statement which follows), it thoroughly struck me that Foucault was learning the language with which to approach his research project.  But what he published was still, though released/published, a series of thoughts incomplete of themselves.  They were, as our words truly are, as likely to point the reader to the wrong stars as to provide a coherent means of navigating the waters with Foucault’s instruments.  To be honest, I don’t understand what was wrong with these works (I have n’t read them as yet and might not even then be in the proper position to see the weaknesses in his own publishings Foucault saw or was made aware of) and so won’t illustrate the specific items.  It is enough to hear Foucault admit:

It is mortifying that I was unable to avoid these dangers: I console myself with the thought that they were intrinsic to the enterprise itself…

~ibidem

The enterprise itself does not concern us here, but we must again note that it was not something Foucault was immediately able to recognize in his own writings – how to retool his language so that it better served his purposes and was free from the language used by ‘anthropologistic’ historical methods.  The succeeding lines shout loudest where I can but underline:

“[W]ithout the questions that I was asked, without the difficulties that arose, without the objections that were made, I may never have gained so clear a view of the enterprise to which I am now inextricably linked.  Hence the cautious, stumbling manner of this text: at every turn it stands back, measures up what is before it, gropes towards its limits, stumbles against what it does not mean, and digs pits to mark out its own path.”

~ibidem, p. 17 – emphasis mine

I could n’t identify more with such sentiments.  We expect, too often, in reading some work that the author’s ideas are fixed and stable (why else should they put their author-ity at stake) and probably assume that all decisions are consciously made.  Foucault exemplifies how this is not the case for he cautions the reader that he may in fact not be going about this in the best way.  He only knows that this is what can be said at this moment in pursuit of this goal.  At every moment he is questioning (and invites the reader to question) how the current assertion can be supported and what precisely that knowledge is serving.  Hence he says:

I have tried to define this blank space from which I speak, and which is slowly taking shape in a discourse that I still feel to be so precarious and so unsure.

~ibidem

Not only does he know that his research may be misunderstood (and used to serve ends of which he does not approve), he suspects that the approach he takes may counteract his purpose.  He may not only be misunderstood, he very well may misunderstand his own project!  For all energies sacrificed to achieve a location from which to speak, an author such as Foucault may find that such a location is entirely unsuitable.  It is unsurprising then that he is cautious, even halting, in his approach.

But if Foucault is unsure of his location, how is one to counteract his assertions?  He gives voice to his detractors in saying:

‘Aren’t you sure of what you’re saying?  Are you going to change yet again, shift your position according to the questions that are put to you, and say that the objections are not really directed at the place from which you are speaking?  Are you going to declare yet again that you have never been what you have been reproached with being?  Are you already preparing the way out that will enable you in your next book to spring up somewhere else and declare as you’re now doing: no, no, I’m not where you are lying in wait for me, but over here, laughing at you?’

~ibidem

Surely this is not a fair case if the author can perpetually evade her detractors by maintaining ‘I am not really there, but here – although, I can see why you thought so’.  But such maddening displays are true to life.  While we do speak from a location, we may not be the best author-ities to tell another where that location is.  It is, rather, injudicious of us to expect that a writer to accomplish his ends by way of the simplest definitions.  Instead, we find that we are grasping for landmarks by which to locate from whence the author is speaking – even as the author is attempting to do so! 

Misunderstandings then, as I am attempting to use the term for this moment from wherever here may be, might also describe such landmarks.  They are impressions by which we might just succeed in locating ourselves for long enough to utter some meaningful misunderstanding.  If such is the case, we would do best to tread lightly and think from as many locations as possible as we attempt to engage in that discourse we (and the author) are pressing for.

 

For those who would attempt to follow such guidelines I offer Foucault’s words:

I am no doubt not the only one who writes in order to have no face.  Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same: leave it to our bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in order.  At least spare us their morality when we write.

~ibidem

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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.

 

Reinforced Prohibitions: Foucault and Pre-tensions in Speaking

Foucault opens his 1970 lecture at the Collège de France, entitled L’ordre du discours, translated by Rupert Swyer as The Discourse on Language, by noting his own desire to participate in a discourse without beginnings, for such would surely be the safer prospect.

A good many people, I imagine, harbour a similar desire to be freed from the obligation to begin, a similar desire to find themselves, right from the outside, on the other side of discourse, without having to stand outside it, pondering its particular, fearsome, and even devilish features…

Inclination speaks out: ‘I don’t want to have to enter this risky world of discourse; I want nothing to do with it insofar as it is decisive and final; I would like to feel it all around me, calm and transparent, profound, infinitely open, with others responding to my expectations, and truth emerging, one by one.’

~Discourse, pp. 215-216 (published as an Appendix to The Archaeology of Knowledge (1972) by Pantheon Books, New York)

Similarly any time I begin to deliver a speech or lecture, I find it most difficult to make a beginning – to step into discourse for fear of speaking out unwittingly.  I should like far better to immediately have my terms understood with the proximal definitions I have accepted, at least within the space of my own participation in that discourse.  But such is not the case; our entrance into discourse is rightly the cause of considerable anxiety, and Foucault hones in on those items in society, operable by language, which are experienced as ‘rules of exclusion’.  The first of these is encased simply in the right afforded by or excluded from society to speak of a particular subject:

[T]hese prohibitions interrelate, reinforce and complement each other, forming a complex web, continually subject to modification.  I will note simply that the areas where this web is most tightly woven today, where the danger spots are most numerous, are those dealing with politics and sexuality.  It is as though discussion, far from being a transparent, neutral element, allowing us to disarm sexuality and to pacify politics, were one of those privileged areas in which they exercised some of their more awesome powers.

~ibidem, p. 216

Seriously.  I have been taught implicitly by society not to allow my mis-takes to cross either of these arenas.  I far prefer to note another’s gaffe, rather than to venture a full-blooded response.  Better to make our remarks quickly of the slip-tongued and move along quickly.  My treatment, therefore, shall be short.

Recall his embodiment of inclination through whom Foucault describes the desire to speak with no voice; to communicate purely on a plain of ideas where such ideas are not perceived to be final.  It has particularly occurred to me what place death is afforded in the nature of discourse.  To speak or to publish is to release hold of; as our thoughts, fed by and bred in discourse, enter the arena they are given a chance to speak or silenced on the basis of whether they are pronounced ‘within the true’ (p. 224).  So, if one is to communicate, one must step into the realm of discourse, in which being within the true is something of a moving series of dispersions; shifting in the discursive formations continues even as the systems of exclusion are modified.

Taking the tightly woven points of contact with sexuality and politics, my instinct is to refuse to treat of either subject.  If you doubt the verity of what Foucault is saying on other points, that is well enough but even a mild transgression against another’s political or sexual framework is enough to incur the wrath of exclusion; either active in the form of entering a closed discourse (where neither speaker can establish any means by which to communicate their stances with the other) or in the more active exclusion of being summarily ignored.  I so rarely treat of either subject because, like Foucault’s ‘inclination’ I would wish to speak without closing myself into one of these closed discursive loops or incurring the wrath of one in such loops whose language does not extend away from the center of such discourses.

In this address, late in 1970, he surmised that we “are a very long way from having constituted a unitary, regular discourse concerning sexuality; it may be that we never will, and that we are not even travelling in that direction. (pp. 233-234)”  Though a more generic project, the same could be said of political discourse; and therefore I find myself resisting all urges to enter such conversations because the outcomes are largely decided before a beginning can be made.  Instead I limit myself to observing those particular problems which catch my attention and wish that I had to make no beginning at all.

 

While I desire that we should be able to exercise discourse freely, the very nature of speaking out requires that we speak by means of form; and the forms provided are discursive, and therefore limiting.  I do not possess the energy to engage in the necessary discourse about our discourse because in uttering such a desire, my energies are soon spent in defining everything I am not trying to say.  In such cases, it is far more prudent to choose to be misunderstood so that another is unsure of precisely from which discursive practice my thoughts originate.  When this is achieved, the result is to nudge the respondent unwittingly toward the discourse about discourse; that which might yet prove productive if only we might step a little away from our current definitions.  Misunderstanding therefore may serve as a tool in discourse, not to escape it, but to step to the periphery while evading the defense mechanisms inherent therein and thus lean towards that conversation really worth being had, particularly about subjects so central to our cultures as sexuality and politics.

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.