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.

 

Misunderstanding as Distortion {and following note on Paralysis}

The conclusion to Nietzsche’s final work, Ecce Homo: Wie man wird, was man ist (How One Becomes What One Is), famously, if pathetically, cries out:

Hört mich! denn ich bin der und der. Verwechselt mich vor Allem nicht! (Ecce Homo, 1888: Vorwort 1as found in Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg2000.de/nietzsche/eccehomo/eccehomo.htm)

“Hear me!  For I am such and such a person.  Above all, do not mistake me for someone else.”  (from Peter Gay’s introduction to Basic Writings of Nietzsche (2000), Modern Library, USA: p. xiv [as translated by Walter Kaufmann])

I feel I ‘ve long been fascinated with misunderstanding, not only how frequently we misunderstand one another but how we misunderstand ourselves.  I ‘m not meaning to boil matters down to some list of Freudian urges or Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  These psycho-archaeological diggings unveil something of the unconscious, the unspoken, and that is valuable to a point.  It reminds us of that we are reading of thoughts and images which grabbed the attention of their transmitters, that at some point they too were arrested by that which is expressed in language in general, and in this case in writings.

But then we neither encounter directly these images nor the voice of the author at those particular moments wherein the release that is authorship took place.  The ‘why’ which arrested that author is never the ‘what’ we encounter in each reading.  Even as the author strives to be understood, even this petty thinker at this very moment, misunderstanding also is at work.  There is much the author does not say, and perhaps much she should have said but failed to.  In other words, discourse goes beyond exhuming the corpse of that author’s state of mind, an ultimately impossible task even when attempted honestly – even though it benefits the reader to be mindful not only of the woven structure of the text, but the humanity of the weaver and the particularity of those moments which led to the finality of authorship.  In writing, the author truly loses control – the medium worked in determines what may be said even as the author tries to connect the reader to that set of ideas.  While the aims of authors vary, inevitably there is some intended encounter – some confrontation that goes beyond the author’s state of mind.

The angst of being misunderstood, being misstated, and even having one’s words distorted is embodied in Nietzsche’s words here.  Foucault avers that this distortion has in fact already occurred in his day such that the decentring operations of both Nietzsche and Marx are twisted completely.  In his analysis of the history of thought, Foucault descries the attempts of the nineteenth century to preserve the ‘sovereignty of consciousness’ and “the twin figures of anthropology and humanism” from the decentrings offered by Nietzsche and Marx.

“One is led therefore to anthropologize Marx, to make of him a historian of totalities, and to rediscover in him the message of humanism; one is led therefore to interpret Nietzsche in the terms of transcendental philosophy, and to reduce his genealogy to the level of a search for origins…”

~Foucault, the Archaeology of Knowledge (1972) Pantheon Books, NY: p. 13 – translated by A.M. Sheridan Smith from the French

He goes on to remark that where Marx was first criticized and Nietzsche opposed, the totalitarianizing historians and structuralists came to ‘travesty’, or I think in this case distort the representation of, Marx’ purposes and ‘transpose’ Nietzsche.  That is, intellectual violence was done to the works of two antagonists such that their works were made to appear, at least in the normative discourse, as though both Marx and Nietzsche were really still working within the same framework of discussions.  It is far easier to distort your opponent’s than it is to understand it, for she is working from another basis than you.  While neither Nietzsche nor Marx worked in a vacuum or were immune from the Geist of their time, their interpretations do not easily serve to perpetuate those discourses whose foundations they tore at the foundations of.  Foucault continues:

“All the treasure of bygone days was crammed into the old citadel of this history; it was thought to be secure; it was sacralized; it was made the last resting-place of anthropological thought; it was even thought that its most inveterate enemies could be captured and turned into vigilant guardians.  But the historians had long ago deserted the old fortress and gone to work elsewhere; it was realized that neither Marx nor Nietzsche were carrying out the guard duties that had been entrusted to them.”

~Foucault, Archaeology (1972): p. 14

Here a layer is added to our considerations.  In discourse, when an author or thinker’s works have been distorted so that they speak with but a sad and hoarse caricature of their former voice – the voice is voided of its true patheticisms and forces so that it becomes tamed as the imprisoned lion – when such has occurred, that discourse which has distorted these voices and stripped them of all rigor or lasting ability to object, then those who might better understand the nature of either Nietzsche’s or Marx’ personal discourse, those hills which they chose to be bruised on in their climbs and travails – those voices which might again break into that closed discourse are signaled by their strangeness.  Worse, they are taken as beginning from a basis of misunderstanding where instead they are confronting the worse misunderstanding – that which has taken the methods of Marx and Nietzsche but left all they sought fit to say by means of their methods!  Ironically, Nietzsche spoke of this very matter in his Mixed Opinions and Maxims (1879) where he avers:

“The philosopher supposes that the value of his philosophy lies in the whole, in the structure; but posterity finds its value in the stone which he used for building, and which is used many more times after that for building—better.  Thus it finds the value in the fact that the structure can be destroyed and nevertheless retains value as building material.”

~Nietzsche, Mixed Opinions and Maxims from Basic Writings of Nietzsche, p. 156 – emphasis in the text

I shall put off to another hour what Nietzsche has to say about being both understandable, and therefore not easily understandable to the wrong sort of reader.  Rather, I prefer to consider what personal horror Nietzsche or Marx might feel to find that their works and thoughts and broodings which bore upon their selves with their full weight were then, rather than simply dismissed which is harmless, twisted to serve purposes largely opposite their own.  I feel there are few greater horrors for the scholar.  One may forgive some misunderstanding, or petty dispute, if it does not go too far or distract too far from the goals for which one writes.  But to be made to serve that which you are most opposed to – to not only be dismissed by the Spirit of your age, the Geist, but to first see it take up your own weapons against you and finally to see your shadow, that you which exists only through readings, and therefore misreadings as well, take up those very weapons in service of that which you with so much effort and will opposed.

Already I have tried to accomplish too much in this post.  Partly that is because I expect this aspect to be least understood, although it is most central to my periphery at the moment.  True, no one ever seeks to be misunderstood, unless it is so that another purpose may be effected by means of that misunderstanding and in that case one is at least being followed truly, even if those who follow are not aware that they are truly understanding.  I feel the urge to elaborate ad nauseum concerning this point although I know it to be perhaps the less interesting aspect for many.  Instead of seeking to paralyze, I see considering such aspects of history as descriptive of that which is most likely to happen.

That is, if one is truly committed to not only changing something small for a few, but wishes to effect change on a mass scale, one must be a student of history in this matter.  Whatever you think of Foucault or Nietzsche or Marx, it should be evident to their readers that their actual voices must be heard through listening and listening well.  I do not speak of uncritically accepting what they say, for that is a disgrace to both the thinker and the one who wishes to understand their thoughts.  If you do not see strengths and weaknesses you are not in their discourse – you have not begun to enter a meaningful discussion.  Returning, however, to our point: to meet Marx or Nietzsche or Foucault in a classroom through a few powerpoint slides and a rough discussion is not even an introduction.  How could anyone understand your thoughts in such environs?  Even in writing this I realize that I may serve a similar function.

To clarify, I have given examples which enliven my own discourse, rather than sought to explain in depth more than a spare thought from these.  To understand their values in depth, and that is the understanding I truly seek when I read – to understand the core even as it changes and attempts to express itself and to encounter others on the same planes of discovery (or uncovering) is the best picture I have as yet of such aims.  Even in this, misunderstanding is inevitable.  I shall not here trot out my examples of disciples as distorters (Socrates->Plato->Aristotle does the trick for my mind at the moment) but rather would speak to the psychological results briefly, again to swat away a distraction.

In no way do I wish to paralyze.  I consider such examples because it seems to me that to ignore such items when they are dis-covered to me is to choose naivete.  It would seem that the other choice is to cower in a corner afraid of the counter-effects of whatever actions I should choose as one who is afraid to pull at the oars because they shall only excite the waves around the vessel.  In-action is not the aim, but neither is naive action.  Surely there are actions worth taking – actions of some significance, and the results are to some extent indeterminate at this point.  But still, some eye to the general predictable elements is prudent in my estimation.  Even as I am learning a new language, I am continually finding false connections and laying these aside as corrected.  Such seems most in line with how our actions and their significance are revealed to us.  I would that more would consider the subject of misunderstanding well, and the nature of distortion in discourse, and welcome others to interact with me particularly as I explore this plane, but not so that one fails to speak in favor of purposes worth being misunderstood for.

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.