Michel Foucault: Archaeology of Knowledge

[Readings] (02.28.09, 4:30 pm)

It is difficult to summarize Foucault, and I shall do my best here. Archaeology of Knowledge can be thought of as Foucault’s take on epistemology. This is important because he makes several observations and comes to several conclusions that are particularly relevant for the interpretation and adaptation of texts. His interest is focused primarily in the history of sciences, especially medicine, and how history may be understood in a manner that is detached from structuralism.


The opening of the Archaeology of Knowledge is on the pattern of the study of history. This is composed of both seeing things as unified and discontinuous. Ordinary approaches to history both have ways of viewing history as being discontinuous, separated into ostensible and coherent units, broken by periods of changes. For example: wars, successions of rulers, emergence of technologies, and so on. However, these serve to establish a kind of continuity and regularity in the structures that provide for the divisions. Looking at history broken up according to who is the ruler of a country fragments time, but also underscores a regularity in the discourse of rulership.

A common theme in historical study is “the questioning of the document.” History works to turn monuments into documents, and makes monuments out of documents. This terminology is especially evocative and sets the current for Foucault’s spatial metaphors. A monument is a permanant formation that has a geographic and temporal presence, and it also has a boundary and territory. Within the spaces of knowledge, many monuments may be seen. The document analogy is interesting in comparison to works of fiction, especially under the lens of adaptation, because it gives these adaptations (and reproductions) a quality like relics, where a piece of the monument is picked up and moved, brought to a new terrain, and disseminated.

The Unities of Discourse

The initial goal here is to do away with conceptions that impose artificial notions or continuities that are seen in history. These sorts of ideas are things such as the influence of a work, or its means of propagation. For example, common organizations and groupings are an oeuvre, a notion, a theory. Another pervasive idea is the “spirit” of a work or works, which is especially insubstantial. Foucault suggests that we should let go of these notions, to be able to let go of artificial continuities. These could also be seen as structures or models. Foucault is splitting them up, but to what degree?

The category of the oeuvre is ambiguous and non-homogeneous. Even the boundaries of a single book become ill-defined. Foucault seems to take the direction of resolving this by treating a text as a node in a network, though, that idea of a node still implies some identity. This seems to suggest a sort of Deleuzian connectionism. I suggest that rather than seeing a text or work as a unitary node, we might see it as a constellation that intersects with other networks.

Foucault moves toward a linguistic direction, to approach knowledge, we must adopt a discourse oriented model of thinking. Larger structures are made out of coherent units, which are statements. I think this is problematic in that statements are meaningless outside of a systemic context. Foucault does address the issue of context, and establish it as an important dimension to what is being studied, but the focus on the statement is still intrinsically problematic.

Discursive Formations

The subject here appears to be the contextualization of the meaning of statements within larger systems or discourses. Foucault asks how these discourses are characterized. He lays out four theories of how to group statements, explaining that each of them are intrinsically flawed:

  1. Object. Statements are grouped according to the common objects they discuss.
  2. Style. Statements are common if they are described in the same way.
  3. Hypothesis. Statements are similar when they share common concepts and assumptions.
  4. Theme.

The contrary approach which is developed uses systems of division and dispersion, given by conditions of existence and rules of formation.

The Formation of Objects

This section describes that objects are formed on three layers: surfaces of emergence, authorities of delineation, and grids of specification. The metaphor is very spatial, but has the characteristic of a mathematical manifold. Over time, the texture and slope of the landscape is changing. Objects are bound by relations (discursive relations). The character of objects is not in their form, but in “rules immanent in a practice,” a combination of terms that interestingly combines concepts from Deleuze and model theory.

The Formation of Enunciative Modalities

The understanding of discourse is changed to the understanding of speech. In the context of a statement, the statement has a single speaker, who might exist within or be speaking from an institutional site. The purpose of this analysis is to look at conventional and established discourses and institutions, such as medicine.

The Formation of Concepts

Foucault is critical of traditional means of structuring and organizing concepts and knowledge. These are characterized by several observations. The traditional approach to concepts is given by succession; fields of presence, concomitance, and memory; and procedures of intervention. He asserts that with a more general approach, the structure is less clear.

Foucault wishes to stand back and understand the format of a discourse in terms of its laws and rules at a preconceptual level. Model theory is clearly a preconceptual level, in that it has assumptions and rules, not for conducting the modeling, but for seeing things as being able to be modeled.

Remarks and Consequences

The relations and structures of a discourse reside within the system of the discourse itself. This is interesting to compare with mathematical axioms and completeness. The discourse is self feeding and reinforcing in a way that that can be inescapable. To participate in a discourse is thus to propagate it.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorFoucault, Michel
TitleArchaeology of Knowledge
Tagsspecials, media theory, linguistics, philosophy
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

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