MICHEL FOUCAULT in The Archaeology of Knowledge rejects the traditional historian's tendency to read straightforward narratives of progress in the historical record: "For many years now," he writes, "historians have preferred to turn their attention to long periods, as if, beneath the shifts and changes of political events, they were trying to reveal the stable, almost indestructible system of checks and balances, the irreversible processes, the constant readjustments, the underlying tendencies that gather force, and are then suddenly reversed after centuries of continuity, the movements of accumulation and slow saturation, the great silent, motionless bases that traditional history has covered with a thick layer of events" (3). Foucault, by contrast, argues that one should seek to reconstitute not large "periods" or "centuries" but "phenomena of rupture, of discontinuity" (4). The problem, he argues, "is no longer one of tradition, of tracing a line, but one of division, of limits" (5). Instead of presenting a monolithic version of a given period, Foucault argues that we must reveal how any given period reveals "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, they increase with every transformation and never cease, in turn, to break with themselves" (5).

Foucault adopts the term "archaeology" to designate his historical method and he articulates what he means by that term by specifying how his method differs from both traditional history and the traditional history of ideas:

1) "Archaeology tries to define not the thoughts, representations, images, themes, preoccupations that are concealed or revealed in discourses; but those discourses themselves, those discourses as practices obeying certain rules" (138). Foucault does not examine historical documents in order to read in them "a sign of something else" (138), for example the "truth" or "spirit" of a given historical period. Rather Foucault tries to make sense of how a period's very approach to key terms like "history," "oeuvre," or "subjectivity" affect that period's understanding of itself and its history.

2) "Archaeology does not seek to rediscover the continuous, insensible transition that relates discourses, on a gentle slope, to what precedes them, surrounds them, or follows them" (139). Instead, Foucault wishes to understand how disparate discourses function by their own distinct sets of rules and strategies. Archaeology wishes to "show in what way the set of rules that [discourses] put into operation is irreducible to any other" (139). In other words, different discourses have a disjunctive or discontinuous relation to each other.

3) Archaeology "does not try to grasp the moment in which the œuvre emerges on the anonymous horizon. It does not wish to rediscover the enigmatic point at which the individual and the social are inverted into one another. It is neither a psychology, nor a sociology, nor more generally an anthropology of creation" (139). Rather, archaeology examines how a single œuvre can be shot through with different "types of rules for discursive practices" (139). It treats "different rules for discursive practices" as distinct from each other, and therefore never subsumable into some all-encompassing concept (e.g., the "author" or the "spirit of the age").

4) Finally, archaeology "does not claim to efface itself in the ambiguous modesty of a reading that would bring back, in all its purity, the distant, precarious, almost effaced light of the origin" (139-140). Archaeology does not seek to reconstitute the "truth" of history but how any period is made up of a series of discourses: "It is not a return to the innermost secret of the origin; it is the systematic description of a discourse-object" (140).


Proper Citation of this Page:

Felluga, Dino. "Modules on Foucault: On History." Introductory Guide to Critical Theory. Date of last update, which you can find on the home page. Purdue U. Date you accessed the site. <http://www.purdue.edu/guidetotheory/newhistoricism/modules/foucaulthistory.html>.






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