Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Politics of Retrospection

The Archeology of Knowledge represents Foucault’s attempt to more clearly explain and delineate his particular approach to exploring the historical subject as performed in his earlier works including Madness and Civilization, Birth of the Clinic, and The Order of Things. As he states that his endeavor in these works was unclear, “a very imperfect sketch (15),” Archeology of Knowledge is the answer to the confusion and conceptual blurriness that he acknowledged in those works preceding it. In his introduction and first few chapters, Foucault makes his critical focus on traditions of historical analysis clear, acknowledging an array of problems that he sees with the methodological field of history.

One of his main points that I would like to further discuss is that of the politics of retrospection. In his introduction, Foucault states that “historical descriptions are necessarily ordered by the present state of knowledge (5).” In addition, and perhaps more explicitly stated in his first chapter “The Unities of Discourse,” “after all, ‘literature’ and ‘politics’ are recent categories, which can be applied to Medieval culture, or even classical literature, only by a retrospective hypothesis (22, emphasis added).” According to Foucault, it is important to be cognizant of the present position one might hold when looking into the past with a critical eye or upon viewing past events or practices through a conceptual lens whose very crafting is due to a particular notion of history defined simultaneously by a streamlined continuity (everything is connected, here is the origin, which explains this development which influenced this and so forth and so on until we arrive at our present moment) and by the breaking up into parts (for example of eras) with relatively precise points of origin and points of expiration. For example, in looking at a particular societal practice based on monuments from a distant past in remaining availability in the present day (“monuments,” which Foucault argues that traditional historical methodology turns into “documents” to then be organized, “divid[ed]…distribute[ed]” ;etc (6)) the viewer, from her position in a present day moment imposes, in a sense, a particular understanding of that practice and its meaning based on certain notions that have come to be naturalized to a certain extent due to their presentation as the end of a longer rope whose concept is thought of as having been consistently existent from some historical origin in time. For example, even the notion of looking at monuments to discover something about a “societal” practice suggests an imposition of a concept of “society” and what that might mean. One might even extend this problem found within historical methodology to that of cross-cultural criticism. For example, upon attempting to “read” the practices of another culture, even from a shared point in time, one must be cognizant of ones assumptions of certain universalities, such as a certain moral or ethical code; etc.

How does he propose one might respond to this problem that tends to be overlooked or unacknowledged? He states that a “precaution must be taken to disconnect the unquestioned continuities by which we organize, in advance, the discourse that we are to analyze (25).” He continues further:

“What we must do, in fact, is to tear away from their virtual
self-evidence, and to free the problems that they pose; to
recognize that they are not the tranquil locus on the basis
of which other questions (concerning their structure, coherence,
systematicity, transformations) may be posed, but that they
themselves pose a whole cluster of questions (26, emphasis added).”

And once again, particularly drawing attention to the potential accessing and making visible those practices which otherwise remain invisible (especially in terms of cross-cultural readings):

“by freeing them (facts of discourse) of all the groupings
that purport to be natural, immediate, universal unities, one
is able to describe other unities, but this time by means of a
group of controlled decisions… Providing one defines the conditions
clearly, it might be legitimate to constitute, on the basis of correctly
described relations, discursive groups that are not arbitrary,
and yet remain invisible (26).”

Foucault, Michel. The Archeology of Knowledge and The Discourse on Language. New York: Harper and Row, 1972.

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