Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Statement and "the Rule of Repeatable Materiality"

In chapter 2, “the Enunciative Function,” of Part III “the Statement and the Archive” from his work The Archeology of Knowledge, Foucault outlines four conditions of the ‘enunciative function’ to further explain the “special mode of existence” characteristic of what he calls the ‘statement (88).’ The last of these conditions that received attention within the chapter is that of materiality. Foucault states this material existence as a necessary condition in order for any series of signs or body of successive linguistic elements to be analyzed as a statement largely because the “material status of the statement are part of its intrinsic characteristics (100).”

This focus on materiality of the statement becomes even more interesting when one might be thinking in terms of the transmutability of the statement. When one thinks of more common conceptions of “the statement” (I’m reaching outside of Foucault’s definition here), the term connotes something that is rather solid and unshifting. Foucault’s ‘statement,’ however, “must have a substance, a support, a place, and a date [and] when these requisites change, it [the statement] too changes identity (101).” As such, a statement cannot be repeated in a similar manner in which an enunciation is “an unrepeatable event” in that “it has situated and dated uniqueness that is irreducible (101).” This automatically makes me think of contemporary society in which information travels at the speed of light and the ability to reproduce statements is not only easy but also within the capacity of individuals from multiple levels of society, a possibility due largely to newer media forms enabled by the emergence of computers and the widespread accessibility of the internet. For example, how might a statement change when communicated or enacted through different mediums of communication and dispersal. How do statements change as the contexts from which they are experienced shift?

Soon after considering this, I encountered what Foucault terms the “rule of repeatable materiality” in which statements may be the same, for example, in multiple printings of the same edition of a book despite the minute differences in each material object printed. Even further, however, the form which communicates a statement may also vary in its precise nature (a poster version of a statement that is also printed in a book) without necessarily requiring that this other form be read as an entirely different statement as “the materiality of the statement is not defined by the space occupied or the date of its formation; but rather its status as a thing or object...[it] cannot be identified with a fragment of matter; but its identity varies with a complex set of material institutions…it defines possibilities of reinscription and transcription (102-3).”

So in our world of reproduction, a statement may maintain its identity despite multiple copies of itself, even in various formats. Still there is a point in which the statement, in its reproduction or placement in certain contexts, must be understood as something different, perhaps, from its original engendering or enactment. Foucault elaborates on this quality through the notion of a particular “field of stabilization” enjoyed by statement which “makes it possible, despite all the differences of enunciation, to repeat them in their identity (103).” However, he states that this same field may also “define a threshold beyond which there can be no further equivalence, and the appearance of a new statement must be recognized (103).” For example, although a certain statement encountered in a book may maintain its identity in a copy of that statement which takes its form in a poster, if that poster also included other elements such as a poster brand or a “this printing made possible by the American League of White Supremacists” caption, the statement may become something different or may even be demolished in its entirety and replaced by a new statement as a kind of appropriation of the statement which might serve to debunk its initial conception or identity. If the identity of the statement “is itself relative and oscillates according to the use that is made of the statement and the way in which it is handled,” what might be said, for example, of the different statements that might be identified from an 8th grade American History textbook’s presentation of the declaration of independence, a pocket sized Declaration of Independence provided free to legal citizens of the United States by the government, a recitation of the Declaration of Independence at an NRA meeting; etc (104). This way of viewing the statement may also be of use when looking at acts of cultural subversion, either in performance, or, for example, in acts of culture jamming.

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

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