Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Foucault's 'Archeology'

In the first few chapters of Part IV “Archeological Description” of his larger work The Archeology of Knowledge, Foucault sets out to better clarify his notion of ‘archeology’ as a new form of analysis which challenges traditional methodologies in the study (and even the basic conceptualization) of history as we have come to presently know it. Foucault points out various faults that he finds in this traditional methodology, which he refers to as “the history of ideas,” with a particular focus on the central issue of “the division of discourse into great unities (135).” His initial suggestion of a new approach to analysis through ‘archeology,’ a practicing of a “different history,” is then followed by a process of differentiating it from the traditional “history of ideas,” characterized by a focus on the “great themes” of “genesis, totality, [and] totalization,” which he claims continues to be perpetuated in “an age no longer made for it (138).” He precedes this process of differentiation by clearly asking the question he would otherwise have certainly encountered by others critically reviewing his work: “What can ‘archeology’ offer that other descriptions are unable to provide (136)?”

In an attempt to provide an overview of the differences that he lays out between the two methodologies (that is, between the traditional “history of ideas” and Foucault’s proposed ‘archeology’,) I will briefly summarize first the 4 main points establishing what Archeology is not (so as to better elucidate what it in fact is, but also the elements that make it particularly distinct from those problematic elements of the ‘history of ideas’ to which he is challenging.)

1. ‘Archeology’ is not defining “thoughts…images…themes [;etc]…” within discourses, “but the discourses themselves, those discourses as practices obeying certain rules (138).” Discourse is not to be understood as a document, but rather as a monument. Archeological analysis is not interpretive, “seek[ing] another better-hidden discourse,” and is not allegorical (139).

2. ‘Archeology’ does not involve working through some notion of a time-line, with an understanding of discourse based on precedents, origins, or destinations ;etc, but involves “defin[ing] discourses in their specificity (139).”

3. In ‘archeology,’ the ‘oeuvre’ doesn’t matter. “The authority of the creative subject, as the raison d’être of an oeuvre and the principle of its unity, is quite alien to it (139).”

4. In ‘archeology,’ the origin is of no concern. “It is not a return to the innermost secret of the origin, it is the systematic description of a discourse-object (140).”

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

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