Tag Archives: archaeology

Foucault, part deux

Foucault, Michel. “The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language.” New York: Vintage Books, 1972. Print.

Parts 3-5:

writing my masters words

From Alighieri, Dante: “La Vita Nuova (The New Life)” (1910)

The second half of Archaeology proved both daunting and illuminating. However, I must confess that I would probably have to read the book one or two times more to feel as though I am in a position to interrogate any of Foucault’s methods or conclusions. Instead, I found it helpful to isolate small threads  from his overall argument and see how they might be woven into the overall theme of our course. So I selected key quotations that really seemed to have direct connections to our course objectives, our recent HTW activities, and our other three authors (Biesecker, Bitzer, and Vatz).

First, a quick summary of the second section: a key principle seems to be that Foucault is pushing back against schools of theory and history that depend heavily on the established and immovable structures of dominant historical and cultural analytical practices. In this final half of the book, he pits the traditional “history of ideas” against his own definition of archaeology as a means of analyzing discourses and their functions.

He seems to assert that the disadvantage of applying uniformity-creating models of interpretation is that they create a structure that does not allow for difference or alternatives … variations that may allow for alternative cultural discourses. He frequently refers to these alternatives as, “discontinuities, ruptures, gaps” (169). Because the “history of ideas” theoretical model relies on analyzing discourses via linear, succession-based order systems, thereby creating a set of absolutes, Foucault considers it  “untrustworthy” (166). Like Biesecker, Foucault considers the “difference” a viable and more productive locus of study because it allows us to consider discourses as “a space of multiple dissensions; a set of different oppositions whose levels and roles” can be “described” as a means of understanding knowledge (Foucault 155). His theory / not-theory of Archaeology allows for the inclusion of the unexpected and deviations in order to consider what I will call “the big picture” or potential network of possible connections — Foucault, after all, is concerned more with the way Archaeology reveals “relationships” (162) rather than static objects of time and place (the nodes themselves).

Mind the gap in London underground, Victoria Station

Mind the gap in London underground, Victoria Station (Wikimedia Commons)

Minding The Gap: 

“A discursive formation is not … an ideal…It is rather a space of multiple dissensions; a set of different oppositions whose levels and roles must be described.” (Foucault 155).

This focus on difference and relationships allows Foucault to point his analytical efforts toward the more productive areas of relationships, and as we explore networks, I find that the inter-connections are often where the action is.  He writes, “Archaeology also reveals relations between discursive formations and non-discursive domains (institutions, political events, economic practices and processes)” (162). The purpose? In his words, to “map, in a particular discursive practice, the point at which [these multiple dissensions] are constituted, to define the form they assume, the relations that they have with each other” (155). In other words, what might a close examination of these networks reveal about “the way it works”?

system bus vs. pci bus diagram

Image from “How PCI Works” 2001

Thinking back to the activity on buses, I’m reminded of all of those data packets traversing back and forth between nodes — or objects secured in “history.” Foucault seems to be resisting traditional means of theorizing subject matter (and thus, knowledge) as overly restrictive and limited precisely because the “ideas” become monolithic places along a timeline. As a result, such linear focus may cause us to miss a “gap” — and while that may not result in the sort of unfortunate accident suffered by a subway rider, the loss to knowledge and understanding is of serious concern to Foucault.

In sum, the “take-away” lesson I see here — the one that I find connects to our other readings and our exploration of networks — is Foucault’s emphasis on the importance of the “gaps” and discursive functions to our understanding of and analysis of discourse. If we continue to trod the beaten path (a history of ideas), we are more likely to simply ignore the anomalies and exceptions, the new and untried — such a path might (especially in English Studies and Composition Theories) create a narrow focus that limits what we teach and how we teach. For example, looking

Digital Writing Spaces

Digital Writing Spaces

at the recent history of Composition, digital spaces were not (and some might say are still not) considered worthy of academic writing or inquiry. Yet many scholars have posited that they open avenues for student expression and critical thinking that expand upon traditional “history of ideas” or writing theories — I would argue — to the benefit of 21st century student writers.

To close, the following quotation from Foucault stands out to me as encapsulating the potentiality of what we are studying this term: exploring and mapping networks and potential connections, opening new spaces for active exploration and study.

“By deriving in this way the contradiction between two theses from a certain domain of objects, from its delimitations and divisions, one does not discover a point of conciliation…. One defines the locus in which it takes place; it reveals the place where the two branches of the alternative join; it localizes the divergence and the place where the two discourses are juxtaposed. The theory of structure is not a common postulate…. By taking contradictions as objects to be described, archaeological analysis…tries to determine the extent and form of the gap that separates them. In relation to a history of ideas that attempts to melt contradictions in the…unity of an overall figure…. Archaeology describes the different spaces of dissension” (153).

My closing question will be this: How will networks and network theory transform our approach to knowledge-building or knowledge-making this semester, given Foucault’s charge to pay attention to or define the objects of our analysis (nodes vs. relationships)?


ENGL 894: Readings & Planning

Foucault, Michel. “The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language.” New York: Vintage Books, 1972. Print.

Part I & II: Clearly, Foucault is challenging to read (an understatement), yet as I progress into his text, thanks to the overarching theme of our course, I am able to see his concepts through one of the operational questions of our class: what is a network and how does it impact our thinking?  Thankfully, Foucault himself uses network language to articulate his reasoning. His approach is highly rhetorical, beginning by setting us within a large context — history — as a framework for this discussion, then moving into more defined examples of discourse communities within that history. Yet the “take away” possibilities are not limited to these examples of community discourse; as I was reading the early passages, I found myself recalling a recent class (English Debates) in which discussions focused on the subject of disciplinary in the field of English Studies. In particular, I thought of how many practitioners operate in isolation, without regard to how other disciplines can offer the field of English new systems, or networks, of interpretation or operation.

black hole

From “Nature Communications” website

Clearly, Foucault’s theories are wide reaching in terms of potential for application.  So much so, that I found myself making a comparison to the way black holes function and his description on page 29 of how looking at absences or gaps (disruptions and displacements, the difference) actually help define what we see.

So, some key points from these early chapters, condensed from the pages of notes I have taken thus far:

  • This work is concerned with exploring unities of discourse as a means of examining them.
  • He rejects a universalist approach to analyzing discourses, in part because such an approach ignores the “exceptions.”
  • He emphasizes the need to reject our preexisting “habits of synthesis” (25) in order to see our way more clearly.
  • Instead, he is interested in examining these discourses through relationships, connections – NETWORKS – to allow a more productive exploration, including the areas of disruptions.
  • P. 44:  “a discursive formation is defined if one can establish such a group; if one can show how any particular object of this course finds in it it’s place and lot of emergence.”
  • Relationships “are not present in the object. … they do not define its internal constitution.” (43) “Discursive relations are not… internal to discourse” (46)
  • Page 48: “I would like to show that discourses… are not… a mere intersection of things and words: an obscure web of things,… colored chain of words” (48). This appears to be another move against a structuralist tradition that is often bound up in linguistics, a move I see woven into other passages.
  • Page 49: “in analyzing discourses themselves,” we should look for “the emergence of a group of rules proper to discursive practice” in order to see them as “practices that systematically form the objects of which they speak” (49). His use of the term “rules” troubles me somewhat, and I wonder — as I progress through the reading — if that will continue. He does take great pains to preconceptualize the use of this term by distinguishing his use of the term from a more structuralist approach.
  • In chapter 4 he talks about the laws of operations: (1) directs us to look at author or speaker;  (2) also look at the site or location of the delivery (51); as well as look at the situation in terms of relationships to other groups (52). This is so rhetorical.
  • He refers to his theory about such “laws” as a “network of sites” (55), and as “a succession of conceptual systems” (56).

And so, at this point, Foucault has my attention. His description of rhetorical habits of systematizing discursive interchanges as “object vs. relationships” is intriguing, to say the very least. His treatment of text and even “the book” early in these chapters reminded me of work by Wysocki and Johnson-Eilola on the culture of the book, which refers to our use of book-based literacy as a metaphor for much of what we do in our field of Composition (and English) Studies. Thus far, Foucault’s use of a network theory, when juxtaposed to our first set of readings on the Rhetorical Situation, is creating a definitive lens through which I anticipate re-seeing some of my early training in rhetoric.