Foucault: Archaeology and Genealogy

This is a reflection on the philosophical status of what is usually perceived as a breach between archaeology and genealogy, the historian and the social scientist M.F., the scientific and the power-related F. It is also a critique of the frequent uncritical use of the term “power” when speaking about M.F.’s works.

Often, one contrasts seemingly polar opposites in Foucault’s approach: the “autonomous” conception of discourse as the historical conditions of possibility for saying things in general, and scientific things in particular; the “strategic” concept of discourse as a field of differential power relations posited by actors with agendas. I would like to question the opposition between the two.
On the surface and by a classical reading, it is plainly visible: with the archaeology, Foucault gives an analysis of linguistic entities (the emergence of meaning), and with increasingly desperate gestures, he tries to circumvent the necessity of saying who speaks – for, ultimately, it is man who speaks, Man in His glorious self-presence and self-affection. Genealogy, then, is Foucault giving in, as it were, to the pressure of saying who speaks and under what conditions; what social, political, ethical, and cultural factors enter every statement, and what is to be done.
However, consider this quote from “The Order of Things” (Vintage 1994, p. 305):

“To the Nietzschean question: ‘Who is speaking?’, Mallarmé replies – and constantly reverts to that reply – by saying that what is speaking is, in its solitude, in its fragile vibration, in its nothingness, the word itself – not the meaning of the word, but its enigmatic and precious being.”

Superficially, again, the opposition mentioned above is reerected. Man does not speak, Foucault seems to say, and has not spoken even in Nietzsche’s question, so eloquently answered by Mallarmé. The word speaks: an absurdity. Foucault’s attempt to erase speaking Man was doomed to fail, and he acknowledged it by converting to genealogy.
But consider the last part of the statement: “…its enigmatic and precious being.” Perhaps one should pay more attention to Foucault’s own discursive existence (as has been pointed out, Foucault can indeed be read as the creator of a discourse on discourses, and – in the vein of Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo – a discourse on, about, through, and in himself), and his elusive and frequently ignored statement that he is influenced by Heidegger. Thinking the being of a statement as a dynamic being rather than a static one – as a Seinsvollzug, a dynamic interpretative mode of being. The statement does something when and as it is. It constitutes its speaker just as much as vice versa. Every text projects an author, and that author is not the empirical scribe – the condition of possibility for authorship is the death (structurally, not empirically) of the scribe.
That is, every statement also projects the power differentials giving rise to its situation in a specific socio-historical environment. Author and Speaker are projected textually: they are encapsulated (enshrined, as it were, in the monumental pyramid Hegel identified the sign with) in the being of the word. The power differentials the genealogical Foucault observes, I argue, are part of the same differential and socio-historical, but ultimately textual mode of being. The scientific statement projects its speaker and their credentials, that is, the institution, that is, the power differentials between the speakers and statements of that institution (“of” in both senses: authored/authorized by it and constitutive of it), that is, the socio-historical context of the institution (again, both senses: society projects institutions which project society), that is, the conditions of social emergence: economic, historical, political. The true is the totality: il n’y a rien dehors le texte. I do not think there is a breach between archaeology and genealogy – if one reads Foucault’s project as a differential-historical (that is, a différantial) one.

Which segues into the question of M.F.’s usefulness for social scientific research: for the poor scribe of this text, dead as he is; for us, authors and scribes of our classes; and for the wider academic community. Power, for Foucault – it cannot be said often enough – is differential and nothing but that. That does not mean, however, that is loses its specificity: it has, I think, a very precise philosophical meaning. I read it as the mode of being of a social relation – a social relatedness (Christian Matheis is currently writing a wonderful dissertation on this question) – a pacing-out of a differential-hierarchical duplicity (or multiplicity) of positions (all of which, in turn, are differential and project what they differ from). The power relation precedes its poles: actors, institutions, formations. Which is, ultimately, why I think there is no actual difference between archaeology and genealogy: the object of both is a monumental identity (a statement, an actor, an institution) as it is (dynamically) in and out of the relation. Foucault thinks about differences: the pacing-out of differences. He thinks about hierarchies: the pacing-out of power differentials (whose quantitative differentiality, as Deleuze has pointed out, constitutes their quality – we might say: their content, their meaning).

In other, perhaps all too elliptical words. Perhaps M.F.’s concept of a statement is not so much of this world – not so much concerned with the empirical act of speaking and its conditions of possibility. Perhaps it is rather to be found in the immanence of the relation between difference and identity, the movement of difference towards identity: of the difference to a statement, of the differential to a so-called human being or an institution. Perhaps M.F.’s thought is less of this world, and more of the differential that precedes it, and that exceeds it at all sides. “The time of discourse is not our time.”

This entry was posted in En lisant. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.