Foucault, Michel. 1969. L’archéologie du savoir. Gallimard, Paris. = Foucault, Michel. 1972. The Archaeology of Knowledge (trans. Allan Sheridan). Harper and Row, New York.It seems to mark a new methodological perspective in his work (Merquior 1991: 77) and the point when Foucault was turning to Poststructuralism.
The Archaeology of Knowledge is an clear attempt to state and expound the fundamental “archaeological” method Foucault used in The Order of Things, History of Madness and The Birth of the Clinic. Foucault came in his later works to have a new method called “genealogy” (supplementing “archaeology”), which was supposed to show how systems of thought unearthed by “archaeology” were merely contingent accidents of history.
The emphasis in The Archaeology of Knowledge now seems to be on discourses or discursive formations (practices or statements that reign in a particular time), and the influence of Friedrich Nietzsche’s “genealogical” philosophy has become very important (Merquior 1991: 77).
Another new concept in The Archaeology of Knowledge is the archive, but one will be hard pressed to actually understand what Foucault means by this.
Let Foucault – in that wonderfully lucid prose for which he was famous – explain it to you:
“Between the language (langue) that defines the system of constructing possible sentences, and the corpus that passively collects the words that are spoken, the archive defines a particular level: that of a practice that causes a multiplicity of statements to emerge as so many regular events, as so many things to be dealt with and manipulated. It does not have the weight of tradition; and it does not constitute the library of all libraries, outside time and place; nor is it the welcoming oblivion that opens up to all new speech the operational field of its freedom; between tradition and oblivion, it reveals the rules of a practice that enables statements both to survive and to undergo regular modification. It is the general system of the formation and transformation of statements.Was that clear? Well, yes: about as clear as mud.
It is obvious that the archive of a society, a culture, or a civilization cannot be described exhaustively; or even, no doubt, the archive of a whole period. On the other hand, it is not possible for us to describe our own archive, since it is from within these rules that we speak, since it is that which gives to what we can say – and to itself, the object of our discourse – its modes of appearance, its forms of existence and coexistence, its system of accumulation, historicity, and disappearance. The archive cannot be described in its totality; and in its presence it is unavoidable. It emerges in fragments, regions, and levels, more fully, no doubt, and with greater sharpness, the greater the time that separates us from it: at most, were it not for the rarity of the documents, the greater chronological distance would be necessary to analyse it.” (Foucault 1972: 130).
Here was a man trying to explain a crucial concept of his work, but does very little except reveal to everyone watching that the pretentious French emperor has no clothes.
The archive is not, apparently, our faculty of language. But, according to Foucault, the archive is “the general system of the formation and transformation of statements” (Foucault 1972: 130). But transformation of statements into what? Even more shockingly, we cannot even “describe our own archive”! So how do we know one even exists?
Merquior, who tries hard to see through the fog of Foucault’s gibberish, thought that the archive is a system for generating social meaning (Merquior 1991: 81), whatever that means. Foucault also regarded the archive as the historical a priori (Merquior 1991: 81), so whatever it represents it seems to be analogous to the epistemes of his previous work The Order of Things.
It seems that Foucault was soon arguing that “discourses” in any society were the product of control and rules and access to knowledge (Merquior 1991: 84). The stage was now set for Foucault’s idea that power creates knowledge.
Further attempts to make sense of The Archaeology of Knowledge seem like a complete waste of time to me – or at least I think there are probably much more productive things you could be doing with your waking hours.
Gilles Deleuze – another grand Poststructuralist charlatan – apparently drew the lesson from Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge that one should make no distinction between science and poetry! (Merquior 1991: 84). If anyone believes this outrageous idiocy, then by all means act on Deleuze’s sage advice and seek the services of a poet instead of using science-based medicine when you get sick! I am sure that will fix you right up...
Gutting, Gary. 2003 (rev. 2013). “Michel Foucault,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Kelly, Mark. “Michel Foucault (1926–1984),” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
“Michel Foucault,” Wikipedia
Merquior, José Guilherme. 1991. Foucault (2nd edn.). Fontana, London.
Foucault, Michel. 1972. The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language (trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith). Pantheon Books, New York.