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Michel Foucault: The Archaeology of Knowledge

The following notes are offered to help you read through a somewhat difficult text. My notes can't escape being personal, but they seek to identify the major themes that both Foucault & other postmodernists explore.  Philosophical texts are not designed for speed reading.  If you are concerned about how long it takes you to read a few pages or a chapter . . . well it takes everyone  that long. If my notes help you pause over a central idea to better understand or appreciate it, fine.  If you find my notes to be an obstacle, ignore them.  But you still must try to understand Foucault.

Ch. 1: The Unities of Discourse  |  Foucault, Michel.  The Archaeology of Knowledge & The Discourse on Language.

Think of the chapter title.  What is it that unifies discourse (what we say &/or write)?  Some might say that this is self-evident, that phenomena aggregate or cluster, perhaps on the basis of similarities.  The implication in this answer is that the basis for unity is “out there” in the world of stuff.  This is epistemologically naïve.  Kant sought to identify “the unities of discourse” in what he called “categories” of how the mind functions (e.g., space, time, causation).  The 19th & 20th centuries found that “the mind” is not so simply explained.  F. restricts his answer to the question, “what unifies discourse?” to language.  The performative rules we follow –  because we know how to speak English – provide the context or unity for all of our discourse.  Until we think about it, most of us believe that “I choose to speak” language or make an utterance in language.  Heidegger turned this around, saying “language speaks man.” 

What does it mean, “language speaks man”?  It means that I don’t atomically show up in the world as an adult without any social contexts to then decide to build or assemble a life on the basis of existential decisions.  How could I construe such decisions without recourse to language?  Language is social.  No one can invent or use a language all by himself.  Mom teach her baby his “mother tongue.”  I have always been “in the middle of life,” never at a point before my life began.  Heidegger says we are “thrown into the world” or into experience.

21:  F. speculates on induction as the method to unify discourse: “a reduction of the difference” among temporal events to infer a “tradition . . . against a background of permanence.”

22: “Notions of development & evolution [cf. induction] : they make it possible to group a succession of  [temporally] dispersed events, to link them to one & the same organizing principle.”  Where does this principle come from; a “principle of coherence”?  It must be an operation of the mind, or rather language.  It is a judgment.  The next question is, how atomically unique is this judgment?  Is it uniquely, existentially MY inference, my assembly?  No, because the question & answer reside in language.  The escape from language is also an escape from all possibility of abstractly making sense of our experience.  The next question is, how universal is this unity or coherence?  Heidegger’s dictum – that language speaks man – implies something like Kant’s categories of the mind; that there is a universal process at work.  Like Thomas Kuhn & other posties (postmodernists), F. recognizes that discourse communities author “principles of classification, normative rules, institutionalized types” (cf. Kuhn’s paradigm).  Most importantly, patterns used to associate data “are not intrinsic, autochthonous [it means, originating where found], & universally recognizable characteristics.”

23:  Why or how is a book a unity?  What is the basis of its unity?  F. suggests that a book is a temporal event re-performed in the mind of the reader who “is caught up in a system of references to other books, other texts, other sentences [& to each word, which is known before reading the book]: it [the book] is a node within a network.”  More on discourse communities: “This network of references is not the same in the case of a mathematical treatise, a textual commentary, a historical account, and an episode in a novel cycle” even though each of these communities uses the same English language with recourse to the same dictionary or set of denotative definitions.  We could easily proliferate communities, for example based on historic cultural eras, as F. does on the bottom of p. 22.  Such multiple contexts make the putative unity of the book “variable & relative.  . . . It indicates itself, only on the basis of a complex field of discourse” that is further nuanced or inflected by specific discourse communities.

24:  We began this chapter looking for what unifies discourse.  We found that “such a unity, far from being given immediately [in our experience], is the result of an operation.”  We will add that this operation is social (it takes place within a specific discourse community) & performative (meaning that it is more important to perform as a chemist or a pianist than to know the theory or description of chemistry or music).  “This operation is interpretative (since it deciphers, in the text, the transcription of something that it both conceals & manifests).”  The fancy word is hermeneutics.

25:  One of the unities in ancient Greek thought was etiology, the question of where things came from; what was the One that caused the many?  The Big Bang, astrophysics, & cosmology continue to assume that this is a special, a fundamental pattern for our experience.  F. reminds us that this pattern implies “a secret origin” that leads “towards an ever-receding [anterior] point that is never itself present in any history.”  Thus, we ask, what happened before the Big Bang?  Or, what did the God of Genesis do before He created the universe?  These are illegitimate questions, because language cannot explain silence: “It is supposed therefore that everything that is formulated in discourse was already articulated in that semi-silence that precedes it, which continues to run obstinately beneath it.”  This semi-silence is not true silence.  It hums with the tacit knowledge of vocabulary & grammar.  It is waiting to hear & to speak.
F. makes a forthright declaration about order or patterns: “they do not come about of themselves, but are always the result of [social] construction the rules of which must be known, & the justifications of which must be scrutinized.”

The rest of this ch. speculates on how we can know the rules & justify them, arguing for a postmodern epistemology.

26:  F. rejects the Platonic assumption that order is transcendental & a priori.  (Fox Mulder also says, “the Truth is out there.)  F. says that to be understood, facts “require a theory, & that this theory cannot be constructed unless the field of the facts of discourse on the basis of which those facts are built up appears in its non-synthetic purity.”  This is pretty dense.  Let’s unpack some of it.  Theories are one of the things that a discourse community authors.  They are like institutional mission statements.  Everyone in a discourse community (such as physics) believes that the facts the community is interested in are universal & self-evident.  Of course, they are not.  One only becomes a physicist – recognized as such in accredited universities, professional periodicals, professional conferences, & the like – after years of diligent study.  This is what F. means by “the field of facts”; he means that so-called facts are construed by the performative & temporal experience of professionals within a discourse community.  There are no universal facts.  There are only facts of physics or religion or justice or grammar.  Finally, we need to deal with “non-synthetic purity.”  The point is that there isn’t any.  This is the illusion that we can somehow get outside of history or language to explain them.  This is sometimes called “the view from nowhere.”  One cannot somehow stand outside of culture or language to explain them in some neutral or objective way.  In the 19th century Logical Positivism thought this could be done & many scientists adopted this flattering ideology.  It is historical today.  Theoretical scientists do not believe this.
On the bottom half of the page, F. pretty well explains postmodern analysis as a kind of self-conscious playfulness; elaborating patterns that are optional.

28:  Postmodernism was preceded by Modernism, which believed that the language or professional methods of some discourse community were privileged in the sense that they could provide the Truth that was hidden from all other discourse communities.  In Marxism, e.g., discourse about religion, literature, or even science can never find the underlying cause of things, because they fail to comprehend material determinism &  human nature, which is expressed through creative, freely chosen, & socially useful labor.  Or consider Freudianism.  The Freudian psychoanalyst listens to the discourse of his patients as symptomatic of deeper, unconscious causes that only he & his discourse community are aware of.  Modernism is distinguished by the belief that my discourse community knows the Truth & every other community is mistaken or concerned with inessentials.  Postmodernism scoffs at such faith, recognizing multiple discourse communities.  “We do not seek below what is manifest [i.e., our experience], the half silent murmur of another discourse” like that of Marxism or Freudianism that promises to explain our experience in an abstract substitution of the experience that claims to be more profound than the experience.

29:  “But in no way would they [postie patterns; cf. “explanations”] constitute a sort of secret discourse . . . it is not therefore an interpretation of the facts . . . but the analysis of their coexistence, their succession, their mutual functioning, their reciprocal determination, & their independent or correlative transformation.”  F. can be grim, especially when he talks about the social invention of insanity & criminality with their institutional power to incarcerate, saw brains in half, or otherwise compel behavior.  F.’s books often generate a tone of injustice, a feeling of being cheated; they imply that we should respond with old-fashioned Marxist camaraderie & solidarity to take back what is ours from those who stole it.  So, it is important to recognize F.’s answer to the question that unifies this first chapter:  what unifies discourse?  The answer is, the games that discourse communities play; the way they performatively associate the embodied experiences that the community focuses on.  Some communities look for acts of injustice, others look for disease, yet others pray.  Which of these is the most important?  That question could only be answered from a perspective outside any community, the view from nowhere.  There is no such perspective available to us.  We all speak a language.  Language speaks us.  Discourse communities cannot offer the universal Truth.  They can only offer games to play.  Explanations should not be grim post-mortems.  They should be creative, joyful play.

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