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Reading Notes: Class Meeting 1/21/14

Michel Foucault: Archaeology of Knowledge, Part I and II

A Few Thoughts:

Ah, Michel Foucault. We meet again good sir. And again. And again. And whenever I see your work on my reading list, my first thought is...

Graffiti image in black and white featuring an iconic image of Michel Foucault with the text "What the Foucault?" underneath
Image by Leopold Lambert and featured on his blog The Funambulist

Followed closely by this thought:

I think to myself, there is no simple anything when it comes you. Your intelligence and ability to think and write about abstract and nuanced concepts is intimidating, and often causes my brow to furrow in deep concentration (or is that consternation) when attempting to teases meaning from your sentences.

My first encounter with you was as an undergraduate in a Humanities course where you taught me about Postmodernism. Then in graduate school we met again under the auspices of an introduction to literary criticism. We met again while I studied modern rhetoric. You have surfaced in countless courses for countless reasons, and when you weren't brought up specifically, I could often feel your presence lurking there in the shadows of what went unstated. Now here we are, meeting again in Theories of Networks. Come to think of it, our interaction itself is something of a network - you, me, discourse, theory, course work... 

I am fain to undertake your work, The Archaeology of Knowledge, and look forward to where you take me this time. 

Books as Networks:

"The frontiers of a book are never clear-cut: beyond the title, the first lines, and the last full-stop, beyond its internal configuration and its autonomous form, it is caught up in a system of references to other books, other texts, other sentences: it is a node within a network" (23, emphasis added).

Is a book part of a network? Foucault argues it is, but how is it useful to think of literary texts as participating in a network? It seems the answer is that it becomes possible to "analyse the interplay of their appearances and dispersion" (35).

It becomes possible to think of a novel not a singular entity, but as a node, making it possible to study the connections and links that exist between it and other nodes in the network. Rather than attempting to do a close reading and finding all meaning embedded in the text, the book as network approach looks out into the entirety of human literary production and asks, "how does this relate"? How does it change the network? How is it responding to other nodes? How has it been incorporated into other nodes?

It allows the "entire field to be set free" (26). The scholar is unbound to explore the network is a non-linear way, free of the structures of analysis previously governing the discipline that consider the text as a singularity.

Total description and General History:

"A total description draws all phenomena around a single center - a principle, a meaning, a spirit, a world-view, an overall shape; a general history, on the contrary, would deploy the space of dispersion" (10).

Throughout the introduction, Foucault advocates for a new theoretical approach to studying history, or any field where a critical approach applies. Here he labels that approach "a general history" as opposed to "a total description." The total description seeks to follow linear or chronological approaches, where causes and effects can be traced to a particular origin - a center. On the other hand, the general history eschews the restrictions of lineality or chronology and recognizes that objects exist in spatial relation to one another - dispersed across a field. This of course is at the heart of networks; the notion that knowledge exists in a series of nodes and connections - not a clean, straight line from one idea to another but rather a chaotic, interwoven rhizome of human thought.

wheel featuring a central hub with outwardly emanating spokes
The total description: all knowledge able to be directly traced back to central origin.
Image by Bhakti Yoga Meditation

black and white illustration featuring hubs and connections of varying size in random pattern
The general history: knowledge exists dispersed across space.
Image by Nomadology

Documents as instruments of the past and present:

Foucault explains that traditionally documents "sometimes merely hint at...the past from which they emanate...the document was always treated as the language of a voice since reduced to silence, its fragile, but possibly decipherable trace" (6). He continues to explain that this traditional view of the document as a repository of past voices overlooks the possibility for documents to go beyond a mere record of history into objects which function to create discourse, to "be grouped, made relevant, placed in relation to one another to form totalities" (7). Later, he discusses "the possibility of discovering or constituting a meaning in the inertia of the past" (11).

For me this discussion resonates with the work I do to uncover and preserve underground press publications. These artifacts are important in the sense of both theories of documents. The newspapers do provide a trace, a hint, at voices from the past. We are able to learn about our collective history and gain insight into an historical era through the rhetorical examination of their contents. Furthermore, when these newspapers and magazines are left in the basements and attics and museum archives, they become silent voices no longer capable of reaching an audience.

However, as Foucault suggests in the second and third quotes, the study of these documents is also a powerful tool for uncovering previously unexplored relations and connections to politics, art, journalism, or activist movements from other times and places for example. Additionally, in the pursuit of this work, I have been able to rekindle connections between writers and illustrators that had also fallen silent over time. Foucault suggests, and my work supports, the idea that a document functions as both an artifact revealing the past and as an object that through grouping and relating to other texts can create new network connections and insights.

Embracing the chaos of the rhizomatic world: 

For me, one of the persistent obstacles I face in graduate school is the tension between my desire for the concrete and tangible and the abstract nature of theory and research. In research, there are always contradictions and questions left unanswered. there are dead ends and conflicting data. It's messy. Same with theory. As soon as you get through Bitzer, here comes Vatz to flip the discussion upside-down and Biesecker to...complicate...the matter. It can be disconcerting, hard to find a foothold in the academic conversation that is happening all around me, in all directions, stretching backwards and laterally. It's like being dropped into the rhizome picture above when all you want is someone to show you the wheel's center.

Given this, it was interesting to see Foucault comment, "If the history of thought...could weave, around everything that men say and do, obscure synthesis that anticipate for him, prepare him, and lead him endlessly towards his future, it would provide a privileged shelter for the sovereignty of consciousness" (12). However, in this view "revolutions are never more than moments of consciousness" (12). In a world where all thought is synthesized and anticipated, the world is safe, controllable, knowable - my desire for the concrete has shelter. And it feels good to have something to point to, to say - "This. This is Truth." I want that clarity and stability.

Yet, as Foucault points out, this view reduces revolutionary thinking to a temporary hiccup that disrupts the continuity and stability of thought. Revolution is a moment waiting to be subsumed by the traditional thinking. Encountering this thought has me rethinking my tendency toward the stable. I have always thought of myself outside academia as embracing revolutionary thinking, welcoming the questioning mind, working to destabilize static modes of thought. However, if I cling to the desire for the concrete, then I am devaluing the revolutionary; I am relegating it to an intellectual hiccup to be suppressed so that order and predictability can be restored.

Revolutionary thought is not an anomaly before returning to stasis; it is a brave push in an uncharted direction, an exploration of the "space of a dispersion" and a worthwhile venture into the unknown (10).

"One is forced to advance beyond familiar territory, far from the certainties to which one is accustomed, towards an as yet uncharted land and unforeseeable conclusion" (39).

I will be brave, dear Foucault! I will be brave. Until we meet again...

Works Cited:

Foucault, Michel. Archaeology of Knowledge. New York: Vintage Books, 2010. Print.