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Applying Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge to Google Analytics

 Introduction: A Brief Overview of Google Analytics

Google Analytics consists of two main components: Google-programmed Javascript code embedded on each page within a website “which collects and sends visitor activity to your Google Analytics account” (“How Analytics Impacts,” 2014) and the reporting mechanism connected to the Javascript code where visitor activity is collected and displayed at The data are sent to Google’s servers for storage via Internet, mediated by the networked hardware elements (switches, routers, fiber, etc.) of the Web.

A visit to a web page in which Google Analytics code is embedded activates the embedded snippet, generates data, and sends those data points to Analytics.

Code snippet sample (from

<script type="text/javascript">
 var _gaq = _gaq || [];
 // Main Site Account
 _gaq.push(['_setAccount', 'UA-xxxxxxx-1']);
 // Legacy Account
 _gaq.push(['l1._setAccount', 'UA-xxxxxxx-2']);
 //rollup account 
 _gaq.push(['rup._setAccount', 'UA-xxxxxxx-1']);
 _gaq.push(['rup._setDomainName', '']);

 (function() {
 var ga = document.createElement('script'); ga.type = 'text/javascript'; ga.async = true;
 ga.src = ('https:' == document.location.protocol ? 'https://ssl' : 'http://www') + '';
 var s = document.getElementsByTagName('script')[0]; s.parentNode.insertBefore(ga, s);

These data points include hundreds of characteristics of the visit, including page visited, time on site/time on page, referral sources, links selected to exit the site, and more. A visual representation of these data points is available below in Figure 1. All data points are recorded in Analytics at the instant of the visit (delayed or rerouted as needed by network hardware). The action of the visit generates these data points; once the visit has been recorded, there is no writing of data in Analytics until another set of data points is recorded via user interaction with content on the page.


Figure 1: Visualizing a sample Google Analytics data set—Popplet 

An active user interaction with the web page itself is required for Google Analytics to register data points. An important distinction is that web crawlers, like Google crawlers, are not recorded as visits; only visitor interactions trigger a response from the embedded code snippet. There is a direct relationship between the data being collected in Analytics and a user’s interaction. However, the user does not enter these data in a conscious or meaningful way; they are simply collected and inscribed to Analytics in a transparent fashion.

Data collected in Google Analytics are aggregated and, for the end user, not individualized. Analytics’ data privacy and security notes that individual user data may be collected, but not provided to the end user (the Analytics account owner, manager, or specialist): “Google Analytics customers are prohibited from sending personally identifiable information to Google, but this principle might not apply in some instances in which Google Analytics is used to to analyze how Google products and services are used by signed in account holders” (“We Use Our Own Products,” 2014). The end user is unable to re-constitute personally identifying information about visitors from the data provided.

However, the aggregated data are able to describe a nuanced portrait of our website visitors, to the point that multiple aggregate profiles are created. The data can help us answer questions about our website, like how many users access the site using a mobile device or tablet or how many pages in the site an average user visits. The answers to these questions, in turn, generate action items to customize web page content to user technologies and patterns of behavior.

Relationship to Foucault

Foucault sought to avoid transcribing discourse within traditional unities like genre or oeuvre; instead, he sought dynamic dispersions to describe the sum of component parts brought together for a specific exigence. “The rules of formation are conditions of existence (but also of coexistence, maintenance, modification, and disappearance) in a given discursive division” (p. 38). In Google Analytics, aggregated data contribute to a discursive monument (p. 139) that describes visits to the website, ostensibly for a specific exigence (e.g. to learn more about the School of Professional and Continuing Studies degree programs: see Figure 2).

Web page screen capture

Figure 2: Sample University of Richmond School of Professional and Continuing Studies degree programs web page

These data, when examined by the end user, help determine whether content or information architecture of the website needs to be revised (e.g. visitors are spending less time on one program page than on another – does this suggest content is more or less compelling on one page than another? See Figure 3).

google analytics screen capture

Figure 3: Exigencies that arise from reviewing Analytics data: Should we revise content in the /hr-management/ folder because average time on page was so much less than /education/ during last month?

This process describes what I might consider a double exigence. On one hand, a visitor’s exigency inscribes visit data in Google Analytics; on the other hand, the end user reviews aggregated visit data to answer questions about the content and/or structure of the website.

Discursive Formation 

There is a single moment, one that is likely measured in milliseconds, even nanoseconds, in which the result of a user’s concrete interaction on a specific web page is the inscription of data on an encrypted Google server containing our Google Analytics account. This moment describes the discursive formation of a statement. Within Analytics, there is no way to have predicted that irruptive moment would occur, as the moment involved a single independent individual having a single, concrete, specific interaction with a specific web page. There is also no way to repeat that exact irruptive moment or that exact discursive enunciation. Even if the individual were to visit that page again within 30 days, the statement would be described in terms of a repeat rather than new visit, likely resulting from selecting a local browser bookmark or conducting a different search. Its existence as an Analytics artifact would therefore differ from previous recorded visits. The statement is not a structural unity; rather, it’s a function of the user’s instantiated interaction with a web page. “This is because it [a statement] is not itself a unit, but a function that cuts across a domain of structures and possible unities, and which reveals them, with concrete contents, in time and space” (Foucault 2010/1972, p. 87). In fact, I can see the monument of that moment in time and space in Analytics (see Figure 3, above, for a visualization of aggregated moments over a month).

Nodes in the Network

Google Analytics defines nodes in its network in terms of metrics and dimensions. Metrics are “quantitative measurements of users, sessions and actions” and dimensions are “characteristics of users, their sessions and actions” (Google Analytics Academy, 2013). In the Popplet Figure 1 (above), “Referring Source” describes metrics and “Visitor Info” describes dimensions. To generate any relationship among metrics and dimensions, a visitor actively engages with a web page that contains embedded code. The visitor to the page, in this case, would be Foucault’s subject. Foucault describes discourse as being formed in the differential relationship among speaker, site, and subject’s relationship to the object (p. 55). Within Analytics, we can see these elements working together to generate a statement. The creator(s) of the web page, both its content and its embedded Analytics code, and the host of the web page, in physical and virtual space, act together as speaker. The speaker presents the page in question (the object) to the subject. The site is described in several different ways as the visitor interacts with the page: site is captured in dimensions that define user characteristics like amount of time spent on a page, browser type, platform, time of day, IP address of the visiting computer’s physical network, approximate geographic location of the visitor’s browser, and more. The subject’s relationship to the page (object) is captured by metrics that measure activity, including referring source (the link clicked or URL entered to arrive at the website in question). Metrics and dimensions work together as discursive formation that is collected in Analytics. Without a differentiated relationship (in which the subject is entering URLs, selecting links, or some other positivistic action that generates browser activity), no discursive content is collected.


Google Analytics is a Foucauldian archive of networked discourse. The discursive formation occurs the moment a subject follows or enters a web link. The active interaction of subject, object, and speaker/author/creator generates a discursive statement. That statement’s networked archive is inscribed as an assemblage of data points. A summary of those data points—in relationship to one another as metrics and dimensions and in relationship to subject, object, speaker, goals, and events—appears below in Figure 4.

Popplet screen capture

Figure 4: Google Analytics as networked archive of a discursive statement—Popplet

Agency and Flow

Google Analytics nodes are metrics and dimensions. These nodes have no agency of themselves. They are created and inscribed in the moment of visiting a web page.

However, Analytics requires agency at higher levels of the network hierarchy, in the differentiated relationship among speaker (page author, coder, and host), site (metrics and dimensions), and subject (visitor) relationship to the object (web page). Among these nodes (which are tangentially part of the Analytics network because the object contains the embedded Analytics code snippet), the subject is the agent that creates and sustains the network. As the result of a concrete action on a tracked web page, visit data are generated by the embedded code snippet and transmitted, via network hardware, to Google servers. At the same moment, a separate snippet of code is written to (or updated on) the subject’s browser cache (a cookie) that assists the tracking snippet in determining whether the visitor is new or returning to the page. User agency can erase the cookie, which may the dimension of new or returning visitor, and the user can determine whether to follow links, stay on the page, or follow an embedded event (like watching a video or reviewing a news feed). Agency and flow are largely “single bus” activities—they travel from the visitor to the Google server, but not directly back to the visitor. Some indirect agency can be found in the speaker (author and coder) in that results of metrics and dimensions analyses may include changes to web pages that become new again to the subject (visitor).

The Archive and the Archaeologist

As the person who has been granted administrative authority by our central website authority (Director of Web Services) to interact with data in Google Analytics, I have access to a vast (albeit potentially incomplete, given Google’s ownership of the archive itself) portion of the archive of discourse. Foucault describes an archive as the collection of discursive formations, a finite collection that does not point to some transcendent future or some ideal meaning. “The never completed, never wholly achieved uncovering of the archive forms the general horizon to which the description of discursive formations, the analysis of positivities, the mapping of the enunciative field belong” (p. 131). Analytics does not ascribe meaning to the discursive moment itself. Rather, it records the irruptive actions of the discursive formation as a collection of statements in an archive. As an administrative user, I can access that archive and recreate a visualization of discursive moments that occurred. They are inscribed in the metrics and dimensions recorded at the irruptive moment. At best, I can “dig into” the archived results to determine patterns of activity (metrics) and characteristics (dimensions). I and other users with access to some or all aspects of the Analytics account are archaeologists plumbing the depths of the archive.

Google Analytics visualizes flow by archiving the actions that generated flow, but Analytics data themselves are not in flow. They’re an archive of data generated via discourse. For lack of a better analogy, GA is a chapter book I can read that contains archived evidence of discourse. Those traces represent, but are not themselves, the discursive formations of statements.


Google Analytics is a networked archive and an archived network.

Networked archive: The archive is networked in that it collects interrelated data points and demonstrates the relationship among those data points using visualizations and aggregated data. Those relationships can be explored by someone with user access to the Google Analytics account. In this networked instant, my role as archive archaeologist activates the network, which otherwise represents little more than a collection of data points that, at the moment of web browsing, represented active discourse.

Archived network: The network is archived in that Google Analytics collects the network activity of subjects, objects, and creators/speakers—their discourses. The subject’s interaction with a web page results in discursive formation of statements; a sample statement is visualized in Figure 4 (above). A collection of such statements from a single subject is aggregated as a user session, which I would consider Foucault’s concept of a monument. A collection of those user sessions (monuments) in aggregate is the archive, and that’s what Analytics gives access to.


Original snippet: [...they are simply collected and inscribed to Analytics in a transparent fashion...]

“Transparent” probably isn’t the right term. If you’ve ever seen a page load delayed by a message at the bottom of the browser window that says something like “Loading,” you’ve encountered the code snippet at work, struggling through network latency to load the data to Google’s servers. [return]


Foucault, M. (2010). The archaeology of knowledge and the discourse on language. (A. M. Sheridan Smith, Trans.). New York, NY: Vintage Books. (Original work published in 1972)

Google Analytics Academy. (2013, October). Key metrics and dimensions defined [Video transcript]. Digital Analytics Fundamentals. Retrieved from

How Analytics impacts your website code. (2014). Retrieved 2014, 10 February from

We use our own products. (2014). Retrieved 2014, 10 February from

[“Rue Foucault”: Creative Commons licensed image by Flickr user sarahstarkweather]

Finishing Foucault: Week 2 Reading Notes

Courtesy of

Courtesy of

Brief Summary

In the last sections of Archaeology, Foucault situates his methodology for historical analysis as archaeology by outlining a process for describing discourse. Foucault is careful to distinguish his method as different from a history of ideas (an approach which it closely resembles) by characterizing its distinct factors–primarily its reliance on description rather than a tracing of origins, intent, or meaning.

Describing discourse, Foucault posits, begins with describing statements, which are the most basic units of discourse. The concept of a statement as Foucault uses it is difficult to understand because of our previous associations of statements as sentences, linguistic constructions, or acts of speech (perhaps examples of the unities he persuades us to let go of in the first two sections of the book). Foucault’s statements, however, refer to something less concrete, something that is simultaneously visible and invisible–they serve as functions rather than as things. As such, they have no unifying rules, rather their rules of construction are constituted by the institutions, subjects, and fields (enunciated functions) by which they are formed.

The relations between statements, then, allow for discursive formations. Foucault is clear (or as clear as he can be) that his approach to historical (really, discourse in this situation) analysis is descriptive. This description is more concerned with statements’ conditions of existence, perseverance, and disappearance than it is with their signified meanings and subject intent (SparkNotes, p. 47).

Key Points with Discussion

In this section, I bring forward several of Foucault’s claims to support one discussion/example that helped me understand the approach a little better.

1. Foucault is insistent that we consider the subject not on an individual level but on a level with discourse (which, as we know, is the system of statements within an associated field). As such, the subject’s authority is based not on his/her own expertise, rather it is based on the expertise of his/her role in the field.

2. Foucault points to the importance of rarity for the archaeological approach. Rather than considering statements as frequent, common events, Foucault emphasizes recognizing the rarity of circumstances surrounding each statement. While the opportunities for statements are endless, each condition of emergence is unique.

3.  The principle of repeatable materiality explains that a set of signs can be repeated if its identity is based on non-material factors (such as grammar) but cannot be repeated if its identity is gained through material factors (such as institutions).

Something of a synthesis: These claims together help me understand how a concept can be both visible and invisible at the same time–how they serve as functions in discourse rather than as signifiers of meaning. For example, if we take the statement “mistakes were made” in two different scenarios, we’ll see how they maintain identity through the linguistic structure but not through the materiality of construction.

  • Scenario 1: Politicians frequently use the phrase “mistakes were made.” While my first inclination is to resort to why (the subject’s intent), Foucault’s approach asks us to describe the conditions in which the statement emerged. Why this statement and not another? How does it function in the situation? How does it differ temporally from one politician’s use of it to another’s?
  • Scenario 2: In order to teach passive voice to her ENG 101 students, an instructor uses the statement “mistakes were made.” Although I’ve already introduced intent (because it’s so hard not to!), asking the same questions above will produce different answers, thereby revealing a different set of conditions of emergence for the statement.

Key Terms:

I’m still having a difficult time articulating the terms, so I’ve pulled definitions from Foucault, SparkNotes, and a Michel Foucault website. Links to SparkNotes and the website are provided in the References Section.

Archaeology: “Archaeology is about examining the discursive traces and orders left by the past in order to write a ‘history of the present’. In other words archaeology is about looking at history as a way of understanding the processes that have led to what we are today” (O’Farrell).

Archive: “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 is the general system of the formation and transformation of statements” (Foucault, p. 130).

“Designates the collection of all material traces left behind by a particular historical period and culture. In examining these traces one can deduce the historical a priori of the period and then if one is looking at science, one can deduce the episteme of the period. None of these concepts has predictive value – they are all descriptions of limited historical orders” (O’Farrell).

Discontinuity: “challenges notions of cause, effect, progress, destiny, tradition and influence in history” (O’Farrell)

Discourse: “constituted by a group of sequences of signs, in so far as they are statements, that is, in so far as they can be assigned particular modalities of existence” (Foucault, p. 107)

“at the most basic level he uses the term to refer to the material verbal traces left by history. He also uses it to describe ‘a certain “way of speaking” (O’Farrell)

discourse is not just a set of articulated propositions, nor is it the trace of an otherwise hidden psychology, spirit, or encompassing historical idea; it is the set of relations within which all of these other factors gain their sense (their conditions of possibility). This argument is responsible both for the immense success of Foucault’s method and for the most persistent criticisms of it. The idea that discourse can be described in and of itself, not as a sign of what is known but as a precondition for knowledge, opens up limitless possibilities for showing that what we think we know is actually contingent on how we talk about it. (Sparknotes)

Discursive Formation: “A discursive formation [. . .] presents the principle of articulation between a series of discursive events and other series of events, transformations, mutations, and processes” (Foucault, p. 74).

“The discursive formation is roughly equivalent to a scientific discipline” (O’Farrell).

Discursive Practice: “This term refers to a historically and culturally specific set of rules for organizing and producing different forms of knowledge. It is not a matter of external determinations being imposed on people’s thought, rather it is a matter of rules which, a bit like the grammar of a language, allow certain statements to be made” (

Enunciation: “The discursive conditions under which (a statement) could be said, rather than the grammatical, propositional, or strictly material conditions under which it could be formulated. Thus, an enunciation always involves aposition from which something is said; this position is not defined by a psychology, but by its place within (and its effect on) a field of discourse in all its complexity” (Sparknotes, p. 13).

Enunciative Function:”Designates that aspect of language by which statements relate to other statements” (Sparknotes, p. 13).

Episteme: “Refers to the orderly ‘unconscious’ structures underlying the production of scientific knowledge in a particular time and place. It is the ‘epistemological field’ which forms the conditions of possibility for knowledge in a given time and place” (O’Farrell).

Historical a Priori: “This is the order underlying any given culture at any given period of history. Foucault also uses the phrase the ‘positive unconscious of knowledge’ to refer to the same idea. The episteme which describes scientific forms of knowledge is a subset of this” (O’Farrell).

Material Repeatability: “A defining characteristic of the statement. It is also a kind of paradox: if we identify a single statement solely on the basis of its specific material existence, that statement will never be truly repeatable (it will be a different statement with each new articulation); but if we identify a statement solely on the basis of what it ’means’ (i.e., its propositional content), that statement can be repeated ad infinitum, without regard to the differences in its material, time-space coordinates” (Sparknotes, p. 14).

Non-discursive Practices: “including ‘institutions, political events, economic practices and processes’ (p.162). He also argues that discourse does not underlie all cultural forms. Forms such as art and music are not discursive. He also notes: ‘there is nothing to be gained from describing this autonomous layer of discourses unless one can relate it to other layers, practices, institutions, social relations, political relations, and so on. It is that relationship which has always intrigued me’” (O’Farrell).

Statement: The most basic unit of discourse which does not, however, contains not basic unit. Rather than a thing, we can thing of a statement as a “unique method for the analysis of sets of signs” (Sparknotes, p. 45).

Subject: “The subject is an entity which is self-aware and capable of choosing how to act. Foucault was consistently opposed to nineteenth century and phenomenological notions of a universal and timeless subject which was at the source of how one made sense of the world, and which was the foundation of all thought and action. The problem with this conception of the subject according to Foucault and other thinkers in the 1960s, was that it fixed the status quo and attached people to specific identities that could never be changed” (O’Farrell).

Additional Resources

Outline of Archaeology of Knowledge: If you’re a person of linear thought like me, you’ll appreciate this detailed outline of the entire book. I appreciate that it breaks each section down into the primary concepts.

Summary by Section: This is an easy-to-understand summary by section.

Detailed Summary: This more detailed summary by SparkNotes also offers analysis for each chapter. Additionally, you can find explanations of key terms and concepts.

Network Archaeology: I don’t know if we’re ready to make these kinds of jumps, yet, but this could be an interesting site for us to look through. There may be resources for those working on digital networks.


Foucault, M. Archaeology of knowledge.

O’Farrell, C. (2013). Key concepts. Retrieved from

SparkNotes. (2002). Archaeology of knowledge. Retrieved from

ENGL 894: Readings & Planning

Foucault, “Archaeology of Knowledge: 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.