Three Notes on Foucault

“We must not see the constitution of natural history, with the empirical climate in which it develops, as an experiment forcing entry, willy-nilly, into a knowledge that was keeping watch on the truth of nature elsewhere … natural history … is the space opened up … in representation by an analysis which is anticipating the possibility of naming.”

– Michel Foucault, The Order of Things, 130

“Structure is that designation of the visible which, by means of a kind of pre-linguistic sifting, enables it to be transcribed into language. But the description thus obtained is nothing more than a sort of proper noun.”

– Michel Foucault, The Order of Things, 138

Note 1.

Foucault’s archaeology has been confused as an entirely semiotic, linguistic project and/or mode of analysis. This seems to contradict everything about Foucault’s actual work. Foucault’s work is a discursive analysis of material phenomena with philosophy as written material. We therefore should look at archaeology in Foucault as a kind of literal analogy to archaeology proper as both perform a work of hermeneutics on and around the history of a culture and the atmosphere of their ideas as an investigation into material culture. Foucault is an archaeologist in and for a World in which the materials in use and investigation are not that of the “ritualistic” devices of a so-called “primitive” peoples with their spiritually-endowed aesthetic items & oral cultures, but rather the “rich” archive and recorded history of the read-as-fossil material that still continue to impact the circulation of ideas today. What happens when the archaeologist turns in upon themselves rather than the anthropologist? The anthropologist had begun to do so, looking at its own humanity, as if it were an alien civilization. The archaeologist, looks at its own civilization, as if it were a dying civilization.

Note 2.

Could it be that Foucault is writing a “science of the word”?

Note 3.           

Foucault, Derrida, and Deleuze are the most “modernist” of the “post-structuralist” thinkers. Lyotard and Baudrillard are the most “post-modern” of the “post-structuralist.” This means that, Lyotard and Baudrillard were willing to make the break with modernity the most. Foucault is not questioning science as such, but instead is describing the conditions of possibility upon which linguistics, taxonomy & economy came to be considered a human science at all. My hypothesis is that it is this framing which makes Baudrillard state, “Forget Foucault.” Recall that Baudrillard’s criticism is essentially that Foucault is still a modernist. I think this statement is both truth and simulacrum. Foucault must be understood, especially in his early work, as an actual archaeologist and it is this occupation which marks his modernism. The scientificity and Nietzschean empiricism of his archaeology request a transvaluation of values. And it is for this reason, that I want to return to the remarks Foucault makes in his ‘Foreword to the English Edition’ at the top of his book, The Order of Things. Foucault’s archaeology is consistently imagined to be something which freezes time. He is “a structuralist” so the academics claim and structuralism always presupposes a frozenness. Yet, Foucault begs, to the contrary on the last paragraph of his foreword. He states:

I have been unable to get it into their minds that I have used none of the methods, concepts, or key terms that characterize structuralist analysis. I should be grateful if a more serious public would free me from a connection that certainly does me honor, but that I have not deserved. There may well be certain similarities between the works of the structuralist and my own work. It would hardly behove me, of all people, to claim that my discourse is independent of conditions and rules of which I am very largely unaware, and which determine other work that is being done today. But it is only too easy to avoid the trouble of analysing such work by giving it an admittedly impressive-sounding, but inaccurate, label. (xiv)

This is important because it is very connected to the sense in which Foucault is an understood as a “philosopher of structure,” frozen-time, and impossible change. Yet, Foucault discusses this too. Frankly, openly, and in a way that counters all of what is typically said about him. Listen closely:

I should like this work to be read as an open site. Many questions are laid out on it that have not yet found answers; and many of the gaps refer either to earlier works or to others that have yet been completed or even begun. But I should like to mention three problems.

[I’m going to highlight only one.]

The problem of change. It has been said that this work denies the very possibility of change. And yet my main concern has been with changes. In fact, two things in particular struck me: the suddenness and thoroughness with which certain sciences were reorganized; and the fact that at same time similar changes occurred in apparently very different disciplines … Confronted by such a curious combination of phenomena, it occurred to me that these changes should be examined more closely, without being reduced, in the name of continuity, in either abruptness or scope. (xii)

This “curious combination of phenomena” is the early classical writing of the early thinkers on general linguistics, taxonomy and economics. This explosion of writing and thought on topics initiated a “change” of which The Order of Things is principally invested in investigating as an “open site.” An archaeological site is a place (or group of physical sites) in which evidence of past activity is preserved (either prehistoric or historic or contemporary), and which has been, or may be, investigated using the discipline of archaeology and represents a part of the archaeological record. Sites may range from those with few or no remains visible above ground, to buildings and other structures still in use. Foucault reads these texts like an archaeologist reads a site. Remember, the Birth of the Clinic, is a book about language, space, and death. Therefore, there is a way in which, Foucault truly is not saying anything out of the ordinary about Modernity itself. The long-stated assumption of modernist historicity has been that the modern period inaugurated a transformation in knowledge. This is not only Thomas Kuhn, but the entirety of the epistemic backdrop behind the idea of Modernity and the Enlightenment as such. Foucault states: “I tried to describe the combination of corresponding transformations that characterized the appearance of biology, political economy, philology, a number of human sciences, and a new type of philosophy, at the threshold of the nineteenth century.” (xii) There has always appeared to be a consensus here that something happened – at the threshold of the nineteenth century – which could be thought of as nothing short of a “transformation.”

What then is Foucault’s epistemic crime? My hunch is that it is most similar to Bruno Latour’s crime in the laboratory and yet, like that crime, it never completely disassociates with science, reason, empiricism and historicity entoto instead, it goes inside of these categories to show their conditions. Foucault’s archaeological methodology reads modernity as if it were a dead and/or dying civilization – as an archaeologist does with the remnants of a so-called “primitive”  civilization. Just as Latour interprets experimental science as an alien culture – as an anthropologist does with their xenophobic (stranger-anxiety) exegesis of the Other’s “culture.” The anxiety this generates is interesting to me because Baudrillard is essentially correct in stating that Foucault’s early work (at least) are essentially modernist text. Their rhetorical force is driven by empiricism and rational critique. But his work intentionally perverts its potential as if to say, “This time which we feel and think and consider to be Time is nothing more than an amalgamation of materials which I now will read-as-fossils of a dying civilization, my civilization.” Foucault, therefore, nevertheless shares in Baudrillard’s perversion. Their pleasure was found in gathering the phenomena for the production of a creative and intellectual description of their own demise. The conditions which made possible the production of The Order of Things are the conditions of a discursive formation which relies on the materiality of text as the foundations for a sense of frozen structure. The task of the archaeologist is to dig through the bones and in this material find what became and what could have been. But it is also to describe a certain wave of being that existed for a dead and dying people. Through the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, the materiality of the text became of grave importance in a way that any “archaeologist” of the time period would have to understand to comprehend the “Time.”

One easy (and traditional) way of describing this is the invention of the printing press. The printing press is interesting because it shows the important intersection between writing and materiality by way of technology. Foucault’s archaeology would subsume the printing press under an episteme of a discursive formation that begins to defer to the written word. He states:

The primacy of the written word explains the twin presence of two forms, which despite their apparent antagonism are indissociable in sixteenth-century knowledge. The first of these is a non-distinction between what is seen and what is read, between observation and relation, which results in the construction of a single, unbroken surface in which observation and language intersect to infinity. And the second, the inverse of the first, is an immediate dissociation of all language, duplicated, without any assignable term, by the constant reiteration of commentary. (39)

The first is the non-distinction between object and word (the material is what the word speaks); the second is the word as endless stream of language, as consistent flow of speech and commentary. The abundance of the written word. This is the human becoming homo narrans too. And what we find is that this species of Being has not died nor does it seem to be dying but it remains as the codes (both material and semiotic) which guide my very own writing currently, and Foucault’s own, and with that, every mission to defeat its reigning regime-of-truth is trapped in a race for another kind of transformation. Foucault attempts to decipher his World as dying in order to transform it. For this, it is still to a Nietzschean genealogy and empiricism, that Foucault’s archaeological approach to modernism belongs. It is an archaeology of the order of things which cryptically insist on the transvaluation of values. That Foucault has no interest in prescribing an alternative value system is enough to dismiss the claims of normative prescription in his (early) work. The order, in Foucault, is disorder and it is only a regime of truth which forgets this.

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