Foucauldian Archaeology and Genealogy Essay

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Michel Foucault’s interpretors have generally broken down his thought into two phases. The early works, Madness and Civilization, The Birth of the Clinic, The Order of Things, and The Archaeology of Knowledge are identified as archaeological, while Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality are identified as genealogical. Foucault himself rejected this binary characterization of his work, yet the words ”genealogy” and ”archaeology” are his own. So, what distinguishes these two modes of analysis, and why did Foucault perceive them as being coterminous in his latter works?

Foucault (1969/1972: 21, 31—9) most fully articulates his early methodological program in The Archaeology of Knowledge, where he adopts the epistemological position that the history of human society must be understood through ”discontinuity, rupture, threshold, limit, series, and transformation,” which perforate the social discourses that span history, creating distinct historical epochs called ”discursive regimes.” By focusing on discontinuity, archaeology opposes itself to any totalizing form of analysis which presents history as a uniform narrative or as subject to a progressive teleological convergence. Moreover, archaeology avoids grounding history in essentializing origins such as human nature. Similar to the traditional image of the archaeologist in the field who unearths the great monuments of the past and attempts to reconstruct the complex circumstances owing to their existence, Foucault suggests that we examine the ordinary documents of a particular period to reconstruct the complex political processes concealed by the dominant discourses which emerged out of that period.

Ultimately, the radical potential of archaeology manifests when we compare previous discursive formations with our own — it is this deployment of the fruits of archaeology as a tactic for critical evaluation that defines genealogical inquiry. Thus, genealogy is more an extension of archaeology than a break with it. Foucault (1976/1980: 84) explains that his genealogy aims to resist the hegemony of scientific knowledge and to produce an ”insurrection of knowledges that are opposed primarily [ . . . ] to the effects of the centralizing powers which are linked to the institution and functioning of an organized scientific discourse within a society such as ours.” However, the genealogical project is always made difficult because subjects are so deeply embedded in the social logic which produced them that fully objective critical evaluations of the present are impossible.

In his genealogical works, Foucault becomes increasingly concerned with uncovering the (often mundane) practices responsible for the transition between history’s disparate epochs. Importantly, the outcomes of these processes are not assumed to be historically necessary, so that, unlike Marxian theorists, Foucault does not propose that any of these stages were inevitable or that they occurred in a determined order. He also more rigorously elaborates the role of power in producing the subjects, institutions, knowledge, and practices of a given period. Foucault comes to view power and knowledge as co-determining. For this reason, the term ”discursive regime” is abandoned in favor of ”power-knowledge regime” (1976/1990: 11). In ”Nietzsche, genealogy, history,” Foucault (1971/ 1998) explicitly reflects on the theoretical evolution of his program and illustrates the profound influence of Friedrich Nietzsche on his later thought.

Bibliography:

  1. Foucault, M. (1969/1972) The Archaeology of Knowledge, trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith. Pantheon, New York.
  2. Foucault, M. (1971/1998) Nietzsche, genealogy, history. In: Faubion, J. & Rabinow, P. (eds.), Aesthetic, Method, and Epistemology. New Press, New York.
  3. Foucault, M. (1976/1980) Two Lectures. Power/ Knowledge, ed. C. Gordon. Pantheon, New York.
  4. Foucault, M. (1976/1990) The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, vol. 1, trans. R. Hurley. Vintage Books, New York.

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