'Continuous history is the indispensable correlative of the founding function of the subject : the guarantee that everything that has eluded him may be restored to him; the certainty that time will disperse nothing without restoring it in a reconstituted unity; the promise that one day the subject - in the form of historical consciousness - will once again be able to appropriate, to bring back under his sway, all those things that are kept at a distance by difference, and find in them what might be called his abode.' Michel Foucault, Archaeology of Knowledge, Routledge 1995 p12
In the previous section we looked with contemporary critical eyes at the nature of the self, and discussed how the notion of the 'self' has been problematised by postmodern discourse. We discovered in its place an individual who is at best a unique blend and collage of pre-existing roles which he cites, an activity of presenting ourselves to one another through this role-play, and a defining of ourselves and of one another through this interaction. We are what we do, and much of what we do is about gender.
In this section we shall be looking at history, focusing not upon individual historical 'periods', which we shall be looking at in the next section, but as an approach to understanding. We shall be looking at the 'archaeological' and 'genealogical' historical perspectives of Foucault, so that we may later begin to attempt to understand the notion of the 'individual subject,' firstly as a historical phenomenon, a form of selfhood pertinent to a particular historical period and not to others, and secondly, how it arose and how it is coming to an end.
Foucault's historical analysis is one that deals with the history of thought, of knowledge, of philosophy, of literature, and as an analysis, it attempts to step back, in a kind of double detachment, from claims both of truth and deep meaning in history, and to study the discourse of any particular time with a neutrality as to whether what it asserts is true, makes sense, or even "whether the notion of a context-free truth claim is coherent."23 With this detached form of historical analysis we may begin to discuss history from a perspective that is no longer tied to the needs of a historically contingent selfhood.
Foucault seeks a "pure description of discursive events"24 that avoids a number of pitfalls: the temptation of 'tradition' to "isolate the new against a [spurious] background of permanence"25 ; the "divisions or groupings with which we have become so familiar,"26 like 'science,' 'ideology,' 'theory,' etc..; the posthumous interpretative designation of an "oeuvre" to a carefully selected portion of a writer's "vast mass of verbal traces left....at his death"27 ; and the "unquestioned continuities by which we organize, in advance, the discourse we are to analyse,"28 by assuming that every manifest discourse is necessarily preceded by a "secret origin," and based upon an "already-said," that lurks beneath what is said.
The description of discursive events is one that studies statements - Foucault's 'unit' of discourse - in isolation from an allegorical discussion of the intentions, conscious or unconscious, of the speaking subject, which is more proper to a history of thought. It does not ask,"what is being said in what was said?"29 or question things said as to "what they are hiding, what they are really saying," but "what it means for them to have appeared when and where they did -they and no others."30
As with the postmodern theorists of the self, he borrows from the language of the stage, defining 'linguistic performance' as any group of signs produced on the basis of a language, and a 'formulation' as a 'performative' act, an event which reveals that group of signs, an act that has a time, a place, and an author.
The statement is defined as "the modality of existence proper to that group of signs" 31 which allows it "to be in relation with a domain of objects, to be situated among other verbal performances, and to be endowed with a repeatable materiality." This definition of the statement distinguishes it from being merely a sentence. The statement gains its distinctiveness from its relation to other statements, whereas the sentence, as a grammatical form, may exist in isolation. Similarly, whereas a sentence taken from a book and looked at in isolation may be open to an interpretation that will find much more beyond and within it than it actually says, so Foucault's statement says clearly and simply what it says, and no more. "Maps can be statements if they are used as representations of a geographical area, and even a picture of the layout of a typewriter keyboard can be a statement if it appears in a manual as a representation of the way the letters of a keyboard are standardly arranged."32
Statements, then, are 'performances,' which can be taken at face value. There are normal, everyday statements, of course, like "it is going to rain."33 Also there are, to use the terminology of Austin and Searle34 what could be described as "serious speech acts"35 -for example, the statement "It is going to rain" becomes a serious speech act when it is spoken by the Weatherman. It is the latter kind to which Foucault refers when speaking of the 'statement.'
In the context of a description of discursive events, statements must pass appropriate tests in order to be 'true.' 'Truth,' indeed, relies upon certain conditions: when "an authorized subject asserts (writes, paints, says) what - on the basis of the accepted method - is a serious truth claim," its veracity may be depended upon, and "This systematic, institutionalized justification of the claim of certain speech acts to be true of reality takes place in a context in which truth and falsity have serious social consequences." (D&R p48) Serious speech acts are thereby constituted as serious by the current rules of a specific truth game, or "enunciative field" in which they have a role. Most importantly, it is their place in the network of other serious speech acts, and nothing else, which gives speech acts their seriousness, and thus makes them statements. A statement is, indeed, an "element in a field of coexistence."36
Disdaining to discuss the human sciences and fields of knowledge according to their own groupings and divisions, or acknowledge the boundaries of what are known as the 'disciplines,' Foucault talks of discourse itself not as "a group of signs (signifying elements referring to contents or representations,) but as practices that systematically form the objects of which they speak."37 The so-called unity of the group figures such as psychology, economics, grammar, medicine etc, he questions at this level, preferring to lable them specifically as groups of statements he calls 'discursive formations.'
The 'discursive formation' Foucault defines as "the general enunciative system that governs a group of verbal performances."38 It is, thus, a collection of statements: "groups of verbal performances that are not linked to one another at the sentence level by grammatical...links;" nor "at the proposition level by logical links;" not "at the formulation level by psychological links...;but which are linked at the statement level." It is the discursive formation in which a statement, as a serious speech act, gains its seriousness.
The relationship between the discursive formation and the statement is critical. The formation is not simply the sum of all the statements within it. Nor has the formation determined its contents from all the possible statements it might contain. The discursive formation "determines what can count even as a possible element. The whole verbal context is more fundamental than its elements and thus is more than the sum of its parts. Indeed there are no parts except within the field which identifies and individuates them."39 This is archaeological holism.
The discursive formation is, because of this holism, immune to abstraction - one cannot say that all discursive formations are structured in this or that way, because "the rules governing the system of statements are nothing but the ways the statements are actually related."40 The supposed unities of the human sciences Foucault maintains fail even on their own terms. "He observes that there is no essential characteristic of any discipline defined in the traditional way that remains the same through change."41 One cannot find abstract laws governing formations, one can only describe specific rules of transformation, by which these formations change over time.
Foucault uses the word discourse in several ways: "treating it sometimes as the general domain of all statements, somnetimes as an individualisable group of statements, and sometimes as a regulated practice that accounts for a certain number of statements."42
'A' discourse, then, Foucault defines as a "group of statements in so far as they belong to the same discursive formation."43 But 'archaeology' is always in the plural. It is always the relations between different discourses, what distinguishes them, their peaks, juxtapositions and separations of which it speaks. The archaeological analysis of a particular discourse, (Foucault wrote of psychiatry in Madness and Civilisation, and of medicine in Birth of the Clinic,) is concerned, by comparison, with its chronological limits, and with its relations to political, economic, social and demographic simultaneities.
Having defined a domain (statements, enunciative field, discursive practices and formations,) with which to discuss unities in discourse over time, Foucault then applies this method to historical analysis.
First, there are four thresholds a discursive formation might pass over as it emerges, which he identifies as: (i)positivity, the moment when a discursive practice becomes recognisably distinct; (ii)epistemologisation, when the formation sets itself up with a group of statements against which others are to be judged true or false, and "exercises a dominant function (as a model, a critique, or a verification) over knowledge, (iii)scientificity, when such an 'epistemological figure' complies with "certain laws for the construction of propositions,"44 and (iv)formalisation, when it can take "itself as a starting point, to deploy the formal edifice that it constitutes," defining everything it needs for its own existence.
Foucault then goes on to describe how archaeological historical analysis differs from what he identifies as the two, main types of analysis: recurrential, and epistemological.
Recurrential analysis occurs at the level of formalisation and marks each historical event with a locality and formal level within the totality of the formal science. Mathematics is useful to illustrate the point: a modern mathematician might deem the ancient Greek method of 'exhaustions' as a naive model of calculus, for example, rather than an impasse which had to be escaped from. This form of analysis can only be carried out within a constituted science, "one that has crossed its threshold of formalisation."45
Epistemological analysis situates itself at the threshold of scientificity, and concerns itself with establishing how a field of enquiry swathed in metaphor and fantasy purifies itself to become a scientific concept. Thus the formalised science is cast as truth prevailing against the error of its pre-scientific past. Rationality is pitted against arcane irrationality, purity versus impurity.
Foucault's archaeological history, on the other hand, is situated at the threshold of epistemologisation, detached from truth or meaning, its aim is to "uncover...discursive practices in so far as they give rise to a corpus of knowledge....to reveal between positivities, knowledge, epistemological figures, and sciences, a whole set of differences, relations, gaps, shifts, independences, autonomies, and the way in which they articulate their own historicities on one another."46
At this point Foucault coins a word that is crucial to our current project. The word is Episteme, and we shall return to it many times as this paper unfolds. It is similar to a concept introduced by Kuhn: the paradigm.47 Both concepts attempt to account for the apparent unity of a scientific community through allegiance to something other than a shared set of beliefs.
Neither a form of knowledge, nor a type of rationality, the episteme is nothing less than the total set of relations that unite the discursive practices of a given period. "It is what, in the positivity of discursive practices, makes possible the existence of epistemological figures and sciences." Not unlike the relationship between the discursive formation and the statement, the thresholds through which a discursive formation may emerge are themselves governed by the episteme, which in turn becomes more than the sum of all the discursive practices at a given period. Fluid in nature, it is "a constantly moving set of articulations, shifts and coincidences that are established, only to give rise to others."48
The concept of the Episteme is crucial to this paper for the following reasons: Firstly, we are attempting to discover resemblances between two distinct historical periods, eras that are immediately prior to and immediately following the epoch of modernity, and are separated and distinguished from one another by that era. It is only at a level unconcerned with the truth or meaning of fields of knowledge that we might find such similarities, only in the set of relations between sciences, epistemological figures, positivities and discursive practices that we might find that the "set of constraints and limitations which, at a given moment, are imposed on discourse," may, in fact, be very much alike in two such apparently different periods.
Secondly, because it is also at the level of performance, in the doing/being of the performative act, at the level of formulation that we are attempting to locate these similarities, not with regard to the specific truth or meaning of a specific revelation of a distinct group of signs, but because it is at this level that the constraints and limitations pertinent to the similarities we are seeking are imposed: at the level of the nature of the self. The epistemes of both periods are recognisably similar at this crucial threshold between simple verbal performance and the statement. The authorship of the performative act that reveals a verbal performance amongst and in relation to other verbal performances, is at the heart of what characterises both these two periods and the era which divides and constitutes them. For it is in the former that the Individual Subject is born, in the dividing era in which that Subject is king, and in the latter that the Subject dies.
But before we move on to discuss this history, it is important to first note the analytical approach Foucault defined as Genealogy. "The genealogist is a diagnostician who concentrates on the relations of power, knowledge, and the body in modern society."49 Genealogy is not so much distinct from archaeology, in this regard, but complemented and supported by it. Its aim is to "record the singularity of events outside of any monotonous finality."50 This mirrors the discontinuities and lack of underlying significations or metaphysical certainties revealed by archaeological analysis. Genealogy "records the past of mankind to unmask the solemn hymns of progress." 51 Following the analyses of Nietzsche, Foucault understands history as "the story of petty malice, of violently imposed interpretations, of high-sounding stories masking the lowest of motives."52 The genealogist is the destroyer of notions of progress: "there is no subject, either individual or collective, moving history."53 Rather, history is seen as a space, a clearing, in which battles occur, battles which define and clear such a space. In short, "history is not the progress of universal reason. It is the play of rituals of power, humanity advancing from one domination to another."54 There is a sense of something Machiavellian extended to the entire field of history, and dislocated from the individual princes into two broad categories: the "meticulous ritual of power," and the "political technology of the body."55
There are no constants for the genealogist. "Nothing in man - not even his body - is sufficiently stable to serve as the basis for self-recognition or for understanding other men."56 Rather, using Merleau-Ponty's notion of the "le corps propre, or lived body as distinguished from the physical body"57 we find an inconstant body not dissimilar from Butler's 'materialising' body whose effect, over time, is boundary, fixity, surface. This lived body, as for Butler, is a primary site of political and power relations. The knowledge of the body that studies this, Foucault describes as a political technology of the body.
The meticulous ritual of power is described, by example, in the story of the confessional, and how through history this ritual has grown and changed. It is taken in isolation and described as part of a writing of the history of the present. This writing Foucault is keen to distinguish from either "presentism" or "finalism." It does not involve reading present interests, institutions, and politics back into history, nor does it attempt to find the kernel of the present at some time in the past and show "the finalised necessity of the development from that point to the present."58 Writing the history of the present is a task of "isolating the central components of political technology today and tracing them back in time."
In this respect, in our current project, the themes in the post-modern era that display similarities to themes in the immediate pre-modern era must be understood in isolation from each other, without any metaphysical causal link or hidden underlying signification; nor are the present themes read back into the earlier. Our current project seeks, rather, to shed light upon our understanding of the present through comparison with the earlier period.
NEXT: THE PRE-MODERN (i)MEDIAEVAL THOUGHT