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Chapter 4 Ideology and Social Subjectivity
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Foucault: Archaeology Versus History

No one weathered these sea changes of fashion with more success than did Michel Foucault. A celebrity of the age of high Structuralism, Foucault achieved superstar status in the era of postmodernism by reformulating his historical enterprise in an explicitly Nietzschean direction pioneered by Deleuze. Prior to 1968, Foucault seemed to be engaged in a project not dissimilar to that of Althusser, despite Foucault's admittedly non-Marxist orientation. Both were obviously indebted to the same philosophy of science for their focus on knowledge as a historical problem and for their relativistic epistemology; both were pursuing a structural, explicitly anti-humanist, anti-Hegelian explanation of historical phenomena; and both spoke about and against certain forms of historically structured domination that they held to be constitutive of contemporary society. Foucault was a student of Althusser, while Althusser cited Foucault's first books with approval. Nevertheless, there were significant differences between the two men, and these differences crystallized into outright opposition in 1969-70, when Althusser introduced his concepts of interpellation and ideological apparatuses and Foucault responded with his neo-Nietzschean formulation "knowledge/power."

The differences between Althusser and Foucault center on the problem of historical thinking generally and, more specifically, on historical materialism as a scientific discourse. Both perceived similar problems and limitations in existing forms of historical thinking, but their responses to the "crisis of historicism" were, from the beginning, antithetical. Althusser's project was, as we have seen, to revive Marxism as a theoretical perspective, to establish its claims as a science of history within a modernist reworking of the ideas of science and historical discourse, and to elaborate a form of historical causality that would do


justice to the complexity of social formations and human subjectivity within a framework of economic determination. Foucault, by contrast, was never persuaded by Althusser's attempt to overcome the limitations of Marxism, which Foucault insisted on dismissing as inherently simplistic. Foucault's project was to investigate the structures of human knowledge in relation to their conceptual conditions of existence and to their institutional forms without recourse to any theory of historical determination. Indeed, so strong was his reaction against historical explanation that Foucault refused to elaborate any causal relationships within society or even to defend the truth claims of his own historical writings. As a result, Foucault's ongoing attempts to develop a methodology for his brilliantly idiosyncratic "histories" were, in large part, defined negatively by an Althusserian moment with which he was in constant and not always productive tension.

Foucault is, as we would expect, a very unconventional historian. He is a historian of discourse, and more precisely of the discursive practices of the human sciences. He is concerned with both the internal rules and norms, the rules of exclusion and hierarchy that dictate what can be said within these discourses, and with the institutions, the material sites of the social power that envelop, legitimize, normalize, and sustain scientific discourse. In his early books, Madness and Civilization (1961; English translation, 1965) and Birth of the Clinic (1963; English translation, 1973), Foucault investigates the discourses of psychiatry and medicine and the ways in which these discourses produce, perceive, and regulate their objects, "sanity" and "health." Foucault seeks, provocatively, to demonstrate that distinctions basic to these discourses, distinctions between madness and sanity, sickness and health, are arbitrary distinctions related not to the progress of knowledge but to new or changing social relations of exclusion and integration embedded in institutional frameworks such as asylums and clinics, whose functions were social control—normalization and administration—and were neither scientific nor humanitarian.

While Foucault refuses to posit any general statement regarding the relationship between discourse and society, he appears to be reducing discourse to those social institutions and non-discursive forces that provide its material conditions of existence. The history of madness reveals no progress in the theoretical understanding of an illness. Rather, it indicates a consistent tendency to project general social preconceptions and anxieties into theoretical frameworks that justify the confinement of whatever social groups or personality types that appear to threaten


society during a particular period. The poor, the dissident, the criminal, and the insane are separated or herded together, treated as humans or as animals, confined or liberated, according to considerations that are primarily political rather than scientific. Medical practice, Foucault argues, is similarly grounded in social concerns, the clinic and the hospital being microcosms of those attitudes toward human nature prevailing among the dominant classes of society at a given time. Small wonder that Althusser approved of these works and saw them as recognizable offspring of his own ideas.

However, in his next two works, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (1966; English translation, 1973a) and The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969; English translation, 1972), Foucault shifts his perspective to the internal structural constraints of discourse alone and to a new anti-materialist methodological strategy that he calls "archaeology." Institutional and social determinations of discourse disappear, replaced by what Foucault calls an "episteme," by which he understands "the total set of relations that unite, at a given period, the discursive practices that give rise to epistemological figures, sciences, and possibly formalized systems . . . the totality of relations that can be discovered, for a given period, between the sciences when one analyzes them at the level of discursive regularities" (Foucault 1972, 191). In The Order of Things , Foucault contrasts the four epistemic epochs of the so-called human sciences—discourses whose objects are life (biology), labor (society), and language (culture)—from the late Middle Ages to the twentieth century. The first of these, the Renaissance, was characterized by similitude, the desire to find the same within the different, the extent to which objects resemble each other and the extent to which words truly signify things. The tortuous attempt to demonstrate the similarity of things, that everything to a significant extent resembles everything else, exhausted itself by the seventeenth century. An "archaeological shift" occurred, bringing a new episteme that dominated the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which Foucault calls the Classical Age. The classical episteme focused on differences revealed by the Renaissance and attempted to account for them by a discursive protocol involving comparison, ordering, and representation. According to this protocol, representation is certain and logical; the principle of comparison and ordering of differences moves from the simple to the complex in a carefully calibrated system based on contiguity and continuity. The role of consciousness is one of exteriority. Mind simply observes and classifies representations that are


themselves independent and immediate. Representing the essential order of things, identity and difference, means the discovery of a system of control over them. The belief of the Classical Age was that if the correct table of relationships could be discovered, one could manipulate "life," "wealth," and "language" by manipulating the signs that signify them. However, the classical principle of order and comparison is undermined by the perception of temporality, of the differential origin of things, a perception that destroys the timeless ground of continuity and contiguity, which made things measurable and comparable.

At the end of the eighteenth century another "archaeological shift" occurred, inaugurating the Modern Age, dominated by an awareness of temporality and finitude. Knowledge was problematized as thought was increasingly absorbed with the historicity of species, modes of production, and language usages. "Man," hitherto invisible, became a knowing subject among objects and, more significantly, the object of his own historical understanding. Epistemology came into being as an attempt to discover the grounds on which representations are possible or legitimate given the finitude and limitations of the human subject. "Man" is thus no more than an epistemic creation of the Modern Age, which began with the realization of human finitude and was characterized by its attempt to overcome or transcend these limitations within the epistemic framework of the human subject—to find a ground for meaning and knowledge within what Foucault calls the "analytic of finitude." The modern episteme has exhausted itself attempting to overcome oppositions between the transcendental form of knowing and the historical content of knowledge, between the thinking cogito and the "unthought" background that is its condition of existence, and, finally, between the historical situation of man, how man is already in history and cut off from all origins, and the historical primacy of man, that man is the agent or maker of history. As a result, Foucault concludes, the Age of Man is currently being displaced by a new, fourth age that has abandoned the analytic of finitude and accepted the disappearance of the human subject, the opacity of language, and the absence of historical meaning. Significantly, Foucault credits Nietzsche with the initial insight into the coming "post-Modern" age:

In our day, and once again Nietzsche indicated the turning-point from a long way off, it is not so much the absence or the death of God that is affirmed as the end of man. . . . Rather than the death of God—or, rather, in the wake of that death and in a profound correlation with it—what Nietzsche's thought heralds is the end of his murderer; it is the explosion of man's face


in laughter, and the return of masks; it is the scattering of the profound stream of time by which he felt himself carried along and whose pressure he suspected in the very being of things; it is the identity of the Return of the Same with the absolute dispersion of man. (Foucault 1973, 385)

The foregoing remarks convey something of the breadth of Foucault's erudition and the considerable originality and penetration of his analyses. They also, however, reveal the gaps and tensions that lurk beneath the surfaces of Foucault's thought, gaps and tensions that no amount of rhetorical brilliance or historical insight can conceal. First, Foucault oscillates between the primacy of internal (in The Order of Things ) and external (in Madness and Civilization ) determinations of knowledge effects. Which, if either, is determinant in the last instance? What is their interrelationship? A second group of questions centers on the status of knowledge effects themselves. Unlike Althusser, who carefully distinguishes between the concepts of different discursive practices (science, ideology, philosophy, and, as we shall see, literature), Foucault's approach progressively erodes all such distinctions. Foucault has chosen as his object a discourse that he calls "pseudo-science," but he offers no criterion by which such a distinction might be justified. While the relationships Foucault adduces between social power and the practice of medicine and the revelation of a dependence of the human sciences on a broad "mind-set" like the episteme are illuminating, in the end we must ask if these discourses are only this and nothing more. Whereas Althusser asserts the principle of realism and the validity of scientific discourse by means of his materialist thesis, Foucault seems completely uninterested in knowledge effects as productive of knowledges. Finally there are the inevitable questions regarding the nature of Foucault's own discourse. Foucault wishes to have his epistemological cake (radical relativism) and eat it, too (have us accept his "histories" as somehow compelling). How, we must ask, would Foucault defend his discourse in the realm of philosophy?

Foucault's answers, except to disciples and those commentators with independent anti-historical or anti-materialist positions to defend, are disappointing. In The Archaeology of Knowledge , Foucault attempts to address questions of method and summarize the results of his previous work. Much of The Archaeology of Knowledge elaborates a critique of history, and the history of science in particular, which reproduces, in slightly different form, that of Althusser—a dependency that does not interest us at the moment. What is of interest is Foucault's attempt to overcome the deficiencies of history by means of an archaeological


method that is neither a science nor a philosophy nor a history. Archaeology is a "diagnosis" of systems of thought whose task, Foucault tells us, is "to make differences: to constitute them as objects, to analyze them, and to define their concept" (Foucault 1972, 205). As a diagnosis of differences, however, archaeology cannot itself be a totalizing type of discourse. Archaeology, Foucault insists, "is trying to deploy a dispersion that can never be reduced to a single system of differences, a scattering that is not related to absolute axes of reference; it is trying to operate a decentering that leaves no privilege to any center" (Foucault 1972, 206).

The particular differences with which the archaeological method is concerned are those related to statements "to describe statements, to describe the enunciative function of which they are the bearers, to analyze the conditions in which this function operates, to cover the different domains that this function presupposes and the way in which those domains are articulated" (Foucault 1972, 115). The vast "archive" of statements is noteworthy for the processes of "rarefaction" that it displays, how it is that certain statements are made and not others, and the methods of justification and refutation that confer on statements their right to be taken seriously. Foucault advances beyond Althusser in one significant sense: he introduces an important refinement to the Althusserian distinction between science and ideology, the idea of discursive "thresholds of scientificity." For Foucault, the process of discursive differentiation has several distinct moments whose distribution, succession, and possible coincidence (or lack of it) constitute the domain of archaeology.

The moment at which a discursive practice achieves individuality and autonomy, the moment therefore at which a single system for the formation of statements is put into operation, or the moment at which this system is transformed, might be called the threshold of positivity . When in the operation of a discursive formation, a group of statements is articulated, claims to validate (even unsuccessfully) norms of verification and coherence, and when it exercises a dominant function (as a model, a critique, or a verification) over knowledge, we will say that the discursive formation crosses a threshold of epistemologization . When the epistemological figure thus outlined obeys a number of formal criteria, when its statements comply not only with archaeological rules of formation, but also with certain laws for the construction of propositions, we will say that it has crossed a threshold of scientificity . And when this scientific discourse is able, in turn, to define the axioms necessary to it, the elements that it uses, the propositional structures that are legitimate to it, and the transformations that it accepts, when it is thus able, taking itself as a starting point, to deploy the formal edifice


that it constitutes, we will say that it has crossed the threshold of formalization . (Foucault 1972, 186-87)

However, there is no functional distinction between subject-centered, practice-oriented discourse and object-centered, knowledge-oriented discourse in Foucault. Furthermore, Foucault's gain in precision does not enable him to resolve the problem of the social context of this process, the problem of determinative priority between discursive and social structures, or the problem of the epistemological status of archaeology itself. Most of the time, Foucault insists that discursive practices arbitrate the transformation of savoir (the basic, general level of knowledge) to connaissance (science): "A statement belongs to a discursive formation as a sentence belongs to a text. . . . [T]he regularity of statements is defined by the discursive formation itself. The fact of its belonging to a discursive formation and the laws that govern it are one and the same thing" (Foucault 1972, 116). Yet at times he displays confusion or uncertainty as, for example, when he discusses the discourse of political economy:

Broadly speaking, and setting aside all mediation and specificity, it can be said that political economy has a role in capitalist society, that it serves the interest of the bourgeois class, that it was made by and for that class, and that it bears the marks of its origins even in its concepts and logical architecture; but any more precise description of the relations between the epistemological structure of political economy and its ideological function must take into account the analysis of the discursive formation that gave rise to it and the group of objects, concepts, and theoretical choices that it had to develop and systematize; and one must then show how the discursive practice that gave rise to such a positivity functioned among other practices that might have been of a discursive but also of a political or economic order. (Foucault 1972, 185-86)

Foucault is still unable or unwilling to situate discursive practices in any firm relationship to their historical context. He attempts to escape this difficulty by cribbing from For Marx: "the field of statements is . . . a practical domain that is autonomous (although dependent), and which can be described at its own level (although it must be articulated on something other than itself)" (Foucault 1972, 121-22). However, Foucault refuses the task of describing this "something other than itself" on which the field of statements is articulated, preferring, disingenuously, to label himself a positivist instead. The problem is resolvable only by means of a general theory of social formations, one that would establish a relationship and a hierarchy between social phenom-


ena; Foucault, unlike Althusser, refuses to supply such a theory. The reasons for the refusal lie in Foucault's determined (and futile) search for an escape from totalizing thought—that assertion of meaning which, for Foucault, is immediately a distortion and immediately contaminated by the analytic of finitude. Archaeology is neither a science nor a history; it must not attempt to penetrate beneath the description of surfaces. By a negative logic, one dominated by his obsessive refusal to assume the responsibility for asserting something, Foucault is led "to the project of a pure description of discursive events as the horizon for the search for the unities that form within it" (Foucault 1972, 27).

For Foucault, the attempt to penetrate beyond this descriptive "horizon" and develop a more powerful explanatory strategy is fraught with peril since to say something is to exercise precisely the same kind of exclusionary power that it is the task of archaeology to reveal yet refuse to perpetuate. Foucault comes to precisely the same point as Althusser with regard to the absence of a firm philosophical ground for historical (or archaeological) discourse—Foucault explicitly notes that "to tackle the ideological functioning of a science in order to reveal and to modify it . . . is to question it as a discursive practice . . . to treat it as one practice among others" (Foucault 1972, 186; my emphasis)—but he flees from the task of confronting the consequences. "For the moment, and as far ahead as I can see," he concludes lamely, "my discourse, far from determining the locus in which it speaks, is avoiding the ground on which it could find support" (Foucault 1972, 205).

Interpretations of Foucault's dense and elliptic text have ranged from serious philosophical exegesis to aesthetic appreciation of it as a parody of epistemological discourse. One interpretive strategy, surprisingly overlooked by otherwise thorough commentators, is the anti-Althusserian dialectic at work in The Archaeology of Knowledge . Foucault's "archaeological method" is largely a negative image of Althusser's differential history. Both approaches begin with the discontinuity of historical discourse and the absence of any absolute grounding for historical knowledge. The difference is that Structural Marxism incorporates these incontestable positions into a problematic that then moves on to produce knowledges whose validity it may not be able to prove philosophically but which it can use to defend itself on the battlefield of philosophy. Foucault's archaeological method, in contrast, cannot but flaunt its own arbitrariness and brazenly accept the consequences. "If, by substituting the analysis of the rarity for the search for totalities, the description of relations of exteriority for the theme of


transcendental foundation, the analysis of accumulations for the quest of the origin, one is a positivist, then I am quite happy to be one" (Foucault 1972, 109).

Foucault's discourse is willfully superficial since, in his view, any attempt to assert meaning constitutes a fall into the coils of modernist oppositions. "It is not possible for us to describe our own archive, since it is from within these rules that we speak" (Foucault 1972, 130). Yet Foucault certainly does speak, and he expects to be taken seriously: "in so far as it is possible to constitute a general theory of productions, archaeology, as the analysis of rules proper to the different discursive practices, will find what might be called its enveloping theory " (Foucault 1972, 207). Those who dare to press Foucault on matters of inconsistency, logical contradiction, or the larger theoretical implications of his archaeological method are dismissed as theoretical tyrants: "Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same: leave it to our bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in order" (Foucault 1972, 17). This last remark is the most prescient in The Archaeology of Knowledge . It portends the imminent resolution of the tension between the production of discourse through epistemic structures and the social determination of the structures of thought themselves by means of an undifferentiated concept of knowledge/power.

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Chapter 4 Ideology and Social Subjectivity
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