Archaeology of Power/Knowledge


(You may want to read the following notes first or go straight to the web page links at “Synaptic.”  And there are more at the end of this page)



a)                            Archaeology and the Historical A Priori



                   -  History but not as we know it

                   -  History as geography

                   -  Genealogy and Subjugated knowledge



Michel Foucault has written about the history of madness; the writing of transgression; the birth of the clinic; the ordering of the human sciences; the birth of the prison; the history of sexuality.  He has also edited memoirs of i) Hercule Barbin, a nineteenth century hermaphrodite; and ii) Pierre Riviere, a nineteenth century murderer.



His writings are Historical but not in the standard sense.



1.       He does not consider history under the old forms of “evolution”, “living continuity”, “organic development”, “the progress of consciousness” or “the project of existence”.


2.       Instead of thinking of history in terms of time he uses words that denote space and movement in space:



Territory, Field, Displacement, Domain, Region, Horizon


These “geographical metaphors” are borrowed from their use in law, politics, economics, military strategy, and fiscal administration.  They emphasise the shifting of relations of POWER in the discourses of KNOWLEDGE (the scientific, legislative, institutional, established forms of knowledge).



These passages are both from the collection Power/Knowledge:



Once knowledge can be analysed in terms of region, domain,

implantation, displacement, transposition, one is able to capture

the process by which knowledge functions as a form of power and

disseminates the effects of power.  There is an administration of

knowledge, a politics of knowledge, relations of power which

pass via knowledge and which, if one tries to transcribe them,

lead one to consider forms of domination designated by such

notions as field, region and territory.



And the politico-strategic term is an indication of how the

military and administration actually come to inscribe

themselves both on a material soil and within forms of discourse.



3.       Foucault analyses the relationship of POWER/KNOWLEDGE by what he calls ARCHEOLOGY (another borrowed term).  His Archaeology of Knowledge literally excavates elements of SUBJUGATED KNOWLEDGE, knowledge which has no place or which has been confined (in the clinic or the prison) by dominant and standard forms of knowledge sanctioned by the established history of ideas.



Low-ranking knowledge, popular knowledge, differential knowledge, disqualified knowledges ... are all elements of a historical knowledge of struggles.



Foucault calls his analysis of disqualified knowledge GENEALOGY:



Let us give the term genealogy to the union of erudite knowledge

and local memories which allow us to establish a historical knowledge

of struggles and to make use of this knowledge tactically today ...

What it really does is to entertain the claims to attention of local,

discontinuous, disqualified, illegitimate knowledges against the

claims of a unitary body of theory which would filter, hierarchise

and order them in the name of some true knowledge and some

arbitrary idea of what constitutes a true science and its objects ...



Genealogies are anti-sciences



Foucault’s ARCHAEOLOGY and GENEALOGY locate the struggle of power in discourses of knowledge.  What he does can be considered as:



a counter-discourse and a counter-memory, running “counter” to

standard systems of knowledge, revealing how knowledge is built on

exclusion and confinement, and how hidden forms of knowledge

actually provide the limits of the knowledges which disqualify them.



A genealogy should be seen as a kind of attempt to

emancipate historical knowledges from that

subjection, to render them ... capable of opposition

and struggle against the coercion of a theoretical,

unitary, formal and scientific discourse.


(Michel Foucault Power/Knowledge)



b)    The Case of Madness



“ ... any system of education is a political way of maintaining

or modifying the appropriation of discourses, along with

the power and knowledge they carry.”



Foucault’s lifelong project, if there is a way to describe it without contradiction, was probably this:  to reveal and perhaps to try to modify the way discourses, and the power and knowledge they carry, are appropriated by institutions and establishments.



Archaeology and Genealogy


“Archaeology” is the determination of the historical a priori for the appearance of ideas, sciences, philosophies, etc. at any given time in history.


A Priori means the conditions independent of experience without which experience would not be possible.


Genealogy is a tactical way of bringing subjected forms of knowledge into play.


Episteme (Coined from the ancient Greek, where episteme signified a kind of scientific and therefore teachable knowledge); denotes the complete set of relations that link discursive practices giving rise to formalised systems.  It permits an understanding of constraints and limitations that may be imposed on discourse at a given time.



c)      The Limits of Reason


The limitations and constraints put on discourses at any given time also limit the formal systems that enforce those constraints.



Descartes (the one who said “I think, therefore I am”) disqualified madness from philosophical thought in the 17th Century.



Hence madness, and the various discourses of madness, constitute a limit both in terms of the reason which disqualifies it as an authentic discourse and in terms of the silence or the madness which, for Foucault, enables an appreciation of the way power is constituted as knowledge through the establishment and the disqualification of certain kinds of discourse.



Foucault’s project can be seen as a series of not necessarily connected attempts to let disqualified and subjected discourses and forms of knowledge speak.



In this way those established and standard forms of knowledge may be rendered more fragile.



This means two things, as follows: first, Foucault must find a way to let silenced and hidden forms of discourse and knowledge come out into the open; second, he must find a way to do it which does not repeat the established and formalised systems of criticism, interpretation and theory which he is trying to oppose or, at least, escape from.



The name he gives to such a possibility, which of course is from the beginning double, is transgression.  He must let subjugated knowledges transgress the limits which constitute them as subjugated and he must repeat this transgression with his own approach.



So how was his History of Madness (subtitled “A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason”) made possible?  Madness, it is often claimed, has been silenced and excluded, or trapped and pathologised in the discourses of science, philosophy and literature.  But, writes Foucault:



On one side Bosch, Bruegel, Thierry Bouts, Durer, and the

entire silence of images.  It is in the space of pure vision that

madness extends its powers.  Phantasms and menaces, pure

appearances and the secret destiny of the world - madness

possesses there a primitive force of revelation:  the

revelation that the dream-state is real, that the fragile surface

opens onto an undeniable profundity ... and the reverse

but equally painful revelation that the entire reality of the

world will someday be reabsorbed into the fantastic

image, in this moment between being and nothingness

which is the delirium of pure destruction.  The world is

already no more, but silence and the night are not entirely

closed in on it ...  This entire network of appearance and

the secretive, of the immediate image and the hidden enigma,

is depicted in the painting of the 15th Century as the tragic

madness of the world.



Any quest to make the immediate silence of images speak in the discourse that disqualifies it as knowledge is going to be problematic.  In fact, it is probably impossible.  However, there are models for this impossibility.  As an alternative to the discourse which controls and captures madness, there is a kind of discourse which operates on the limits, but outside and beyond those limits too - certain writers have maintained a writing practice which refuses to depict, judge, analyse, or interpret madness from any safe distance established by reason.  These writers include Friedrich Nietzsche, the German 19th Century philosopher, Holderlin, the German poet, but also William Shakespeare and Denis Diderot.  These writers help to constitute a series of fictions, texts, paintings, which resist the obscuring and subjugating clarity of rational scientific and philosophical discourse.  So it is precisely darkness and silence in which these texts are rooted that gives them their critical power - because they are able to participate in both sides of the division between reason and insanity - neither insane nor mad but on the limits of reason between light and dark.



A familiar pattern thus emerges:  history is revealed as a set of prohibitive boundaries through which both power and knowledge find articulation, various and not necessarily connected discourses which establish and exclude at the same time.  And beyond these historically conditioned boundaries lies the articulation of silenced, disqualified knowledges and discourses which we may describe as being in fact “outside” and “beyond” history.



So, although the Renaissance silenced the tragic form of madness, by making it an experience in the field of discourse, the extra-discursive experience of that tragedy nonetheless returns in a few disruptive texts and paintings.  Here is Foucault:



Alone, several pages of Sade and the work of Goya witness that

this disappearance is not a total destruction; but obscurely, this

tragic experience subsists in the nights of thoughts and dreams ...

Underneath the critical consciousness of madness and its philosophical

and scientific, moral or medical forms, a hidden, tragic consciousness

never ceased to be vigilant.  This is what the last words of Nietzsche

and of Van Gogh rewoke ...  It is this experience, this consciousness,

finally that came to be expressed in the work of Artaud.  ...  It is these

extreme discoveries and these alone, that permit us today to determine,

therefore, that the experience of madness which extends from the

16th Century up to the present owes its particular figure and the

origin of its sense, to this absence, to this night and to everything

that constitutes it.



These texts and paintings are “beyond history” for three crucial reasons, the last of which makes possible Foucault’s project in the first place.



1.       They cannot be contained or silenced by the languages, institutions, ideologies and discursive practices of their own historical period - or by any period.


2.       They cross over, or transgress, all Foucault’s archaeological divisions.


3.       They communicate with each other directly across history and establish a kind of extra-historical continuity that is completely different from both the old fashioned histories, which emphasise continuity or evolutionary development, and Foucault’s more arbitrary archaeological divisions.



Therefore Foucault can take a certain kind of artwork as a model for his own transgressive practice.



Whale of History


In a lecture given in 1976 Foucault looks back over his work:



For my part, it has struck me that I might have seemed a bit like a

whale that leaps to the surface of the water disturbing it

momentarily with a tiny jet of spray and lets it be believed, or

pretends to believe, or wants to believe, or himself does in

fact believe, that down in the depths where no one sees him

any more, where he is no longer witnessed nor controlled

by anyone, he follows a more profound, coherent and

reasoned trajectory.



Profundity, coherence, and reason are the very attributes of the history of ideas which Foucault has spent his career resisting.  This suggests that there are only tiny jets of spray, archaeologies rather than Archaeology, genealogies rather than Genealogy.  He calls his offensives “dispersed and discontinuous” and justifies this with the fact of the emergence of “... a sense of the increasing vulnerability to criticism of things, institutions, practices, discourses.”  Foucault’s project is based on what he conceives to be the necessity for breaking down the inhibiting effect of global, totalitarian theories.  He agrees that global theories like Marxism and Psychoanalysis can fashion useful tools for local research but in these cases believes that:



... these tools have only been provided on the condition that the

theoretical unity of these discourses was in some sense

put in abeyance, or at least curtailed, or what you will.

In each case, the attempt to think in terms of a totality

has in fact proved a hindrance to research.



And this is why Foucault decides to concentrate on what he calls local, subjugated, or disqualified knowledges, on the other side of the division of power constitutive of formalised, historical systems of discourse.





Michel Foucault’s Texts in Chronological Order of Appearance in English:


The Order of Things:  An Archeology of the Human Sciences. New York:  Random House, 1971.

The Archeology of Knowledge. New York:  Random House, 1972.

The Birth of the Clinic. New York:  Pantheon, 1973.

Madness and Civilisation. New York:  Vintage, 1973.

Discipline and Punishment. Harmondsworth:  Penguin, 1978.

The History of Sexuality. Harmondsworth:  Penguin, 1977.

Power/Knowledge. New York:  Pantheon, 1980.

The Foucault Reader. Ed. Paul Rabinow.  Harmondsworth:  Penguin, 1984.

The Use of Pleasure. New York:  Pantheon, 1985.

The Care of the Self. New York:  Pantheon, 1986.



See also:


“The Order of Discourse” in Untying the Text. Ed Robert Young. London: Routledge, 1980.

“What is an Author?” in Textual Strategies. Ed Josue E. Harari. London: Methuen, 1979.



Secondary Texts


Armstrong, Timothy, trans, ed. Michel Foucault Philosopher: Essays translated from the French and German. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester, 1992.

Cousins, Mark and Althar Hussein. Michel Foucault. New York: St Martin’s Press, 1984.

Dreyfus, Hubert L. and Paul Rabinow. Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics. Brighton: Harvester, 1982.

Hoy, M. ed. Foucault: A Critical Reader. Oxford: Blackwell, 1986.

Poster, Mark. Foucault, Marxism and History. New York: Blackwell’s, 1985.

Rajchman, John. Michel Foucault. New York: Columbia, 1984.

Smart, Barry. Foucault, Marxism and Critique. London: Routledge, 1983.








*       Synaptic’s eJournal references are perhaps the best on the web.

*       George Landow’s Web Resources Page for Foucault is pretty handy.

*       Erratic Impact’s Foucault Site—you can even buy his books here—is ok.

*       Episteme has more Links if you still cannot find what you’re looking for.

*       The Michel Foucault site has material on his followers as well.






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