Reading the first part two parts of Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge was very slow going as the material was quite dense, especially his introduction. There were a number of times when I would be reading a page and then realized that I needed to go back to an earlier chapter because I could never tell if I was headed down the right rabbit hole. Luckily for me, the White Rabbit, with his as-of-yet unsmashed pocket watch, was nowhere in sight to yell at me that I was late (though one can probably now hear the faint echoes of his voice if one were to listen closely). It also helped to gather a little background knowledge on the text and Foucault in general to supplement my free fall into his work. As a side note: Foucault’s vocabulary is a mine field. I have a number of markings in the margins of my book with definitions of words I did not recognize (tipping my hat with a special flourish to the word ‘autochthonous,’ which I am still quite sure I cannot pronounce).
While I had some resistance to reading Foucault’s works, mostly because I was tripping over him tripping over himself as he discussed his prior works in the Introduction, I started to feel slightly more comfortable with his ideas once I could see how he was letting them take shape. His examples of things like œuvres, medical doctors, grammar, and madness made the concepts more concrete as the theory then became (more or less) applicable for me. Foucault’s example of the medical doctor and how changes in the discourse surrounding the field have repositioned his place in relation to his roles: “If, in clinical discourse, the doctor is in turn the sovereign, direct questioner, the observing eye, the touching finger, the organ that deciphers signs, the point at which previously formulated descriptions are integrated, the laboratory technician, it is because a whole group of relations is involved” (53). Foucault’s questions, in Chapter 4, in regards to who speakers of discourses are and what gives them the right to even engage as the speaker make sense as to how “Enunciative Modalities” could also be disrupted by the stance he takes on unity because we so often assume that an individual is credible and worth listening to because he or she fills a certain role in society (such as a doctor, lawyer, politician, and so on) but never stop to think of all the aspects of societal discourse that help give that person credibility and how those discourses are always shifting to accommodate new methods, perspectives, and outcomes. Medical practices are not as they once were. While Foucault uses the example of the discourse surrounding clinical medicine to talk about the shifting perspectives, I find an easier example (since I know a little more about it) to be astronomy. With each new discovery (be it a new planet, a new way to read signals coming from beyond our skies, findings made by our rovers on Mars, and advancements in technologies like our telescopes), the field of astronomy widens out and narrows in. The position of contemporary astronomers, such as Stephen Hawking, is made possible because of the discoveries made by those who came before them (a testament made in Hawking’s book On the Shoulders of Giants), but also by the situation created by the discourses surrounding new discoveries, hypotheses, developments in technology, and the gazing out into space. That being said, I am still thrown under the metaphorical bus while trying to wrap my head around how apparent unities and systems are best viewed as discontinuities. I understand that the connections we think can link together large swaths of history to better fit them into manageable pieces can be seen merely as superimposed, but alas, I am convinced I am in over my head with Monsieur Foucault.
One of my favorite quotes in the text so far has to do with books: “The frontiers of a book are never clear-cut: beyond the title, the first lines, and the last full stop, beyond its internal configuration and its autonomous form it is caught up in a system of references to other books, other texts, other sentences: it is a node within a network” (Foucault 23). This line really reminded me of T. S. Eliot’s essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” as the image of one text fitting into a foundation of texts that are influenced by the texts that came before and will influence how older and newer texts will be read from here on out. Sadly, what first comes to mind is that of the Twilight series and how society now views vampires not only with Dracula in mind, but also with sparkly, vegan-style bloodsuckers. On a more scholarly thought-track, it is quite fascinating to think of how many works nod to previous texts and authors, but also extend out into a much larger network of media references like films, video games, poetry (though not as often, it seems, anymore), and television shows to name a few. For example, in the second season of the Sarah Connor Chronicles, there is an episode that is in conversation with the Wonderful Wizard of Oz (book, not the film). However, upon closer, there are a number of references to Wizard of Oz that are scattered throughout the television series, drawing connections to the robot villains and heroes as well as linking (in some way) the franchise to the genre of children’s literature. Terminator, then, no longer exists only within the realm of science-fiction and horror films, but has also become another node in the network of references as it has left its own marks in popular culture and societal conversations about advancements in technology.
In that same paragraph by Foucault, I enjoyed reading how he ended the section on books, though I am still confused as to his use of the word “parallelepiped” (which, when I did a search for the definition, is basically a three-dimensional parallelogram): “The book is not simply the object that one holds in one’s hands; and it cannot remain within the little parallelepiped that contains it: its unity is variable and relative. As soon as one questions that unity, it loses its self-evidence; it indicates itself, constructs itself, only on the basis of a complex field of discourse” (Foucault 23). So often we claim ownership of a book because we can hold the printed words in our hands, so concretely bound in the material that composes that particular copy of a book, we sometimes forget that what we are actually holding is the incarnation of an idea, not the idea itself. Because there are copies of books, discourses about events that take place in books, references about those events, and remakings and recastings across forms of media (think of the various adaptations of Shakespeare plays), literary texts are not bound to the ink on the pages, but can become living forms that shape and reshape the minds of those with whom they come into contact.
One of the examples given by Foucault that made the most impact on my readings was that of the oeuvre when he is discussing how the sense of unity that is often linked to that word is a false front. I had not thought of it before, but it is true that there is really no way of gauging what should be included in one’s ouevre, and that bodies of work differ among different artists. Do unfinished works count as part of someone’s opus? Do works that are published posthumously really count as well? Are letters and conversations also part of someone’s collection, even if those conversations and letters are more personal in nature? What about works that were lost through accident or destroyed on purpose? And, even if those different aspects of someone’s career and life are weeded through and chosen or not chosen, another question arises: who can claim “the right” to be the one to make such decisions? Who can truly define a person’s life and career? Is a ouevre really an ouevre if it does not include the entirety of a author/musician/artist/sculptor/actor/playwright’s works? Is it fair to include works that the author intentionally cast aside? Foucault’s text honestly raised more questions and sent me down more rabbit holes than provided answers. At times, I would set the book aside and just wonder what I had just read. At other moments, things became clearer and I would also just sit and wonder about the implications of seeing histories as a series of discontinuities and dispersions. Maybe things will start to settle into the unused crawlspaces of my brain after I finish the book, or maybe even after a second read through. We’ll see.
Building the Vocabulary
As a way to mark new words that I am learning as I muddle through Foucault, I decided to list my two newest words here (along with definitions):
Autochthonous – indigenous rather than descended from migrants or colonists
Oeuvre – body of work of a creator
Foucault, Michel. Archaeology of Knowledge. New York: Vintage, 2010. Print.
Music with which to Pair with Foucault: