History Must Be More than Blowing Dust off Books

“They cannot bear (and one cannot but sympathize) to hear someone saying: ‘Discourse is not life: its time is not your time; in it, you will not be reconciled to death; you may have killed God beneath the weight of all that you have said; but don’t imagine that, with all that you are saying, you will make a man that will live longer than he’” (Foucault 211)

Foucault_Image hosted on  the blog Emergentia

Foucault_Image hosted on the blog Emergentia

So this is the second week of Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge, and what a trip this has been. I find that the deeper into Foucault’s work that I traverse, the more the threads of thought begin to reach towards fuller connections. However, there are still many moments when I find myself in a labyrinth of descriptions and his looping back on himself, where I am unsure of which path I need to take next and from which path I have just come.

Now, where to begin on this mad quest to uncover how much (or how little) I understood of this Frenchman’s work? Maybe with the excitement that I felt when Foucault declared, in his conclusion (of course), exactly what he had considered as his aim, which then helped to shift and settle my perspectives on the first half of his work? Yes, that should do it:

my aim was to show what the differences consisted of, how it was possible for men, within the same discursive practice, to speak of different objects, to have contrary opinions, and to make contradictory choices; my aim was also to show in what way discursive practices were distinguished from one another; in short, I wanted not to exclude the problem of the subject, but to define the positions and functions that the subject could occupy in the diversity of discourse. (Foucault 200)

Differences? Diversity of discourse? Positions and functions the subject could occupy? While reading Foucault’s concluding thoughts on a very twisty work, I began to think about the practical ways I could apply his explanations and goals to experiences in my own education. I decided that, for me, the best example was how the United States’ education system approaches the teaching and learning of history in grade schools, with its emphasis on a totality of history.  How often do we hear grade students and their teachers discussing contradictory views on history, seeking disruptions in the overarching time periods and movements? In college, I was lucky to have professors who were willing to acknowledge that the history we know best is that which was written by the victor and that there were multiple views of the same events (which reminds me of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story”), but this acknowledgement that there are layers to history that have not been included makes it harder to talk with people who see only one path through history. There have been so many moments when, as I helped my younger sister with her homework, I would have to stop her to find articles and videos on the pieces of history, including large groups of people, that had been excluded from her history textbooks. I had to show her, as many people had to teach me years before, how to put herself into conversation with history and history into conversation with history, so as to gain a better understanding. The most vivid moment I can recall is the day my sister had to write an essay on whether she would rather have lived in Athens or Sparta, and listened to her explain that she would choose Athens because it had equality for women and was run as an oligarchy unlike the barbaric Spartans who trained all day to kill people for fun (including their own people). When asked if Sparta had even really been studied in class, she replied no. I was stunned that the middle school conversations about ancient Greece were so heavily one-sided, and that the history of a country whose narratives are the foundation for many stories around the world had been reduced to the concept of an oligarchy and equality for women. Why give out an essay assignment when all of those who would be answering the prompt were only introduced to a thread of the historical conversation?  In some ways, our society is very much like that middle school classroom. If we are unwilling to stretch ourselves beyond the discursive formations upon which our views of literature, grammar, science, history, and philosophy have been established decades (even centuries) before, are we not continuing the same conversation without adding new perspectives?

**As a side note to my Athens vs Sparta tangent, my sister ended up choosing Sparta as the place to live (mostly due to a lengthy lecture on the societal codes of the Spartans, then supplemented by a [censored] viewing of the film 300). Historical one-sidedness be damned!

And, moving on. After reading Foucault’s aims, I returned to a section from this week’s readings that both made the most and least sense to me: that of the statement. While reading about statements, I definitely had as many ah-ha moments as I did labyrinthine confusion. When he was describing ways that statements could be more (and less?) than sentences and propositions, his comments about other forms a statement could take came with some degree of clarity on my part: “a genealogical tree, an accounts book, the calculations of a trade balance are statements; where are the sentences? One can go further: an equation of the nth degree, or the algebraic formula of the law of refraction must be regarded as statements: and although they possess a highly rigorous grammaticality (since they are made up of symbols whose meaning is determined by rules of usage, and whose succession is governed by laws of construction), this grammaticality cannot be judged by the same criteria that, in natural language (langue), make it possible to define an acceptable, or interpretable sentence” (Foucault 82). I thought back to Einstein’s and Newton’s equations, and how scientists today are best able to explain themselves and the world around us through numbers and equations. In the same way that I find words strung together as the clearest form of communication, I know that others (be it musicians, physicists, and on) are better able to explore relationships between objects, ideas, and occurrences through that which makes little sense to me. It also makes sense that the criteria used to define and critique a statement borne out in a sentence would have to be different than how a similar statement would be conveyed in an accounts book.

Scientists and mathematicians  use formulas and equations as a way to prove statements, especially in regards to statements about the universe

Statements embedded in the Equations. Image hosted on The Columbus Dispatch website.

And therein began my greatest struggle with his position on statements. I honestly could not concretely decide what he meant when he talked about statements, as he listed off a number of comments about what a statement was not [“the statement is not the same kind of unit as the sentence, the proposition, or the speech act; it cannot be referred therefore to the same criteria; but neither is it the same kind of unit as a material object, with its limits and independence” (86) and “The statement is neither a syntagma, nor a rule of construction, not a canonic form of succession or permutation” (88)]. His comment that a statement”is that which enables such groups of signs to exist, and enables these rules or forms to become manifest” was another ah-ha moment for me, but my brain quickly melted under his onslaught of propositions, referents, correlates, and sentences, especially when he stated that two sentences that were identical were not the same statements. When I first read that line, I remember just sitting there and thinking that I either missed something of great importance that would tie such thinking together or that my brain had finally collapsed under the weight of archaeological symbolism. Then I began to wonder if (as he deals with later when talking about the same sentence being different spoken aloud or read in a book) if the reason those two identical sentences could not make the same statement was because of situational differences? Regardless of them being identical, one sentence had to be written first in order for the sentence to be copied, so was it possible that the statement was changed because the circumstances under which the second sentence had been recorded was different from the circumstances that spawned the original sentence?

Another moment where my brain was completely upended by Foucault’s discourse was when he was talking about the subject, especially in relation to the statement. The idea that the author of the statement was not always the subject felt a great deal like New Criticism, with the author being divorced from the work once it has been delivered to the readers. If my most recent questions were on target, wouldn’t the circumstances under which the author of the statement be directly linked to the author? Would that not make the author the subject? And, what else could follow but the ah-ha moment of reading Foucault’s thoughts on why the author was not always the subject: ““So the subject of the statement should not be regarded as identical with the author of the formulation — either in substance, or in function. He is not in fact the cause, origin, or starting-point of the phenomenon of the written or spoken articulation of a sentence; nor is it that meaningful invention which, silently anticipating words, order them like the visible body of its intuition; it is not the constant, motionless, unchanging focus of a series of operations that are manifested, in turn, on the surface of discourse through the statements” (95). It is tue that an idea is not as original to a person as we assume (especially in the wake of authorship where everything must be claimed and then marked as our personal territory). Whether we wish to acknowledge it or not, we are individual nodes in a societal and cultural network upon which our ideas and beliefs find their foundations. An idea we have is built from the works and ideas that have come before us and are in constant fluctuation around us. If there is no true starting point for an idea, then no true author (or subject) can be claimed.

Just a Little Bit of Discourse, a Whole Lot of Monster
Image hosted on OnlyHDWallpapers

Vocabulary, Ever Expanding

Syntagma – a sequence of linguistic units in a syntagmatic relationship to one another; a sequence of words in a particular syntactic relationship to one another; a construction

a priori – is “not a condition of validity for judgments, but a condition of reality for statements” (Foucault 127) — “relating to what can be known through an understanding of how certain things work rather than by observation” (online Merriam-Webster Dictionary)


Foucault, Michel. Archaeology of Knowledge. New York: Vintage, 2010. Print.

To Move through Foucault, Music Must Be Had 

This entry was posted in ENGL894, Reading Notes and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to History Must Be More than Blowing Dust off Books

  1. Amy Locklear says:

    Summer, thanks for making that link to “Danger of a Single Story”! I was reminded of that same TED talk and couldn’t figure out how to elegantly make the connection to my post. Your connections made it clear!

  2. rrodrigo says:

    Soundtrack to reading and note taking; LOVE IT! I’m glad you were able to struggle through the reading and get some of that down because it feels like your work here was helpful in the working through of material on Tuesday night. Am I right?

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