Postmodernity Ahoy! (PT4)

Chapters 3 & 4: “The Order of Things” and “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History” by Michel Foucault

                In chapter 3 (“The Order of Things”) Foucault is being interviewed. Raymond Bellours talks to him about his two most well-known books- The Order of Things and Madness & Civilization. The point of the interview is to ascertain the nature of Foucault’s concept of archaeology as well as the content of the books themselves. Short and highly insightful the chapter serves as a good starting point for the following chapter.

But returning specifically to the interview, Bellours asks how ‘The Order of Things’ is related to “Madness & Civilization”. Foucault answers that the latter deals exclusively with division and the certain breaks which any society eventually finds itself to make. He explains that the former, meanwhile, is the opposite: it is the history of resembelnces and how the differences between variances may be “mastered, organized into networks, [and] sketched out according to rational schemes. (67)” Launching from this point Bellours then asks why the term ‘archaeology’ again appears within several of Foucault’s books; the response given is that Foucault considers this term to be a ‘domain of research’ which constitutes “different bodies of learning, philosophical ideas, everyday opinions, but also institutions, commercial practices, and police activities, mores- (67)” Why does he consider this a research method? Primarily because he believes that “knowledge is profoundly different from bodies of learning” but it is a related insofar as he says “it is what makes possible at a given moment the appearance of a theory, opinion, or practice.” So in this sense order and chaos must be contrasted in order to understand the societal roots of deeper discourses unlikely to be discovered through a mere exploration of theory and how it relates to practice. This way a theorist is able to read texts which may, or may not, appear, on the surface, to have much to do about a specific topic but that once seen on a wider level, how it relates to wider thought formation and practice, the insights gleamed are far more relevant than they once appeared. Foucault calls this the subsoil and the ability to finds divergent meanings in this subsoil, a fault-line (68). That history should be approached with the contemporary in mind and proceed backwards, that to examine history properly is to examine “all that contains thought”, ergo, culture, the subsoil which he spoke.

Foucault, in chapter 4, has a problem with history; both the past and the present. In fact, his issue stems from a temporal-historical disturbance, that of people assigning fictional value to their preceding materialisms. Said another way he is upset over people “proving” that historical period X operated along historical rationale Y. This is like saying Count Dracula was actually the cookie monster since both had a certain affinity for overindulgence. Unlike the cookie monster, however, Foucault’s thesis is far more sophisticated than mindless crunching.

Describing the purpose of what he calls “genealogy”, Foucault utilizes Nietzsche as his inspiration. Coinciding his works with a critique and expansion of his forbearer’s theories, Foucault sets up an understanding of genealogy which “must record the singularity of events outside monotonous finality. (72)” So needless to say it opposes the grand narrative of origin and the pipe dream of locating such a concept as the universal leveler of human value. Disparity thus serves as the inviolable non-identity emergent of any concept’s origins. Truth, therefore, cannot be discovered nor refuted as it is long in the making and dependent on the flow of time to coalesce in its various manifestations.

This impersonal flux is what transports us what Foucault calls ‘the descent.’ This concept has a double function- in both its analysis and search; the former stresses the ‘disassociation of the me’ while the latter disturbs seemingly immutable foundations (75-6). Each serve to imprint truth being nothing more than the ‘exteriority of accidents’; those previous events which have riddled upon the body its many errors, sensations, and victories. In this way Foucault also says that genealogy is also seeking to “…reestablish the various systems of subjection… the hazardous play of domination (77)”. This play of dominations is endlessly repeated in various incarnates throughout history; each emerging with its own forces under a space separate, yet connected, to the proceeding and coming. As Foucault posits: “The isolation of different points of emergence does not conform to the successive configurations of an identical meaning; which constitutes, in effect, a violent dialectical struggle (interpretations) becoming the body of human development. For this reason Foucault opposes the suprahistorical perspective of time and history as totality, something synthesized from afar so as to conform to a standard.

Such a theory is why Effective History becomes Foucault’s primary method of examining history: because effective history “studies what is closest, but in an abrupt dispossession, so as to seize it at a distance. So the reverse is true: you start from those nearest to you-body, disease, conflict- and proceed from the basis of the multitude of understandings of how (knowledge) you came to know the present. It is at this point which we understand Foucault’s ambivalence towards historians since they proceed from a totalizing discourse starting at history’s “origin” and proceeding to construct along their contemporary path, as opposed to the reverse; to Foucault this outlook materializes as a ‘counter-memory’- “a transformation of history into a totally different form of time. (83)” And so we are linked back to the dissipation of identity as the means to discovery the value of history.

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