FOUCAULT in The Archaeology of Knowledge
rejects the traditional historian's tendency to read straightforward
narratives of progress in the historical record: "For many years
now," he writes, "historians have preferred to turn their
attention to long periods, as if, beneath the shifts and changes of
political events, they were trying to reveal the stable, almost indestructible
system of checks and balances, the irreversible processes, the constant
readjustments, the underlying tendencies that gather force, and are
then suddenly reversed after centuries of continuity, the movements
of accumulation and slow saturation, the great silent, motionless bases
that traditional history has covered with a thick layer of events"
Foucault, by contrast, argues that one should seek to reconstitute not
large "periods" or "centuries" but "phenomena
of rupture, of discontinuity" (4).
The problem, he argues, "is no longer one of tradition, of tracing
a line, but one of division, of limits" (5).
Instead of presenting a monolithic version of a given period, Foucault
argues that we must reveal how any given period reveals "several
pasts, several forms of connexion, several hierarchies of importance,
several networks of determination, several teleologies, for one and
the same science, as its present undergoes change: thus historical descriptions
are necessarily ordered by the present state of knowledge, they increase
with every transformation and never cease, in turn, to break with themselves"
Foucault adopts the term "archaeology"
to designate his historical method and he articulates what he means
by that term by specifying how his method differs from both traditional
history and the traditional history of ideas:
1) "Archaeology tries to define not the
thoughts, representations, images, themes, preoccupations that are concealed
or revealed in discourses; but those discourses themselves, those discourses
as practices obeying certain rules" (138).
Foucault does not examine historical documents in order to read in them
"a sign of something else" (138),
for example the "truth" or "spirit" of a given historical
period. Rather Foucault tries to make sense of how a period's very approach
to key terms like "history," "oeuvre," or "subjectivity"
affect that period's understanding of itself and its history.
2) "Archaeology does not seek to rediscover
the continuous, insensible transition that relates discourses, on a
gentle slope, to what precedes them, surrounds them, or follows them"
Instead, Foucault wishes to understand how disparate discourses function
by their own distinct sets of rules and strategies. Archaeology wishes
to "show in what way the set of rules that [discourses] put into
operation is irreducible to any other" (139).
In other words, different discourses have a disjunctive or discontinuous
relation to each other.
3) Archaeology "does not try to grasp
the moment in which the œuvre emerges on the anonymous
horizon. It does not wish to rediscover the enigmatic point at which
the individual and the social are inverted into one another. It is neither
a psychology, nor a sociology, nor more generally an anthropology of
Rather, archaeology examines how a single œuvre can be shot through
with different "types of rules for discursive practices" (139).
It treats "different rules for discursive practices" as distinct
from each other, and therefore never subsumable into some all-encompassing
concept (e.g., the "author" or the "spirit of the age").
4) Finally, archaeology "does not claim
to efface itself in the ambiguous modesty of a reading that would bring
back, in all its purity, the distant, precarious, almost effaced light
of the origin" (139-140).
Archaeology does not seek to reconstitute the "truth" of history
but how any period is made up of a series of discourses: "It is
not a return to the innermost secret of the origin; it is the systematic
description of a discourse-object" (140).