Thursday, June 3, 2010

Foucault’s Terminologies

© Mukesh Williams 2010

Michel Foucault rejects the vast unities imagined by historians in historical periods and instead suggests “rupture” and “discontinuity.” He uses the notion of discontinuity as both the “instrument” and “object” of research. He objects to the themes of “cultural totalities” and “search for origins.” Instead he develops his own theory and procedure to explain the paradox of discontinuity.

1. Archaeology

Foucault identifies various discourses as they emerge in society and get transformed in the process of their implementation. Archeology is a unique method of investigating their emergence and transformation. Foucault does not unravel the hidden meaning of discourses or the deep structure of their rational content. He is not interested to access the larger impact of discourses on the collective unconscious or group psychology. Unlike Derrida he does not wish to investigate the traces or outside implications of discourses. Foucault uses this archaeological method to study the positive aspects of existence. He believes that the method of archeological investigation creates the requisite detachment necessary for a historian to evaluate and clearly explain an archive. The method of archeology involves the distance a historian must maintain while chronicling events. Therefore history can be defined as a system of difference. Archaeology describes the verifiable and positive aspects of a discourse, as if was describing an artifact or a monument.

2. Archive

An archive is understood to be a set of available texts in a given historical period. Foucault analyzes the conditions which give rise to an archive, the relations and institutions that allow statements in texts to become archived. An archive is neither a collection of artifacts nor a set of statements. It is a series of relationships—“the general system of the formation and transformation of statements.”

3. Oeuvre

Foucault interrogates the concept of oeuvres, commonly understood as a set of texts approved by an author in his lifetime. However there are various texts, manuscripts, oral recordings and materials of an author collected posthumously. The author takes various positions from which he makes statements. These positions are independent from the author’s approved position. Therefore the notion of the oeuvre is not a pure category of totalities but a fragmentariness of an author’s works ranging from thoughts, experience, and imagination to unconscious and historical determinants that influence him. An oeuvre is also the secret origin, something that cannot be “quite grasped.” Any person can write from any of the positions not approved by the author and the author himself can express his thoughts from multiple positions. An author’s book contract details and scribbling on a paper napkin do not occupy the same status as an approved manuscript of a book. Foucault therefore destabilizes the conventional meaning of an oeuvre.

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