Player Practices (1): Game Paradigms
Player Practices (2): Caillois' Paradigms of Play

Foucault's Archaeology (2): Discourse

Michel FoucaultFor Foucault, the role of language goes beyond a simple mediator between thought and reality, because the statements within a discourse are related to one another in a way that is governed by the prevailing conditions of enunciation – that is, the restrictions on what can be said, which as I suggested last week can be understood as Kuhn’s paradigms. Foucault states:

I would like to show with precise examples that in analysing discourses themselves, one sees the loosening of the embrace, apparently so tight, of words and things, and the emergence of a group of rules proper to discursive practice. These rules define not the dumb existence of a reality, nor the canonical use of a vocabulary, but the ordering of objects. ‘Words and things’ is the entirely serious title of a problem; it is the ironic title of a work that modifies its own form, displaces its own data, and reveals, at the end of the day, a quite different task. A task that consists of not – of no longer – treating discourses as groups of signs (signifying elements referring to contents or representations) but as practices that systematically form the objects of which they speak.

The method at the heart of Foucault’s archaeology is to track the relationships between statements within any given ‘enunciative field’. If we are dealing today with a statement in biology, that sentence and its meaning can be related to a vast reserve of other statements that are also part of the practices of biology. Within and among these statements are patterns of constraint that in turn give a meaning to biology as a discourse, what Foucault terms (in reference to Kant’s philosophy) a historical a priori i.e. the required conditions for that statement to be meaningful, understood as historically situated. Since Foucault’s meaning is precisely parallel to Kuhn’s paradigm, I will use this term in place of it and say that in any given discourse the statements form a network of relationships, governed by a paradigm that establishes what is or is not knowledge within that discourse.

At the core of his method, Foucault places the statement as the “elementary unit of discourse”. From this perspective, the importance of individual authors is reduced in emphasis in favour of tracking the relationships between statements, since within any given book, the statements made have relationships with many different sets of statements. He goes to great length to demonstrate that what he means by a ‘statement’ is not just a sentence, a proposition, or a speech act. Statements are not sentences because many different sentences can express the same statement – including, for instance, in different languages. But statements are not logical propositions because two sentences expressing the same proposition  can have a different meaning according to how and where they are stated. A novelist means something different when their book begins “No one heard” or “It is true that no one heard” even though they state the same logical assertion. Finally, statements are not reducible to speech acts, as developed by Searle and Austin (whom Foucault calls ‘the English analysts’), because a speech act like, say, an oath consists of many statements, so the two ideas are not strictly parallel.

Throughout his analysis of discourse, Foucault repeatedly draws attention to two points: that statements are related to one another in a network, and that discursive formations are descriptions of practices. Indeed, Foucault stresses that the relations between statements characterize “discourse itself as a practice”. It is because our usual way of thinking about discourse is to think of communication between people (an author and a reader) that Foucault suggests that analysis of the practices of discourse have become obscured. Discursive formations are networks of statements, and they are the practices that relate those statements. These relations constitute “an immense density of systematicities, a tight group of multiple relations” and together this “forms a complex web.” One can see in The Archaeology of Knowledge a foreshadowing of Deleuze, and indeed why Deleuze had cause to praise both Foucault, and this book in particular as “the most decisive step yet taken in the theory-practice of multiplicities.”

The method behind Foucault’s archaeology, therefore, is to examine the discourse of a particular subject area as both a network of statements and as a practice, and to recognize that these two things are part of the same conditions. He states:

A statement belongs to a discursive formation as a sentence belongs to a text, and a proposition to a deductive whole. But whereas the regularity of a sentence is defined by the laws of a language, and that of a proposition by the laws of logic, the regularity of statements is defined by the discursive formation itself. The fact of its belonging to a discursive formation and the laws that govern it are one and the same thing…

As he states in The Discourse on Language, each discursive formation “has its forms of regularity and, equally, its systems of constraint.” It is this, the paradigm of any given discourse, that determines which statements constitute knowledge, and which statements must be excluded from a given discourse. Both internally and externally, each discursive formation is positioned by contradictions that either give form to the discourse through its interior tensions or provide boundaries to it by contrasting it with something else. It is to these contradictions that we must next turn our attention.

Next week: Contradictions


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

I admit that I'm having a hard time understanding this, but isn't Foucault talking about what we now call »emergence«? About how different components (statements) together, in a system (network), form an emerging result when interacting. A result that cannot be traced like lines on a map?

Hi Rickard,
This is an interesting question! When we talk about 'emergence' we are attempting to explain a phenomena by denying an appeal solely to smaller constituents i.e. to deny simple reductionism. But Foucault's interest here is only in analysing discourse as a phenomena; there is probably a way to express this in terms of emergence, but the term was not in use when Foucault was writing and I don't think it is necessary to invoke it.

The concept to grasp here is that there are systems of connectivity between statements that regulate their composition. It is a subtle point, but it is one that becomes interesting as you start to examine discourses and see how they do not always fit the stories we like to tell about them. I think perhaps the remaining parts of the serial might help clarify this (hopefully!).

Thanks for commenting!


Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name is required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)