Michel Foucault

The Archeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language

While this may be one of Foucault's more difficult works to wade through, it still offers quite an interesting message about how humans think about history. Foucault's main focus is on the discontinuity of history. In my presentation, I focused on his discussion of the fear that humans have of this breaking.
I spoke of Foucault's influences in multiple areas of study, including communication, with his work, "Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison." This work is on the idea of the prison and the destruction of individualism and privacy and can relate to the piece that we covered in its analysis of how views are formed about institutions. The institution of history, for instance, has, according to Foucault, been seen in the past as a continuous process, with individual events falling into place in a linear and chronological fashion. This he calls 'old history'. The more current view of history, and the one he seems to feel has more legitimacy, he terms 'new history', with a more realistic inclusion of the "phenomena of rupture, of discontinuity" (4). This leads to his discussion of the 'document', and its position as the medium through which "history aspires to the condition of archeology, to the intrinsic description of the monument" (7). Documents becomes for history what artifacts are for archeology.
In relation to my focus of Foucault's description of the human fear of discontinuity, I relayed what he said in regards to the comfort of continuity. Foucault says that continuous history is comforting to man because of the implication that nothing is ever lost. He says that continuous history is "the guarantee that everything that has eluded him may be restored to him; the certainty that time will disperse nothing without restoring it in a reconstituted unity..." (12). Foucault discusses the ideas of Marx and Nietzsche and their placement as "vigilant guardians", along with their failure in affirming that history "is living and continuous, that it is, for the subject in question, a place of rest, certainty, reconciliation, a place of tranquilized sleep" (14).

For my presentation, I used a clip from Wong Kar-Wai's film, "Chungking Express." The clip I chose to utilize portrayed a fear of discontinuity through the main male character's distress at the expiration date of canned pineapple. For the character, this discontinued fruit represented the breaking of his past relationship. The rupturing of his personal history through his life into chaos. When finding that his desired cans were no longer on the shelf, he attempted to rationalize the importance of the manufacturing process, which reflects the long, continuous spanse of history Foucault mentions, like the history of corn, for instance. When the main character offers a man on the street some of the expired cans, the man rejects the offer upon finding out that the fruit is expired. This human rejection reflects the discomfort associated with discontinuity. At the very end of the clip, the main character ponders his own realization that everything has an expiration date. It is perhaps at this moment that the man begins to see the discontinuities of history as a fact of life, instead of an idea to vehemently reject.

Audra Irvin


The Timeline



Precis--- How much baggage are you carrying?

One of my favorite ideas that was discussed in this piece is the idea that history is always with us. I remember the common phrase that "if we are ignorant about history then we are doomed to repeat it". Foucault takes a little different idea about our continual connection with history, stating that we will reduce history to a series of pillar events and that we will then compare our actions to what happened in the past. This idea of comparing present with past, shows that no matter what you do, we are doomed to be with history. How many times in history class do students say that it would be great to have leaders like Washington and Lincoln again. But, in fact, these leaders would not be able to fit into the society we have today, so they may not actually be effective leaders. This idea, that we will continue to compare our lives to the past, so will never be able to escape it.


Foucault writes about the document and its role in historical analysis throughout time. He points out that historians have spent time trying to mind out the meaning as well as validity of a given document. However, Foucault goes on to write of a transformation in the way historians look at documents in that now they don't waste efforts on validity and definition, but rather they take the important information that the document provides and apply it to society. If you look at the Merriam-Webster definition of document you will see that it is "a writing conveying information". This definition doesn't claim to state that the document has to be true, it merely conveys information. This emphasis falls in line with the new way to look at documents according to Faucault.

Precis for Foucault

According to Foucault the aim of the old fashion of history was to seek a total history but now the goal of history is to establish a general history. A total history is a history that paints a picture of all of history in a linear line of causes and affects; in effect, a series. A general history, as the name indicates, is more general. The general history calls to mind, the great image used by Foucalt, the image of a "table," that is to say, "a series of series" (10). Total history centers all of its implications and stories around a single focal point, worldview, understanding, or idea. This is bad because that really isn't how the world works. Let's get smaller than the history of the world, let's think about the history of your own life. I know not all of the events in my own life are totally connected, but some occur by chance or sporadically, I would much prefer to tell a general history of my life than a total history. I prefer a "table" to depict my history rather than a web/cluster brainstorm looking thing with one focal point circled in the middle with a bunch of lines connected to other events. I think this little analogy is part of the many interesting things Foucault has to say about history.


Merriam-Webster online defines the word, "dcoument" thus
1 aarchaic : proof , evidence b: an original or official paper relied on as the basis, proof, or support of something c: something (as a photograph or a recording) that serves as evidence or proof
2 a: a writing conveying information b: a material substance (as a coin or stone) having on it a representation of thoughts by means of some conventional mark or symbol
It is this this 2b definition of document that Focault refers to in The Archaeology of Knowledge. He does not ascribe truth to recovered documents from times past, or at least does not ascribe verity to what is conveyed or what is being attempted to be conveyed. The meaning and truth of any given document lies in its context, without which a foreign reader, i.e., anyone who is not the document's author, or witness to its inscription, will ever be able to derive truth from a given document.

Phrase-"The cry goes up that one is murdering history..."

"The cry goes up that one is murdering history, whenever, in historical analysis – and especially if it is concerned with though, ideas, or knowledge – one is seen to be using in too obvious a way the categories of discontinuity and difference, the notions of threshold, rupture and transformation, the description of series and limits" (14).

According to Foucault, the preservation of history has become little more than a structuring system. No longer preserved or affirmed as a “living and continuous…place of rest, certainty, reconciliation, a place of tranquilized sleep” (14). Foucault sees the true essence of history and the study of history, as a disappearing discipline. With the attention being turned from the events of the time, to the concern over where each event fits in history. The historical analysis of history before history is made, “the problem is no longer one of tradition, of tracing a line, but one of division, of limits” (5). As history is constantly analyzed and filed away, who is left to verify it’s truth or meaning.

Phrase: "the notion of discontinuity"

Foucault in this text is somewhat hard to follow, but his main idea is clear enough. His focus is on the study of history, and how certain methods disrupt the flow of history. Foucault uses the phrase
"the notion of discontinuity assumes a major role in the hostoric disciplines" (8)
when describing the consequences of archaic methods of looking at history (8). The traditional ways of looking at the past can be flawed. An archaeologist or historian studying artifacts or documents cannot get the whole picture of what has happened in the period, they are studying just one moment or one object. In this way, the time line of history is interrupted and the historian is not getting an adequate view of his or her subject.


In the introduction to his book The Archaeology of Knowledge and Discourse on Language, Michel Foucault argues that "...the history of thought, of knowledge, of philosophy, of literature seems to be seeking, and discovering, more and more discontinuities, whereas history itself appears to be abandoning the irruption of events in favour of stable structures" (my emphasis, 6). In fact, Foucault does a lot of talking about discontinuity throughout his essay, so I thought it would be helpful to define discontinuity. The OED defines discontinuity as "The quality or state of being discontinuous; want or failure of continuity or uninterrupted sequence; interrupted condition." To go further, the OED defines discontinuous as "Producing discontinuity; breaking continuity between parts; gaping." The OED seems to lead us in circles when attempting to find a solid definition of discontinuity. Both the definition of discontinuity and discontinous reference back to one another without much information being given; however, from the definitions one can deduce that discontinuity refers to a failure in being continuous or the condition of interruption.

Precis: Foucault

Foucault's intro to The Archaeology of Knowledge is a work that he says criticizes and corrects three of his previous books that he was "unable to avoid." He criticizes historical methodology and its discontinuities. Foucault says that the problems are due to the "document." Historians have become more interested in the documents themselves, and "history is now trying to define within the documentary material itself unities, totalities, series, relations. Rather than understanding or "'memorizing' the monuments of the past," history "transforms documents into monuments."

Foucault then outlines four consequences of this: 1.) the proliferation of discontinuities in the history of ideas, 2.) discontinuity assumes a major role in the historical disciplines, 3.)the theme and possibility of a "total history" begin to disappear, and 4.) the new history is confronted by several methodological problems.

Precis--Sarah Knoth

Michael Foucault’s introduction of The Archaeology of Knowledge is about the origins of history making and telling and what history has now become or will become. Throughout the piece, there seems to be a bit of a tug-o-war between the new and the old definitions of history. Foucault concentrated on transformations: “…the problem is no longer one of tradition, of tracing a line, but one of division, of limits; it is no longer one of lasting foundations, but one of transformations that serve as new foundations, the rebuilding of foundations” (5). This shows me that Foucault means to say that the repetition of history is extinct in that we need not focus on re-telling the old foundations but we need new foundations and to rebuild the old ones. With this in mind, Foucault says that some questions arise---he questions science, theory, a concept, and even a text (5). He continues to say that documents need to be “reconstituted” because the documents of the old history may not be telling the truth, he questions the sincerity and whether or not history was “deliberately misleading” (6). Finally, Foucault talks about discontinuity and how the new history will transform it into a “positive element” (9).

PHRASE: History now organizes he document, divides it up, distributes it, orders it...

History is made history by historians whose job it is to make sense of all the things that have happened in the world in the history of the world. This appears to be self-evident. What else would it do? Well, Foucault suggests that the first history was designed to find the relation between things. To find a relationship between two events. This doesn't seem so strange. One need only read the first page of the first history written to know this. Herodotus researched why the Greeks and barbarians were in such a fight with one another. In The Archaeology of Knowledge, Foucault then goes onto suggest that history has turned into a secretaries job. Each document is filed and organized by what is categorically relevant. But who decides that? The executive? And what does he know about it?

Precis: Foucault

Foucault's focus in the introduction of his The Archaeology of Knowledge and The Discourse on Language is on history, and how we, as a society view it and understand it. History used to be about making connections, but now we look to isolate and transform it. Foucault tells us that history is "no longer one of the lasting foundations, but one of transformations that serve as new foundations, the rebuilding of foundations" (5). The issue that arises when this method of historical analysis is used is our inability to create standards and a concrete understanding of how far to take this. "What is a theory? What is a concept;" these are only the beginnings of the questions that will emerge from the breakdown of our foundations (5).

Hi / Story

Basically, there are two trends in historical analysis:

The first one, the traditional method, tries to define a system of laws to make sense of things. It reduces history to a formula. Events are unified and tied in a bow. This method has led to a change in the theory of history.

The second branch, the history of ideas, focuses on understanding the "disruptions," or the changes in the process of history. This method concentrates individual fields of thought. The origin is irrelevant - what is important is current transformations and what the field will become.

Foucault argues that both methods elicit the same question though: that of the document. The document is a telling of history, not history itself. It is a monument, an artifact. Studying history by studying documents as artifacts is the same process archaeologists use to understand the past. The mindset that archeology is a sub-genre of history gets turned upside-down: history is a sub-genre of archeology.

Monuments and documents... and vice versa.

In the introduction of The Archeology of Knowledge, Michel Foucault outlines the difference between what history has been, and what it has become. A striking example of this comes where Foucault writes: “[…] history, in its traditional form, undertook to 'memorize' the monuments of the past, [and] transform them into documents,” whereas “in our time, history is that which transforms documents into monuments” (Foucault 7). What this demonstrates is that history no longer exists as an established method to retain memory, or the past, but now attempts to be something greater, “history aspires to the condition of archaeology, to the intrinsic description of the monument” (Foucault 7), which as Foucault continues, has a myriad of consequences. What is clear is that history in our time is not stagnant and is constantly subject to review and interpretation. As a result our knowledge base is changed over and over again, as if going through a revolving door of filters, coming out askew time and time again.


Foucault tackles the issue of history and how we view it and track it. It isn't one lone line of unified events. There are so many different things that happen that make up the whole. "And the great problem presented by such historical analyses is not continuities are established, how a single pattern is formed and preserved, how for so many different, successive minds there is a single horizon, what mode of action and what substructure is implied by the interplay of transmission, resumptions, disapperances, and repititions...but one of transformations that serve as new foundations, the rebuilding of foundations" (5).

Precis: the organization of history

In Michel Foucault's introduction of his book The Archaeology of Knowledge, he points several criticisms that he has with how we as a civilization keep and perceive history to which he will define in greater detail throughout the book. Foucault discusses the pros and cons of traditional analysis and fact gathering for compilations of history vs newer modes. However, he always comes back to the point of "the document" and how it should be formed and to what extent it may have or will be tampered with.
Foucault goes on to discuss several consequences he sees of history recorded in traditional forms, especially in regards to totalities. After he lists the consequences he comes back to this idea of totalities by discussing the epistemological mutation of history with regards to Marx and Nietzsche. He quotes, "One is led therefore to anthropologize Marx, to make of him a historian of totalities, and to rediscover in him the message of humanism; one is led therefore to interpret Nietzsche in the terms of transcendental philosophy, and to reduce his genealogy to the level of a search for origins; lastly, one is led to leave to one side, as if it had never arisen, that whole field of methodological problems that the new history is now presenting" (13).

Phrase: “Freed from the Anthropological Theme”

In his introduction, Foucault lays the foundation of his style concerning the context in which he will be placing human knowledge and the historical object. It is hard for me to get a total grasp of his intent without specific examples that I am sure he uses in his writing as he spends his introduction trying to explain the problems with perspective when reviewing history. He shows that history can never be a dormant definition of events, linked by our own precepts of cause and effect, but rather that our own knowledge is constantly growing and therefore changing our understanding of history. “…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 p. 5)