Examining Paul Veyne’s Foucault: Chp. 4


Chp. 4 of Paul Veyne’s Foucault, entitled “Archaeology”, is a curious part of the book. This short section extends Veyne’s epistemological discussion of the previous chapter, but does not really examine “archaeology” as a method. Also, Foucault’s somewhat vague differentiation between “archaeology” and “genealogy” is mirrored by Veyne’s implicit conflation of the two concepts, even though I think there are important distinctions between them.

As I understand the concepts, both “archaeology” and “genealogy” are historiographical methods that Foucault uses to examine the fractured and provisional conglomerations of discourses (epistemes or discursive formations); he uses these methods to “excavate” into the hidden layers and traces of history to understand the rules and concepts that are usually beyond our conscious awareness. These systems of thought delimit what is possible to say or think, and unconsciously demarcate what is held to be true and false. Nevertheless, the latter concept, genealogy, signifies a significant break in Foucault’s thought, and, in my opinion, is a major advancement in his method of analysis. In short, genealogy examines discursive formations over time, and attempts to document the variably timed ruptures and unintended breaks that form the histories of discursive formations. Moreover, genealogy – as “an analysis of where things come from” – takes a more explicit interest in formations of power, particularly within the evolving matrices of institutional rules. Thus, in works like Discipline and Punish, Power/Knowledge and his histories of sexuality, we see Foucault regard coercion and domination (especially of the “subject”) as integral elements of “biopolitics”. Rather than a stricter emphasis on language and knowledge per se, Foucault embarks on a broader and, as I see it, more fruitful effort to connect his various histories to the governance of populations, state-building and capitalism – “governmentality”, as Foucault would call it.


Perspectivism and Discontinuity

Concepts should be swept away. Foucault remembers Nietzsche’s remark, “All concepts have come to be”; and so he proposes to “circle around anthropological universals as much as possible, in order to investigate their historical constitution”, and to dig into the archives of humanity in order to discover the complicated but humble origins of our lofty convictions. With “genealogy” as a heading, itself borrowed from Nietzsche, that is exactly what his books have done. (54)

If concepts have come to be, then so have realities. They have emerged out of the same human chaos. So they do not stem from any origin, but have been formed by epigenesis. By additions and modifications, not from any preformation. Instead, they have constituted themselves in the course of time, by unpredictable degrees, bifurcations and accidents, and through encounters with other series of chance events; and the way that they end up is equally unpredictable. There is no prime mover behind historical causality. (55)

In the opening pages of Chapter 4 (“Archaeology”), we see Veyne closer to the concept of genealogy, as I understand it, than archaeology.

Since the same objective kernel is each time perceived partially and differently and never completely or in all its nakedness, knowledge is characterized by a certain ‘rarity’, in the Latin sense of the word: it is lacunose, sparse and never sees all that there is to see. ‘My problem’, Foucault declared, ‘could be put as follows: how is it that in a particular period one can say one thing but another is never said. (57)

Human beings can never accede to the whole truth, for it exists nowhere. (57)

There is no dialectic, no perpetual sparring dialogue between received ideas and ideas that have been excluded, no return for what has been repressed. In the immense void, our petty thinking seems very patchy, very misshapen and full of surprising gaps. (58)

This last point is important. Even if we side with Gramsci and others and agree that the dialectic is not necessarily on a path to Enlightenment, any conception of the dialectic must assume that the Other is in constant, cyclical contact with the dominant formations of society. That’s part of the definition of the dialectic. Veyne, I think correctly, explains that Foucault refuses to accept this. History, for Foucault, is replete with “patchy… gaps”, irregular breaks, and ad hoc conversations. This goes to the core of the “postmodern” ethos.

Foucault and Wittgenstein

Similarly, it is ridiculous-and hardly philosophical to smile at the illusions of lovers, since the loved one seen through the eyes of love is not the same as that object seen by eyes that are indifferent. As a result, ‘the mode of objectivization varies according to the type of knowledge involved’. Dare I refer to Wittgenstein at this point? What he and Foucault share in common is a belief solely in singularities, a rejection of truth as an adequatio mentis et ret [the conformity between mind and thing], and a conviction that something in us (‘discourse’ or, according to Wittgenstein, language) has more to say about things than we ourselves have. (55)

In 1984, the year of his death, Foucault, to differentiate himself from Wittgenstein, defined oeuvre as a study of what he called, not language-games, but truth-games. Nevertheless, for him as for Wittgenstein, the bay tree, the object of knowledge, and the subject, the mythologist or the gardener, were not the same “in that, for the one, the knowledge in question took the form of an exegesis of a sacred text, while for the other it was an observation about nature”. (56)




*Veyne, Paul. Foucault: His Thought, His Character. Malden, MA: Polity, 2010. Print.

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