Attempting to make sense of Foucault

Monday, March 10th, 2014 by lasu9006

I’m trying to make sense of Foucault, which is proving to be quite a challenge, since everything he says is so abstract. Foucault has some interesting things to say about the archive, especially in conjunction with our discussion during last week’s class. But in general, I struggle to envision what Foucault’s archive would look like. Maybe it’s not supposed to look like anything, since it doesn’t seem like he’s describing a physical thing, and instead is describing a concept or phenomenon. Still though, since we as a class are concerned with physical archives, I can’t help but attempt to picture Foucault’s ideas, made concrete and physical.

Foucault assures us that “The archive is not that which, despite its immediate escape, safeguards the event of the statement, and preserves, for future memories, its status as an escapee.” In other words (I think), it isn’t some sort of memory book, or nostalgic aid, used to preserve that which has passed. Instead, “It is that which defines the mode of occurrence of the statement-thing; it is the system of its functioning” (Archaeology of Knowledge 129). So the archive delineates the medium of the statement-thing. It describes how something comes to be, and how it exists. But it does not describe a static event. The archive doesn’t just describe the statement event according to how it came to be, but also according to how it continues to change and transform (130).

That all makes sense to me, I think. But then, right at the end of that chapter, things start to really heat up (and become more and more confusing, I think). Foucault says the archive’s “threshold of existence is established by the discontinuity that separates us from what we can no longer say, and from that which falls outside our discursive practice; it begins with the outside of our own language…. Its locus is the gap between our own discursive practices” (131). For me, this discontinuity implies a fracture in time, where the present moment is always already passed. Foucault seems to be envisioning a “gap” or opening in our language (a gap between symbol and referent? Sign and cosign?). That gap becomes the place where the archive really hums with life. In the first chapter of The Order of Things, Foucault refers to the mirror, contending that “the mirror…creates…an oscillation between the interior and the exterior” (12). I think the gap functions in a similar way. It is a liminal, peripheral space (or non-space) where a thing becomes elucidated by maintaining its inability to be elucidated.

 Furthermore, the gap calls attention to the concept of difference, and to the ways in which difference defines human existence: “It establishes that we are difference, that our reason is the difference of discourses, our history the difference of times, our selves the difference of masks. That difference, far from being the forgotten and recovered origin, is this dispersion that we are and make” (Archaeology of Knowledge 131). That difference sneaks into the openings: “[it] would not even be present at all in this classification had it not insinuated itself into the empty space, the interstitial blanks separating all these entities from one another” (xvii). In Foucault’s archive, “things are ‘laid’, placed’, ‘arranged’ in sites so very different from one another that it is impossible to find a place of residence for them, to define a common locus beneath them all” (xix). So maybe, according to that formulation, archives aren’t organized at all. They only become ordered when humans come to see them, and impose order upon them. 

So what would Foucault’s archive look like, if we were to apply his ideas to an archive of something besides statement-events? I’m pretty befuddled, but I might imagine it to be a space cluttered with dispirit objects with no conceivable connection, a place where someone could manipulate and understand each object’s functionality, oddly disconnected from a real-life context. And the space of disconnection—the disconnection between the objects themselves, and between each object and its real-life applicability—would churn with significance—a significance that humans can impose upon it. 

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