Foucault: Poster child of new media studies?

Monday, March 10th, 2014 by sdileonardi

When Foucault outlines his rationale for employing the metaphor and methodology of archaeology as a substitute for more traditional histories, it becomes evident to me why media archaeologists have followed his lead, as well as why a great deal of Foucault’s theoretical practices are adopted, modified, and augmented by new media studies. In The Order of Things, for example, he seeks to adumbrate a given episteme without being hindered by concepts of continuity (such as those described in the first chapter of Archaeology of Knowledge: tradition, influence, development, evolution, and spirit), which presuppose connections, progress, and causality that lead toward “an objectivity in which today’s science can finally be recognized” (The Order of Things xxii). Instead, the goal is to uncover the layering of different knowledge systems, an epistemic history made manifest not by “growing perfection” but “conditions of possibility.” That is, an archaeology of knowledge.

McLuhan engages with a similar model of discontinuity when he suggests that the medium is the message. For example, his description of the airplane’s effects upon modern societies is characterized by the results of one technological system being superimposed over another, rather than viewing the content of the newest system as better or more progressive. In fact, the dominant theme in McLuhan’s chapter—that the more significant factor in any given construction is generally the one humans elide, ignore, or cannot see—takes its cue from a general Foucauldian principle. Foucault spends his career studying how socio-political conditions produce the possibilities for the construction of specified phenomenon. For example, from this week’s reading in Archaeology of Knowledge, he writes, “Discourse must not be referred to the distant presence of the origin, but treated as and when it occurs” (25). Just as discourse is under his magnifying glass in this text, Foucault would go on to unveil the social production of sexuality, the madman, the criminal, power, and of course knowledge.

Media theorists have adopted this approach to disclose how technological and informational systems also stand apart from any primordial narrative but instead produce subjectivities and actual cultural effects independently of human intentions.

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