Reading Notes: Foucault Parts I and II


Part I

The major idea introduced in Part I is that discourse must be considered in its relationship to other discourses and other aspects of discourse. Its defined characteristics should be determined in its relationship to its context and content, and to other discourses, in the same genre as well as to other discourse concepts being created at the same and at different times. Discourse is not something that appears as part of a teleological ascent toward perfection or epistemological guide to the ideal. Rather, it is part of a complex network or constellation (his term) that both defines the object of discourse itself and its relationship with its genre, its subject, its audience, its time, its place, and its oeuvre. I saw correlation to Derrida’s différance, although I also understand that he and Derrida didn’t always see eye to eye. Nevertheless, discourse gets introduced as emerging within and as part of a network of discourses and their composite entities. Discourse emerges as a statement differentiated from statements around it; although it will necessarily be connected to those surrounding statements, that relationship is inherent in the periphery of (but not exterior to) discourse.

Part II

Foucault in Part II works to identify existing unities of discourse and to demonstrate, through testing hypotheses, that existing unities do not adequately address how discourse gains meaning, especially over time and through space. In place of these existing unities, or “pre-existing forms of continuity” (including oeuvres, genres, themes, and ages), Foucault demonstrates that “the tranquility with which they are accepted must be disturbed” (p. 25) in order to understand and construct the rules that govern meaning in discourse. Foucault hypothesizes discourse as consisting of various aspects working in relationship among themselves and one another: discursive formations, discursive objects, enunciative modalities (by which I believe he means modes of discursive expression or presentation), discursive concepts, and discursive strategies or themes. He devotes a brief chapter to each aspect of discourse. The conclusion of each aspect is that constitutive parts of the aspect work together, and that the dynamic relation of those parts is the defining characteristic of that aspect of discourse. Foucault concludes Part II by answering his own question—what is the nature of the unity he seeks to reveal?—with this response: the unities he proposes reveal “an immense density of systematicities, a tight group of multiple relations” (p. 76) that are beyond the text itself. This network is not contained within the semantic or linguistic text itself, but can be found among the relationships revealed in analysis of the aspects of discourse.

Quotations that Resonated

While I found Foucault difficult to read and understand, I was pleased to find him profound, even almost clear, at times.

“[W]hat we are dealing with is a modification in the principle of exclusion and the principle of possibility of choices; a modification that is due to an insertion in a new discursive constellation” (p. 67).

Zodiac image

Zodiac: Depicting the ecliptic path of the earth – CC licensed from Wikipedia Commons

When an object of discourse moves from one “discursive constellation” (which I read as “discursive network”) to another, its relationship to other objects of discourse is altered and differentiated. The result is a modification of meaning. This suggests that changing a discursive network can change what a discourse “says” or “means”—more evidence that the semantic or linguistic text itself cannot contain all meaning. I wonder if this suggests that my OOS, Google Analytics, itself a metanetwork, might also represent a different discursive constellation that shadows, but does not mirror, its originating network. It also suggests that using Google Analytics to shift back to the originating web might be another example of modification by shifting the discursive constellation—what could I learn about both networks by examining the results of shifting discursive networks?

Foucault offered a useful concluding statement at the end of chapter 6 to encapsulate what he’d said about aspects of discourse.

“And just as one must not relate the formation of objects either to words or to things, nor that of statements either to the pure form of knowledge or to the psychological subject, nor that of concepts either to the structure of ideality or to the succession of ideas, one must not relate the formation of theoretical choices either to a fundamental project or to the secondary play of opinion” (p. 71, emphasis in original).

Foucault defines, by opposition (différance?), what he means by the four aspects of discourse he addressed in the preceding chapters. Objects of discourse must not be formed in relationship to words or to things, but rather to contextual information found in liminal spaces on the edges of discourse. Enunciative modalities must not be formed in relation to some originating, pure form of knowledge or to the psychological condition of the subject, but rather to the dynamic relationship among speaker, site, and relationship of subject to object. Concepts of discourse must not be formed in relation to some idealized, hypothesized perfect structure or empirical evolution of ideas, but rather to the dynamic combination of succession, coexistence, and intervention procedures found within the object itself. And theories of discourse must not be formed as part of a project seeking first causes or a framework based on regional or other localized assumptions; rather, the existence of the object of discourse at the moment of creation contains the network of relationships that should be used to describe, define, and theorize it.


Foucault, M. (2010). The archaeology of knowledge and the discourse on language. (A. M. Sheridan Smith, Trans.). New York: Vintage Books. (Original work published in 1972)


Tauʻolunga. (2006). Ecliptic path [Image]. Creative Commons licensed image retrieved from Wikimedia Commons:

3 thoughts on “Reading Notes: Foucault Parts I and II

  1. I think you’ve done a bang-up job summarizing some of the key claims here. I do also appreciate the connections with Derrida complete with caveat. This demonstrated some pretty clear understanding of the readings – nice!

    On a side note, it is close to lunch, and I find myself craving pastry 😉

  2. Pingback: Mindmap #6: Getting a Little CHATty | Ponderings

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *