Reading Notes: Foucault Parts III-V

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Personal reading notes from ‘The Archaeology of History’ by Michel Foucault.

I reached nearly 3,000 words in my notes on these sections of The Archaeology of Knowledge, so what you’re reading here represents a summary of my reading notes. I kept trying to use my notes as a way to write myself into understanding the reading; although I ended up quoting lines from the text (turns out voice dictation in Evernote works decently well on the iPad), I worked hard to include context and rationale for including individual quotes—mostly so that, when I return to these notes later in this class or in my comps, I don’t leave myself entirely lost! I remain confused at parts of the text, but I found myself understanding what I meant as I reread my notes. That will have to count as progress.


If Parts I and II set the stage for Part III on statements, then Part III sets the stage for Part IV on archaeology. I found myself more drawn to (and able to follow) Part III than Part IV, mostly because I found myself more able to understand the statement’s relationship to discourse than discourse’s relationship to the archive and archaeology.

Foucault describes “statement” as a function: “this is because it is not itself a unit, but a function that cuts across a domain of structures and possible unities, and which reveals them, with concrete contents, in time and space” (p. 87). I’m struggling with conceiving of the statement as a function if for no other reason than that Foucault annexes existing vocabulary and gives it new meaning. What I recognize immediately, however, is that conceiving of statement as function makes discourse active; it “does” rather than “states” or “defines.” I find this useful because it elides with a concept of network as activated. Statements are networked; as such, they are actively engaged in the process of differentiation. This is precisely the first characteristic of statements Foucault offers: the enunciative formation or level of existence, one that is the result of the relations between a statement and the “spaces of differentiation” (p. 92).

Foucault offers additional characteristics of statements related to subject, domain, and materiality; his focus on domain interested me because it appears to directly relate to a theory of networks. Foucault appears to define a statement as part of an enunciative field that is networked and interconnected. Without this interconnected-ness, there can be sentences and signs, but no statement (p. 99). On the previous page, he calls this interconnected-ness a “complex web”: “The associated field that turns a sentence or a series of signs into a statement, and which provides them with a particular context, a specific representative content, forms a complex web” (p. 98).

Foucault finally draws the lines between statement and discourse, and between discourse and archive, in Part III, Chapter 3: The Description of Statements (p. 107).

  • Linguistic performance: group of signs using language
  • Formulation: act that reveals the group of signs above; always located in space time, always related to an author, always performative
  • Sentence: unit of grammar recognized in a group of signs
  • Proposition: unit of logic recognized in a group of signs
  • Statement: mode of existence proper to the group of signs; more than a series of traces, more than marks in substance, more than mere object made by human; in relation with a domain of objects, in position with a subject, situation among other verbal performances, repeatable materiality.
  • Discourse: a group of sequences of signs that are statements, that can be assigned particular modalities of existence; a group of statements that belong to a single system of formation
  • Discursive formation: principle of dispersion and redistribution of statements

What does it all mean? It means that discourse is not primarily communicative or argumentative. It’s not about grammar or logic. It’s not reflective of epochs, eras, oeuvres, or genres. It doesn’t have hidden interpretive meanings, nor does it point to some originating principle or transcendental ideal. It’s not about the author or the speaker. Discourse is most properly described in terms of statements, enunciative formation in time and space, materiality, and domains. A discursive formation is about the relationships built among statements, a positive, self-contained discursive domain built around differentiation among statements, not defined by its “negativity”—inability to achieve some transcendental ideal culmination or inability to return to its roots of origin.

“Archaeology” appears to be theorized as a systemized response to current theory and practice in uncovering the history of ideas. It is the practice of identifying and differentiating statements in discourse to describe that discourse—not to connect discourse to some historical period or subject, but simply to ascribe character to that discourse. Archaeology addresses itself to the timings of these thresholds [of positivity, of epistemologization, of scientificity, of formation], which are neither regular nor homogenous. They don’t break into eras and ages, like a traditional history of ideas would have us think (186-187).

Ultimately, this theory of discourse is one that profoundly affects the way we view texts. Rather than focusing directly on context or author or subject or audience, and rather than seeking meaning among interpretations of form and structure, Foucault finds ways to describe discourse as itself, without the aid of interpretation or chronological or thematic connection. Discourse contains within itself the tools for description and formalization. Using those tools reveals not hidden meanings or analogies, but genuine understanding of the enunciative formation of discourse. Its relationship is to statements, not to eras or themes. Archeology is the tool by which those interested in the history of ideas can mine discourse for differences, thus representing for readers the keys to the ways ideas are really formed and actually evolve or devolve—not as they are described or mediated, but as they actually are or do.

And as Foucault works to develop a theory of discourse, I think he inadvertently starts to develop a theory of networks. Here are a few of the statements Foucault makes that work toward a theory of networks.

Emerging Foucaultian Theory of Networks

Networks consist of activated enunciative formations (statements) that combine to form discourse.

“Every statement is specified in this way: there is no statement in general, no free, neutral, independent statement; but a statement always belongs to a series or a whole, always plays a role among other statements, deriving support from them and distinguishing itself from them: it is always part of a network of statements in which it has a role, however minimal it may be, to play.” (p. 99)

Twitter network visualization

NodeXL Twitter Network Graphs: Social CRM – Creative Commons image from Flickr user Marc Smith

I use the term “activated” to represent the differentiation and relation that statements are continually negotiating. As the discourse grows, these statements develop additional and wider connections that, in turn, result in new discursive formations. In fact, Foucault directly addresses the organic growth and development of discursive formation in the same chapter. “Far from being the principle of individualization of groups of ‘signifiers’ (the meaningful ‘atom,’ the minimum on the basis of which there is meaning), the statement is that which situates these meaningful units in a space in which they breed and multiply” (p. 100). The breeding and multiplying of statements is a fascinating concept because it suggests an understanding of discourse that is entirely self-generative. Might this also be a statement about the nature of networks, especially if the initial framework is loosely enough defined to enable organic growth? Foucault intentionally develops a framework for his theory of discourse that enables organic growth.

The network’s activity is to create meaningful relationships among its nodes.

I think Foucault describes statements—“a set of different oppositions”—as nodes in the following passage:

“A discursive formation is not, therefore, an ideal, continuous, smooth text that runs beneath the multiplicity of contradictions, and resolves them in the calm unity of coherent thought;… It is rather a space of multiple dissensions; a set of different oppositions whose levels and roles must be described” (p. 155, emphasis mine).

It’s the relations, especially the differential relations, among these nodes that reflects the network in action. Identifying levels and roles is the activated network seeking to define itself within its nodes relations among each other. Describing those levels and roles is the act of—well, I’m not sure. The metaphor may break down there, or it may suggest that networks require scribes and interpreters, those who will describe them. In a network, maybe it’s the database administrator or the network administrator. In a discourse, it’s the historian as archaeologist.

And Then It Hit Me…

As I drove home from my office at the University of Richmond, where I ended my working day with an hour and a half of reading and writing about Foucault, I heard the following brief story during NPR’s All Things Considered in its “All Tech Considered” segment: You’ve Got Mail, and It Smells Like 18th-Century Paris.

Here’s the quote that caught my attention after writing about Foucault: David Edwards, creator with his students of the oPhone (“o” for olfactory), said that “Communication is just missing something without a smell” (You’ve got mail, 2014, about 1:03 into the audio). I realized that missing smell from “communication” (I’m going to translate that to mean discourse) is part of the ephemera Foucault is trying to systematize in a theory of discourse. For Foucault, I think smell would be part of the evocative aspects of discourse that are found not in grammar or logic, not in the signs themselves, but in deep-seated relationships among enunciative formations in statements that combine to form discourse. Edwards goes on to say, “Clearly, a big difference between me saying to you the word ‘croissant,’ or even showing you a picture of a croissant, and you smelling a croissant” (You’ve got mail). The statement surely consists of an actual croissant, the signifier, the signified, the logic of the croissant baked from its ingredients, and the smell of the croissant. These enunciative formations combine to create the statement; the statement can then be used to create a multitude of discourses, including “communicating” the croissant, telling a story about the oPhone’s ability to convey the odor of the croissant across the airwaves, and using “Croissant” as the featured (hero) image of this blog post.

Foucault hits me on the commute home. I think I’m becoming a discursive formation.


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)

You’ve got mail, and it smells like 18th-century Paris [Radio episode]. (2014, January 27). All Things Considered: All Tech Considered. Retrieved from National Public Radio

[Croissant – Creative Commons image by Flickr user konqui]

4 thoughts on “Reading Notes: Foucault Parts III-V

  1. Daniel, this is a really helpful set of summation notes and connections to our current / evolving concept of networks. Your draw from the NPR piece — I think — really demonstrates how, as difficult a read as Foucault is, his ideas have power to open up new avenues of perspective in terms of the ways we’re discussing networks and discourse in our class.

    • Thanks, Amy! That’s great encouragement. I was not prepared to be “Foucaulted” in the middle of my commute home, but such is the life of the networked being, in constant dialog with surrounding discourses.

  2. I’m just ecstatic you are already “getting” how/why these notes will be useful later and trying to write them for your future self. I like that you took the “make connections to other stuff” idea to work with applying Foucault to what you hear/see (and maybe smell?!) on a day-to-day basis. I also think, like Amy mentioned above, that linking to specifics helps both you and your classmates grapple with his fluid concepts.

    • That’s a discursive mouthful – writing for my future self – but I have my fellow PhD students to thank for the focus on the future. My greatest challenge – other than time management and tough reading – has been finding the right technologies to enable everything to be tagged and searched. Everything I read, everything I write, every note I take. Now that I think about it, I’m building a networked collection of everything I read, study, and write in the program. I’m using iAnnotate to read PDFs, Scrivener to take all of my notes and write all assignments, formal and informal (including blog posts), and Zotero to conduct all of my research. I wish it were all in one single tool, but I haven’t found that all-in-one tool yet!

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