Yesterday I finished year 1969 in Dits et Écrits v. 1, the chronological collection of Foucault’s writings. The year’s set of writings almost literally ends with an analogy between the method of Foucault and that of his former teacher, Merleau-Ponty.
Recall that 1969 is the year Archaeology of Knowledge is published. It is also the year in which Foucault notes in an interview (“Michel Foucault explique son dernier livre”) that “this word archaeology embarrasses me a bit” (“Ce mot ‘archéologie’ me gêne un peu“) because it ably suggests two things that Foucault does not intend: a search for an origin (archè) and a digging down to uncover what has been hidden away. Foucault says that, on the contrary, “I am attempting to render visible what is invisible only by being too much on the surface of things” (“je tente de renre visible ce qui n’est invisible que d’être trop à la surface des choses.”) (both quotes from D&É1, 800).
Why is this “rendering visible” an “archaeology”? This question stayed with me as I read through 1969, right up to page 874, where Foucault ends his presentation to the Collège de France for his candidacy:
“In its most general formulation, the problem that I encounter is not without analogy with that which philosophy has posed over the last few decades. Between a reflexive tradition of pure consciousness and an empiricism of sensation, philosophy had the task of finding not the genesis, not the bond, not even the surface of contact, but a third dimension: that of the perception of the body. The history of thought perhaps requires today a readjustment of the same order; between constituted sciences (the history of which is often made) and the phenomena of opinion (which historians know to deal with), we need to undertake the history of systems of thought. But in bringing out the specificity of knowledge (savoir), we not only define a level of historical analysis that has been neglected up to now, we are also forced to re-examine knowing (connaissance), its conditions and the status of the the subject that knows (connaît). (Again, you can find the French on D&É1, 874).
I don’t claim originality here– I am only trying to get into words what I sense Foucault is sensing. Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of perception focuses on le corps propre, the body itself, in ways that sidestep or nullify the contradictions of idealism and empiricism. Foucault’s history of systems of thought seeks a similar mediation. What is the medium that structures meaning, a medium that can be examined without searching for an original referent (an archè) and that doesn’t require uncovering essential or fixed significations (a digging down to uncover truth)? That medium is the systems of savoir, each of which is constituted through words that are strung together or made up or reconfigured in order to record and convey specific experiences (connaissances) and that, in sustaining or maintaining themselves, generate a buoyant matrix (savoir) that is analogous to (and as stable, solid, mutable, and vulnerable as) the living body. Just as perception requires a body, so connaissance requires savoir. The philosophical labor emerges from the attempt to articulate the unendingly variable relations and differences between the two. And just as the mystery of perception can be sought in the surfaces of the body, not deep in consciousness but in the ways the capacities of the body coalesce and constellate experiences into meaning, so also the mystery of knowing can be sought in the surfaces of language, not deep in some essential meaning but in the systematization of lived and felt connections (suggested and then sustained) that take on the regulatory force of truth.
This is an archaeology that skips across the surface of knowledge instead of digging down, and that seeks not the truth of what or when something was (a pottery fragment, a stela) but the process of how meaning emerges and persists within a horizontal stratification of ordered connections.
Much more to say and consider. But I’m aiming to keep these posts shorter this new year.
This one is for Randy, on his birthday.