Michel FoucaultEdit

[October 1926 – 25 June 1984] Foucault was a French philosopher, sociologist, and historian. He held a chair at the prestigious Collège de France with the title "History of Systems of Thought." Foucault is best known for his critical studies of social institutions, most notably psychiatry, medicine, the human sciences, and the prison system, as well as for his work on the history of human sexuality. Knowledge, power and discourse are primary topics of Foucault's analyses. In the 1960s Foucault was associated with structuralism, a movement from which he distanced himself. Foucault also rejected the poststructuralist and postmodernist labels later attributed to him, preferring to classify his thought as a critical history of modernity rooted in Kant. Foucault's project is particularly influenced by Nietzsche, his "genealogy of knowledge" being a direct allusion to Nietzsche's "genealogy of morality". In a late interview he definitively stated: "I am a Nietzschean." In 2007 Foucault was listed as the most cited scholar in the humanities by The Times Higher Education Guide. [text courtesy Wikipedia]

The essay "Nietzsche, Genealogy, History" appears in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, a selection of essays and interviews with Foucault. In this essay, Foucault explains the sources fundamental to the development of his thought.

Nietzsche, Genealogy, History [1971]Edit

In this essay, Foucault explores genealogy through Nietzsche, and expounds on his own understanding of the genealogical method.

Genealogy, foremost, involves patient documentation and a willingness to pursue that which we believe does not exist in history: "Genealogy is gray, meticulous, and patiently documentary. It operates on a field of entngled and confused parchments, on documents that have been scratched over and recopied many times [...] the world of speech and desires has known invasions, struggles, plundering, disguises, ploys. From these, elements, however, genealogy retrieves an indispensable restraint: it must record the singularity of events outside of any monotonous finality; it must seek them in the most unpromising places, in what we tend to feel is without history--in sentiments, love, conscience, instincts; it must be sensitive to their recurrence, not in order to trace the gradual curve of their evolution, but to isolate the different scenes where they engaged in different roles. Finally, genealogy must define even those instances where they are absent, the moment when they remain unrealized" (139-140).

The Fallacy of OriginEdit

Foucault writes that genealogy does not oppose itself to history, but rather opposes itself to a search for 'origins', and rejects "the metahistorical deployment of ideal significations and indefinite teleologies" (140). As a genealogist, Nietzsche opposed the "pursuit of the origin [Ursprung | source]" because it relies on a metaphysical faith in "purest possibilites [...] the existence of immobile forms that precede the external world of accident and succession. [...] the image of a primordial truth fully adequate to its nature, and it necessitates the removal of every mask to ultimately disclose an original identity" (142). We erronously attribute the origin with a moment of greatest perfection, the first morning that precedes the Fall in our merely human hands; the search for origin plays out our own desire for a divine birth. However, "historical beginnings are lowly" (143). Absconding metaphysics and turning to history, Foucault suggests that one discovers "not a timeless and essential secret, but the secret that they have no essence or that their essence was fabricated in a piecemeal fashion from alien forms" (142). Genealogy is anti-essentialist and disinterested in metaphysical origins: "What is found at the historical beginning of things is not the inviolable identity of their origin; it is the dissension of other things. It is disparity" (142).

Most problematic, the origin "makes possible a field of knowledge whose function is to recover it, but always in a false recognition due to the excesses of its own speech" (143). The origin believes itself to be the site of inevitable loss, a moment when the truth of the object corresponded to the truth of its discouse. History, rather, "compels a reversal of this relationship and the abandonment of 'adolescent' quests: behind the always recent, avaricious, and measured truth, it posits the ancient proliferation of errors" (143). Truth, then, is an error. "The genealogist needs history to dispel the chimeras of the origin" (144). Here Foucault suggests that the genealogist must be able to recognize the events of history (even the ones we wish to hide) as well as diagnose the illness of the body, its weaknesses, strengths, and breakdowns, since history is the "body of a development" (145).

Descent [Herkunft]Edit

The genealogist's labor is not to trace back to the singular source of origin, but to take the self, the individual object, and show its many roots (an inversion of our traditional model of, lets say, the lineage of kings): "Where the soul pretends unification or the self fabricates a coherant identity, the genealogist sets out to study the beginning--numberless beginnings whose faint traces and hints of color are readily seen by an historical eye. The analysis of descent permits the dissociation of the self [...] in a liberating profusion of lost events" (145-6)

The duty of genealogy is not to "demonstrate that the past actively exists in the present [...] On the contrary, to follow the complex course of descent is to maintain passing events in their proper dispersion; it is to identify the accidents, the minute deviations--or conversely, the complete reversals--the errors, the false appraisals, and the faulty calculations that gave birth to those things that continue to exist have have value for us; it is to discover that truth or being do not lie at the root of what we know and what we are, but the exteriority of accidents" (146).

Descent, according to Foucault, also attaches itself to the body: "the body maintains, in life as in death, through its strength of weakness, the sanction of every truth and error, as it sustains, in an inverse manner, the origin--descent" (147). [Is origin reall descent?]. Foucault asserts: "The body is the inscribed surface of events (traced by language and dissolved by ideas), the locus of a dissociated Self (adopting the illusion of a substantial unity), and a volume in perpetual disintegration. Genealogy, as an analysis of descent, is thus situated within the articulation of the body and history. Its task is to expose a body totally imprinted by history and the process of history's destruction of the body" (148).

Emergence [Entsthung]Edit

Just as we must not explore descent as "uninterrupted continuity", neither should we be "thinking of emergence as the final term of an historical development; the eye was not always intended for contemplation, and punishment has had other purposes than setting an example" (148). Rather than thinking of currently existing forms as culminations, we may understand them as "episodes in a series of subjugations" (148). It is a historical falsity to place present understandings as the origin: "Genealogy, however, seeks to reestablish the various systems of subjection: not the anticipatory power of meaning, but the hazardous play of dominations" (148). Emergence is an eruption of forces, for "as descent qualifies the strength or weakness of an instinct and its insciption on a body, emergence designates a place of confrontation but not as a closed field offering the spectacle of a struggle among equals. Rather, as Nietzsche demonstrates in his analysis of good and evil, it is a 'non-place,' a pure distance, which indicates that the adversaries do not belong to a common space. Consequently, no one is responsible for emergence; no one can glory in it, since it always occurs in the interstice" (150).

The only drama that takes place here, then, is the "endless repeated play of dominations" (150). This play of dominations allows for the distinguishing of various objectives between groups (the dominating and the dominated). Yet this relationship cannot be understood as such--rather it manifests in "rituals, in meticulous procedures that impose rights and obligations" (150). It marks its power on memories, things and bodies. Here Foucault merges with Nietzsche, suggesting that the law is a pleasure of violence; erecting law has little to do with a desire for peace. Human civilization is a process of installed dominations, one after the other.

The development of humanity (the history of which is the role of genealogy to record) is a series of interpretations, the "violent or surreptitious appropriation of a system of rule, which in itself has no essential meaning, in order to impose a direction, to bend it to a new will, to force its participation in a different game, and to subject it to secondary rules" (152). Genealogy records the history of all manner of things, morals, ideals, metaphysical concepts, liberty, religion--"as they stand for the emergence of different interpretations, they must be made to appear as events on the stage of historical process" (152).

Genealogy vs. Traditional HistoryEdit

In the fifth section is essay, Foucault summarizes the methodological differences between a history based in geneaology (a Nietzschian history) and a traditional history, or the historian's history. For Foucault, these differences lie in the sensibility the historian/genealogist takes toward the work. The historian's history implies a metaphysical continuity between past and present, a “suprahistorical perspective” that seeks to reconcile dissonance through “apocalyptic objectivity” (152). The traditional historian keeps their body outside of history and relies on a “contemplation of distances and heights: the noblest periods, the highest forms […] adopting the famous perspective of frogs” (155). Genealogical history, however, is an “effective” history (a history of effects?), deprives itself of the assurances of progress and origin, as genealogy is the examination of both descent and emergence. It “deprives the self of the reassuring stability of life and nature, and it will not permit itself to be transported by a voiceless obstinacy toward a millennial ending. This is because knowledge is not made for understanding; it is made for cutting” (154). This manner of history studies those things nearest it—the body and all close at hand—and demands awareness of its own perspective: “it has no fear of looking down, so long as it understands that it looks from above” (155-6). It doesn't seek to recount the birth of truth and values in the service of philosophy, but operates as a “differential knowledge of energies and failings […] a curative science” (156). It affirms knowledge as perspective—and as with any case of perspective, where one stands is the most relevant and important point.