Top critical review
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on 20 August 2013
Foucault was always rather different to other 1960s French intellectual big guns - while the others tended to build a rarefied abstract conceptual edifice (often inclined to collapse like a house of cards), Foucault wrote descriptive accounts of society and reality - or at least the way reality is socially constructed.
For his major books, his four or five 'greatest hits', he selected real issues like madness, illness, criminality and sexuality and then presented his amassed research via illuminating events or motifs (panoptican, great confinement etc), in order to tell an interesting story - some might say fable - and make provocative arguments about how power and institutions work.
Whatever you think of his methods, Foucault's big ideas like the surveillance society, the disciplinary society, the delinquent society and so on seem to become more and more relevant to our contemporary world.
Foucault's success may have been down to a combination of talent, fearsome learning and intuition, but back in mid 60s Paris he came under enormous pressure to justify himself, to explain his methodology. Archaeology of Knowledge was the result - Foucault's attempt to outline his method in rigorous theoretical terms. Although the book was published in France in 1969 it is definitely pre-May 68 in its remit and tone - engaging with the then dominant theories of structuralism and Saussurian linguistics (signs and signifiers)
The main argument is fairly straightforward - Foucault is against the idea that history is a grand linear narrative driven by great men and great events, instead he sees history as a network of documents in an archive and the historian's task is to trace how these documents function as 'objects of discourse'. Foucault spends most of the book performing the obligatory 'defining of terms': object, discourse, archive, statement, description etc. But many of these definitions, even that of 'archaeology', remain decidedly sketchy.
The book almost takes it for granted that conventional `bourgeois history' is bunk, but the real targets are closer to home - against existentialism / phenomenology (history as authenticity of lived experience and individual agency) and against Hegel / Marx (history as teleology driven by progress and primary processes like class struggle, class consciousness). Foucault also seems to be fighting a rear-guard action against psychoanalysis (universality of Freudian complexes and drives, repression) and even against the new rival on the block - Derrida / deconstruction (documents as a purely `textual' reality).
Archaeology of Knowledge is, therefore, Foucault's tortuous attempt to both engage with and yet distance himself from all these competing theories.
Yet did Foucault actually write any of his books in line with the method outlined here? Having got this book out of his system he went back to his usual idiosyncratic style and approach with Discipline & Punish (archaeology giving way to Nietzschean genealogy) - rendering a lot of the discussion in Archaeology irrelevant.
As should be evident from the preceding comments, this is by far Foucault's most dense and challenging book to read. Anyone interested should read his other major books before tackling this. If you are studying Foucault, maybe read the (well known) introduction and conclusion. On the other hand, if you are really into Foucault and / or 1960s post-structuralist theory then you will want to get around to reading the whole book at some point.