Ways of Speaking: Michel Foucault and Other Archaeologies

I’ve just finished The Archeaology of Knowledge by Michel Foucault, and as methodical and ‘cautious’ as it is, I enjoyed its systematic approach to the subject and the accessible style of Foucault’s writing.

The following extended quote seems to encapsulate Foucault’s thinking (both in this book, and perhaps in his writing in general) quite nicely. In it he attempts to go beyond the regions of scientific discourse that he had previously been concerned with (here as well as in the previous works that this is somewhat of a summation and reassessment of: Madness and Civilization1, The Birth of the Clinic2 and The Order of Things3), to outline some archaeologies of other bodies of knowledge. In so doing, I can begin to see where this series of works sits in relation to Structuralism in general, and specifically the thorny issue of the position of the ‘producer’ in relation to their ‘productions’:

. . . I can also see another possible direction for analysis: instead of studying the sexual behaviour of men at a given period (by seeking its law in a social structure, in a collective unconscious, or in a certain moral attitude), instead of describing what men thought about sexuality (what religious interpretation they gave it, to what extent they approved or disapproved of it, what conflicts of opinion or morality it gave rise to), one would ask oneself whether, in this behaviour, as in these representations, a whole discursive practice is not at work; whether sexuality, quite apart from any orientation towards a scientific discourse, is not a group of objects that can be talked about (or that it is forbidden to talk about), a field of possible enunciations (whether in lyrical or legal language), a group of concepts (which can no doubt be presented in the elementary form of notions or themes), a set of choices (which may appear in the coherence of behaviour or in systems of prescription). Such an archaeology would show, if it succeeded in it’s task, how the prohibitions, exclusions, limitations, values, freedoms, and transgressions of sexuality, all its manifestations, verbal or otherwise, are linked to a particular discursive practice. It would reveal, not of course as the ultimate truth of sexuality, but as one of the dimensions in accordance with which one can describe it, a certain ‘way of speaking’; and one would show how this way of speaking is invested not in scientific discourses, but in a system of prohibitions and values. An analysis that would be carried out not in the direction of the episteme, but in that of what we might call the ethical.4

  1. FOUCAULT, Michel (1961). Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique – Folie et déraison. Paris: Plon. Translated by Jonathan Murphy and Jean Khalfa as: Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. London: Routledge.
  2. FOUCAULT, Michel (1963). Naissance de la clinique – une archéologie du regard médical. Paris: PUF. Translated as: The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception. London: Routledge.
  3. FOUCAULT, Michel (1966). Les mots et les choses – une archéologie des sciences humaines. Paris: Gallimard. Translated as: The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. London: Routledge.
  4. FOUCAULT, Michel (1969). L’archéologie du savoir. Paris: Gallimard. Translated by A. M. Sheridan Smith as: The Archeaology of Knowledge. London: Routledge. pp. 212–213.

Where’s theory?

. . . the thing that, by means of the fable, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that. (Foucault, 1989, p. xvi)

Now I’ve visited China, I’ve got a better impression of the way things are with art there.

I saw very few works by Chinese artists that particularly interested me. I saw a lot of interesting architecture, some good sculpture, some nice photography and media art, and a lot of poor paintings. However, many of the things I liked were usually not by Chinese artists.

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READING—Postmodern Critiques of Modernity and Modernism


  • Kant, I. (1784). What is Enlightenment? In Preziosi, D. ed. The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. pp. 70–75.
  • Lyotard, J-F. (1984). “Introduction.” In The Postmodern Condition. Manchester: Manchester University Press. pp. XXIII–XXV and 78–82.
  • Foucault, M. (1986). “Preface” and “Classifying”. In The Order of Things. London: Routledge. pp. XV–XXIV and 125–165.
  • Borges, J. L. (1964). The Library of Babel. In Labyrinths. London. pp. 78–86.
  • Foster, H. (1983). Postmodernism: A Preface. In Foster, H. ed. The Anti-Aesthetic. Port Townsend. pp. IX–XVI.
  • Owens, C. (1980). The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism. In Preziosi, D. ed. The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. pp. 315–328.
  • Huyssen, A. (1984). Mapping the Postmodern. In Preziosi, D. ed. The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. pp. 329–337.
  • Bourriaud, N. (2002). “Foreword” and “Relational Form”. In Relational Aesthetics. Paris: Les Presses du Réel. pp. 7–10, 11–24.


Over the past few weeks we’ve been considering various strands of postmodernism and their challenges to modernity (most of the following, up to the subtitle ‘This Week,’ comes from my notes from Astrid Schmetterling’s lecture).

Beginning with Kant’s promotion of the responsibility of every person for their own acts and development, the establishment of the modern world and Modernity’s meta-narratives is initiated:

Enlightenment is man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another.. . . For this enlightenment . . . nothing is required but freedom . . . the freedom to make public use of one’s reason at every point. (Kant, p.70, 71)

Moving on to Modernism itself and discussing Enlightenment problematics – gender, colonialism, class oppression – a series of exclusionary practices dealt with by Foucault in his writings. Foucault represents the historicist turn of Post-Structuralism, away from Structuralism’s flawed critique of Modernism – it was seen not to have broken with Modernism’s notions of truth, universality and timelessness. Borges, I think, fictionalises the potential consequences of Post-Structuralism, especially through the works of Jacques Derrida.

According to Lyotard, Postmodernity displays an “incredulity towards metanarratives”, and:

Postmodern knowledge is not simply a tool of the authorities; it refines our sensitivity to differences and reinforces our ability to tolerate the incommensurable. (Lyotard, p.XXV)

For Lyotard, Post-Modernism works against consensus, resulting in no privileged discourse and no general theory of justice. There can only ever be a provisional judgement in cases – the heterogeneous over homogeneous and universal.

Two styles of Post-Modernism are proposed by Hal Foster, one of reaction and another of resistance. “Reaction” is conservative, and entails going back to a pre-modern period for influences, with a resultant decontextualisation of styles. “Resistance” questions rather than exploits cultural codes.

This week

This week we’re completing this series of texts by looking at Owens, Huyssen and Bourriaud. The following are some very short notes from my own readings of each text.


For Owens, an “allegorical impulse” has reemerged in contemporary culture after its suppression in modern theory. He provisionally defines allegory as occurring “whenever one text is doubled by another” (Owens, p. 316):

. . . allegory becomes the model of all commentary, all critique, insofar as these are involved in rewriting a primary text in terms of its figural meaning. (Owens, p. 317)

In the visual arts allegory is characterised as “appropriation, site specificity, impermanence, accumulation, discursivity, hybridization”. The allegorical impulse “challenges the security of the foundations upon which aesthetics is erected.”


Huyssen suggests that the available theories of postmodernism (as equated with poststructuralism or the writings of Lyotard) have only been critiques of modernism rather any significant breaks with it. To go beyond these, one must look at aspects of contemporary culture and see that they “raise the question of cultural tradition and conservation in the most fundamental way as an aesthetic and a political issue” (Huyssen, p. 332), this exemplifies the postmodern sensibility of our time and is different from “both modernism and avantgardism”.

As with Foster, Huyssen promotes a postmodernism of resistance, not simply in terms of “negativity or non-identity à la Adorno” (Huyssen, p. 336), but bringing together politics and aesthetics in heightened creative tension.


The space of social interactions represents for Bourriaud the arena of contestation for contemporary art. He asks:

… is it still possible to generate relationships with the world, in a practical field art-history traditionally earmarked for their “representation”? (Bourriaud, p. 9)

Bourriaud represents a fairly recent development in the critique of contemporary art, the recognition of the “inter-human” (Bourriaud, p. 22) or “trans-individual” (Bourriaud, p. 18) aspects of works. He states that:

Relational Aesthetics does not represent a theory of art, this would imply the statement of an origin and destination, but a theory of form.

He contrasts Thierry de Duve’s “authoritarian” view of art, “for whom any work is nothing more than a ‘sum of judgements’” by the artist, to a concept of the artistic form “only assuming its texture (and only acquires a real existence) when it introduces human interactions” (Bourriaud, p. 22).

Grant Kester takes a similar (if less philosophical and more historiographical) view, in his book Conversation Pieces1. In the Introduction he narrows his concern to “works that define dialogue itself as fundamentally aesthetic (as opposed to works centered on collaboratively producing paintings, sculptures, murals, etc.)” (p. 13).

In the process he highlights the way modern art, with its avant-garde tendency to stall communication, has been theorised and how these theories have since thwarted an effective consideration of dialogue-based artworks:

… the antidiscursive orientation of the avant-garde artwork, its inscrutability and resistance to interpretation, is staged in opposition to a cultural form that relies on reductive or clichéd imagery to manipulate the viewer (advertising, political propaganda, kitsch, and so on). … This paradigm … has made it difficult to recognize the potential aesthetic significance of collaborative and dialogical art practices that are accessible without necessarily being simplistic.

  1. Kester, G. (2004). Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art. California: University of California Press.