Reading Notes: Foucault (Week 3)

While reading The Archaeology of Knowledge I was particularly attuned to Foucault’s use of the term archaeology, since that seemed to be the central metaphor of the methodology. If I’m honest with myself, my first association with archaeology is probably Indiana Jones. From these movies, we get a view of archaeology as the project of trying to bring the past into public view (think Jones’ line “It belongs in a museum”) while simultaneously questioning whether that is such a good idea (consider none of the central objects that Indy seeks in the original trilogy actually end up in a museum).

Still of Indiana Jones from Raiders of the Lost Ark attempting to replace a gold relic with a bag of sand.
Still from Raiders of the Lost Ark. Image from _indiana_jones_movie_is_coming/


With this starting point I began to think about my conception of archaeology and Foucault’s. In the Indiana Jones movies, archaeology is the movement of historical objects from the obscure periphery (the Middle East and India) to the center(Western Museums)–however why this is necessary or a good thing is never fully established. Foucault’s definition seems quite different, however.  He states, “The never completed, never wholly achieved uncovering of the archive forms the general horizon to which the description of discursive formations, the analysis of positives, the mapping of the enunciative field belong. The right of words…authorizes, therefore, the use of the term archaeology to describe all these searches…Archaeology describes discourses as practices specified in the element of the archive” (131).

When thinking about these different notions, I actually felt like I might have stumbled on a helpful illustration of Foucault’s distinction between archaeological history and the history of ideas. If we think of museums that Jones wants to bring artifacts to, their aim is to create unity. Museums curate exhibits that seek to present a unified narrative of their objects. The different halls and wings are separated by period and objects are added to exhibits to create a more complete and coherent narrative of the period. Museums thus seem like a great example of the history of ideas.

Concentric Circles. Image from 36500/36549/circles_36549.htm


However, Foucault’s definition is interested in analyzing elements within the archive. His project seems interested in uncovering the situated networks of statements and events where they are–though he acknowledges this project will always be unfinished. Foucault uses the image of concentric circles several times to describe history, and I found this to be a helpful image. In describing his own methodology in the book Foucault acknowledges, “I am not proceeding by linear deduction, but rather by concentric circles, moving sometimes towards the outer and sometimes towards the inner ones” (114). Archaeology as a method according to Foucault then moves in, out, and around its subject.

As I sat pondering what that might mean or look like, I found myself distracted by my book cover, which has a large megaphone on the front. I must admit I’m still at a loss as to its connection with Foucault’s argument. I then proceeded to look up some other covers, which are represented below.

Book cover image with megaphone pictured on front.
Book Cover: Vintage Books
Book cover with nautilus shell
Book Cover: Travistock Publications Limited
Book cover with red amorphous image which in the center resembles parts of a car
Book Cover: Routledge

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I liked the Travistock image of a nautilus because it seemed to connect well with the image of concentric circles. The Routledge cover was interesting because of its inscrutableness–it felt like the tangled mess Foucault was carefully trying to uncover. However, as I found myself determining which cover I liked best, I thought about the method I was bringing to this task. I was trying to understand how the cover art connected to the rest of the book–I was looking for unity and cohesion. Was this quest in line with the history of ideas or archaeological history? In trying to find connections between the image representations and the points and arguments Foucault is making am I following the methodology of the history of ideas or archaeological history? To be honest, I’m not actually sure since I am still grappling with the notion of a method that focuses on rupture and discontinuity. I guess the question I am left thinking about is what would this archaeological method really look like in practice? What would an archaeological analysis of the book cover’s relationship to the book reveal? One way I might begin to tackle this question is through the concept of rules. Foucault’s archaeological analysis seems most interested in exploring the rules that tie things together. Well, my exploration of cover art is certainly predicated on a “rule” that the cover image should correspond to the content of the book. Hence my distaste for the Vintage cover since I have not been able to establish a connection. Yet, this rule can be rather flexible. A nautilus does not seemingly fit with Foucault’s subject, yet I have been able to make a connection between it and the image of concentric circles Foucault uses. Similarly, though I cannot pin down what the Routledge cover is exactly depicting, the opaqueness seems to correspond with the difficulty of the ideas Foucault is untangling. These invisible rules that govern whether a book cover seems appropriate or not actually remind me of the concept of internet protocols from my How Stuff Works Post on Internet Basics, since it was these protocols that held the various things in the network together and allowed them to interact. Similarly, Foucault’s notion of rules are these often invisible understandings and assumptions that connect things. This seems to be what Foucault’s analysis wants to focus on. So perhaps an archaeological analysis for this case would not ask which image is best or most appropriate, but what rules and connections between beliefs, people, cultures, etc. lead us to determine whether a book cover is appropriate or not?



Foucault, Michele. The Archaeology of Knowledge. 1969. Trans. A.M. Sheridan Smith. New York: Vintage Books, 2010. Print. 


One Reply to “Reading Notes: Foucault (Week 3)”

  1. I think your focus on rules is completely appropriate to attempting to unravel what Foucault is doing. Also, you’ve made Foucault and Indy work together — always bonus points for that.

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