Monday, June 14, 2004

An Amazing Tale of Meeting Foucault on a River Bank

In the Archaeology of Knowledge we find thatone aspectoftheoijglilkjaec…ick.. thptt…

<take 2>

Whenever I read Foucault my brain kindof shortcircuitshatne tkljhadf…

<take 3>

The standard approach just doesn’t seem to be working. That’s the problem with Foucault: it’s just too damned thick; there are too many ideas. And too many sentences without verbs. The morass of semicolons and mushy French assonance just leaves me crying for the precise Prussian verbs of Marx and Weber: Ich bin eine Checkliste! I’d even settle for the placid mid-western nasality of Kuhn. Perhaps that’s where I’ll start—with a story about a river (in deference to R. H. Brown, 1998).

[Shift to allegory] I recently took a boat trip along the Concord and Merrimak rivers in search of the true meaning of this land. With me I brought perhaps the most important novel of Western civilization: Woodiwiss's The Flame and the Flower. This novel is perhaps the best exemplar of the entire genre—episteme even (Foucault, 2002 [1972])—of romance fiction (Radway, 1991). As I floated down those rivers it became clear to me that the entire romance genre was merely the latest branch in a continuous arboreal trunk of culture dating from the earliest oral narratives recited by bards, minstrels, and seanachies. There was no break in this progression.

The river started to get rough and storm clouds drew around me. Suddenly there was a fierce thunderstorm. And rapids. And crocodiles… or at least some very big catfish. I was washed over a waterfall and my locally handcrafted water vessel was crushed leaving me on the shore with only The Flame and the Flower for protection.

My adventure had begun.

Before I had time to rest, a bald Frenchman with incredibly tacky glasses leaped from the bushes and starting yelling at me in a swooshy mouth-full-of-marbles language that I could only assume was non-Quebecois French. When I failed to respond to his challenge, Foucault—for now I recognized this terror for who he really was—reached back and smote me with his pen. If it wasn’t for Woodiwiss, I would have surely perished. Splintered asunder and drowned in spilt ink, The Flame and the Flower fell to my feat. Genre itself was soon to face a similar challenge.

Seeing my nemesis, I called out my own challenge: “Foucault, you bastard! You claimed: ‘I am no doubt not the only one who writes in order to have no face!’ (Foucault, 2002 [1972] p. 17) And now your work is HUGE! The Archaeology of Knowledge has been cited over 3000 times according to ISI… And use some freaking adjectives!”

With this the specter crumbled before me and began to weep. He then sobbed profusely over the loss of The Flame and the Flower. Seeing my opportunity, I decided to leap on his display of vulnerability:

“So what exactly were you talking about in that book anyways?”

Foucault immediately perked up and began an explanation. In addition to being a fundamental source of illumination (?!?) for discourse analysis, he explained that AOK [get it? AOK… like “A-OK!”] was about discourses and how we must separate these particular discourses from their emergence and their history and try to explore both the spaces between discourses and the vectors of the emergence. In response to my blank face, Foucault granted me three bits of knowledge regarding the formation of discursive objects. He called them my “wishes.” He said:

1- “First we must map the first surfaces of their emergence... In these fields of initial differentiation, in the distances, the discontinuities, and the thresholds that appear within it, psychiatric discourse finds a way of limiting its domain, of defining what it is talking about, of giving it the status of an object—and therefore of making it manifest, nameable, and describable.” (Foucault, 2002 [1972] p. 41) Okay, I kind of got this statement. We have to explore the mechanisms in which “objects” get stabilized. There seems to be some resonance with ANT [or “actant-rhizome ontology” (Latour, 1999)] and the notions of “stabilization” and “closure mechanisms” from SCOT (van House, 2004).

2- “We must also describe the authorities of delimitation.” (Foucault, 2002 [1972] p. 41) Then I really saw the ANT perspective with a bit of Marxist discourse thrown in. Law (with some help from Leigh Star) has already recognized this tad of wisdom (Law, 1999).

3- “Lastly, we must analyze the grids of specification: these are the systems according to which the different ‘kinds of madness’ are divided, contrasted, related, regrouped, classified, driven from one another as objects of psychiatric discourse.” (Foucault, 2002 [1972] p. 42) Finally, something I could really understand! Bowker and Star (1999) have made these arguments about classification schemes in general.

I was still confused by one thing. Foucault claimed that AOK was not about creating new fundamental categories or methods but was about developing a conceptualization or awareness of knowledge. Despite these claims, he quite clearly laid out some fairly nice facets and approaches (Hyder, 2003). Garfinkel (1996) has made similar claims about ethnomethodology but has at least had the decency to explicate his concepts with the help of a story about an information scientist (Mooers) who was trying to sell classification tools! From Foucault, we get nothing.

Finally, I decided to challenge my foe: “Grids of specification—how can that be any different than Kuhn’s concept of concrete exemplars? Authorities of delimitation—you mean like disciplinary matrices (Kuhn, 1962)?”

With this, Foucault shrieked and melted. It seems that Foucault himself had become a paradigm through a geological “process of accretion” (Kuhn, 1962 p. 3). Perhaps Foucault’s discourses have met a similar fate as the “network” of actor-network-theory: “[I]t has lost any cutting edge and is now the pet notion of all those who want to modernize modernization.” (Latour, 1999 p. 14). Worse, as a paradigm we no longer even have to conduct the work of affirming or valorizing Foucault’s work. As noted by Kuhn:

“In a science, on the other hand, a paradigm is rarely an object for replication. Instead, like an accepted judicial decision in the common law, it is an object for further articulation and specification under new or more stringent conditions.” (1962 p.23)

We just have to keep articulating and specifying—to hell with what Foucault was actually trying to say!

With the ghost of Foucault safely vanquished, I could begin my return from the riverbank. Along the way, I met some cross-disciplinary scholars in the midst of a bibliographic quandary…

…but that’s another story (Sutherland, 19??).

Chapter 2…

While this narrative is getting a bit out of hand, I did want to make some comments on interdisciplinary scholars. Palmer and Neumann’s (2002) concepts of “exploration” and “translation” are valuable but they could probably have been determined a prior of any real research. Doesn’t Latour mention these processes? They also provide a killer pull quote:

“ Notes fix the intellectual work of reading in a primitive form for future development... The act of writing is formative” Pg. 100

The one issue that stands out for me is the seeming dependence of cross-disciplinary scholars on texts. Admittedly they use fewer texts than their humanist brothers and depend on informal information sources and people to act as “translators” (see also J. S. Brown & Duguid, 1998). Engineers, however, have a marked and intense dependence on other people (Hertzum & Pejtersen, 2000; Pinelli, 1991). Is there some sort of weird relationship between the dependence on informal or personal information sources and the materiality of products being produced? Engineers produce very real things (are concrete structure socially constructed?) yet they rely on people for information. Humanities scholars, however, create ephemeral texts relevant for a tightly knit homopholous (!) community.


Bowker, G. C., & Star, S. L. (1999). Sorting things out: classification and its consequences. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Brown, J. S., & Duguid, P. (1998). Organizing knowledge. California Management Review, 40(3), 90-111.

Brown, R. H. (1998). Toward a democratic science : scientific narration and civic communication. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Foucault, M. (2002 [1972]). Archaeology of knowledge. New York: Routledge.

Garfinkel, H. (1996). Ethnomethodology's program. Social Psychology Quarterly, 59(1), 5-21.

Hertzum, M., & Pejtersen, A. M. (2000). The information-seeking practices of engineers: searching for documents as well as for people. Information Processing & Management, 36(5), 761-778.

Hyder, D. (2003). Foucault, Cavaillès, and Husserl on the historical epistemology of the sciences. Perspectives on Science, 11(1), 107-129.

Kuhn, T. S. (1962). The structure of scientific revolutions. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Latour, B. (1999). On recalling ANT. In J. Law & J. Hassard (Eds.), Actor network theory and after (pp. 15-25). Oxford [England] ; Malden, MA: Blackwell/Sociological Review.

Law, J. (1999). After ANT: complexity, naming, and topology. In J. Law & J. Hassard (Eds.), Actor network theory and after (pp. 1-14). Oxford [England] ; Malden, MA: Blackwell/Sociological Review.

Palmer, C. L., & Neumann, L. J. (2002). The information work of interdisciplinary humanities scholars: Exploration and translation. Library Quarterly, 72(1), 85-117.

Pinelli, T. E. (1991). The information-seeking habits and practices of engineers. Science and Technology Libraries, 11, 5-25.

Radway, J. A. (1991). Reading the romance : women, patriarchy, and popular literature. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Sutherland, P. (Writer), & P. Sutherland (Director) (19??). Hammy to the rescue. In Hammytime Inc. (Producer), Tales of the Riverbank.

van House, N. A. (2004). Science and technology studies and information studies. Annual Review of Information Science and Technology, 38, 3-86.