Philosophy Hammer
Philosophy, Economics, Politics & Psychology Tested with a Hammer

82: Michel Foucault part IV:
Nietzsche, Genealogy, History & What Is an Author?

Summary by: Jeff McLaren

In Foucault's essay “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” (1977) he sides with Nietzsche's criticism of grand narrative historians (A grand narrative historian is one who tries to explain all history from one or any number of concepts and/or notions such as spirit, reason, freedom, greed, progress, religious zeal etc.) (Q1) Foucault believes this is misguided and impossible because in different cultures and different times words had different means; logic had different out comes; desires pointed in different directions; even experience has been experienced differently. The tools the historian uses to “make sense” of history have a history of their own which hasn't been taken into consideration.(Q2) Foucault clams that if you want an understanding of history you must not only look at the past (which is the minimum that all historians must do) but you must also use the tools of the past to build your understanding. This is the difference between the historical method and the genealogical method: History looks at the actions of people that lived and events that have happened.

         Genealogy searches and records the changes in elements (such as the meaning of words; the direction of desire; the logic of ideas etc.) as revealed in things (which are commonly thought to have no history) like sentiments, conscience, instinct so as to isolate the different scenes where they engage in different roles. Genealogy does not oppose history as such but it does oppose “...the metahistorical deployment of ideal significations and indefinite teleologies” [A telos is a final cause, end or reason; teleology is the study of the final cause, ends and reasons]

         Genealogy is aways against a search for origins as an ideal or as a part of a teleology. Such a search for origins is always an attempt to get at the essence of a thing. For postmodern thinkers there are no essences in nature; essences are political and ideological impositions created after the facts. A search for origins is laughable in that it often assumes that the purest form of the truth is found at the origin and in the sense that it creates a field of knowledge whose only purpose it to recover the origin.(Q3)

         Foucault describes genealogy with two terms: descent and emergence. In the sense of descent it is very close to the popular sense of tracing and cataloging one's ancestors for when done well one can also see the traits that were passed down and the nearly unimaginable chance occurrences that had to happen to get to where we are today. Genealogy as descent is not about setting up foundations but about destroying passed down suppositions.

         Genealogy as emergence takes the stand that at each new emergence is a victory of one or many various competing dominations that then take control of bodies and apparatuses against their former masters. Therefore the genealogical event is not the traditional event of history: a decision, treaty, reign or battle is the after effects of a genealogical event. Effective history, as Foucault calls the genealogical process, concerns itself with “...the reversal of a relationship of forces, the usurpation of power, the appropriation of a vocabulary turned against those who had once used it...the entry of a masked 'other.'” While always affirming knowledge as perspective; objectivity is a myth. Foucault's purpose for effective history is to destroy three Platonic modalities that have existed to our day: 1) directed against the platonic notion that historical reality is reminiscence, effective history demonstrates the parody. 2) Against the Platonic notion of identity and essences, effective history demonstrates confusion and contingency. 3) Against truth and knowledge it demonstrates bias and perspective. Effective history “...risks the destruction of the subject who seeks knowledge in the endless deployment of the will to knowledge.”
         In Foucault's essay “What Is an Author?” (1979) he starts to consider the role of the author in our society; had he lived, I think he would have expanded on these ideas. First he considers the recent notion of “the disappearance of the author,” which refers to the ethical ambivalence to who is speaking. Ethical because it is a rule that we should not identify ourselves: our values, our biases, sentiments and/or prejudices as our own in our writing.(Q4) In one sense, support of this ethic makes one a member of the cult of objectivity and those who have appeared most successful in the cult have their name in the Pantheon of modern discourses.

         The Author's name has a distinct function with regards to our modern discourse; beyond just being an element of a discourse the author's name establishes a classificatory relationship among texts and a mode of being of discourse such that the work must be received with a certain weight and status. This makes the author function an ideological construct and a power relation. Considering this status of the author function, he raises very interesting questions for further research. The author function must contribute to and help explain 1) a typology of discourses; 2) “...the modes of circulation, valorization, attribution, and appropriation of discourses...” within a society; 3) a reexamination of “...the privileges of the grasp the subject's points of insertion, modes of functioning, and system of dependencies.” in a discourse. (Q5)
         Q1 Hegel explained everything as the becoming of spirit in the world; the Catholic church has believed that God has revealed his will through church history; many long histories have been written with an or some overarching theme: Edward Gibbons', “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” blames the fall of Rome on the acceptance of Christian morality; Arnold J. Toynbee explains all history as movements between two poles (innovation and decadence) in his 12 volume “A Study of History”; I believe Niall Ferguson points to psychological “constants” of human nature (especially economic self-interest) to show how nations rise and fall. Foucault claims that “understanding” history from a perspective (usually our own) is a propagandic exercise in self aggrandizement and social justification. Is it possible to really understand historical events based on our western early 21 century perspective?
         Q2 Imagine building a table from some plans that you find in an ancient ruin: if you use modern tools you may still be able to build the table but it will not be the table that the plans called for; it will not be a historically accurate table – it will be different. In the same way using modern words, modern meanings, modern values, to make sense of the past will not be any more true to the past than building an ancient table with modern tools. Do you believe that the tools of historians have changed and if so is that important?
         Q3 The debates around the Jesus Seminar are illustrative. The Jesus Seminar was an attempt to get to the origins of Christianity by looking at what we can really know about Jesus considering that the texts we have came many years after his death. They used many modern techniques to determine that the real Jesus was nothing like what we have been taught. Naturally, traditional biblical scholars (who also use modern techniques but start with different values, meanings and logic) had fit. For Foucault and for genealogy the interesting question is which logic, which meaning, which desires prevailed for they will be the ones that set the starting criteria of truth, logic and reason for the next conflict. Therefore there is no such thing as absolute truth; there are only systems of thought. Would you support traditional biblical scholars or the Jesus Seminar? Or, do you believe the debate is not about origins but about values, logic and meaning?
         Q4 If Steven King were to comment on his personal political views (as opposed to his character's) in his novel would we think that out of place? If a journalist were to come out and say outright that they disagreed with their interviewee – would that seem out of place. There are places for the author to speak (ie editorials, op-eds, and letters to the editor) but in most cases it is considered bad form or unprofessional. Do you agree or not? Who benefits from this type of professionalism? There is a game to try and find out the author's prejudices, sentiments and biases – to try to find the slips that reveal the author in the work. Do you play?
         Q5 Foucault, unfortunately, died prematurely in 1984 of complications related to HIV/AIDS 5 years after this essay was published. He did not live long enough to answer this questions, however, we may be able to consider them here. How many different kinds of discourses can you identify? Can you imagine some that do not exist anymore? Comparing an ancient and modern discourse what are the differences in the modes of circulation, valorization and attribution? How does one become a subject in our world and how is it different in the past?

© 2008 - 2017, James Jeff McLaren