“However, it is not possible to describe all the relations that may emerge in this way without some guide-lines.”
This is the fifth of seven randomly-selected sentences from which I’m hoping to derive some guide-lines for my own personal 2010. It comes from the first chapter, page 29, of Foucault’s The Archaeology of Knowledge, and I have to say that, on the face of it, the sentence isn’t particularly rich in connotations. Still, the sentence points away from itself toward its own meaning — which relations? in what way? — and it’s in those referents that something significant starts to emerge.
Foucault describes a threefold project from which this particular book takes shape. Most importantly, he wants to explore “discontinuity” and “rupture” as they appear in discourse. In order to do so, he needs to clear away the usual unifying themes that block the discontinuities from awareness. Foucault contends that there is no unifying force linking multiple texts within a genre or field, or even texts within a single author’s body of work, except through the interpretations that readers impose on those texts. By exposing these socially constructed unities and setting them aside, the intrinsically fragmentary composition of texts is revealed. Only then can Foucault’s third agenda begin to take shape, namely the identification of unexpected unifying themes that link discursive fragments across texts, across authors, across genres.
On page 25 Foucault renounces the traditional insistence that behind every discourse lurks the identity and intentionality of its speaker/writer as a unifying force that transcends the actual words and phrases. It’s as if the whole discourse is “already said” in the speaker’s mind even before any actual words are spoken. The job of the listener then becomes one of listening for this unspoken discourse behind the words, “the silent murmuring, the inexhaustible speech that animates from within the voice that one hears,” which is whole psychological presence of the speaker. This is crap, says Foucault: it points to an ever-receding point of discursive origin that can never actually be reached. Listen to the discourse itself: its irruptions and non sequiturs and dispersions are more real than the unified speaking subject in whose intentional and unconscious thoughts you imagine the discontinuities can be neatly tied together.
“Once these immediate forms of continuity are suspended, an entire field is set free. A vast field, but one that can be defined nonetheless: this field is made up of the totality of all effective statements (whether spoken or written), in their dispersion as events and in the occurrence that is proper to them. Before approaching, with any degree of certainty, a science, or novels, or political speeches, or the œvre of an author, or even a single book, the material with which one is dealing is, in its raw, neutral state, a population of events in the space of discourse in general. One is led therefore to the project of a pure description of discursive events as the horizon for the search for the unities that form within it.” (pp. 26-27)
But Foucault doesn’t want “to spread over everything the dust of facts,” merely listing and cataloging the discrete elements he encounters empirically in actual discourses. Breaking the hypnotic spell of psychological unity, he seeks other relations between elements, other unifying fields and forces that link seemingly disparate and incommensurable source materials. But, Foucault cautions with regard to these newly-linked discursive events, “in no way would they constitute a sort of secret discourse, animating the manifest discourse from within.” Consequently he suggests some “guide-lines” to avoid this sort of mystifying operation.
* * *
It’s at this point, however, that I must part company with our eminently reasonable guide and his systematic project. My project isn’t reasonable; it’s fictional. I allowed randomness to select seven disconnected “discursive events” for me, and now I’m seeking the “secret discourse” that animates and unifies these events for me. It’s like invoking Kabbalah for discerning the hidden portentious meanings of seemingly ordinary occurrences. Or like listening for an immanent and universal spirit of discourse from which all manifest discourses emerge.
One of the projects I’m considering, to which I’ve alluded in recent posts, is to write about an iconist. This character specializes in discerning the secret discourse behind manifest discourse, or behind manifestations that aren’t usually regarded as discourse: objects, assortments, gestures, scents, and so on. The iconist is also able to speak the language of secret discourse, assembling things that speak in silent murmurings to the universal interlocutor who exists behind and before all. Under what guide-lines will the iconist perform his mystic praxis? Will the paranoiac chaos into which his world is descending start making sense again? Will he be able to restore some hidden source of unity, or will he usher in some irreversible rupture in the fabric of the universe? Where at last will he reach the vanishing point: at the beginning of all things, the invisible arche-fossil; or at la fin absolue du monde, where every manifest thing culminates in extinction? Or will the iconist find no hidden language that holds together the hermetically isolated objects of the universe, the spaces between them gaping onto the profound and depthless void?
That sort of thing perhaps. Fiction, of course.