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Ideas in Time

John Potts

Chapter 4. A ‘Mode of Work’

Discontinuity in Foucault

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1Many thousands of pages have already been written on the subject of Michel Foucault; it may well seem that two more chapters dedicated to this subject will try the patience of even the most willing reader. Nevertheless, I set out on this heavily trodden path for two reasons. First, Foucault’s formidable influence on intellectual history (and other disciplines) proceeds in large part from his emphasis on discontinuity in historical analysis. Indeed, he has been frequently described as a philosopher – or historian – of discontinuity. Second, I argue, over the course of these two chapters, that an alternative reading of Foucault is possible. By accentuating his writing on historical continuity and gradual change, as much as his better known theorising of discontinuity, I propose that this other Foucault – the historian of continuity and discontinuity – can provide an underpinning for a renovated history of ideas.

A ‘Philosopher of Discontinuity’

  • 1 A similar point is made by Gary Gutting (1989: 1).

2When, in 1970, Foucault entitled the Chair which he would occupy at the College de France, he chose the appellation ‘History of Systems of Thought’. This description is broad enough to encompass Foucault’s many works, spanning the divide between the ‘archaeologies’ of his early books and the ‘genealogies’ of his later works. Foucault wrote histories of the systems in which thought was generated and organised. Whether the emphasis was on excavating the epistemological rules governing discourse within a particular period – to which he gave the term ‘archaeology’ – or exposing the power relations operating within discourse and society – ‘genealogy’ – Foucault remained a historian of thought as it was organised in systems.1

3Yet this description is also specific enough to distinguish Foucault from other intellectual historians. The word ‘systems’ has a crucial role to play, even in something as seemingly straightforward as a title. Foucault chose not to describe himself as simply a historian of thought, as would other writers and academics pursuing the history of ideas or intellectual history. His is explicitly not a ‘history of ideas’; indeed he painstakingly distances himself from the methods employed in the traditional history of ideas. His histories do not spin long narratives across the ages, at the service of either individual ideas or broader configurations of ‘civilisation’ or culture. He resolutely refuses to chart great continuities, as in the journey of an idea or mode of thought from its origin to the present.

4Foucault’s writing sets itself against manifestations of continuity, especially if they have about them the whiff of teleology. There is no teleological imperative in Foucault’s histories, no guiding hand of Progress across the centuries to culminate in the self-satisfied present. Foucault’s opposition to this type of intellectual history is implicit in his Chair’s title: his interest is in systems of thought as they differ from each other. His focus is not on a ‘big picture’ that may unify apparent differences; rather it is on particular orderings of knowledge, with their own specificities and distinctive internal structures.

5This attention to the various formations of thought, rather than to any over-arching general scheme, shapes the treatment of temporality in Foucault’s work. Instead of articulating a history which links succeeding periods in a grand chronological sweep, Foucault emphasises the epistemological differences between historical periods. The notion of the epistemological break between eras is most thoroughly developed in The Order of Things and The Archaeology of Knowledge, Foucault’s two works specifically devoted to intellectual history. Yet the emphasis on temporal discontinuity is consistently upheld throughout his work, from Madness and Civilisation to the histories of sexuality.

  • 2 Poster qualifies this assertion by pointing to elements of continuity in Foucault’s histories (1989 (...)

6For many commentators, discontinuity is the defining feature of Foucault’s writings. Alan Sheridan notes that the Petit Larousse described Foucault as the ‘author of a philosophy of history based on discontinuity.’ (Sheridan 1980: 205) Hugh Rayment-Pickard identifies discontinuity as the ‘enduring thought’ underlying all Foucault’s historical analyses: ‘ [f] or Foucault, the general historical picture is one of radical discontinuity.’ (Burns and Rayment-Pickard 2000: 304) Mark Poster begins an essay on Foucault by stating that ‘Foucault’s historical work initiates a thematic of discontinuity. That much is well known.’ (1989: 70)2 Martin Jay characterises Foucault’s intellectual history as ‘an archaeology of past discourses whose diachronic transformation into each other is virtually ignored.’ (1982: 89) Jay’s remarks typify the commentary on Foucault that highlights the radical breaks and discontinuities in Foucault’s histories, while finding little or no evidence for temporal continuity. For Jay, Foucault has constructed

an alternative to traditional intellectual history… [which] concentrates on discontinuities and ruptures, remaining radically hostile to any teleological or causal view of the course of history. (1982: 89)

7Giorgio Agamben’s historical studies owe much to Foucault’s archaeological method: as Agamben states, Foucault ‘is a scholar from whom I have learned a great deal in recent years’ (Agamben 2009: 7). Agamben claims that Foucault’s The Archaeology of Knowledge, in particular, ‘has been read as a manifesto of historiographical discontinuity’ (15). Agamben doubts that such a characterisation is correct, and notes that Foucault himself ‘contested it a number of times’ (15), as demonstrated in the next chapter. Nevertheless, Foucault’s concentration on the local and specific, combined with his rejection of a historical Grand Narrative in which individual epochs are subsumed into a supreme teleological momentum, has been extremely influential in intellectual history and cultural history. His works have assumed great significance in the broad disciplinary domain encompassing cultural and critical studies, history, and post-colonialism.

8In his Postmodern History Reader, Keith Jenkins introduces a text by Foucault in the following terms: More than any other single person Foucault is responsible for transforming our understanding of vast swathes of Western intellectuality. (1998: 117)

9For Jenkins, Foucault’s ‘path-breaking’ work suggests a productive range of application in the ‘fields of historical/ cultural/ discourse analysis.’ (1998: 117) Jenkins shares with other Foucault commentators an elevation of discontinuity in Foucault’s work. Indeed, Foucault’s problematising of continuity and causality in the writing of history is promoted as a means of ‘undercutting’ conventional history.

10Jenkins recruits Foucault in his mission of destabilising history in the name of Postmodernism. This project entails an assault on both ‘Upper Case’ history (teleological, concerned with the metanarrative of History itself) and ‘Lower Case’ (‘objective’, documentarist) history-writing. Foucault’s identification of the power relations in discursive activity – including the writing of history – is paramount in this regard. Equally significant is Foucault’s distinction ‘between histories of discontinuity and upper case “teleological” and lower case “continuity and change” histories.’ (118)

11Linda Hutcheon draws on Foucault in similar fashion in her The Politics of Postmodernism. Foucault’s emphasis on the specific rather than the universal is a key part of the postmodern interrogation of historiography:

To challenge the impulse to totalize is to contest the entire notion of continuity in history and its writing. In Foucault’s terms discontinuity… has become a new instrument of historical analysis and simultaneously a result of that analysis. (Hutcheon 1989: 66)

12Foucault’s impact on contemporary historiography, and on developments in intellectual history, is profound. In the hands of many commentators, he has become the historian of discontinuity, the guardian of the radical break. As a result of this assertion of the discontinuous, a suspicion of continuity was installed in the field of intellectual history. In the name of Foucault, the long view of historical continuity incorporating gradual change or transformation was rejected, replaced by a discontinuist model of specific periods separated by ruptures or radical difference.

13Foucault’s emphasis on discontinuity was one highly influential factor in the writing of history – particularly intellectual history – from the 1970s. History became the province of ‘short-termism’ from the 1970s, as Guldi and Armitage charged in The History Manifesto (2014). Armitage specified the scope of these ‘micro-histories’: ‘For the best part of two generations (c. 1975-2005), most historians conducted most of their studies on time-scales between five and 50 years.’ (Armitage 2015: 215) The focus by historians on short discrete historical periods became so widespread that in 1985 the French historian R. R. Palmer complained: ‘Specialization has become extreme… it is hard to see what such specialization contributes to the education of the young or the enlightenment of the public.’ (cited in Armitage 2015: 218) Certainly Foucault was not the only determining factor in the shift to micro-histories. Guldi and Armitage mention some other factors: young historians in the 1970s turned to the ‘Short Past’ as a form of rebellion against the previous orthodoxies of long-span history (2014: 42); a generalised ‘suspicion towards grand narratives’ became entrenched in the 1970s (46). Yet Foucault’s theoretical assault on the history of ideas and continuist narratives of history played a significant role in the turn to ‘specialization’ and ‘micro-history’.

14I propose, however, that such an interpretation of Foucault’s work distorts his contribution to intellectual history. Certainly Foucault accentuates discontinuities both within and across historical periods, but this is not done to the exclusion of temporal continuity. Indeed, it would be a strange account of intellectual history that forbade any conception of change or continuity through time. Without a concept of temporal movement, how is one epistemologically distinct period meant to succeed another? Within the Western episteme, the classical age may be profoundly different to the modern, but how does one follow the other? There must be elements within the former that are preserved in the latter, if only in a transformed state.

15Foucault’s primary interest is in the synchronic organisation of discourses within particular epochs, but it is not true to state, as did Jay above, that the ‘diachronic transformation’ of discourses is ‘virtually ignored’ by Foucault. As will be shown in the next chapter, there is in fact ample discussion in Foucault of change, transformation and continuity in intellectual history. His focus may be on the epistemological breaks in history, but the discursive movement across and within those breaks is far from ignored. In his books, and especially in his essays and interviews, Foucault acknowledges the significance of continuity as well as change. The numerous efforts he made to stress the importance of continuity and transformation may be regarded, indeed, as attempts to correct the misconception created by certain interpretations of his works.

16The distinction between Foucault’s own writings and those of his commentators in this context is made by Gary Gutting in his analysis of Foucault’s ‘archaeology of scientific reason’. Gutting admits that ‘Foucault (and, even more, some of his commentators) has emphasized the central role that discontinuity plays in his approach to the history of thought.’ (1989: 246) Gutting goes on to remark that:

[this] insistence on discontinuity has led many of Foucault’s readers to think that his archaeological approach allows no place for gradual transformations or continuous developments, that it sees the history of thought as a series of quantum leaps from one self-contained discursive formation to another. (246-247)

17For Gutting, however, ‘such an idea is clearly a misrepresentation… ’ (247). A similar argument is made by Paul Rabinow in his introductory essay to The Foucault Reader. Foucault, he states, ‘has often mistakenly been seen as a philosopher of discontinuity.’ (1991: 9) Rabinow comments that part of the reason for this misconception lies with Foucault himself:

The fault is partially his own; works such as The Archaeology of Knowledge and The Order of Things certainly do emphasise abrupt changes in the structures and discourses of the human sciences. (9)

18Rabinow then points to a counter-emphasis in Foucault’s work: ‘But Foucault has also stressed, in other contexts, the longer-range continuities in cultural practices.’ (9)

19If Foucault’s work does incorporate notions of continuity and change, what is to account for the widespread belief that his ‘history of the systems of thought’ constitutes a philosophy of history ‘which for some mysterious reason glorifies discontinuity’? (Rabinow 1991: 9) In order to answer this question, we need first to examine the uses to which Foucault put the concept of discontinuity in his works, in this case The Order of Things and The Archaeology of Knowledge. I concentrate on these two texts because the first is Foucault’s major work of intellectual history, and the second a methodology of intellectual history. These two works are considered, in this chapter and the next, in the context of Foucault’s theorising of intellectual history as it developed throughout his career. My immediate task is to appraise the intellectual environment in which Foucault wrote these works. This context may well explain, at least in part, Foucault’s motivation in stressing temporal discontinuity in his analyses.

Foucault’s ‘Controlled Use of Discontinuity’

20When Foucault set out to write the history of thought, he did so against the setting, in France, of the traditional history of ideas, whose emphasis was on the continuity of thought across the centuries. This form of intellectual history entailed, in the words of E. M. Henning, a ‘search for precursors and anticipators’ in specific analyses, and a ‘powerful longing for overall coherence’ (Henning 1982: 157) in the larger conception of the history of thought. This tradition ‘regarded all difference with suspicion, striving rather to reduce the past to a perfect continuity.’ (157) Gutting characterises this intellectual tradition in very similar terms. Its emphasis was on determining the ‘true originator’ of a particular thought, then chronicling those individuals who repeated or adapted that thought through the ages (1989: 244). The concern of this type of scholarship was with

ordering the thoughts of individuals in a single great chronological series, with each member of the series characterised by its degree of resemblance to previous members. (244)

21Such scholarship took many forms, as Foucault indicates in his scathing description – cited in the previous chapter – of the history of ideas as a discipline with ‘badly drawn frontiers’ and methods ‘borrowed from here and there.’ (1972: 136) According to Roger Chartier, the history of ideas in the French context had largely been the province of historians of literature such as Jean Ehrard (Chartier 1982: 13). Yet this rather nebulous discipline also incorporated methods taken from literary criticism, from the history of art and science, and from other intellectual pursuits. It entailed the examination of previous writers’ minutiae and archival material for clues as to the genesis and transmission of ideas. In Foucault’s terms, it was ‘the description of obscure continuities and returns, the reconstitution of developments in the linear form of history.’ (1972: 137) It ranged from studies of writers’ ‘influences’ (previous writers) to the long-standing tradition of ‘Whig’ history, with its ‘cumulative progression of achievements’ in which errors or misdirections are relegated to ‘background noise’ (Gutting1989: 248). More broadly, as Paul Patton remarks, intellectual history of the time was positivist in its orientation, assuming that ‘scientific status was the necessary goal or standard by which all knowledge must be measured.’ (Patton 1989: 229)

22It was in this context that Foucault wrote The Order of Things (first published in France in 1966) and The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969). The two works may be considered as a pair, in that both represent not only an attack on the traditional modelofthehistoryofideas, butalsoasophisticatedandcomprehensivealternative approach to intellectual history. Foucault himself foreshadowed The Archaeology of Knowledge even in the preface for The Order of Things. While the earlier book constituted for its author an ‘archaeology’ of certain configurations of knowledge, the following work would examine the ‘problems of method’ arising from such an archaeology, as it differed from traditional approaches to history (1973: xxii).

23Commentators have followed Foucault’s lead in identifying the link between these two books. For Patton, The Order of Things ‘carries furthest the appearance of radical discontinuities in the history of ideas.’ (1987: 230) Patton summarises the book as the study of knowledge as ‘an historical construct’, which occurs ‘only as the product of a particular regime of discourse.’ (230) The Archaeology of Knowledge, Patton continues, then ‘spells out this theory of discourse.’ (230) Sheridan refers to The Archaeology of Knowledge as ‘an extended theoretical postscript to the earlier work’ (1980: 89), while Gilles Deleuze reviewed it as ‘not so much a discourse on his method as the poem of his previous work.’ (Sheridan 1980: 90)

24This pair of books – or rather influential interpretations of this pair of books – is largely responsible for the widespread conception of Foucault as a historian of discontinuity. Yet the context in which the works were written is important in assessing the role of temporal discontinuity in them. Gutting is aware of this context when he asserts that discontinuity operates as a discursive strategy in Foucault’s intellectual history. For Gutting, Foucault deploys discontinuity as ‘a strategy presently appropriate for the history of thought.’ (1989: 247) That is, Foucault’s emphasis of discontinuity in these books is a tactic to undermine the ascendant forms of intellectual history, grouped together by Foucault as the history of ideas. What those various intellectual histories had in common was the charting of intellectual continuities through time, as the expression of a transhistorical human subject. Precursors and pioneers of thought were construed as earlier manifestations of a single mind, whose most complete expression can be found in the present. Foucault launches a two-pronged assault on these humanist forms of intellectual history, as is made explicitly and abundantly clear in the books themselves.

25In the preface to The Order of Things, Foucault outlines his intention in writing this book. His aim is to analyse the ‘modalities of order’ since the sixteenth century that created ‘the positive basis of knowledge as we find it employed in grammar and philology, in natural history and biology, in the study of wealth and political economy.’ (1973: xxi) He immediately disassociates this enterprise from the established disciplines of intellectual history:

Quite obviously, such an analysis does not belong to the history of ideas or of science: it is rather an inquiry whose aim is to rediscover on what basis knowledge and theory became possible… (xxi).

26This new mode of inquiry, to which he assigns the name ‘archaeology’, is not pre-disposed to trace forms of knowledge in a continuous line through history. Rather, itallowsforthepossibilitythat‘ideascouldappear, sciencesbeestablished… only, perhaps, to dissolve and vanish soon afterwards.’ (xxii) Foucault contrasts his archaeological method with the implicitly teleological approach to be found elsewhere in intellectual history: ‘I am not concerned, therefore, to describe the progress of knowledge towards an objectivity in which today’s science can finally be recognized… ’ (xxii). In illuminating the epistemological field (episteme) in which knowledge is ordered, Foucault shifts the historical perspective brought to bear on knowledge. Each episteme ‘manifests a history which is not that of its growing perfection, but rather that of its conditions of possibility… ’ (xxii).

27The archaeological method refuses not only the momentum of progress in intellectual history, but also the re-assurance of a smooth continuity across the ages. Instead, historical discontinuities are revealed. Foucault identifies, as the ‘two great discontinuities in the episteme of Western culture’ (xxii), the Classical age (commencing in the mid-seventeenth century) and the Modern age (from the beginning of the nineteenth century). In a simple statement of epistemological difference, Foucault asserts: ‘The order on the basis of which we think today does not have the same mode of being as that of the Classical thinkers.’ (xxii) By stressing difference rather than likeness in intellectual history, Foucault punctures any impression of ‘an almost uninterrupted development of the European ratio from the Renaissance to our own day… ’ (xxii). Any sense of an identity between contemporary knowledge and that of the earlier age is dismissed by Foucault as merely ‘surface appearance’, nothing more than ‘quasi-continuity on the level of themes and ideas… ’ (xxii).

  • 3 ‘Historicity’ is a notoriously difficult term, its meaning varying wildly according to context and (...)
  • 4 See, as examples, p. 217: ‘a discontinuity… in its original rupture’; p. 221: ‘The constitution of (...)

28The burden of The Order of Things is to demonstrate that beneath such a ‘quasi-continuity’ lies a seismic shift, rending apart the epistemological terrain on either side of this fissure. At a certain point in history, Foucault insists, the ‘mode of being of things… was profoundly altered.’ (xxii) The coherence within the Classical age, founded on a generalised system of Representation, is replaced by ‘a profound historicity’3 (xxiii) in the modern age, a historicity which ‘penetrates into the heart of things’ (xxiiii). Throughout The Order of Things, Foucault stresses the absolute nature of this break. His vocabulary attests to the ‘profound’ nature of the shift from Classical to Modern. The words ‘rupture’4 and ‘upheaval’ are frequently used to describe the break, which had a ‘shattering’ effect on knowledge: ‘… it was this [Classical] unity that was shattered at the beginning of the nineteenth century, in the great upheaval that occurred in the Western episteme… ’ (367).

29The Order of Things is a densely compiled elucidation of diverse fields of knowledge, whose conclusions are aimed directly at humanist intellectual histories. Foucault not only argues for a radical break between the modern and preceding age, but, in the book’s famous closing image, he envisages the end of ‘man’, erased ‘like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea.’ (387). This poetic yet disturbing conclusion encapsulates Foucault’s assault on those ‘chimeras of the new humanisms’ (xxiii) that constituted a powerful influence in the intellectual environment of the time. Foucault argues throughout The Order of Things that knowledge is contingent, not universal; that it is created and organised within certain specific constraints; that it belongs to its own time, not to an ongoing history of Man. Foucault’s final coup is to suggest that Man himself, far from the master of thought down the ages, is himself merely a ‘recent invention’ of discourse, a contingency within the current paradigm of thought, doomed to disappear when knowledge takes a new shape.

30Hayden White, who has described Foucault’s general project as ‘the historiography of anti-humanism’, finds an encapsulation of that intellectual ambition in The Order of Things, or more specifically, in its concluding image: ‘Foucault’s work since The Order of Things can thus be understood as a specification and amplification of the insight with which that book ended.’ (1987: 125) For White, Foucault is a ‘supreme anti-teleologist’ (1987: 107) who does more than deny temporal continuity to the sciences; he ‘denies continuity to consciousness in general.’ (1978: 235) Such a version of historiography represents, for White, a profound challenge to the humanistic belief that ‘human nature’ is ‘everywhere and always the same’ (1978: 257). As a result of Foucault’s analysis in the Order of Things, the notion of ‘a universal humanitas’ is seriously questioned, and with it the ‘historian’s wager’ that it is possible to understand humanity at all times (1978: 257). The Order of Things is Foucault’s early sustained attack on the pillars of humanism that had supported much intellectual history: the belief in historical progress, in a universal subject, in the great unfolding story of Man.

31In The Archaeology Of Knowledge, Foucault not only provides a theoretical support for the archaeological method deployed in his previous work; he also makes even more explicit his disdain for conventional intellectual history:

I cannot be satisfied until I have cut myself off from ‘the history of ideas’, until I have shown in what way archaeological analysis differs from the descriptions of ‘the history of ideas’. (1972: 136)

32Foucault lists the ‘great themes’ of the history of ideas and the traditional mode of historical analysis: genesis, continuity, totalization (138). Against these he sets archaeological analysis, described as an ‘abandonment’ of this tradition, and an attempt to ‘practise a quite different history of what men have said.’ (138) Foucault proceeds to define archaeology by opposing it to its predecessor. Indeed, the section on ‘Archaeology and the History of Ideas’ is remarkable for this rhetorical pairing: the new method is revealed, in a four-step procedure, as the opposite of that reviled (uncertain) object, the misshapen and badly drawn entity known as the history of ideas.

33According to Foucault, archaeology does not deal with thoughts or representations as concealed in discourses; rather it deals with those discourses themselves. Archaeology does not trace the continuous path linking discourses ‘on a gentle slope’ through history; on the contrary, it defines discourses ‘in their specificity’ (139). Archaeology does not respect the authority of the creative subject and its œuvres; instead it describes the rules of discursive practices. Archaeology does not attempt to recapture the flavour of the past as it was experienced or thought; it is content to stage a re-writing of previous discourse. A succinct definition of the archaeological method emerges from the weight of negation accumulated in this section. Archaeology is ‘not a return to the innermost secret of the origin; it is the systematic description of a discourse-object.’ (140)

  • 5 Foucault mentions here, as examples, the work of Serres, Geroult and Althusser (1972: 5).

34Foucault’s antagonism towards conventional intellectual history is explicit throughout The Archaeology Of Knowledge. In elaborating his counter-measure (archaeology), he foregrounds the role of discontinuity in historical analysis. He acknowledges the influence of Bachelard and Canguilhem in this respect; their descriptions, in the history of science, of epistemological breaks and thresholds (Bachelard) and conceptual displacements and transformations (Canguilhem), are upheld by Foucault as examples of an attention to rupture and discontinuity, ‘beneath the great continuities of thought’ (4). Foucault focuses on the emergence, in certain fields of intellectual inquiry,5 of a conceptual apparatus whose object is discontinuity – ‘threshold, rupture, break, mutation, transformation’ – rather than continuity (5). For Foucault, this emphasis has as its consequence an elevation of the role of discontinuity in historiography. Once the repressed, it has now emerged – in some quarters at least – as a dominant theme, even a method of analysis:

Discontinuity was the stigma of temporal dislocation that it was the historian’s task to remove from history. It has now become one of the basic elements of historical analysis. (8)

35Foucault proposes that discontinuity be recognised as an integral part of a new type of history – ‘general history’ – to replace the older, conventional mode – ‘total history’. (9) While total history describes a civilisation or epoch according to one cohesive principle, general history identifies the series, divisions and differences within that period. As a ‘basic element’ of general history, discontinuity functions in both synchronic and diachronic modes. Much of The Archaeology of Knowledge is occupied with breaking up the coherences typically established by the history of ideas (œuvres and other categories of unity). In this context, archaeology deploys discontinuity in its synchronic mode, to expose contradictions within such supposed unities of discourse. Yet the diachronic aspect of discontinuity is paramount in Foucault’s assault on totalising, humanist histories. Foucault opposes ‘continuous history’ which, he insists, is the ‘indispensable correlative’ of the universal founding subject:

Making historical analysis the discourse of the continuous and making human consciousness the original subject of all historical development and all action are the two sides of the same system of thought. (12)

  • 6 Foucault elsewhere situates his work in the context of the Annales School of historians, particular (...)

36The emphasis on temporal discontinuity, on breaks, series and ruptures, is intended to fracture the ‘linear schema’ (8) of continuous history. Foucault proposes that intellectual history should follow the lead established by Bachelard, Canguilhem and others,6 whose work in the history of science and of thought has wrought a profound effect. For Foucault it has:

broken up the long series formed by the progress of consciousness, or the teleology of reason, or the evolution of human thought; it has questioned the themes of convergence and culmination; it has doubted the possibility of creating totalities. (8)

  • 7 ‘How provocative it is to treat as a set of transformations this history of discourses which, until (...)

37Foucault’s adversarial approach to the history of ideas places particular stress on temporal discontinuity; it acts as an antidote to the elevated status of influences, traditions, and the quest for origins. If historical continuity were weakened or devalued, and if other theoretical dispositions – such as the ‘commanding presence of authors’ – were to dissipate, then ‘everything that was thought to be proper to the history of ideas may disappear from view.’ (38) Here Foucault imagines the death of his nemesis – or rather, the nemesis of archaeology, which is proposed as the successor to the history of ideas. Elsewhere in The Archaeology of Knowledge, Foucault acknowledges that his deployment of discontinuity is intended as a provocation to that mode of intellectual history ‘reassured’ by continuity and sustained by organic metaphors.7 The emphasis on discontinuity is designed to overturn the assumptions of a more cosy intellectual history, content with narratives of influence and tradition. Foucault admits that such an emphasis may appear paradoxical in a work of intellectual history, but he is quick to dispatch the paradox elsewhere:

What does this insistence on discontinuities correspond to? In fact, it is paradoxical only in relation to the practice of the historians of ideas. It is rather the history of ideas – with its concern for continuities, transitions, anticipations and foreshadowings – that plays with paradox. (170)

  • 8 Conducted by Jean-Michel Palmier, this interview first appeared in Le Monde, May 3, 1969. Translate (...)

38In an essay on Canguilhem, Foucault remarks that locating discontinuities is for Canguilhem a ‘mode of work’ (1980a: 55). Foucault adopts this procedure in The Order of Things and The Archaeology of Knowledge. The identification of discontinuity in intellectual history is for Foucault a mode of work that will assist in the creation of a new intellectual method. In an interview conducted shortly after the publication of The Archaeology of Knowledge,8 Foucault reiterates the type of history that he wishes to refute:

I am completely opposed to a certain conception of history which takes for its model a kind of great continuous and homogenous evolution, a sort of great mythic life. (Foucault 1989: 59)

39For this evolutionist model, which ‘assumes change as a given’, Foucault insists that ‘we must substitute a serious description of types of events and systems of transformation, and the establishment of series and series of series.’ (60)

  • 9 Foucault’s response to the Paris Epistemology Circle was originally published in Cahiers pour L’ana (...)

40For the great ‘mythic’ continuity to be replaced by variegated series, for homogeneity to give way to heterogeneity, discontinuity must assume the ‘major role’ that Foucault proposes for it (1972: 8). In an earlier interview, conducted before the publication of The Archaeology of Knowledge,9 Foucault prefigures his approach in that book. He speaks of the ‘transformation of discontinuity’, its shift ‘from obstacle to practice’ as a result of the pioneering work of Bachelard, Canguilhem and others:

We must be prepared to understand what has become history in the real work of the historians: a certain controlled use of discontinuity for the analysis of temporal series. (1998: 300)

41This ‘controlled use of discontinuity’ is the method Foucault administers in The Archaeology of Knowledge and The Order of Things. It is deployed as a strategy, in the words of Gutting, ‘presently appropriate for the history of thought.’ (1989: 247) Discontinuity is used as a tactic to unsettle not only the smooth linearities in historical analysis, but the entire conceptual apparatus responsible for constructing those linearities. Such is the extent of Foucault’s stress on discontinuity that it has come, in the interpretation of many commentators, to overshadow Foucault’s treatment of continuity, change and transformation.

Discontinuity as a Technique of Difference

42I argued in the preceding section that Foucault’s strategic emphasis on temporal discontinuity, especially in The Archaeology Of Knowledge, has been largely responsible for creating the impression of Foucault as a ‘philosopher of discontinuity’. More precisely, the interpretation by influential commentators of Foucault’s works, in particular The Order Of Things and The Archaeology Of Knowledge, has created the impression that Foucault valued discontinuity while down-playing – or neglecting altogether – continuity and change. We have seen the way in which Foucault promoted the principle of discontinuity as a means of challenging the entrenched methodology of intellectual history. Yet discontinuity is more to Foucault than a rhetorical ploy in the service of an intellectual ambition. For Foucault to elevate temporal discontinuity so highly, it must have performed a highly significant role in his historical analyses. Foucault admired those historical researches that allocated discontinuity a major role as a ‘mode of work’; throughout his career, he made extensive use himself of that mode of work.

  • 10 This point is made by Sheridan (1980: 14), citing Foucault (1967: xii-xiii): ‘The language of psych (...)

43This is most apparent in The Archaeology of Knowledge, in which discontinuity is initially employed to perform the ‘negative work’ (1972: 21) of dismantling those notions – tradition, influence, evolution – that support ‘the theme of continuity’. Yet it is also evident in as early a work as Madness And Civilisation (first published in France in 1961), in which Foucault first uses the term ‘archaeology’.10 In analysing madness in historical terms, Foucault rejects a continuous history that would culminate in the enlightened, rational present. As is made clear in Madness And Civilisation, enlightenment and rationalism are complicit in the interpretation – or construction – of madness; a teleological analysis upholding the value of reason can hardly be a transparent means of writing the history of madness. Instead, Foucault identifies fundamental shifts in the way madness has been understood, including the shift from the Renaissance to The Age of Reason, as summarised by Sheridan:

The experience, so familiar to the Renaissance, of an unreasonable Reason and a reasonable Unreason, is now precluded. Between Montaigne and Descartes, something has occurred, something concerned with the advent of a ratio. (Sheridan 1980: 23)

44This shift, and a later one occurring at the end of the eighteenth century, entailed both a change in the conceptualisation of madness and a change in the social role assigned to madness, including its institutionalisation and treatment. Patton observes that Madness and Civilisation and Foucault’s next book, The Birth of the Clinic, both stress ‘the discontinuities in what has been counted as knowledge of insanity or physical disease between the seventeenth century and the present.’ (1987: 227) For Patton, Foucault’s early books were all written in explicit contrast to the positivist conceptions of knowledge prevalent at the time (227); yet the revelation of discontinuities was for Foucault much more than a rhetorical flourish in the face of an intellectual establishment. It was a technique for rendering difference in history, for exposing the discords between the present and earlier periods, thereby undermining any claims of the superiority of the present. The present is disclosed not as the ‘natural’ heir to earlier cultural expressions, nor as the culmination of strivings across the centuries to achieve a common goal. It is revealed, by contrast, as merely one epistemological configuration among others, radically different in some respects to earlier epochs. Foucault’s entire corpus is based on this principle, whether the specific focus concerns madness, punishment, ethics or sexuality.

45James Faubion makes a similar observation when discussing Foucault’s shift, in the early 1970s, away from the archaeology of knowledge toward a genealogy of ‘power-knowledge’ (Faubion 1998: xxxiii). For Faubion, genealogical analysis as practised by Foucault adds ‘an additional dimension’ to archaeology, establishing ‘the prioritization of events over systems’ (xxxiv). Yet Faubion asserts that despite this theoretical shift, discontinuity retains its crucial role in Foucault’s historical analyses: ‘Genealogy remains a historiography of epistemic discontinuities, of epistemic ruptures… ’ (xxxiii). Genealogy, like its theoretical predecessor, ‘unmasks pretensions to “naturalness.”’ (xxxiv) Following Nietzsche’s lead, Foucauldian genealogy rejects the pursuit of origins, and with it the search for any ‘timeless and essential secret’ (Foucault 1977a: 142). In announcing genealogy as an alternative to conventional history (with the publication of the essay ‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History’ in 1971), Foucault re-iterates his opposition to continuity in the mapping of history:

Genealogy does not pretend to go back in time to restore an unbroken continuity that operates beyond the dispersion of forgotten things; its duty is not to demonstrate that the past actively exists in the present, that it continues secretly to animate the present, having imposed a predetermined form to all its vicissitudes. (1977a: 146)

46Instead, genealogy attends to those vicissitudes, to the disparities scattered across time and space, to the accidents and reversals that contribute to the difference embedded in history. Foucault’s commitment to the principle of discontinuity is as firm within a genealogical framework as it was within archaeology:

The search for descent is not the erecting of foundations: on the contrary, it disturbs what was previously considered immobile; it fragments what was thought unified; it shows the heterogeneity of what was imagined consistent with itself. (147)

47Foucault’s works from this point are concerned with the ‘complex assemblages’ (in Patton’s terms) of discursive and non-discursive social practices, assemblages that reveal an ‘internal connection between knowledge and power.’ (Patton 1987: 232-233) Yet discontinuity continues to operate as a key theoretical element in genealogical analysis. Mark Poster discusses Foucault’s Discipline and Punish (published in France in 1975) in this light. For Poster, this book articulates a ‘sharp discontinuity’ between the torture method of punishment practised in the early modern period and the carceral system of the modern period (Poster 1997: 25). The potential effect of this revelation, in exposing the ‘very difference’ between the modern system of punishment and its predecessor, is one of ‘delegitimizing and denaturalizing the claims of the modern institution.’ (25)

48Poster draws from this example an ‘interpretive strategy’ that is radically different in both execution and ambition from the strategy of mainstream historical research:

Historical explanation domesticates the past to the present, to the rational subject in the present (the historian) and to the political views of that subject. Foucault’s genealogy, on the contrary, stresses the difference of the past, thereby unsettling the naturalness of the present. (29)

49Poster illustrates the difference between the Foucauldian method and conventional history-writing by offering a critique of Lawrence Stone’s book The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500-1800 (published in 1977). For Poster, this influential and widely praised work of social history ‘suffers from a problem of continuity.’ (22) It is an ‘origins’ book, detailing the formation of the family in a manner which suggests a continuity from the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries – defined by Stone as the ‘early modern period’ – to the present. For Poster, such a continuity is only possible by erasing the difference between earlier periods and the present. The historian – in this case Stone – interprets the attitudes of previous generations not as radically different, but as consistent with attitudes of the present:

He is reading their acts in a way that makes sense of them for himself, that provides a kind of coherence to the past that gives him a feeling of unity with it. Although distant from the early modern poor in every way, he nonetheless finds/projects a meaning in the past that serves to assure him that motivations he deems rational in the present are confirmed by the past. (23)

50One instance of this process proffered by Poster relates to documented evidence that at least some seventeenth century parents did not love their children. For Poster, this represents ‘a bit of discontinuity, an attitude that today seems morally repugnant if not barbaric.’ (26) Yet Stone erases this discontinuity by providing a reason for such emotional indifference (high infant mortality rates). Rather than dealing with the possibility that seventeenth century attitudes may have been incommensurate with our own, Stone explains away the apparent discrepancy. From his position as a twentieth century humanist historian, he provides reasons for unfamiliar behaviour exhibited in the past. Poster considers Stone typical of those historians who

explain changes and by so doing erase the difference between the past and the present. By erasing this difference, the rational subject is discursively installed in both the past and the present. (29)

51In this manner, the social and political order of the present is justified by an interpretation of the past. The knowledge produced in historical research such as Stone’s constitutes a

domination over the past, one that domesticates potential disruptive features of the past, such as threatening differences represented by the poor, women, and non-nuclear families. (24)

  • 11 In his book The Mode of Information (1990) Poster makes this point explicitly, in the context of th (...)

52Poster’s analysis displays the uses to which Foucault’s ‘interpretive strategy’ may be put. The foregrounding of discontinuity may be utilised not only in historical research and analysis, but in the critique of other forms of history. Poster demonstrates that the suppression of difference in social histories such as Stone’s operates to tame the past in the name of the present social order. Such writing of history – teleological, humanist, continuist – is the mode of history against which Foucault has deployed the weapon of discontinuity. For Poster, Foucauldian genealogy is a valuable historical method because it ‘holds on to difference’, rather than making difference disappear. As a result, it is a way to ‘undercut the sense of naturalness and legitimacy that surrounds present-day customs’ (28). Discontinuity performs a role that is at once conceptual and political.11

53A more recent work in the philosophy of history advocates, like Poster, a discontinuist perspective. Eelco Runia’s Moved by the Past: Discontinuity and Historical Mutation (2014) rejects the conventional continuist mode of representing history, which Runia disdains as a distortion of the past, coated in nostalgia. Instead, he recommends a ‘revolutionary’ mode of discontinuist history, in which the past is construed as discontinuities and unforeseeable leaps in direction. This Foucauldian construction of the past has the advantage, for Runia, of making the historian more attentive to abrupt changes, which he terms ‘catastrophes’. It is these catastrophes, such as climate change, which for Runia provoke the possibilities of change: Runia asserts that we should ‘make the most of the catastrophes we unleash upon ourselves once in a while’ (202).

Criticisms of Foucault’s Use of Discontinuity

  • 12 White’s essay ‘Foucault Decoded: Notes from Underground’ first appeared in History and Theory 12, n (...)

54In an essay originally published in 1973,12 Hayden White notes that Foucault ‘has been the object of attack of almost everyone who has not been simply puzzled by him.’ (1978: 251) In particular, White records the criticism levelled at Foucault in 1970 by Jean Piaget in Structuralism (1970), in which Piaget rejects Foucault’s archaeology as a ‘structuralism without structures.’ (251) White remarks that Piaget points to the absence in Foucault’s work of a ‘transformational system’ that would account for ‘the displacement of one “epistemic field” by another.’ In Piaget’s words:

His [Foucault’s] epistemes follow upon, but not from one another, whether formally or dialectically. One episteme is not affiliated with another, either genetically or historically. The message of this ‘archaeology’ of reason is, in short, that reason’s self-transformations have no reason and that its structures appear and disappear by fortuitous mutations and as a result of momentary upsurges. (cited in White 1978: 251)

  • 13 In an interview with Foucault first published in 1966, Raymond Bellour observes that critical attac (...)
  • 14 In the foreword to the English edition of The Order Of Things, first published in 1971, Foucault wr (...)

55In one sense, Piaget’s criticism typifies the response to Foucault that associated his analyses with a form of structuralism, guilty of ‘freezing history’ in its attention to systems and structures.13 Foucault, while admitting that there ‘may well be certain similarities’ (Foucault 1973: xiv) between structuralist analyses and his archaeological approach, was vehement in his rejection of the structuralist label.14

56However, the interpretation of Foucault’s intellectual histories as a ‘freezing of history’ has endured well beyond the period in which Foucault was mistaken for a structuralist. For Martin Jay, Foucault is ‘the most historically concerned of the post-structuralists’ (Jay 1982: 89), whose alternative to traditional intellectual history ‘eliminates concern over the issues of origin, cause, source, influence and purpose.’ (89) Jay’s view of Foucault’s approach – cited earlier in this chapter – is that in Foucault, intellectual history becomes ‘an archaeology of past discourses whose diachronic transformation into each other is virtually ignored.’ (89) Jay’s observation is not intended as a critique of Foucault’s works, yet it typifies the interpretation of Foucault as a theorist who regards the history of thought as ‘a series of quantum leaps from one self-contained discursive formation to another.’ (Gutting 1989: 247) Foucault is understood, according to this interpretation, as a dissector of the synchronic, a neglecter of the diachronic.

  • 15 The reference is to Foucault (1972: 173).

57A more sharply critical analysis of discontinuity in Foucault’s work is made by E. M. Henning. For Henning, Foucault’s emphasis on discontinuity is the result of ‘a largely valid critical observation’ (Henning 1982: 157) made by Foucault concerning conventional intellectual history. Henning considers Foucault justified in his critique of the ‘powerful longing for overall coherence’ in traditional intellectual history; archaeology’s concentration on discontinuity and difference results from Foucault’s rejection of ‘established doctrine.’ (157) Henning, however, sees problems in this procedure. He argues that Foucault has gone to the extreme in ‘taking what may well have been an established imbalance and simply reversing it.’ (157) This ‘strategy of critical reversal’ (159) leads Foucault into difficulties concerning any continuities that may be identified in intellectual history. According to Henning, Foucault ‘must suffer contortions of logic to accommodate history’s irreducible continuities.’ (157) Some historical progression is ‘grudgingly acknowledged’ by Foucault (158), but the emphasis on epoch-making ruptures undermines any notion of continuity. Any elements that may endure through time are said by Foucault to be ‘altered radically by a new formational rule “substituted” for the old.’ (158)15 Henning allows some exceptions: Foucault occasionally denies that transformations are sudden or complete. But the ‘overall thrust’ of Foucault’s intellectual history is summarised by Henning in the following terms:

For the most part his epistemic eras appear to succeed one another in catastrophic fashion. No attempt is ever made to relate their synchronic structures diachronically. The latter are, on the contrary, always divided by ‘archaeological breaks’. One simply replaces the other. Why or how remains a mystery unexplored. And the problems that result are serious – for each archive and episteme seems now to emerge ex nihilo. (158)

58Henning expands his criticism of Foucault, claiming similarities between Foucault’s model of epistemic breaks and the formalist conception of history found in, among others, Hegel. Both stress the synchronic over the diachronic, both identify ages or epochs by their distinctive configuration of forms or structures, both represent change as the replacement of one age by another with little significant continuity. Henning contrasts Foucault’s response to the ‘conventional historian’s desire to exalt continuity’ (179) with that of Jacques Derrida. For Henning, Derrida offers a critique of tradition and continuist history that is as unsettling as Foucault’s, and more original. Derrida proposes the idea of history as ‘a process of continuous revision’, in which continuity and discontinuity are inextricably related, and difference emerges from repetition (179). Henning finds Foucault’s strategy less radical than Derrida’s; Foucault offers a ‘more conventional gesture of rejection’:

[Foucault’s] theory of archive and episteme, his typically formalist idea of history as a discontinuous series of largely synchronic structures, his tendency to remain at the reversal stage of conventional dichotomies… all are thoroughly traditional (if not metaphysical) components of his work. (195)

59In addition, Foucault’s commitment to discontinuity creates difficulties that he struggles to negotiate in his historical analyses. Henning discusses Madness and Civilisation in this light. While Foucault argues that previous ages had a different understanding of insanity, his research, according to Henning, does not always support this thesis. Foucault himself notes ‘the “strange fact” that certain customs and attitudes persist and even develop over time.’ (Henning 1982: 182) For Henning, this indicates that the respective ages, with their distinctive discursive practices, are not divided by gaps or breaks; rather, there is a transition between them that involves repetition and continuity (182). In Henning’s view, Foucault is in fact describing not radically different discourses or sensibilities, but new uses or interpretations of old methods. Henning considers the rigid methods of archaeology more an impediment to analysis than a useful mode of research:

There accordingly takes shape a more complex picture of history than archaeology promises – one in which continuity and discontinuity cannot be separated rigidly into synchronic and diachronic dimensions, but always appear together… (182-183).

  • 16 Henning (1982: 183) cites Foucault’s discussion in Madness and Civilisation of Shakespeare, Cervant (...)

60Henning regards Foucault’s attempts to deal with temporal continuity as unconvincing. At times Foucault dismisses evidence of continuity as ‘quasi-continuity’ operating only on a ‘surface appearance’; at others he re-defines supposed continuity as mere anachronism.16 Another response, found in Madness And Civilisation, is to attribute ‘interepochal continuity’ (Henning’s term) to a force ‘connecting with itself outside of time’, in this instance unreason (183). For Henning, all these responses are futile attempts by Foucault to resolve contradictions arising from his own historical analyses. Foucault is unable to reconcile the persistence through time of various elements, whose endurance suggests that it is possible to cross epistemic ‘ruptures’ unimpeded and untransformed. Or, in the case of those elements clearly existing in different epistemic periods, Foucault fails to explain the nature of their transformation. It is Henning’s view that Foucault’s dedication to the idea of discontinuity forces his work into a distorted treatment of intellectual history. Continuity and change are made to suffer by this methodology which unduly privileges difference, rupture, gaps and discontinuities.

61In the next chapter I consider Foucault’s work in the context of such criticisms. It is necessary to examine what role, if any, is accorded continuity and transformation in Foucault’s books. Examination of Foucault’s major works on intellectual history, as well as his published comments on his own work and on intellectual history in general, may determine whether criticisms such as Henning’s are merited. It may also reveal the relation between continuity and discontinuity in Foucault; whether his aims in conducting intellectual history are realised in the works themselves; and whether his methodology, in its foregrounding of discontinuity, provides a useful model for future research in intellectual history.


1 A similar point is made by Gary Gutting (1989: 1).

2 Poster qualifies this assertion by pointing to elements of continuity in Foucault’s histories (1989: 70, note). However, as will be demonstrated later in this chapter, Poster identifies discontinuity as a ‘guiding thread’ (Poster 1997: 145) in Foucault’s work, deploying it himself as an interpretive strategy.

3 ‘Historicity’ is a notoriously difficult term, its meaning varying wildly according to context and the motivation of its user. Foucault uses the term here to mean an awareness of history, or a sensibility marked by historical difference, which he finds characteristic of the Modern episteme.

4 See, as examples, p. 217: ‘a discontinuity… in its original rupture’; p. 221: ‘The constitution of so many positive sciences… the emergence of history… are only so many signs of a deeper rupture… ’.

5 Foucault mentions here, as examples, the work of Serres, Geroult and Althusser (1972: 5).

6 Foucault elsewhere situates his work in the context of the Annales School of historians, particularly the work of Bloch, Febvre and Braudel: ‘What Marc Bloch, Febvre and Braudel have shown for history tout court can be shown, I think, for the history of ideas, of knowledge, and of thought in general.’ (Foucault 1989: 59) Mark Poster also discusses Foucault’s archaeological analysis in the context of the Annales school (Poster 1997: 141-142).

7 ‘How provocative it is to treat as a set of transformations this history of discourses which, until now, has been animated by the reassuring metaphors of life or the intentional continuity of the lived.’ (1972: 210)

8 Conducted by Jean-Michel Palmier, this interview first appeared in Le Monde, May 3, 1969. Translated by John Johnston, the interview is included in Foucault (1989).

9 Foucault’s response to the Paris Epistemology Circle was originally published in Cahiers pour L’analyse 9 (Summer 1968). An amended translation appears in Foucault (1998).

10 This point is made by Sheridan (1980: 14), citing Foucault (1967: xii-xiii): ‘The language of psychiatry, which is a monologue of reason about madness, could be established only on the basis of such a silence. I have not tried to write the history of that language, but rather the archaeology of that silence.’

11 In his book The Mode of Information (1990) Poster makes this point explicitly, in the context of the history of communications technologies: ‘I choose discontinuity over continuity, the newness of the new over the oldness of the new for political, not epistemological reasons.’ (Poster 1990: 20).

12 White’s essay ‘Foucault Decoded: Notes from Underground’ first appeared in History and Theory 12, no. 1, 1973; it was reprinted in White’s Tropics Of Discourse (1978).

13 In an interview with Foucault first published in 1966, Raymond Bellour observes that critical attacks on The Order Of Things repeat the words ‘to freeze history’ like a ‘leitmotif’ (Foucault 1989: 15).

14 In the foreword to the English edition of The Order Of Things, first published in 1971, Foucault wrote: ‘In France, certain half-witted “commentators” persist in labelling me a “structuralist”. I have been unable to get it into their tiny minds that I have used none of the methods, concepts, or key terms that characterize structural analysis.’ (1973: xiv)

15 The reference is to Foucault (1972: 173).

16 Henning (1982: 183) cites Foucault’s discussion in Madness and Civilisation of Shakespeare, Cervantes and other figures in this context.

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