Foucault’s “Discursive Formations”
“Discursive Formations” is the second chapter of Foucault’s The Archaeology of Knowledge. This book sees Foucault surveying his previous analyses of history and attempting to provide a rigorous theoretical foundation to his own approach. In this second chapter Foucault seeks to define what his object of study has always been.
The dilemma is this: when we study something like ‘the history of medicine’ as an intellectual discipline, we are pulled towards two modes of working. The first is to see the discipline of medicine as it exists right now, its institutions and methods, its presently accumulated knowledge and methods, as some transcendent possibility that has existed in medicine from the start. This contradicts the archive of the past as mostly wrong-headed, dimly lit and aborted attempts to give birth to modern medicine. The other mode is to look at the archive as a purely heavy, empirical set of data. A bundle of immutable empirical facts concerning what was said, written, believed, and practiced by whom, where and when. The transcendent approach misses the particularity of the discipline and its discourse in its past incarnations, the empirical approach misses the way that this discourse always needed to be slightly more than its record in order to transform and develop.
What Foucault discovers in this chapter is that there lies something between these two extremes when surveying the archive: the discursive formation. This itself is not a ‘thing’ hidden behind the words in the discourse, nor a stable transcendent object the discourse develops towards, but a series of rules of transformation, succession and exclusion for the proliferation of premises, ideas, sentences, etc in a given discourse in a given period. These ‘rules’ can be described as ‘regularities’ but unlike mere empirical regularities, they show a performativity when we consider such questions as “what makes a given document admissible into the wider discourse on medicine?”. It’s these formations, their status, their construction, their dynamics, their force and effects, that he then settles on as the object of inquiry for the rest of The Archaeology of Knowledge.