Thursday, August 11, 2011

Introducing a gray area: Foucault’s indebtedness to Nietzsche’s genealogical method

This post being primarily a comment on Michael Foucault’s Nietzsche, Genealogy, History[i]

'I would like my books to be a kind of tool-box which others can rummage through to find a tool which they can use however they wish in their own area... I would like the little volume that I want to write on disciplinary systems to be useful to an educator, a warden, a magistrate, a conscientious objector. I don't write for an audience, I write for users, not readers.'  Michel Foucault, (1974) 'Prisons et asiles dans le mécanisme du pouvoir' in Dits et Ecrits, vol. II. Paris: Gallimard, 1994, pp. 523-4.[ii]

What kind of tool-box? 

Foucault’s text Nietzsche, Genealogy, History is on the threshold.  Methodologically it supposedly inaugurated a new approach for Michel Foucault the one-time archeologist[iii]: before this lies Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (1961), The Birth of the Clinic: An Archeology of Medicinal Perception (1963), The Order of Things: An Archeology of the Human Sciences (1966), after this Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975) and The History of Sexuality Vols 1-3 (1976-84)[iv].  I stand on the threshold also, with little other than this one methodological text to illuminate a path forward and backwards through the work of Foucault.   That is, though I have spent a reasonable amount of time with several of these volumes, I am a Foucauldian beginner.  But why not initiate an encounter with a writer by way of his methodology?[v]  If Foucault intended his work for users rather than readers, an evaluation of his methods allows us to determine the degree to which we might want to use his scholarly tools.  Indeed if this methodology engendered for Foucault a productive renewal of his work, it is worth enquiring about the resources that genealogy provides him that his archeology could not.  One might also enquire if the ontogeny of the methodology described in Nietzsche, Genealogy, History has its “origin” explicitly in Nietzsche.  At the risk of being too clever, we might however perhaps we might launch this query about Foucault’s methodological “origins” using the very tools made available to us by Foucault.  Ultimately what are Foucault’s debts to Nietzsche?  And what debts should we as latter-day genealogists have to Foucault?


A suggested experiment for today’s Foucault-inspired genealogists: enumerate the lexicon of ambiguity applicable to genealogical analysis as methodology.  Genealogy is, Foucault says, “gray, entangled, confused”.  It is attentive to “invasions, struggles, plundering, disguises, ploys.”[vi]  To which gray places must we visit to be genealogists: “unpromising places”!  We must inspect “sentiments, love, conscience, instincts”.  Its method “requires patience”: an inductive sensibility at the service of “relentless erudition” is unleashed on “vast” materials, containing “insignificant truths”.   It reveals a “wavering course”, an “oscillating reign”. 

What does the grayness of Nietzschean genealogy oppose?  It opposes “lofty origins”, these metaphysical extensions where moments are so perfect as to seem to emerge “dazzling from the hands of the creator or in the shadowless lights of first morning”[vii]. It opposed the linearity of a Paul Ree whose account of the history of morality is imparted as if morality’s origin was unambiguously rooted in utility, as if speech and desire were constants.  To repeat Foucault’s question: “Why does Nietzsche challenge the pursuit of origin (Ursprung), at least on those occasions when he is truly a genealogist?  He challenges origins which pretend to capture the essence of things; he laughs at the “solemnities of the origin”, at representations of nativity as the most precious moment, compared to which all other moments are fallen one.    
Significant to Foucault’s strategy in constructing his argument are the Nietzschean bricks from which it is built.[viii] What we are presented in this essay is not just genealogy it is a genealogy with of an explicitly Nietzschean origin.  Though there are ample resources in the Nietzschean oeuvre for thinking about origins and history, Foucault is very explicit about isolating the types of projects specifically undertaken as genealogy: “Why does Nietzsche challenge the pursuit of origin (Ursprung), at least on those occasions when he is truly a genealogist?”[ix] [Emphasis mine].  What does Foucault claim this Nietzschean genealogy to be: what does it oppose, what does it propose, and what sort of approach to history does it facilitate?

Foucault excavates words connoting origins in Nietzsche’s work and delineates origins as Entstehung from those of Herkunft.  In so doing we can, he tells us, record “the true objective of genealogy”[x] Analysis of Herkunft, “often involves a consideration of race of social type, is analysis of descent.”  In such analysis one may, as Nietzsche did and as Foucault recounts, study beginnings – “numberless beginnings” – in order to undo “simple computations”.  The analysis can undo the selves’ illusion of unification, of “empty synthesis”.  As opposed to synthesis, the function of analysis is to maintain things in their dispersion rather than to reveal descent in the sense of the fate of the essential core of a (spatio)-temporal entity (a people, a thought, a discourse) animating the present.  One might be tempted to call genealogical analysis understood as Herkunft “archeology”.  Foucault of course has already appropriated and reinterpreted the term.   In contrast to the archeologist, understood in the traditional sense, who painstakingly reveals the artifact by ablating the matrix in which it lies, the genealogist doubts that the artifact was ever the dazzling item we expected it to be.  The genealogist may wonder (if this is not pressing to analogy into too much work) if the matrix, or moreover the process whereby the matrix accretes over time, and sits alongside the artifact, are not in fact items of highest value.  If this were true for archeology as an anthropological/physical discipline, that is, if the matrix scraped away with vigorous abandon is also a proper object for an exploration of the past, then this discovery would serve as a critique of archeology.  In a similar fashion this is why “every origin of morality from the moment it stops being pious – and Herkunft can never be – has value as a critique.”[xi]

Lest one think that the stakes are just contemplative ones: matters of pride, of scholarly correctness, of mildly embarrassing national self-deceptions (where one dangerously puffs up patriotic excess) etc., Nietzsche reminds us, (and Foucault reminds us that he reminds us) that mistaken attribution by fathers with regard to the descent of items that we value can be translated onto the suffering flesh the “bodies of their children”[xii]  The body (and by extension the body of the earth – “diet, climate, and soil”) manifests the “stigmata of past experience and also gives rise to desires, failings and errors”.  Thus the reciprocating relations of body and history are properly the seat of genealogical analysis.  Genealogy exposes “a body totally imprinted by history and the process of history’s destruction of the body.”[xiii]
Turning to the second Nietzschean conception of origins, this time understood as Entstehung, this usage re-establishes the productive interplay of purposes.  It represents an analysis of origins from the perspective of the moment of emergence.  The contemplative eye is formerly the eye supporting and directing primordial trophic relations (the who-eats-who of ecological exchanges), it is also the pigmented epithelial cells on the organism slinking into the crevice etc.  The analysis of the Entstehung reinstates the “hazardous play of dominations”.  The emergence of an entity is illustrated in a discussion of the evolutionary emergence of species out of the cauldron of the struggle “against the outsiders or the uprising of those it oppresses from within.”[xiv]  “No one” is responsible for any particular emergence, since, if I correctly follow the thought, emergence occurs in the interplay of forces, that is, “occurs in the interstice”.  The discussion here is a dense one, and cannot be summarized without a displeasing loss of information.  Risking this I summarize by noting that an analysis of emergence rests upon an identification of the tussle for domination within and between components of a defined system.  A conjecture (perhaps something even stronger?) is made that after a struggle with allochthonous forces subside individuation may occur (“…the Reformation arose, precisely where the church was least corrupt).  The history of an idea must be “made to appear as events on the stage of a historical process.”[xv]
The question for Foucault now becomes the relationship between genealogy and history.  To do so he examines instances where Nietzsche “conceives genealogy as wirkliche Historie”.  Unsurprisingly, Nietzsche apparently opposed a suprahistorical perspective that “reduces diversity of time into a totality fully closed upon itself”.  Because of the pretense of “apocalyptic objectivity” claimed by the suprahistorical historian, metaphysical prejudices abound: the feeling of immutability prevails.  Where there is a sense of immutability it is opposed by the historical underbelly of even the loftiest sentiment; the unity and “dull constancy” of instinct opposed in wirkliche Historie by the oscillating reign of any instinctual forces.  Immutability assumed at the level of the body is corrected by a realization of the body’s subjugation to the vicissitudes of historical regimes.  “Effective history” in short is “without constants”. The task therefore of effective history is to introduce “discontinuity into our very being”.  The idea of being separated from consoling notions of the stability at our very core is dramatized by Foucault in a maxim (if it is not a famous maxim, it should be!): “This is because knowledge is not made for understanding; it is made for cutting.” 
Effective history reorients the view of traditional history by “shortening its vision to those things nearest to it”.  Things deigned insufficiently lofty as subjects for historical analysis can now assume their correct place: the body, for instance, may become its proper subject; the historian becomes physiologist, diagnostician.  Reconfigured also in effective history is the historian’s tendency to conceal his or her proclivities, their orientation towards a topic, a period, a problem.  History becomes perspectival.  Indeed the Herkunft of the historian, if we accept Nietzsche’s generalization on the matter, is plebian: s/he is of “humble birth”.  The consumers of history are also plebian.  The historian, “smug in the presence of the loftiest elements” councils us (though s/he may have too much “tact and discretion” to baldly annunciate it as council) to realize that “[n]o past is greater than your present… I will rid you of your infatuations and transform the grandeur of history into pettiness, evil, and misfortune”.  The historian as demagogue must wears the mask of objectivity.

History with its metaphysical preoccupations with the immutable emerges (Entstehung) in the nineteenth-century Europe, “the land of intermingling and bastardy, the period of “man-of mixture”.[xvi]  But this is not history’s final moment, its enduring climax.  If the “successes of history belong to those who are capable of seizing the rules”[xvii], the ascent of genealogy is assured if history is “seized, dominated, and turned against its birth.” 

There are three uses that emerge from historical sense that can be set upon “Platonic modalities of history”.  These are parodic, dissociative and sacrificial uses.  Though the historian may offer the “confused and anonymous” European new identities, these identities are “ephemeral props that point to [their] own unreality”.   The genealogist shares in the mirth and will be charged with “prepar[ing] the great carnival of time where masks are constantly reappearing”.   Related to this, genealogy may be used in “the systematic dissociation of identify”.  In the genealogical enterprise we commit ourselves to our own dissipation – that is, the fiction of a unitary subject yields under the guidance of genealogy.  Masked by this self, our unruly dissipated selves (our possession of “not an immortal soul, but many mortal ones”) may now raise “questions concerning our native land, native language, or the laws that govern us…”  The third use of history is the sacrifice of the subject of knowledge.  To be clear this is the call for “the destruction of the subject who seeks knowledge in the endless deployment of the will to knowledge.”[xviii]

[i] Foucault, M Nietzsche, Genealogy, History in Rabinow, Paul (Editor) 1984 p76
[ii] This is the “epigram” (hypergram?) for the Foucault Archive:
[iii] It has become fairly standard to identify the genealogical turn in Foucault as a new departure in response to limitations in “archeology’s” inability to account for transition in systems of thought.  For instance, Gutting says: “While archaeology provided no account of transitions from one system to another, Foucault later introduced a ‘genealogical’ approach, which seeks to explain changes in systems of discourse by connecting them to changes in the non-discursive practices of social power structures.” (Gutting, G (1998, 2003). Foucault, Michel. In E. Craig (Ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. London: Routledge. Retrieved January 20, 2010, from .  That being said most will acknowledge that these are not discreet methodological practices.
[iv] I name just some of the major monographs.  Much of the Foucauldian work is elucidated in lectures, interviews and collaborative pieces.  A seemingly complete bibliography can be found at:
[v] It is of course commonplace, and in many circumstances mandatory for publications in the natural sciences to place a methodological discussion after the opening introductory paragraphs.
[vi] Foucault, M Nietzsche, Genealogy, History in Rabinow, Paul (Editor) 1984 p76
[vii] Ibid. 79.
[viii] Of the 57 footnotes to the version of the essay reproduced in the Foucault Reader 53 are direct citations from Nietzsche’s texts – Dawn, Beyond Good and Evil, The Gay Science, Untimely Meditations, Human All Too Human, Twilight of Idols, The Wanderer and his Shadow, Nietzsche contra Wagner, On the Genealogy of Morals).
[ix] Nietzsche, Genealogy, History, p78
[x] Ibid. p80
[xi] Ibid. p81
[xii] Ibid 82.
[xiii] Ibid p83
[xiv] Ibid. p84
[xv] Ibid 86
[xvi] Ibid. 92
[xvii] Ibid. 86
[xviii] Ibid. 97

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