requiem for certainty

Foucault’s Hourglass of Threads

with 11 comments

To make sense of the complex relations composing the various aspects of a philosopher’s work it is often useful to package these aspects together into simple images that offer memorable portraits of their relation to one another.  Hence one of the most reliable tools of the contemporary philosopher: the chalkboard diagram: someone should, I am convinced, put together a book of our diagrams, with large high-quality images flanked by short little explanatory notes along the margins.

In the case of important parts of Foucault’s work, I often find it useful to coordinate their relation in terms of a diagrammatic image that I call Foucault’s hourglass of threads.

The image is not complex and can be conveyed with a simple description.  Picture an hourglass laying horizontal on its side.  In the two bulbs of the hourglass are not sand, nor powdered marble, nor mercury (the most common substances used to mark the flow of time from one bulb to the other) but threads of multiple colors.  The threads are thick enough that they can be drawn through the neck of the hourglass only one at a time but thin enough that they can all be drawn through.  In the left bulb of the hourglass the threads are all tangled together in chaotic fashion: they look like they have come from an unkempt sewing box that would be a true chore to put into order: it is difficult to pull out any given thread more than a small distance before one runs into a knot that must be unraveled before it can be further pulled free of the rest.  In the neck of the hourglass one can observe the various threads being pulled through from the left bulb to the right: only one thread fits at a time such that they can pass through the neck not as a tangled lump of chaosmotic material but as singular strands each displaying its unique color and texture.  In the right bulb of the hourglass one can observe the various threads as separated from one another in such a way as to make visible the relations that each thread holds with the others.  The threads on the left are all tied together in a fashion that is difficult to discern.  The threads on the right are not unrelated or isolated, but are beside one another in some coordinate and coherent fashion.

This image simultaneously represents two aspects of Foucault’s work that are often difficult to make sense of.  It conveys a picture of the relation between Foucault’s archaeological and genealogical analytics.  It also, if the horizontal axis on which the hourglass lays is seen as a chronology of Foucault’s publishing career, conveys a picture of the various periods of Foucault’s work and their relation to one another.  I first discuss the analytics as represented by the hourglass.  I then discuss the periodization of Foucault’s work as represented by the hourglass.

Methodologically speaking, we can see the left bulb as overflowing with the tangled threads of practices, institutions, ideas, and behaviors that as yet remain incomprehensible to the observer.  The left bulb may be seen in terms of practices as they so often appear to themselves: unclarified, incomprehensible, and yet somehow functioning midst the morass of multiplicities that make them up.  The neck may be seen in terms of these practices as they are drawn up, or discerned, by an archaeological analytic.  Archaeology neutralizes and isolates the various threads which remain confusedly tangled in the left bulb.  Archaeology narrows our focus of vision such that we can get an intellectual grip on practical experience, and it does so by neutralizing part of that practical experience and allowing us to view it on its own, as it were.  One can archaeologically isolate the thread of knowledge as found in a particular historically-constrained set of practices (for instance, the conditions of scientific knowledge in the Classical Age as isolated by The Order of Things).  Yet one can also archaeologically isolate all the other threads that may be constitutive of the practices in which we find ourselves: not just knowledge, but also those various other threads mentioned by Foucault at the end of The Archaeology of Knowledge as fields fertile for archaeological inquiry.  We can, as Foucault insisted, perfectly well write not just archaeologies of knowledge, but also archaeologies of power, of sexuality, of aesthetics, and so on.  The right bulb of the hourglass may then be seen in terms of these seem practices as they are coordinated by a genealogical analytic.  Genealogy takes as its material the neutralized threads as they are drawn through the neck by an archaeology.  These threads are then coordinated and related by a genealogy.  A genealogy lays them out and weaves them together in a patterned fashion such that we can discern their relations, complex and contingent as they are, between one another.

Two notes about the picture I have just offered are in order.  It is important to note in the first place that the threads in either bulb are the same stuff making up the very same practices.  It is not as if the threads in the left bulb are the practices themselves and the threads in the right bulb are an idealization.  The point rather is that the left-side threads are the practices as they often appear to themselves without reflective orientation while the right-side threads are the very same threads as they appear to the critical inquirer (who of course may be a participant in the practices).  Archaeology and genealogy thus help us get clear on the material that forms our practices.  They do this not by abstracting from or radically altering these practices but rather by analytically drawing them up in a way that offers an opportunity to articulate practices.  This articulation itself may, of course, facilitate transformative intervention into these practices.  Insofar as they do facilitate this, they can be recognized as histories of the present that provide us with materials we might need to transform our futures.

It is secondly important to note that, according to my image, genealogy functions well only if it follows after an archaeological function that singularly disentangles the various threads composing the practices in which we find ourselves.  The implication, of course, is not that genealogy always requires archaeology.  The implication, rather, is that the genealogical analytic of coordinating various vector-threads in their relation to one another requires the work of another analytic that would provide genealogy with singular vector-threads.  The vector-threads that are tangled in the left bulb must be isolated from one another, or neutralized, so that we may get a view of each thread on its own.  Archaeology is just one way of doing this: one could imagine other analytic approaches working sufficiently well here.  But sticking with Foucault’s analytics, we should be able to recognize that archaeology enables articulation (in the sense of clarification) of singular vector-threads.  Based on this clarifying articulation of singular vector-threads, genealogy then enables articulate (in the sense of connection) of multiple vector-threads with one another.  Genealogy enables us to articulate power to knowledge, power to sexuality, ethics to knowledge, and all of these to one another.  Genealogy coordinates and relates various threads to one another but it can do so only if some other analytic consistent with genealogical analysis has separated the various threads such that we do not find ourselves quickly stuck at a knot when we pull each thread even only a little bit.  This is why Foucault insisted that his inquiries into power-knowledge was an inquiry into a relation between separable domains of practice.  The point is not to reduce power or knowledge to one another.  The point is to coordinate singular vectors of our practices in their relation to one another.  Genealogy enables us to grasp the coherence of a complex welter of practical material that is contingently interrelated.  It does so in a way that both encourages respect for the profound stability of this practical material as it functions and also enables acknowledgement of the sheer contingency of this stability.  The worlds which we have built for ourselves are capable of transformation but that transformation will never be easy.

Turning now from Foucault’s methodology to topics more scholarly in orientation, I would like to conclude this chapter with a brief discussion of the periodization of Foucault’s work.  The usual periodization which divides Foucault’s work into three sharply separated phases is, I think, misleading even if there is some truth to it.  The image of an hourglass of threads better represents than the usual picture the tripartite structure of Foucault’s work in its various periods in two ways: it emphasizes the continuities that remained throughout Foucault’s career and it helps us see how Foucault’s early work is in many ways much more like his later work than it is like his middle work.  Allow me to explain.  Placing the hourglass on its side such that the horizontal axis is placed along a chronology of Foucault’s published works suggests the following: the left bulb is descriptive of History of Madness and Birth of the Clinic, the neck represents the high archaeological-period works, and the right bulb portrays the later enriched genealogical-plus-archaeological works from Discipline and Punish through all three volumes of The History of Sexuality.

Here is how I interpret this image.  Foucault in his earliest works was proto-genealogical in its attempt to undertake an analysis of our practices in terms of the swarming multiplicity of practical material composing them.  This was an admirable effort but nobody reading these works, especially History of Madness, can admit to their being entirely successful.  There are too many uncoordinated elements here: too many loose threads and impenetrable knots.  This is not to disparage the work but only to suggest that it announced a project which could not be completed within its pages.  Foucault, I think, recognized that he had failed to fully unravel the tangled complexity he took as his object of inquiry.  In the second phase of his work he thus undertook to neutralize just a portion of those threads he had previously sought to inquire into.  Thus The Order of Things is much more restricted in scope than History of Madness.  The first big book dealt with psychiatry, reason, madness, and something called “unreason” in their composition by various threads including knowledge, power, and ethics.  The second big book proposed to deal with the history of modern sciences by neutralizing just one of these threads, namely knowledge.  Foucault later wrote of this book: “The Order of Things is situated at a purely descriptive level that leaves entirely aside all analysis of the relations of power that underlie and make possible the appearance of a type of discourse.  If I wrote this book, I wrote it after two others… precisely because in these first two books, in a manner a little confused and anarchical, I had tried to treat all the problems together” (“De l’archéologie à la dynastique” in DE v2, p.409 quoted in Davidson, The Emergence of Sexuality, p. 204).  The more humble approach of Foucault’s archaeological period still yielded something grand and impressive: there is an almost inexhaustible fund of interesting things to say about the composition of the singular thread of knowledge in the history of the sciences.  But Foucault nonetheless felt restless with this approach.  In the third phase of his work, represented in the right bulb of the hourglass, he began to attempt again an inquiry into practices in a fuller sense.  He began to treat “all the problems” again, but now he no longer had to treat them “together” insofar as the advantage of an archaeological analytic would enable him to get the various threads into singular view.  The later work from Discipline and Punish forward could thus deal with all of the various threads that furnish our practical realities with the materials composing them, but in a way that would enable their coordination and relation as a complex material that has contingently coalesced in such a way as to form the conditioning limits of doing, thinking, and being in the present.


Written by Colin Koopman

May 8, 2009 at 6:28 pm

11 Responses

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  1. I must say, the hourglass example is fantastic. You are right to say that it makes the difficult aspects of Foucault’s work – something that I know nothing about – easy to understand, especially for a modest thinker such as myself. Damn, I probably should have taken your Foucault seminar. Instead, I’ll just read your blog.

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