Discursive Formations in Foucault’s Archaeological Historical Analysis

Estimated read time (minus contemplative pauses): 7 min.

Michel Foucault in leather jacket.

The following is in response to a question that often comes up regarding the causal relationship between Foucault’s “discursive formations” and human behavior, and the extent to which, if at all, the ambiguity with which Foucault accounts for this relationship threatens to undermine his so-called “archaeological” historical analysis. For more on this critique, see the book Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, by Hubert L. Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow (1982).

In The Archaeology of Knowledge, Michel Foucault attempts to define an “archaeological” historical methodology in which humans are removed from the center of analysis, thus, he hopes, avoiding the problems that have accompanied the “anthropological” approach of earlier methodologies. My aim here is to evaluate Foucault’s success in accomplishing this, particularly given his claims surrounding the autonomy of the discursive formations that are responsible for the discursive practices in which humans engage. I intend to show that these claims are ambiguous, but that this fact does not pose a serious problem for his archaeological approach nor for his project as a whole.

In looking closely at what Foucault means by “discursive formations,” one gets a sense of his lack of a clear explanation for how it is that these formations come about and guide human behavior. In an effort to avoid words that are “already overladen with conditions and consequences,”1 Foucault offers the term to refer to, essentially, when it is possible to define a regularity between statements. To elaborate, a discursive formation is a constellation of authoritative speech acts that relate to one another in some coherent way, the elements of which are brought about and regulated by “rules of formation.”2 Foucault is not certain, however, that discursive formations will ultimately allow him to isolate the historical connections and definitional unities he seeks (within, for example, practices such as medicine and economics), and that they won’t rather “introduce unexpected boundaries and divisions.”3 But, with an adventurous spirit, he points out that “one is forced to advance beyond familiar territory”4 in order to make new discoveries, despite the risk of coming up empty-handed in the end.

This spirit pervades the book, throughout which Foucault makes frequent reference to discursive formations, simultaneously further illuminating and complicating matters as he goes along. Two of the most interesting examples are the perplexing claims that (1) statements, despite their regularity being defined by discursive formations, are elements of discursive formations while simultaneously belonging to the “laws” that govern those formations, owing to the fact that statements are necessarily coexisting groups that, by their existence, constitute discursive formations,5 and (2) the origin of systems of formation – i.e., the complex relations that come together to form the rules of formation that regulate discursive formations – are not “to be found in the thoughts of men.”6 It seems, then, that statements, as guides rather than products of human behavior,7 somehow actively constitute, regulate, and are regulated by discursive formations, as opposed to merely being groups of speech acts that coexist in some observable, intelligibly describable way.

These claims lead one to ask: Do discursive formations guide human beings in the way that rules of etiquette might, or are they more like physical laws that influence behavior, akin to the forces of gravity? (For clarity, I will use “rule” in the former connotation, “law” in the latter.) I will attempt to consider some key implications of this highly complex question in order to determine the extent to which these connotations might be supported by Foucault’s view. One of these implications is what it might mean to violate a rule or law.

It seems clear that, according to Foucault, a non-serious (i.e., over-simply put: unintended by speaker to have meaning and be taken seriously) statement cannot exist, however it is possible to say things that can’t be taken seriously, as in the case of Cervantes’s Don Quixote.8 Also, Foucault points out that discursive formations account for one possibility of many, and that he’s not looking for some ultimate book of all books. Here we start to see what might be a kind of problem of denotation, in which a violation of discursive rules, as opposed to serving as a counterexample to Foucault’s claims, simply constitutes a failure to fit the definitions he’s describing. This is quite different from a physical law, of which a violation is not possible, not because of denotative practice, but because the laws are actually descriptions of what can happen in the world. A law violation means the existing description is wrong. A discursive rule violation, on the other hand, means that that the discursive rules have changed, or perhaps that there is a madman in our midst.

Despite this, it does seem that Foucault is describing something like an overarching law in the case of the ongoing laws that determine how discursive formations come about.9 It’s also interesting to note that he often refers to extra-human laws associated with human behavior, such as the laws of economics that arise out of the interplay of human behavior in the context of external realities such as inevitable death.10 At this point, I’d like to consider for a moment the possibility of discursive formations functioning like physical laws.

Changes in epistemes and discursive practices are accompanied by, in essence, changes in behavior. It is possible to characterize non-human animal behavior in this way as well. There are things that carry something like meaning for animals, which is to say that there are patterns, colors, sounds, shapes, et al, that merit being taken note of and that merit response. When behaviors are appropriately adaptive to changing environmental conditions (such as the introduction of newly arrived human hunters to an island) they increase the likelihood of evolutionary success. An animal population becomes endangered in proportion to the extent to which its “system of meaning” (let’s call it) is unable to accommodate new dangers as things to be noted. As social and ecological systems grow more complex, systems of meaning must become proportionately complex and refined.

It’s possible to imagine, then, shifts in discursive practices as observable manifestations of an already built-in and static adaptiveness in the human neurological makeup. This may be yet untestable, however, as the possibility of tracking all the processes involved in such a shift seems practically unthinkable, given the wide range of possible influences – bacterial mutation, technological advancement, cultural exchange, climate change, changing power structures, and so on. At any rate, animals are not aware of such processes, but humans, it seems, have become aware of at least the effects of these processes, and of the existence of systems of meaning that make the navigation of these effects possible.

This notion of awareness seems significant, as the degree to which humans can be aware of a rule or law determines the degree to which they can influence rule-making or exploit laws to their advantage. Yet Foucault, in his desire to avoid the trappings of what he broadly refers to as “anthropologisms,”11 doesn’t allow for this sort of explanation (nor does he allow for the sort of biological possibility I’ve given.12 Furthermore, Foucault’s not exactly clear on what it is that people can be aware of. Quixote becomes, consciously or not, his own book of laws,13 and Foucault refers to himself as writing within the modern episteme, which conflicts with common interpretations of Foucault that assert that one cannot be aware of the episteme in which one operates.14 However, he does clearly state that we can’t describe our own “archive” because “it is from within these rules that we speak, since it is that which gives to what we can say,”15 though I’m not certain of how this differs from the rules and laws that he ascribes to discursive formations.

In the end, it may be possible that discursive formations involve a highly complex interplay of rules and laws (which I take to be a fair approximation of what Foucault’s attempting to describe), though it’s not at this point reasonable to allow for anything more than mere possibility. But that may be enough. Foucault’s is an archaeological project, a characterization likely chosen to endow his analysis with greater material solidity than that of his dreaded anthropologized human sciences. Nevertheless, this characterization remains metaphorical and error-prone. Foucault often notes this challenge, such as when expressing his hope in having succeeded at least in showing…

… that the analysis of discursive formations really is centered on a description of the statement in its specificity… Rather than founding a theory – and perhaps before being able to do so (I do not deny that I regret not yet having succeeded in doing so) – my present concern is to establish a possibility.16

This may seem conveniently open-ended, but this is what makes Foucault’s a constructive philosophical work rather than a purely historical one. This struggle to view one’s own context from within and without – e.g., claiming that there must currently be an indescribable archive, given what an archaeological analysis of history reveals17 – is done with sufficient self-awareness and rigor to warrant our attention and, in turn, to justify the methodologies that Foucault has attempted to construct for guiding and sustaining that rigor.


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Further Reading


  1. Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge (New York: Vintage Books Edition, 2010), 38.
  2. Ibid., 38.
  3. Ibid., 38.
  4. Ibid., 39.
  5. Ibid., 116.
  6. Ibid., 74.
  7. For example, the authority granted to speech acts, as in the case of how a doctor’s observations might function within the hospital field: The Archaeology, page 38.
  8. Quixote, who achieves his own reality through “language alone,” figures in between the classical and modern epistemes, in the former being viewed as a madman (who is “alienated in analogy”), and in the latter a poet. For a deeper explanation, see The Order of Things, pages 48-50.
  9. Ibid., 107.
  10. Ibid. (1), 225.
  11. Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (New York: Vintage Books Edition, 1994), 348. See also The Archeology, page 16.
  12. To be clear, Foucault is primarily concerned with cultural changes that occur over relatively short periods of time.
  13. Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (New York: Vintage Books Edition, 1994), 46.
  14. Ibid., there are many examples of this, such as on pages 328, 334, and on each of 384-387.
  15. Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge (New York: Vintage Books Edition, 2010), 130.
  16. Ibid., 114-115.
  17. Ibid., 130.

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