Becoming familiar with Statement Archaeology
The following paragraphs offer some initial theoretical orientations of Statement Archaeology, beginning with the work of Michel Foucault. Building on examples of his historical enquiries, some key principles arc identified
An introduction to Statement Archaeology 5 and detailed guidance is offered on how to apply these principles through a series of practical steps.
Statement Archaeology is based on a forensically close reading of the historical explorations of the post-structural theorist, Michel Foucault, particularly those associated with his work on the history of ideas and systems of thought. Foucault is often cited as a principal figure in the development of post-structural historical enquiry, proposing that phenomena relating to social and institutional processes and power are not preexistent, but are ‘constructed’ through language; a schema perhaps seen most clearly in his work Madness and Civilization.13 Although he distances himself from the discipline of History (stating emphatically at one point ‘I am not a historian, but then no-one is perfect’), his work shows continuity with, and development of, previous historical theories.14 There are clear links to, and development of, ideas from both the Annates school and the Histoire des Mentalités.ï3
However, in contrast to these earlier historical traditions, Foucault sets out to ask a different type of question. He encourages a shift away from a focus on ‘what happened?’ as an end in itself.16 Rather, he centres on the question ‘how did a particular practice become possible?’.17 For example, the research question at the heart of The History of Sexuality Vol. 1 is ‘How did it become possible for sexuality to become the crucial practice for defining the truth of the modern self?’.18 Similar questions regarding how particular practices became possible are at the heart of The History of Madness and Discipline and Punish.19
It is important to emphasize at this point that, within the context of this type of exploration, the phrase ‘became possible’ has a very specific meaning. Before a practice can become adopted it must first become possible. In exploring the circumstances in which a particular practice becomes possible, one is asking: how did this practice become possible at this particular point? Why was it not possible before? Were there constraints that had prevented this practice from developing which, by being lifted, create new ‘historic circumstances of possibility’, in which the previously impossible becomes possible?20 The use of the term ‘constraints’ here is potentially problematic; it highlights a dissonance between Foucault’s theoretical framing and his practice. It might be understood that the new practice was always possible but prevented from being taken up (that is to say, it was always possible in principle, but not in practice) due to the ‘constraints’ that acted on it. However, in his examples, it is clear that Foucault understands the process in a more strongly emergent sense; the process of the development and adoption of new practices relates to the addition of new elements being added to those existing, which enables the new practice to develop and be adopted. (The relationship between Foucault’s theoretical framing, his exemplars, and emergent theory is fascinating, but beyond the scope of this discussion.)
Here then, the term ‘became possible’ relates to the addition of new elements which enable something to manifest; this manifestation becomes possible in principle where previously in principle it was not possible. Thus, this is not simply the tracing backwards of a linear sequence, rather it is searching for the point at which that which had not been possible became possible and investigating the changes in circumstances associated with that. In short, the task is to describe the ‘bits and pieces that had to be in place to allow something else to become possible’.21
Questions about how certain things become possible are asked, not for their own sake, but in order to ‘diagnose’ the present; this is why such questions are so important! So, for example, Foucault constructs a history of madness in the Classical Age in order to more fully understand how the practices of contemporary psychiatry became possible.22 In his work, especially on Sexuality and on Madness, Foucault focuses on the change in thinking that is necessary for the ‘new’ practice to become possible, arguing that ‘every mode of thinking involves implicit rules that materially restrict the range of thought’.23 In other words ‘there arc substantial constraints on how people arc able to think’ which confine some things to a category of ‘the unthinkable’ until such a moment that the constraints change and the unthinkable becomes thinkable.24 By revealing these rules we can, as Gutting suggests, ‘see how an apparently arbitrary constraint actually makes total sense in the framework defined by those rules’.25 Further, in understanding the changes in the rules we can begin to understand how something that was ‘unthinkable’ becomes ‘thinkable’. Thus, in Foucault’s work, the underlying structures that form the context in which things arc thought become at least as important as what the thoughts are; ‘We will not be so much interested in, say, Hume or Darwin as in what made Hume or Darwin possible’.26 By understanding the changes in the rules of what is thinkable and unthinkable we can begin to understand how a particular practice becomes possible.27
Statement Archaeology has been devised to be a systematic operationalization of the method that Foucault deploys in his historical exploration as a way of providing an opportunity to unearth the rules of what is thinkable and unthinkable and expose any changes in them.