DISCOURSE ARCHIVES

It is within this mode of looking at discourse that Foucault introduces the term “archive”. An archive, which I shall call a “discourse archive” to avoid misunderstandings, is not equivalent to a library or a stored collection of documents. Foucault calls it “the general system of the formation and transformation of statements” (1972: 127) or, alternatively, “the law of what can be said, the system that governs the appearance of statements as unique events” (1972: 129). In fact, the archive is of primary importance in understanding the archaeological approach to discourse:

The never completed, never wholly achieved uncovering of the archive forms the general horizon to which the description of discursive formations, the analysis of positivities, the mapping of the enunciative field belong. The right of words—which is not that of the philologists—authorizes, therefore, the use of the term archaeology to describe all these searches. This term does not imply the search for a beginning; it does not relate analysis to geological excavation. It designates the general theme of a description that questions the already-said at the level of its existence: of the enunciative function that operates within it, of the discursive formation, and the general archive system to which it belongs. Archaeology describes discourses as practices specified in the element of the archive. (131)

By the “positivity” of a discourse Foucault means “that which characterizes its particular unity throughout a particular discursive time”, so that the “positivity” of a discourse is to be found in the archive to which that discourse belongs: “the law of what can be said”. It is the archive that determines how certain statements can be grouped together to form an apparent unity and how certain statements appear to us as historical events. Blommaert (2005: 102) suggests that the archive consists of “the macro-sociological forces and formations that define and determine what can be said, expressed, heard, and understood in particular societies, particular milieux, particular historical periods.”

What, however, are the “true” statements that belong to “the general system of the formation and transformation of statements” and that constitute “the law of what can be said”, and what are “the macro-sociological forces and formations that define and determine what can be said, expressed, heard, and understood”? Recall from section 3.2 on the metaphors used to conceptualise language that a metaphorisation such as A language is a

HUMAN BEING, or A LANGUAGE IS A MEMBER OF A LANGUAGE FAMILY, or A LANGUAGE IS A PLANT, or A LANGUAGE IS A GEOLOGICAL FORMATION gives

rise to a large number of propositions, or statements that can be generated from the metaphors. If the metaphor is conceptually embedded, members of the cultural group using it as the basis of their discourse on language will automatically accept the “truth” of the statements that go to make up that discourse, and if the discourse is in the form of a narrative, the story, or the myth, will not seem incredible. Blommaert’s point that the archive also consists of the macro-sociological forces defining the validity of the statements goes some way towards explaining why the conceptual metaphor A language is a geological formation in the nineteenth century gave rise to statements which were part of an archive that has now been transformed. Geological metaphors are far less likely to be a legitimate way of talking about language in the first decade of the twenty-first century than they were in the nineteenth, when geology was not only a very popular academic discipline but was also practised by amateurs beyond the boundaries of academia. To illustrate this, I shall briefly analyse the quotation given in section 3.2 from Welsford’s On the Origin and Ramifications of the English Language, presented this time as a set of propositions in what is clearly a narrative text:

(5) i

ii

iii

iv

v of Goete [sic] and Schiller, of Byron and Scott>

The course of language history, the passing of time, is metaphorised as the course of a river, the source of which (the fountainhead) is Sanskrit. The problem here is that several streams are fed by the fountainhead, which tends to go against our conceptualisation of the geological source of a river. We could argue, however, that, within statements derived from the metaphor A language is a geological formation, conceptualising Sanskrit as the source of a number of historical linguistic streams is a valid, “true” statement. Once this statement is accepted, statements ii. and iii. follow from it, and conceptualising the sociogeographical, sociohistorical framework within which those languages developed as a “spacious and secure channel” is also coherent with the topographic/ geological metaphor of language. The next step in the story is the depositing of “the dregs of the Frankish, the Anglo-Saxon, the Cimbric, and the Celtic” within this channel (these channels?), which is again a statement deriving from the basic metaphor. Once enough material has been “deposited”, statement v. is feasible within the conceptual framework constructed by Welsford; the modern languages English, French and German emerge (presumably as solid land). This is an example of what Fauconnier and Turner (2002) mean by “running the blend”, the blend being the conceptual metaphor A language is a geological formation. The story, the myth, thus gains validity within the part of the archive determining how language was conceptualised discursively in the nineteenth century.

The intimate connection between the underlying conceptual metaphors for language and the statements derived from those metaphors constitutes part of the discourse archive within which the statements emerge and which they help to construct. This understanding of the discourse archive is the motive force behind the unearthing of the language myths to be discussed in this book. Chapter 3 , in particular, is based on the notion of a discourse archive and its breakdown in deconstructing the myth of the unbroken tradition of English.[1] However, before moving on to discuss the relationship between myths, discourse and ideologies, i will take this opportunity to disagree with some of the assumptions made by Foucault.

My first criticism concerns Foucault’s statement (1972: 146-147) that “it is not possible for us to describe our own archive, since it is from within

these rules that we speak____The archive cannot be described in its totality;

and in its presence it is unavoidable.” In any period of time, different discourses will coexist or compete with one another, and this point is echoed by Blommaert when he talks about “macro-sociological forces and formations that define and determine what can be said, expressed, heard, and understood in particular societies, particular milieux, particular historical periods”. So it is more than likely that an individual in any “particular society”, any “particular milieu”, or any “particular historical period” must function in more than one archive and that these archives may overlap or may be inconsistent with one another. This contradicts Foucault’s idea that a historical archive is a collection of statements that we cannot interpret, since that would assume that we can never be within more than one archive at the same time. If we can distance ourselves from an archive, then it should be possible to describe it even though it will never be possible do so in its entirety. And if that is the case, an archive is not always “unavoidable”, in Foucault’s terms.

Foucault’s position leads him to the conclusion that, although we are able to piece together the archaeological remains of an archive, it will never be possible to understand it. Now, while living in a historical archive is indeed impossible, denying an understanding of it is tantamount to denying any interpretation of archaeological data. I take this to be an unacceptable conclusion, and I maintain that the heterogeneity of current discourses does indeed help us to apply interpretative methods in identifying, however tentatively, earlier historical archives, even if we will never “understand” them in the sense of having experienced or lived them.

  • [1] Throughout this book I shall represent the myths in bold, italic type as a way of highlighting them. Indoing this I am not claiming that the myths themselves have an ontological reality, but I am relating them tothe sociocognitive and historical process of deriving “true” statements from metaphorical concepts, and shaping narrative discourses from these “true” statements within which ideologies of language are discursivelycrystallised and used in larger discourse archives. I thus wish to highlight the myths but to do so in a way different from my handling of conceptual metaphors and “true” statements.
 
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