Tag Archives: histories

“Foucault Decoded: Notes from the Underground” Hayden White

“Foucault Decoded: Notes from the Underground” Hayden White

In this article, White elucidates Foucault’s purpose and rationale for “transcribing” the evolution of the human sciences. As White makes clear, Foucault thinks the human sciences aimed at studying man, society, and culture are trapped by figurative modes of discourse. Their theories, then, are simply “formalizations” of the syntactical strategies they use to name the “relationships” presumed to exist among their objects of study. And their “laws” are nothing but projections of the semantic ground presupposed by the modes of discourse in which they have “named” the objects inhabiting their respective domains of analysis” (232).


Rather than being a rationalist and believer in narrative accounts of history, Foucault thinks “histories” ought to be exercises in unmasking, demystification, and dismemberment as well as disordering, destructuration, and unnaming (233). Rather than deeming history as a method, Foucault deems history to be a symptom of a nineteenth century discomfort with the “temporality of all things” or what Foucault calls “temporal agoraphobia”—an obsession to fill in intellectual gaps of history due to a discomfort with disorder and uncertainty (233 and 234). Perceiving history as nothing but a myth, Foucault attempts to “write ‘history’ in order to destroy it” (234). Foucault, an anti-historian of sorts, embraces “archaeology” instead of history. An archeology emphasizes “ruptures,” “discontinuities,” “disjunctions” and “differences” rather than continuities, comparisons, similarities, and progression. Foucault does not believe in the continuity of science nor in consciousness (235). Therefore, in Les Mots et les choses, Foucault attempts to demonstrate that the human sciences have not evolved from a linear “revolution” in thought or consciousness, but rather throughout the history of human sciences, epistemes (epistemic domains) have embraced distinct modes of discourse in attempt to study its own objects using their own distinct strategies. Rather than proceed forward, these epistemes form alongside each other in attempt to fill gaps in knowledge left by the “discourse” of earlier sciences (234). In each episteme, in other words, human scientists attempt to grasp the “secret of life in language” (235)

Foucault identifies four “epochs” in the history of human science, each epoch of which employs different strategies or modes of representation for comprehending different objects of study. Rather than show the continuity from one epoch to another, Foucault focuses ob the ruptures in Western consciousness and discontinuities that separate epochs from one another (235). Rather than try to translate and analyze, which he considers a reductive exercise, Foucault tries to transcribe how each epoch “talked” about their objects of study (237). In doing so, he does not deem it necessary to connect a body of work to its social, economic, and political contexts nor to the life of its author (237). The “formalized consciousness” of any age is apparent in the modes of representation employed by each human science [an excellent point, I think, and an interesting one to discuss in class] (237). Therefore, in transcribing texts from specific epochs, Foucault tries to identify the syndrome or growth of disease “which consists of the impulse to use language to ‘represent’ the order of things in the order of words,” i.e. to explain the human condition (238).


Foucault’s purpose in transcribing is to “find the ‘threshold’ of historical, consciousness itself”—to reveal the “discontents” of every epoch that attempts to explain the human condition through objective language. Language cannot possibly “represent” the human condition in Foucault’s eyes. We can identify various modes of discourse the human sciences employ by how they fail to represent in language, or how they more or less commit linguistic violence. One like himself who studies the archaeology of ideas in a given epoch of intellectual history is actually studying the “structures of linguistic wages and epistemological commitments which originally constituted it” (240). Once one identifies the “prevailing ‘formalizations” about life, society, and culture in any given epoch—the meaning of which changes from epoch to epoch—one then investigates the “lexical and syntactical strategies by which the objects of study are identified and the relationships among them are explicated. This analysis then yields insights into the ‘modes of discourse’ prevailing at a given time, which in turn permits derivation of the ‘epistemological ground’ and the ‘wording’ activity underlying and sanctioning a given mode of discourse” (240).


Studying the modes of discourse are important because each epoch is locked within specific modes of discourse, which has significant repercussions because “reality” is accessed through these modes of discourse at the same time the “horizon of what can possibly appear as real” is delimited (241).

To show how powerful it can be to study the modes of discourse, Foucault shows the 18th century failure to develop a continuous, timeless “web of relationships” among objects due to their obsession with classification evident in their discourse of Measurement and Order (244). Foucault also shows how the 19th century adopted a discourse of Analogy and Succession in a failed effort to demonstrate how things were related to each other as members of specific families of species, modes of production, and language uses in order to place them in a “temporal series” and construct a true science of man (244). In the 20th century, he shows how discourse around Finitude and Infinity reflects recognition in psychoanalysis and ethnology of languages inadequacy to characterize the human condition.


Foucault also transcribes modes of discourse surrounding theories and treatments of insanity in his history of ideas to reveal the rationality of each epoch. Through this transcription, a “consistent tendency to project very general social preconceptions and anxieties into theoretical systems which justified the confinement of whatever social group or personality type appeared to threaten society during a particular period” is revealed (246).

Again Foucault identifies four epochs. In Middle Ages, insanity was blessedness and insane treated with respect and honor—models Christians could aspire to. At end of 16the century, insane became thought of as illness, disease. Insane turned from subjects to objects. During enlightenment—the age of reason—no sympathy showed to unreason or madness. In the vaunted “age of reason,” insane locked away with the poor and criminals. At end of 18th and beginning of 19th, shift in attitude toward insane again. Insane became regarded as mentally ill and were separated from the poor and criminals but not because of advancement in theoretically knowledge about mental illness. Rather shift in attitude derived from transformations in society—industrialization demanded larger labor force, which depended on the poor, (thus the poor taken out of hospitals) and the bourgeoisie fear of revolutionary, subversive behavior of criminals, which was a political concern, sent them to jails (((????))). Medicine at this time was a political discipline, full of prejudices, brutality, incomprehension, and lack of scientific knowledge (248). Then came Freud and his psychotherapy, which reflects an interpretive approach to studying man rather than a systematic or scientific one (248). The resulting mode of discourse surrounding the insane in human sciences during these periods was a history of silence. No dialogue. No effort to decode the madness. What Foucault reveals then is the unscientific nature of the human sciences (249).

In modern times, Foucault says, we know no more about life, society, and culture, but we talk as if we do. Language is treated like madness in Age of Reason—it is simultaneously “affirmed as a presence to consciousness and denied as a problem of consciousness” (250). In other words, it is employed as an analytical tool with capability to discover meaning of human nature and as instrument of representation that offers up humanity for analysis. This move from silence to strategy of representation opens up new problems in human sciences (250). The human sciences are now Positivistic and Eschatological—they’ve pursued neutrality/objectivity and social redemption at same time. Formalization and Interpretation are principle systems of human science. Foucault believes once human sciences are freed from captivity of language, which has existed since the 16th – 20th century, the status of science will be dropped altogether. We will embrace “pre-religious imagination” once again or at least so Foucault says at end of Les Mots et les choses.


White claims there is a transformational system built into Foucault’s conception of the succeeding forms of human sciences, despite Foucault’s unawareness of it.

White claims all scientific disciplines reflect a commitment to style of representation in order to comprehend some identified cognitive problem. All systems of knowledge begin in a “metaphorical characterization of something presumed to be unknown in terms of something presumed to be known, or at least familiar” (252). White says Foucault 16th century sciences employed the mode of metaphor as method to encode human experience at that time (252). This mode identified similarities in different things in attempts to show their relation. In 18the century, mode of metonymy became central to human sciences. Orders of being, as in “cause-effect or agent-act relationships” were attempted through this mode. As metonymy is strategy by which objects are reduced to their functions (sail for ship), universal grammar for instance, attempts to seek essence of objects of study in a part of totality, just like tables used to reveal “web of relationships” which connected entities into an “order of things.” In 19th century, mode of synecdoche arose, in which parts were studies to reveal the whole. Thus, White says, whether Foucault knows it or not, he does have “both a system of explanation and a theory of the transformation of reason, or science, or consciousness,” which ultimately reveals the “projective or generational aspect of language, the extent to which it not only ‘represents’ the world of things but also constitutes the modality of the relationships among things by the very act of assuming a posture before them”—an aspect of language that was lost when science disengaged from rhetoric in 17th century (254).

Vico identified back then four tropes and their corresponding ages in life cycle of civilization: age of gods—metaphor, age of heroes-metonymy, age of men—synecdoche, and age of decadence and dissolutions—irony. The postmodern age, it could be shown, is the age of irony.


What Foucault attempts to do in three works Folie et deraison, Mots et les choses, and L’Archeologie du saviour, is to reconceputalize European intellectual history and raise questions about inner logic in the evolution of human sciences. As such, he is member of scholarly community that belongs to the eschatological wing of structuralism, as opposed to the positivistic wing, who focus their attention on the ways in which “structures of consciousness actually conceal the reality of the world and, by that concealment, effectively isolate men within different, not to say mutually exclusive, universes of discourse, thought, and action” (259). They view human nature as irreducible and consider positivism a myth and science a poesis. All of life is a text, “the meaning of which is nothing but what it is” (259). Interpretation of text is their aim, but not interpretation that leads to discovery of underlying structure of text or the universe of things that text refers to. Instead, they employ “transcription” to “reveal the inner dynamics of the thought processes by which a given presentation of the world in words is grounded in poesis” (259). All systems of thought in human sciences, according to White’s interpretation of Foucault, are simply “terminological formalizations of poetic closures with the world of words, rather than with the “things” they purport to represent and explain” (259).

All human sciences, in my interpretation, are rhetoric.


Filed under historiography exam

Nietzsche “On the use and abuse of history for life”

Nietzsche divides “On the Use and Abuse of History for Life” into 10 sections. I summarize and comment on the forward and first six sections here. Yet, before I begin, I think it will be useful to contextualize this text. This work was written in 1873, two years after the German Empire was formed under the leadership of Otto Von Bismarck and his authoritarian practice known as realpolitik. Realpolitik was a political practice that took practical actions to secure national interests with little regard for the ideological principles, morals and ethics of the populace. Under Bismarck’s rule, Germany became a leading industrial power. Bismarck also attempted to engender a German national culture under the Prussian ideology. According to Christian Emden’s 2006 article titled “Toward a Critical Historicism: History and Politics in Nietzsche’s Second ‘Untimely Meditation,’” specific historical foundation myths, exemplified by a multitude of public monuments and commemorations in the 1870s, played a significant role in developing the public and political imagination of a new German state. Understanding this intellectual context in which Nietzsche crafted “On the Use and Abuse of History for Life” helps us understand some of the specific allusions he makes in his text and the reasons why he feels so strongly about the need to be leary of history used for nationalistic purposes that do not serve the best interests of people living in the present.

Link to Edmend’s article:

  • http://journals.cambridge.org.libezproxy2.syr.edu/download.php?file=%2FMIH%2FMIH3_01%2FS1479244305000582a.pdf&code=8c5ace9f6cfdba81d36eebf438633b36
  • Warning: Long summary ahead. Skip to end for questions I think would be interesting to blog about…

    In the first six sections of “On the Use and Abuse of History for Life” Nietzsche explores the worth and worthlessness of history and argues that history must serve the interests of the living. Nietzsche begins by reminding his reader about the role both remembering and forgetting play in the lives of individuals, communities, and cultures. He claims that because we must use the past for living and make history out of what has happened in order to become a person, to live as a person, we must not abuse historical knowledge. We need to understand the role the unhistorical and super-historical can play in maintaining a contemporary life that isn’t a slave to historicism. There is power to forgetting the past and not taking history to seriously. Nietzsche values history but claims we must not be slaves to it.

    Much history, according to Nietzsche, is told through the method of monumentalism and antiquarianism and criticism.

    I. The Monumental Method

    Those who find no inspiration in daily life look to history—monumentalize it—for inspiration and motivation; they use it as a driving force in other words. Political historians employ this method often. They claim to monumentalize history for the good of collective. By building monuments for instance, we are proclaiming: We will be great by making greatness exist once again! Greatness perseveres! Live by example and we shall excel!

    Nietzsche asks, however, can the past truly be replicated by monumentalizing? Can the greatness that once was become again in same fashion? Not unless we distort the past in order to gain the same effect (6). What we do when we try to relive the past or to recreate the cause to invoke the same great effect is really just attempt to revive the effects. For to repeat the cause that lead to the effect in past is impossible to duplicate. There is no repeating history. And when we try to repeat history, all we end up doing is destroying history through distortion, alteration, reinterpretation….all we end up really doing is creating a mythic fiction, especially if we create a monumental history without antiquarian or critical methods. For “monumental history deceived through its analogies” (6).

    Thought –provoking quote:

    “monumental history is the theatrical costume in which they pretend that their hate for the powerful and the great of their time is a fulfilling admiration for the strong and the great of past times. In this, through disguise they invert the real sense of that method of historical observation into its opposite…Their motto: let the dead bury the living” (7).

    III. The Antiquarian Method

    The antiquarian is the one who admires the past and wants to preserve it. He looks back at the amazing lives of the past and feels part of that great history. He inherits the virtues of the past; he is tradition embodied. Nietzsche says the most valued type of the antiquarian way of doing history is the one who reveres the modest past and the simple life. For they as heirs of the noblest past have a “real historical sense” (8). But this type of history that is performed to serve life and drive life forward is also problematic. That problem is that when one admires and tries to preserve the past, the antiquarian is looking back on the past with rose colored lenses because of a “restricted field of vision” (8). Also, the antiquarian “assigns to the things of the past no difference in value and proportion which would distinguish things form each other fairly, but measures things by the proportions of the antiquarian individual or people looking back into the past” (8).

    What is also of consequence is that things of past have greater value than things of present. “When the sense of a people is hardened like this, when history serves the life of the past in such a way that it buries further living, especially higher living, when the historical sense no longer conserves life, but mummifies it, then the tree dies unnaturally, from the top gradually down to the roots themselves are generally destroyed” (8).
    Furthermore, Nietzsche claims the antiquarian may know how to preserve life, but she certainly doesn’t know how to generate life, as she always undervalues what is emergent. It paralyzes the present with reluctance to replace the old with the new (9).

    This is why the critical method must accompany the monumental and antiquarian methods of historiography: condemnation of past is useful for the present. Yet, just because we destroy the admirable past does not mean we cannot escape the past; for we derive from the past (9). Nonetheless, to be critical gives us the chance to “give oneself, as it were, a past a posteriori (after the fact), out of which we may be descended in opposition to the one from which we are descended” (9). We create a second nature of ourselves and in doing so, we come to realize that “first nature was at one time or another once the second nature and that every victorious second nature becomes a first nature” (9). In other words, if I am interpreting this correctly, by being critical of the past, by widening our historical glance to find the “bad” as well as the “good,” which is our second nature, being critical will be the first nature of the next generation. We pass on the habit of critique rather than blind antiquarian fantasies. We take off the rose colored glasses in hopes of the next generation living a better life—one that is critical and healthy.


    To use history to serve the living, we must practice all three kinds of history but not for the sole purpose of gaining knowledge. Nor can we practice history as a science. In modern culture, Nietzsche says, to be educated one must have historical knowledge, cultural knowledge. Yet though modern educated man has inner knowledge of history does not make us “civilized” in our actions. We live in an era when we can ignore the atrocities and injustices of the present just as long as we are “cultured” through historical education. The consequence is a split between our inner and outer selves. We have lost our integrity at the expense of becoming “educated” (10).

    Nietzsche expresses his frustrations with modern German life—its conventionality, apathy, imitation, immediate gratification, mass consumption and production, contentment based on the “perfect” form with a weak inner life even though the educated seem to project strong inner knowledge. German thought and feelings may seem noble, but actions do not reflect much inner wisdom. He fears that “Germans feel abstractedly; we have all been corrupted by history” (11). Rather than seek political reunification, we should be seeking “the unity of German spirit and life after the destruction of the opposition of form and content, of the inner life and convention” (11).


    Nietzsche identifies five dangers of supersaturated historical age:

    1. as already explored, Inner/outer conflict; 2. weakened personality; perpetuated fantasy of culture’s self-righteousness; 3. individual progress hindered as their instincts are disrupted; 4. old age of history take root, proliferation of belief that we are late arrivals; 5. cynicism leads to egotistical practices, which stunts forces of life.

    Nietzsche describes the weakened personality as—loss of instinct, rise of timidity; self-doubt; too much scholarship disconnected from social reality creates a life of abstraction; we mask ourselves as professors, politicians, scholars, poets. We are no longer free; only “anxiously disguised universal people”; loss of individuality; what good is common culture based on masquerades and lies? Loss of humanity; instead we become “thinking, speaking, writing machines” (12). One consequence is that “history itself remains perfectly objective and protected by precisely the sort of people who could never create history themselves….” (12). Furthermore, “the historical education of our critics no longer permits an influence on our real, understanding, namely an influence of life and action” (13). Criticism never stops and only leads to more criticism (13). Objective science destroys history’s ability to shape real life.

    very interesting line: “In this excess of their critical ejaculations, in the lack of control over themselves, i whaqt the Romans call impotentia [impotence], the weakness of the modern personality reveals itself”


    In this section, Neitzsche explores the empirical practice of writing objective histories. He claims that objective historiography is claimed to be just but declares that objectivity and just “have nothing to do with each other” (14). He deplores how historians claim that they are representing history from an objective indifferent stance. He claims “You can interpret the past only on the basis of the highest power of the present. Only in the strongest tension of your noblest characteristics will you surmise what from the past is great and worth knowing and preserving” (15). “The person of experience and reflection writes history” (16).

    Many questions are raised in this text concerning social history:

    How can we write social histories without falling victim to some of the pitfalls of monumental and antiquarian methods of doing history?

    Nietzsche obviously is bothered by the role empirical science and positivism is beginning to play in history. He seems concerned that scientific historical knowledge is shaping modern culture more than religion and art, which have been condemned to the subjective realm.
    In doing so, he creates a binary between science and history. What ramifications does the binary have on social history today? How is science related to social history? DeCerteau says history is scientific because writing history “establishes a ‘governance in nature’ in a way than concerns the relation of the past to the present” (72). What governance in nature will we create in writing social histories? What do we do with the awareness that we are establishing a governance?

    The issue of weighing the value of certain histories seems to be an important concern of Nietzsches. It is also an important matter for social history. How do we decide what histories to uncover? Are there certain social histories that deserve to be told more than others? That have greater value in our contemporary daily lives? What is our measuring stick? What should it be? DeCerteau asks this same question in his text.

    Thinking in terms of feminist geography in relation to social histories and Nietzsche’s point about the problem of restricted visions when researching and writing history, where do we draw the borders in researching and writing about social histories? Do we have a responsibility to connect local social histories with regional, national, or global political, economic, and social conditions? Why or why not? This question seems important; what Nietzsche seems to be advocating is a rhetorical understanding of history’s role in creating an imagined national community.

    What role would Nietzsche see scholarship in action play in the life/career of a historian?
    Would that help us avoid becoming “thinking, speaking, and writing machines”?

    Do objectivity and justice really have nothing to do with each other as Niezsche writes? Or does he set up a binary that needs complicating?

    Nietzsche says “the person of experience and reflection writes history.” Can we write histories from our desks? Is searching the archives enough to “accurately” represent social history or any history? What other experience(s) are necessary for writing social history? DeCerteau addresses the institutional control that archives exert. How are archives different from the bank of historical knowledge gathered in order to secure national interests? How do archives shape the public imagination? Whose interests do the archives serve?

    In section five, there is a very interesting passage. Nietzsche writes that history is a “race of eunachs” and that then goes on to say that ” and since the eternally feminie is never attracted to you, then you pull it down to yourselves and assume, since you are neuters, that history is also a neuter too.” In reviewing this passage, what do you make of this gendered discourse??

    Just some questions to think about…..Anyone out there??? It’s 3:30am….


    Filed under historiography exam