Fox on Foucault

I’m currently on the comprehensive exam committee of a graduate student who digs Foucualt.  This makes me several shades of happy, ‘cuz I love Foucault.  You’d be hard-pressed to discover one of my scholarly publications, in which this fine thinker isn’t featured.  What’s not to love? He’s French.  He’s gay.  He’s fabulous!

My exam question focused largely on Foucault’s epistemology and methodology, or what Foucault has to say about knowledge and what instruments he uses to analyze culture.  Look at all these multi-syllabic words I’m using.  Does it make you horny when I say shit like e-pist-e-mo-lo-gy? Do you like it when I talk like Shakespeare? Where was I? Oh, yes, my exam question.  One of the things I love about comprehensive exams is that, in preparation for participating in and evaluating a student’s oral defense, I tend to revisit forgotten or personally misunderstood aspects of theory.

I have spent years struggling to distinguish between Foucault’s two primary methods: archaeology and genealogy.  By lord, I think I’ve (finally) got it.  I’ve made a little display to break down my understanding of the two research instruments.  Deep breath.  Ragan is now ready to translate:


In any given period, formal constraints limit how people think.  Constraints include improper grammar (e.g., gibberish) and illogical argumentation (e.g., faulty reasoning).  Archaeologists are most concerned with implicit, taken-for-granted rules that comprise and lay the foundation for a particular era’s dominant paradigm(s).  In other words, archaeologists examine the premises that a specific era’s thinkers believe to be unquestionable truths (e.g., the world is flat, or the sun revolves around the earth).  What we assume to be true opens us up to some aspects of the world but closes us off to other facets of reality and existence.  These “certain” truths constrain and enable what may be uttered and even thought in a particular period of time.  For archaeologists, what is in the conscious minds of thinkers is less important than the subconscious assumptions about reality that shape human thought.  Archaeologies are synchronic analyses, meaning archaeologists study rules of knowledge formation at one point in time; archaeologists do not investigate evolutions of thought.  The archaeologist’s goal is not interpretation of a text; rather, she treats an era’s discourse fragments like archaeological artifacts that tell a story about the culture from which they’re excavated, and shed light on the subconscious maneuverings of the people (e.g., scientists and philosophers) who enact history.


Genealogies are diachronic analyses, meaning genealogists regard a phenomenon as it develops through time.  Foucault uses genealogies to connect history to the present moment.  In other words, history tells a tale of the rules and institutions that organize, exclude, include, and exert power over us.  The past, as Gary Gutting argues, is used to evaluate the present and justify current power relationships.  Power and knowledge are two parts of the same discursive mechanism.  Major shifts in power tend to affect taken-for-granted assumptions about knowledge; conversely, a significant shift in philosophical paradigms will, more of than not, alter a community’s complex power dynamics.  Take, for example, the APA’s 1973 decision to remove homosexuality from its list of psychiatric disorders.  This modification of an era’s archaeological understanding (or knowledge) of same-sex sexuality had significant implications for how people in the US could discipline (or exert power over) gay and lesbian people.  Emerging gay subjectivities have, in turn, altered knowledge about sexuality.  Knowledge produces power; power produces knowledge.  Power-knowledge relationships also illuminate what’s at stake when Darwinists and creationists battle over ideas power ideas and power.

As I began doing the necessary work to better distinguish between Foucault’s methodologies, I thought a lot about my latest piece in Text in Performance Quarterly, titled “Tales of a Fighting Bobcat: An ‘Auto-archaeology’ of Gay Identity Formation and Maintenance,” in which I chronicle my experiences as a gay kid who survived four years at Cy-Fair High School.  I call the specific form of autoethnography in which I engaged an “auto-archaeology” for two key reasons.  First, I, via embedded figures, showcase artifacts from Cy-Fair and claim that disciplinary documents, report cards, yearbook photos, and the school’s blueprint may be used to tell a story about the institution from which they were taken.  In other words, I, like an archaeologist, dig up artifacts from the past, dust them off, and use them to construct a narrative about a specific culture.  Second, archaeology is a reference to Foucault’s aforementioned archaeological method insofar as Foucaultian archaeologies document the taken-for-granted assumptions that constrain and enable thought.  Because I focus so heavily on Cy-Fair’s power-knowledge relationships and many of the conscious maneuverings of people in the institution, I began to worry that I should have used genealogy as my primary Foucaultian metaphor.  Fuck it, I’ll be honest; I panicked.  “Now everyone’s finally gonna’ realize that you’re nothing but a scam-artist scholar,” I thought.

A more careful re-re-reading of the two related but discrete methods affirms my original decision.  “Tales of a Fighting Bobcat” is, in fact, an auto-ARCHAEOLOGY.  First, the analysis is synchronic; there’s no historical account that leads us to Cy-Fair’s immediate past/present.  I am investigating one moment in time, not an evolution of thought.  Second, assumptions about sexuality constitute a paradigm.  Heteronormativity is, in the eyes of many people, an unquestionable truth.  As I argue in the paper, heterosexuality, at Cy-Fair, is considered the “only viable option.”

I’m not suggesting that the essay is a pure Foucaultian archaeology.  I reference his method in a metaphorical sense.  Auto-archaeology is the illegitimate (in the loveliest sense of the term) lovechild between Foucault and autoethnography.  Like a drunk guy at a bar, Foucault never INTENDED for his, uh, INSTRUMENT, to be used and abused the way it was on that faithful night I put pen to paper.  He certainly wasn’t expecting our one-night stand (okay, SEVERAL-night stand) to result in a baby.  Too bad, Foucault.  I’m gonna’ keep my baby.  Uh huh, I’m gonna’ keep my baby.  Oh.  Oh.