Foucault revisited for the Digital Humanities

Michel Foucault, L’archéologie du savoir, Gallimard, 1969

Review with respect to digital humanities (avant la lettre)

Also historians have succumbed to the temptations of structuralism. For quite some time now, they have not been working with events anymore, but with developments, including those of longue durée, as Ferdinand Braudel has called them. Michel Foucault speaks of deposits, layers, which are being investigated: For example the history of the cereal or the gold mines, of starvation or growth. In such a history we are no more talking about chains of events, but about series types and periodization.

This contrasts with the philosophy, which focuses its attention on fractures. Its interest is on the effects of interruptions and boundaries. The problem is no longer the foundation of a term or an idea, but rather its transformation. In the center of the history of thought now is discontinuity.

What are the two different developments based on? On challenging the document, Foucault says. The document was treated as “the language of the silenced voice”, as its decipherable trace. The document was a material through which the past should have been reconstructed. Historiography is now looking for relations in the documentary structure itself. It wants to give form to a mass of documents. So, documents become monuments (in the french sense of the term) and historiography becomes archeology – to a description immanent of the monument. Henceforth it is, as mentioned, all about series and about relations between these series.

Thus discontinuity is becoming the essential element – instrument and object – of the historical analyses. The possibility of a “global history” is being blurred in favor of the option of an “universal” (or “general”) history. It is about the overall shape of a culture, a system of homogenous relations that can be found in all areas of society. Thus the “new history” encounters the problem of constructing coherent document corpuses; the problem of the selection principle; of specifying methods of analysis; of the delimitation of quantities that structure the material to be examined.

The “general” or “new history” leaves all questions about the teleology of becoming and the relativity of historical knowledge in favor of questions that are to be found in linguistics and anthropology – in short: in structuralism. This gives the tension between structure and history a new meaning.

Remark / interjection: According to the Google Ngram Viewer the term “event” was more frequently used than the term “structure” until the 1930th. Since 1965, the term “structure” experiences a real hype.

This change in the episteme is not complete yet. Until now, history was a correlate of the subject; Its function was to maintain the sovereignty of the subject against all decentering: Historiography set the rationality of the telos against the analysis of the conditions of production by Marx, of the psyche by Freud and of transcendence by Nietzsche. A history that is not incision but becoming, not system but labor on freedom. And this history which is related to the synthetic activity of the subject disappears, as already mentioned before.


Historiography is detached from a whole complex of terms (and ideas): “Tradition”, for example, allowed to consider the dispersion of history in the form of the same; “influence” brought similar phenomena into connection with a process of causality; “development” related a sequence of events dispersed in time and space to a single organizational principle, and from there to a hypothetical origin and end; “mentality” established a community of sense, allowed as a unifying principle the existence of a collective consciousness. Even the units “book” and “work” are not backed up: A certain number of characters mark the boundaries of a text and a certain number of texts can be assigned to an author, indeed; but: the discursive unity of a text is never clean and severely cut, it is a knot in a net in which one text refers to others texts. Foucault wants to have a “pure description of discursive events” as a horizon for the study of a particular object.


Archeology in the meaning of Foucault defines discourses as practices obeying certain rules. The discourse is not a document, a sign for something else, but a monument. The archaeology defines types and rules of discursive practices that “pass trough” original works. How this archaeology is going to treat change, the phenomena of succession and alteration? How does it structure the relation between diachrony and synchrony? If a particular discursive formation just enters at the place of another – is time then not simply being bypassed, does then the possibility of a historical description not simply disappear?

The archaeology – always in Foucault’s sense – defines the rules of the formation of a set of statements and their correlation to the events. It distinguishes several levels: the level of the statements; the level of appearance of the objects, of the types of statements, of the terms; the formation level of new rules; and the level of substitution of a discursive formation with another. Thus, science is emerging on the threshold of the 19th century. The amount of discursive elements that is necessary to constitute science is knowledge. Instead of the axis consciousness – knowledge – science, that keeps to the subject, Foucault’s archaeology follows an axis discursive practice – knowledge – science. What it describes is not science in its specific structure, but the field of knowledge.

L’archéologie du savoir is neither historiography nor philosophy. It is a discourse about discourses. It describes the decentration, which would recognize no place, no subject as a privilege. The discourse has not the task “to dissolve the oblivion and to recover in the depth where they are silent, the moment in which things have been said”. It does not collect the original, does not remember the truth, is not the “presence of history in its conscious form”.


What does it mean for the Digital Humanities, to “visit” Michel Foucault again? His archéologie du savoir anticipates the Decentration that we have found with Jacques Derrida, and confirms the importance of structure, of the discontinuity in history and the fracture in the episteme. In addition to this it deconstructs the meaning of the document and of the terms used in the “old historiography”. Against to this, it constitutes discursive practices whose position in opposition to the events is rather vague. These discourses are not sign and play as with Derrida. And they give the subject no consolation as the “old history” did. Knowledge has no purpose outside of itself. It emerges and vanishes in ever new formations. If we follow its traces and think and write about it, we are creating at best a new branch of a particular discursive formation. No matter whether analog or digital. Foucault deals with statements, in any form. The acceleration and liquefaction of discourses that impress Wolfgang Schmale, would have confirmed Foucault in his analysis of the episteme. He knew that texts are knots in a net of discursive practices, as in Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht’s book “In 1926”, and it wouldn’t have surprised him to find them on a screen. But there is also Foucaults observation, that historians are working with developments, including those of longue durée, as Ferdinand Braudel has called them. Foucault speaks of layers, which are now being investigated. In such a history we are talking about series and periods. Would this work with the Digital History? On the one hand, Schmale for instance says clearly no and reserves the traditional monography for such long and complicated narratives. On the other, the digital technology provides the instruments to deal with large quantities (Big Data), statistics and algorithms. So the question remains an open one, at least for the moment. Either way: L’archéologie du savoir is a text that in its depth would have absorbed the digital turn without much further notice.

Guido Koller

Senior Historian, Swiss Federal Archives, CH-3003 Berne, Switzerland

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  1. Pingback: Short Take: Foucault revisited for the Digital Humanities : Global Perspectives on Digital History

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