Michel Foucault – The Archaeology of Knowledge – part III

Michel Foucault

The Archaeology of Knowledge

PART III The Statement and the Archive

 This post is a continuation of an exercise with The Archaeology of Knowledge, by Michel Foucault. A previous post addressed part I-II of the book, Archaeology of Knowledge part I-II, this post will attempt to go through part III and pick out principles and condense the text, chapter by chapter. 

In this archaeological analysis, we have put to one side, for the time being, the traditional unities of the book and oeuvre, we have ceased to accept as a principle of unity the laws of constructing discourse, as well as the situation of the speaking subject, and further, we no longer relate discourse to experience, or to an intrinsic form of knowledge. We are still seeking the rules of discursive formation itself.


1. Defining the Statement

The task of the opening chapter of part III of the book is to take up the definition of the ‘statement’ at its very root. Foucault addresses, that in the first two sections of the book, rather than gradually reducing the meaning of ‘discourse’, he actually added to its meanings: “treating it sometimes as the general domain of all statements, sometimes as an individualizable group of statements, and sometimes as a regulated practice that accounts for a number of statements” (90 Foucault). In reassessing the approach of the archaeological project, ‘discourse’ should serve as a boundary around the term ‘statement’. The statement becomes, at this point, the elementary unit of discourse.

A first step is to distinguish the statement from the sentence. There are many statements that are not also sentences. A few examples: a classificatory table of the botanical species is made up of statements, not sentences, the calculations of a trade balance are statements, an algebraic equation is composed of statements, a graph or growth curve is a statement, the sentences that accompany these statements are only interpretations of the statements.

The statement cannot be explained in relation to models of grammar, logic, or analysis. Any series of signs, figures, marks, or traces is enough to constitute a statement. “The threshold of the statement is the threshold of the existence of signs” (95 Foucault). Statements do not exist in the same way language exists. Language exists as a system for constructing possible statements. Yet, the statement is not dependent on language. The statement must exist for language to exist, but the statement can exist without language.

The statement is not the same kind of unit as the sentence, the proposition or the speech act, nor is it the same as a material object. The statement is not a structure, or a group of relations, but it is a function of existence, belonging to signs. The statement is not itself a unit, but rather a function that cuts across a domain of structures and possible unities, revealing some sort of content.

2. The Enunciative Function

The statement does not exist among unitary groups of signs; it is neither a linguistic unit, nor a rule of construction. The statement is that which enables groups of signs to exist, and enables these rules and forms to become manifest. But even though the statement enables the existence of constructions and units, it is not the same as language, material objects or marks that occupy space and time. Signs can be copied, or letters can be arranged that will make a statement, without a word appearing.

There is a threshold of enunciation that is crossed when a statement is made. There is a relation between the statement and what it states, but the relation is different than a name or signification. What is unique about the statement is that it exists outside any possibility of reappearing, outside the rules of grammar and usage. “The boat!” does not have relation with what it states as the name or designated signification of “boat”.

a.)   Although the statement does not have a typical correlate in the sense of a word, the statement has a correlate in the sense of having a domain of material objects possessing observable physical properties and relations. There is a domain of spatial and geographical localizations, with coordinates, distance, and relations of proximity and inclusion that allow a statement to be formulated. In a fictional work, a statement would exist in a “domain of symbolic appurtenances and secret kinships” (103 Foucault), in the fictional work the statement exists in a domain of objects that exist at the same moment and on the same time-scale as the formulated statement. There is a relation between the statement and spaces of differentiation.

b.)  The statement also possesses a particular relation with a subject. However, all statements that have a fixed grammatical form do not have the same relation with the subject of the statement. A statement is not the same if one hears it in conversation, or if one reads it in a book. There can be no signs without someone/something to emit them, a transmitting authority, but this author, or authority, is not identical with the subject of the statement.

The relation between the enunciating subject and what he states is much different than the production of the authorial formulation of a statement. Think of the extreme example of an actor reciting his lines that were written by another. In a novel, we know that the author is the name that appears on the front of the book, but then we are faced with a large series of problems: the problem of dialogue, sentences purporting to express the thoughts of a character, pseudonyms, and then further, “the statements of the novel do not have the same subject when they provide, as if from the outside, the historical and spatial setting of the story, when they describe things as they would be seen by an anonymous, invisible, neutral individual who moves magically among characters of the novel, or when they provide, as if by an immediate, internal decipherment, the verbal version of what is silently experienced by a character” (105 Foucault).

According to the view of archaeology, it is in the nature of literature that the author should appear to be absent, concealed and divided up, yet this gap is confined to literature alone. There are other statements, such as ‘I call straight any series of points that…’,  or other mathematical or scientific truths, but in a case like this the enunciating subject brings into existence outside himself an object that belongs to a previously defined domain, whose characteristics precede the enunciation. So the subject of the statement should not be regarded as identical with the author of the formulation, either in substance, or in function.

c.)   The enunciative function cannot exist without an associated domain. A statement cannot be a statement unless a collateral space is brought into operation. A statement always has borders of other statements. The statement is immersed in an enunciative field, conjured as a unique element in enunciation. The statement always belongs to a larger series or whole, playing a role in relation to other statements – there are no neutral, free, or independent statements. There are no statements that do not presuppose others. All statements are surrounded by a field of coexistences, effects of series and succession, and a distribution of functions and roles.

d.)  A statement must have a material existence. A voice must articulate it, a surface must bear its sign, the statement becomes a sense-perceptible element, and it leaves a trace in someone’s memory. “The statement is always given through some material medium, even if that medium is concealed, even if it is doomed to vanish as soon as it appears” (112 Foucault). A statement must always have a substance, a support, a place, and a date, and the statement is incapable of being repeated, because it cannot be reduced to a grammatical or logical form.

A statement is figured by the domain in which it can be used or applied, its functions are limited by conditions and coexistences. The rules of application, the constellations of which statements are a part, and the strategic potentials of statements form a field of stabilization that make possible statements at certain times and in certain places. “The affirmation that the earth is round or that the species evolve does not constitute the same statement before and after Copernicus, before and after Darwin; it is not, for such simple formulations, that the meaning of the words has changed; what changed was the relation of these affirmations to other propositions, their conditions of use and reinvestment, the field of experience, of possible verifications, of problems to be resolved, to which they can be referred” (116 Foucault).

3. The Description of Statements

In the most general way, discourse denotes a group of verbal performances. Moving forward in this archaeological analysis, discourse is constituted by groups of sequences of signs, in so far as the sequences of signs are statements assigned particular modalities of existence. The discursive formation is the general enunciative system that governs a group of verbal performances.  Foucault redefines his approach in this chapter. There is a quote here that sums it up efficiently:

“If I succeed in showing that this discursive formation really is the principle of dispersion and redistribution, not of formulations, not of sentences, not of propositions, but of statements (in the sense in which I have used this word), the term discourse can be defined as the group of statements that belong to a single system of formation; thus I shall be able to speak of clinical discourse, economic discourse, the discourse of natural history, psychiatric discourse” (121 Foucault).

(“Dispersion” has become one of the most important words for me in this book, along with “systems of dispersion”.)

The analysis of statements is a historical analysis, but one that avoids all interpretation. Archaeology does not look at the statement so that we may uncover the intentions of the utterance, or the hidden thoughts of the speaker, but rather it questions the mode of existence of the statement itself, what it means that it has come into existence, and left traces in the materiality of our world.

The statement cannot be hidden, but it is not visible either. The ‘signifying’ structure of language always refers to something else, objects are designated, meaning is intended, the subject is referred back to it even though he is not himself present in it, but language is hollowed by absence. Archaeology is attempting to consider the existence of language itself, not in the direction to which it refers, or in its power to designate, name, show, reveal, to be the place of meaning or truth, but instead in the moment and dimension that allows it to have a unique and limited existence. Rather than looking at language in a signified/signifier dynamic of operation, archaeology attempts to reveal that in relation to possible domains of objects and subjects, and in relation to other possible formulations, there is language.

Neither hidden, nor visible, the enunciative level is at the limit of language, intertwined with the conditions by which it is capable of operating. Delivering a certain death to the transcendental subject of the existentialists, archaeological analysis shows us, “that it is vain to seek, beyond structural, formal, or interpretive analyses of language, a domain that is at last freed from all positivity, in which the freedom of the subject, the labor of the human being, or the opening up of a transcendental destiny could be fulfilled” (126 Foucault). Archaeology shows us that language, in its appearance and mode of being, is the statement; it belongs to a description that is neither transcendental nor anthropological.

The analysis of the statement and that of the formation are in direct correlation with each other. A statement belongs to a discursive formation. The fact that a statement belongs to a discursive formation, and that a statement has laws that govern it, amount to the same thing. The discursive formation is not characterized by principles of construction, but by a dispersion of fact, just as a statement is not characterized by conditions of possibility, but rather laws of coexistence. Discourse is not a timeless form, but is a fragment of history; it is a unity and discontinuity in history itself, with divisions, transformations, limits, and specific modes of temporality. Discursive practice is a body of anonymous historical rules, determined in the time and space that have defined a given period. The enunciative function is determined by conditions of operation in the social, economic, geographical, or linguistic areas of a particular point in history.

4. Rarity, Exteriority, Accumulation

Statements appear in different texts that all refer to one another and ultimately organize themselves into a single figure that converges with institutions and practices. Rather than a diversity of things, there is a great, uniform text that until archaeological analysis has never been articulated. Meaning is not what a speaker or writer meant or intended, but instead meaning is composed in the relations between the discourse, what is said, as well as the institutions, practices, techniques and objects that were produced in an age. Each discourse then, contains the power to say something other than what it actually says; there is a multiplication of the signified in relation to a single signifier.

The law of rarity is based on the principle that everything is never said. Discursive formation is both a principle of division in a great entangled mass of possible discourses, but also a principle of vacuity in the field of language, there are things that cannot be formulated, or said, or that simply do not exist as possibilities of constructing meaning, there is a sort of empty space, a void unfilled by discourse.

“We are studying statements at the limit that separates them from what is not said, in the occurrence that allows the to emerge to the exclusion of all others” (134 Foucault).

The discursive formation is a distribution of gaps, voids, absences, limits, and divisions. The enunciative field is therefore an incomplete and fragmented field in which the value of statements is determined by their place and capacity for circulation and exchange in an economy of discourse. The availability of a statement enters a struggle with power and politics.

In archaeology we analyze statements in a systematic form of exteriority, rather than the typical form of history that takes the exterior and brings it to the interior, and gives expression to events with intention and interpretation. Enunciative analysis in archaeology attempts to restore statements to their pure dispersion in order to analyze them at the place and moment at which they occurred.

“The enunciative domain refers neither to an individual subject, nor to some kind of collective consciousness, nor to a transcendental subjectivity; but that it is described as an anonymous field whose configuration defined the possible positions of speaking subjects” (137 Foucault).

The analysis of statements then, does not pose the question of the speaking subject, or cogito, who we have otherwise believed, reveals or conceals himself in what he says, or who, in speaking is exercising his freedom, or who, without realizing it, subjects himself to constraints of which he is only dimly aware. There is a dissolution of the subject’s ability to “tell the truth about oneself”, or about something else. Archaeology is situated rather at the level of the ‘it is said’, it attempts to discover and establish positivity in the field of historical knowledge.

5. The Historical A Priori and the Archive

Different oeuvres, texts, and books may all belong to a single discursive formation, their authors may intersect without being aware of it, they are part of a web of which they are not the masters, but they communicate by the form of positivity of their discourse. The conditions of operation of the enunciative function define a field for the deployment of their identities, themes, concepts and interchanges. Positivity plays a role in our theoretical deduction of history, or our historical a priori.

We are attempting to take account of statements in their dispersion, and further, that discourse has not only a meaning, or a truth, but more importantly, a history. A particular discourse, say of medicine or theology, forms a dispersion in time, there is a mode of succession, stability, and of reactivation, there is a speed of deployment and rotation, there are particular point of insertion, and places of contact. Our analysis of positivities is not a permanent, unmoving system of temporal distribution, but rather it is a transformable group.

“Instead of seeing, on the great mythical book of history, lines of words that translate in visible characters thoughts that were formed in some other time and place, we have in the density of discursive practices, systems that establish statements as events (with their own conditions and domain of appearance) and things (with their own possibility and field of use). They are all these systems of statements (whether events or things) that I propose to call archive” (145 Foucault).

The archive is the law of what can be said, the enunciative possibilities and impossibilities in the system of discursivity, the archive is the system that governs the appearance of statements as unique events. The archive is the system that ensures that things said become composed together in accordance with multiple relations and maintained by regularities, the archive defines the system of its enunciability and the system of its functioning. The archive reveals the rules of a practice that enables statements both to survive and to undergo modification; it is the general system of the formation and transformation of statements. Archaeology describes discourses as practices specified in the element of the archive.

“[The analysis of the archive] deprives us of our continuities; it dissipates that temporal identity in which we are pleased to look at ourselves when we wish to exorcise the discontinuities of history; it breaks the thread of transcendental teleologies; and where anthropological thought once questioned man’s being or subjectivity, it now bursts open the other, and the outside. In this sense, the diagnosis does not establish the fact of our identity by the play of distinctions. It establishes that we are difference, that our reason is the difference of discourses, our history the difference of times, our selves the difference of masks. That difference, far from being the forgotten and recovered origin, is this dispersion that we are and make” (147 Foucault).


Foucault, Michel. The Archaeology of Knowledge. Trans. A.M. Sheridan Smith. Great Britain: Routeledge, 1989. Print.

About Michael Johnson

michaeljohnson.studio thewindandthestones.com viewfromaburrow.com


  1. Angie

    I’ve read your summary of Archaeology to help test my understanding after my first time reading the book. Thanks.
    Then I went to your website and saw “existing and ceasing to exist” and “Patience.” I wish I could see them in person.
    I don’t follow many blogs–in fact only one other. But now I will follow yours.

    • Angie, thank you – I’m very glad the Archaeology post was useful for you, and I really appreciate you checking out the website & paintings – thanks for the kind thought. Perhaps there will be future opportunities to strike up a conversation…all the best to you –

  2. Thank you a bunch for sharing this with all folks you
    actually realize what you are speaking about! Bookmarked.

    Kindly additionally visit my site =). We will have a hyperlink trade agreement between us

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: