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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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Some notes and early (very abstract) draft thoughts on whether Foucauldian genealogies, as redefined by Colin Koopman, can help us to address the problems of the archive in contemporary fiction studies.

In Pynchon and Philosophy, I needed to give a succinct outline of the usual approach towards Foucault's broad body of history/philosophy. In sketching the trajectory of Foucault's career, I wrote:

Foucault’s works are most commonly split along a methodological axis that divides his early phase – designated ‘archaeology’ – and his later writings, which are termed, with deliberate Nietzschean overtones, ‘genealogies’. Archaeology consists of an excavation of the surrounding conditions that make an episteme possible; an analysis of the historical conditions that make viable a certain way of thinking that is no longer comprehensible within a contemporary context. Genealogy on the other hand takes Nietzsche’s anti-positivist ‘methodology’ – in so far that it can be thus termed – of removing the mask of universality from a specific truth at a localised level in order to show how these small fluctuations contribute to a shift in thinking. As Árpád Szakolczai puts it, genealogy centres on ‘the conditions of emergence’ while assuming ‘that reality is not a uniform surface but is built of interconnected layers’ and also ‘involves a special relation the investigator has to himself’. However, genealogy is not a retraction – it shares much in common with its preceding archaeology – it is rather one of the three ‘successive layers [...] characterizing three necessarily simultaneous dimensions of the same analysis’, the others being archaeology and ‘strategy’; the overarching term that Foucault used for his methods (WC, 397). -- Eve, Pynchon and Philosophy (Palgrave, 2004), pp. 77-78

In this way, due to the reflexive relationship that an investigator has to himself or herself, genealogy is often cast as a perspectivized history. Colin Koopman argues that, in actuality, this does not capture the nuance of Foucauldian genealogy, though, and I wanted to share a few explicatory paragraphs from something I'm working on that may help for those working on the immanent appraisal of an emerging archive and problematization in contemporary fiction. Whether or not a Foucauldian approach is too dated/outmoded now is an interesting question. I suspect it may not be, though.

Genealogy, in Koopman's persuasive reading, “involves an analytical reorientation from a focus on an isolable depth episteme [archaeology] to a consideration of relations holding between two cross-invested vectors of depth knowledge-power [... although] other combinations of vectors of practice are quite possible”. To re-articulate this phenomenon with a little more context, Foucault's earlier work, dubbed 'archaeology', was adept at examining the possibility of certain ways of thinking within discrete time-slices, dubbed epistemes. His earlier works, History of Madness, The Birth of the Clinic and The Order of Things all took a method of discontinuous historical analysis that was less interested in causal linkage than in expounding, as the introduction to The Order of Things puts it, “the impossibility of thinking that”. When Foucault came to write his history of the prison system, Discipline and Punish, alongside his unearthing of a fundamental interconnection (but not identity) of knowledge and power, his archaeological method proved unworkable. In order to explore the interrelations of knowledge-power, Foucault had to move to examine the conditions of emergence for these concepts across two axes concurrently. As Koopman reads it, “Change emerges at such sites of intersection precisely insofar as two vectors in interaction make possible the formation of tensions between the various elements that travel along each vector”.

It is in this sense of two vectors giving rise to a descriptive discontinuity, while simultaneously documenting the conditions of emergence, that we might consider the term genealogy. If, extending Robert Eaglestone's Eliotic logic in his towards a manifesto for contemporary fiction, it is impossible to accurately periodize the networked archive of the contemporary – because it is reflexively modified by every other work past and present that enters the field – then it makes sense to think differently about the role that analysis of this archive can fruitfully take. It is, for instance, impossible to articulate an immanent account of retrospective periodisation. However, what I would like to suggest that we can chart is contemporary emergence, by which I do not mean the form of trend-spotting that Eaglestone disparages. Instead, it becomes necessary to reconfigure our notion of “the present” to mean: the present as a transformative solution to a set of generative historical problems that only become apparent through genealogical analysis and critique across twinned vectors. In other words: what problems make the emergence of the contemporary archive possible? What is the second vector in the particular question under discussion?

In this way, as with all genealogical accounts, we might aim to construct a history of the present, defined in several narrow ways. The historical span under consideration might ideally be relatively short, which could make such an analysis more an “archaeology of the present”, to use Deleuze's terminology, running along a plane of immanence, were it not for the fact that it would be woven across two interdependent vectors. This historico-genealogical co-evaluation would also be one that takes a curious position between the constrained nature of archival production and the constraints that determine that emergence. At once this would be a method that explicitly believes in an agent-less set of conditions of possibility for the present while also noting the ways in which agents transformatively respond to the historical problems identified by the genealogical approach. Finally, the eventual aim of this method would be to problematize the present; to realize the affinities between the conditions of emergence and the condition that they produce; to produce a set of problems generated through an analysis of the ways in which previous questions cumulated in the present; to not only show the contingency of the present but to understand the way in which these present contingencies became mistaken for the natural (notwithstanding Latour's critique of such a mode); and to allow normative critique of this present.