Refracted Input

Clare O’Farrell’s blog on books, TV, films, Michel Foucault, universities etc. etc.

It is often argued that Foucault adopts a relativist view of history. This couldn’t be further from the truth (no pun intended). It is much more complex than that. Most often it means in coded form ‘Foucault’s view and interpretation of history and events is at odds with my own view’.

If we have different views on the past, it is because we are enlarging and looking at quite specific concrete events and finding new angles, new layers and new understandings of those events,new ways of relating these events to a wider network including the events which happened subsequently to those things which happened. There is no way of exhausting our understanding of historical events and their significance for our present as more events accumulate. The past is still connected in this way to our present. Events are not fixed in the past, they are part of a network.

Foucault notes in “The Order of Discourse” that history, far from

“[turning away] from events: on the contrary […] is constantly enlarging their field, discovering new layers of them, shallower or deeper. It is constantly isolating new sets of them, in which they are sometimes numerous, dense and interchangeable, sometimes rare and decisive.”
Michel Foucault. “The Order of Discourse.” In Untying the Text: A Poststructuralist Reader, ed. R. Young, trans. Ian McLeod. Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981, p.68

One might argue that this is a quantum view of history, ‘facts’ can operate either as waves or particles. The web that facts and events are woven into is so complex that we can emphasise one set of relations and then another or another and never reach the end of it. This is not relativism or anything goes – it requires a rigorous understanding of the details of those networks and a talent and relentless erudition in making these connections intelligible.

If we understand history and science as a network, not a discrete linearity of hermetic sealed items that follow in a narrow file one after another we have a quantum view of history: simultaneously a particle and a wave of energy. Perhaps this is one reason for the current popularity of Foucault’s work – his understanding melds perfectly with our situation in the so-called ‘networked society’.

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