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The Archives of Michel Foucault

Knut Ove Eliassen

Abstract: The archives of Michel Foucault


A recurring reference in recent scholarly and theoretical studies of archives is the French
philosopher Michel Foucaults concept of archive. Foucault, however, applies the term
in at least three different senses: 1) The archive is an analytical and systematic concept
in Foucaults historical epistemology as it is elaborated in the Archaeology of Knowledge.
2) The archives are historically embedded institutions functioning as administrative
tools that register, store, and provide data about populations and nations, but that also
exist within the aesthetic field, in the form of museums or libraries. 3) The archive is
the name of a place with a singular character that is experienced aesthetically. Archives
in this sense are refuges, belonging to a group of socially and historically constructed
spaces Foucault referred to heterotopias. It is the interrelation between these three
concepts, homonymic yet different, the essay investigates.
Key words: Archive, Foucault, Heterotopia, Archival Science, Archaeology

1. General introduction
During the last decade, archive has become an increasingly important concept in social
studies as well as in the humanities; it has for some years been a buzz word, one of those
terms that function as the markers of new trends, indicating an adherence to a particular
school or field of interest, apparently heralding new and important insights. The success
of the concept has not been limited to academia and scholars; there has been, and still is,
a considerable interest in archives and archive technologies in the arts, and a number of
prestigious galleries and museums have opened up their spaces for exhibitions exploring
the nature of archives and their relations to art, life and politics (for instance Appadurai
2003; Foster 2004; Enzewor, 2008).
This development can be explained in several ways. This brief introduction will
limit itself to three: First of all, computer technology has thoroughly restructured the
processes of recording, storing and distributing data. The virtualization of information not
only changed the accessibility of archives, it transformed their very nature. Archives are

no longer primarily physical storage spaces contained within impressive monumental


buildings, Arkheions, the nation states symbols, memory palaces and nexuses of power;
they are now, as the commercial so succinctly put it, only a click away. Innumerable
virtual archives are at our fingertips through the interface of the computer on the desk in
front of us. Such a reconfiguration of the storage spaces of knowledge necessarily bears
upon indeed reformats the nature of knowledge itself.
However, the relation between archives and knowledge is one that is imbued with
and regulated by power (Ernst 2002: 7). Archives were originally, and still are, primarily
tools for governing and policing. Thus a second explanation for the increasing interest in
archives is the historical and political upheavals of the late 1980s and the subsequent
opening of archives of former totalitarian regimes giving access to documents hitherto
unknown. The discovery of these archives of evil, in the words of Jacques Derrida, the
records of the STASI, the KGB and the Khmer Rouge (Derrida 1995, 1), was a turning
point in the concern of and interest in the public archives pivotal function in the power
structures of the information society. Against this backdrop, the combination of
increasing electronic surveillance and the possibilities opened up by information
technology with regards to the storage and treatment of data has lead to a growing
concern for the use and misuse of public archives as control technologies.
Third and finally, a series of questions about the technologies as well as the
political dimensions of the public archive have imposed themselves with new and
pressing acuity. What are the functions of the public archive today and what are the
effects, intended or not, by the many and various archiving technologies we, as citizens,
are subjected to on a daily basis? Hence the question of the archive does not limit itself to
issues of the public sphere, as the private sphere is increasingly affected by the diffusion
of private archive technologies such as the computer, the electronic camera or video
recorder, the weblog, and so forth. The issue at stake is thus: How do these technologies
form us, their users, as subjects?
The opening of the secret and inaccessible archives of the former totalitarian
societies was of great consequence for historians as it provided a plethora of new
information that resulted not only in more varied and nuanced images of our immediate
history, but also the occasional necessary revision which in quite a few cases was of

immediate political consequence. Moreover, the findings provided ample material for
those with an eye for the control functions of public archives in general, including those
of the democratic societies of the Western world.
The art scene showed, at a very early stage, a remarkable sensitivity to these
issues, and set out to examine and analyze the political and policing aspects of the archive
as well as investigating its many technological aspects. Focusing on how modern media
since their inception have been vital components of the modern archive, and thematizing
aesthetically the relationship between archiving technologies and issues of control,
socialization and subjectivity, much contemporary art echoed the research going on
within the humanities. Academia and art seemingly shared a common intuition: that the
part played by archives in that large aggregate that is the condition of possibility of our
social being is today important enough to merit a thorough analysis. Archives, along with
their corresponding technologies and their various formats and ordering principles,
provide nothing less than the ordering principles of our collective memory; as genuine
memory palaces they can truly be called the hardware of our unconscious. But also, as
Didi-Hubermann has pointed out, they also remain monuments of our forgetting, and of
that which is not registered, lost to the ravages of time and disasters and thus forgotten
(Didi-Hubermann and Ebeling, 2007). In fact, and this is a crucial point in Derridas
analysis of the archive, forgetting is an inherent element in any archive; this is what he
refers to as the archives inherent illness or evil, it mal, or even, in Freudian terms, its
death principle (Derrida, 1995). To analyze the structure of our archives, their history,
modes of functioning, and technologies, it is thus essential to understand how we have
become who we are, and how we are, today, at this point in history.

2. Foucaults archives
Since the archive has provided such a fruitful ground for cultural studies, it will not come
as a surprise that a number of prominent scholars have made attempts to conceptualize it.
French philosopher and historian of ideas Michel Foucault is considered by many to be
one of the pioneers in this field and his concept archive has become a recurring
reference in scholarly studies. Yet, and this is rarely accounted for, Foucault employs

archive in several ways. This is in itself neither unusual nor dubious, but is in fact
symptomatic of Foucaults general approach to concepts; his concepts are formed and
shaped less as building blocks of a systematic theory, than as tools for the analysis of a
given phenomena or for the intervention into a particular political issue. Thus the term
archive, as an elaborated concept or as a mere name or word, that is as a more or less
precise reference to a given historical institution, takes on a particular meaning depending
on the context in which it functions, thus yielding a polyvalence that Foucault himself
never explicitly articulates. Nevertheless, or perhaps because of this fact, it seems not
only to be necessary but also to be both instructive and productive to differentiate
between the different ways Foucault sets the term to work. They are at least three.
First of all, archive is the name of a concept that functions as an important
analytical tool in Foucaults historical epistemology; that is, his analyses of the historical
transformation of knowledge and its forms, and more particularly, as he was prone to
formulate it in the latter part of his career, the history of truth. This is what he himself
called, not archiveology, but archaeology, since archaeology is, as he playfully puts
it in the The Archaeology of Knowledge, the proper term for the science of the archive (in
his sense of the term), even though the philologist might disagree (Foucault 1968, 173;
Foucault 1994 1d, 499). In this respect, the archive is a systematic category; it refers to
the analysis of discourse in its archive-modality (Foucault 1994 1f, 595); it goes in pair
with the concept of archaeology, that should be understood, as Foucault underlines in a
response to his critics in 1971, in a Kantian sense, as the history of that which makes a
certain form of thought necessary (Foucault 1994 2a, 221). It is in this very restricted
sense, that Foucault in the period between 1966 and 1970 employs the term archive
when he more or less abruptly stops using it. It is thus strikingly absent from his famous
inaugural lecture at the Collge de France held in December 1970.
Secondly, archive is dealt with from the perspective of its function as a
historically embedded institution (although it is necessary at this point to bear in mind
that Foucaults analysis of power is not a theory of institutions in any conventional
sense). In this case, archives are analyzed as administrative and political tools that serve
to register, store, and provide data about populations and nations, but that also exist
within the aesthetic field, in the shape of museums or libraries. This concept of the

archive is empirical as it refers to the actual and historical archival institutions and the
archives contained within them. In this sense, the archive is both a collection of
documents and an instrument of power, discipline and knowledge (for instance: Foucault
1968, 71 & 73; Foucault 1994 1d, 499; Foucault 1994 1h, 708).
Thirdly, archive is also the name of Foucaults laboratory in the sense that
archives were his preferred place of work; in them, he spent many of his working days,
carrying out meticulous and detailed historical studies of half forgotten documents. For
him, these archives took on a particular character; he saw them as refuges, spaces for
experiment and experience. The archive is a place where time and space are organized
differently; in brief, what he called a heterotopia, a place that, as it differs from the
spaces that surround it, suspends the established schemata ordering the space-time order,
and thus is experienced aesthetically (Foucault 1994 4, 752). Furthermore, it is the place
to encounter the past in its heterogeneity, an encounter that for Foucault remained
aesthetic in the most literal sense as a bodily experience, as a displacement of the self (a
recurring trope in the oeuvre is Foucaults description of his physical reactions in the
confrontation with otherness: I shudder, I tremble.., the laughter that was brought
forth by, the sheer beauty of, etc. For this, cf. Eliassen 2008).
Those familiar with the general outline of Foucaults philosophy will recognize a
similarity in the organizing pattern of these three perspectives, namely the tripartite
division of knowledge, power and subjectivity that, rightly or wrongly, has become the
very trademark of that particular vein of critical theory that bears Foucaults name. It is
often overlooked or even forgotten that Foucault repeatedly stresses that his concepts are
fundamentally strategic, that they thus have an ad hoc character, and that his
philosophical position is explicitly nominalist. Hence it is not only important to avoid
hypostatization of Foucaults analytical terms but one should also bear in mind that his
terminological elaborations are not generally the expressions of an attempt at erecting a
systematic philosophy in the classical sense of term, but rather are tool kits to extend
his own metaphor of the tool box to analyze and articulate the political and
epistemological implications of a historically given situation in its singularity.
Bearing his nominalist position in mind, his divergent concepts of the archive can
be seen as just as many attempts at circumscribing and designating, on various and not

necessarily commensurable levels, what archive and archives might be, or more
precisely, what it or they might might do. Foucaults interest in the archive, whether it is
from the point of view of knowledge, of power or of subjectivity, does not focus on what
an archive is, but instead on what an archive does, that is, how that particular
phenomenon that is given identity by the term archive function. In other word, he is
interested in its workings and its effects, its pragmatic dimensions, not its essence,
being or possible definition.

3. The concept of the archive


In his seminal methodological treatise An Archaeology of Knowledge, published in 1968,
Foucault elaborates as an epistemological concept the term archive. Larchive in the
singular form is highly unusual in French, and the choice of word is thus in itself signals
the words conceptual status. It can in many ways be regarded as a counter-concept, a
strategic term, as one of its key functions is to serve as a stage prop in Foucaults
criticism of other just as abstract but more established concepts that stress historical
continuity and the transfer of historical meaning. These include terms like tradition,
evolution, development, influence, epoch, and so forth, all well established concepts that
by Foucault are contrasted with the non-hermeneutical concepts of series and event.
Rather than continuity, he emphasized discontinuity. Instead of universals, he focused on
the particular and specific (Foucault 2004, 5). His ambition was nothing less than to
analyze historical documents, and their statements, without turning to and applying
already established forms of interpretation such as context, influence, tradition, or similar
supra-individual agencies: What he suggests as an alternative is to treat the historical
source material through what might be called a serial approach. The analytic strategies
he proposes does in many ways deserve the characterization defamiliarization; the
peeling away of all that stands in the way of an analysis of historical source material in its
rawest possible state the statements in their pure facticity.
What Foucault puts forward is a theory of statements, les noncs, and more
precisely, a theory of what might be articulated at a given time in history: What is it
possible to talk about? (Foucault 1994 1g, 682). He is interested in those statements that,

under a particular set of historical conditions, may qualify as being true, and furthermore,
the mechanisms that regulate why some statements and not others can lay claim to truth.
Finally, he focuses on the internal order that regulates the relation between the statements
that are realized. Archive, Foucault writes, does not mean the sum of all texts that a
culture has kept upon its person as documents attesting to its own past, or an evidence of
a continuing identity; nor do I mean the institutions, which in a given society, make it
possible to record and preserve those discourses that one wishes to remember and keep in
circulation (Foucault 1968, 169).
So far, this remains only a negative definition of the archive; it remains to specify
the archive in positive terms. It is

the law of what can be said, the system that governs the appearance of
statements as unique events. But archive is also that which determines that
all these things said do not accumulate endlessly in an amorphous mass.
[] It is the general system of formation and transformation of
statements. (loc. cit.).
It is important to bear in mind that the procedures designated by the concept of
the archive simultaneously both accumulate and differentiate. However, the archive
should not be conceived of as a great unifying principle, and it does not translate the
diverse and multifarious nature of what is said at a given time and place into the
homogenous form of a Weltanschauung, a particular historical vision of the world. The
archive is, on the contrary, that which differentiates discourses in their multiple
existences and specifies them in their proper duration (Foucault 1968, 170).
It is worth dwelling a little longer upon this quote because it indicates two
important aspects of the concept of the archive: Firstly, it has the character of an agency.
It is, as he formulates it, that which differentiates. Hence, as Judith Revel has pointed
out, it can not be considered a structuralist notion because it refers to discourses as
events, that is, what has been formulated, rather than the system of language in general
(Revel 2002, 9; Foucault 1994 1f, 595). The archive, as Foucault repeatedly stresses,
must be understood as a form of practice, but not in the empirical and concrete sense as
the sheer mass of collected documents. It is, he specifies elsewhere, a sort of a great
practice of discourses, a practice that has its rules, conditions, ways of functioning and

effects (Foucault 1994 1i, 786f.). Thus the archive generates statements; it is productive
just as much as it is restrictive. It should be noted, however, that the archive does not in
general generate speech or utterances as such; the archive is productive in the sense that it
transforms singularities into statements providing what appears as acts of language with
forms that make it recognizable as discourse. It produces and selects, or as Foucault
writes, it rarifies. Gilles Deleuze sums it up thus: Foucault explains that the statements
are essentially rare. Not only in fact, but by right [en droit]; they are inseparable from a
law and an effect of rarity (Deleuze 1986, 12).
Secondly, the archive organizes by specifying and differentiating; hence it
generates similarities and differences and contains within itself these similarities and
differences within the order of its totality. The archive is thus, with Gilles Deleuzes
felicitous concept, a multiplicity (Deleuze 1986, 23). The statements produced are not
merely the mirror images of the matrix that make them possible. What the archive does,
or rather the procedures it is the conceptual name for, is the regulation of the play of
similitudes and differences that are the conditions of possibility for historical meaning.
Secondly, and this is on a level that is ontological rather than historical, the archive
serves to counteract the prolific nature of the discourse by regulating the profusion of
possible and real acts of language.
We have thus established that, as an epistemological concept, archive does not
refer to historically existing archives. It should rather been seen at the name of a practice
and a methodological principle, not the name of a particular institution. As Roger PolDroit reminds, us, an important tenet in Foucaults methodology is that the archive is not
to be interpreted. This conviction, so typical for Foucault, that everything is said,
explicitly, in the archives. It is useless to imagine any secret strategies, hidden institutions
in the processes of knowledge and power. Everything is formulated, articulated, repeated
for everyone to see. (Pol-Droit 2004, 21.) Archeology, in the foucauldian sense of the
term, is thus a purely descriptive endeavor (Hubert and Dreyfus 1982, 87).
Within the overall architecture of Foucaults epistemology, the term archive was
developed to supplement the three other concepts in Foucaults epistemology: statement,
discourse and episteme. Statement designates the actual historical utterance, torn loose
from any established context, not identified other than by provenance, its coordinates in

time and space. It is an event, a singularity, but also a possible element of a series.
Discourse refers to the historically given and ordered field in which a given statement
is realized, serialized and thus equipped with a reference, a source and a destination.
Finally, episteme is a much wider concept. It emphasizes historical continuities and
symmetries between separate fields of knowledge, disciplines or specific discourses. A
rough but not especially precise comparison with the more familiar concept of historical
epoch, might, for the sake of expediency, be justified, since Foucault frequently refers
to the episteme of the Renaissance and the episteme of Classical Age as if they were
distinct historical entities.
An often overlooked but important aspect of Foucaults concept of archive is that
it, contrary to the more notorious notion of the episteme from The Order of Things
(Foucault 1966), emphasizes discontinuity, transformation and change. In many ways, it
reflects and highlights a central and pressing concern in Foucaults philosophy, his
inquiry into the nature of historical discontinuities and his aversion to universals. While
the concepts of discourse and episteme circumscribe processes of permanence and
similarity, archive designates processes of difference and incongruence. So, if archive is
the name of the practices that regulate what might be stated at a given point in time, it
follows that the archive regulating todays discourses is not, and cannot be described or
conceptualized, as it is precisely that which makes any conceptualization possible.
Paradoxically, the archive thus also becomes the name of an active process of forgetting,
as historical discontinuity implies that the semantic link to the past has been broken and
that original meaning has passed into oblivion and cannot be resurrected.
This point might be elucidated by the further elaboration of the concept in an
article published towards the end of 1968, On the archaeology of the sciences: The
archive, Foucault writes, is the appearance and disappearance of statements, [] of their
paradoxical existence as events and things. To analyze the facts of discourse in the
general element of the archive, is to consider them not at all as documents [], but as
monuments (Foucault 1994 1h, 708). The choice of the term monument signals that
the concept of archive allows us to analyze the internal order of statements of the past, of
that which has ceased to exercise its influence. The monument has a double function; by
the same gesture that it visibly celebrates and thereby commemorates what has passed, it

also hides and participates in the forgetting of that which eludes the symbolizing power
of the monument, or that which is willfully or not ignored. The monument being an
interpretation, it consigns, by force of pure necessity, that which is not symbolized (or
turned into archive) to the pure outside of semantics, that is, the void of history.
On the other hand, by virtue of their symbolizing power, archives as monuments
of the past also form that from which we differ, that to which we do not belong, that
hence, retroactively, provide us, albeit negatively, with an understanding of our own
historical situatedness; they show us what we not longer are, that from which we are
moving: The archive is that which separates us from ourselves (Deleuze 1989, 191).
This particular historical perspective, the reflection of what we are today in the laying
bare of what we were, motivates Foucaults choice of the term archaeology for the
science of the archive. It also lays bare the limitations of an archival analysis of the
present as well as the limits of its value for a political intervention (Foucault 1968, 173;
Foucault 1994 1d, 499).

4. The institutionalized archive


The concept of the archive that Foucault develops in the Archaeology of Knowledge has
little to do with the terminology of that well-established discipline known as archival
science. Actually, hardly reconcilable with any conventional empirical notion of the
word, Foucaults concept can be interpreted as the mark of an explicit distancing from the
science of the archive that is archival science in the sense of die Archivwissenschaft. As
Wolfgang Ernst has pointed out, this is indicated by the use of the uncommon singular
form, larchive. The term that is usually employed in French to designate a document
storage facility is les archives, that is, the archives (Ernst 2002: 90). This underlines that
an archive in Foucaults analytic terminology should not be confused with the actual
institution; it is in stead an ordering principle that becomes visible through the patterns of
similitude and difference that establish the individuality of historical sets of discourses.
Nevertheless, even though Foucault in the Archaeology of Knowledge, as well as
in the interviews given at the time of its publication, repeatedly stresses that larchive, in
the singular, is a theoretical construct and that it should not be confused with an empirical

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concept referring to the actual archive institutions, his abstraction remains haunted in a
paradoxical way by, as it were, the ghost of the historically existing archive institutions.
And, in fact, alert readers will find the occasional hint toward empirically given archival
institutions, for instance when, in the article referred to above, On the archaeology of the
sciences, he refers to the archive as discourse in the system of its institutionalization
(Foucault 1994 1h, 708). And a year earlier, in an essay called Of other spaces,
Foucault specifically states that the notion of the archive, the idea that everything should
be kept, accumulated, as if it were possible, in principle at least, to enclose in one place,
all times, all the epochs, all the forms, all aesthetic preferences, belongs to modernity
(Foucault 1994 4, 759). On both these occasions Foucault seems to use the term to allude
to specific and historically situated institutions, specific places dedicated to the collection
and organization of objects over time. This concept of the archive does thus comes across
with a meaning that is not only strictly epistemological and systematical but also
historical and institutional.
In fact, the archive analyzed from the point of view of administrative technology
does play a role in Foucaults analyses of the emergence of modern institutions (Foucault
1968, 71 & 73). A foray into the semantics of the French archive will illuminate this
further. The French term les archives not only signifies historical archives, but also the
records and registers that serve as working memories (Arbeitsspeicher) for the servants
of the public administration (Ernst 2002, 90f). Historically, with the advent of the modern
state, the archive became one of the technologies by which populations were governed
and flows of persons, information, goods and live stock were controlled, not to mention
the various secret archives of surveillance and repression. Thus, archive does not only
refer to the registration of events, but also to the devices and measures, to what Foucault
calls les dispositifs. Dispositif is a term that designates the various devices, systems and
plans that, according to political science, is needed to manage a population, uphold a state
and defend a territory. As dispositifs, archives play an important part in the politics of
life; they are, to apply another of Foucaults terms, biopolitical instruments. The
bureaucrat, the keeper of the archive, is the incarnation of this modern order; or, to quote
Foucaults words about one of the author Maurice Blanchots literary figures, the public

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servant Henry Sorge: He is the first form of the law as he transforms every birth into
archive (Foucault 1994 1e, 530).
The archive in the material and institutionalized senses of the word is thereby
inextricably linked to the question of power, and thus it is also a privileged area for
analyzing and documenting the workings of power. It demands interest not only because
of the information that might be gleaned from its records, but also by virtue of the nature
of its documents, and how they are used:

To write a monograph of a hospital would consist in extracting the archive


of this hospital while being established, as if it were a discourse in the
process of constituting itself that at the same time was interwoven with the
development of the hospital, of other institutions, molding them,
reforming them (Foucault 1994 2c, 740).

The archive is thus not a concept that only refers to the ordering of the past. Archival
principles also anticipate the future; the science of the archive is less about the past than
about the ordering of the future. It is, in the most literal sense, a technology of time.
The individual experience with the archive also made itself felt in other arenas,
outside the most explicit domains of biopolitics; these are in one way perhaps less
conspicuous and dramatic, but in another way richer in consequences and analytical
insight. I am referring to the impact of the archives of modernity on the arts. The
establishment of aesthetic archives such as libraries and museums changed the conditions
of possibility of art; this social and epistemological fact was duly noted and thematized
by early modern writers and authors. If national and state archives catalogued and housed
documents of the nation-state, art galleries, museums and libraries collected and
organized cultural and natural artifacts for observation and study.
In a text originally written as a preface to Gustave Flauberts novel, The
Temptation of Saint Anthony, Foucault notes:

It might be that [Edouard Manets paintings] Le Djeuner sur lherbe and


lOlympia were the first museums paintings; for the first time in

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European art, canvases were painted [] as a manifestation of the


existence of museums, and the modes of existence and interdependence
that paintings thereby acquired. In the same period, The Temptation was
the first literary work that accounts for the moss-grown institutions where
books accumulate, and where, softly and slowly, their organic knowledge
steadily grows. Flaubert is to the library what Manet is to the museum.
They write and they paint in a fundamental relation to what has already
been painted, what has been written or rather, to that which in the
painting and in writing, remains infinitely open. Their art erects itself
where the archive forms itself (Foucault 1994 1b, 299).

The archive thus marks the end of the romantic notion of the artist. After the
museum and the library, there are no absolute beginnings. What Eduard Manet and
Gustave Flaubert bears testimony to, according to Foucault is that every painting now
belongs within the squared and massive surface of painting and all literary works are
confined to the indefinite murmur of what is written (Foucault 1994 1b, 299). The artist
can no longer conceive of his work as a unique; the condition of art is what the archive
has accumulated. This historical reconfiguration of artistic space, and, just as important,
of arts memory structure, as American art critic Hal Foster formulates it, is, on the one
hand, an expression of the modern experience, of how the individual finds the conditions
of its expressivity preformed by the archive and the art institutions that harbors it (Foster
2002, 65). On the other hand, Foucault finds no reason to lament; instead of a loss, it
marks new possibilities, as does every historical reconfiguration of the space of
knowledge and power, and allows for new forms of individuality, for new forms of art. In
its institutionalized form the archive is thus neither good nor bad, but rather a part of that
dynamic whole of forms of knowledge and power relations that informs the historical a
priori for any being.

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5. The archive as heterotopia


The theme of aesthetic experience made possible, but also circumscribed, by the
historical institutionalizations of the archive known under the monikers library and
museum, brings us to the last of Foucaults three archives: The archive as Foucaults
arena of research and experimentation, as a heterotopia. As such, two different,
complementary aspects of the archive are of interest. On the one hand, the archive as the
ground where Foucault confronted and grappled with the documents of past, that fueled
and spurred on his historical imagination. On the other hand, by being the particular
space within which this event took place an enclosed arena for the experience of
difference the archive, by the powers of its materiality, was for the philosopher a place
for singular experiences.
It has been repeatedly pointed out that Foucault was a man of the archive
(Chartier 2006 37f.). Not unlike Manet and Flaubert, his historical awareness takes as its
starting point the existence of the archive. It has been argued that this also marks the
limits of his perspective because Foucault was and remained a historian of the classical
archive (for instance by Kittler 1986, and later by Ernst 2002). Foucaults archives
contain only documents, the argument goes. Made up by written documents, they exclude
recordings, film or other analogue media, and most certainly information in a digital
format. However, it has been forcefully claimed by others, most notably Gilles Deleuze,
that Foucaults archive is audiovisual, and the remarks quoted above with regards to the
painting of Manet seem to point in the same direction (Deleuze 1986, 58f.). Nevertheless,
when it comes to Foucaults poetics of the archive, that is, his notion of the archive as a
place for experimentation, what the Archaeology of knowledge refers to as the
discursive obviously plays a much more prominent role than the non-discursive.
However, to once more refer to Deleuzes forceful reading of Foucault, within the
audiovisual archive the relations that are established between those irreducible entities
that which can be seen and that which can be said gives the primacy to the
discursive (the term primacy is borrowed from Althusser) (Deleuze 1986, 67). This is
linked to what can be called a poetics or even aesthetics of the historical document.
This idea appears with what, to the best of my knowledge, is the first occurrence
of the word archive, although in the plural, in Foucaults work. It is to be found in the

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original, later to be suppressed, preface to his thesis from 1960, Folie et Draison.
LHistoire de la folie lge classique (Madness and Unreason: History of Madness in
the Classical Age). For the first time, Foucault here articulates a desire to let the archives
speak for themselves, without the interference of any interpreting mediator. He explicitly
states that he wishes to give access to the statements of those deemed mad, to those who
have not been permitted to speak in their own right, except through the mediation of
others (Foucault 1994 1a, 166).
The idea of letting the unheard voices of the past speak for themselves became a
recurring theme in Foucaults work. In his analyses of modern societys disciplining
institutions, such as the hospital, the prison and its educational systems, what
characterizes Foucaults approach is the attempt to search out that which has been
overlooked and marginalized. The canonical treatises thus have no priority over the halfforgotten or even completely overlooked. A consequence of this approach was his
publication of historical source material that was more or less left to speak for itself, with
a minimum of comments, such as the 1982 collaboration with Arlette Farge, Le Dsordre
de familles. Lettres de Cachet des Archives de la Bastille au XVIIIe sicle (The Disorder
of the Families: Letters of Denunication from the Bastille Archives). This is a large
collection of archival material, so-called lettres de cachet. These are eighteenth century
letters by people from the popular classes, often written with the help of a literate third
person, denouncing family members and neighbors to the police. The accusations cover a
large variety of various crimes, ranging from drunken and disorderly conduct to abuse,
physical violence and murder. By permitting the material to speak for itself, Foucault
illustrates how the archive, in a singular, occasionally almost poetic way, gives access to
unique, often nameless persons that, through singular encounters with institutions of
power and discourse, emerge as individual destinies.
What the collaboration with Farge illustrates, as does the slightly earlier collective
effort from 1973, Moi, Pierre Rivire, ayant gorg ma mre, ma soeur et mon frre (Me,
Pierre Rivire, having strangled my mother, my sister and my brother), demonstrates a
double aspect of the archive. Firstly, it provides an illustration of how public archives are
a tool in the administration and organization of a population, in other words, the
technologies of power. Secondly, and, perhaps more importantly, the documents of the

15

archive contain the necessary material for turning a dead past into history. The individual
but nameless appeals of the denouncers emerge from what one with one of Foucaults
favorite expressions could call the anonymous murmuring of the archive. The
documents demands attention, and Foucaults fascination is evident in the way these
historical documents are characterized in his text on infamous lives from 1977 as
poems (pome vies, dtranges pomes), narrating destinies that leave him trembling
(Foucault 1994 3, 237pp).
However, it is important not to interpret Foucaults fascination for the historical
document as a theory of emphatic Einfhlung. It is not about reliving the past, rather, it
allows for a perception of that which is different in the past (necessarily so as these are
voices that have not been allowed to become a part of tradition or canon). One should
rather look towards Foucaults eponymous monograph on the obscure French protosurrealist Raymond Roussel from 1963 to find the keys to his aesthetic fascination with
the documents of the archive (translated into English as the Death and the Labyrinth).
The experience of the historical document, or the particular anecdote, is at the same time
an experience of time and an experience of language.
Before the emergence of accessible digital databases of print documents, the
archive could not be separated from its material expression as a physical edifice.
Metonymically, the archive was the very building that gave room to an indefinite
accumulation of time and knowledge. However, this also means that archives are
physical places where people meet and examine the archived objects. In this respect,
archives are a particular place, and due to their particular social and theoretical functions,
spaces set apart. Wholly devoted to the past, they are pockets of different time structures
within a larger social chronotope, organized along different vectors, and, by virtue of this
contrast, what Foucault, in his 1967 lecture Of Other Spaces, called heterotopias
(Foucault, 1994 4, 752).
Archives, such as national libraries, have, since the seventeenth century, served as
general archives to accumulate everything, to enclose in one place, and erected as shelters
against the ravages of time. In itself a defensive action, an act of preservation, this
archiving was productive in ways undoubtedly unforeseen, as the aforementioned
examples of Manet and Flaubert illustrate. With the steady increase in the sheer quantity

16

of accumulated books, documents, texts and information of various sorts, the nature of
what is stored changes. In the words of Foucault:
The nineteenth century invented the absolute documentary conservation: it
created with its archives and the library a base of stagnated language
(langage stagnant) that exists merely to be discovered by itself, in its
essence as pure language (Foucault 1994 1c, 429).

The pre-digital archives of Foucault are deposits of collections of pure language.


It is the nature of the archiving principle to order collections not on the basis of the
meaning of their elements, but rather on the basis of classificatory principles, such as the
nature of its provenance, or its place in a systematic catalogue like the Dewey Decimal
System. The order of the archive is thus not based on interpretation but on classification.
However, this also carries with it a dimension of a possible poetics of the strange, foreign
and uncanny, to which the famous allusion to Jorge Lus Borges Chinese encyclopaedia
at the opening of The Order of Things testifies.

This passage quotes a certain Chinese encyclopedia in which it is written that animals
are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) suckling pigs,
(e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i)
frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camel hair brush, (l) et cetera, (m)
having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies. In the
wonderment of this taxonomy, the thing we apprehend in one great leap, the thing that,
by means of the fable, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of thought,
is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that (Foucault 1966, 7;
translation taken from the English edition, 1970).

Borges example stages in a striking manner the arbitrariness of any classification


and the strange poetics hiding within taxonomy. As a contrast to that to which we are
familiar, this alternative and strange order of things reveals the randomness that, for
historical reflexivity, haunts any systematic organization of words and things. The central
aspiration of Foucaults Archaeology of Knowledge can be understood as an effort to
overcome this paradox by discarding as far as possible any interpretative grid in the

17

treatment, analysis and the understanding of historical documents; hence the explicit
ambition to dissolve traditional hermeneutic preconceptions like work, intention,
tradition, evolution, development, influence, epoch, and so forth by treating the historical
material as elements in a series, as statements, that is, in their rawest possible form.
Considered from the point of view of singularities, the guiding idea is to treat the
mass of sources in such a way that, by virtue of mere accumulation, they would divide
themselves into groups and families, not based on their contents or intentions, but on their
formal and functional concurrence. Importantly, this is not a question of choice but
rather, follows from the effort to go beyond the metaphysics of history. If history is no
longer a given unified movement to which one can appeal, the serial method offers an
alternative. This is, in a way, analogous to the ways in which the natural historian
organizes his objects based on their morphology. The ambition was, and still remains,
daring and challenging; not the least as it so overtly demonstrates how historical
signification and significance are always constructed, always the product of a creation.
In a review, Gilles Deleuze once characterized the nature of Foucaults project in
The Archaeology of Knowledge as poetry-archaeology pome-archologie (Deleuze
1986, 28). And there is little doubt that much of the inspiration for Foucaults
epistemology in general, and his notion of discourse in particular, can be found in the
writings of two authors held in high esteem by Foucault, Maurice Blanchot and Raymond
Roussel. In stressing the productive, even creative aspect of Foucaults treatment of the
archive, the epithet provided by the title of the same review, A new kind of archivist,
seems appropriate (Deleuze 1986, 11).
One might object to such an undertaking and for many different reasons.
Nevertheless, the point remains that the archive, in the plural sense as les archives, and
the order of the archive, in the singular, larchive, are always the product of an effort.
And archives do not exist in a vacuum, they serve purposes and they have effects. They
mediate between the present and the past, the individual and the societys institution; they
are part of that which draws the borders for what we may do, what may know, what we
may be. Any revolutionary will know, as Foucault himself put it in one of his more
militant moments, that the people always constitute its immediate archives (Foucault
1984 2b, 658). To establish an archive is thus not merely the ordering and, eventually, the

18

interpretation of that which has been left or handed down by past generations. It has less
to do with inheritance than with the creation of a world to come. This is what Foucault
means when he asserts that the archive turns documents into monuments.

6. Concluding remarks
By archive, I primarily understand the mass of the things said in a culture,
conserved, valorized, reused, repeated and transformed. In short, this
verbal mass that has been fabricated by people, invested in their
techniques and their institutions, and that is woven into their existence and
their history. I do not consider this mass of things said, from the side of
language, but from the side of the operations that give birth to it (Foucault
1994 1i, 786).

This essays point of departure was the observation that archive had become a buzz
word, a theoretical brand name, and as such called for some conceptual reflection. One
regularly observes that terms and concepts that are fashionable little by little lose their
original precision and that they thus are in need of being overhauled so that they may
regain their original precision. Occasionally, such conceptual reworking helps us to gain
new insights and reveals semantic and analytic potential not previously evident.
We have argued that Foucault employs the term archive in at least three different
senses. To differentiate between these three not only provides a better understanding of
Foucault and one that is both more coherent and nuanced but also sharpens the
archive as a conceptual elaboration and as an analytical tool, and allowing for more
precise analyses of the nature and function of archives. But even though the differences
between the three senses of the term archive might permit us to speak of three different
concepts, they share one common feature: They are all various forms of practices.
From the point of view of an institutional practice, the archive is a part of a larger
system that turns individuals into citizens; it is a nexus for power relations, forms of
knowledge and processes of subjectivization. Endowing the nation states individuals
with a past, an identity, a name, in short, a record be it of an individual or a collective

19

nature archives belong to the mechanisms of socialization and control of the modern
world. Archives accumulate, order and structure the records of the past, in order to master
the future and regulate historical contingencies (turning what Derrida with Blanchot calls
l-venir into lavenir). Furthermore, as epistemological concepts, they delineate the
horizon of that which can be said at a given point in time. Their order is the system of
that which we can articulate and acknowledge. Thereby the archive also separates us
from ourselves; that which we now no longer are.
While on the one hand, that which we now no longer are serves as the basis for
mechanisms and protocols of control, it is also, by virtue of its historical foreignness, a
reservoir for the experience of alterity, of the fundamental modern experience of the
temporally and ontologically split subject, Rimbauds famous, je est un autre, that is,
the I is always-already an other. The archive as the privileged place for the experience of
this temporal displacement is the archive as heterotopia; in this respect, archives are
collections of time slices, of anonymous language; places of different experiences, for
experimentations, and places that might permit the creation of different pasts, traditions
or individualities. Of a double nature, archives are at the same time that which produces
and reproduces the well-known and familiar and that which allows for ruptures and
breaks with the past and the advent of something new. The archive creates, and it is
created. It is a practice where power is established, but it is also the place where power
structures can be overturned or subverted. Archives might store the past, but they are
fundamentally technologies of the future and as such eminently political.

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