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Series « Thinking the Archive »: Michel Foucault

I would like to begin a series entitled “Thinking the Archive“ From time to time, I’ll delve into the notion of the “archive“ as conceived, articulated, and defined by philosophers and artists. With hindsight, I believe that these definitions could greatly enrich the entire project and its conceptualization. Let’s start this series with none other than Michel Foucault. 


While browsing the library of the Palais de Tokyo this week, I stumbled upon the “Dictionary of Critical Theory“ by David Macey. I found it captivating – to the extent that I now ponder whether I should have bought the book. It gathers concise definitions of terminology, summaries of the  contributions of many thinkers, with connections to other thinkers and ideas at the bottom of each passage. Basically a useful thinking tool.



I swiftly encountered the entry « Archive », which referred directly to Michel Foucault’s conception.


The definition provided by Macey was as follows:


ARCHIVE: An important concept in the “Archaeology of Knowledge“ elaborated by Foucault (1969). The “archive“ is essentially the law governing what can and cannot be said in a given period or situation, or the general system that governs the formation and transformation of statements and sentences. In this model of discourse analysis, the archive is the second of three levels. The most general level is that of “language“ (langue; the term is adapted from Saussure’s langue/parole distinction), or the system that defines the sum total of all the sentences that it is possible to construct; the “corpus“ is a description of all the sentences that have actually been spoken. The intermediary level of the archive determines which sentences can be spoken, manipulated, and analyzed.



In essence, we could conceive of it as a vast library of words and rules (language), a gatekeeper that decides which words you can use (archive), and a list of all the sentences people have actually spoken (corpus). And all of this aids us in comprehending how people communicate and what they can articulate at various times and in different contexts.


I will not go any further in my analysis of this definition. It’s a shame, yes. But I have to let these words simmer in my mind.

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