Response to Foucault: Nietzsche, Genealogy, History

I wrote this piece for a class in 2008, and it became the nucleus of my “genealogical” method in my dissertation – genealogical is used in both the Nietzschean and Foucauldian, as well as the Hawaiian sense – moʻokuʻauhau.

Foucault shows here his position in, as he puts it, the interstice – between structuralist and poststructualist, between existentialist and positivist, between modern and postmodern. It is this rending of barriers between theoretical approaches and fields that gives Foucault his importance, he is cited at the beginning of works in many fields, including philosophy, education, sociology and cultural studies. Nietszche occupies a similar position, so it is fitting that Foucault brings out the contributions of Nietzsche. Both straddle disciplines because they deal not with content, but with that which flows through content – power. Foucault felt that Nietzsche was right that power determines the course of history, rather than the global “mind” of Hegel or some teleological process.
However, while Nietszche is solidly modern – his proclamation of the death of God being a primary indicator – Foucault, in his questioning of truth as given, leans toward the postmodern. By dealing with that without form – power – he is both structuralist (i.e., the structures of power relations) and poststructuralist, in that he can undermine structures (language, law) through this power analysis.
If existentialists can be described as those who hold that “existence precedes essence,” Foucault could be, at least partially, grouped with such thinkers: “if the genealogist refuses to extend his faith in metaphysics, if he listens to history, he finds that there is “something altogether different” behind things [rather than “that which was already there”] : not a timeless and essential secret, but the secret that they have no essence or that their essence was fabricated in a piecemeal fashion” (Foucault, 1977, 142).
Genealogy, as a method, allows Foucault and Nietzsche the fluidity required to analyze the non-material; interpersonal relations, the “course” of history, biopolitics. As Foucault (1977, 140) puts it “Genealogy does not oppose itself to history as the lofty and profound gaze of the philosopher might compare to the molelike perspective of the scholar; on the contrary, it rejects the meta-historical deployment of ideal significations and indefinite teleologies. It opposes itself to the search for origins.”
Foucault and Nietszche undermine the hidden motives of historians in their search for such “origins,” holding that an authentic understanding of history disabuses one of any notions of profound or noble origins. Instead, one finds squalid and pluralistic sources for traditions, cultures and series of events. As a method, genealogy is a more authentic route to “truth” (which Foucault, perhaps ironically, calls “error”) than the mere pretense of objectivity practiced by most historians. This pretense, Foucault might contend, is merely self-deception.

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