Michel Foucault


Genealogy, History
Benet Davetian

University of Sussex


            The Judeo-Christian tradition contains a myth which has been used to underwrite much of its philosophical and historical texts. And, regardless of whether such texts have stood in agreement or opposition to this myth, they have had to deal with the consequences of the myth in their narrative. In the story of the Garden of Eden, an account of humankind’s actual or imagined fall from grace, God informs Adam and Eve of a tree of knowledge which he has put in the same garden in which he has placed the two siblings. In spite of having placed the tree in close proximity to his inexperienced offspring, he prohibits them from acquiring any of its knowledge. He does not promise them that they may obtain the knowledge at a later date when they are more mature; he simply forbids it to them. And then, when Adam and Eve go ahead and eat from the tree of knowledge and develop self-awareness, God flies into a rage and banishes them out into the world where he condemns them to earn their own living. Adam and Eve leave God’s breadbasket never having gotten the benefit of discovering the absolute truths contained in that fabled tree. They leave God’s grace, innocence lost, smitten with the indomitable desire to discover precisely that which was forbidden them.

            This notion of an a-priori truth and a state of grace which stands back at the dawn of time has necessitated a linear approach to the story of humankind. Proceeding from the idea of a world which was created in an orderly fashion on a fixed date by a divine personality possessing a fixed identity, the Judeo-Christian tradition has predisposed itself to searching for origins and continuity. The Bible starts its story of creation with the words, “In the beginning...” These words imply that human history had a beginning. And this notion of “beginning” automatically begs the addition of a “middle” and an “end.” Unlike in the Vedic traditions whose principal religious text, the Rig Veda, starts with the words: “And then there was...,” implying that the history of humankind starts in the middle of a process which need not be rationalized, the Judeo-Christian project locks itself into the need to reminisce back to a starting point and then work its way forward and write an account blessed with a salvational, happy ending.

            Thus, claiming as its genesis a story which reveals humankind’s fall from grace, the Judeo-Christian tradition was left with no choice but to explain human behaviour in terms of a deviation from the original nature which God intended humankind to possess and whose codex remained in his possession. Subsequently, the “bad” was ascribed to this unfortunate misunderstanding between God and Adam/Eve and the “good” was written into a text which continuously preoccupied itself with two hopeful notions: 1) God’s ability to let bygones be bygones, and, 2) humankind’s potential to ensure a permanent forgiveness by aiming for an ending which would finally earn it an irrevocable salvation. Adam and Eve’s supposed transgression needed to be accounted for, atoned for, and erased. It was this gargantuan task which problematizes the early philosophies, histories and psychologies emanating from the Judeo-Christian world.

            The reconciliation of human society and history with this “original” point of departure preoccupied Christian thinkers right up to the sixteenth century. St. Augustine’s City of God  (5th-Century, AD) was not only written to rationalize specific historical occurrences, such as the demise of Rome, but to explain how Roman society had deviated from God’s purpose. St. Augustine tried to rationalize a meaning to history by suggesting that the struggle between God’s wishes and human desires, although unavoidable, needed to be resolved through the conquering of human weakness. The reward suggested by St. Augustine was entry into the City of God, where grace and goodness were eternal. Even Giambattista Vico (1660-1744)---who some credit for establishing the first secular philosophical method---was unable to devise a philosophy of history without taking into account the supposedly “divine origins” of humankind. His three-stage, cyclical conception of history takes as its departure point a deified conception of humankind and then comes back full circle to it after passing through subsequent phases in which personal imagination and reason are dominant evolutionary extensions of an originally theocratic sentiment. The Protestant movement, in spite of its claims of freedom and self-determination, retained this primal story of guilt and devised a civic and economic ethic which condemned the individual to strive relentlessly for salvation without the benefit of a clergy empowered to bestow such salvation.

            The professional philosophers who followed Vico, including Kant and Hegel, were also saddled with this stubborn enigma of human knowledge: if history had a teleological sense, then why was it brimming with betrayal and carnage? If history was not to be an eternally reoccurring drama in which the forces of good and evil remained frozen in a non-decisive battle, what was then the sense of history and human society? Nearly every philosopher has had to grapple with this question, for the qualities of betrayal, dislocation and carnage always problematize hopeful and “progressive” historical narratives. And this question has been made necessary by the subscription to a memory of an original starting point of history (the creation) when humankind was left to its own devices but given the onerous task of recovering a bygone graceful state. The myth implies that innocence existed prior to evil---much of human collective guilt is connected to this assumption and the corrective and compensatory morals which follow from it. Men and women are supposedly born good, but manage to become historically bad. Yet, even though their past and present is full of carnage, their story must end in some happy conclusion which justifies the carnage. Otherwise, the story of creation and the possibility of salvational knowledge would be a sham.

            Michel Foucault’s work lends support to the idea that the Vedic notion of human origin, “And then...,” may be a more fruitful and liberating point of departure than the Judeo-Christian notion of “In the beginning...” His genealogical approach to governmentality and the writing of history is an astute analysis of how our search for origin, sequential meaning and positive denouement is in itself a contributing cause of our personal and social dislocations. History repeats itself because opportunities are missed. And opportunities are missed because we attempt to rationalize and modify events to satisfy our need for an acceptable evolutionary script. Concentrating on the lofty intervals of history instead of its less impressive dislocations, we render ourselves unconscious of the general through-line of domination which pollutes even those institutional transformations which we consider emancipatory. We remain comforted in our belief that our history is a progressive one, and, owing to this narrative manipulation, become unaware that we actually do possess means at our disposal for creating a more authentic denouement of self and society. Seen in this light, Foucault’s work is quite hopeful, despite its repeated denunciations of nostalgic narratives.

            Following the lead of F. W. Nietzsche, Foucault urges us to accept that the “forces operating in history are not controlled by destiny or regulative mechanisms, but respond to haphazard conflicts” (1971: 88). Furthermore, he states that “knowledge, even under the banner of history, does not depend on ‘rediscovery,’ and it emphatically excludes the ‘rediscovery of ourselves’” (88). Events are not there to move us towards a conclusion, nor are they there to give a primordial meaning to our ideas.

            Nietzsche called this dislocation: “the iron hand of necessity shaking the dice-box of chance” (cited, 89). Both he and Foucault argue for a historical approach which avoids three long-standing “functions” of history: 1) the tendency to “reminisce” and apply a retrospective recognition or “sense” to a series of events, 2) the tendency to search for “identity” through a search for “tradition” and “meaning,” and 3) the tendency to write a “biography” of truth and knowledge (93). Foucault argues against this type of history---which Nietzsche termed “monumental history”---and supports a genealogical approach which, instead of casting an explanatory net over distant events, contents itself with specific investigations that “separate the phases of our evolution and consider them individually” (95). Such an approach revisits the discontinuities ignored by monumental historians during their construction of identity. By unmasking these discontinuities through the application of a genealogical method, Foucault reveals how the search for a constructed identity prevents real identity from emerging. In effect, Foucault is not satisfied with an account of what “supposedly happened” but wishes to know “what was specifically happening” during that which we think occurred. He analyzes specific instances of history expressly for the purpose of revealing the “history of the present” and demystifying its ritual qualities. By exposing the genesis of a given situation, he eliminates that situation’s claims to silence and invisibility and brings it out from under the protective cover of lofty explanations. Thus, he does not hesitate to cross-index what might otherwise appear as disparate elements, for in the intersection of these elements--- some psychological and others historical---he reveals interesting, and, possibly emancipatory, explanations for commonly-held assumptions.

            In an article entitled, Governmentality (1979), Foucault applies a genealogical analysis to the notion of “representative government,” practicing the historical method which he developed during Discipline and Punish and Madness and Civilization. He begins with a review of the nature of “sovereign rule” as it is represented in Machiavelli’s The Prince and then shows how this notion of power and governmentality changed with the arrival of texts which spoke of a new “art of government.”

            Nietzsche, to whom Foucault makes frequent reference, was astute enough to realize that changes in history occur, more often than not, due to necessity rather than lofty sentiment. Such was the case in the ideological changes which occurred in the 16th century. Machiavelli’s The Prince had been meant as a treatise directed at monarchs who needed to maintain their personal power and rights of property over their territories by repelling attacks which came from outside their territories. The monarch remained external  or morally detached from the territory he governed by virtue of the fact that he owed his allegiance only to his own self interest. The population was free to hold its own spiritual dialogue with history as long as it paid its allegiance to the monarch. Machiavelli’s The Prince does not pretend to be a treatise in favour of the interests of a population; on the contrary, it subjects those interests to those of the ruler.

            Three developments occurred in the 1600’s, however, which led to a revision of the Machiavellian power paradigm. They were the invention of gunpowder, which permitted the overthrow of feudal towns; the invention of the printing press, which allowed the dissemination of revolutionary propaganda; and the discovery of new territories, which necessitated the expansion of territorial administrations. The overthrow of feudalism and the rise of administrations governing extended territories which coalesced into nation states changed the material culture in such a way as to render Machiavelli’s rules of monarchical conduct not only inoperable but even hazardous to the safety of a would-be “prince.”  Concurrently, the arrival of the Reformation and the rise of Protestantism brought a salvational imperative which wove itself into the very fabric of society, government included. Government was no longer seen as the domination of a population by a despot but as a means towards the achievement of salvation on a national scale. It was held that, through proper systems of administration and proper conducts of citizenship, subjects and their governors could be brought together to form a society in which the interests of all were not only represented but fulfilled.

            Henceforth, the personal interests of the ruler was no longer automatically accepted as the sole measure of government. Ruling became transformed into governing. The singularity of the monarch became diffused by a multiplicity of governing bodies (8-9). While monarchical rule had never pretended to concern itself with the economic welfare of the population, preferring to draw clear boundaries between the monarch and his subjects, the new “governmentality” extended the “responsibilities” of government to include the welfare of the population (9).

            Foucault’s analysis of the consequences of such broadening of governmentality is interesting, for it demonstrates how a system can return to the characteristics of its origins even though it avows their abandon.

            Through its adoption of direct contact with the economic realities of a territory, government extended its interest past the ownership of territory and into the management of lives and the material products of those lives (11). And it did so through the avowal of an ideology of benevolence. While the monarchs had remained outside the spheres of the lives of their public and unable to credibly claim any depth of concern for their constituents, the new governments sought to have a primary influence on the “common welfare and the salvation of all” (12). This pervasiveness of influence gave governments a finality as powerful as the ones possessed by monarchs. Thus, the phenomenon of sovereignty was preserved, even though the sovereign was eliminated.

            Foucault points to a major change which occurred when the limited self-interest of monarchs was replaced with a government avowing to speak with the voice of the common good. This transformation permitted the establishment of a judicial system in which both subjects and administrators were required to obey the laws and fulfill the tasks expected of them. Such localization and specialization of responsibility replaced obedience to a monarch with obedience to a law, without terminating the phenomenon of obedience. Foucault writes, “The end of sovereignty, this common and general good, is in sum nothing other than submission to sovereignty...the end of sovereignty is circular in that it comes down to the exercise of sovereignty itself” (12).

            The sovereign is divested of his powers, but the phenomenon of sovereignty is broadened and transferred into the hands of a judicial system. What was originally expressed in terms of “power” now becomes expressed in terms of what is considered “right.” And what is considered right becomes incorporated into formal law which then rationalizes the adoption of “administrative tactics.” In effect, the State wrenches power away from the monarch and connects it to a rationality which it then uses to represent its identity. The act of governing, consequently, turns into an art of governing. It acquires a pervasiveness by setting standards for government of self (morality), family-management (economy), and the science of state control (politics) (9). Deftly, the state takes on multiple legitimacies and an unshakable rationality of its own.

            Foucault identifies mercantilism as the principal mechanism by which the state acquired these additional functions without incurring the outright resistance of the population: “Mercantilism sought to reinsert the possibilities opened up by a conscious art of government within a mental and institutional structure, namely that of sovereignty, which by its very nature stifled them” (15). Proceeding from a model which imitated the economic organization of the family, the new state enlisted the family as a constitutional subject, embedding it in the new apparatus of government and transforming it into a principal agent of conformity (17). By appropriating the family as part of the state’s political economy, the state eliminated the family’s role as a separate self-governing economic unit (18). The population became at once subject and object, subject in as far as its own welfare went, but object in relation to the “tactical solutions” devised by the government to which it owed its allegiance. While individuals became more conscious than before of their claim to the wealth of the nation-state, they remained unconscious of the increasing “quasi-sovereignty” of the state and how that state promulgated its dominance through the use of specific “savoirs,” “policies” and “tactics” (18).

            This transformation of “family economy” into “political economy” (19) necessitated considerable attention to the manner in which the population could be “disciplined” and “managed” as a mass (19). Foucault suggests that what occurred between the 16th and 18th centuries was not the replacement of a “sovereign” or “disciplinary” society with a representational government, but the formation of a link between  “sovereignty-discipline-government.” This new governmentality, which had at its root a history of subjugation and discipline, acquired a lasting legitimacy by using the population as its principal raison d’être.         

            Foucault does not confuse the pervasiveness of governmentality with a government’s own “unity” or “originality.” He even questions whether the state has a total control over itself. He is fully aware of the objectification, inner as well as outer, which accompanies such broadened governmentality. What he does question is the facile access possessed by government to the public and private spheres, for the state is continuously called upon, by its very organizational nature, to select a range of areas in which it must become involved if it is to fulfill its avowed purpose of “disposing of things for the ‘common good.’”

            Such power to set course as well as change it whenever required entails certain measures of control which establish and maintain a rational-emotive safe-zone between those who determine governmental policy and those who must adapt their lives to it. Foucault astutely reminds us that it is the “police” of a state which protects the security of “policies”, providing the state with the assurance that it can make whatever political and economic adjustments it deems necessary while retaining the acquiescence of the population. Thus, while the Machiavellian prince’s main concern was to protect his power base from attacks from other territorial princes, the new government’s principal security concerns remain focused on threats from within its own population. Disturbance and dissent is kept at a minimum through the application of a “common” law which sets out, with the aid of an enforcement apparatus, to standardize and typify. The army of the prince becomes replaced by the police of government.

            Foucault recognizes that a definitive increase in the state’s normative powers could not have been achieved without the transformation of the family from a “model” for governmentality into an “instrument” of governmentality. He considers this change-over as the most important development in the rise of the modern state. It is through this instrumentalization that the state acquires its broad-ranging powers. With the arrival of the 18th century, for example, statistical methods were put into practice which permitted governments to develop extensive banks of knowledge regarding their populations. Increasingly, and without the conscious realization of their constituents, governments directed the behaviour of their populations through the control of birth rates, education, penal codes, manufacturing processes, patterns of population settlement, health, and economy. Population became a “datum,” a “field of intervention,” and an “objective of governmental technique” (19).           

            Foucault’s analysis of the advent of the modern state is similar to Max Weber’s writings on authority and the rise of the bureaucratic state. Oddly enough, both thinkers may have had Marxism in mind while developing their arguments. Weber was saddled with the task of confronting Marx’s notions of historical determinism by showing that power, prestige and wealth were intertwined and capable of creating historical exceptions to the notion of “class.” His study of capitalism attempted to show that history had its exceptional cases, the proof of it being that capitalism developed in one geographical area more than in any other. Weber moved away from the leveling historical reductionism of Marx and established a methodology which followed the same genealogical model as do Foucault’s studies. Foucault may have also been answering to the excesses of Marxism when he developed his own texts on government. By showing that government retained sovereignty even in instances of a supposedly welfare state, he managed to subtly, but effectively, disillusion and caution some of those who might have otherwise concluded that Marxism was a political utopia offering unlimited personal freedom. Foucault’s principal contribution to the history of knowledge lies in his ability to bring attention to power grids and explain how they come into being. That in itself is an act which provokes our consciousness into reconsidering the supposed normalness of existing social norms.


            Foucault’s treatment of Nietzsche’s work on genealogy and history is one of Foucault’s most succinct revelations of his own approach to the history of knowledge. It helps explain the “social purpose” underlying his studies of madness, government and the penal system. Reading his text on Nietzsche’s thought one has difficulty knowing where Foucault stops and where Nietzsche begins. One reads on with growing respect, having previously read Nietzsche and wondered if anyone who does not think like him could represent him faithfully enough.

            Once again, Foucault proposes that it is useless to describe history and the ideas which develop during history in a linear fashion. Utility cannot be the objective of historical analysis, for the utilitarian approach to ideology and morality reduces the actual to an a-priori philosophical equation which rationalizes rather than reveals (1971: 76). What matters to Foucault, instead, is the revelation of the “unique characteristics” and “acute manifestations” of the period under study (88).

            Foucault and Nietzsche both question the validity of an epistemological method which assumes that 1)words keep their meaning, 2) that desires continue pointing in the same direction, and, 3) that ideas retain their original logic. Foucault does not cultivate the hope that an event connected with lofty ideals will consistently produce consequences which contain the original ideals. He is intensely aware, as Nietzsche was, that there are a host of intervening factors, the least ones not being the inversions of motive. Paraphrasing Nietzsche, he writes, “In a sense, only a single drama is ever staged...the endlessly repeated play of dominations. The domination of certain men over others leads to the differentiation of certain values; class domination generates the idea of liberty; and the forceful appropriation of things necessary to survival and the imposition of a duration not intrinsic to them account for the origin of logic” (85).

            Foucault suggests that, since the world of speech and ideals has known “invasions, struggles, plunderings, disguises, ploys,” it is useful to note the dislocations which arise from such interruptions and “record the singularity of events outside of any monotonous finality” (76). The purpose of such a resistance to “monotony” lies not in the author’s predisposition to carnival but in his desire to resist the hypnotic effects of monotonous acceptances of the hegemony of rules and norms. Risking being accused of holding a “negative” world-view,“ Foucault joins Nietzsche in denouncing any notion of  historical progress that is based on an uncritical belief in the evolution of rules. He states, “The success of history belongs to those who are capable of seizing these rules, to replace those who had used them, to disguise themselves so as to pervert them, invert their meaning, and redirect them against those who had initially imposed them...” (86).

            Foucault negates the notion of any automatic logical progression of history by showing how a great part of social change is a “systematic reversal” of power relations. The true historian does not write a history of the development of an idea, but traces how a history regarding the development of that idea was itself constructed. For in the manner in which such histories are constructed---the selection of specific highlights and interpretations and the exclusions of others---lies a wealth of information regarding how the interests of a given sector are rationalized and imbued with normality. The genealogical act attempts to remove the “reconciliations” which have been retrospectively bestowed on the displacements of the past (86).

            Such a genealogical approach to history and ideas requires not only a knowledge of details but considerable patience. Opposing itself to the search for apparent origins it rejects the “metaphysical deployment of ideal signification and indefinite teleologies” (77). Its research methods are assiduous and require attention to a variety of texts which, in other circumstances, might appear “unrelated.”

            Paraphrasing Nietzsche’s Untimely Meditations and other works by the German enfant-terrible of philosophy, Foucault writes what could be considered the methodological manifesto underlying most of his works:       

            “...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: not a timeless and essential secret, but the secret that they have no essence or that their essence was fabricated in a piecemeal fashion from alien forms” (78).

            Nietzsche and Foucault speak out against what stands as “disinterested” descriptive history. The descriptive historian attempts to write a history which is coherent. And in his/her search for coherence he/she presupposes that there are fundamental truths and values underlying events. This search for meaning does not dispose the descriptive historian to give equal attention to that in history which is “degenerative” and not connected to any teleological progression of value. In effect, such historians “submit” to the interests of the makers of history; they rarely reveal the frequent inversions of meaning and power and the ideological cover enlisted in such inversions (90).  

            This self-effacement has profound effects on the historian and the texts he/she produces: “Having curbed the demands of his individual will in his knowledge, he will disclose the form of an eternal will in his object of study. The objectivity of historians inverts the relationships of will and knowledge and it is, in the same stroke, a necessary belief in providence, in final causes and teleology...” (92). In doing so, such historians miss those elements of history which are simply “substitutions” and “disguises” (93). The genealogical study, on the other hand, acts as a “countermemory” and produces a text which does not venerate the past but which, in certain instances, liberates us from the crushing concern with “truth” (97).

            So, for Foucault, “reason” is not an a-priori monolith of the intellect but a phenomenon---a way of proceeding---which arises from the personal conflicts and piecemeal discussions amongst passionate scholars. What interests him, more than any essential truth, are the circumstances, accidental as well as intended, which surround the creation of a given truth or tradition. He does not seek to extract a story about a given period which imbues that period with the “profundity” of evolutionary meaning, but seeks, instead, to reveal the manner in which a given period associates itself, or, is associated in retrospect, with a cosmology which rationalizes and dignifies “origin.”

            Nietzsche referred to such a genealogical approach as the study of “disparity,” for it is within instances of disparity that we notice the cracks and inconsistencies of an ideological system that has been presented within a hopeful narrative associated with lofty ideals. He explains that the “lofty origin” was no more than a “metaphysical extension which arises from the belief that things are most precious and essential at the moment of birth” (cited in MF, 79). This reification of truth during the writing of history suggests that the history of truth is in itself a history of error: error in method as well as error in explanation of identity. Foucault believes that “Truth, and its original reign, has had a history within a history from which man is barely emerging” (80).

            So the function of a meticulous genealogical work is to “dispel” the myth of origin (80) and, in so doing, reveal the histories which become possible when the imperatives  of monumental history are set aside. Genealogy does not proceed out of maliciousness, but out of a desire for authenticity for its own sake. And, by choosing the authentic over the hopeful, it leaves itself open to whatever insight may appear along the way. This approach is not as much a refusal to conform to established canon as it is lacking an a-priori decision to conform at all costs to existing explanations. Herein lies its emancipatory qualities.

            Echoing Nietzsche, Foucault is very succinct regarding the functions and nature of genealogy: “Genealogy does not resemble the evolution of a species and does not map the destiny of a people. On the contrary, to follow the complex course of descent is to maintain passing events in their proper dispersion; it is to identify the accidents, the minute deviations---or conversely, the complete reversals---the errors, the false appraisals, and the faulty calculations that gave birth to those things that continue to exist and have value for us; it is to discover that truth or being does not lie at the root of what we know and what we are, but the exteriority of accidents” (81). “Thus, genealogy...seeks to reestablish the various systems of subjugation: not the anticipatory power of meaning, but the hazardous play of domination” (83).

            Such a critical historical sense is necessary for the construction of an emancipatory society. But it is also capable of creating deep demoralization if offered in the absence of a constructive spirit. Just as the spirit of the present can be paralyzed and driven to excessive cynicism towards itself due to an exaggerated respect for the traditional nostalgic narratives of the past, the full exposure of history and its falsehood can stifle the present by revealing that the foundations of the present are rooted in a past contaminated by the false, the inhuman, the violent and the irrational. Repeatedly in his interviews, Foucault reaffirmed his belief in the possibility of individual and class action and claimed that his critical work was not without purpose. Without such assurances, his genealogical studies might have been interpreted as misanthropic.    

            Nietzsche, realizing the insidious effect of historical investigations, wrote some cautionary sentences which are worth remembering: “When the historical sense reigns without restraint, and all its consequences are realized, it uproots the future because it destroys illusions and robs the things that exist of the atmosphere in which alone they can live. Historical justice, even when it is genuine and practiced with the purest of intentions, is, therefore, a dreadful virtue because it always undermines the living thing and brings it down: its judgment is always annihilating. If the historical drive does not also contain a drive to construct, if the purpose of destroying and clearing is not to allow a future already alive in anticipation to raise its house on the ground thus liberated, if justice alone prevails, then the instinct for creation will be enfeebled and discouraged” ([1874] 1983: 95).   Foucault’s work arrived at a time when many factions of western society were on the verge of demanding some profound changes in the normative references used by what became referred to, in the U.S.A. at least, as “the moral majority.” There was a “drive” to construct, but such new construction would not have been possible had the existing historical consciousness of guilt, against which both Nietzsche and Foucault struggled, been allowed to continue to have its insidious hold on those members of society who were ready and willing to turn away from historically-determined morals and experiment with the notion of a personal “moral nature.” Nietzsche prescribed an antidote to the “danger of being overwhelmed by what was past and foreign, of perishing through ‘history’” (122). He suggested that the individual “organize the chaos within him by thinking back to his real needs” (123). It was fitting advice which Foucault seemed to have followed, both in his methodology as well as his personal life.       






Michel Foucault

1971                            “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” in Hommages a Jean Hyppolite.                           Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.


1979                            “Governmentality” in M/F a feminist journal. No. 3, July 1979,                               M/F: London.


Friedrich Nietzsche

[1874] 1983                “On the uses and disadvantages of history for life,” in Untimely                              Meditations, tr. R. J. Hollingdale. Cambridge: Cambridge                                          University Press.