Michel Foucault's "Nietzsche, Genealogy, History"
A synopsis

This is a synopsis of Michel Foucault's essay prepared for my students in ENGL 4F70. I apologize for any errors or misrepresentations.

The pagination refers to the volume The Foucault Reader ed. Paul Rabinow

Section 2: Why Nietzsche challenges the pursuit of origin (Ursprung)

  1. The pursuit of the origins is essentialist: "because it is an attempt to capture the exact, and pure, [transhistorical, immanent] essence of things," it assumes a world of forms preexisting the world of accident and succession i.e., history... "But he who listens to history finds that things have no pre-exisiting essence, or an essence fabricated piecemeal from alien forms." (78)
        : reason was born of the fights of schoolmen
        : liberty is an invention of the middle classes
    In short, not the "inviolable identity of their origin" but disparity is at the beginning of things.

  2. 'Origin' suggests a lofty beginning -- a before-the-Fall, therefore a realm of gods; but origins are in fact lowly, even derisive.

  3. the 'origin' makes possible a field of knowledge whose end is to recover the origin, but as a thing lost, fleetingly to be glimpsed, and creating a sense that truth and truthful discourse can coincide. But history reveals 'origins' in a proliferation of errors. What truth is "is the sort of error that cannot be refuted because it has hardened into an unalterable form in the long baking process of history." (79 ft)

    A genealogy, on the other hand, of values, morals, knowledge, will never confuse itself with a quest for their 'origins' but will cultivate the details and accidents that accompany every beginning.

Section 3: Herkunft

(Herkunft and Entstehung are more exact than Ursprung, but need to recover their original meanings)

Herkunft = stock or descent as the ancient affiliation to a group ... but not to establish generic characteristics, but to "seek the subtle, singular, and subindividual marks that might possibly intersect in them to form a network that is difficult to reassemble." -- the sorting of traits, the finding of beginnings in plethora of differences and accidents The beginnings of things are not, in brief, in some identity, some whole, some "truth", but in numerous accidents, events, oppositions; origins are dispersals, not unities. (81)

This heritage is not "an acquisition, a possession that grows and solidifies; rather, it is an unstable assemblage of faults, fissures, and heterogeneous layers that threaten the fragile inheritor from within and from underneath..." (82) So we are alw ays 'made up' not of a solidity and wholeness but of the fragmentary, the momentary, the fragile, open to dispersion ourselves.

Finally, descent attaches itself to the body. It inscribes itself in the nervous system, in temperament, in the digestive apparatus; it appears in faulty respiration, in improper diets, in the debilitated and prostrate bodies of those whose ancestors committed the errors....the body maintains, in life as in death, through its strength or weakness, the sanction of every truth and error, as it sustains, in an inverse manner, the origin -- descent. (82)

The body is the domain of herkunft; it is marked by past experience and gives rise to the desires, failings, errors, which will mark the future.

The body is the inscribed surface of events (traced by language and dissolved by ideas), the locus of a dissociated self (adopting the illusion of a substantial unity), and a volume in perpetual disintegration. Genealogy, as an analysis of descent, is thus situated within the articulation of the body and history. Its task is to expose a body totally imprinted by history and the process of history’s destruction of the body." (83)

Section 4: Entstehung

Entstehung = emergence, the moment of arising.

Emergence is not a final term but simply the current episode in a series of subjugations, to chance, the difficulties of eating, shelter, etc, wars, disease, natural disasters and so forth. Genealogy seeks to reestablish the systems of subjugation, the h azardous play of dominations. Emergence is through the struggle of forces. (83). "As descent [herkunft] qualifies the strength or weakness of an instinct and its inscription on a body, emergence [enstehung] designates a place of confrontation..." not as a closed field and a struggle among equals but in a non-common space; emergence "always occurs in the interstice." (84, 85t) In that space, is the endless play of dominations.

This relationship of domination is not really a "relationship" at all; hence it is fixed "in rituals, in meticulous procedures that impose rights and obligations. It establishes marks of its power and engraves memories on things and even within bodies." and gives rise to the universe of rules. "... humanity installs each of its violences in a system of rules and thus proceeds from domination to domination." -- a more brutal way of talking about the dominant classes and the ideologies and state apparat uses, repressive and ideological, by which they control others through force and through a belief that what is, is 'natural'. (85)

On genealogy and interpretation:

If interpretation were the slow exposure of the meaning hidden in an origin, then only metaphysics could interpret the development of humanity. But if interpretation is the violent or surreptitious appropriation of a system of rules, which in itself has no essential meaning, in order to impose a direction, to bend it to a new will, to force its participation in a different game, and to subject it to secondary rules, then the development of humanity is a series of interpretations. The role of genealogy is to record its history: the history of morals, ideals, and the metaphysical concepts, the history of the concept of liberty or of the ascetic life; as they stand for the emergence of different interpretations, they must be made to appear as events on the stage of historical process. (86)

Section 5: The relationship between genealogy (herkunft and entstehung) and history in the traditional sense

Nietzsche was always opposed to a history which saw itself as summing or tracing the development to a culmination, hence an implicit stance outside of time, hence an implicit belief in an eternal truth, a standpoint from which all can be measured. Effective history can evade metaphysics in this way only by seeing history as divergent, incorporating marginalities and disunities, "shattering the unity of man's being." Everything that was thought immortal must be placed within history.

The body itself is within history in this way: "The body is molded by a great many distinct regimes; it is broken down by the rhythms of work, rest, and holidays; it is poisoned by food or values, through eating habits or moral laws; it constructs resistances." (87)

History becomes "effective" (wirkliche Historie ) insofar as it introduces discontinuity into our very being, deprives the self and nature of a sense of stability, refuses to see an end or goal to which history moves. "An event, consequently, is not a decision, a treaty, a reign, or a battle but the reversal of a relationship of forces, the usurpation of power, the appropriation of a vocabulary turned against those who had once used it, a feeble domination that poisons itself as it grows lax, the entry of a masked 'other'." -- and dominated by the random, the world as a profusion of chance events. (88)

Effective history moves from the perspective of distance to closeness -- looks into the nitty-gritty, the particular, but always from an alienated view, not through an identification.

History should become a differential knowledge of energies and failings, heights and degenerations, poisons and antidotes. Its task is to become a curative science. [90]

The final trait of effective history is its affirmation of knowledge as a perspective.

Section 6: Against the historian as the role is commonly conceived and practiced

The 'historian' desires total knowledge, avoids the exceptional and reduces it to the lowest common denominator and he dominates those of the present with his pretensions of knowledge and perspective; he is demagogic but this demagogry is masked under t he cloak of universals. Divided against himself (he is also that which is in the particular), he discloses the (mystifying) eternal will, rejecting his subjectivity for a 'higher' objectivity. (91)

"... Aristotle is the locus of emergence for metaphysics. It is necessary to revolt against this domination and mystification." (93)

Section 7: The revolt against metaphysical history: three uses

  1. parodic: directed against reality, the parodic opposes the theme of history as reminiscence or recognition. Against the reappearance of mystifications under different guises [the hero, the leader, the lover etc.], the true historian will push the masquerade to its limit and prepare the great carnival of time where masks are constantly reapearing. (93-94)

  2. dissociative: directed against identity, and opposing history as continuity or representative of a tradition. "This is necessary because the rather weak identity, which we attempt to support and to unify under a mask, is in itself only a parody : it is plural; countless spirits dispute its possession; numerous systems intersect and compete." In each soul is not a singular identity but "a complex system of distinct and multiple elements, unable to be mastered by the powers of synthesis..." (94) The purpose of history is to dissipate, not discover, the roots of our identity. (95)

  3. sacrificial: directed against truth, and opposing history as knowledge. All the forms and transformations which mark the construction of fields and traditions, etc., of knowledge are aspects of the will to knowledge, of violences. "The historical analysis of this rancorous will to knowledge reveals that all knowledge rests upon injustice (there is no right, not even in the act of knowing, to truth or to a foundation for truth) and that the instinct for knowledge is malicious (sometimes murder ous, opposed to the happiness of mankind)." (95) (Genuine) knowledge calls us to the sacrifice of knowledge (as a system of totalizing, classifying, etc, hence oppression).