Much of my written work has focused on stepping back from whatever it is people in my field — or people more generally — happen to be discussing or debating at any given moment, stepping back in order to ask: Why are we talking about this? How did our discursive frame happen to take this form? How would things look different if we made different assumptions, or if our institutioms were constituted differently so as to prompt different ways of speaking or different speech genres?
Looking back, far back, I’m inclined to think that one of my most formative intellectual experiences happened when, in grad school, I read Foucault’s great essay “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History.” That didn’t make a Foucauldian of me, really, but it did give me a permanent habit of thinking genealogically. And I’m grateful for having developed that habit. It has been useful to me and sometimes, I think, even to a few others.
That essay is often seen to mark Foucault’s transition from an intellectual archaeologist — someone obssessed in classic 19th-century style with tracing an idea or a phenomenon back to its archē, its origin or source, its Ursprung or Quelle — to the more skeptical character of the genealogist, who sees belief that an Origin can be found as a romantic delusion and is interested instead in tracing all the ramifications over time of thought and practice.
The average thinker will always be an archaeologist, I think, because the average thinker mainly wants someone to blame for whatever he or she laments. (This is why, as I often comment the intellectual vacuity of generational thinking has such lasting appeal.) But what if you want to understand? Then you’ll have to work harder.
It seems to me that we especially need more genealogists of our current political order.
There’s a very good chance that next November Americans going to the polls to vote for President will be asked to choose between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. I am less interested in which of those I should choose — in fact I won’t choose either — than in how the hell we got that choice. Or look at the U.K., whose major political parties are led by Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn, two people manifestly unqualified to lead anything. How did that happen? If we don’t know how we came to this pass, can we find our way to a better one?