“Genealogy […] requires patience and knowledge of details, and it depends on a vast accumulation of source material. Its ‘cyclopean monuments’ are constructed from ‘discreet and apparently insignificant truths and according to a rigorous method’; they cannot be the product of ‘large and well-meaning errors.’ In short, genealogy demands relentless erudition. 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 metahistorical deployment of ideal significations and indefinite teleologies. It opposes itself to the search for ‘origins.’”
—Michel Foucault, from “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History”
This brief passage by Foucault has three references to Nietzsche. The essay from which the passage is drawn demonstrates Foucault’s immense debt to Nietzsche, citing as it does no other thinker but Nietzsche (save for a fleeting reference to Paul Ree, whose term “Ursprung,” or “origin,” Nietzsche adopts). Of all Nietzsche’s ideas and practices, genealogy is the one that Foucault cultivates most impressively. Genealogy is a methodology by and with which one documents or tracks the development of ideas and their relation to human organization. In other words, genealogy traces knowledge to its systemic formations across various networks of discourse. That is why genealogy “requires patience” and “depends on a vast accumulation of source material.” It is a process, and processes take time to work out.
Genealogy does not recover origins because origins are not recoverable. Origins are fluid, not fixed; they are not, strictly speaking, origins at all—if, that is, “origins” is taken to mean single, absolute causes or definite, immutable sources. Rather, for Foucault, “origins” is a term of convenience—perhaps strategically essentialized—referring to sets of beliefs and activities that constitute discursive structures mobilized by numerous truth claims. That is why Foucault can employ the term “origins” in one sentence and then, in a subsequent sentence, seemingly reverse course by calling origins “chimeras.” The point is not to define or explain origins; the point is to discredit the idea of origins as self-evident and immanently knowable.
Origins themselves are inaccessible; the emergence and development of structures based on ideas, however, are not only accessible, but also edifying. Foucault’s genealogy, therefore, seeks to collect data about numerous truth claims and then to explain how these data form and shape culture. As Foucault says of genealogy, “It opposes itself to the search for ‘origins.’” Note the quotation marks around “origins.” Those marks suggest an intent to divest that term of its expressive purchase. Origins are knowable only as points of loss or complication, only as intricate and multifaceted constructs that, when examined closely, signify multiple and heterogeneous phenomena and that thus enable and sustain further inquiry.
Genealogy is not about looking backward to legislate to the present age or to validate certain attitudes and viewpoints. It is about analyzing the ways in which attitudes and viewpoints arise and function. It is about how systems of belief inscribe and imprint themselves on the human body, how discourse bears a direct relation to individuals and their regulation by society. Genealogy is not prescriptive; it’s descriptive. Rejecting a telos, it seeks to understand the function, not the merits, of discourse formation. “Genealogy demands relentless erudition,” Foucault submits, and erudition, such as it is, depends upon an understanding of myriad, related events: their changing, unfolding, becoming, stumbling, surfacing, failing, and maneuvering. In short, genealogy excavates from the past whatever evidence is available to shed light on the construction of classifications and arrangements of knowledge.