The genealogical method, where an idea is traced back to its roots as one would map a family tree, began in the nineteenth century substantially, it seems, with Nietzsche and in particular On the Genealogy of Morals. It is in one sense an attempt to escape the trappings of history, to understand the lineage of ideas in the context of their time. In another, it is an attempt to loose ourselves from the alienating influences of modernity, stripping ourselves of prejudice and ‘education’. For the independent researcher, it appears to me to be an essential tool in understanding things, and in plotting a research agenda.
Independent research, particularly where one’s interest is general, and not gated by deadlines and a specific research question, can be unwieldy and shallow. It’s easy to read too broadly, to flit from one subject to another, based on a news report, a book review, or a tweet. The genealogical method, in my application of it in any case, seeks to dive into particular ideas and critique them, to unpack their elements, and lay the constituents upon the virtual table in order that they may be reconstructed and better understood for the effort.
Take for example an article in a newspaper about a popular subject, such as Brexit. If in the first instance the article appears particularly interesting, and if the author and publication are reasonably well thought of, these are subjective judgements that gate the piece. Next, there will likely be several claims unreferenced, or anecdotes unattributed. For example, there may be a reference to Britain not recognising the specificity of the Champagne designation post-Brexit, which has been referenced in numerous other news reports. Is this true? Is Britain serious about this, or are the reports simply a tactical diversion, something to take off the table in a later perceived concession? Plus, where does the designation come from? Who decides on these things, and what makes a cheese a parmesan, versus a camembert?
Custom, convention and tradition, subjective values, self-regulation, and the imprecision of law all begin to rear their heads as the concepts in the article become deconstructed. As we wander closer to postmodernist absurdity – fun, though it is – we can choose to let the matter rest there: that some people decide about cheese and wine designations because their ancestors did the same, and one of them wrote it in a book at some point. We could have delved deeper into the value of subjective judgement (what gave their ancestor the right?), the value of values themselves (aren’t all values subjective and therefore just opinions?), and the nature of freedom and tyranny (we’re back to Hayek again), and we can get all that from the name of a cheese.
As we reconstruct the narrative, however, and return to the more sobering (and often dry) Brexit negotiations, there begins to dawn an understanding of some of the hypocrisies in the construct, and the hubris on both sides. Never mind the nonsense that Britain wants to reclaim its borders, and recover its sovereignty, the whole notion of the nation state and modern politics is compromised when we think about how cheese designations are based on a vacuous inheritance. If such is the shaky ground upon which our understanding of cheese is situated, what of our conceptions of power?
Heraclitus, the Greek fifth century BC philosopher, suggested that no man ever steps in the same river twice, as everything is constantly changing, in flux. In an attempt to exert control over a fundamentally chaotic environment, human beings compromise on knowledge and epistemology, suggesting that to think otherwise (because it is, in fact, the same river) would be simply impossible. Our civilisation, such as it is, is an attempt to establish an order of things, a rationality that embodies a politics of control. And then, suddenly, we find ourselves at the door of Michel Foucault, and his theories of power and madness.
In reading an article and applying this kind of critique, a deep dive into some of the basic assumptions of the piece, one can situate the problem (‘Brexit’, or ‘technology-out-of-control’) in a historical and intellectual context that helps us to think about that problem differently. As Arpad Szakolczai put it at the recent summer school I was at, the issue is one of problematisation: we need to be sure that we are asking the right questions. And along the way, we learn other things too.