Michel Foucault: Discipline and Punish

MICHEL FOUCAULT (1926 – 1986)

PART FIVE

Discipline and Punish. The Birth of the Prison (1975)

The opening pages of Discipline and Punish by Michel Foucault were one of the best representations of his long term project of making history or the past “strange.” Barely a two decades before the Declaration of Independence was issued in the American colonies in 1757, “Damiens the Regicide” was tortured to death in Paris in a manner so gruesome that the 21st century reader recoils in shock and horror. In fact, the distance was not just the two centuries and twenty years between the execution of Damiens and the publication of Discipline and Punish but also the difference between an absolute monarchy in France and the budding democracy in the Colonies. However, the content of Discipline and Punish is not a tale of progress from absolutism to self-rule but an archaeology of discourses and an analysis of how these discourses mold and shape societies and lives and personas. Discipline and Punish is the middle step between the Archaeology of Knowledge and the three volume The History of Sexuality, published just a year later, which can be read as the journey of Foucault from the way in which discourses were formed to the impact of those discourses. The reentry into is a re-visiting of the question of the formation of the “subject” and Foucault’s “historical a priori” shifted from mechanics to application.

Just as The Archaeology of Knowledge encouraged a number of scholars to initiate their own discourses on various forms of knowledge, so too did Discipline and Punish suggest new ways to talk about a subject that began to weigh upon Foucault from the early seventies on. Perhaps his concerns with power came from his experience with the “days of May” in 1968 or due to the obvious implications of the impact of discourses, or savoir, Foucault began to link “voir” or “to see” with “pouvoir” or power. He works out an unholy trinity of voir, savior, pouvoir, in other words, to see is to know is to have power. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault tranced to rise of the discipline of the body, rather than punishing it as a public spectacle which was, not a spectacle of pain but of the centralized power of the king. As long as power radiated outward from the ruler, it was negative or prohibitive, but during the Enlightenment a new kind of power emerged: not the negative power–the “shalt-nots”–but a positive power that dispersed, multiplied, spread out, and became non-localized. As opposed to the bloodthirsty and regressive regime of torture that acted as a public deterrent to crime and as a form of entertainment, the new positive power introduced a regime of the regard or the steadfast gaze of power.

Foucault did not seem to be interested in power until he mentioned it in public until 1970 when he began to shift from archaeology to genealogy which allows him to examine these discourses as they are received: as regimes of “truth.” However, his interest in state power came from his involvement in a campaign to reform French prisons. This practical experience, which included visits to French and American prisons, was followed by a theoretical book on power. Foucault came to understand, via the ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) on genealogy, that knowledge is entangled in power. With Nietzsche morality is neither metaphysical or sacred but is implicated in changing conceptions of “good and evil” that are tools for domination. Indeed, for Foucault, knowledge is part of a larger “will to power” which is “malicious” and unjust. Foucault became preoccupied with power because it seemed clear that although society was enmeshed in a web of laws, there was no clear idea of power. We understand a government by laws, but we had no conception of modern power until Foucault, beginning with his early writings on the clinic and madness, slowly came to the realization that a combination of the “gaze” of the authority and discourse (knowledge in the service of the dominant) had the power to construct where to put what kind of bodies and why. As Foucault wrote,

The classical age discovered the body as the object and target of power. It is easy enough to find signs of the attention then paid to the body–to the body that is manipulated, shaped, trained, which obeys, responds, becomes skillful and increases its forces.

As early as Madness and Civilization (1966), Foucault talked about the “medical gaze” bearing down upon an individual, discursively named as “patient.” He made the link between voir (to see) and savior (to know) and pouvoir (to be in power). The body became objectified in order that it be controlled, disciplined, and placed under surveillance in the panopticon society. Although madness, for example, has always existed, the language to discuss language has not, nor have the conditions always existed to “construct” the idea of the mad person. The “mad” or “madness” come into being only through the force of discourse. Under certain conditions, discourses begin to form as distinct objects, but these social “conditions” are not what intrigued Foucault. Like language itself, discourses cannot exist outside of groups of relations. These complex relations are what enables the objects to appear and these relations are what is interesting to Foucault.

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Michel Foucault. Discipline and Punish (1975)

In the spirt of investigating discursive structures and their impact, Foucault began Discipline and Punish. This is the most accessible of Foucault’s books: it starts with a riveting scene of horror and then he established a sequence of social practices that established what he called “the carceral society,” which is where the book concluded. In the chapter, “The Gentle Way in Punishment,” Focault described the changed from from public spectacles to different forms of penalties. As Foucault wrote, “..everyone must see punishment, not only as natural, but in his own interest; everyone must be no more spectacular, but useless penalties. There must be no secret penalties either, the punishment must be regarded as a retribution that the guilt man makes to each of his fellow citizens, for the crime that has wronged them all..”

The role of government is to maintain good order, and by the 18th century the role of discipline before the fact, rather than punishment after the fact began to play an important role in social control. Foucault selected several institutions which were large and influential in creating the “docile bodies:” the military, the factory, hospitals, and schools, all being located in enclosed spaces. According to Foucault, these “projects of docility” are based upon “the scale of control” that were used to put the body under “meticulous control.” During the classical age, society was subjected to what Foucault described as “A meticulous observation of detail, and at the same time a political awareness of these small things, for the control and use of men, emerge through the classical age bearing with them a whole set of techniques, a whole corpus of methods and knowledge, descriptions, plans and date. And from these trifles, no doubt, the man of modern humanism was born.”

This is a striking passage and it is buried in the middle of the book but sums up its entire contents. Foucault made the point that discipline needed what he called “an analytical space.” The analytical space separated individuals into specific areas “..to locate individuals, to set up useful communications, to interrupt others, to be able at each moment to supervise the conduct of each individual, to assess it, to judge it, to calculated its qualities or merits. It was a procedure, therefore, aimed at knowing, mastering, and using. Discipline organizes an analytical space. Perhaps the most powerful and frightening chapter is the one on “docile bodies” where Foucault explained the meticulous training of the large bodies of the soldiers and the small bodies of elementary school students, all of whom are trained to respond to tiny signals and small gestures, creating what he called“the correlation of the body and the gesture.”

In a passage that is both inhumane and alarming, Foucault demonstrated the level of detail and control, described as dressage, that was brought to bear upon young children in the 18th century:

A distance of two fingers must be left between the body and the table; for not only to the health than to acquire the habit of pressing one’s stomach against the table, the part of the left arm from the elbow to the hand must be placed on the table. The right arm must be at a distance from the body of about three fingers and be about five fingers from the table, on which it must rest lightly.

The most famous chapter in the book concerned the “panopticon society,” a term that was derived from an experimental prison created by the architect Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) who was responding to the new necessity to incarcerate and discipline, prisoners. Bentham was an economist who devoted himself to bringing about social reforms under his ideas of utilitarianism. Although he was trained as a lawyer, Bentham never practiced law and spent his career devising plans for numerous institutions devoted to incarcerating people for a number of reasons. As Bentham explained, Morals reformed – health preserved – industry invigorated, instruction diffused – public burthens lightened – Economy seated, as it were, upon a rock – the gordian knot of the Poor-Laws are not cut, but untied – all by a simple idea in Architecture!”

According to Foucault, surveillance began with the plague which meant that an entire town had to be closed off and all of its inhabitants kept under close watch. He compared the condition of the townspeople with that of the exclusion of the leper who is free but separated. The Panopticon, designed by Bentham, was as he described it, “A building circular…The prisoners in their cells, occupying the circumference—The officers in the centre. By blinds and other contrivances, the Inspectors concealed… from the observation of the prisoners: hence the sentiment of a sort of omnipresence—The whole circuit reviewable with little, or…without any, change of place. One station in the inspection part affording the most perfect view of every cell.” The result of the regime of watching is that the prisoners internalize the gaze and end up watching themselves, a condition called by Foucault, “a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.”Foucault continued,“..one is totally seen, without ever seeing; in the central tower, one sees everything without being seen..He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both sides; he becomes the principle of his own subjection.”

One of the crucial conclusions made by Foucault is that power is not negative–does not reside in prohibitions, but is productive and positive. One power was no longer located within or upon the body of the ruler, then, in the modern era, power was dispersed throughout the population all of whom, whether “inspectors” or prisoners, were under the anonymous control of a myriad of regulations.“The panoptic schema, without disappearing as such or losing any of its properties, was destined to spread throughout the social body; its vocation was to become a generalized function.” The result of the panoptic schema was the evolution of a carceral society, called by Foucault, “the carceral” or a social condition in which“The judges of normality are present everywhere..The carceral network, in its compact or disseminated forms, with its systems of insertion, distribution, surveillance, observation, has been the greatest support, in modern society, of the normalizing power. The carceral texture of society assures both the real capture of the body and its perpectual observation; it is, by its very nature, the apparatus of punishment that conforms most completely to the new economy of power and the instrument for the formation of knowledge that this economy needs.”

There is no ultimate origin for power but a production of a discursive object through the discourse itself. Foucault investigated the discursive relationship between power and knowledge and the body in Discipline and Punish in 1975 and continued the connection in The History of Sexuality, begun in 1977 and not completed when he died. Human sciences are played out in social institutions and practices. The organization of society is carried out through bio-techico power and Foucault gave a unique, but ultimately influential, emphasis on the body in explaining the operations of power. Although The History of Sexuality suffered due to his illness–the final volumes were not as well-developed as the first–this series established a new and significant concept: that social bodies were determined through discourse. In other words, human beings are not natural and from birth they are, as Simone de Beauvoir noted, “made.”

However, influential the idea of the unnatural fabrication of even such intimate aspects of one’s private and personal life, gender and sexuality, are social constructs were, it must be noted that Foucault managed to write a “history of sexuality” which almost entirely leaves out women–half the human race. In addition, the institutions highlighted in Discipline and Punish existed mainly to control the male. Women would be found in workhouses and factories but not in schools or the military, the two largest institutions in charge of creating the “docile body.” Although Foucault does not deal with gender in this book, the fact that, once again, half the human race is left out does not seem to disturb the thrust of the thesis. In addition, the fact that women would never be in positions of authority, not as teachers, or “inspectors,” or military commanders, or as supervisors in a hospital, and so on, meant that the social condition of women and their bodies were never taken into account in creating a society of subjugation. In addition, in concentrating on the prison, it is possible for Foucault to leave out more “primitive” forms of maintaing power, such as those exercised in the American South to control slaves and those exercised in the family to oppress women.

While it is never fair to criticize a writer in terms of what s/he choses to not address, it seems clear that Foucault’s position, although always a critique, would preclude a Marxist or a Feminist reading or a post-Colonial interpretation, which might “reveal” white male dominance and oppression relative to the position of the Other. Foucault’s stance was decidedly conservative and regressive in its effects. One of the major criticisms of women and people of color make against Post-Structuralism and Post-Modernism is that, just as their voices are beginning to be heard, critique for political purposes was been “ruled out” in favor is the study of discourse, silencing the Other once again. Intellectually, Foucault and his contemporaries got around the objection to the way in which theory distanced itself from the effects of real life. Post-Structuralism is located outside of Structuralism, that is, away from the task of interpretation, stems from phenomenology of Edumnd Husserl and Martin Heidegger. Post-Structuralism does not interpret but finds and describes. The divide between Structuralism and Post-Structuralism is the divide between Modernism and Post-Modernism and Discipline and Punish was an important move towards a Post-Modern critique of society. There are, however, problems with this position.

Structuralism is a method, an assumption of being and takes the object of examination out of context and subjects it to the clear light of an “objective gaze.” For the Post-Structuralist, the very idea of the “objective” is as fictitious as the “subjective.” In addition, through decontextualizing the object, Structuralism neglects history and cannot account for the force of the text. Foucault’s refusals, his “nots,” were always in opposition to Structuralism, which created a formal order of development for the sake of knowledge. Structuralism “creates” regularities that make representation possible and the world become knowable. In contrast, the Post-Structuralist refuses all the outcomes of humanism: “spirit,” “influence,” continuity, tradition, and psychoanalysis–all forms of the “self.” The self which can be actualized through affirmative action, as posited by Jean-Paul Sartre, was the major target of the post war generation.

Given that advocates for feminism and post-colonialism, both of which could be said to be part of the Modernist project of social justice still hoped for “progress” in human equality, their method of practical critique–“the personal is political”–would be excluded in favor of a more abstract critique of discourse. Although there are many elements in Post-Structuralism or Post-Modernism that were radical and even revolutionary towards authority, even Discipline and Punish, which laid out the mechanizations of power, was a conservative document. While it was of great interest to understand that gender was a social construction, the other side of such an analysis was not a proscription for change but a description of a web of power from which there was no escape.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Michel Foucault and Archaeology

MICHEL FOUCAULT (1926 – 1984)

PART TWO

The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969)

Like many French intellectuals, Michel Foucault witnessed the now-legendary days of May, 1968 in which the students and later the proletariat or working class rose up against the forces of law and order, against oppressive institutions and against post-war materialistic society itself. During a dramatic month, French society itself seemed to be hanging in the balance, caught between total breakdown and a break away into a new future. Foucault held a prestigious chair in history at the Collège de France and was part of a network of patronage within a system that was rapidly becoming more institutionalized. The old free-wheeling ways of academic freedom and intellectual development among café convocations came to an end with the wave of post-War rise of the university system. Foucault remained, nevertheless, a freewheeling individual, moving back and forth from between Paris and Berkeley where he enjoyed the pleasures of the bathhouses of San Francisco. His life was marked by a suicide attempt, a nervous breakdown, and a police file when he was accused of theft as a student. He was institutionalized and eventually died of AIDS, a disease that was acknowledge in France and denied in America.

Foucault witnessed one of the great events of 20th century French intellectual life, May 1968 and saw its results: the incarceration of intellectual thought in the university. The revolutionaries were caught up in a revolution for which there was no plan of action and without direction the explosive situation fizzled into the status quo. Charles de Gaulle and his minions regained control and observers, such as Foucault, noted the cooperation of the media with the government in conveying approved information. Knowledge, Foucault realized, was intertwined with power and the spectacle of the exercise of power during the month of May changed his approach to history. The grand ideals could not longer be legitimized and the Enlightenment categories failed to come in close contact with reality. The events of May 1968 or “soiyant huitard” created a political opening for transgressive writing. As a result of his experiences as witness to a failed revolution, Foucault took up transgressive writing to disrupt the notion of language as a set of representations, which mirror the world. He re-looked at the familiar, at the social institutions that (de)form our lives in order to put the audience through the ordeal of de-familiarization. Foucault had long been concerned with how various aspects of culture evolved, but his mature work rejected traditional ways of writing history and became something he called “archaeology.”

The archaeological approach to the past was part of Foucault’s attempt to find a way out of the Marxist explanation of historical forces. For the post-war generation of disillusioned French scholars, the other fortress that needed to be taken was that of Marxism. The failure of Marxist theory and the extent of its limitations became glaringly clear during the events of May 1968. Disillusioned intellectuals emerged from the wreckage of Marxism with an undiminished need for a tool to critique society and Foucault and Barthes were part of that shift in that they understood that the Marxist mode of production had become irrelevant. It was the Mode of Information, as Mark Poster termed it in his (now outdated) 1990 book, The Mode of Information: Poststructuralism and Social Content, that became the key element in social control.

Roland Barthes (1916-1980) was well aware of the role the ordinary discourses, such as mass media, of everyday life played in shaping the public mindset and how these semiotic mechanisms were deployed to to control group thinking. The old form of Marxism had placed the locus of exploitation and alienation in the workplace, but by the late 20th century, it was becoming increasingly clear that oppression was dissipated and existed at many levels, from the family to knowledge itself. Of course oppression had always existed in these sites, but the resulting alienation of women in the family, for example, had always existed but once intellectual attention shifted from class to a more precise view of a complex social world, the old Base-Superstructure model was inadequate.

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Foucault Pins

Once it was clear that it was clear that history had no goal and once it was clear that history was enmeshed in language, the question ceased to be what happened? but how did it became possible to make certain statements at a certain time? The answer did not lie in the historical context, for the search for “origins” had changed over the course of the century. Thanks to Structuralism, it was understood that there was no origin in the singular. There was no one point in time, such as in Greek tragedy, when a human event occurred, like Oedipus killing his father, that could be seen as one event that was preceded by other events and that led to subsequent events. There could only be a certain historical period when a certain social practice manifested itself out of, not one event, but many events. What was significant was not that the practice emerged but that at some point of time it became possible to speak of this condition. Therefore there was no origin, only discourse.

Nothing can come into being, except through language, and discourse is language. Therefore, all objects must necssarily be discursive or formed out of language. “Archaeology” is the treatment of the human sciences as an object of discourse or a discourse-object, without regard to their presumed external “value.” The discourse object is neither true nor untrue; it is an object to be studied from a stance of neutrality as to truth or meaning. In other words, the archaeologist studies not so much the object itself, but how the object was constructed out of discourse. The mechanics of discursive formation, as it were, and how the discourse was created had to be studied without being concerned about what “truth” content the discourse might or might not contain. This was an intellectual move that re-directed the way in which historians treat documents, meaning that if what was analyzed was the mechanisms of creating a discursive object, then the intellectual would be “disengaged” and critique would be re-located to mechanics and away from effects. The subsequent disempowerment of critique would be remedied in Foucault’s later work and The Archaeology of Knowledge should be understood as the second in a series of steps to rethink “history.”

Just as The Order of Things sought, on one hand, to make the past strange while creating a “history of the present,” on the other hand, The Archaeology of Knowledge distances the discursive object, distances it in order to make it strange–to alienate the concept or “serious discourse” from the observer. Although these two books can be seen as a sequence, first, establishing the end of the self dissolved in a new episteme and then second, examining the consequences of the disappearance of the active human agent which is a non-humanistic version of history. Between the two volumes, traditional history was severely challenged by Foucault, who said,

The document, then, is no longer for history and inert material through which it tries to reconstitute what men have done or said, the events of which only the trace remains; history is now trying to define within the documentary material itself unities, totalities, series, relations. History must be detached from the image that satisfied it for so long..history is that which transforms documents in to monuments..history aspires to the condition of archaeology to the intrinsic description of the monument.

This shift in perspective or point of view, from taking monuments and turning them into documents to turning documents into monuments would mean that, for example, instead of using records of slavery to tell the story of slavery in the South one would examine the documents themselves to see how and under what conditions these documents “describe” slavery.

The monumentalizing of documents or the archaeological effect had important consequences: the surface effect which replaces continuity with distinct elements that now need to be organized in a series to find the appropriate relations. The result of focusing on elements, discontinuity is made obvious and the discontinuity itself or the gaps becomes the object of study. With the end of continuity, the idea of total history also disappears and something Foucault called “general history” emerges. This general history is quite at odds with the expected mode of document reading. Foucault went to great length (literally many pages) to explain what he was not doing: he would not “interpret” the contents nor attempt to deduce the intention of the writer. Instead, as with Structuralism, the author disappears so that the discourse can be foregrounded. As Foucault wrote, “We must grasp the statement in the exact specificity of its occurrences; determine its conditions of existence, fix at least its limits, establish its correlations with other statements that may be connected with it, and show what other forms of statement it excludes.”

Foucault’s concept of discursive formations was perhaps his most fruitful contribution to the humanities. His former professor Georges Canguilhem (1904-1995) felt that Foucault’s archaeological methods constituted an historical a priori for knowledge or the precondition for knowledge. Knowledge is a metaphysical emanation of a “truth,” but the result of a series of statements (enounce or systematic statement) that may not be continuous but are related and eventually form a “discourse” over time, and that discourse becomes “knowledge.” Many scholars adopted Foucault’s ideas. Canadian scholar Ian Hacking became part of a Foucauldrian group of scholars in many areas who used Foucault’s ideas that knowledge was a construction of discourses and that these discourses which shape the world, arbitrarily through the language, construct society. In his 2006 essay “Making up People” in the London Review of Books, Hacking examined the emergence of various types of psychological “disorders” through discursive formations.

In Rules of Art (1992), Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) was another scholar who profited from using Foucauldrian methods in the study of the avant-garde in Paris during the 1830s. One scholar, Hacking, is interested in how discourses form people; the other scholar, Bourdieu, was concerned with how discourse formed cultural attitudes. One of the better known examples of a study of a discourse was Edward Said’s (1935-2003) Orientalism (1978), in which the author asserted that the “Orient” was a Western or Occidental discourse formed for the purposes of dominating the East. Said was the most overtly “structuralist” of these authors and violated Foucault’s strictures against Structuralism by setting up a formal opposition between the “East” and the “West.”

Foucault expended a great deal of space in setting up how and under what linguistic–not social or cultural–circumstances a discourse would be formed. He began with the “enunciative function” in which statements are made and related to one another. The “author,” Foucault cautioned “is not identical with with the subject of the statement,”a point he made over and over. The guide must be whether or not a sentence is a proposition or not and he pointed out that a sentence should not be analyzed in isolation. The sentence becomes a statement only when it is part of an associated field. As Foucault stated, “There is no statement that does not presuppose others; there is no statement that is not surrounded by a field of coexistences, effects of series and succession, a distribution of functions of roles.” The subsequent “objects” as Foucault called them are placed in “a domain of coordination and coexistence” where they are placed in a space “in which they are used and repeated.” This space is, for Foucault, is “the operational field of the enunciative function.”

The next stage is the organizations of these statements into a “discourse,” which Foucault described as “a group of verbal performances,” “a group of acts of formulations, a series of sentences or propositions.” “A discourse,” Foucault stated, “is constituted by a group of sequences of signs,” which demonstrate “assigned particular modalities of existence.”He further described the function of this series as a “discursive formation..the principle of dispersion and redistribution of statements that “belong to a single system of formation.” Foucault described “that whole mass of texts that belong to a single discursive formation” as the historical a priori, a term he employed in order to shake off the old fashioned notion of a “history of ideas.” Foucault was concerned with “positivity” or what we would also call productivity that produced discursive formations, which are objects and not ephemeral “ideas.” But then Foucault has to determine the “rules” that create a discourse, but he sidesteps once again and formulates, not rules, but the “archive” or “that which determines that all things said do not accumulated endlessly in an amorphous mass..” The archive “defines at the outset the system of enunciabiltiy” and “the system of functioning.”

The archive is closely linked to “archaeology” and Foucault laid out his steps carefully leading up to describing his method. Given that the archive exists at the level of what he called “practice,” that practice enabled “statements both to survive and to undergo regular modifications, the archive “forms the general horizon to which the description of discursive formations,” which Foucault explained must be uncovered in a search called “archaeology.” Archaeology “designates the general theme of a description that questions the already-said at the level of its existence: of the enunciative function that operates within it, of the discursive formation, and the general archive system to which it belongs. Archaeology describes discourses as practices specified in the element of the archive.”

Foucault ended his book on archaeology by expressing his doubts on the concept of the “author,” an issue that he would take up quickly. The author is not exactly eliminated but must be understood as the agent of a series of statements that in their turn must be properly placed within a discourse. The author is part of a larger practice and is subsumed under the task of examining the rules that allowed the discourse to form. Foucault also expressly distanced himself from Structuralism. Although throughout the book, he used linguistic and semiotic language, discussing sentences, statements and so on, Foucault’s intention was to denounce the Formalism of Structuralism. What he was trying to do was to move away from the major project of Structuralism which was the reading of specific documents and analyzing them through a “close reading” or a Formal analysis. Far from examining the “structure” of the discursive formation, Foucault examined the “practices” or the dynamics of how discourses were formed over time and the mechanisms of their placement (the rules that allowed them to exist) in the archive. Archaeology sought to redirect the gaze of the historian away from the “history of ideas” to the ways in which certain speech acts were gathered together into a specific practice.

Foucault’s position needs to be understood in relation to what he is “not” writing about. Reading Foucault always involves wading through many sentences that state what he is not doing in order to find a sentence that states what he is doing. The negative sentences will outnumber the positive sentences. Foucault’s rather backwards approach–that of backing into his position–is necessary because he must clear away the rubble of past methodologies. What Foucault is not doing is traditional history. “History” is not a natural phenomenon but a cultural construct. We all have a “past”, but the “past” is simply a random un-patterned cacophony of non-events and non-incidents until this jumble of moments is taken up by a historian and is constructed into something called “history.”

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]