A friend on Twitter posed a question in the form of a statement recently. She asked, “Still searching for the full official launch birthdate of Twitter! Only got March 2006 so far…Even tweeted the creators!”. It was an innocent enough request.
In reading Foucault’s Nietzsche, Genealogy, History I can’t help but think about posing the response to this question in a different light. Or, as Foucault did in The Subject and Power, ask it a different way. Foucault reformulated the question “what is power?” to “how has power come to operate in our society?”. I could do the same with the Twitter question. Rather than “when was Twitter launched” it could become “what is it in our recent past that allowed Twitter to emerge?”.
Of course I could be accused of being pedantic and rightly so. But the question of when evades the why and the how. It also performs a function that Foucault was particularly wary of, and that is to inscribe a linearity of history, an assumption of a unified whole having an unbroken line of existence from a distant past to the present.
In establishing his genealogical method (based on the work of Nietzsche) Foucault made it clear that it was with the body, inscribed as it is with the marks and fissures of history, that we must start. Unlike the traditional historical approach where the historian starts at a distant past and moves back to the metaphysical present, the genealogical approach begins at the most recent history – the body – and traces these many fissures and ruptures into the distant past.
In proposing this method of analysis Foucault sought to establish the many and variant influences that serve to shape the notions we hold as universal truths today. Ideals, such as liberty, freedom and rationality, are but creations of society at various stages. Each serve a particular end and purpose in the ebb and flow of a will for power and knowledge.
Foucault warned that, rather than some human rationality being responsible for the emergence of various phenomena, these occurred through accident and cleavage at points far distant from their apparent metaphysical arising. History, then is laden with contingency and breakages that can be observed shaping all phenomena, particularly the human body.
“The body”, he said, ” 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. “Effective” history differs from traditional history in being without constants. Nothing in man – not even his body – is sufficiently stable to serve as a basis for self-recognition or for understanding” (p. 88-9)
So to ask “when was Twitter launched?” is to miss the richness of its emergence into social consciousness. It misses the many accidents that made it possible and the many discourses that prevailed in so many ways to invite its emergence. It treats Twitter as a body whole and complete from its birth.
But it’s still a good question. The answer is July 15, 2006.