A friend who found Foucault's The Order of Things useful and interesting recommended that I give the Archaeology of Knowledge a try. I had enjoyed his first book, Madness and Civilization, so I took up the challenge.
I spent an extremely frustrating month trying to make sense of The Archaeology and then gave up. From the first page on Foucault uses totally unfamiliar concepts in a vocabulary loaded with neologisms which he neither defines nor references. Since the concepts are used in extraordinarily complex locutions, invariably along with other idiosyncratically opaque terminology, it seems impossible to discern their meaning from the context in which they occur.
I have since been advised that The Archaeology of Knowledge is much more approachable for one who has read everything else that Foucault has written, and who has also mastered Derrida and Kristeva. That may be true, but it's not a risk I'm willing to take. Even if I did eventually manage to decipher the code used in producing The Archaeology, I doubt that the intellectual payoff would be substantial. Foucault is the kind of author who delights in keeping people guessing, making sure that no one can ever be certain as to his meaning. It all sounds very profound, but what does it mean? When all is said and done, Foucault wants to keep us off balance, uncertain, but somehow deeply impressed, as in "Perhaps this is what Foucault means by discursive formation! Ah ha!" Or, "Oh, I see: dispersion refers to the post-structuralist notion that any signifier is inevitably modified by an infinitely large number of other signifiers, so its meaning is never absolute... I think ..." But we're never sure.
I have since read interviews with Foucault written when he was at his most influential. Success seems to have been an intoxicating experience for him, and he indulged himself in a sort of yes-I-am, no-I'm-not obfuscation. There is a common and suitably profane English term for this, head-[blanking], sufficiently familiar so that most readers can fill in the blank. Readers who find virtue in head-[blanking] by construing it as an instance of "the death of the author" are kidding themselves. An author who writes an incomprehensible book that somehow gets to be taken very seriously is not dead, but very much in control.
In any case, I'm sure that The Archaeology of Knowledge will have a long life in references and indexes as Foucault's major methodological work. Learned people, moreover, will purport to discern its meaning and will discuss it with ease and assurance.
I had a similar experience 30 years ago when I studied ethnomethodology. I could talk about it with facility and self-satisfaction, but I couldn't shake the vague suspicion that I had merely become adept at exchanging utterances in a shared but meaningless logic of head-[blanking].
As an addendum, an irate reader of this review took me to task for evaluating a book that I do not have the conceptual wherewithal to appreciate. He may have a point, but I've read Habermas, Eagleton, Anthony Giddens, Peter Berger, and other contemporary social and cultural theorists with little difficulty, so I don't think it's unreasonable to expect to be able to make some sense of Foucault.