The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences by Michel Foucault.
Original Title: Les Mots et les choses [words and things]. Published in French in 1966, and in English in 1970.
I feel a little stuck trying to summarize this book. On the one hand, there is a vast amount of very specific information about some very important things. On the other hand, one could basically sum up his point in a couple of sentences, do a few of those clapping/sliding of hands together things they do in the movies when there is something dramatically dusty that needed finishing being finished, and be done with it. While typing up my notes from the book I had the same feeling I’d had while reading it, that I could have just read the second half and through it understood the whole first without having had to suffer through reading the blasted thing. I was also reminded of the fact that Foucault is freakishly brilliant, a fantastic writer, uses more semicolons than anyone else in history, and can be a total bore when he’s not being thrilling. As you’ll see in my notes on Heterologies, l’autre Michel de le examination de Theory & Method, Monsieur de Certeau, totally agrees. Anyway, Foucault wrote a big ol’ book about how everything in the world changed and that book did a pretty goddamn good job of changing everything about how people talk about the world.
So, I’m going to try to do a combo chapter-by-chapter kind of a thing as well as a sort of a bullet-pointed highlights reel/ talking points list. Hope that works.
Main Keywords/ Themes:
“at one and the same time, that which is given in things as their inner law, the hidden network that determines the way they confront once another, and also that which has no existence except in the gird created by a glance, an examination, a language; and it is only in the blank spaces of this grid that order manifests itself in depth as though already there, waiting in silence for the moment of its expression (Foucault, xx).
The archaeological level of investigation is the level of thinking in a project which is concerned with what made something possible (Foucault, 31).
Resemblance is the way in which, as mentioned previously, “the space where one speaks” and “the space where one looks… fold one over the other as though they were equivalents (Foucault, 9-10).”
“In any given culture and at any given moment, there is always only one episteme that defines the conditions of possibility of all knowledge, whether expressed in a theory or silently invested in a practice (Foucault, 168).
Secondary Keywords/ Themes:
General Grammar/ Philology
Natural History/ Biology
Wealth/ Political Economy
Order exists in every culture and is,
at one and the same time, that which is given in things as their inner law, the hidden network that determines the way they confront once another, and also that which has no existence except in the gird created by a glance, an examination, a language; and it is only in the blank spaces of this grid that order manifests itself in depth as though already there, waiting in silence for the moment of its expression (Foucault, xx).
In other words, order, is the relationship between things and what they are called that is so deeply imbedded it gets taken as natural, something within to be brought out, rather than that which is decided or imposed. Foucault continues by explaining that,
The fundamental codes of a culture – those governing its language, its schemas of perception, its exchanges, its techniques, its values, the hierarchy of its practices – establish for every man, from the very first, the empirical orders with which he will be dealing and within which he will be at home (Foucault, xx).
These are ordering codes. While, “at the other extremity of thought, there are the scientific theories or the philosophical interpretations which explain why order exists in general, what universal law it obeys, what principle can account for it, and why this particular order has been established and not some other (Foucault, xx).” Or, what he calls, reflections upon order itself. So, Order is both the code that governs who we interact with the world and the ways we devise of thinking about those codes.
Foucault says that his intent in The Order of Things (from here-on-out, OT) is try to analyze the “pure experience of order and of its modes of being” that occurs between ordering codes and reflections on order itself which he says exists in all cultures. His purpose is to show how this experience has developed since the sixteenth-century. As he lays out in the preface, he is, then, particularly focused on “language as it has been spoken, natural creatures as they have been perceived and grouped together, and exchanges as they have been practiced” in other words, “in what way, then, our culture has made manifest the existence of order, and how, to the modalities of that order, the exchanges owed their laws, the living being their constants, the words their sequence and their representative value” and the ways in which these “modalities of order have been recognized, posited, linked with space and time, in order to create the positive basis of knowledge as we find it employed in grammar and philology, in natural history and biology [and] in the study of wealth and political economy (Foucault, xxi).” These, what we would now call “disciplines,” grammar, philology, natural history, biology, wealth, and political economy, are where Foucault focuses his inquiry.
As he says in his preface, this is project does not belong to any history of ideas or science, it is rather,
An inquiry whose aim is to rediscover on what basis knowledge and theory became possible; within what space of order knowledge was constituted; on the basis of what historical a priori, and in the element of what positivity, ideas could appear, sciences be established, experience be reflected in philosophies, rationalities be formed, only, perhaps, to dissolve and vanish soon afterwards (Foucault, xxii).
The conditions that make knowledge possible, and how those conditions, and thus knowledge, change. That is, as ever, what is of interest to Foucault in this book. His methodology once again being archaeological (more on this to come shortly), he seeks to investigate the threshold between Classical knowledge (knowledge prior to the sixteenth century) and that served to “separate us from Classical though and constitute our modernity (Foucault, xxiv).” On this constitutive threshold, as he calls it, first appears “the strange figure of knowledge called man and revealed a space proper to the human sciences.”
Okay, so, I could stop here and you’d already know why people think this book is important. Obviously, it matters how and why Foucault took on this project. He’s not really getting at something terribly different than he does in his histories of institutionalized power like mental hospitals (Madness and Civilization, 1961 and Birth of the Clinic, 1963), or prison (Discipline and Punish, 1975), or sexuality (History of Sexuality, parts 1-3, 1976 -1984) but the project’s comprehensive combination of detail and expansiveness does set it apart and you can see why it set his career off to run the way that it did. The archaeological method he uses is then articulated fully in the next book he publishes after OT, appropriately titled, The Archeology of Knowledge, released in France in 1969. So, it is worth taking a minute now to make sure it’s clear what Foucault means by “archaeological” in this book.
The archaeological level of investigation is the level of thinking in a project which is concerned with what made something possible (Foucault, 31). Archaeology “can give an account of the existence” in terms of “conditions and a prioris established in time,” it can be used to write “a history of knowledge… on the basis of what was contemporaneous with it” but “not in terms of reciprocal influence (Foucault, 208).” In other words, archeology is a way of studying what happened at a time to make something possible, not a way of saying why or how that thing came to be or how it might have come to influence other things. Or, in still other word, archaeology “must examine each event in terms of its own evident arrangement (Foucault, 218).” The emphasis here ought to be on the idea that the arrangements (conditions) around (of) an event that can be considered archaeologically are only those that are evident, as in discernibly present at the time of the event.
Chapter 1: Las Meninas
The first chapter is about a painting by Diego Velázquez from 1656 called “Las Meninas” or “The Maids of Honour” (incidentally, housed in the same Museo del Prado in Madrid as Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights” with which de Certeau’s Mystic Fable was so interested – who wants to go on a field trip with me?). I won’t say much about the chapter, other than that it is Foucault’s way in to talking about the relationship between things and what they are called, and the model on which this relationship operated in Classical knowledge, resemblance. You see both what interests him about the painting and what his agenda is in using it in this passage:
And the proper name, in this particular context, is merely an artifice: it gives us a finger to point with, in other words, to pass surreptitiously form the space where one speaks to the space where on looks; in other words, to fold one over the other as though they were equivalents. But if one wishes to keep the relation of language to vision open, if one wishes to treat their incompatibility as a starting-point for speech instead of as an obstacle to be avoided, so as to stay as close as possible to both, then one must erase those proper names and preserve the infinity of the task. It is perhaps through the medium of this grey, anonymous language, always over-meticulous and repetitive because too broad, that the painting may, little by little, release its illuminations (Foucault, 9-10).
It is clear here, that for Foucault, at stake in this investigation of how words used to be matched to things, and how that relationship changed, is a declared interest in opening up space where the relationship could shift once more.
Chapter 2: The Prose of the World
This is where we start to get into what Foucault means by resemblance and what its significance is in Classical knowledge. Resemblance is the way in which, as mentioned previously, “the space where one speaks” and “the space where one looks… fold one over the other as though they were equivalents (Foucault, 9-10).” Here, he elaborates, “The universe was folded in upon itself: the earth echoing the sky, faces seeing themselves reflected in the starts, and plants holding within their stems the secrets that were of use to man (Foucault, 17),” he goes on to state what is already becoming clear, that “The main point is man: he stands in proportion to the heavens, just as he does to animals and plants, and as he does also to the earth, to metals, to stalactites or storms (Foucault, 22).” This was the kind of resemblance, man finding in the world a reflection of his needs thus served, that “up to the end of the sixteenth century… played a constructive role in the knowledge of Western culture. It was resemblance that largely guided exegesis and interpretation of texts; it was resemblance that organized the play of symbols, made possible knowledge of things visible and invisible, and controlled the art of representing them (Foucault, 22).”
Since the world of resemblances can “can only be a world of signs (Foucault, 26)” one must be sure to understand what signs are and how they are read in this Classical mode. In its raw, historical sixteenth-century being, language is not an arbitrary system; it has been set down in the world and forms a part of it (Foucault, 35).” At that time, “things themselves were seen to “hide and manifest their own enigma like language” and words were seen to “offer themselves to men as things to be deciphered.” Foucault describes this relationship in more theoretical language in the following way:
Let us call the totality of the learning and skills that enable one to make the signs speak and to discover their meaning, hermeneutics; let us call the totality of the learning and skills that enable one to distinguish the location of the signs, to define what constitutes them as signs, and to know how and by what laws they are linked, semiology: the sixteenth century superimposed hermeneutics and semiology in the form of similitude. To search for a meaning is to bring to light a resemblance. To search for the law governing signs is to discover the things that are alike. The grammar of beings is an exegesis of these things. And what the language they speak has to tell us is quite simply what the syntax is that binds them together. The nature of things, their coexistence, the way in which they are linked together and communicate is nothing other than their resemblance (Foucault, 29).
Or, in other, more approachable language, one could understand it this way, as when he writes of the world as it was understood in the sixteenth century,
…it was all legenda –things to be read. But the reason for this was not that they preferred the authority of men to the precision of an unprejudiced eye, but that nature, in itself, is an unbroken tissue of words and signs, of accounts and characters, of discourse and forms (Foucault, 39-40).
Nature itself was thought of differently, as something to be read, that could be read. Foucault then argues that,
from the seventeenth century, one began to ask how a sign could be linked to what it signified. A question to which the classical period was to reply by the analysis of representation; and to which modern thought was to reply by the analysis of meaning and signification. But given the fact itself, language was never to be anything more than a particular case of representation (for the Classics) or of signification (for us). The profound kinship of language with the world was thus dissolved (Foucault, 43).
Okay, so that’s resemblance. Remember this later when we get to the 17th century and how it all comes undid.
Chapter 3: Representing
The first part of this chapter is about how Don Quixote is the
first modern work of literature because in it we see the cruel reason of identities and differences make endless sport of signs and similitudes; because in it language breaks off its old kinship with things and enters into that lonely sovereignty from which it will reappear, in its separated state, only as literature; because it marks the point where resemblance enters an age which is, from the point of view of resemblance, one of madness and imagination. Once similitude and signs are sundered from each other, two experiences can be established and two characters appear face to face (Foucault, 49).
This part is a lot of fun, but I think much more relevant to our present purposes, is the following bit of the chapter’s second part, called “Order,” which so far as I’m concerned, basically spells out the main questions guiding the book:
Generally speaking, what does it mean, no longer being able to think a certain thought? or to introduce a new thought.
Discontinuity – the fact that within the space of a few years a culture sometimes ceases to think as it had been thinking up till then and beings to think other things in a new way – probably begins with an erosion from outside, form that space which is, for thought, on the other side, but in which it has never ceased to think from the very beginning. Ultimately, the problem that presents itself is that of the relations between thought and culture; how is it that thought has a place in the space of the world, that it has its origin there, and that it never ceases, in this place or that, to being anew? Foucault, 50
The place of thought in culture, how it gets there, what form it takes, and how and why its forms and positions changes when they do. That’s really what Foucault is after. He lays these questions before the reader just as he begins to talk about the first major shift in Western thought that is of concern here, the one from resemblance to representation which happens through processes of comparison.
Because comparison becomes the way by which people relate things to things, and words to words, and words about things to other words about things,
the activity of the mind… will no longer consist in drawing things together, in setting out on a quest for everything that might reveal some sort of kinship, attraction or secretly shared nature within them [resemblance], but, on the contrary, in discriminating, that is, in establishing their identities, then the inevitability of the connections with all the successive degrees of series (Foucault, 55).
Of this difference in thought (“the activity of the mind”), Foucault says,
All this was of the greatest consequence to Western thought. resemblance, which had for long been the fundamental category of knowledge – both the form and the content of what we know – became dissociated in an analysis based on terms of identity and difference; moreover, whether indirectly by the intermediary or measurement, or directly and, as it were, on the same footing, comparison became a function of order; and, lastly, comparison ceased to fulfill the function of revealing how the world is ordered, since it was now accomplished according to the order laid down by thought, progressing naturally from the simple to the complex. As a result, the entire episteme of Western culture found its fundamental arrangements modified (Foucault, 54).
In an epistemic system of representation, “to know is to discriminate, history and science will become separated from one another (Foucault, 55).” In other words, “the written word ceases to be included among the signs and forms of truth… it is the task of words to translate that truth if they can; but they no longer have the right to be considered a mark of it. Language has withdrawn from the midst of beings themselves and has entered a period of transparency and neutrality (Foucault, 56).” Or, in still more clear words, “It is no longer the task of knowledge to dig out the ancient Word from the unknown places where it may be hidden; its job now is to fabricate a language, and to fabricate it well – so that, as an instrument of analysis and combination, it will really be the language of calculation (Foucault, 62-63).”
Here, Foucault turns to imagination, an says that, “without imagination, there would be no resemblance between things. The double requisite is patent. There must be, in the things represented, the insistent murmur of resemblance; there must be, in the representation, the perpetual possibility of imaginative recall (Foucault, 69).”
The point here has been to draw a picture of the two ends of the spectrum of how people thought about the world in the sixteenth century. At one of the spectrum is resemblance, I which “simple natures” (based in resemblance) are ordered according to mathesis, and at the other end is the taxonomic ordering of “complex natures” (based in representation) (Foucault, 72). “Thus, at the two extremities of the Classical episteme, we have a mathesis as the science of calculable order and a genesis as the analysis of the constitution of orders on the basis of empirical series (Foucault, 73).” Furthermore, “it is patent that these three notions – mathesis, taxinomia, genesis – designate not so much separate domains as a solid grid of kinships that defines the general configuration of knowledge in the Classical age (Foucault, 74).”
Chapter 4: Speaking
Chapter four picks up where three left off, but clearer:
From an extreme point of view, one might say that language in the Classical era does not exist. But that it functions: its whole existence is located in its representative role, is limited precisely to that role and finally exhausts it. Language has no other locus, no other value, than in representation; in the hollow it has been able to form. …
Henceforth, the primary Text is effaced, and with it, the entire, inexhaustible foundation of the words whose mute being was inscribed in things; all that remains is representation, unfolding in the verbal signs that manifest it, and hence becoming discourse (Foucault, 79).
Importantly, here Foucault also clarifies why language, of all sign systems, is of such primary importance:
What distinguishes language from all other signs and enables it to play a decisive role in representation is, therefore, not so much that it is individual or collective, natural or arbitrary, but that it analyses representation according to a necessarily successive order; the sounds, in fact, can be articulated only one by one; language cannot represent thought, instantly, in its totality; it is bound to arrange it, part by part, in a linear order (Foucault, 82).
Language orders by way of general grammar, which you may remember, was one of the main modalities of knowledge listed in the preface. According to Foucault, “General grammar is the study of verbal order in its relation to the simultaneity that it is its task to represent. Its proper object is therefore neither thought nor any individual language, but discourse, understood as a sequence of verbal signs (Foucault, 83).”
This chapter’s overall intention was, “to determine in what conditions language could become the object of a period’s knowledge, and between what limits this epistemological domain developed. Not to calculate the common denominator of men’s opinions, but to define what made it possible for opinions about language – whatever the opinions may have been – to exist at all (Foucault, 119).” Again, the conditions that made possible this thinking. Thus, Foucault concludes that,
If language exists, it is because below the level of identities and differences there is the foundation provided by continuities, resemblances, repetitions, and natural criss-crossings. Resemblance, excluded from knowledge since the early seventeenth century, still constitutes the outer edge of language: the ring surrounding the domain of that which can be analysed, reduced to order, and known. Discourse dissipates the murmur, but without it, it could not speak (Foucault, 120).
In other words, Classical knowledge was thought in different ways, but it was fully rooted in the order of resemblances.
Chapter 5: Classifying
This chapter gives us one of the other really big points of the book which is that,
Historians want to write histories of biology in the eighteenth century; but they do not realize that biology did not exist then, and that the pattern of knowledge that has been familiar to us for a hundred and fifty years is not valid for a previous period. And that, if biology was unknown, there was a very simple reason for it: that life itself did not exist. All that existed was living beings, which were viewed through a grid of knowledge constituted by natural history. Foucault, 127-28
Natural History, another of the modalities listed at the beginning, “is nothing more than the nomination of the visible (Foucault, 132)” which “finds its locus in the gap that is now opened up between things and words (Foucault, 130).” History had to become Natural (Foucault, 128) and thus, “What came surreptitiously into being between the age of the theatre and that of the catalogue was not the desire for knowledge, but a new way of connecting things both to the eye and to discourse. A new way of making history (Foucault, 131).” More specifically, classification, which Foucault says is the “constituent problem of natural history… took up its position historically, and in a necessary fashion, between a theory of the mark and a theory of the organism (Foucault, 145).
According to Foucault, natural history produces a “discourse of nature” which is not “ a question of a more general rationality imposing identical forms upon grammatical thinking and upon taxinomia. Rather, it concerns a fundamental arrangement of knowledge, which orders the knowledge of beings so as to make it possible to represent them in a system of name (Foucault, 157).” He explains that,
Things and words are very strictly interwoven: nature is posited only through the grid of denominations, and – though without such names it would remain mute and invisible – it glimmers far off beyond them, continuously present on the far side of this grid, which nevertheless presents it to our knowledge and renders it visible only when wholly spanned by language (Foucault, 160).
Thus, he concludes importantly, that,
We must therefore not connect natural history, as it was manifested during the Classical period, with a philosophy of life, albeit an obscure and still faltering one. In reality, it is interwoven with a theory of words. Natural history is situated both before and after language; it decomposes the language of everyday life, but in order to recompose it and discover what has made it possible through the blind resemblances of imagination; it criticizes language, but in order to reveal its foundation. If natural history reworks language and attempts to perfect it, this is because it also delves down into the origin of language. Foucault, 161
Okay, so, you see how he’s building this whole “relationship between mots and choses, yes? Good, okay, onward! Chapter 6 is going to tell us about the last Classical term in those pairs of modalities (grammar/ philology, natural history/ biology, wealth/ political economy) and then we’ll get on to the second part of the book which deals with how we get to those second terms in the pairings.
Chapter 6: Exchanging
Chapter six is about the Classical concept of wealth, which, like general grammar and natural history, is thought in resemblance and representation. Or, in Foucault’s words,
Whatever its economic determinations and consequences, mercantilism, when questioned at the level of the episteme, appears as the slow, long effort to bring reflection upon prices and money into alignment with the analysis of representations. It was responsible for the emergence of a domain of ‘wealth’ connected to that which, at about the same time, was opened up to natural history, and likewise to that which unfolded before general grammar (Foucault, 180).
Here the mode of representational resemblance is that of exchange, “In other words, in order that one thing can represent another in an exchange, they must both exist as bearers of value; and yet value exists only within the representation (actual or possible), that is, within the exchange or the exchangeability (Foucault, 190).”
We start to see how all of this connects when Foucault explains that,
With language, the system of signs is passively accepted in its imperfection, and only an art can rectify it: the theory of language is immediately prescriptive. Natural history establishes itself a system of signs for denoting beings, and that is why it is a theory. Wealth is a system of signs that are created, multiplied, and modified by men; the theory of wealth is linked throughout to politics (Foucault, 205).
Philology, biology, and political economy were established, not in the places formerly occupied by general grammar, natural history and the analysis of wealth, but in an area where those forms of knowledge did not exist, in the space they left blank, in the deep gaps that separated their broad theoretical segments and that were filled with the murmur of the ontological continuum. The object of knowledge in the nineteenth century is formed in the very place where the Classical plenitude of being has fallen silent. Foucault, 207
And, “Structuralism is not a new method; it is the awakened and troubled consciousness of modern thought” which was produced by “the essential problem of Classical thought” which,
lay in the relation between name and order: how to discover a nomenclature that would be a taxonomy, or again, how to establish a system of signs that would be transparent to the continuity of being. What modern though is to throw fundamentally into question is the relation of meaning with the form of truth and the form of being: in the firmament of our reflection there reigns a discourse – a perhaps inaccessible discourse – which would at the same time be an ontology and a semantics.
Thus, Foucault concludes the first part of the book by bringing everything together in the following explanation:
The whole Classical system of order, the whole of that great taxinomia that makes it possible to know things by means of the system of their identities, is unfolded within the space that is opened up inside representation when representation represents itself, that area where being and the Same reside. Language is simply the representation of words; nature is simply the representation of beings; need is simply the representation of needs. The end of Classical though – and of the episteme that made general grammar, natural history, and the science of wealth possible – will coincide with the decline of representation, or rather with the emancipation of language, of the living being, and of need, with regard to representation. Foucault, 209
From here, we go back to literature. First Borges (did I mention that, that it all starts with Borges? Probably not. You just assume that, right? Important theory book, the first pages must be about Borges. Okay, good), then Cervantes, now the Marquis de Sade. Are things getting hotter in here, or is it just the Enlightenment finally arriving half way through the book? Right, sorry, anyway, “Sade’s characters correspond to him at the other end of the Classical age, at the moment of its decline. It is no longer the ironic triumph of representation over resemblance; it is the obscure and repeated violence of desire beating at the limits of representation (Foucault, 210). Hawt.
 Gil Anidjar has done some thinking recently on “the strange figure of knowledge called man” that appears in OT, if not also, as it does according to Foucault, in the sixteenth century. Anidjar’s most recent (Summer 2011) Critical Inquiry piece is a good place to look if you want to know what he thinks of this idea, and of the book in general. If by some chance that is a perspective that interests you, the article, called The Meaning of Life, can be found here: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/660988.