Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, 1966

Michele Foucault provides a dense, possibly inaccessible review of the development of sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth century “human sciences.” Though many of Foucault’s works require reflection and interpretation, The Order of Things and the language it employs at times seems nearly impenetrable. Still, with that noted, Foucault’s work offers the reader insights into the nature of the development of the human sciences from natural history and biology to linguistics to history and anthropology among numerous other disciplines.

Perhaps one of the book’s main points revolves around the Classical age’s episteme and its dependence on representation. According to Foucault, the “Classical Age” created a table or picture based on the representations of three fields: natural history, language, and biology. Between them they establish a sort of matrix upon which knowledge of the age rested, “The nature of things, their coexistence, the way in which they are linked together and communicate is nothing other than their resemblance. And that resemblance is visible only in the network of sings that crossed the world from one end to the other.” (29) How does Foucault specifically define this matrix, “the Classical episteme can be defined in its most general arrangement in terms of the articulated system of mathesis, a taxinomia, and a genetic analysis. The sciences always carry within themselves the project … of an exhaustive ordering of the world; they are always directed, too, towards the discovery of simple elements and their progressive combination; and at their centre they form a table on which knowledge is displayed in a system contemporary with itself.” (74). Thus, the table is created. Foucault does seem to privilege language or at least consider it somewhat different in nature than the other fields he engages, “The history of various languages is no lnger anything more than a question of erosion or accident, introduction, meetings, and the mingling of various elements; it has no law, no progress, no necessity proper to it.” For Foucault, language unlike several others areas does not illustrate an historicism, “Time has become interior to language.” Continuing in this vein, he notes developments in language seem more the result of forces such as trade, migrations, and war, “languages evolve in accordance with the effects of migrations, victories, and defeats, fashions, and commerce; but not under impulsion of any historicity possessed by the languages themselves. They do not obey an internal principle of development; they simply unfold representation and their elements in a linear sequence.” (91) In some ways, Foucault almost seems to suggest languages develop more organically, but this is conjecture since he also appears to question its linear nature. Like latter writers such as Jameson and Harvey, Foucault eventually turns to economics. In these early centuries “the concepts of money, price, value, circulation, and market were not regarded, in seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in terms of a shadowy furniture, but as part of a rigorous and general epistemological arrangement. It is this arrangement that sustains the ‘analysis of wealth’ in its overall necessity. The analysis of wealth is to political economy, what general grammar is to philology and what natural history is to biology.” (168) Economics does not unfold itself in the same ways as his other categories because of their tie to practice and institutions. [note Foucault predates works by Harvey and Jameson but he seems to be an influence on them even if I can’t articulate how right now] Comparing it his previous examples Foucault points out, “A single piece of metal can, in the course of time and according to the individuals that receive it, represent several equivalent things (an object, work, a measure of wheat, a portion of income) – just as a common noun has the power to represent several things, or a taxonomic character has the power to represent several individuals, several species, several genera, etc. But whereas the character can cover a larger generality only by becoming simpler, money can represent more kinds of wealth only by circulating faster.” (185) Foucault also argues that money’s value remains determined by consumption not production, “Value arises only when good have disappeared; and work functions as an expenditure: it turns the subsistence which it has itself consumed into a price.” (194)

What brought this Classical age to its eventual conclusion? Foucault addresses this conundrum, “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 thought – 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.” (209) With the closing decades of the eighteenth century came change. Discontinuities arose. The table no longer sufficed as “the general area of knowledge is no longer that of identities and differences, that of non-quantitative orders, that of a universal characterization, of a general taxinomnia, of a non-measurable mathesis, but an area made up of organic structures, that is, of internal relations between elements whose totality performs a function… these organic structures are discontinuous … they do not form a table of unbroken simultaneities, but that certain of them are on the same level whereas others form series or linear sequences.” (218) In this way, analogy and succession become the hallmarks of ordering various “empiricities”. From the 1800s on, history “deployed … the analogies that connect distinct organic structures to one another. “ (219) Of course, Foucault’s history places laws on the “analysis of production, the analysis of organically structured beings, and lastly, on the analysis of linguistic groups. History gives place to analogical organic structures, just a Order opened the way to successive identities and differences.”(219)

Ideology fails to emancipate man from many of the difficulties the above formations Foucault explores. It never “questions the foundation, the limits or the root of representation; it scans the domain of representation in general; it determines the necessary sequences that appear there; it defines the lingks htat provide its connections … It situates all knowledge in the space of representations, and by scanning that space it formulates the knowledge of the laws that provide its organization. It is in a sense the knowledge of all knowledge. But this duplication upon which it is based does not cause it to emerge from the field of representation …” (241). This duplication extends to various areas infecting the space of analysis such that it lost its “autonomy.” The table now serves as a superficial layer of knowing. Knowledge’s fundamental form morphed, “What changed at the turn of the century and underwent an irremediable modification, was knowledge itself as an anterior and indivisible mode of being between the knowing subject and the object of knowledge … “ (252). The taxonomies which previous centuries used to scan the world for “knowledge” non longer operated on this ordered relationship, “The classification of living beings is no longer to be found in the great expanse of order; the possibility of classification now arises from the depths of life, from those elements most hidden from view. Before, the living being was a locality of natural classification; now, the fact of being classifiable is a property of t helving being. So the possibility of a general taxonomia disappears …” (268). In terms of language, analogies of roots “allows for kinship between languages”, Foucault continues noting historicity had been introduced to languages through discontinuities, “the same way as into that of living beings.” (292) However, he cautions differences between the two remain, “The latter [living beings] have no true history by means of a certain realtion between their functions and the conditions of their existence.” (293) [doesn’t this seem a mirroring of language’s existence under the classical period, I mean is language somehow diff. under this new structure than its past iterations?] Like postmodern thinkers, Foucault conceptualizes much of this “new knowledge” in spatial terms, “The domain of the modern episteme should be represented rather as a volume of space open in three dimensions.” (347) [ in a way, how different is this from the classical order/ matrix? These dimensions seem relevant or dependent on each other right]. These new “human sciences are not … an analysis of what man is by nature; but rather an analysis that extends from what man is in his positivity (living, speaking, laboring being) to what enables this same being to know (or seek to know) what life is, in what the essence of labor and its laws consist, and in what way his able to speak. The human sciences thus occupy the distance that separates (though w/c connecting them) biology, economics, and philology form that which gives them possibility in the very being of man” (353) Of course, the human sciences remain hidebound to representation just as much as the Classical Order. Moreover, “the whole configuration of knowledge has been modified and they came into being only to the degree to which there appeared, with man, a being who did not exist before in the field of episteme.” (363) One might suppose that Foucault has located a new matrix on which human knowledge now rests “all knowledge is rooted in a life, a society, and a language that have a history; and it is in that very history that knowledge finds the element enabling it to communicate with other forms of life, other types of society, other significations: that is why historicism always implies a certain philosophy, or at least a certain methodology.” (373)

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