Michel Foucault: The Order of Things

MICHEL FOUCAULT (1926 – 1984)


The Order of Things. The Archaeology of the Human Sciences (1966)

For English speaking readers lacking the intellectual and cultural background to understand the transformation of French philosophy after the Second World War, French theory is something of a puzzle. First, there is the organization to the books and essays themselves. For the Anglo-American reader and writer, it is standard practice to create a narrative that builds from beginning middle and end, with the main point at the conclusion. To those readers, it is confusing when a French writer embeds the main argument in the middle and even more baffling then the same ideas are repeated throughout a book, appearing and reappearing. But this approach is very French. In France, American directness and desire to get to the point is considered rude and aggressive. All conversations begin, not with the purpose but with a lead-in, and, after slipping in the substance in the middle, end with additional elements that are ancillary. The substance is built up, often through repetition and reiteration, and this substance will be revisited across many books. This mode of writing is very clear in the works of Roland Barthes (1916-1980), especially in his last book, Camera Lucida (1980) where the most significant section–about Death–is in the middle, where his main them surfaces.

Second, this post-war generation of French scholars were engaged in a major project–to find new ways to analyze a contemporary culture that had out run the old theories. This need to renew and reestablish explains the enormous outburst of intellectual achievements in a fairly brief thirty year period, between 1950 and 1980. All of the now-famous French scholars came from different fields and the re-writing of the past towards the future took place on many fronts with many individuals. No where is this effort to rethink history in view of the present more obvious than in the work of Michel Foucault. Large parts of his many books are spend with explaining, not what he was doing, but what he was not doing. But in writing so extensively about the negative–this is not about that–Foucault was trying to clear away the ground rubble of the ruins of the crumbling edifice of Enlightenment philosophy. He was dueling with a number of targets, the foremost of which was the subject or as he put it “man,” present in theories of “consciousness.” In the sixties, when Focault’s doctorat d’état was published in 1961 as Madness and Unreason: History of Madness in the Classical Age, the major proponent of the free subject who had agency and choice of action over his or her own life was, of course, Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980). Sartre was the Oedipal Father for most of the post-war generation who were greatly impacted by structuralism, which categorically dismissed the idea of the “self.” Sartre became the force to be reckoned with, and he and Foucault had a wary relationship of admiration and dissent. The Order of Things was the book in which Foucault ended the anthropological study of “man.”

Michel Foucault was a historian who, at the time his books were published, in the sixties and seventies, was denounced by traditional historians. Today, his theories have had impact, not just on the profession of history but also upon the humanities in general, even generating a new way of examining historical conditions through an analysis of discourse. Unfortunately, most students in colleges and universities encounter Foucault through a list of assigned readings, devoid of context, forcing the readers into a very complex debate that was interdisciplinary: historical, philosophical, linguistic, with little or no preparation. In order to understand what Foucault was both not doing and was doing, it is necessary to have extensive background in Enlightenment philosophy–years of reading are required, from Kant to Hegel. History, as it is known today, from a traditional perspective, was developed in the Nineteenth century in a period of optimism, positivism, and dominance of the known world by Western powers who were convinced of a grand idea called “progress.” It was Georg Hegel (1770-1831) who developed the theoretical basis for history: thesis, anti-thesis: the clash that produced synthesis or progress and evolution. The establishment of the concept that “history” was driven by an “engine” towards “progress” led, intentionally or not, to the neglect of women and people of color, who were considered to be rooted in “nature” and therefore incapable of being part of “culture” or history. Even though Hegel’s tripod approach was ideal or abstract, the effects upon the writing of history was very real. From the standpoint of minority groups, history became a history of “great men” and their deeds, which is why Foucault supported not just homosexual rights and also women’s rights.

But the left out part of history were never Foucault’s main target, it was the Hegelian system which suggested an inevitable continuity of history. Foucault was interested in gaps and spaces that were unaccounted for, concerned with discontinuities and breaks and fissures in time. The position of the historian was that of a storyteller who told a smooth teleology of the march of time towards preconceived goals but these narratives were overlaid upon selected events and hid the fault lines. The problem with establishing continuity is not that one thing doesn’t lead to another–it does–but that the stories we tell ourselves as “history” transform history into something familiar: we see the past through the anachronistic lens of the present. Foucault’s task is twofold: the defamiliarize the past which is infinitely strange and second to trance the strangeness of the past into the present in order to mark how strong the contrast is. Only by reestablishing the alien and even frightening nature of the past can we understand how change occurred. Foucault hoped to write a “history of the present.” As Foucault related, I seek to diagnose, to carry out a diagnosis of the present. To say what we are today and what it means, today, to say what we do say.”

Because of Foucault’s rewriting of history, historians have re-examined the practice of the writing of history. Historian Hayden White has noted the “story” aspect of history and has pointed out that historians construct history in terms of a trope. The Les annales school of historians in France have been writing that part of history that was neglected: the lives of ordinary people over the longe duré or great sweeping long term trends in history. Foucault was part of the generation that understood that so-called serious discourse is never innocent and that science and philosophy was never innocent. Like Theodore Adorno, Foucault saw the dark side to the Enlightenment and to “history.” Progress and History have been linked ever since Hegel, connected to Western ideas of linear thinking and to Western ideas of dominance and control and mastery. For the Westerner, progress is the progress to greater and greater “civilization” defined as that which is valued and exemplified by Western societies and cultures. Thus “History” is defined as a linear and a teleological process towards greater “Civilization.”

History, then, has a purpose and life, then, has meaning and purpose. The role of the historian is to tell a tale of progress-as-meaning. In order to construct this narrative, the historian works within the confines of the larger meta-narrative (life has meaning, reason and purpose) and connects events through the use of cause and effect constructs, which in turn construct unity and a smooth linear progression from point to point. This unity is in the service of the lesson or moral that is embedded in a seemingly scientific and objective analysis of a moment in time. Isolated and designated as an “event,” termed “significant” and “important,” this event is seen in terms of the present and thus serves the purposes of what is called “the Master Narrative,” which is then presented as “history.” The master narrative in Western culture has always been concerned with and is in the service of continued dominance of those in power and the maintenance of their mastery of the Other.

This process of making history is arbitrary and falsifying and is an act of sheer power, but Foucault did not judge, he merely examined. He was a libertine, not a revolutionary. He had seen the “revolution” (the days of May) and it never happened. Foucault was a sanguine observer who re-made himself into a archaeologist. Foucault located a different history, not one of events, but one of systems of representation or modes of order. “Western thinking” is a mere construct, implying a constancy, or a unity, that, in fact, does not exist. Foucault was able to locate different systems of epistemology, called épistemé, or the foundations of knowledge. The way in which the world is ordered has changed over time, indeed in the larger scheme of things, over a relative brief period, from the pre-Classical or pre-Modern era of the Renaissance to the Classical period of the 17th century to the contemporary time, the now of the late 19th century. Foucault is at his most maddening in this book, because he refuses to explain why an episteme would change from one century to the next. In fact it precisely the “why” Foucault avoids. The point is not way; the point is that one episteme is different from the one that preceded it.

To select an example from the art world, Renaissance perspective was an example of the belief that perspective was a science that was capable of replicating three dimensional space. Part of the pre-Modern episteme was an ordering in terms of similitude and resemblance, but in contrast, the Baroque era, working under another episteme, played with trompe l’oeil and knew that the illusion of reality was not in terms of resemblance but due to the skillful use of representational codes. The Order of Things (1966/70), began with an essay on Diego Velazquez’s Las Meniñas (1656), a painting he used as an example of 17th Century representation, which was the belief in the transparency of representation.


Diego Velazquez. Las Meniñas (1656)

The more modern understanding of representation denies the possibility of transparency, and, for Foucault, as well as for those of his generation, language was actually opaque. Representation is a process of symbolization or of coding, and, even more, of language. If this is the case, then, as Foucault pointed out at the end of The Order of Things, “man” disappears with this realization and is reduced to mere “representation” as Foucault wrote,

This gap is caused by the absence of the king – an absence that is an artifice on the part of the painter. But this artifice both conceals and indicates another vacancy which is, on the contrary, immediate: that of the painter and the spectator when they are looking at or composing the picture. It may be that, in this picture, as in all the representations of which it is, as it were, the manifest essence, the profound invisibility of what one sees is in­separable from the invisibility of the person seeing – despite all mirrors, reflections, imitations, and portraits. Around the scene are arranged all the signs and successive forms of representation; but the double relation of the representation to its model and to its sovereign, to its author as well as to the person to whom it is being offered, this relation is neces­sarily interrupted. It can never be present without some residuum, even in a representation that offers itself as a spectacle. In the depth that traverses the picture, hollowing it into a fictitious recess and projecting it forward in front of itself, it is not possible for the pure felicity of the image ever to present in a full light both the master who is representing and the sovereign who is being represented.

Perhaps there exists, in this painting by Velazquez, the representation as it were, of Classical representation, and the definition of the space it opens up to us. And, indeed, representation undertakes to represent itself here in all its elements, with its images, the eyes to which it is offered, the faces it makes visible, the gestures that call it into being. But there, in the midst of this dispersion which it is simultaneously grouping to­gether and spreading out before us, indicated compellingly from every side, is an essential void: the necessary disappearance of that which is its foundation – of the person it resembles and the person in whose eyes it is only a resemblance. This very subject – which is the same – has been elided. And representation, freed finally from the relation that was im­peding it, can offer itself as representation in its pure form.

It was Foucault, more than any other Postmodern writer, who combined Saussure and Marx at the level of language and ideology to critique “representation.” Representation was linked with power. Those who represented were those who owned the “gaze”, those who had or owned or used the power to depict and to portray. Representation was an act of ideology, implicated in a system of oppression, and never innocent, never transparent. Las Meñinas was a painting of painting as a belief system, that contains within itself the mirror, a relic of the old belief that a portrait could replicate the King and Queen as a mirror, a belief in the absolute ability of painting to represent “transparently,” as a mirror of nature. Velasquez has turned his canvas to the viewer, concealing the “work” of representation while at the same time emphasizing that pure visibility is impossible. The “order” or “things” must be recounted through indirection.

The modern épistemé, on the other hand, understands that representation is not a mirror of nature, not a window on reality, but a linguistic and coded system complicit with the structures of power. Given that this is the world we have inherited, some writers, following some implications of Foucault, analyze “representation” to reveal how these codes function. Up until the 17th century, the world was “ordered” (in the West) in terms of “resemblance” or the repetition of the things through the world in speech and writing. By virtue of similitude the world had to “fold in upon itself, duplicate itself, reflect itself, or form a chain with itself so that things can resemble one another.” And then a change occurred and the “arrangement of signs was to become binary..as the connection of a significant and a signified.” What Foucault wanted to do was to make the idea of a system of signification based on resemblance strange and to emphasize the strong difference that was a break. As Foucault wrote,

The new arrangement brought about the appearance of a new problem unknown until then: in the sixteenth century, one asked oneself how it was possible to know that a sign did in fact designate what it signaled; from the seventeenth century, one began to ask how a sign could be linked to what it signified..This involved an immense reorganization of culture, a reorganization of which the Classical age was the first and perhaps the most important stage, since it was responsible for the new arrangement in which we are still caught–since it is the Classical age that separates us from a culture in which the signification of signs did not exist, since it was reabsorbed into the sovereignty of the Like..

The classical episteme, Foucault explained, was binary and therefore arbitrary and functioned within a system allowed the random relationship between the word and the thing to be considered “universal.” “All of this,” Foucault said, “was of the greatest consequence to Western thought. Resemblance, which for a 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.” Foucault laid out the rift between similarity and difference and the division between the activity of interpretation that must be activated in the case of resemblance and the new mode of epistemology which is analysis. The Classical episteme orders scientific knowledge along a system of contrast rather than similarities.

But Foucault, ever alert to discontinuity, noted the change from the Classical episteme and its regime of positivity to the Modern episteme that emerged in the 18th century, one that is still not completely evolved. Foucault wrote,

Until the end of the eighteenth century, this new analysis has its place in the search of the representative values of language. It is still a question of discourse. But already through the inflection system, the dimension of the purely grammatical is appearing: language no longer consists only of representations and of sounds that in turn represent the representations and are ordered among them as the links of thought require; it consists also of formal elements, grouped into a system, which imposes upon the sounds,syllables, and roots of an organization that is not that or representation.

Foucault, ever the anti-historian never explained why these changes took place, he just asserted, to the irritation of more traditional historians that one episteme broke from another. To the traditionalist, the historian was a detective, who searched for clues through primary documents, but Foucault presented another way of doing history by presenting a new way to theorize history as a series of discontinuities and breaks. There was no need of him to explain history because Foucault was discussing discourse and the way in which the Cartesian form of “self” was dissolved into language. “This displacement of the word, this backward jim, as it were, away from its representative functions, was certainly one of the important events of Western culture towards the end of the eighteenth century. And it is also one of those that have passed most unperceived.” What happened in the modern world is the dissolution of the “self” into language which can only speak itself. In other words the final break, following the cleavage of the word from the thing, is the break between the self and language, puts the project of “man” in jeopardy. Foucault concluded his book by saying,“..man will be erased like a face drawn in the sand at the edge of the sea.”

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