Order of Things (1)

Four Similitudes

In the second chapter of The Order of Things Foucault proposes that prior to the seventeenth century, resemblance was a constructive part of the knowledge of Western culture. At the dawning of the Renaissance, resemblance lost its relationship with knowledge and began to disappear from our sphere of cognition. Similitude replaced resemblance as an organizing principle for knowledge.

One of the features of resemblance, and perhaps the cause for its ultimate failure as an organizing principle is that resemblance is form of repetition involving distortion. Shifts in language and errors of representation were entailed in reproductive technologies. The output of a scriptorium, or of a visual artist working during the period was not measured by the quality of their resemblance. The standards for resemblance during the sixteenth century seem to me to be rather lax, however, I have noticed repeated indictments of “mere resemblance” across my readings in the eighteenth century. But I’m not sure if the “cure” isn’t worse than the disease.

The available tropes of resemblance in the seventeenth century were copious, but Foucault isolates four “essential” tropes: convenientia, aemelatio, analogy, sympathy.

Convenientia denotes an adjacency, a convenience of proximity. Resemblance is linked to space—or, in a profound sense, place. The world was seen as a chain of being where things are tied together in points of contact.

Aemulation is also a trope of convenience, but rather than being tied to a sense of place, it bridges the space through a more optical type of adjacency. Each figure is reflected in the other, like a set of concentric circles dissipating across a pond.

Analogy is in one sense, a superimposition of these two terms. However, unlike the other terms it places man in the center of a field of radiation which reflects the analogous relations between other things which form the chain of being.

The fourth relation, sympathy, is directed inward rather than outward like analogy. Together with its negation, antipathy, this fourth trope explains the other three:

The whole volume of the world, all the adjacencies of “convenience,” all the echoes of emulation, all the linkages of analogy, are supported, maintained, and doubled by this space governed by sympathy and antipathy, which are ceaselessly drawing things together and holding them apart. By means of this interplay, the world remains identical; resemblances continue to be what they are, and to resemble one another. The same remains the same, riveted onto itself. (25)

The problem of resemblance as a form of knowledge comes from the parallel nature of marking or naming it. Foucault sees this process as “pursuing and endless zigzag course from resemblance to what resembles it” (29). Signification severs the rivets which hold our perception of the world as continuous together. It replaces resemblance with similitude. However, Foucault alleges that the sixteenth century was locked in a world of resemblances:

Resemblance never remains stable within itself; it can be fixed only when it refers back to another similitude, which then, in turn, refers to others; each resemblance, therefore, has value only from the accumulation of all others, and therefore the whole world must be explored if the slightest change of analogies is to be justified and finally take on the appearance of certainty. [emphasis mine]

It is therefore a knowledge that can, and must, proceed by the infinite accumulation of confirmations all dependant on one another. For this reason, from its very foundations, this knowledge will be a thing of sand.

. . . By positing resemblance as the link between signs and what they indicate (thus making resemblance a third force and a sole power, since it resides in both the mark and the content in an identical fashion), sixteenth-century knowledge condemned itself to never knowing anything but the same thing, and to knowing that thing only at the unattainable end of an endless journey. (30)

It seems to me that the problem is vested in the imperfection of signification. Rather than celebrate the loss of resemblance in favor of similitude like Foucault, or more pointedly, Baudrillard, I tend to mourn this loss. It seems like we have clothed our nakedness with words that are ill-suited for the task of protecting us from the world. Similitude also entails a process of distortion.

While the explanatory power of the epistemé explored by Foucault in The Order of Things is ultimately weak and easily disputed in terms of its universalizing power, it seems like a fair place to examine the growth towards the ascendancy of similitude over resemblance.