Foucault’s indictment of resemblance is based in an assumed (though carefully historically constituted) progression of the role of language. Language in the classical period, according to Foucault, was centered on naming—the proliferation of words used to resemble things:

The art of language was a way of “making a sign”—of simultaneously signifying something and arranging signs around that thing; an art of naming, therefore, and then by means of a reduplication both demonstrative and decorative, of capturing that name and enclosing it and concealing it, of designating it in turn by names that were the deferred presence of the first name, its secondary sign, its figuration, its rhetorical panoply. (O.T. 43)

This process provoked the growth of commentary to expand the complex interplay of naming. Foucault’s relatively cryptic comments on classical painting and image making presuppose an analogous process of the proliferation of resemblance outside linguistic convention:

Separation between linguistic signs and plastic elements; equivalence of resemblance and affirmation. These two principles constituted the tension in classical painting, because the second reintroduced discourse (affirmation exists only where there is speech) into an art from which the linguistic element was rigorously excluded. Hence the fact that classical painting spoke—and spoke constantly—while constituting itself completely outside language; hence the fact that it rested silently in a discursive space; hence the fact that it provided, beneath itself, a kind of common ground where it could restore the bonds of sign and image. (This is Not a Pipe 53)

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The only thing worse than the label “romantic” is its inverse, “anti-romantic.” Studying Romanticism [the capital R variety, often reduced to the “big six” of Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Byron, and Keats] has convinced me that these people actually had very little in common. They lived near the same time in history; the similarity almost ends there. It is merely the textbook isolation of certain traits—faith in Nature [again with the capital letter] and belief in the individual— which provides an organizing trope to teach them as if they were the heroes or villains of a particular age.

The same thing is true of people lumped as postmodern, where the label is used to provoke either a fierce resistance to structure or an evasion of ethics. Anti-romantic is perhaps a better label, in the sense that these people resist the totalizing narrative of the heroic individual who fights against the system. In this resistance, however, postmodernists become the new romantics—regardless of all efforts to avoid such identification. The postmodern commonality with Romanticism is the badge of resistance to the status quo; they differ only in the means they suggest to accomplish such resistance.

Postmodernism [as a convenient group noun, not a suggestion that these people actually agree on anything] can be characterized by a focus on Institutions [with a capital letter for the sake of consistency] and de-individuation. Where most readers seem to have the most trouble is with the concept of de-individuation. “If I cannot make a difference, how can anything be changed?” The dull answer is simply to resist. Foucault’s preface to Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus is far more specific than that. Foucault never claims, as many people suggest, that the individual cannot make a difference. He primarily asserts that what we label the individual isn’t really individual at all. Foucault’s program is worth noting:

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Foucault on Literature

Foucault on Literature

There has been a long and tedious arc to the posts that I have been writing the last few weeks regarding interpretation and the structuralist analysis of texts. What I have been trying to understand is one long and complex paragraph in “The Prose of the World,” the second chapter of Foucault’s The Order of Things. I finally feel prepared to try to take it apart.

It is possible to believe that one has attained the very essence of literature when one is no longer interrogating it at the level of what it says but only in its significant form: in doing so, one is limiting one’s view of language to its Classical status. (44)

The classical status of language is that of resemblance. This is analogous to what M.H. Abrams called “the mirror stage.” Jonathon Culler summarized the mirror stage in these terms:

The seductiveness of the mirror stage is its offer of totality and a vision of the self as a unified whole. What lies “beyond” the mirror stage is a loss of totality, the fragmentation of the body and the self—what Lacan calls the symbolic order. The child is born into the symbolic order in that he has a name which stands for him in the order of language and because he already figures in an oedipal triangle that lies beyond the binary order of reflection.

What seems clear is that representation, for Foucault and Culler, is not an essential part of literature. Hence, the evaluation of the level of correspondence between thought and expression is not the essence of “literature.” Structures can be evaluated on these terms, but the gaps of signification lie beyond the structures. In understanding aesthetics, structuralism seems to be severely limited. Foucault’s definition of the use of literature is telling:

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An Unbroken Surface

An Unbroken Surface

The primacy of the written word explains the twin presence of two forms which, despite their apparent antagonism are indissociable in sixteenth-century knowledge. The first of these is a non-distinction between what is seen and what is read, between observation and relation, which results in the constitution of a single, unbroken surface in which observation and language intersect to infinity. And the second, the inverse of the first, is an immediate disassociation of all language, duplicated without any assignable term, by the constant reiteration of commentary. (OT 39)

The renaissance epistemé marked by the proliferation of resemblances without end gave way, in Foucault’s schema, to a classical epistemé marked by taxonomia. The surface he attributes to sixteenth-century consciousness was ruptured, segmented, and classified. This project gave way to the modern epistemé of hermeneutics. Criticism and commentary became the driving forces of the nineteenth century. This is a convenient structure to hang things in, but there are a prodigious amount of cracks.

In classical rhetoric, the sort of “non-distinction between what is seen and what is read” is simulated by the figure of ecphrasis. The urge to blur the distinction between experience and figuration was hardly displaced by the ensuing twists of culture. It is a recurrent theme.

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Describing the nature of signs in the sixteenth century, Foucault turns to Paracelsus:

There is nothing in the depths of the seas, nothing in the heights of the firmament that man is not capable of discovering. There is no mountain so vast that it can hide from the gaze of man what is within it; it is revealed to him by corresponding signs. (OT 32)

The explicit belief that the world was “knowable” is complicated, in Foucault’s reasoning, by the limitations of the language available for use. Rereading chapter 2 of The Order of Things I was struck by a strange similarity between the nature of medieval sign systems, the works of William Blake, and the emergence of photo-textual combinations in the early twentieth century.

Lately, I have been thinking about the way that writing technologies have come and gone, been learned and lost across the ages. When students encounter prose of a different era, let alone a different century, they have a great deal of difficulty deciphering what was said. It is hard for me sometimes to “unlearn” the ease with which I read prose across a wide range of periods to find things to use as examples. The way that sign systems become foreign so quickly makes it hard for me to accept that earlier versions were somehow “impaired” when compared with the modern version—this seems to me to be purely cultural bias.

What the photo-textual combinations of the 1930s share with illuminated manuscripts and Blake’s illuminated works is a synergy between word and image. It is hard sometimes, with the latter examples, to separate a perception of alchemy from the actual significance of the work. With photography though, our modern sensibilities do not allow the same confusion. “It’s just a picture,” after all.

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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.

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true discourse

true discourse

For, even with the sixth century Greek poets, true discourse—in the meaningful sense—inspiring respect and terror, to which all were obliged to submit, because it held sway over all and was pronounced by men who spoke as of right, according to ritual, meted out justice and attributed to each his rightful share; it prophesied the future, not merely by announcing what was going to occur, but contributing to the actual event, carrying men along with it and thus weaving itself into the fabric of fate.

And yet, a century later, the highest truth no longer resided in what discourse was, nor in what it did; it lay in what it said.

The day dawned when truth moved over from the ritualized act—potent and just—of enunciation to settle on what was enunciated itself: its meaning, its form, its object and its relation to what it referred to. A division emerged between Hesiod and Plato, separating true discourse from false; it was a new division for, henceforth, true discourse was no longer considered precious and desirable, since it ceased to be discourse linked to the exercise of power.

. . .

True discourse, liberated by the nature of its form from desire and power is incapable of recognizing the will to truth which pervades it; and the will to truth, having imposed upon us for so long, is such that the truth that it seeks to reveal cannot fail to mask it.

Thus, only one truth appears before our eyes: wealth, fertility and sweet strength in all its insidious universality.

Michel Foucault, “The Discourse on Language”

Milton and Nietzsche

Milton and Nietzsche

Just a short, odd observation. I find it a bit disturbing that the Nietzschian and Miltonic views of the universe aren’t really all that different. One of these days, I’ll have to read John Rumrich’s book on Milton to get a better understanding of Miltonic chaos. For Milton, chaos was the part of the universe untouched by God. For Nietzsche, the universe was chaos except for the part touched by man.

Hell, for Milton, was concave. The earth was “hanging in a golden Chain / This pendant world, in bigness as a Starr / Of smallest magnitude close by the Moon” (P.L. II:1000-1003). Between them was chaos:

                                  . . . behold the Throne
Of Chaos, and his dark Pavillion spread
Wide on the wasteful deep; with him Enthron’d
Sat Sable-vested Night, eldest of things,
The Consort of his Reign; and by them stood
Orcus and Ades, the dreaded name
Of Demogorgon; Rumor sat next to Chance,
And Tumult and Confusion all imbroiled,
And Discord with a thousand various mouths. (P.L. II: 959-967)

Where Foucault and Deleuze, as heirs to Nietzsche, part ways with Milton is in their perception of the scene. It is the “thousand various mouths” of discord that speak of our deliverance, at least as I read them right now. Perhaps that is why the “universalists” despise them so.

Autonomy and Schizophrenia

Autonomy and Schizophrenia

Schizophrenia is like love: there is no specifically schizophrenic phenomenon or entity; schizophrenia is the universe of productive and reproductive desiring-machines, universal primary production as “the essential reality of man and nature.”

Deleuze and Guattari, anti-oedipus (5)

Revisiting Kant’s answer to the question What is Enlightenment? again for the thousandth time, I was struck with its schizophrenia. I’ve resisted falling into the mire of Deleuzian thought for a long time, but I’ve turned a corner of sorts. Until recently, I just didn’t see what good it would do—I preferred to take my irrationality from Burroughs and Miller, rather than from theory.

The paradox of maintaining “individuality” in the face of the need for society has planted me here. We band together to be “productive” and yet we become alienated from that production. Individuality and autonomy are not synonymous, and yet reading Kant it seems that he has taken them to be so—within a schizophrenic sort of limit system. Kant’s definition of freedom would shock some people. For him, it was purely spiritual, rather than corporeal. A nation in chains was okay, in fact it might even be beneficial—as long as autonomy in the matter of religious freedom were granted. Our infantile notions of freedom were only so much Teenage Wind.

… did you know that

Freedom, for Kant, was an entirely different matter.

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I have a profound resistance to isms. They get really confusing. It is far easier to greet every theorist as I would a person at a bar, listening with a healthy degree of skepticism for what they have to say. Though it is old-fashioned, I like to think of the words on a page as emanating from a person rather than an author function. Though the author function is a really interesting concept, I’ve yet to meet an author that wasn’t in some way human. However, trying to understand authorship, particularly when there are lots of people— editors, publishers, etc.— involved, thinking of things in terms of their function helps. Though may seem anti-humanist, Foucault’s concept, in that regard, is useful to me. A few years ago, I would have really championed the Tutor’s stance:

Nurse, send in next postmodern, please. We will just cut away from this lard all that does not look human.

In a comment, Invisible Adjunct further suggested: “The only way to fight the master-narratives of Karl Rove and Co. is through the master-narrative of Enlightenment universalism. You hold up the ideals of equal rights and equal justice, and insist that they be applied across the board.”

So far, I just don’t see that working— oddly enough, it’s that rhetoric which lead us, logically and rationally, into the latest war. Bush and company are working the “Enlightenment universalism” shtick better than any of the liberal minds that have come before. One of the key parts of Foucault’s essay “What is Enlightenment?” is the distinction made between enlightenment and humanism. It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that life as we know it is a product of the Enlightenment.

Humanism is something entirely different. It is a theme, or rather, a set of themes that have reappeared on several occasions, over time, in European societies; these themes always tied to value judgments, have obviously varied greatly in their content as well as the values they have preserved.

Foucault goes on to list among the “humanist” enterprises things like National Socialism, Existentialism and Marxism. Then, he offers a strong caution:

From this, we must not conclude that everything that has ever been linked with humanism is to be rejected, but that the humanistic theme is in itself too supple, too diverse, and too inconsistent to serve as an axis for reflection.

Foucault’s primary argument in this section of the essay is that we must not submit to the “blackmail” of the Enlightenment—it is not a thing a person is “for” or “against.” Humanism in and of itself provides a very nebulous character for reflecting on our world as it is. What is the alternative? I think defining just what we mean by “enlightened” is a good start. Kant’s definition is quite slippery, and I want to write more about that as I work through it. It centers on a very problematic definition of autonomy. But for the time being, I think the us vs. them game has gone on long enough—both from a geopolitical standpoint, and a theoretical one.

However, by advocating resistance one is placed in the position of the slave. If we were the masters of our fates, there would be no need to resist.