24 February 2006

On Reading Foucault's Order of Things

Until the end of the sixteenth century, the locus of meaning lay within the world and through a process of commentary and decoding signs it was thought that we might understand what was written by God. Language was seen not just within the sphere of text and learning but also diffusely distributed within the world of things, inscribing and marking all objects within the sensible world (Foucault, 2002). The theatre of life, or the mirror of nature was reflected in the signs and symbols that made possible knowledge of visible and invisible things, and controlled how they might be represented. Each object within the world had a mark that could make us aware of these things, that could tell us its use, what it was for and its relationships to other things, including humanity. There were visible marks for the invisible analogies, meanings and uses that were located beneath the surface of directly perceived reality. The world was a world of resemblance, similitude and codes and it could only be a world of signs, as Paracelsus said:

It is not God's will that what he creates for man's benefit and what he has given us should remain hidden... And eventhough he has hidden certain things, he has allowed nothing to remain without exterior and visible signs in the form of special marks – just as a man who has buried a hoard of treasure marks the spot that he may find it again. (Foucault, 2002: 29)

Knowledge was uncovered and founded by the unearthing and deciphering of the symbols that were distributed in the world, the signatures that were inscribed within. Rather than look at the bark of plants you were required to go to their marks. These symbols and signs were required in order to uncover the basic episteme of understanding that was bound within a system of resemblance. 'This is why the face of the world is covered with blazons, with characters, with ciphers and obscure words – with hieroglyphics' (Foucault, 2002: 30).

This system of thought used three variables that could be used to check the veracity of a sign. First, the certainty of the relation: a sign that remained constant was one that could be trusted for its accuracy (e.g. breathing could be used to denote life). Second, the type of relation: a part of the whole could be used to denote the whole itself (e.g. a rosy glow could denote a heathy individual) or the sign might be distinct from the whole (e.g. changes in the seaweed could denote the weather). Third, the origin of the sign: it could therefore be natural (e.g. a mirror's reflection and therefore denotation of reality) or part of a convention shared between men (e.g. a word may signify a particular idea amongst a group).

But this was a system of knowledge that was being replaced. The erudition that once could read nature and books as part of a single text was replaced by a field of knowledge which was constructed not around resemblance but identities and differences. The reading of signs and signatures was relegated to the realm of fantasy, to a world that had not yet attained the age of reason (Foucault, 2002:57). In its place was installed the steady march of reason, of rationality, through ordering and measurement of the natural world (Toulmin, 1992). No longer were signs and language located in the world, stamped onto things since the beginning of time. Truth was instead to be found in 'evident and distinct perception' (Foucault, 2002: 62), words could attempt to translate this truth if possible, but they were not the mark of truth itself.

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