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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Foucault's episteme of the Same


Perhaps due to Foucault’s fastidious avoidance of the “philosophy of the subject” – which, as he wrote in his essay on Canguilhem, went through Sartre and Merleau-Ponty – the notion of the Other is as absent from The Words and Things as it is in the episteme of the 17th and 18th century.

Yet a witchy reading of Foucault would find that the absence of the Other is the prerequisite of the episteme of representation – in fact, the social function of that episteme (not a concern of Foucault’s in this book) is that it blocks the notion of the other.

This is the kind of lion’s paw statement that should trail the spring of a leonine book, not a mere less than thousand mouselike words.

To say that there is no room for the Other in the seventeenth and eighteenth century seems to deny the monument to Friday that I have been piling up, finding the figure of the savage entangled in the most unexpected, the most ‘Western’ of discourses – for instance, in the rediscovery of Greece by Winckelman; our principle, after all, has been as without, so within. The libertine in exile in Amsterdam writes of the libertine Huron in New France, whose people are being taught by Jesuits to humble themselves before the discoveries of the natural philosophy while villagers in outlying districts in France are being discouraged by their priests to read the natural philosophers, under pain of official visitation.

But, to use the terms of French philosophy, these figures are all related to the Same. It is the Same who comes into being as nature is freed from those sanctions controlling knowing and use that made it something other than our nature. It is under the sign of the same that the savage can be interpreted in terms of deficiency.

What happens to crack this system of interpretation – what epistemological mutation, to use Foucault’s phrase, occurs to bound the Same?

Here, one needs to register some criticisms. It is a well known criticism of Foucault that he gives no cause for these mutations – causes seem to fade into the background. This, however, is less worrisome to me than the idea that these mutations are homogeneous across the cultures of Modernity. In fact, by linking them with a temporal marker, he implicitly homogenizes the epistemic field of the West. Myself, I can’t see these mutations as anything but partial and fragmentary. I particular, I think the episteme of representation lasts a lot longer in the Anglosphere, and consequently the “human sciences” – those sciences that, I would contend, arise not because man appears, but because man comes into relation to the Other – are given a distinctly different turn in Britain and the U.S.

But it is time to quote the man. My translation, of course. I’m going to look at the last two chapters of the words and the things. This is from the last chapter.

“The first thing to observe is that the human sciences didn’t receive, inherit a certain domain that was already drawn, marked out perhaps in its totality, but left fallow, and that they would have the task to elaborate with concepts that were finally scientific and methods that were finally positivistic; the 18th century didn’t transmit to them under the name of man orof human nature a circumscribed exterior space, but still empty, that it would be their role to cover and analyse. The epistemological field which the human sciences proceed through hadn’t been prescribed in advance; no philosophy, no political or moral option, no empirical science of whatever kind, no observation of the human body, no analysis of sensation, of the imagination or of the passions, in the 17th and 18th century, encountered something like man; for man didn’t exist (any more than life, language and work); and the human sciences had not appeared when, under the effect of some pressing rationalism, some non-resolved scientific problem, some practical interest, one decided to pass man (whether or not he liked it, and with more or less success) onto the side of the objects of science, in the number of which he has perhaps still not proved that he can absolutely be ranged; they appeared on the day when man is constituted in the occidental culture at the same time as what must think and what there is to know. There is no doubt that, certainly, the historic emergence of each of the human sciences occurred at the instance of a problem, a requirement, an obstacle in the theoretical or practical order; it certainly required the new norms that industrial society imposed on individuals in order that, slowly, over the course of the 19th century, psychology constituted itself as a science; it also required doubtlessly the threats that since the Revolutin had weighed on the equilibrium of society, and on that even which the bourgeoisie had installed, in order that there appeared a reflection of the sociological type.”

Now, in one way, I might say, Foucault is merely applying the kind of philosophy of science to the human sciences that has been applied to, say, genetics – a philosophy that is anti-reductionist and anti-whig, so to speak. The language here is remarkably provocative. Before the burning of Moscow in 1812, the mayor, Rostopchin, who was infuriated by the retreat of the Russian army, apparently posted placards with apocalyptic warnings and sayings – Foucault drops that same apocalyptic tone into the burning of the intellectual history of the Enlightenment. There is no “encounter” with something called man. There is no life, there is no work, there is language. Dropping the modifying phrase, ‘concept of’, he bank shots everything off man – for of course, man here is the very base of the system. Concept is not strong enough, or so Foucault apparently believes, to convey the practical and theoretical consequences here, since concept would imply the very Hegelian structure which is set up in the nineteenth century. In other words, it would be an anachronism.

Of course, the problem is that the practical consequences have been muted in this book. Unlike Foucault’s work on the madhouse and the clinic, and later, on the prison, this history is surprisingly traditional in pursuing its themes in terms of a classifying, analyzing discourse, seemingly disembedded from the system of power in which it takes place. Power, which we think of as Foucault’s great theme, enters here only as a marginal theme, a few rills in the background. If it had been introduced, I think we would mutate the mutations – we would have to account for a modality of knowing that is left out of Foucault’s story: discovery.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

"It is a well known criticism of Foucault that he gives no cause for these mutations" - Ah, but he being one such mutation, clearly there is no Foucault.

Chuckie K

roger said...

Which, Mr. D, may be why he was once interviewed as the masked philosopher.