Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things is a toast and testament to the fact that every idea presupposes an entire style of thinking, a.k.a an episteme. He outlines three epistemes in the history of the West— the Ancient, the Classical, and the Modern, each of which has a unique method of deciphering the world and articulating knowledge. Perhaps the most profound consequence, as far as the Moderns are concerned, is the emergence of the concept of Man as a finite being; this enables all of the human sciences and orients us in the world. But, because it is a mere product of our discourse, Foucault predicts that Man will wash away, “like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea” (Foucault, 387).
Why read The Order of Things when its thesis simultaneously sounds unnecessarily heady yet overwhelmingly naive? Sure, folks will find that the book proves deep thoughts, causing us to question one’s sense of life— and this is deeply satisfying, but there needs to be something at stake to make a book worthwhile. It must have traction in reality.
To that end, Foucault’s The Order of Things matters in that it enables us to see the most basic political and philosophical questions of the 21st century — environmentalism, existentialism, labor rights, etc.— in a new light. It helps us see that we often fight for justice with outdated weaponry, that we fight for land that only exists in obsolete maps. After all, what is freedom without its human element; what is justice without its human presupposition; what is left of the world without humans?
LAS MENINAS: WHAT IS AN EPISTEME?
The most accessible entry point into the book’s premise and argument, which is that all knowledge hangs together according to a certain style of interpretation, is Diego Velázquez’ Las Meninas (see left). Foucault explains that the painting unsettles our sense of visibility and invisibility. Whereas most paintings showcase their objects, Las Meninas hides its true object; as evidenced by the painter’s eyes, his turned canvas, the gazes in the canvas, and the reflection in the rear mirror, the occasion for the painting’s gathering is outside of the frame. We see each person’s orientation and comportment, but we do not see what causes them to behave that way.
Similarly, we can study individual texts, but we can also interpret them in order to see how knowledge hangs together— how it coalesce into fields of intelligibility and legibility.
THE PROSE OF THE WORLD: RESEMBLANCE
Throughout history, until the 16th century, people saw and interpreted the world in terms of resemblance. To understand something was to see how it resembled other things, regardless of their order of magnitude; the finite could resemble the infinite; words could resemble things; the base could resemble the divine.
The term resemblance had a more expansive definition than we have today. First, it could refer to the way that physical space already grouped objects together; dirts and plant, therefore, resembled each other because they existed in tight proximity. This also applied to the way that ideas, such as the body and soul, naturally implied each other, as if they had an ‘ideal’ proximity that created resemblance. Second, things could resemble each other by shared attributes, like how a walnut resembles the human brain; people would conclude, therefore, that walnuts were good for the brain. Third, things could also resemble each other by combining space and emulation: i.e. that the star’s relationship to the sky is analogous to the diamond’s place in the rocks they’re buried in. Fourth, certain forces, such as fire, burn everything into a sameness (ash), and this totalizing force belongs within the discourse of resemblance.
Practically, this meant that every relationship had a signature, whereby resemblances could be deciphered and understood. These patterns of resemblance were, “the nature of things, their coexistence, the way in which they [were] linked together and communicate” (Foucault, 29). It shaped the world and defined more than the contours of knowledge; knowledge consisted of defining resemblances. Everything was so fundamentally linked that words necessarily had to affect reality, which is why Divination was so popular in the Ancient World; the mere sight of words could stop a malicious snake.
Every utterance belonged to an episteme in which determining resemblance is the practice and form of knowledge.
THE WORD UNHINGED: REPRESENTATION
Beginning in the 17th century, however, things and words separated such that resemblances no longer played the decisive role in knowledge. Sameness ceased to hold such importance; thinkers gained the suspicion that lumping things together was a failure to see objects properly. Thinkers wanted to see difference, measuring and ordering their knowledge, which meant that they needed all knowledge to be accountable— that knowledge could be represented.
Rather than focus on resemblance, a.k.a. Sameness, Classical thinkers honed-in on identity and difference (Foucault, 50). In fact, people who continued to think along Ancient lines were defined as mad in this new era. “In the cultural perception of the madman that prevailed…he is different only in so far as he is unaware of Difference; he sees nothing but resemblances and signs of resemblance everywhere; for him, all signs resemble one another, and all resemblances have the value of signs” (Foucault, 49). Note that this is exactly what knowing entailed in the previous episteme. But the new rules of thinking, behaving, and forming knowledge required people to differentiate and order their observations and thoughts.
Foucault then shows how this affected three domains of knowledge: speaking, classifying, and exchanging. The shift enabled new kinds of thinking to take place; it also limited thought, preventing it from being the Modern thought we are familiar with. Thus, the Classical Era — from the 17th to the 18th century— is a kind of black box of information that enables us to see how they interpreted the world.
Because language ceased to be intrinsically linked with the world, it developed into something to be studied. After all, the “Renaissance came to a halt before the brute fact that language existed,” meaning that this age saw language as something problematic— as something that was no longer transparent (Foucault, 50). Hence an entire discourse around language emerges. Theories about what language, since it no longer related to the world, actually signified; i.e.: “The yell of the primitive man in a struggle only becomes a true word when it is no longer a unilateral expression of his pain, and when it has validity as a judgement of as a statement of the type, ‘I am choking’” (Foucault, 92). Language is an extension of the body, yet its role as signifying something — something that the speaker is aware of— makes it possible for words to move away from their primal origins. Many of these are environmental or cultural, such as, “ease of pronunciation, fashions, habits, climates— cold weather encourages ‘unvoiced labials,’ hot weather ‘guttural aspirates” (110).
Such differences could be charted and analyzed, allowing languages to be studied according to their unique attributes. In the same way, people studying species would study the physical appearances of their organisms, measuring and charting their attributes; then, scientists could chart and name according to their differences. In both cases, there is a system of representations that a) designs representations, b) derive signifying representations in relation to those signified, c) articulate what is represented, and d) attribute certain representations to certain others (Foucault, 203).
As it to be expected, Foucault finds that this system of representation also applies to the study of wealth. In transitioning from the Ancient Age to the Classical Age, money becomes ‘wealth itself’ to a ‘representation of wealth.’ Previously, people saw gold as rare and high in utility, which gave it intrinsic worth and therefore made it an ideal medium of trade. This changed in the Classical Age, when people reversed the order of causality: its value stemmed from the fact that it represented wealth, not that it had an intrinsic utility. Gold coins, therefore, only had value because they could acquire other goods— meaning that it only had value in circulation, which is why the issues of circulation and balances were so critical in the Classical Age (i.e. mercantilism). It is important to note that this is distinct from our Modern sense of Political Economy because it lacks a concept of production (i.e. Marx); here, circulation creates wealth.
The study of living animals followed the same pattern. People studied external characteristics, charted them, and created species based on the differences between organisms.
THE MODERN WORLD: FROM REPRESENTATION TO PRODUCTION
Modern thinkers moved-past representation in the mid 19th century and focused on function, which inadvertently emphasize finitude. People less and less cared for how objects related to one another, or what they represented abstractly; they instead cared about how systems functioned. Hence the Modern study of living beings examined organs and their functions; political economy focused on production; linguistics focused on the power of speech. In each field, important issues occurred beneath the surface. Analysis became synonymous with exploring hidden depths. And, most profoundly, this anchored analysis to the finite; this, in turn, enabled us to conceive of Man: a being that is constricted by historically-determined languages, confined by biology, and limited by desires and the necessity of labor.
Of course, people previously conceived of human beings. The word ‘Man’ is all throughout the Bible. But the Modern sense is unique in that it thinks in terms of finitude. Modernity— with the realization that we speak through given languages, that we are confined to our bodies and their rules, and subject to laboring and desiring— forces us to accept that Man is the basis of all knowledge, yet our finitude places a limit and fallibility onto our claims to truth. Hence we must always assess the identity of any speaker (the psychology, the class, the historical context, and so on) in order to fully understand the claim itself. This opened the door for an entire study of humans, each of which implies the others: every psychology has its history, every historian has a unique psychology, psychology influences economics, and so on. They are intimately interconnected.
This solidified so many of the fields we are familiar with today: political economy, biology, linguistics, and so on. Indeed, all of the new fields, such as cognitive science and computer science, are extensions of this logic of finitude— where everything can be isolated, reduced to a system, and analyzed. The new fields all totally accept Man in his finitude.
And yet, Man does not emerge as a free-floating figure without complications. Foucault remarks that man has, “not only a brother but a twin, born, not of man, not in man, but beside him and at the same time, in an identical newness, in an unavoidable duality” (Foucault, 326). It is, “the shadow cast by man as he emerged in the field of knowledge” (Foucault, 326). It is the un-thought, the Other that takes so many different forms. Foucault sees the disparate results of this: “in Hegelian phenomenology phenomenology, it was the An Sich as opposed to the Fur sich; for Schopenhauer it was the Unbewusste; for Marx it was alienated man; in Husserl’s analyses it was the implicit, the inactual, the sedimented” (Foucault, 327). In each case, this Other blurs our true essence; and the goal of Modern thought is to, “reconcile [Man] with his own essence, of making explicit the horizon that provides experience with its background of immediate and disarmed proof, of lifting the veil of Unconscious, of becoming absorbed in its silence, or of straining the catch its endless murmur” (Foucault, 327).
Modern thinkers see our blurred, problematic existence and imagine how that might be overcome. Modern Marxists see this in our relationship to capital; feminists see this in gender disputes; environmentalists see this in our imbalanced relationship with nature; and so on. In each case, thought is oriented towards overcoming this tension. All thinking is acting, which is why Nietzsche was correct in saying that thoughts fight on behalf of various interest groups.
MAN AND BEYOND
Foucault summarizes that Man is the volume of the spaces in which biology, political economy, and linguistics interact. Yet he encourages us to think past these categories, for Man to stop being so concerned with Man. He says this only seems paradoxical, “because we are so blinded by the recent manifestation of man that we can no longer remember a time— and it is not so long ago— when the world, its order, and human beings existed, but Man did not” (Foucault, 322). Foucault’s The Order of Things proves that a world without Man is not only possible, but it describes the vast majority of humans’ experience on earth.
The French philosopher does not articulate what is next, aside from generalities. Whatever is next, it will entail a position in which language does not obscure our sense of the world. We will no longer be anxious about knowing ourselves and the world. And, in imagining a better future, it will not simply be an un-alienated Man. It will go beyond simply alleviating our sources of discontent. Foucault’s statements about LSD help make this clearer: “Deep down, what is the experience of the drug, if not this: to erase limits, to reject divides, to put away all prohibitions, and then to ask the question, what has become of knowledge?” (Foucault— The Lost Interview). This might sound deep or might remind us of people who’ve taken too many psychedelics to bother with ‘worldly’ concerns like the pain of the neighbors and friends.
But let us at least remember that the satisfying life requires more considerations than biology, political economy, and linguistics. The goal is not simply to establish justice in these realms, which is a requisite, of course, but to create a society in which everyone can develop their interests and skills freely. In trying to go beyond the human, we must also take-care of the cost of education, the cost of healthcare, the cost of rent, the enchainment to labor; it is not simply discursive or in the mind. Marxists, feminists, and ecologists all have valid points.
But, going forward, I believe that artists have the clearest sense of what going-beyond Man looks like. Literature consistently tells us that profound experiences lay on the other side of ego loss. This is true from meditation to psychedelics to charitable giving to hiking in nature to meaningful sex. There are positive benefits from forfeiting one’s humanity. We should not only fight to be fully human; we must fight to be things other than human.
Jack Kerouac, in On the Road, writes:
“Still there was no breeze, but the steel had an element of coolness in it and dried my back of sweat, clotting up thousands of dead bugs into cakes on my skin, and I realized the jungle takes you over you become it. Lying on top of the car with my face to the black sky was like lying in a closed trunk on summer night. For the first time in my life the weather was not something that touched me, that caressed me, froze or sweated me, but became me. The atmosphere and I became the same. Some infinitesimal showers of microscopic bugs fanned down on my face as I slept, and they were extremely pleasant and soothing. The sky was starless, utterly unseen and heavy,” (Kerouac, 268).
Henry Miller writes,
“Love and hate, despair, pity, rage, disgust— what are these amidst the fornications of the planets? What is war, disease, cruelty, terror, when night presents the ecstasy of myriad blazing suns?…The great incestuous wish is to flow on, one with time, to merge with the great image of the beyond with the here and now. A fatuous, suicidal wish that is constipated by words and paralyzed by thought” (Miller, 250, 258).
Such states are obviously hard to put into words, even for philosophers who dedicated their lives to the idea. Heidegger here notes that if we are to fully grasp our existential predicament, outside of the realm of humanism, we must, “first learn to exist in the nameless…Before he speaks the human being must first let himself be claimed again by being, taking the risk that under this claim, he will seldom have much to say. Only thus will the pricelessness of its essence be once more bestowed upon the word, and upon humans a home for the dwelling in the truth of being” (Heidegger, 223). But it is clearly worth the effort and risk of forgoing one’s humanity, if the prose of artists tells us anything.
Additionally, it may be good for the world. A worldview in which Man sees himself as the center of the world, as the arbitrator of knowledge and the object of knowledge, profoundly displaces his environmental position in the world. He is more likely to believe that consumption and greed are good, that the natural world is there to be plundered, that the ego is the ultimate source of gratification. Placing the human at the center of the universe — that knowledge is his, that his experience is knowledge— profoundly threatens the stability of our environment and it weakens our profoundly nourishing links with our surroundings.
Foucault was correct in suggesting that we move beyond the human, but incorrect to say that it simply hinged on the reunification of language. It will also require the eradication of things that chain us to pathetic human experience; when Henry Miller says, “to be human seems like a poor, sorry, miserable affair, limited by the senses, restricted by moralities and codes, defined by platitudes and isms,” he is certainly correct (Miller, 256). All these are others are correct in that assessment.
But that does not mean leaving our neighbors behind. Being post-human should not mean being antisocial or neoconservative. In order to be free of humanity, we must also be free as human. We should dismantle everything that strips us of the freedom to annihilate oneself through art, whether that be literature, the art of breathing, or the art of walking in nature.
Works Cited/Further Reading
Claris, L. (2014, March 20). Foucault-The Lost Interview. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qzoOhhh4aJg
Foucault, Michel. (1994). The order of things: An archaeology of the human sciences. New York,
NY: Vintage Books.
Heidegger, Martin. Basic Writings. Edited by David Farrell Krell, Harper Perennial, 2008.
Kerouac, Jack. (2018). On the road. London: Penguin Book.
Miller, Henry. Tropic of Cancer. Quality Paperback Book Club, 1991.