Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Penumbra of the Empty, Part XVII

The Enlightenment thinkers had an important task before them: for the sake of peace, sanity, happiness, and progress, to divide the secular from the religious.

Though the results of this Enlightenment task of separation are "mixed", it is evident that something was divided from something--something was partitioned, however it is we understand "something" or "partition." What happened is confusing. How do we know what happened isn't similar to what happened in Borges' Chinese encyclopedia?

"This book first arose out of a passage in Borges, out of the laughter that shattered, as I read the passage, all the familiar landmarks of my thought--our thought, the thought that bears the stamp of our age and our geography--breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things, and continuing long afterwards to disturb and threaten with collapse our age-old distinction between the Same and the Other. This passage quotes a 'certain Chinese encyclopaedia' in which it is written that 'animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h)included in the present classification, (i)frenzied,(j)innumerable,(k)drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m)having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies'. In the wonderment of this taxonomy, the thing we apprehend in one great leap, the thing that, by means of the fable, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that."-- Michel Foucault, preface of The Order of Things: an Archeology of the Human Sciences
The passage from Borges' Chinese encyclopedia provokes Foucault's laughter, but also shatters his thinking. How could Foucault consider Borges' whimsical categorizations a challenge to the Enlightenment's serious categorizations?

What if what was changed for the sake of peace, sanity, happiness, and progress changed the very meanings and experience of peace, sanity, happiness, and progress? In the event that the meanings and experience of these was mysteriously altered, was the promise of the Enlightenment kept, or lost, or deferred--deferred as the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow is deferred?

Illustration from Lori Nix Photography


Blogger Christoffer said...

I am pretty sure that Foucault wants to accentuate to the relativeness of thought to its own time vs. the universality of enlightenment thinking or its kind of rationality.

2:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why rely on a fragment of fiction to do this? Just because the comic genius of Borges can concoct a weird and exotic system of thought, why would any serious person think that bears against Enlightenment reality?

Unless the Enlightenment's kind of rationality is itself a fragment of fiction. Is this what is alleged?

"...the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that."

The "limitation" of our own system...Is this what is indicated? I see whether it is or not as crucially important for the entire Foucauldian project of a Kantian critique which is different than Kant and which sets the Enlightenment back on an enlightened course.


10:34 AM  
Blogger Christoffer said...

"The premise of the archaeological method is that systems of thought and knowledge (epistemes or discursive formations, in Foucault's terminology) are governed by rules, beyond those of grammar and logic, that operate beneath the consciousness of individual subjects and define a system of conceptual possibilities that determines the boundaries of thought in a given domain and period. So, for example, The History of Madness should, Foucault maintained, be read as an intellectual excavation of the radically different discursive formations that governed talk and thought about madness from the 17th through the 19th centuries. (Admittedly, his archaeological method was only adumbrated in this early work, but it was fully developed in The Order of Things.)

Archaeology was an essential method for Foucault because it supported a historiography that did not rest on the primacy of the consciousness of individual subjects; it allowed the historian of thought to operate at an unconscious level that displaced the primacy of the subject found in both phenomenology and in traditional historiography. However, archaeology's critical force was restricted to the comparison of the different discursive formations of different periods. Such comparisons could suggest the contingency of a given way of thinking by showing that previous ages had thought very differently (and, apparently, with as much effectiveness). But mere archaeological analysis could say nothing about the causes of the transition from one way of thinking to another and so had to ignore perhaps the most forceful case for the contingency of entrenched contemporary positions. Genealogy, the new method deployed in Discipline and Punish, was intended to remedy this deficiency.

Foucault intended the term “genealogy” to evoke Nietzsche's genealogy of morals, particularly with its suggestion of complex, mundane, inglorious origins — in no way part of any grand scheme of progressive history. The point of a genealogical analysis is to show that a given system of thought (itself uncovered in its essential structures by archaeology, which therefore remains part of Foucault's historiography) was the result of contingent turns of history, not the outcome of rationally inevitable trends."


1:07 PM  

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