Foucault feat. Borges: The Order of Things

Borges and his writings have inspired and influenced many thinkers and writers. One such exemplary thinker had quoted from the aforementioned passage by Borges, regarding categorizing, celestial taxonomies and the general order of things. Below are some notes I made a long time ago, from Michel Foucault’s hugely influential The Order of Things.

Foucault starts the book by recalling how he was amused yet also shaken upon reading Borges’ celestial taxonomy:

The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences


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 encyclopedia’ 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, (1) 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 able, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that.

Foucault elucidates on just what it was about Borges’s passage that was so earth-shattering:

The monstrous quality that runs through Borges’s enumeration consists, on the contrary, in the fact that the common ground on which such meetings are possible has itself been destroyed. What is impossible is not the propinquity of the things listed, but the very site on which their propinquity would be possible. The animals ‘(i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush’ – where could they ever meet, except in the immaterial sound of the voice pronouncing their enumeration, or on the page transcribing it? Where else could they be juxtaposed except in the non-place of language? Yet, though language can spread them before us, it can do so only in an unthinkable space.

Here Foucault describes, rightly or wrongly, how in western consciousness the word ‘China’ has been more than a Name or Definition (and in a way, recalling the ancient chinese debate over the ‘Rectification of Names’):
[And here at this passage, a much younger self made the following notes:
Names and naming convention, cf. with the Primary Key and Surrogate Key of relational databases.]

The uneasiness that makes us laugh when we read Borges is certainly related to the profound distress of those whose language has been destroyed: loss of what is ‘common’ to place and name. Atopia, aphasia. Yet our text from Borges proceeds in another direction; the mythical homeland Borges assigns to that distortion of classification that prevents us from applying it, to that picture that lacks all spatial coherence, is a precise region whose name alone constitutes for the West a vast reservoir of utopias. In our dreamworld, is not China precisely this privileged site of space? In our traditional imagery, the Chinese culture is the most meticulous, the most rigidly ordered, the one most deaf to temporal events, most attached to the pure delineation of space; we think of it as a civilization of dikes and dams beneath the eternal face of the sky; we see it, spread and frozen, over the entire surface of a continent surrounded by walls. Even its writing does not reproduce the fugitive flight of the voice in horizontal lines; it erects the motionless and still-recognizeable images of things themselves in vertical columns. So much so that the Chinese encyclopaedia quoted by Borges, and the taxonomy it proposes, lead to a kind of thought without space, to words and categories that lack all life and place, but are rooted in a ceremonial space, overburdened with complex figures, with tangled paths, strange places, secret passages, and unexpected communications. There would appear to be, then, at the other extremity of the earth we inhabit, a culture entirely devoted to the ordering of space, but one that does not distribute the multiplicity of existing things into any of the categories that make it possible for us to name, speak, and think.


Next a rather long run-on passage where Foucault describes the three ‘phases’ of cultural order: the fundamental ordering codes, the new theories and reflections arising which question the existing codes, and the middle-ground of the pure experience of the order and it’s (gonna use one of the most distasteful and technical word in Philo…bleah!) Modalities.

But really, nothing new in this passage. Foucault was just falling back into one of the oldest, most familiar, tried-and-tested technique/way of thinking in western philosophy/thinking: Classic Dialectics, and it’s thesis, antitheses and synthesis.

[But a younger self who was at the time heavily involved in my chemistry studies, on reading this passage, noted a faint trace and similarity between Foucault’s ‘pure experience’ or experiential ‘superimposition’ with the transient non-isolable transition state and activated complex from physical chemistry.

{Bemusingly, I was to later develop and apply the ideas of transition states, chemical equilibrium and calculus limits to a paper I wrote for my Theory and Philosophy of Architecture class, when I attempted to give a mathematical proof of Kant’s Theory of Perception from his Critique of Aesthetics. I remember I reduced Kant’s process of perception based on his theories of imagination into a 3-page mathematical ‘proof’ culminating in a ‘General Equation of Perception’. What’s even funnier was the paper eventually was forwarded and published in a social sciences academic journal, my one and only published paper; in a field removed from the context it was written in, which itself was different from the field I eventually specialized in, and that was also not the field I ended up working in…
Heh, the ignominy and futility of it all… Sigh.

The fundamental codes of a culture – those governing its language, its schemas of perception, its exchanges, its techniques, its values, the hierarchy of its practices – establish for every man, from the very first, the empirical orders with which he will be dealing and within which he will be at home. At the other extremity of thought, there are the scientific theories or the philosophical interpretations which explain why order exists in general, what universal law it obeys, what principle can account for it, and why this particular order has been established and not some other. But between these two regions, so distant from one another, lies a domain which, even though its role is mainly an intermediary one, is nonetheless fundamental: it is more confused, more obscure, and probably less easy to analyse. It is here that a culture, imperceptibly deviating from the empirical orders prescribed for it by its primary codes, instituting an initial separation from them, causes them to lose their original transparency, relinquishes its immediate and invisible powers, frees itself sufficiently to discover that these orders are perhaps not the only possible ones or the best ones; this culture then finds itself faced with the stark fact that there exists, below the level of its spontaneous orders, things that are in themselves capable of being ordered, that belong to a certain unspoken order; the fact, in short, that order exists. As though emancipating itself to some extent from its linguistic, perceptual, and practical grids, the culture superimposed on them another kind of grid which neutralized them, which by this superimposition both revealed and excluded them at the same time, so that the culture, by this very process, came face to face with order in its primary state. It is on the basis of this newly perceived order that the codes of language, perception, and practice are criticized and rendered partially invalid. It is on the basis of this order, taken as a firm foundation, that general theories as to the ordering of things, and the interpretation that such an ordering involves, will be constructed. Thus, between the already ‘encoded’ eye and reflexive knowledge there is a middle region which liberates order itself: it is here that it appears, according to the culture and the age in question, continuous and graduated or discontinuous and piecemeal, linked to space or constituted anew at each instant by the driving force of time, related to a series of variables or defined by separate systems of coherences, composed of resemblances which are either successive or corresponding, organized around increasing differences, etc. [where I see the similarity to the Activated Complex: “It therefore represents not one defined state, but rather a range of transient configurations that a collection of atoms passes through in between… the free energies of the reactants, the transition state, and the products”] This middle region, then, in so far as it makes manifest the modes of being of order, can be posited as the most fundamental of all: anterior to words, perceptions, and gestures, which are then taken to be more or less exact, more or less happy, expressions of it (which is why this experience of order in its pure primary state always plays a critical role); more solid, more archaic, less dubious, always more ‘true’ than the theories that attempt to give those expressions explicit form, exhaustive application, or philosophical foundation. Thus, in every culture, between the use of what one might call the ordering codes and reflections upon order itself, there is the pure experience of order and of its modes of being.

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