'The Order of Things' by Michel Foucault (1966): 'The Prose of the World'

From Foucault's 'The Order of Things' (1966):

Up to the end of the sixteenth century, resemblance played a constructive role in the knowledge of Western culture. It was resemblance that largely guided exegesis and the interpretation of texts; it was resemblance that organized the play of symbols, made possible knowledge of things visible and invisible, and controlled the art of representing them. The universe was folded in upon itself: the earth echoing the sky, faces seeing them­selves reflected in the stars, and plants holding within their stems the secrets that were of use to man. Painting imitated space. And representa­tion - whether in the service of pleasure or of knowledge - was posited as a form of repetition: the theatre of life or the mirror of nature, that was the claim made by all language, its manner of declaring its existence and of formulating its right of speech.

The dark earth is the mirror of the star-sown sky...

Man as Paracelsus describes him is, like the firmament, 'constellated with stars'.

This reversibility and this polyvalency endow analogy with a universal field of application. Through it, all the figures in the whole universe can be drawn together. There does exist, however, in this space, furrowed in every direction, one particularly privileged point: it is saturated with analogies (all analogies can find one of their necessary terms there), and as they pass through it, their relations may be inverted without losing any of their force. This point is man: ...he stands in relation to the firmament...; but he is also the fulcrum upon which all these relations turn... . Man's body is always the possible half of a universal atlas.

...analogical cosmography.

The space occupied by analogies is really a space of radiation. Man is surrounded by it on every side; but, inversely, he transmits these resemblances back into the world from which he receives them. He is the great fulcrum of proportions - the centre upon which relations are concentrated and from which they are once again reflected.

And yet the system is not closed. One aperture remains: and through it the whole interplay of resemblances would be in danger of escaping from itself, or of remaining hidden in darkness, if there were not a further form of similitude to close the circle- to render it at once perfect and manifest.
Conventientia, aemulatio, analogy, and sympathy tell us how the world must fold in upon itself, duplicate itself, reflect itself, or form a chain with itself so that things can resemble one another. They tell us what the paths of similitude are and the directions they take; but not where it is, how one sees it, or by what mark it may be recognized.

These buried similitudes must be indicated on the surface of things; there must be visible marks for the invisible analogies. Is not any resemblance, after all, both the most obvious and the most hidden of things? Because it is not made up of juxtaposed fragments, some identical and others different, it is all of a piece, a similitude that can be seen and yet not seen. It would thus lack any criterion if it did not have within it- or above it or beside it- a decisive element to transform its uncertain glimmer into bright certainty.
There are no resemblances without signatures. The world of similarity can only be a world of signs. Paracelsus says:
It is not God's will that what he creates for man's benefit and what he has given us should remain hidden... . And even though he has hidden certain things, he has allowed nothing to remain without exterior and visible signs in the form of special marks- just as man who has buried a hoard of treasure marks the spot that he may find it again.
A knowledge of similitudes is founded upon the unearthing and decipherment of these signatures. It is useless to go no further than the skin or bark of plants if you wish to know their nature; you must go straight to their marks- 'to the shadow and image of God that they bear or to their internal virtue, which has been given to them by heaven as a natural dowry,... a virtue, I say, that is to be recognized rather by its signature'. The system of signatures reverses the relation of the visible to the invisible. Resemblance was the invisible form of that which, from the depths of the world, made things visible; but in order that this form may be brought out into the light in its turn there must be a visible figure that will draw it out from its profound invisibility. This is why the face of the world is covered with blazons, with characters, with ciphers and obscure words- with 'hierographics', as Turner called them. And the space inhabited by immediate resemblances becomes like a vast open book.

And so the circle is closed. [...] Resemblances require a signature, for none of them would ever become observable were it not legibly marked. [...] What form constitutes a sign and endows it with its particular value as a sign? - Resemblance does. It signifies exactly in so far as it resembles what it is indicating (that is, a similitude). [...] Every resemblance receives a signature; but this signature is no more than an intermediate form of the same resemblance.

...resemblance in the sixteenth-century knowledge is without doubt the most universal thing there is: at the same time that which is most clearly visible, yet something that one must nevertheless search for, since it is also the most hidden; what determines the form of knowledge (for knowledge can only follow the path of similitude), and what guarantees its wealth of content (for the moment one lifts aside the signs and looks at what they indicate, one allows Resemblance itself to emerge into the light of day and shine with its own inner light).

...the sixteenth century superimposed hermeneutics and semiology in the form of similitude. To search for a meaning is to bring to light a resemblance. To search for the law governing signs is to discover the things that are alike. The gram­mar of beings is an exegesis of these things. And what the language they speak has to tell us is quite simply what the syntax is that binds them together. The nature of things, their coexistence, the way in which they are linked together and communicate is nothing other than their re­semblance. And that resemblance is visible only in the network of signs that crosses the world from one end to the other.

Resemblance never remains stable within itself; it can be fixed only if it refers back to another similitude, which then, in turn, refers to others... . And for this reason, from its very foundations, this knowledge will be a thing of sand. [...] ...sixteenth-century knowledge condemned itself to never knowing anything but the same thing, and to knowing that thing only at the unattainable end of an end­less journey.

There is no difference between the visible marks that God has stamped upon the surface of the earth, so that we may know its inner secrets, and the legible words that the Scriptures, or the sages of Antiquity, have set down in the books preserved for us by tradition. The relation to these texts is of the same nature as the relation to things: in both cases there are signs that must be discovered. [...] God... merely sowed nature with forms for us to decipher (and it is in this sense that knowledge should be divinatio), ... the Ancients have already provided us with interpretations, which we need do no more than gather together. [...] The heritage of Antiquity, like nature itself, is a vast space requiring interpretation; in both cases there arc signs to be discovered and then, little by little, made to speak. In other words, divinatio and eruditio are both part of the same hermeneutics; but this develops, following similar forms, on two different levels: one moves from the mute sign to the thing itself (and makes nature speak); the other moves from the unmoving graphism to clear speech (it restores sleeping languages to life). But just as natural signs are linked to what they indicate by the profound relation of resemblance, so the discourse of the Ancients is in the image of what it expresses; if it has the value of a precious sign, that is because, from the depth of its being, and by means of the light that has never ceased to shine through it since its origin, it is adjusted to things themselves, it forms a mirror for them and emulates them; it is to eternal truth what signs are to the secrets of nature (it is the mark whereby the word may be deciphered); and it possesses an ageless affinity with the things that it unveils.

The process is everywhere the same: that of the sign and its likeness, and this is why nature and the word can intertwine with one another to infinity, forming, for those who can read it, one vast single text.

In the sixteenth century, real language is ... an opaque, mysterious thing, closed in upon itself, a fragmented mass, its enigma renewed in every interval, which combines here and there with the forms of the world and becomes interwoven with them: so much so that all these elements, taken together, form a network of marks in which each of them may play, and does in fact play, in relation to all the others, the role of content or of sign, that of secret or of indicator. In its raw, historical sixteenth-century being, language is not an arbitrary system; it has been set down in the world and forms a part of it, both because things themselves hide and manifest their own enigma like a language and because words offer themselves to men as things to be de­ciphered. The great metaphor of the book that one opens, that one pores over and reads in order to know nature, is merely the reverse and visible side of another transference, and a much deeper one, which forces language to reside in the world, among the plants, the herbs, the stones, and the animals.

The names of things were lodged in the things they designated... . This transparency was destroyed at Babel as a punishment for men. [...] All the languages known to us are now spoken only against the background of this lost similitude, and in the space that it left vacant. [...] Hebrew ... contains, as if in the form of fragments, the marks of that original name-giving. [...] But these are no more than fragmentary monuments.

[T]he form of the encyclopedic project as it appears at the end of the sixteenth century or in the first years of the seventeenth: not to reflect what one knows in the neutral element of language... but to reconstitute the very order of the universe by the way in which words are linked together and arranged in space. It is this project that we find in Gregoire's Syntaxeon artis mirabilis (1610), and in Alstedius's Encyclopaedia (1630); or again in the Tableau de tous les arts liberaux by Christophe de Savigny, who contrives to spatialize acquired knowledge both in accordance with the cosmic, unchanging, and perfect form of the circle and in accor­dance with the sublunary, perishable, multiple, and divided form of the tree; it is also to be found in the work of La Croix du Maine, who en­visages a space that would be at once an Encyclopaedia and a Library, and would permit the arrangement of written texts according to the forms of adjacency, kinship, analogy, and subordination prescribed by the world itself. But in any case, such an interweaving of language and things, in a space common to both, presupposes an absolute privilege on the part of writing. 
 This primacy of the written word explains the twin presence of two forms which, despite their apparent antagonism, are indissociable in sixteenth-century knowledge. The first of these is a non-distinction be­tween what is seen and what is read, between observation and relation, which results in the constitution of a single, unbroken surface in which observation and language intersect to infinity. And the second, the inverse of the first, is an immediate dissociation of all language, duplicated, with­out any assignable term, by the constant reiteration of commentary.

...nature, in itself, is an unbroken tissue of words and signs, of accounts and charac­ters, of discourse and forms. [...] To know an animal or a plant, or any terrestrial thing whatever, is to gather together the whole dense layer of signs with which it or they may have been covered; it is to re­discover also all the constellations of forms from which they derive their value as heraldic signs.

Knowledge therefore consisted in relating one form of language to another form of language; in restoring the great, unbroken plain of words and things; in making everything speak. That is, in bringing into being, at a level above that of all marks, the secondary discourse of commentary. The function proper to knowledge is not seeing or demonstrating; it is interpreting. Scriptural commentary, commentaries on Ancient authors, commentaries on the accounts of travellers, commentaries on legends and fables: none of these forms of discourse is required to justify its claim to be expressing a truth before it is interpreted; all that is required of it is the possibility of talking about it. Language contains its own inner prin­ciple of proliferation. 'There is more work in interpreting interpretations than in interpreting things; and more books about books than on any other subject; we do nothing but write glosses on one another'. These words are not a statement of the bankruptcy of a culture buried beneath its own monuments; they are a definition of the inevitable re­lation that language maintained with itself in the sixteenth century. This relation enabled language to accumulate to infinity, since it never ceased to develop, to revise itself, and to lay its successive forms one over another. Perhaps for the first time in Western culture, we find revealed the absolutely open dimension of a language no longer able to halt itself, because, never being enclosed in a definitive statement, it can express its truth only in some future discourse and is wholly intent on what it will have said; but even this future discourse itself does not have the power to halt the progression, and what it says is enclosed within it like a promise, a bequest to yet another discourse... . The task of commentary can never, by definition, be completed. And yet commentary is directed entirely towards the enigmatic, murmured element of the language being com­mented on: it calls into being, below the existing discourse, another discourse that is more fundamental and, as it were, 'more primal', which it sets itself the task of restoring. There can be no commentary unless, below the language one is reading and deciphering, there runs the sover­eignty of an original Text. And it is this text which, by providing a foundation for the commentary, offers its ultimate revelation as the promised reward of commentary. The necessary proliferation of the exegesis is therefore measured, ideally limited, and yet ceaselessly ani­mated, by this silent dominion. The language of the sixteenth century -understood not as an episode in the history of any one tongue, but as a global cultural experience - found itself caught, no doubt, between these interacting elements, in the interstice occurring between the primal Text and the infinity of Interpretation. One speaks upon the basis of a writing that is part of the fabric of the world; one speaks about it to infinity, and each of its signs becomes in turn written matter for further discourse; but each of these stages of discourse is addressed to that primal written word whose return it simultaneously promises and postpones.
 Part 2 to follow (Foucault on Don Quixoti and Representation).