Foucault’s Order of Things

by Beth Metcalf

In the foreword to the English edition of The Order of Things (1), Foucault writes of his intention to put forward a study of a much neglected field.  He looks for a field of transcendental possibility beneath the empirical knowledge of facts.  He looks for the transcendental conditions of both the transcendental possibilities of consciousness and the empirical knowledge of facts at any one moment in history.  His ‘archaeology’ investigates a transcendental field that conditions the empirical possibilities of what is see-able and say-able at any one moment in history.  However, this ‘historical apriori’ is not a universal field of general possibility.  It re-draws the usual boundaries of thought.  This field does not operate by the usually accepted rules of causal formation or subjective consciousness.  Foucault, like Deleuze, rejects any phenomenological approach of the observing subject.  Like Deleuze, Foucault is not a structuralist.  He denounces those “half-witted commentators” who can’t get it through their “tiny minds” that he can’t be labelled a ‘structuralist’ (OT xiv).  Rather, he envisions history as a theory of discursive practice. 

In his Preface to The Order of Things, Foucault describes a taxonomy of a ‘certain Chinese Encyclopedia’ to illustrate how different systems of thought draw very different distinctions of identity and difference.  Incommensurable systems make it impossible for one historical perspective to be thought by another.  There can be no universal generality.  Any unrelated elements may meet in the non-place of language.  Only language distributes differences into previously unthinkable orders, because only language may be empty of empirical content.  Any assemblage of really different elements may be thought as a new system of knowledge.  Things may be linked without prior concept of generality or possibility.  Relations of identity and difference among objects and terms are not primary.  Things do not have to be thought according to the usual categories of possible experience, because they are not determined by prior concepts or percepts.  Foucault introduces his archaeology of what it was possible to see and say from the perspectives of different historical ages.  He calls the Classical Age, from around the middle of the seventeenth century to the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Age of Representation.  Then in the Modern Age, Representation disappears as a universal foundation of all possible orders.  In the Modern Age there can no longer be a totalizing link between language and things. 

Foucault describes Velazquez’s painting, Las Meninas, which he sees as revealing the space of Classical thought.  The painter can’t see the picture in which he represents himself and also, at the same time, see that which he is representing outside that picture.  He is at a threshold between these two incompatible visibilities.  The painter is at the threshold where there is oscillation of gazes between subject and object.  The model he paints is not inside the painting.  The subjects of the painting are the king and his wife reflected in the mirror shown in the picture.  The mirror reflects an empty place not represented inside the picture.  It is the empty place of the king.  However, can we really consider the place of the king to be empty?  Foucault reminds us that we can pretend not to know that the images represented in the mirror have the proper names of King Philip IV and his wife, Mariana.  We know the historical figures represented in the empty space.  Therefore, the place of the king is not really empty.  The proper names make it impossible to say that designation is arbitrary.  The relation of language to the personages represented in the supposedly “empty place” still fixes the presentation of all figures inside the painting. 

However, the place of the king must remain empty if it is to fulfill its triple function.  The empty place must be the superimposition of three gazes – the model’s gaze, the painter’s gaze, and the spectator’s gaze.  None of these three functions can themselves be represented in the painting.  These three observing functions come together at a point outside the painting.  This point is virtual, yet real.  The empty place makes reverse and right sides of the scene oscillate.  The virtual and the actual are indiscernible.  There must be absence of the king – an empty place that is not filled.  It must be the invisibility of the seen (content) inseparable from the invisibility of seeing (expression).  It is the heterogeneous doubling or coupling of the inside and outside, content and expression (2).  It is not possible for an image to ever represent, at the same time, the one who expresses and the expressed content.  What is said cannot represent what is seen.  (OT 9) “It is in vain that we say what we see; what we see never resides in what we say.  And it is in vain that we attempt to show, by use of images, metaphors, or similes, what we are saying…”  The proper name designates from a space where one speaks (signifier) to the space where one looks (signified).  But if we want to keep an open relation between language and the visible, we must keep the empty place empty.  We must erase the proper names.  We must reach that which Deleuze calls the “third term” or “sense” that intervenes between language and things.  We must reach the intensive doubling of content and expression, not merely the opposition of signified/signifier. 

Velazquez’s painting is seen by Foucault as representing the Classical Age of Representation.  But he sees it as heralding in a new Modern Age of an essential void.  The origin, the copy that is supposed to resemble the origin, and the subject who is supposed to see a resemblance, all disappear.  There must be only a void that liberates us from a universal-general structure of perceptible resemblances and intelligible judgements of identity and difference.    

Throughout much of the book Foucault describes that Classical Representational structure Deleuze calls the ‘Dogmatic Image of Thought’.  Then later in the book (OT 307-12), Foucault returns to Velazquez’s painting to show what has become possible in the Modern Age.  The mirror at the center of the painting reflects the absent images – the distant reflection – an absent representation.  Because it is the model the painter copies, it is object.  It is also subject, because now in our Modern Age we are able to see that it is the painter himself in the ambiguous place outside the painting.  The place of the king and the painter oscillate in this ambiguous place.  And isn’t that emptiness also the gaze of the spectator – the empty place of our gaze?  It makes structure truly arbitrary.  A new interplay can be represented at every point in the painting.  This fulfills the triple function by superimposition of oscillating gazes in the empty place outside the picture (3).  It transforms the empty place into a pure essential absence.  It transforms the space of the Classical Age of Representation into that of the Modern Age of discursive practice.  

The Classical Age gave words and things a common space of discourse.  Representation was the common form between ‘I think; and ‘I am’.  Seeing was commensurable with saying.  Model and copy resembled each other.  Classical structure superimposed representation onto language with its binary relation between what is seen and what is said.  Saussure, who inspired structuralism in our Modern Age, rediscovered the binary relation of the sign.  He rediscovered the Classical Space of Representation when he noticed the ever-changing relation between signified and signifier that he considered “arbitrary”.  But Foucault shows us that structuralism’s signs are not arbitrary.  The Classical Age was able to see only the binary relation of the sign, because the empty place was not really empty.  Linking the idea of a signified with the idea of a signifier merely fixed a network of signs into conceptual identity.  The binary sign merely fixes the representation of all the figures inside the painting. Both Foucault and Deleuze show us that the real discovery of the Modern Age is post-structuralism.  New subterranean structures intervene in the empty place.  The sub-representative sense of disparate difference intervenes without filling the void. 

Foucault says that the Classical Age found its characteristic space in mathesis – a universal science of homogeneous measurement by common units and order of hierarchy.  Deleuze calls this binary relation between words and things the structure of ‘common sense’ and ‘good sense’ – or, ‘opposition/limitation’.  However, with the advent of the Modern Age, what we say cannot resemble what we see.  As Deleuze tells us, we reach a new sub-representative articulation of ‘sense’ that opens the forms.  (Expressionism in Philosophy 335)  ‘Sense’ is a third term that intervenes to make uses of representation better thought.  Sense inheres in the proposition without merging with it, and it is attributed to the thing without merging with it.  Then ‘sense’ is no longer to be confused with representational ‘signification’.

Foucault draws diagrams of the ‘Quadrilateral of Language’ (OT 115-17, 201).  In the Classical Age, this diagram closed into a fixed structure of classification where words were overlaid with things.  In the center of the diagram is the Name, the common essence of word and thing.  ‘Attribution’, as the empty form of the verb linked things together.  ‘Articulation’ filled the empty form with content that differentiates things.  ‘Designation’ indicated a place each individual thing occupies in an area of value.  ‘Derivation’ traced changes of meaning through time.  But this derivation is merely a “diachrony” that maintains a unity of meaning through time.  In the Classical Age, time is not a real principle of development.  Classical ‘evolutionism’ was merely variability within a constant relation. 

However in the Modern Age, continuous resemblances in genera and species are not presupposed.  Words and things no longer form an isomorphic structure.  In the Modern Age, the axes pivot to open the forms.  Attribution is the finitude of man in the empty place.  It is now a truly empty form.  Articulation is a transcendental-empirical doubling without any general transcendental condition of possibility.  Articulation is the intensive coupling of asignifying subterranean forces.  Articulated incorporeal sense inheres in the empty form without filling it.  Articulation intervenes as new principle of Attribution and is a Designation of a new functional character, each time.  Designation is thinking the unthought of an Other.  Derivation is no longer return to a historical origin.  It is, with each repetition, a singular event already begun.  And since the forms are now open, Derivation does not trace continuous resemblances of copies to an origin.  Derivation is truly diachronous because it does not maintain a unity of signification over time.  There can be new continuities and discursive uses never thought possible before.  The Modern Age abandons generalizing Representation.   

In the Classical Age, because the empty place was not really empty, Man did not yet exist.  There was no epistemological consciousness of Man.  Man is the recent invention of the Modern Age.  When Classical discourse was “eclipsed”, Man appeared in the vacant place.  Man occupied that place but has grown old so quickly.  Man quickly dissolves to keep the place empty.  There is now an incorporeal filling that keeps the empty place empty of corporeal content.  The Modern Age discovered that human finitude is the sub-representative transcendental field of the empty place.  It must remain empty in order to circulate freely – in order to liberate structure from the Representational Image of Thought.

(OT 342) “It is no longer possible to think in our [modern] day other than in the void left by man’s disappearance.  For this void does not create a deficiency; it does not constitute a lacuna that must be filled.  It is nothing more, and nothing less, than the unfolding space in which it is once more possible to think.” 


So far I’ve summarized my thoughts on Foucault’s remarkable book.  Now I will try to summarize Deleuze’s review of The Order of Things (4).  Deleuze says that Foucault noticed that each age unfolds its own characteristic space.  The Classical Age dissolved the similitudes of the earlier Renaissance Age to unfold a new order of identities and differences.  The Classical form of Representation made the order of things depend upon the empirical.  But the conditions of the modern human sciences cannot resemble the empirical sciences.  The human sciences did not yet exist in the Classical Age, because the human did not yet exist.  Foucault explores the “archaeology” of human nature as the transcendental conditions for the human sciences.

The Classical sciences were General Grammar, Natural History, and Analysis of Wealth.  But the human sciences could only exist once the Classical Space of Representation collapsed.   The Modern Age revealed a sub-representative transcendental field as the basis for human sciences.  In order for the human to exist, non-representational forces of life had to become open to new forms.  The organism’s condition of possibility of life opened the space for biology.  Human labor was the condition for exchange in the space of political economy.  The possibility for human discourse and grammar was opened by the historical depth of language. 

Deleuze says, on the one hand, humans see themselves as objects of science.  On the other hand, humanity sees itself grounding these sciences on its own finitude that discovers “transcendental” structures in life, labor, and language.  Thus, once Representation collapses, humanity reveals its disparate doubling.  Humanity finds itself fissured by its own words, works, and desires.  It is no longer Representational difference that must be totalized into identity of same.  Rather, the same must be said of the Different.  Therefore, Deleuze sees the sub-representative space of ‘univocity’ in Foucault’s thought.  It is the Nietzschean revolution of the Modern Age.   

Therefore, Deleuze finds in Foucault a new subterranean foundation for the human sciences.  But it is an archaeology that only can be revealed when the Classical Representational Image of Thought collapses.  The human sciences were not made possible when humanity took itself as the object of Representation or when it analyzed history.  Instead, humanity found its condition of possibility in that which did not resemble its Representations.  The sub-representational space of human possibility is “dehistoricized” humanity.  The human sciences came to mimic the positive sciences, but with a new awareness of unconscious sub-representative forces.  The human sciences are not sciences.  If the void is filled with empirical content, it merely restores a structure of Lack.  In order to discover a new domain of sub-representative obscure forces, the empty place must remain unoccupied.   Therefore, in the Modern Age, Humanity as an object of science has already disappeared.  Human finitude is the sub-representative empty form …. the not yet appeared …. the already disappeared.  Human finitude fills without filling the empty place.  Foucault’s archaeology is not a causal study of historical connections which would merely be determined by a prior image of thought.  Rather, the sub-representative transcendental events unfold different spaces of knowledge for different cultures and eras. These conditions of knowledge are not conditions for possible knowledge in general.  They are singular conditions.  There are subterranean conditions of knowledge that make it possible to see or say certain things at any one moment in history.  Foucault sees more in Cuvier, Bopp, and Ricardo than he sees in Kant or Hegel.  Today’s task is to refrain from filling the empty place so that it may circulate freely.  The task for philosophy today is to discover what it means to think.   


(1) The Order of Things:  An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, by Michel Foucault.  Vintage Books Edition, September 1973.
(2) Deleuze & Guattari tell us that Hjelmslev’s ‘content and expression’ are not to be confused with ‘signified and signifier’ of structuralism.
(3) Deleuze calls this the ‘empty form of time’ or ‘Aion’ that is never filled with corporeal content.
(4)Deleuze reviews Foucault’s The Order of Things in an essay ‘Humans: A Dubious Existence’, found in Desert Island. 
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