Welcome to friends of wine women and philosophy (wwp)

To find out more about wine women and philosophy visit our website

Monday, September 30, 2013

Unraveling The Order of Things in Week 2 of wwp philosophy club take 3...Phew!

...And if you think the title of this week's post is a mouthful, try saying 'Michel Foucault' twenty times whilst contemplating the illustration (see left) which accompanies the online version of the Preface to his seminal work, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (1966). That's right...Not easy. And not so pretty either. But then, Michel Foucault (1926-1984) never aimed to please. Rather, he sought to perturb, disrupt, unsettle. And if he created a frisson or two along the way, well that's alright too. During the course of his mercurial and highly motile life, this Poitiers-born intellectual did his damnedest to brush himself free of the bourgeois dust bestowed upon him by his doctor father and a privileged provincial upbringing.

A champion of those relegated to the margins of mid-20th Century French society - prisoners, immigrants, gays, the mentally ill - and a man  of charisma who, whether worshiped or cursed, never failed to trigger a strong response, Foucault was at once the debauched bon vivant, at once the intensely serious thinker. As a writer he was as prolific as he was poetic, as provocative as he was protean - his interests ranging from madness to sexuality, from the medical world to the prison system. As for his methods, they were as patchwork and innovative as his passage through academia. Starting in psychology, he got 'bored' and moved into philosophy. But he was also an historian, as demonstrated by his election to the chair of the newly created department, 'history of systems of thought,' at the erudite College de France in 1970.

Here, though, Foucault broke rank with those practitioners of History with a capital "H": strongly rejecting anything that stung of a grand narrative approach to the past; evolving instead a hands-on approach he termed 'archaeology.' This latter involved digging down through the material strata attesting to social, economic, political and cultural conditions of successive historical epochs - not to ascertain what happened 'back then' or to build a progressive picture of a world taking shape, but rather, to pinpoint those moments of rupture and mutation which shattered the smooth trajectory of History as retroactively assembled and assessed by us here in the present, and affected a shift in the way we think and speak the world and ourselves.

In other words, what interested Foucault was knowledge production tout court. In his excavations, Foucault wasn't looking for this or that knowledge that was circulating out there during any given period. After all, what use that 'knowledge' when the only sense I can make of it today - the only way I can in turn re-produce that knowledge in oral or written form for a present-day audience if I am an historian - is through the lens of my own epoch. Rather, what Foucault was looking for is what makes knowledge possible in any given place or time. If, to do this work, he had to locate the point of disjuncture between thinking the world through an old lens and thinking the world through a new lens, it was in tracing out these major paradigmatic shifts that Foucault got to grips with the defining knowledge-enabling practices of each paradigm itself (Foucault called a paradigm an 'episteme,' but same diff...). So, for example, Foucault's digs in the Renaissance unearthed a reliance on finding resemblances and taking a stab at an educated guess to make knowledge possible ('Wow, the sky looks like my face, there's one eye - the moon - and another eye - the sun - and a whole lot of stars all in a line, just like my teeth...Hey man, me and the cosmos must be linked somehow!') whereas in the classical era that followed, representation and analysis became the enabling trope of knowledge production: endless tables into which things in the natural world, once measured and carefully categorized, were inserted so as to be finally pinned down FOR ONCE AND FOR ALL!

All to say that in the course of our second philosophy club session devoted to all things post-structural we spent a good deal of time getting our heads around the ins and the outs of the central question Foucault asked - what makes knowledge possible? - before grabbing picks and ropes and setting off on a communal  excavation of his preface to The Order of Things. It was hard and challenging work, but there was light at the end of the tunnel: the revelation that it is only in trying to think through the ordering structure of a culture that we perceive as strange to us, as 'other,' that we begin to grasp the often arbitrary nature of our own ordering structures, and more importantly, start questioning them.