In 1965 I translated Foucault's earlier book Madness & Civilization, a work which presented me, my editor, and the reviewers … a great many problems of diction, phrasing and even, ultimately, sense. The Order of Things, which is an echo of Foucault's undertaking to write a history of madness in the Classical age, might be said not only to present but to absent (since no names are mentioned) a great many more such problems, for whereas in the history of madness Foucault was investigating the way in which a culture can determine the difference that limits it, he is concerned here to observe how a culture experiences the propinquity of things, how it establishes the tabula of their relationships and the order by which they must be considered. He is concerned, in short, with a history of resemblance….
In his archeology of labor, language and the science of life which was not yet called biology, Foucault dramatizes man's existence, or rather man's invention, between two modes of discourse; that of the Classical period (post-Renaissance to Romantic) and that of our own…. I believe it is possible to read these many difficult pages to great advantage, though I do not want to pass over the difficulties without a sample, for … the difficulties are part of the way Foucault has found to free his mind of what is not difficult, of what is in fact easy and therefore, merely, known. A mind released from facility will produce, then, a prose like this:
The methods of interpretation of modern thought are opposed by the techniques of formalization: the first claiming to make language speak as it were below itself, and as near as possible to what is being said in it, without it; the second claiming to control any language that may arise, and to impose upon it from above the law of what it is possible to say. Interpretation and formalization have become the two great forms of analysis of our time—in fact, we know no others. But do we know what the relations of exegesis and formalization are? Are we capable of mastering and controlling them?… It is true that the division between interpretation and formalization presses upon us and dominates us today. But it is not rigorous enough: the fork it forms has not been driven far enough down into our culture, its two branches are too contemporaneous for us to be able to say even that it is prescribing a simple option or that it is inviting us to choose between the past, which believed in meaning, and the present (the future) which has discovered signification….
That is a sample of the difficulties, but it is also a sufficient hostage to fortune, defining the kind of rewards Foucault provides at any point. That I am not qualified, as I have admitted, to receive them at any point need not make against a reading of the book—even of the book as a whole. But I am qualified, in the two readings of the book I have made, in French and in English, to remark that on literature, a form of language recently codified, Foucault is quite central to our sense of where we are. After all, in our culture, even the isolation of a particular language whose special mode of being is "literary" is unexampled, is unexplored. And like the structuralists from whom he so rigorously separates himself …, Foucault is startling in his insistence upon, for literature, a radical intransitivity. In his archeology, or as a result of its findings, literature becomes detached from all the...
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values which were able to keep it in general circulation during the Classical age (taste, pleasure, naturalness, truth), and creates within its own "space" everything which will insure a ludic—as opposed to legal—denial of them (the scandalous, the ugly, the impossible—Sade, Artaud, Bataille); for Foucault, literature breaks with the whole definition of genres as forms adapted to an order of representations and becomes merely a manifestation of a language with no other law than the law of affirming—in opposition to all other forms of discourse—its own precarious existence, "as if discourse could have no other content than the expression of its own form." It is at the end of his section on literature that I came, suddenly, to the realization that there was nothing—or almost nothing—freakish or parochial about Foucault after all; that he is carrying out, in the noblest way, the promiscuous aim of true culture, which is, as Matthew Arnold used to say, to do away with classes, or at least, as we would now append, with classifications. That when Foucault says that for us literature has become "a silent, cautious deposition of the word upon the whiteness of a piece of paper, where it can possess neither sound nor interlocutor, where it has nothing to say but itself, nothing to do but shine in the brightness of its being," he is speaking with the same eloquence we may hear in Northrop Frye … and in our own "formalist" critics, in Bloom and Hartman and…. The list is open, as isThe Order of Things, which has taught me (has reminded me) of the essential and marvelous poverty of language, always brought back to itself where it is given its power of transformation: to say something else with the same words, to give the same words another meaning. (p. 22)
Richard Howard, "Our Sense of Where We Are," in The Nation, Vol. 213, No. 1, July 5, 1971, pp. 21-2.