Tuesday, 8 January 2008

Fun with Foucault

Sociology. It's not a discipline noted for its comic profile, but it has its moments. Here's a nugget most sociologists will be familiar with from Michel Foucault's preface of his 1966 book, The Order of Things.
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 encyclopaedia' 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, l) 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 fable, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that. (1970, p. xv)
I'll leave you to chew on that. On a slightly related note, I cannot work out why this blog gets a lot of hits from people searching for Foucault. Not bad considering he's only been posted on once before.

4 comments:

Phil BC said...

Here's some active Foucault blogs anyone stumbling upon this post might find interesting:

Foucauldian Reflections

Foucault Blog

Foucault's Minions

tonerbaloner (New blog!)

Confessional and Testimonial

thinking about difference said...

From a communication/ utilitarian perspective, taxonomies are necessary to enable communication, functioning like shortcuts.

With Foucault, we start looking at taxonomies quite differently, and perhaps not surprisingly, as the source of power arrangements.

I think the issue of taxonomies becomes even more problematic with the overwhelming presence of computers in our society. The underlying principles of computers stem from attempts to categorize and create the 'best' possible taxonomies, seen as facilitating communication and eliminating 'noise'. Which brings us back to the communication perspective and makes us loose sight of Foucault's.

Anok said...

Heh, As I was reading this I thought I would leave a funny note. Of course seeing all of the serious commentary I feel a little ashamed that out of all of this, all I got out of it was a laugh at the thought of animals 'looking like flies from a long ways off'.

Ok, that and I was wondering where the classification guide came from - was this translated? Like the fun messages you get on your chopsticks at the local chinese buffet?

(yeah, yeah I know, totally low-brow tonight. whaddya want? I'm sick and my brain is fuzzy)

Phil BC said...

It is apparently from a bona fide Chinese encyclopaedia. The animating principle behind the classification, as far as one can be discerned, is concerned with the behavioural characteristics of the animals. Quite how 'drawn with a very fine camelhair brush' fits into this criteria is anyone's guess.