Home > animaal-, bio-, filosoofia, Georges Cuvier, Michel Foucault > Michel Foucault “Labour, Life, Language”

Michel Foucault “Labour, Life, Language”

Foucault, Michel 2008. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of Human Sciences. London; New York: Routledge.

8. Labour, Life, Language

[…] the thought that is contemporaneous with us, and with which, willy-nilly, we think, is still largerly dominated by the impossibility, brought to ligh towards the end of the eighteenth century, of basing syntheses in the space of representation, and by the correlative obligation – simultaneous but immediately divided against itself – to open up the transcendental field of subjectivity, and to constitute inversely, beyond the object, what are for us the ‚quasi-transcendentals’ of Life, Labour, and Language. (272)

Production, life, language […] are fundamental modes of knowledge which sustain in their flawless unity the secondary and derived correlation of new sciences and techniques with unprecedented objects. (275)

From Cuvier onward, function, defined according to its non-perceptible form as an effect to be attained, is to serve as a constant middle term and to make it possible to relate together totalities of elements without the slightest visible identity. What to Classical eyes were merely differences juxtaposed with identities must now be ordered and conceived on the basis of a functional homogeneity which is their hidden foundation. When the Same and the Other both belong to a single space, there is natural history; something like biologybecomes possible when this unity of level begins to break up, and when differences stand out against the background of an identity that is deeper and, as it were, more serious than that unity. (288-289)

Animal species differ at their peripheries, and resemble each other at their centres; they are connected by the inaccessible, and separated by the apparent. Their generality lies in that which is essential to their life; their singularity in that which is most accessory to it. The more extensive the groups one wishes to find, the deeper must one penetrate into the organism’s inner darkness, towards the less and less visible, into that dimension that eludes perception; the more one wishes to isolate the individuality of the organism, the further must one go towards its surface, and allow the perceptible forms to shine in all their visibility; for multiplicity is apparent and unity is hidden. In short, living species ‘escape’ from the teeming profusion of individuals and species; they can be classified only because they are alive and on the basis of what they conceal. (291)

From Cuvier onward, it is life in its non-perceptible, purely functional aspect that provides the basis for the exterior possibility of a classification. The classification of living beings is no longer to be found in the great expanse of order; the possibility of classification now arises from the depths of life, from those elements most hidden from view. Before, the living being was a locality of natural classification; now, the fact of being classifiable is a property of the living being. (292)

In any case, this series of oppositions, dissociating the space of natural history, has had important consequences. In practice, this means the appearance of two correlated techniques which are connected and support each other. The first of these techniques is constituted by comparative anatomy: this discipline gives rise to an interior space, bounded on the one hand by the superficial stratum of teguments and shells, and on the other by the quasi-invisibility of that which is infinitely small. (293)

The second technique is based on anatomy (since it is a result of it), but is in opposition to it (because it makes it possible to dispense with it); this technique consists in establishing indicative relations between superficial, and therefore visible, elements and others that are concealed in the depths of the body. Through the law of the interdependence of the parts of an organism, we know that such and such a peripheral and accessory organ implies such and such a structure in a more essential organ; thus, it is possible ‘to establish the correspondence between exterior and interior forms which are all integral parts of the animal’s essence’. (294)

Whereas for eighteenth-century thought the fossil was a prefiguration of existing forms, and thus an indication of the great continuity of time, it was henceforth to be the indication of the form to which it once really belonged. Anatomy has not only shattered the tabular and homogeneous space of identities; it has broken the supposed continuity of time. (294)

[…] living beings, because they are alive, can no longer form a tissue of progressive and

graduated differences; they must group themselves around nuclei of coherence which are totally distinct from one another, and which are like so many different plans for the maintenance of life. Classical being was without flaw; life, on the other hand, is without edges or shading. Being was spread out over an immense table; life isolates forms that are bound in upon themselves. Being was posited in the perpetually analysable space of representation; life withdraws into the enigma of a force inaccessible in its essence, apprehendable only in the efforts it makes here and there to manifest and maintain itself. In short, throughout the Classical age, life was the province of an ontology which dealt in the same way with all material beings, all of which were subject to extension, weight, and movement; and it was in this sense that all the sciences of nature, and especially that of living beings, had a profound mechanistic vocation; from Cuvier onward, living beings escape, in the first instance at least, the general laws of extensive being; biological being becomes regional and autonomous; life, on the confines of being, is what is exterior to it and also, at the same time, what manifests itself within it. (297)

The living being must therefore no longer be understood merely as a certain combination of particles bearing definite characters; it provides the outline of an organic structure, which maintains uninterrupted relations with exterior elements that it utilizes (by breathing and eating) in order to maintain or develop its own structure. (298)

The living being, by the action and sovereignty of the same forces that keeps it in discontinuity with itself, finds itself subjected to a continuous relation with all that surrounds it. (298)

From Cuvier onward, the living being wraps itself in its own existence, breaks offits taxonomic links of adjacency, tears itself free from the vast, tyrannical plan of continuities, and constitutes itself as a new space: a double space, in fact – since it is both the interior one of anatomical coherences and physiological compatibilities, and the exterior one of the elements in which it resides and of which it forms its own body. But both these spaces are subject to a common control: it is no longer that of the possibilities of being, it is that of the conditions of life. (299)

Historicity, then, has now been introduced into nature – or rather the realm of living beings; but it exists there as much more than a probable form of succession; it constitutes a sort of fundamental mode of being. (300)

Paradoxically, Ricardo’s pessimism and Cuvier’s fixism can arise only against a historical background: they define the stability of beings, which henceforth have the right, at the level of their profound modality, to possess a history; whereas the Classical idea, that wealth could grow in a continuous process, or that species could, with time, transform themselves into one another, defined the mobility of beings, which, even before any kind of history, already obeyed a system of variables, identities, or equivalences. (301)

In any case, the constitution of a living historicity has had vast consequences for European thought. Quite as vast, without any doubt, as those brought about by the formation of an economic historicity. At the superficial level of the great imaginative values, life, henceforth

pledged to history, is expressed in the form of animality. The animal, whose great threat or radical strangeness had been left suspended and as it were disarmed at the end of the Middle Ages, or at least at the end of the Renaissance, discovers fantastic new powers in the nineteenth century. (301)

If living beings are a classification, the plant is best able to express its limpid essence; but if they are a manifestation of life, the animal is better equipped to make its enigma perceptible. Rather than the calm image of characters, it shows us the incessant transition from the inorganic to the organic by means of respiration or digestion, and the inverse transformation, brought about by death, of the great functional structures into lifeless dust. (302)

The plant held sway on the frontiers of movement and immobility, of the sentient and the non-sentient; whereas the animal maintains its existence on the frontiers of life and death. Death besieges it on all sides; furthermore, it threatens it also from within, for only the organism can die, and it is from the depth of their lives that death overtakes living beings. Hence, no doubt, the ambiguous values assumed by animality towards the end of the eighteenth century: the animal appears as the bearer of that death to which it is, at the same time, subjected; it contains a perpetual devouring of life by life. It belongs to nature only at the price of containing within itself a nucleus of antinature. Transferring its most secret essence from the vegetable to the animal kingdom, life has left the tabulated space of order and become wild once more. The same movement that dooms it to death reveals it as murderous. It kills because it lives. Nature can no longer be good. (302)

In relation to life, beings are no more than transitory figures, and the being that they maintain, during the brief period of their existence, is no more than their presumption, their will to survive. And so, for knowledge, the being of things is an illusion, a veil that must be torn aside in order to reveal the mute and invisible violence that is devouring them in the darkness. (303)

Thus a system of thought is being formed that is opposed in almost all its terms to the system that was linked to the formation of an economic historicity. The latter, as we have seen, took as its foundation a triple theory of irreducible needs, the objectivity of labour, and the end of history. Here, on the contrary, a system of thought is being developed in which individuality, with its forms, limits, and needs, is no more than a precarious moment, doomed to destruction, forming first and last a simple obstacle that must be removed from the path of that annihilation; a system of thought in which the objectivity of things is mere appearance, a chimera of the perceptions, an illusion that must be dissipated and returned to the pure will, without phenomenon, that brought those things into being and maintained them there for an instant; lastly, a system of thought for which the recommencement of life, its incessant resumptions, and its stubbornness, preclude the possibility of imposing a limit of duration upon it, especially since time itself, with its chronological divisions and its quasispatial calendar, is doubtless nothing but an illusion of knowledge. (304)

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