Friday, January 15, 2010

Aimless Reading: The F's, Part 19.1 (Michel Foucault)

Foucault, Michel
The Order of Things
An Archaeology of
The Human Sciences


Purchased at Talking Leaves...Books.

I am not sure whether it says more about my habits of memory or about Michel Foucault's metaphors that I remember almost exclusively some image from the introductory chapters of his books, while forgetting most of the rest. As I flip through The Order Of Things, my graduate school underlinings indicate that I read it all the way through. However, what I remember most is a painting described in the first chapter, "Las Meninas," a 1656 work by Diego Diego Velázquez. My memory of reading this chapter has less to do with the content or the argument than it does with the fact that this edition of the book does not contain a reproduction. I was not familiar with the painting when I read it, so my mind remembers trying to construct in my mind an image of the painting based on Foucault's description.

I eventually gave up and found a reproduction of it on the internet. Interesting, though, that what I remember is neither the image nor the argument, but the struggle to re-construct the image based on the text. All reading is like this, I suppose, which is why the images we do construct are so much stronger than those we are presented, as when we see a film adaptation of a novel and say to ourselves, "That is not at all as I pictured it."

from Las Meninas

What is there, then, we ask as last, in that place which is completely inaccessible because it is exterior to the picture, yet is prescribed by the lines of its composition? What is the spectacle, what are the faces that are reflected first of all in the depths of the Infanta's eyes, then in the courtiers' and the painter's, and finally in the distant glow of the mirror? But the question immediately becomes a double one: the face reflected in the mirror is also the face that is contemplating it; what all the figures in the picture are looking at are the two figures to whose eyes they too present a scene to be observed. The entire picture is looking out at a scene for which it is itself a scene. A condition of pure reciprocity manifested by the observing and observed mirror, the two stages of which are uncoupled at the two lower corners of the picture: on the left the canvas and its back to us, by means of which the exterior point is made into pure spectacle; to the right the dog lying on the floor, the only element in the picture that is neither look at anything or moving, because it is not intended, with its deep reliefs and the light playing on its silky hair, to be anything but an object to be seen.

1 comment:

RD Pohl said...

The version of this book I first read had a reproduction of Las Meninas on the cover, but Foucault's insight into the self-reflexiveness of the Velazquez painting far outstripped my own apperception of same. I read this book at the same time as Thomas Kuhn's "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" and remember writing a paper comparing Foucault's notion of the "episteme" with Kuhn's notion of a scientific "paradigm".