Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Précis of “Las Meninas” chapter one of The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (Les Mots et les choses), by Michel Foucault

Précis of “Las Meninas” chapter one of The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (Les Mots et les choses), by Michel Foucault
Lindsay Farinella
November 12, 2008

“In this book I wanted to write a history of order, to state how a society reflects upon resemblances among things and how differences between things can be mastered, organized into networks, sketched out according to rational schemes…The Order of Things [is] the history of resemblance, sameness, and identity.”
—Foucault Live

“I should like to know whether the subjects responsible for scientific discourse are not determined in their situation, their function, their perceptive capacity, and their practical possibilities by conditions that dominate and even overwhelm them. In short, I tried to explore scientific discourse not from the point of view of the individuals who are speaking, nor from the point of view of the formal structures of what they are saying, but from the point of view of the rules that come into play in the very existence of such discourse.”

—Foreword to the English edition of The Order of Things

Context of Foucault’s philosophy:

Foucault’s philosophy, often labeled post-structuralism, emphasizes the importance of the construction of reality while rejecting the value of the subject. His work is generally divided into three phases, the first of which includes The Order of Things and is deemed his Archaeologies (Oksala 3). This means he intends his work to analyze all the factors influencing (or structuring) past time periods and the conditions they placed on knowledge. For Foucault, individual subjects alter experiences much less than the structure that invariably governs them. The experience of the subject is informed by hidden (or unconscious) structures and their order of things. However, Foucault does not intend to analyze from the point of view of structure in itself—instead he wants to eventually focus on the rules that allow, disallow, or just classify the notion of truth. Foucault seeks to identify what he calls an episteme; in which the history of knowledge is traced by the various conditions placed on its boundaries. There is always a certain amount of space the individual is allowed to think with. The subject is therefore never the primary explanatory factor—philosophy can (and should) go farther.

Context of the Painting:

Las Meninas, or “The Ladies-in-Waiting,” was painted in 1656 by Diego Velázquez. Originally titled La Familia de Felipe IV, the work depicts the artist himself painting while the Infanta Margarita, her ladies in waiting, a dwarf, servants, and a dog stand nearby. As the work became more well-known through the 19th century, it was widely referenced by both Spanish and French artists. The combination of visual discrepancies, psychological interaction, and its use of light was very unique. The name of the painting was changed to Las Meninas in 1843, as critics attached purpose to the more unconcealed representation of the ladies-in-waiting as opposed to the royal family. The quality and the naturalism/realism of the work remained under admiration, while the mystery of its construction of perception remained under study. Countless theories (including mathematical) were put forth in an attempt to explain the location of the painter, the mirror, the Infanta, as well as the meaning behind the perspective it uses (Luxenberg 25).

Foucault’s Analysis:

Foucault spends the majority of the first part of Las Meninas analyzing with great detail (and fascination) the placement of virtually every element within the painting. He observes the arrangement of the work it shows being painted: though it is quite large and takes up the entire left portion of the image, reasonably giving it some kind of significance, its content is facing away from the viewer. Adding to the irony is the sunlight illuminating the Infanta, her meninas, and the concealed front of the painting—thus the only side available to the viewer remains in the dark.

The light also allows, however, enough of a gleam on a mirror—located slightly left of the work’s center—for the viewer to see the reflections of the King and Queen. Foucault notes their position in reference to the painting’s composition: their actual forms are implied to be in the same location as that of the viewer. In comparison with the unseen, “ironic” canvas and the would-be illuminating light, the mirror is the only visible double, or representation. Yet it duplicates nothing within the parameters of the entire painting.

He also makes note of the captured movement of the work. The painter has just presumably stepped into the light from behind his work to examine his subjects: “And yet this slender line of reciprocal visibility embraces a whole complex network of uncertainties, exchanges, and feints. The painter is turning his eyes towards us only in so far as we happen to occupy the same position as his subject… the observer and the observed take part in a ceaseless exchange. No gaze is stable, or rather, in the neutral furrow of the gaze piercing at a right angle through the canvas, subject and object, the spectator and the model, reverse their roles to infinity” (4).

Therefore the mirror orders two forms of representative identity: the figures the artist is viewing within the context of the painting, and the actual figures in the place the composition of the work opens up the room. Their actual figures are both made unattainable and ultimately implied; only their representations are ordered with placements at each end of the composition. The visibility only speaks to what is invisible: “In this way, the spatial game becomes linguistic in so far as it is related to the formation of subjectivity” (Diego 159). There are two scenes that are sitting as subjects for the other; the spectator notices these two subjects and is forced to reflect on how structure influences this situation.

The spectator of the painting does not see the painting as simply their own viewpoint of whatever speaks to them within the experience. Instead they are forced to take note of the rules controlling the structuring of what they see and what they cannot, or what they can only assume or guess. Instead of noticing or only being aware of the supposed subject of the painting, the King and Queen, the viewer is forced to consider their own place as a spectator in reference to the painter—including the structures that are controlling what they are allowed to apprehend.

For Foucault, Las Meninas represents not an overtly subject-oriented understanding of existence, but one that forces the consideration of how structures are influencing virtually everything. Foucault notes that the nature of the image—or of existence—does not allow “the pure felicity” of what is taking place to be wholly experienced: it is impossible to ignore the fact that there are multiple representations at stake, including the fact that there are structures controlling this circumstance. Focusing on any kind of experience in this manner will result in the spectator ignoring the palpable structures that remain the ultimate influence. In this present time period, the subject has ultimately gone astray in favor of the structures that will invariably provide rules for its experience.

Discussion Questions:

In the foreword to the English edition of The Order of Things, Foucault ends his closing paragraph with a frustrated plea to the English reader not to follow in the French academic world’s (or “half-witted commentators”) footsteps by labeling him a structuralist of any kind. However, he then goes on to admit the existence of certain similarities between his work and that of structuralism. Does Foucault’s work indeed read as a form of post-structuralist philosophy?

How does this compare with Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy, especially in view of his own account of what the experience of a painting is like?

Works Cited:

Foucault, Michel. Foucault Live: Collected Interviews, 1961-1984. ed., Lotringer. Trans. Hochroth and Johnston. New York: Semiotexte, 1989.
Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. New York: Random House, 1970.
Diego, Estrella De. Valazquez’s Las Meninas, “Representing Representation.” Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Luxenberg, Alisa. Idbid., “The Aura of a Masterpiece: Reponses to Las Meninas in Nineteenth-Century Spain and France.”
Oksala, Johanna. Foucault On Freedom. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Lyotard's Phenomenology

Katie O'Donnell

Jean Francois Lyotard’s Phenomenology

Lyotard, most widely known for his elaboration on the postmodern condition, was a student of Merleau-Ponty and of phenomenology, and in his first book of philosophy he is concerned with explicating and critiquing phenomenology as both a style and a system. Written in 1954, Phenomenology is a document of the political and philosophical climate in postwar France, and its conclusions have seemingly little claim on Lyotard’s later work. Indeed, in his monographic work Lyotard: Writing the Event Geoffrey Bennington writes only that this early work was “criticized and displaced” (1) in Lyotard’s next major work, Discours, Figure. In a three-volume collection of Lyotard scholarship, the task of mentioning Phenomenology as part of the Lyotard corpus is left to the editor, Derek Robbins, who makes a relatively brief reference to the work in his introduction. Yet in the introduction to the text itself, Gayle Ormiston maintains that this work is a preliminary piece to Lyotard’s more well established ideas, emphasizing the episodic character of history that “signifies the necessity of linking, making connections, and noticing it could be otherwise” (13), and appropriating the language of The Differend to explain Lyotard’s philosophical approach within the text. Though I am certainly no Lyotard scholar, I opt for the middle ground, as it seems evident that while Lyotard is not, as Ormiston occasionally seems to claim, anticipating conceptual work that remains twenty years in the future, the concepts at play within Phenomenology, as well as phenomenology itself, exerted an influence on Lyotard’s work beyond this particular study.
Phenomenology is structured explicitly to examine both the status of phenomenology as a critical tool (like Marxism) and as a philosophical system. Lyotard writes, “that philosophy must not only be grasped as event, and ‘from the outside,’ but worked through as thought—that is, as problem, genesis, give-and-take movement of thought” (31). It is this temporal, historical nature of phenomenology that attracts Lyotard and motivates his desire to situate phenomenology itself within history. As Derek Robbins writes, “What Lyotard likes in phenomenology, or what he adds to it and in part derives from it, is that it represents the complete antithesis of static, systematic philosophy” (xvii). With its intentional consciousness and focus on lived experience, phenomenology is involved in a process of recovering humanity itself, in legitimating our application of the description “human sciences” to disciplines like psychology, sociology, and history. To attempt this recovery phenomenology proposes an, if not new, than at least philosophically revolutionary conception of the human subject in which subject and object are entangled in a mutually defining relationship of intentionality. Though Husserl’s phenomenology may suffer too strong a Cartesian influence, the fluidity of the relation between self and world, self and other, self and society, at least provides a needed stepping stone for Lyotard’s later assertions concerning the decentering of the self. However, in Phenomenology Lyotard is still concerned with the unity of the subject. He uses this conception of the phenomenological subject to critique relativist notions like psychologism and historicism, and to combat objectivism. Our historicity is not a problem to be dealt with in order to achieve an objective account of history; rather, it is the condition of our being able to do history, to recognize the historical.
Though the phenomenological style proves a useful tool for clarifying the role of lived experience within the human sciences, Lyotard is unsatisfied with the “philosophy of history hastily constructed by Husserl in Crisis” (133), specifically, with phenomenology’s ambiguous nature. He argues that phenomenology poses an ambiguous history and thus imposes its own ambiguity on history, which ends in manifesting the actual ambiguity of phenomenology itself (133). According to Marxism. Which is an approach much better suited to thinking history politically and concretely, since, as Lyotard asserts, Marxism will never strip matter of its meaning, since matter is already meaning. He argues that because the “phenomenality of the phenomena is never itself a phenomenal datum” (134) phenomenology is unable to phenomenologically explain the decision to identify being and phenomena and thus needs to “establish the right to do phenomenology” which can only be established, according to Lyotard, by philosophical systematization. As Lyotard writes in his “Note on Husserl and Hegel,” “This double proposition—that Being is already meaning and that there is no origin which founds knowledge—permits a clear distinction between the Husserlian and Hegelian positions, apart from their common criticism of Kant” (66). While Husserlian phenomenology agrees with the first part of this proposition, but refuses to give up on the originary, formulating an originary lifeworld that comes close to resembling a transcendence similar to that of the Kantian in-itself. No discourse can “properly say anything about it” (67). Thus Husserl is, throughout his philosophical career, engaged in a “battle of language against itself aimed at attaining the originary” (68), a battle which philosophy can never win since “the originary, once described, is as described no longer originary” (68). Phenomenology as proposed by Husserl can never live up to its own standards, though its attempt to recover humanity remains noteworthy in Lyotard’s eyes, and its return to lived experience remains essential to explicating the human sciences.

Possible Discussion Questions
-All that being said, what role do the concepts of “radical beginning” and “originality” play within phenomenology, to either its benefit or detriment?
-In her book Beyond Postmodern Politics Honi Fern Haber writes that, “All political theories begin from assumptions about the nature of the person and society. A political theory will be judged useful or true or convincing to the extent to which it matches one’s background beliefs regarding the quiddity and parameter of the self and society” (9). In this book Haber is examining the structuralist/poststructuralist accounts of the self. How does phenomenology articulate the self? Is this articulation sufficient?

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Dr. Whitmire's comments about our class

Thank you so much for inviting me to join such a great group of students. I would love to reach the point of having 15 students registering for a class on phenomenology at WCU – much less a group that is prepared to discuss the really important issues in the texts! Your students are clearly very bright, and beyond that, I also understand now what Cal meant in his comments to you about them asking genuinely meaningful questions. It was a real pleasure to be able to sit down with them....

Monday, October 20, 2008

More comments from Prof. Schrag

Here is what Prof. Schrag wrote to me about our seminar and meeting with some of you afterward:

"I much enjoyed chatting with you on issues that matter and was happy for the opportunity to engage some of your students. They impressed me as quite gifted for college undergraduates. My brief encounters with them reminded me of Tillich's assessment of his encounter with the Purdue students when he came for the Franklin Matchette Lecture. He told me: 'My colleagues at Harvard asks questions that are technically correct. Your students ask questions that are meaningful'. And so also with your students! Be well, continue to do good work."

And so I implore you to take Prof. Schrag's advice and continue the good work with Dr. Whitmire this week as we discuss Merleau-Ponty and Caputo.

graded philosophical reports & term paper projects

I will return your graded philosophical reports in class this Wednesday evening. I want to encourage you to speak with me about your term paper projects this week if possible, since I have surgery this Friday and will be unavailable for meeting early next week.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Dr. Whitmire joins us 10/22

Prof. John Whitmire will be joining us in our next class on October 22nd for our discussion of Merleau-Ponty's essay "The Primacy of Perception" and John Caputo's essay "Jewgreek Bodies." Dr. Whitmire is a talented and accomplished scholar of contemporary philosophy, and it will be a wonderul pleasure and a distinct honor to have him participate in our seminar. Let's be ready for this discussion. I will open with few remarks about the Preface to Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception.

Thanks from Prof. Schrag

Dear Class:

Dr. Schrag told me that he very much appreciated being able to meet with us last week. I know that he was impressed at the level of our discussion and the quality of work of everyone who participated. [The conversation continued later informally at the Brew & View, of course.] Congratulations!