Written by Anders Fogh Jensen
Painter: Rasmus Svarre Hansen
Magtens kartografi, Foucault og Bourdieu
Copenhagen: Unge Pædagoger, 2006
PLEASE REFER TO THIS BOOK AND THE PRESENT SITE
Imagine a Swiss roll. It is cylindrical and full of jam. When cutting a slice, you lie it down on the long, curved side and make a vertical cut so that the roll has two flat ends once again. On the vertical show you can see the jam distribute itself inside the roll like a spiral. You can also set the Swiss roll on end and cut through the middle, like chopping a piece of wood. On the split Swiss roll you can see how the jam runs unevenly down through the roll which causes all slices to be different from one another.
What is history? History means that something has changed, which is to say that none of the slices in the roll of time are identical. Being situated within a given place in the roll you live with the particular corridors, doors, holes, walls and particular the fluid substances that have all been formed at exactly that particular point in time. What is special about the roll of time is that although the next slice has not been created yet, it is already shaped by the slice of the present. The slice of time we live in now has prepared the next slice of time, but it has not determined it definitively. The jam runs in one direction which makes it possible for us to imagine what the next slice is going to be like, if it has the same texture as the slice of the present, but the remarkable thing is: it never has.
According to Foucault, man is history and biology. That man is history means that he has been shaped by and is conditioned by the time in which he lives. History has no master bakers, and yet each period of time has its own form. This form is what we refer to as culture. That man is biological means that he is also shaped by the biochemical fixture he has been equipped with, the blood running in his veins, the bubbling hormones, the pulsating heart.
Foucault’s ideas of culture rest on the premise that biology does not come before history. What does that mean? It means that there is no prior biological body that is subsequently formed by history, time, culture. To be sure, hands are worn with age and, true enough, the wind hardens the face. But that face and those hands will never be anything but historical. It is impossible to have hands that have not been inscribed by culture. It is also impossible to work out what hands would be like without history – just as it is impossible to know what man would be without culture. Biology and history are simultaneous.
However, if all that is human is determined by history then this will also have to be the case when it comes to ideas of what nature and history are. Our ideas of biology date back to the beginning of the 19th century when notions of the evolution of the species were conceived.
Our ideas of history are about as old as our theories of biology. Museums did not start sorting things according to a principle of time until approximately 1800. Before that they would sort things by, for instance, hoarding all that was made of iron in one place, shovels in another and all mummies in a third place. After 1800 a piece of jewellery, a shovel and a death mask from the same period in time were exhibited together.
Foucault writes after 1800 – between 1954 and 1984, to be exact. He cuts history both crosswise and lengthwise, i.e. he examines the inner order of one period of time and the development of these orderings across periods of time.
If you have many things, you can sort them in a chest-of-drawers. In the old days the chemists used to have a great deal of drawers in their enormous desks. When they obtained a new drug, they put it in a new drawer and placed a mark on it saying what was in it.
What if suddenly they acquired more types of drugs than the number of drawers they had? Then they had to combine drawers. It would save space, for instance, to combine the contents of several drawers with low stock drugs into one drawer. However, what if the new chemist’s assistant, who did not know of the joining of drawers, was to find the whereabouts of one of those particular drugs? Then he had to look in all the drawers. Unless the drawers were not combined according to a principle of low stock drugs, but according to a principle of what belonged together. In that case the chemist’s assistant would save a lot of time simply by considering what other drugs the drug he was looking for belonged with. It is probably in such and such a group, hence it must be in such and such a drawer.
When you want to call a shop, you look it up in the yellow pages. We have probably all experienced that the categories in the yellow pages are somewhat old-fashioned. I am going to a party, … ‘festival preparations’… no, it’s something else, ‘shirt-shops’ is nowhere to be found… how is it listed, then? … what are they thinking of those people who make the yellow pages… ‘gentlemen’s outfitting’… all right, but I also need a haircut before the party… but no one cuts hair under ‘gentlemen’s outfitting’, so isn’t that just another word for ‘festival preparations’… ‘barber’… no, that’s not it… ‘hairdresser’.
Foucault draws a map of the assistant’s way through the drawers at the chemist’s, but he draws it with the same distance to the assistant as we have to the yellow pages. Gosh! So much trouble finding one’s way in the yellow pages, it’s as if it’s from another day and age. Isn’t it remarkable how easy it is for chemist’s assistants to find their way round the drawers they don’t know? It’s as if they’re thinking the same way as the chemists does.
We may get two ideas from this: i) It is as if we do not order things the same way at different points in history. To put it in a bit more technical way: Perhaps categories are historically variable. ii) It is as if people from the same period in history order things the same way. More technically: perhaps categories are historically rooted.
Equipped with those two ideas, Foucault sets out into history to map how man has ordered things differently in different epochs, yet in the same way within the same epoch. He calls this project The Order of Things.
The sciences are about things broadly speaking: Economics are about money, biology is about living organisms, linguistics are about words. They are not things in the same way, and yet the sciences attempt to order these different things to expose the rules and laws that prevail between things. Foucault takes a step backwards, he does not look at the things themselves but at the order of things. He does not look at the chemist’s drugs, he looks into the mind of the chemist when he orders the drugs in his drawers: What kind of system governs his thoughts? Foucault asks.
Since nothing comes before history, and nothing is above history, the question is phrased within a historical frame: How did it come about that it felt natural to the chemist’s assistant that the drugs were ordered exactly the way they were? In fact, if we go back in time, looking through the chest-of-drawers in the course of history, we will see that other chemist’s assistants who lived in other ages felt it natural that his chemist had ordered things in another way.
Foucault’s thesis is that the way tools are arranged at the carpenter’s, the way fabrics are sorted at the draper’s, the way meat is cut out at the butcher’s and the way things are ordered at the baker’s have more in common within the same epoch than previous ways of ordering things within the respective trades. In other words, the carpenter’s assistant would know his way round a contemporary chemist’s drawers with greater ease than he would know his way round at a carpenter’s who lived two hundred years before.