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The "Fundamental Codes of a Culture" Deconstruct the Order of Things
Michel Foucault

One of the most influential philosophical trends to have emerged in the post-war era is that known as post-structuralism or post-modernism. Post-structuralism mounted a strenuous challenge to previous schools of thought, such as Marxism or modernization theory, in virtually every intellectual discipline, from history to anthropology to literary criticism, and found a place in cultural trends as well. Post-structuralism is a very elastic term; thus, providing a brief yet meaningful definition is virtually impossible. By way of definition, a brief excerpt from Michel Foucault's (1926-1984) Madness and Civilization (1961) is presented in this selection. Foucault was one of the leading figures in the post-structuralist movement until his AIDS-related death in 1984. Foucault is a difficult thinker but one whose impact on European and American scholars was substantial. His basic claim, here, is that all cultures reflect codes hidden and embedded in language, values, thought processes, and resultant behavior. Moreover, control of that language--being able to embed those codes--is the source of power.

Questions to Consider
  • Is there a "true" order of things, according to Foucault? How is it discovered? Can it be discovered?

  • How does Foucault's philosophy of language reflect previous philosophical trends in Western history? Or does his philosophy break completely with Western tradition?

The fundamental codes of a culture--those governing its language, its schemas of perception, its exchanges, its techniques, its values, the hierarchy of its practices--establish for every man, from the very first, the empirical orders with which he will be dealing and within which he will be at home. At the other extremity of thought, there are the scientific theories or the philosophical interpretations which explain why order exists in general, what universal law it obeys, what principle can account for it, and why this particular order has been established and not some other. But between these two regions, so distant from one another, lies a domain which, even though its role is mainly an intermediary one, is nonetheless fundamental: it is more confused, more obscure, and probably less easy to analyse. It is here that a culture, imperceptibly deviating from the empirical orders prescribed for it by its primary codes, instituting an initial separation from them, causes them to lose their original transparency, relinquishes its immediate and invisible powers, frees itself sufficiently to discover that these orders are perhaps not the only possible ones or the best ones; this culture then finds itself faced with the stark fact that there exist, below the level of its spontaneous orders, things that are in themselves capable of being ordered, that belong to a certain unspoken order; the fact, in short, that order exists. As though emancipating itself to some extent from its linguistic, perceptual, and practical grids, the culture superimposed on them another kind of grid which neutralized them, which by this superimposition both revealed and excluded them at the same time, so that the culture, by this very process, came face to face with order in its primary state. It is on the basis of this newly perceived order that the codes of language, perception, and practice are criticized and rendered partially invalid. It is on the basis of this order, taken as a firm foundation, that general theories as to the ordering of things, and the interpretation that such an ordering involves, will be constructed. Thus, between the already "encoded" eye and reflexive knowledge there is a middle region which liberates order itself: it is here that it appears, according to the culture and the age in question, continuous and graduated or discontinuous and piecemeal, linked to space or constituted anew at each instant by the driving force of time, related to a series of variables or defined by separate systems of coherences, composed of resemblances which are either successive or corresponding, organized around increasing differences, etc. This middle region, then, in so far as it makes manifest the modes of being of order, can be posited as the most fundamental of all: anterior to words, perceptions, and gestures, which are then taken to be more or less exact, more or less happy, expressions of it (which is why this experience of order in its pure primary state always plays a critical role); more solid, more archaic, less dubious, always more "true" than the theories that attempt to give those expressions explicit form, exhaustive application, or philosophical foundation. Thus, in every culture, between the use of what one might call the ordering codes and reflections upon order itself, there is the pure experience of order and its modes of being.

Source: Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (New York: Random House, 1970).