The Prose of The World


Foucault, Michel. “The Prose of the World” The Order of Things (Oxon: Routledge, 2008[1970]) 19-50


Up until the end of the sixteenth century, resemblance played a constructive role in the knowledge of Western culture. It was resemblance that largely guided exegesis and the interpretation of texts; it was resemblance that organised the play of symbols, made possible knowledge of things visible and invisible, and controlled the art of representing them.

And representation – whether in the service of pleasure or of knowledge – was posited as a form of repetition: the theatre of life or the mirror of nature, that was the claim made by all language, it’s manner of declaring its existence and of formulating it’s right of speech.


[discussion of ‘convenience’]


Conveniantia is a resemblance connected with space in the form of a graduated scale of proximity. It is of the same order as conjunction and adjustment.


[discussion of ‘aemulatio’]

There is something in emulation of the reflection and the mirror: it is the means by whereby things scattered through the universe can answer one another.

The human face, From afar, emulates the sky, and just as man’s intellect is an imperfect reflection of God’s wisdom, so his two eyes, with their limited brightness, are a reflection of the vast illumination spread across the sky by sun and moon; the mouth is Venus, since it gives passage to kisses and words of love; the nose provides an image in miniature of Jive’s sceptre and Mercury’s staff.

The relation of emulation enables things to imitate one another from one end of the universe to the other without connection or proximity: by duplicating in itself a mirror the world abolishes the distance proper to it; in this way it overcomes the place allotted to each thing.

But which of these reflections coursing through space a the original images? Which is the reality and which is the projection? It is not often possible to say, for emulation is a sort of natural twinship existing in things; it arises from a fold in being, the two sides of which stand immediately opposite to be another.

However, emulation does not leave the two reflected figures it has confronted in a merely inert state of opposition. One may be weaker and therefore receptive to the stronger influence of the other, which is thus reflected in his passive mirror.

Are not the stars, for example, dominant over the plants of the earth, of which they are the unchanged model, the unalterable form, and over which they have been secretly empowered to pour the whole dynasty of their influences.


Emulation is posited in the first place in the form of mere reflection, furtive and distant; it traverses the spaces of the universe in silence. But the distance it crosses is not annulled by the subtle metaphor of emulation; it remains open to the eye. And in this duel, the two confronting figures seize upon one another. Like envelops like, which in turn surround the other, perhaps to be enveloped oce more in a duplication which can continue ad infinitum. The links of emulation, unlike the elements of convenientia, do not form a chain but rather series of concentric circles reflecting and rivalling one another.


[on analogy]

Like the latter [emulation], it makes possible the marvellous confrontation of resemblances across space; but it also speaks, like the former, of bonds and joints. Its power is immense, for the similitudes of which it speaks are not the visible, substantial ones between things themselves; they need only be the more subtle resemblances of relations.

Disencumbered thus, it can extend, from a single given point, to an endless number of relationships.

There does exist, however, in this space, furrowed in every direction, one particularly privileged point: it is saturated with analogies (all analogies can find one of their terms there), and as they pass through it, their relations may be inverted without losing any of their force.


This point is man: he stands in proportion to the heavens, just as he does to animals and plants, and as he does also to the earth, to metals, to stalactites or storms, upright between the surfaces of the universe, he stands in relation to the firmament (his face is to his body what the face of heaven is to the ether; his pulse beats in his veins as the stars circle the sky according to their own fixed paths; the seven orifices in his head are to his face what the seven planets are to the sky); but he is also the fulcrum upon which all these relations turn, so that we find them again, their similarity unimpaired, in the analogy of the human animal to the earth it inhabits: his flash is a glee, his bones are rocks, his veins great rivers, his bladder is the sea, and his seven principal organs are the metals hidden in the shafts of mines.


Man’s body is always the possible half of a universal atlas.


The space occupied by analogies is really a space of radiation. Man is surrounded by it on every side; but, inversely, he transmits these resemblances back into the world from which he receives them. He is the great fulcrum of proportions- the centre upon which relations are concentrated and from which they are once again reflected.

Lastly, the fourth form of resemblance is provided by the play of sympathies. And here, no path has been determined in advance, no distance laid down, no links prescribed. Sympathy plays through the depths of the universe in a free state.

It can traverse the vastest spaces in an instant: it falls like a thunderbolt from the distant planet upon the man ruled by that planet; on the other hand it can be brought into being by a simple contact – as with those ‘mourning roses that have been used as obsequies’ which, simply from their former adjacency with death, will render all those who smell them ‘ sad and moribund’.

But such is its power that sympathy is not content to spring from a single contact and speed through space; it excites the things of the world to movement and can draw even the most distant of them together.

Sympathy is an nstance of the Same so strong and so insistent that it will not rest content to me merely one of the forms of likeness; it has the dangerous power of assimilating, of rendering things identical to one another, of mingling them, of causing their individuality to disappear – and thus of rendering them foreign to what they were before.

Sympathy transforms.


It alters, but in the direction of identity, so that if it’s power were not counterbalanced it would reduce the world to a point, to a homogenous mass, to the featureless form of the Same: all its parts would hold together and communicate with one another without a break, with no distance between them, like those metal chains held suspended by sympathy to the attraction of a single magnet.


This is why sympathy is compensated for by its twin, antipathy. Antipathy maintains the isolation of things and prevents their assimilation; it encloses every species within its impenetrable difference and it’s propensity to continue being what it is.


The identity of things, the fact that they can resemble others and be drawn to them, though without being swallowed up or losing their singularity – this is what is assuring by the constant counterbalancing of sympathy and antipathy.


Because of the movement and the dispersion created by its laws, the sovereignty of the sympathy-antipathy pair gives rise to all the forms of resemblance. The first three similitudes are thus resumed and explained by it. The whole volume of the world, all the adjacent is of ‘convenience’, all the echoes of emulation, all the linkages of analogy, are supported, maintained, and doubled by this space governed by sympathy and antipathy, which are ceaselessly drawing things together and holding them apart. By means of this interplay, the world remains identical; resemblances continue to be what they are, and to resemble one another. The same remains the same, riveted onto itself.


Convenientia, aemulatio, analogy, and sympathy tell us how the world must fold in on itself, duplicate itself, reflect itself, or form a chain with itself so that things can resemble one another. They tell us what the paths of similitude are and the directions they take; but not where it is, how one see it, or by what mark it may be recognized.

The are no resemblances without signatures. The world of similarity can only be a world of signs.


The system of signatures reverses the relation of the visible to the invisible. Resemblance was the invisible form of that which, from the depths of the world, made things visible; but in order that this form may be brought out into the light in its turn there must be an visible figure that will draw it out from its profound invisibility.

This is why the face of the world is covered with blazons, with characters, with ciphers and obscure words […]

And the space inhabited by immediate resemblances becomes like a vast open book; it bristles with written signs; every page is seen to be filled with strange figures that intertwine and in some places repeat themselves.

The great untroubled mirror in whose depths things gazed at themselves and reflected their own images back to one another is, in reality, filled with the murmur of words. The mute reflections all have corresponding words which indicate them.




Resemblances require a signature, for none of them would ever become observable were it not legibly marked.


Let us call the totality of the learning and skills that enable one to make the signs speak and to discover their meaning, hermeneutics; let us call the totality of the learning and skills that enable one to distinguish the location of the signs, to determine what constitutes them as signs, and to how and by what laws they are linked, semiology: the sixteenth century superimposed hermeneutics and semiology in the form of similitude.

To search for a meaning is to bring to light a resemblance. To search for the law governing signs is to discover the things that are alike. The grammar of beings is an exegesis of these things. And what the language they speak has to tell us is quite simply what the syntax is that binds them together.

The natured things, their co-existence, the way in which they communicate is nothing other than their resemblance. And that resemblance is visible only in the network of signs that crosses the world from one end to the other.

Everything would be manifest and immediately knowable if the hermeneutics of resemblance and the semiology of signatures coincided without the slightest parallax. But because the similitudes that form the graphics of the world are one ‘cog’ out of alignment with those that form its discourse, knowledge and the infinite labour it involves find here the space that is proper to them: it is their task to weave their way across this distance,mousing an endless zigzag course from resemblance to what resembles it.


[discussion of the “microcosm” in the sixteenth century]

In an episteme in which signs and similitudes were wrapped around one another in an endless spiral, it was essential that the relation of microcosm to macrocosm should be conceived as both the guarantee of that knowledge and the limit of its expansion.


The is no difference between marks and words in the sense that there is between observation and accepted authority, or between verifiable fact and tradition. The process everywhere is the same: that of the sign and it’s likeness, and this is why nature and the word can intertwine with one another to infinity, forming, for those who can read it, one vast single text.

In the sixteenth century, real language is not a totality of independent signs, a uniform and unbroken entity in which things could be reflected one by one, as in a mirror, and so express their particular truths.


In its raw, historical sixteenth-century being, language is not an arbitrary system; it has been set down in the world and forms a part of it, both because things themselves hide and manifest their own enigma like a language and because words offer themselves to men as things to be deciphered.


The great metaphor of the book that one opens, that one pores over and reads in order to know nature, is merely the reverse and visible side of another transference and a much deeper one, which forces language to reside in the world, among the plants, the herbs, the stones, and the animals.

Language partakes in the world-wide dissemination of similitudes and signatures. It must, therefore, be studied itself as a thing in nature. Like animals, plants, or stars, its elements have their laws of affinity and convenience, their necessary analogies.

[description of Ramus’ division of grammar into etymology and syntax]

The study of grammar in the sixteenth century is based upon the same epistemological arrangement as the science of nature or the esoteric disciplines.

Language stands halfway between the visible forms of nature and the secret conveniences of esoteric discourse.


It is a fragmented nature, divided against itself and deprived of its original transparency by admixture; it is a secret that carries within itself, though near the surface, the decipherable signs of what it is trying to say.


It is at the same time a buried revelation and a revelation that is gradually being restored to ever greater clarity.

Languages became separated and incompatible with one another only in so far as they had previously lost this original resemblance to the things that had been the prime reason for the existence of language. All the languages known to us are now spoken only against the background of this lost similitude, and in the space that it left vacant.


But though language no longer bears an immediate resemblance to the things it names, this does not mean that it is separate from the world: it still continues, in another form, to be the locus of revelations and to be included in the area where truth is both manifested and expressed.

[description of five forms of writing across the world (left to right, right to left, top to bottom, bottom to top and in spirals)]


The relationship of languages to the world is one of analogy rather than of signification; or rather, their value as signs and their duplicating function are superimposed; they speak the heaven and earth of which they are the image; they reproduce in their most material architecture the cross whose coming they announce – that coming which establishes its existence in its own turn through the Scriptures and the Word. Language possesses a symbolic function; but since the disaster at Babel we must no longer seek for it – with rare exceptions – in the words themselves but rather in the very existence of language, in its total relation to the totality of the world, in the intersecting of its space with the loci and forms of the cosmos.


Hence the form of the encyclopaedic project as it appears at the end of the sixteenth century or in the first years of the seventeenth […] to reconstitute the very order of the universe by the way in which words are linked together and arranged in space.

But in any case, such an interweaving of language and things, n a space common to both, presupposes an absolute privilege on the part of writing.

This privilege dominated the entire Renaissance, and was no doubt one of the great events in Western culture. Printing, the arrival in Europe of Oriental manuscripts, the appearance of a literature no longer created for the voice or performance and therefore not governed by them, the precedence given to the interpretation of religious texts over the tradition and magisterium of the Church – all these things bear witness, without its being possible to indicate causes and effects, to the fundamental place accorded in the West to Writing.

Henceforth, it is the primal nature of language to be written.


The sounds made by voices provide no more than a transitory and precarious translation of it. What God introduced into the world was written words; Adam, when he imposed their first names upon the animals did no more than read those visible and silent marks; the law was entrusted to the Tablets, not to men’s memories; and it is in a book that the true Word must be found again.


Esoterism in the sixteenth century is a phenomenon of the written word, not the spoken word. At all events, the latter is stripped of all its powers; it is merely the female part of language, Vigenere and Duret tell us, just as its intellect is passive; Writing on the other hand, is the active intellect, the ‘male principle’ of language. It alone harbours the truth.

This primacy of the written word explains the twin presence of two forms which, despite their apparent antagonism, are indissociable in sixteenth century knowledge. The first of these is a non-distinction between what is seen and what is read, between observation and relation, which results in the constitution of a single, unbroken surface in which observation and language intersect to infinity. And the second, the inverse of the first, is an immediate dissociation of all language, duplicated, without any assignable term, by the constant reiteration of commentary.


To know an animal or a plant, or any terrestrial thing whatever is to gather together the whole dense layer of signs with which it or they may have been covered; it is to rediscover also all the constellations of forms from which they derive their value as heraldic signs.

Knowledge therefore consisted in relating one form of language to another form of language; in restoring the great unbroken plain of words and things; in making everything speak.


Scriptural commentary, commentaries on Ancient authors, commentaries on the accounts of travellers, commentaries on legends and fables: none of these forms of discourse is required to justify its claim to be expressing a truth before it is interpreted; all that is required of it is the possibility of talking about it.

The task of commentary can never, by definition, be completed. And yet, commentary is directed entirely towards the enigmatic, murmured element of the language being commented on: it calls into being, below the existing discourse, another discourse that is more fundamental and, as it were, more ‘primal’, which it sets itself the task of restoring. There can be no commentary unless, below the language one is reading and deciphering, there runs the sovereignty of an original Text.


It will be seen that the experience of language belongs to the same archaeological network as the knowledge of things and nature.

The commentary resembles endlessly that which it is commenting upon and which it can never express; just as the knowledge of nature constantly finds new signs for resemblance because resemblance cannot be known in itself, even though the signs can never be anything but similitudes.

As just as this infinite play within nature finds its link, its form, and its limitation in the relation of the microcosm to the macrocosm, so does the infinite task of commentary derive its strength from he promise of an effectively written text which interpretation will one day reveal in its entirety.


In fact, language exists first of all, in it’s raw and primitive being, in the simple, material form of writing, a stigma upon things, a mark imprinted across the world which is a part of its most ineffaceable forms. In a sense this layer of language is unique and absolute. But it also gives rise to two other forms of discourse which provide it with a frame: above it, there is commentary, which recasts the given signs to serve a new purpose, and below it, the text, whose primacy is presupposed by commentary to exist beneath the marks visible to all. Hence there are three levels of language, all based upon the single being of the written word.

It is this complex interaction of elements that was to disappear with the end of the Renaissance. And in two ways: because the forms oscillating endlessly between one and three terms were to be fixed in a binary form which would render them stable; and because language. instead of existing as the material writing of things, was to find its area of being restricted to the general organisation of representative signs.

[…] language was never to be anything more than a particular case of representation (for the Classics) or of signification (for us). The profound kinship of language with the world was thus dissolved. The primacy of the written word went into abeyance. And that uniform layer, in which the seen  and the read, the visible and the expressible, were endlessly interwoven, vanished too.

Things and words were to be separated from one another. The eye was thenceforth destined to see and only to see, the ear to hear and only to hear.


Through literature, the being of language shines once more on the frontiers of Western culture – and at its centre – for it is what has been most foreign to that culture since the sixteenth century; but it has also, since this same century, been at the very centre of what Western culture has overlain.

For now we no longer have that primary, that absolute initial, word upon which the infinite movement of discourse was founded and by which it was limited; henceforth, language was to grow with no point of departure, no end, and no promise. It is the traversal of this futile yet fundamental space that the text of literature traces from day to day.