Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things is at least as remarkable, to me, for what it does not say in its opening chapters as for what it does say. As its readers know, its second and third chapters (“The Prose of the World” and “Representing”) describe the dramatic shift in Europeans’ understanding of language’s relationship to the world that occurred between the 16th and 17th centuries: a shift from a time when “[t]he truth of all these marks–whether they are woven into nature itself or whether they exist in lines on parchment and in libraries–is everywhere the same: coeval with the institution of God” (34) to a time when, with the important exception of literary language, “the arrangement of signs was to become binary, since it was to be defined, with Port-Royal, as the connection of a significant and a signified” (42). However, Foucault offers no explanation for why this shift occurred. He does indirectly give a name to the time during which it occurred–the Baroque (he devotes a single, rather dismissive paragraph on p. 51 to a description of its attributes)–and identifies Cervantes’ Don Quixote as the Baroque’s avatar, but he has nothing more to say on the matter.
In his early speech (which later became an article) “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias,” Foucault names Galileo’s confirmation of Copernicus’s heliocentric model for what we now call the solar system as the cause for the intellectual shift from medieval to Renaissance understandings of space. Thus, we know that Foucault is more than capable of identifying significant events whose consequences reverberate through time and culture. Yet in The Order of Things, he does not.
I do not pretend to know why Foucault is silent on the cause for this profound shift in Western thought, but I can tell you what I think he should have said that cause was: Columbus’s arrivals in the Americas. There’s nothing like a culture’s encountering two enormous landmasses completely unaccounted for by the Bible to thoroughly shake that culture’s previously-unquestioned assumption that language is “coeval with the institution of God.” However, perhaps Foucault does mention the Americas-as-cause indirectly, through a bit of projection. In the preface to The Order of Things, he mentions the ficciones of Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges as an inspiration for his idea of heterotopias, and several of the examples of heterotopias he provides in “Of Other Spaces” are from the Americas. To some extent, then, Foucault thinks of the Americas and at least some of its cultural products as disruptive in comparison to European conceptions of space and language. Meanwhile, in the sub-chapter on Don Quixote in “Representing,” Foucault could not have provides us, through his discussion of the Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance, a better description both of how Columbus understood the space through which he sailed and how his understanding looks to us today.
(Before going on, I want to reassure the reader that I’m under no illusions as I write this post. Apart from his discussions of heterotopias, I confess to being poorly read in Foucault, let alone in commentary on him; surely I am not the first to wonder why Foucault in this book has, at least early on, so little to say about an event that without any doubt utterly transformed how Europeans conceived of the world and of their own place in it. Therefore, I hope that what follows doesn’t come across as a kind of intellectual Columbusing.)
I have included the Piri Reis map with this post because it serves as a good visual analogue for how knowledge of the Americas entered into the European consciousness. The Encounter occurred just at the cusp of the 15th-16th centuries; knowledge of these new lands came piecemeal over next two centuries, but (as the map shows) it would not be too many years before Europeans knew enough to know, as Peter Martyr suspected after news of Columbus’s first voyage, that they were not part of Asia but completely other (hence Martyr’s felt need to coin the term “New World”). Also, of course, that piecemeal knowledge had to spread throughout Europe and gradually seep into its collective intellectual and theological consciousness, such that by the end of the 16th century Europeans felt compelled to begin to impose order(s) on the world via various cataloguing systems of flora, fauna, and (more ominously) people.
To make his own map, however, the maker of the Piri Reis map says he has used information from several sources, among them some of the maps, now lost, that Columbus had made of the Caribbean. These were maps made by a man who to the end of his days believed he was in Asia rather than in a previously-unaccounted-for part of the world. Columbus’s maps–and, for that matter, his journals of the four voyages–thus become complex documents for us to examine today. They are accurate recordings of his locations in physical space and time; yet we today read those records as factual accounts of the world as we know it to be, while Columbus saw in them confirmation and extension of what the Bible and accepted ancient authorities claimed was known or thought to be known about the world. Depending on how you think about them, they are either doubly true–true, that is, both to Columbus’s understanding of the world and to the now-known physical facts of the world–or they are at best unreliable and at worst false because, having been made within the context of Columbus’s (false) worldview, they participate in a conceptualizing of the world that is itself false.
Putting aside, at least for this post, the question of whether Columbus’s maps are faithful representations of the world, it is in his account of his third voyage that we see most clearly how Columbus’s understanding of the world shapes how he interprets the physical facts of the land in front of him–and where we see most clearly his intellectual kinship with Don Quixote (as described by Foucault). It is an easy matter to both laugh at Columbus’s doctrinally-induced blindness (or, alternately, question his sanity) and applaud Quixote’s expectation that the people he encounters adhere to a moral code that requires them to be men and women of their word. Quixote, after all, is a fiction; Columbus an actual person, whom we expect would, or should, engage with the world empirically. Trusting the teller, we grant Quixote a pass regarding his behavior. As for Columbus, though, we grant him an initial pass regarding his assumption that he has arrived in Asia, but his attempts to make sense of what he observed on his third voyage give the careful reader serious pause.
If you’re interested, I discuss the consequences of that account in more detail on pp. 10-17 of my study’s first chapter; here, though, is a quick summary of the account itself: In encountering a river that produced a large quantity of fresh water, Columbus knew the landmass whose coast he was following (the northern coast of South America) was no island but very large indeed. However, it was located much too far to the south to be part of Asia, at least as was then known or assumed to be true of that continent. In the account, then, Columbus proposed that, contra Ptolemy and the ancient Greeks, the planet was not a sphere but, instead, shaped like a pear; that on this voyage his sextant readings indicated that he had actually been sailing uphill to the tip of this pear-shaped planet; and that the river he had encountered was surely one of the rivers that flowed out of the Garden of Eden, which they would find at the very tip of the pear if an expedition were to follow that river inland. For Columbus, the very embodiment of what Foucault describes as the mindset of 15th-century Europeans–“[t]he truth of all these marks–whether they are woven into nature itself or whether they exist in lines on parchment and in libraries–is everywhere the same: coeval with the institution of God”–his proposed shape for the planet could not be otherwise. It had only not been suspected before, when less had been known about the world.
Keeping in mind Columbus’s sincere investment in the doctrine that the Bible was the Book of the World and that, as Margarita Zamora demonstrates in Reading Columbus, he understood himself as the leader of these voyages to be participating in actions that would lead to the eventual liberation of Jerusalem from Islam, which itself would lead to the Second Coming, compare the above to Foucault’s description of Don Quixote:
Don Quixote reads the world in order to prove his books. And the only proofs he gives himself are the glittering reflections of resemblances.
His whole journey is a quest for similitudes: the slightest analogies are pressed into service as dormant signs that must be reawakened and made to speak once more. [. . .] But non-similitude itself has its model, and one that it imitates in the most servile way: it is to be found in the transformations performed by magicians. So all the indices of non-resemblance, all the signs that prove that the written texts are not telling the truth, resemble the actions of sorcery, which introduces difference into the indubitable existence of similitude by means of deceit. And since this magic has been foreseen and described in the books, the illusory difference that it introduces can never be anything but an enchanted similitude, and, therefore, yet another sign that the signs in the books really do resemble the truth. (47)
In literature, such deus ex machina moments are madness, but they are a contained madness and so are safe and, in the case of Don Quixote, amusing (and thought-provoking) to contemplate. True: Columbus, in his account of the third voyage, does not say that magicians are at work as he sails in the southern Caribbean. But just as Don Quixote, looking up from the ground at the windmills he had just attacked and no longer seeing the giants that had been there, must account for their transformation in some way, so also must Columbus, encountering fresh water flowing in such quantities from a place where it should not be flowing, account for what he is witnessing. Thus, he re-imagines the physical shape of the planet . . . and then, later (though in a different way), will begin to re-shape the European imagination.
Even as Columbus argued that what he had found had not changed the world, that same world was changed utterly by what he had found. One wouldn’t know this from reading the first chapters of The Order of Things . . . unless one reads Foucault’s comments on Don Quixote and thinks about Columbus as one does so.