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  • Representation Represented: Foucault, Velázquez, Descartes
  • Véronique M. Fóti

In The Order of Things, René Descartes—the early Descartes of the Regulae ad Direcetionem Ingenii (1628/29)—is, for Michel Foucault, the privileged exponent of the Classical episteme of representation, as it initially defines itself over against the Renaissance episteme of similitude.1 The exemplary position accorded to Descartes (a position that is problematic from the “archaeological” standpoint, since exemplars belong themselves to the order of representation) is complemented as well as contested by the prominence Foucault gives to a visual work: Diego Velázquez de Silva’s late painting Las Meniñas, completed some eight or nine years after Descartes’s death. Foucault understands this painting as the self-representation and self-problematization of representation, revealing both its inner law and the fatal absence at its core. Specifically, Las Meniñas demarcates the empty place of the sovereign, the place that will, in the epistêmê of modernity, be occupied by the figure of man. Since the place of man, his announced and imminent disappearance, and the character of a thought that can situate itself in the space of this disappearance (the space of language or écriture) are the crucial concerns of The Order of Things, the discussion of Las Meniñas is both inaugural and recurrent; the painting is not placed on a par with the two works of literature, Cervantes’s Don Quixote and Sade’s Justine, which problematize, respectively, the Renaissance and Modern epistemic orders.

Foucault maintains a puzzling silence as to why he finds it necessary to turn to a painting (rather than perhaps a work of literature) to find the epistêmê of representation both revealed and subverted. The question concerning the relationship between painting and representation gains further urgency since Foucault, who rejects phenomenology, does not concur with Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s privileging of painting as an antidote to Cartesian and post-Cartesian representation.2 Does he then treat painting as simply a special type of “the visible” which, as Gilles Deleuze points out, is for him irreducible to the articulable without, however, contesting the latter’s primacy?3 Does painting simply belong to the non-discursive milieu or form part of the visual archive without having any power to challenge discursive configurations?

In order to address these questions and to carry forward the dialogue between classical representation and painting that Foucault initiates, I will first discuss the role of Descartes in Foucault’s epistêmê of representation, then interrogate his analysis of the structure of representation in Las Meniñas, arguing that he is not fully attentive to the materiality of painting and to its resistance to discursive appropriation but remains, strangely, bound to a Cartesian understanding of vision and painting. I will, in conclusion, consider the implications of renewed attention to the materiality of painting for theories of representation, and the importance, for genuinely pictorial thought, of the irreducibility of painting to a theoretical exploration of vision.

Descartes and the Epistêmê of Representation

Foucault perceives clearly that, in Classical representation, as inaugurated by Descartes, universal mathêsis as a relational science of order and measure takes precedence over the mathematization of nature (which is emphasized by Husserl and Heidegger).4 Descartes notes, in the Regulae, that mathematics is merely the “outer covering” (integumentum) of the pure mathêsis that is the hidden source of all scientific disciplines.5

For Descartes, the cognitive order of the mathêsis is not a representation of any pre-given, ontological order, but a free construction of the human intellect or ingenium (which, in the Regulae, is not subordinated to divine creation). Representation does not function here as a replication, in the order of knowledge, of a reality that is independent of and withdrawn from the apprehending mind (a replication that typically seeks to disguise its own secondariness or shortfall). Rather, if mathêsis can be regarded as a prototype of representation, it is one that boldly re-invents reality in the autonomous order of thought. The intellect reflects and contemplates only itself in the order of nature.

Given his constructivism, Descartes insists that the limits of human knowledge must be scrupulously demarcated...

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