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2007 | 1 | 2 | 42-61

Article title

Michael Foucault in front of Velazquez's painting. Between the illustrative and cognitive functions of a paiting


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The article is an analysis of the essay by Michael Foucault included in 'The Order of Things'. A question is posed whether Velazquez's painting is mentiones as an illustration of well known theses which were formulated earlier on the basis of a purely linguistic discourse, or whether it rather makes a functionally indispensable fragment of a complete conceptual construction. An attempt to answer this question, undertaken in the present work, aims at determining certain general properties of condition based on a linguistic discourse and a kind of 'pictorial' cognition. The fundamental difference is that the nature of cognition which refers to the language is successive, temporal and performative (though not in the sense understood by J.L. Austin), whereas pictorial cognition is holistic, embracing a number of elements simultaneously and, as a result, is situated as if beyond time. Michael Foucault states that we see cannot be adequately expressed by what we say, yet he still takes up an effort of describing Velazquez's painting and, what is more, his description becomes the key to the whole book. Paradoxically, a linguistic analysis of a painting, previously regarded as impossible, introduces the reader into the problems of double representation. The present work proposes a thesis that, apart from the annihilation of the subject, Foucault destroys the sphere of the object as well. Paraphrasing Poper, one might say that Foucault talks about presentation without the representing subject. The disapperance of subject may be compared with implementing the Buddhist principle of non-substantiality. Foucault's epistemological considerations thus refer to a discourse which has distinct brahmanical featueres. The disappearance of the subject is accompanied by the disapperance of reality. What is left is a representation without the represented reality. Foucault uses the painting by Velazquez to illustrate its inner self-reference which reaches an absolute limit and becomes an independent reality. Foucault doesn't want to make a speech for us, but he wants to disappear in stream of the language revealing its own energy. The answer to the initial question is not unambiguous. On the one hand Foucault uses Velazquez's painting in a rather instrumental way and treats it as an illustration of some linguistic game, an illustration of an operation carried out on symbols, yet on the other hand he comes to a reflection on a double representation in whose context Velazquez's work becomes a more formal tool of analysis. The considerations upon the order of things, words and pictures presented by Foucault in 'Las Meninas' are situated in the limits of a broad conceptual horizon which marks the idea of representation. It makes the widest context and all symbolic structures, pictorial presentations or symbolic systems are closed within this horizon. Thus the opposition of words and images fades into the background and is partially blurred in the universal space of representation








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  • M. Kociuba, Uniwersytet Marii Curie-Sklodowskiej w Lublinie, Instytut Filozofii, pl. M. Curie-Sklodowskiej 4, 20-031 Lublin, Poland


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