chapter  7
30 Pages


Foucault tells us in the preface to 'Les Mots et les Choses1 (1966) that his book came into being with the disorienting laughter provoked by Borges's citation of the animal taxonomy in !a certain Chinese encyclopaedia*. In this embroidered sliver of Chinoiserie

it is written that 'animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (1) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies'. The effect of juxtaposing these objects and qualities in an

alphabetic sequence is monstrous and absurd but it is also carefully designed at several levels: as a text from a radically 'other1 but bookish culture; as a play upon our notions of randomness and relatedness; as possibility in the ordering of perception. Foucault's analysis of Borges's quotation from the Chinese leads to his study of the arrangement and historical disposition of the human sciences in the Enlightenment. Although 'Les Mots et les Choses' is a work of European cultural exegesis, Foucault, having raised the spectre of an alien taxonomy, continues to reverse a familiar philosophical problem. He applies to European - or rather French - historical sources the perception of strangeness and difficulty in translating or 'knowing that' which anthropologists and historians of other cultures have thought to be peculiarly their domain.