Wednesday, February 18, 2009

aemulatio, or something

Let me preface this by saying that I hate Foucault. I've rarely if ever found anything in the man's work but ideas in various states of half-bakedness, topped by a thin crunchy layer of borrowed erudition: sugary nuggets to catch the fancy of the impressionable as they trip lightly past his pastry shop of human ideas.

With that out of the way, I'll admit a fondness for the Renaissance chapter of The Order of Things. In attempting to explain a paradox I've always felt--why smart people like Erasmus, et al. could revere Aristotelian reason and simultaneously believe that a beauty mark resembling a certain constellation meant that the bearer possessed the properties of Casseiopeia--Foucault defines the epistemology of the Renaissance, identifying the principles by which Aristotle and alchemy could exist in the same individual. Foucault defines one of these principles, aemulatio, like this: "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 itself in a mirror the world abolishes the distance proper to it in this way it overcomes the place allotted to each thing." Foucault's point in the book is to define the break between the modern and the Early Modern, Enlightenment and Renaissance. I've decided to read the rest of the book, so I'll discover soon enough whether he thinks the postmodern era is more like the former or the latter, but I'm inclined to think the former, based on recent experiences. My fellow English literature people tend to display exactly this kind of logic: "X is like Y; therefore, let us attribute to them the same properties and conclude that, despite all evidence to the contrary, X behaves exactly like Y and thus this poem is all about sea turtles, after all." It makes you want to stand on the nearest available surface, and, like some lunatic at Speakers' Corner, deliver a sermon on causality, excluded middles, and the fact that punning--in addition to being the lowest form of humor--doesn't actually constitute an argument, even if you do it in a foreign language. And if one more person attempts to clobber me over the head with some punning etymology, it may just come to that. These etymologies start to bleed into one of Foucault's other epistemological arguments for the Renaissance--the convenientia, by which things that are in close contact become like one another. Sharing the same root as another word is not, or usually not in our nominally Enlightened era, enough to suggest that place and similitude are the same; or, as Foucault rather nicely puts it, not enough to cause moss to grow out of seashells. Am I exaggerating when I claim that a good 60 percent of arguments in PhD seminars in English literature proceed from these interesting premises? Certainly, but on a bad day, it sure feels like it.

On a brighter note, I've requested the Northern Regional Library Facility's copy of Thackeray's The Book of Snobs, a taxonomy of the species that I plan to update for the modern era. I use modern advisedly, after discovering that I don't really care for postmodern epistemologies.

Posted by Shannon Chamberlain @ 3:00 PM