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1. Read the first paragraph of the excerpt from Foucault’s “The Order of Things” PDF. Think about a possible underlying ordering principle for the taxonomy presented there and post what you come up with here, along with thoughts about how this relates to our current topic.

If you want, you can read more of Foucault’s text in the file (we will talk about the rest in class), but this one is difficult, so only the first paragraph is required. This is new theory on a Thursday, since we’re still off-kilter because of the quiz day.

2. Based on Kafka’s text, draw (or sculpt/paint/glue/…) your version of what Odradek might look like and post an image (& bring it to class if you’d like). This is our example for Foucault’s “Chinese Encyclopedia.” How does it fit? Add a short reflection to your image (remember the 100-word minimum for homework tasks).


Foucault, Michel. “The Order of Things, Preface.” In: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. Vintage Books,

1994. Original Publication: Les mots et les choses (1966). Footnotes by Dr. Jacobs.

The Order of Things, Preface

This book first arose out of a passage in Borges1, out of the laughter that shattered, as I read the passage, all

the familiar landmarks of my thought — our thought, the thought that bears the stamp of our age and our

geography — breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame

the wild profusion of existing things, and continuing long afterwards to disturb and threaten with collapse our

age-old distinction between the Same and the Other. This passage quotes a “certain Chinese encyclopedia” in

which 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”. In the wonderment of this taxonomy, the thing we apprehend in

one great leap, the thing that, by means of the fable, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of

thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that.

But what is it impossible to think, and what kind of impossibility are we faced with here? Each of these

strange categories can be assigned a precise meaning and a demonstrable content; some of them do certainly

involve fantastic entities — fabulous animals or sirens — but, precisely because it puts them into categories

of their own, the Chinese encyclopedia localizes their powers of contagion; it distinguishes carefully between

the very real animals (those that are frenzied or have just broken the water pitcher) and those that reside

solely in the realm of imagination. The possibility of dangerous mixtures has been exorcized, heraldry and

fable have been relegated to their own exalted peaks: no inconceivable amphibious maidens, no clawed wings,

no disgusting, squamous epidermis, none of those polymorphous and demoniacal faces, no creatures

breathing fire. The quality of monstrosity here does not affect any real body, nor does it produce

modifications of any kind in the bestiary of the imagination; it does not lurk in the depths of any strange

power. It would not even be present at all in this classification had it not insinuated itself into the empty

space, the interstitial2 blanks separating all these entities from one another. It is not the “fabulous” animals that

are impossible, since they are designated as such, but the narrowness of the distance separating them from

(and juxtaposing them to) the stray dogs, or the animals that from a long way off look like flies. What

transgresses the boundaries of all imagination, of all possible thought, is simply that alphabetical series (a, b, c,

d) which links each of those categories to all the others.

Moreover, it is not simply the oddity of unusual Juxtapositions that we are faced with here. We are all familiar

with the disconcerting effect of the proximity of extremes, or, quite simply, with the sudden vicinity of things

that have no relation to each other; the mere act of enumeration that heaps them all together has a power of

enchantment all its own: “I am no longer hungry,” Eusthenes said. “Until the morrow, safe from my saliva all

the following shall be: Aspics, Acalephs, Acanthocephalates, Amoebocytes, Ammonites, Axolotis,

Amblystomas, Aphislions, Anacondas, Ascarids, Amphisbaenas, Angleworms, Amphipods, Anaerobes,

Annelids, Anthozoans…” But all these worms and snakes, all these creatures redolent of decay and slime are

slithering, like the syllables which designate them, in Eusthenes’ saliva: that is where they all have their

1 Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge (1942), which is a fictional taxonomy of animals.
2 in-between


common locus3, like the umbrella and the sewing-machine on the operating table4; startling though their

propinquity may be, it is nevertheless warranted by that and, by that in, by that on whose solidity provides

proof of the possibility of juxtaposition. It was certainly improbable that arachnids, ammonites, and annelids

should one day mingle on Eusthenes’ tongue, but, after all, that welcoming and voracious mouth certainly

provided them with a feasible lodging, a roof under which to coexist.

The monstrous quality that runs through Borges’s enumeration consists, on the contrary, in the fact that the

common ground on which such meetings are possible has itself been destroyed. What is impossible is not the

propinquity of the things listed, but the very site on which their propinquity5 would be possible. The animals

“(i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush” — where could they ever meet,

except in the immaterial sound of the voice pronouncing their enumeration, or on the page transcribing it?

Where else could they be juxtaposed except in the non-place of language? Yet, though language can spread

them before us, it can do so only in an unthinkable space. The central category of animals “included in the

present classification”, with its explicit reference to paradoxes we are familiar with, is indication enough that

we shall never succeed in defining a stable relation of contained to container between each of these categories

and that which includes them all: if all the animals divided up here can be placed without exception in one of

the divisions of this list, then aren’t all the other divisions to be found in that one division too? And then

again, in what space would that single, inclusive division have its existence? Absurdity destroys the and of the

enumeration by making impossible the in where the things enumerated would be divided up. Borges adds no

figure to the atlas of the impossible; nowhere does he strike the spark of poetic confrontation; he simply

dispenses with the least obvious, but most compelling, of necessities; he does away with the site, the mute

ground upon which it is possible for entities to be juxtaposed. A vanishing trick that is masked or, rather,

laughably indicated by our alphabetical order, which is to be taken as the clue (the only visible one) to the

enumerations of a Chinese encyclopedia… What has been removed, in short, is the famous “operating table”;

and rendering to Roussel6 a small part of what is still his due, I use that word “table” in two superimposed

senses: the nickel-plated, rubbery table swathed in white, glittering beneath a glass sun devouring all shadow

— the table where, for an instant, perhaps forever, the umbrella encounters the sewing-machine; and also a

table, a tabula, that enables thought to operate upon the entities of our world, to put them in order, to divide

them into classes, to group them according to names that designate their similarities and their differences —

the table upon which, since the beginning of time, language has intersected space.7

That passage from Borges kept me laughing a long time, though not without a certain uneasiness that I found

hard to shake off. Perhaps because there arose in its wake the suspicion that there is a worse kind of disorder

than that of the incongruous, the linking together of things that are inappropriate; I mean the disorder in which

fragments of a large number of possible orders glitter separately in the dimension, without law or geometry,

3 place
4 Foucault references the surrealist idea of a ‘chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella,’
which points to both the beauty and the difficulty of making sense of items that don’t belong together. See the surrealist
painting by Salvador Dali on the last page.
5 proximity
6 Raymond Roussel, surrealist poet
7 He means a) the operating table and b) a table like this:

Category 1 Category 2 Category 3

… …

He also invokes the term tabula rasa = clean slate/having no preconceived notions.


of the heteroclite8; and that word should be taken in its most literal, etymological sense: in such a state, things

are “laid”, “placed”, “arranged” in sites so very different from one another that it is impossible to find a place

of residence for them, to define a common locus beneath them all. Utopias9 afford consolation: although they

have no real locality there is nevertheless a fantastic, untroubled region in which they are able to unfold; they

open up cities with vast avenues, superbly planted gardens, countries where life is easy, even though the road

to them is chimerical. Heterotopias10 are disturbing, probably because they secretly undermine language,

because they make it impossible to name this and that, because they shatter or tangle common names, because

they destroy “syntax” in advance, and not only the syntax with which we construct sentences but also that less

apparent syntax which causes words and things (next to and also opposite one another) to “hold together”.

This is why Utopias permit fables and discourse: they run with the very grain of language and are part of the

fundamental dimension of the fabula; heterotopias (such as those to be found so often in Borges) desiccate

speech, stop words in their tracks, contest the very possibility of grammar at its source; they dissolve our

myths and sterilize the lyricism of our sentences.

It appears that certain aphasiacs11, when shown various differently coloured skeins of wool on a table top, are

consistently unable to arrange them into any coherent pattern; as though that simple rectangle were unable to

serve in their case as a homogeneous and neutral space in which things could be placed so as to display at the

same time the continuous order of their identities or differences as well as the semantic field of their

denomination. Within this simple space in which things are normally arranged and given names, the aphasiac

will create a multiplicity of tiny, fragmented regions in which nameless resemblances agglutinate things into

unconnected islets; in one corner, they will place the lightest-coloured skeins, in another the red ones,

somewhere else those that are softest in texture, in yet another place the longest, or those that have a tinge of

purple or those that have been wound up into a ball. But no sooner have they been adumbrated12 than all

these groupings dissolve again, for the field of identity that sustains them, however limited it may be, is still

too wide not to be unstable; and so the sick mind continues to infinity, creating groups then dispersing them

again, heaping up diverse similarities, destroying those that seem clearest, splitting up things that are identical,

superimposing different criteria, frenziedly beginning all over again, becoming more and more disturbed, and

teetering finally on the brink of anxiety.

The uneasiness that makes us laugh when we read Borges is certainly related to the profound distress of those

whose language has been destroyed: loss of what is “common” to place and name. Atopia13, aphasia. […]

When we establish a considered classification, when we say that a cat and a dog resemble each other less than

two greyhounds do, even if both are tame or embalmed, even if both are frenzied, even if both have just

broken the water pitcher, what is the ground on which we are able to establish the validity of this

classification with complete certainty? On what “table”, according to what grid of identities, similitudes,

analogies, have we become accustomed to sort out so many different and similar things? What is this

8 something irregular, “abnormal,” out of the ordinary, other
9 imagined places or states of things in which everything is perfect
10 imagined places or states of things in which nothing fits together (Foucault’s idea)
11 the loss of the ability to understand or express speech caused by brain damage (an aphasiac is a person suffering from
12 outlined, indicated
13 unimaginable place, non-place/non-state, place one cannot imagine; also the loss of the ability to understand or
express underlying order (Foucault’s idea)


coherence — which, as is immediately apparent, is neither determined by an a priori14 and necessary

concatenation15, nor imposed on us by immediately perceptible contents? For it is not a question of linking

consequences, but of grouping and isolating, of analysing, of matching and pigeon-holing concrete contents;

there is nothing more tentative, nothing more empirical (superficially, at least) than the process of establishing

an order among things; nothing that demands a sharper eye or a surer, better-articulated language; nothing

that more insistently requires that one allow oneself to be carried along by the proliferation of qualities and

forms. And yet an eye not consciously prepared might well group together certain similar figures and

distinguish between others on the basis of such and such a difference: in fact, there is no similitude and no

distinction, even for the wholly untrained perception, that is not the result of a precise operation and of the

application of a preliminary criterion. A “system of elements” — a definition of the segments by which the

resemblances and differences can be shown, the types of variation by which those segments can be affected,

and, lastly, the threshold above which there is a difference and below which there is a similitude — is

indispensable for the establishment of even the simplest form of order. Order is, at one and the same time,

that which is given in things as their inner law, the hidden network that determines the way they confront one

another, and also that which has no existence except in the grid created by a glance, an examination, a

language; and it is only in the blank spaces of this grid that order manifests itself in depth as though already

there, waiting in silence for the moment of its expression. […]

14 a philosophical category, meaning knowledge that comes from theoretical deduction rather than empirical observation
15 series, linking of things

Franz Kafka, The Cares of a Family Man (1914-17)

«Some say the word Odradek is of Slavonic origin, and try to account for it on that basis. Others again believe

it to be of German origin, only influenced by Slavonic. The uncertainty of both interpretations allows one to

assume with justice that neither is accurate, especially as neither of them provides an intelligent meaning of

the word.

No one, of course, would occupy himself with such studies if there were not a creature called Odradek. At

first glance it looks like a flat star-shaped spool for thread, and indeed it does seem to have thread wound

upon it; to be sure, they are only old, broken-off bits of thread, knotted and tangled together, of the most

varied sorts and colors. But it is not only a spool, for a small wooden crossbar sticks out of the middle of the

star, and another small rod is joined to that at a right angle. By means of this latter rod on one side and one of

the points of the star on the other, the whole thing can stand upright as if on two legs.

One is tempted to believe that the creature once had some sort of intelligible shape and is now only a broken-

down remnant. Yet this does not seem to be the case; at least there is no sign of it; nowhere is there an

unfinished or unbroken surface to suggest anything of the kind; the whole thing looks senseless enough, but

in its own way perfectly finished. In any case, closer scrutiny is impossible, since Odradek is extraordinarily

nimble and can never be laid hold of.

He lurks by turns in the garret, the stairway, the lobbies, the entrance hall. Often for months on end he is not

to be seen; then he has presumably moved into other houses; but he always comes faithfully back to our

house again. Many a time when you go out of the door and he happens just to be leaning directly beneath you

against the banisters you feel inclined to speak to him. Of course, you put no difficult questions to him, you

treat him—he is so diminutive that you cannot help it—rather like a child. “Well, what’s your name?” you ask

him. “Odradek,” he says. “And where do you live?” “No fixed abode,” he says and laughs; but it is only the

kind of laughter that has no lungs behind it. It sounds rather like the rustling of fallen leaves. And that is

usually the end of the conversation. Even these anwers are not always forthcoming; often he stays mute for a

long time, as wooden as his appearance.

I ask myself, to no purpose, what is likely to happen to him? Can he possibly die? Anything that dies has had

some kind of aim in life, some kind of activity, which has worn out; but that does not apply to Odradek. Am

I to suppose, then, that he will always be rolling down the stairs, with ends of thread trailing after him, right

before the feet of my children, and my children’s children? He does no harm to anyone that one can see; but

the idea that he is likely to survive me I find almost painful».

Translated by Willa and Edwin Muir, from

Die Sorge des Hausvaters

Die einen sagen, das Wort Odradek stamme aus dem Slawischen und sie suchen auf Grund dessen die

Bildung des Wortes nachzuweisen. Andere wieder meinen, es stamme aus dem Deutschen, vom Slawischen

sei es nur beeinflußt. Die Unsicherheit beider Deutungen aber läßt wohl mit Recht darauf schließen, daß

keine zutrifft, zumal man auch mit keiner von ihnen einen Sinn des Wortes finden kann.

Natürlich würde sich niemand mit solchen Studien beschäftigen, wenn es nicht wirklich ein Wesen gäbe, das

Odradek heißt. Es sieht zunächst aus wie eine flache sternartige Zwirnspule, und tatsächlich scheint es auch

mit Zwirn bezogen; allerdings dürften es nur abgerissene, alte, aneinandergeknotete, aber auch

ineinanderverfilzte Zwirnstücke von verschiedenster Art und Farbe sein. Es ist aber nicht nur eine Spule,

sondern aus der Mitte des Sternes kommt ein kleines Querstäbchen hervor und an dieses Stäbchen fügt sich

dann im rechten Winkel noch eines. Mit Hilfe dieses letzteren Stäbchens auf der einen Seite, und einer der

Ausstrahlungen des Sternes auf der anderen Seite, kann das Ganze wie auf zwei Beinen aufrecht stehen.

Man wäre versucht zu glauben, dieses Gebilde hätte früher irgendeine zweckmäßige Form gehabt und jetzt

sei es nur zerbrochen. Dies scheint aber nicht der Fall zu sein; wenigstens findet sich kein Anzeichen dafür;

nirgends sind Ansätze oder Bruchstellen zu sehen, die auf etwas Derartiges hinweisen würden; das Ganze

erscheint zwar sinnlos, aber in seiner Art abgeschlossen. Näheres läßt sich übrigens nicht darüber sagen, da

Odradek außerordentlich beweglich und nicht zu fangen ist.

Er hält sich abwechselnd auf dem Dachboden, im Treppenhaus, auf den Gängen, im Flur auf. Manchmal ist

er monatelang nicht zu sehen; da ist er wohl in andere Häuser übersiedelt; doch kehrt er dann unweigerlich

wieder in unser Haus zurück. Manchmal, wenn man aus der Tür tritt und er lehnt gerade unten am

Treppengeländer, hat man Lust, ihn anzusprechen. Natürlich stellt man an ihn keine schwierigen Fragen,

sondern behandelt ihn – schon seine Winzigkeit verführt dazu – wie ein Kind. »Wie heißt du denn?« fragt

man ihn. »Odradek«, sagt er. »Und wo wohnst du?« »Unbestimmter Wohnsitz«, sagt er und lacht; es ist aber

nur ein Lachen, wie man es ohne Lungen hervorbringen kann. Es klingt etwa so, wie das Rascheln in

gefallenen Blättern. Damit ist die Unterhaltung meist zu Ende. Übrigens sind selbst diese Antworten nicht

immer zu erhalten; oft ist er lange stumm, wie das Holz, das er zu sein scheint.

Vergeblich frage ich mich, was mit ihm geschehen wird. Kann er denn sterben? Alles, was stirbt, hat vorher

eine Art Ziel, eine Art Tätigkeit gehabt und daran hat es sich zerrieben; das trifft bei Odradek nicht zu. Sollte

er also einstmals etwa noch vor den Füßen meiner Kinder und Kindeskinder mit nachschleifendem

Zwirnsfaden die Treppe hinunterkollern? Er schadet ja offenbar niemandem; aber die Vorstellung, daß er

mich auch noch überleben sollte, ist mir eine fast schmerzliche.