But it was not always thus, Foucault would have us accept. In an age previous to ours, the truth or otherwise of words was not dependent upon the extent to which words represented things. On the contrary, words were things; that is, words enjoyed a kind of reality that we attribute only to things. Far from merely representing real things, words too were real:
In the sixteenth century, real language is not a totality of independent signs, a uniform and unbroken entity in which things could be reflected one by one, as in a mirror, and so express their particular truths. It is rather an opaque and mysterious thing, closed in upon itself, a fragmented mass, its enigma renewed in every interval, which combines here and there with the forms of the world and becomes interwoven with them: so much so that all these elements, taken together, form a network of marks in which each of them may play, and does in fact play, in relation to all the others, the role of content or of sign, that of secret or of indicator. In its raw, historical sixteenth-century being, language is not an arbitrary system; it has been set down in the world and forms a part of it, both because things themselves hide and manifest their own enigma like a language and because words offer themselves to men as things to be deciphered. The great metaphor of the book that one opens, that one pores over and reads in order to know nature, is merely the reverse and visible side of another transference, and a much deeper one, which forces language to reside in the world, among the plants, the herbs, the stones, and the animals. (The Order of Things)The binary opposition of words and things is, then, a modern invention, as Foucault tells it; in other times, things were like words, insofar as they were signs to be interpreted on the basis of various modes of resemblance between them and other signs, and words were like things, insofar as they had properties unto themselves and not only by virtue of their referential function. Words and things were, in effect, the same kind of thing. During the 17th and 18th centuries, however, this "profound kinship of language with the world was dissolved." Henceforth, words said things, that is, words referred to things and were nothing more than this referral.
But no age dies away completely, and so there are vestiges of The Age of Resemblance even in our times. When we say to someone about to face a difficult ordeal, "Break a leg!" - it is not only that we do not intend these words literally (The Age of Representation does not demand that words say things in only direct ways), it is the words themselves (and not anything they represent, either literally or figuratively) that are intended. In saying the words, we regard ourselves as producing an effect, not because the words refer to something that is efficacious, but because the words themselves, spoken in a certain order, context and tone, are efficacious. The words operate in a manner that The Age of Representation usually confines to the realm of things.
We are half-ashamed of this mode of existence of words, of course, and laughingly denigrate it as barbarous superstition even as we contribute to its continuance. But not always. For, there is something in our Age constituted wholly by this mode of existence of words, which we not only do not laugh at but tend to hold in high regard. It is "literature." Here is Foucault, once more:
It may be said in a sense that "literature," as it was constituted and so designated on the threshold of the modern age, manifests, at a time when it was least expected, the reappearance, of the living being of language...[T]hroughout the nineteenth century, and right up to our own day - from Holderlin to Mallarme and on to Antonin Artaud - literature achieved autonomous existence, and separated itself from all other language with a deep scission...by finding its way back from the representative or signifying function of language to this raw being that had been forgotten since the sixteenth century. (The Order of Things)We may note that, in Foucault's notion of "literature" are not comprehended the likes of Dickens or Eliot, whose sweeping representations are placed firmly within The Age of Representation; we might say that a Dickens or an Eliot reached the zenith of those creative possibilities designated by The Age of Representation, whose literature, for all its figurative flourishes, cannot but employ materials whose very nature it is to indicate that which lies beyond them, in the realm of actual, possible, or even fantastical things. What "literature" has done, by contrast, is to attempt to reanimate a mode of existence of words that has nothing to do with indicating that which lies beyond them, to resurrect language as itself real, language as itself living. Stephane Mallarme, for example, produced poems that, to The Age of Representation, appear hermetic and possibly frustrating, but these poems might also be read as giving life back to language, as allowing words themselves to speak. In this sense, "literature" has existed as a sort of time capsule, which has ferried, across a great epochal divide, words that are not merely for saying things.
But we are now, I think, on the cusp of another epochal divide, as great indeed as that which Foucault describes as having taken place during the 17th and 18th centuries, a divide between The Age of Representation and an age in which the binary structure of words-and-things that has been so utterly dominant is giving way to a unitary structure of words-and-more-words. We are now entering The Age of Public Representation, in which words are all-in-all, concern with their accurate or otherwise representation of things increasingly anachronistic. Many forces are constituting this shift, to an era in which merely saying it makes it so: the explosion in communications technologies; the outsourcing from Western economies of the mining and manufacturing of things; the rise in obsolescence as a basic principle; the objectless ways in which profit is pursued; the imminence of environmental collapse...all conspiring with doubtless many other factors, to bring about the unimaginable: the severance of that link between words and things that had appeared to us unbreakable, and the obviation thereby of the very concepts of "reality," "realistic," "realism," and so on.
Time travel is a dangerous pursuit; there is the possibility of carrying with one, things and thoughts whose potential for good or evil is largely dependent upon time and place. We sometimes say - "Be careful what you wish for, it may really come true." What we mean is that something that is desirable in one situation may have startlingly negative effects in another. Perhaps we might wish we had said it to Mallarme, or to Holderlin, or to Artaud. For, however liberatory it may have been to champion the "raw being" of language in an age in which language was no more than a means to an end, the "raw being" of language is now the bedrock of our human condition, our condition of talking and talking but to little effect, of saying this and saying that but to no avail. If "literature" was the time capsule in which living language traversed the desert of words, then living language has arrived at its Canaan, a place and time, our place and time, in which words live so fulsomely that everything else is left for dead. Be careful what you wish for...
Foucault describes the mode of being of language in The Age of Resemblance as simultaneously "plethoric" and "poverty-stricken": plethoric, because, without The Age of Representation's real world to put a stay upon potential for meaning, meaning is infinite, generated laterally, as it were, between words and words, and words and things, and things and things, without any word or thing being capable, for more than an instant, of operating as the guarantee or foundation of meaning; and "poverty-stricken" for precisely the same reason, precisely because no word or thing can operate for more than an instant as the fountain of a wisdom that is any deeper than the next formulation of words or arrangement of things. And plethoric and poverty-stricken is our condition in The Age of Public Representation, in which there has been an explosive increase in communications, proportionate to a dramatic decrease in the likelihood of their containing anything of worth. Worthless wordiness: that, it turns out, is the condition in which we, surprising inheritors of the legacy of Mallarme, Holderlin and Artaud, now find ourselves. It turns out that we are what they wished for...
You see, a pivotal distinction between the mode of being of words in The Age of Resemblance and the resurrection of that mode of being of words by "literature" is that, while The Age of Resemblance posited an albeit eternally absent Word (of God, of Nature), which operated as an ideal limit upon the endless proliferations of meaning that characterized the age, "literature" in the age that followed had no such notional foundation. All forms of religious or quasi-religious belief were closed to it, even as it often indulged in a longing for such forms of belief. And, by nurturing the "raw being" of language in circumstances other than those in which such "raw being" had its ideal limit, we might say that "literature" created a monster, almost as if it had reared a wild animal in a situation bereft of the predators that would usually keep it in check. By its "literary" nurture, "language," Foucault says, "was to grow with no point of departure, no end, and no promise." And we are what resulted, dedicated as we are to saying things that have no point of departure, no end, and no promise. We are "literature"'s monster.
"Literature"'s "futility" is, for Foucault, yet "fundamental"; The Age of Representation, after all, needed something to undermine its certainties. Our futility is fundamental too, but in a different sense from Foucault's; for, The Age of Public Representation has, not certainty, but futility, as its horizon. How, then, to undermine futilities..? Not with "literature," at any rate.