Blog Post

Making Sport of Signs and Similitudes

Graphic by Michelle Jia. Images from Flickr (I, II).

For my last post on Cervantes and his “invention of fiction” before handing in my finished manuscript, I wanted to return to one of the most influential interpretations of his work in the twentieth century: that of Michel Foucault. To begin with, we should recall that Foucault chooses two Spanish artists to initiate his exploration of the shift in epistemes between the Renaissance and the âge classique: Diego Velázquez and Miguel de Cervantes. About Velázquez’s famous painting of Philip IV’s daughter the Infanta Margarita and her entourage, Las meninas, he writes

We are looking at a picture in which the painter is in turn looking out at us. A mere confrontation, eyes catching one another’s glance, direct looks superimposing themselves upon one another as they cross. And yet this slender line of reciprocal visibility embraces a whole complex network of uncertainties, exchanges, and feints. The painter is turning his eyes towards us only in so far as we happen to occupy the same position as his subject.

For Foucault, Velázquez’s painting occupies an essential place in seventeenth-century cultural production because it reveals a new way of organizing and understanding knowledge that was taking hold at the time. Key to this new organization is the idea that, rather than being a direct expression of the world itself, a “prose of the world,” our knowledge comprises a network or grid of meaning that we map onto the world, but that is ultimately of our own making. His other most prominent example in making this claim is Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote.

“Don Quixote is the first modern work of literature,” Foucault writes, “because in it we see the cruel reason of identities and differences makes endless sport of signs and similitudes; because in it language breaks off its old kinship with things and enters into that lonely sovereignty from which it will appear, in its separate state, only as literature.” What is it, then, about Velazquez’s painting or Cervantes’ writing that is sufficiently different from what came before so as to justify claiming that they are symptoms of a new kind way of organizing knowledge?

Both these artists, but especially and with markedly more influence Cervantes, crystallized the changes that had been affecting how humans understood the world and their knowledge of it for at least the previous century. In part as a result of the spread of new ways of representing and transmitting representations of the world, from the revolution in moveable type to the proliferation of urban theaters in the late sixteenth century, western Europe was experiencing what could be called a crisis of reality. The very idea of the shared space a person occupied with his or her fellow beings began to be conceived of not as a seamless continuum joining all those beings together, but as a background to individual perceptions that could be veiled, misperceived, and that depended ultimately on the perspective from which it was experienced. Hence Foucault’s explanation that language, in the theories of seventeenth-century grammarians, no longer expressed anything inherent about the world itself, but rather took the form of a grid of identities and differences that could be used to categorize and navigate the world. This is how we can explain his interpretation of Las meninas as well, according to which the plane of Velazquez’s painting within the painting separates two realities, “as though the painter could not at the same time be seen on the picture where he is represented and also see that upon which he is representing something. He rules at the threshold of those two incompatible visibilities.”

Two incompatible visibilities: a suggestive formulation of the relation between how one individual sees the world, and how the world is in itself, for God, or for another human being. The world had been uprooted, put into a box for each individual, and artists like Velázquez and Cervantes were expressing this experience in their art. But this uprooting entails a far more complex and consequential experience as well. Once the world has been made portable, once media like print, theater, or painting are conceived of as offering a distinct perspective on the entirety of the world, they also inevitably turn back on themselves. By incorporating the world into their frame, in other words, they necessarily incorporate that frame as well, including a representation of the artist, of the one performing the framing.

Foucault notes this tendency in the very linguistic theories that he takes as his primary evidence for the intellectual changes of the seventeenth century, those of the Port-Royal Logic authored by Antoine Arnauld and Pierre Nicole. For these thinkers an idea, image, or perception can qualify as a sign of something only if it shows, in addition to the thing it is representing, the relation to that thing as well. As Foucault puts it, “it must represent; but that representation, in turn, must be represented within it.” Martin Heidegger, writing some years before Foucault published Les Mots et les Choses, made a similar observation in an influential essay explaining the emergence of what Germans call die Neuzeit, the new time, or modernity. In “The Age of the World Picture” Heidegger argues that our very idea of having a worldview is culturally and historically specific; the problem with modern thought is that, having adopted an understanding of knowledge in which the world is packaged into specific worldviews or world pictures, it forgets that it is part of the world it is thinking. Nevertheless, and just as with Foucault, this does not mean that the subject who is responsible for the representation in question is not part of the picture. On the contrary, as Heidegger puts it, “wherever this happens, ‘man gets into the picture’ in precedence over whatever is.” According to early-modern man’s understanding of himself, he is indeed part of the world picture, but only as a projection of himself, a double that takes part in the action without acknowledging the extent to which his desires are dictated by the requirements of the picture he is busy representing.

While it is certainly valid for Foucault to say that, with Don Quixote, Cervantes was expressing a new experience of the world, and that this expression thus became the first modern work of literature, in a sense this claim is not radical enough, because it doesn’t grasp the extent to which Cervantes’ creation encapsulated the complexity of this new world. To be sure, Foucault recognizes the reflexivity in Don Quixote, especially in part two: “In the second part of the novel, Don Quixote meets characters who have read the first part of his story, and recognize him, the real man, as the hero of the book. Cervantes’s text turns back on itself, thrusts itself back into its own density, and becomes the object of its own narrative.” But Foucault is interested in this redoubling primarily as it concerns the relation Don Quixote holds to books, whether the tales of chivalry or the text of his own tales. This relation is characterized by the archaic model of resemblances: “The first part of the hero’s adventures plays in the second part the role originally assumed by the chivalric romances. Don Quixote must remain faithful to the book that he has now become in reality.”

But while the character Don Quixote may indeed be understood as an emblem of this archaic way of knowing, Cervantes’ book is far more concerned with what it means to become something “in reality.” In other words, his creation is ultimately an exploration of the crisis of reality provoked by the kind of upheaval and unhinging of the individual’s perspective on the world that Foucault and Heidegger describe in their respective works. As both the framing of the world and the redoubling of spaces and characters with that frame is necessitated by this organization of knowledge, Cervantes’ innovation can be seen as an exploration in writing of the processes and ramifications, in art and in political reality, of both of these functions.


William Egginton is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at the Johns Hopkins University, where he teaches on Spanish and Latin American literature, literary theory, and the relation between literature and philosophy. He is the author of How the World Became a Stage (2003), Perversity and Ethics (2006), A Wrinkle in History (2007), The Philosopher's Desire (2007), The Theater of Truth (2010), and In Defense of Religious Moderation (2011). He is also co-editor with Mike Sandbothe of The Pragmatic Turn in Philosophy (2004), translator of Lisa Block de Behar's Borges, the Passion of an Endless Quotation (2003, 2nd edition 2014), and co-editor with David E. Johnson of Thinking With Borges (2009). His most recent book is The Man Who Invented Fiction: How Cervantes Ushered In the Modern World (2016).