MICHEL FOUCAULT writes in Les mots et les choses, translated as The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, that "The fundamental codes of a culture--those governing its language, its schemas of perception, its exchanges, its techniques, its values, the hierarchy of its practices--establish for every man, from the very first, the empirical orders with which he will be dealing and within which he will be at home." Nowhere is this truer than in the codes--antique, Neoplatonic, Reformist Christian--that characterize the European Renaissance. Throughout the decade and more during which I was researching and writing Humanist Poetics: Thought, Rhetoric, and Fiction in Sixteenth-Century England, I was increasingly aware of how closely English humanist poetics was allied to its Continental roots, how the humanist movement was almost from the start a consciously international movement, and how much practitioners of English thought, rhetoric, and fiction owed to their Continental forebears and contemporaries. Continental Humanist Poetics seems, therefore, to be the natural and necessary counterpart to my earlier study.
At the same time that the powerfully sweeping "archaeologies" established by Foucault help to locate the various forces in a culture that collocate to establish an identifiable episteme, he is also quick to point out, as he does in The Archaeology of Knowledge, the breaks in history that prevent any linear tracing of events, any study of progress or development in a unilateral way; he speaks of the "discontinuity, rupture, threshold, limit, series, and transformation" that characterize his and other current studies of history. For Foucault, who here expands the term document to include all material objects, no single object--his keenest example is the book--has a single, final unity. All are subject to shift and change, to disassemblage and reassemblage, to continuous atomization and fragmentation, recombination and fusion. To illustrate his sense of sharp breaks in history (as we can best recover them from our own limited and necessarily prejudiced viewpoints) and his sense of the culture in flux, he cites one of my examples here, Cervantes' Don Quijote. Like nearly everyone else, he views the Quijote (as I will not) as an example of rupture.
Don Quixote is the first modern work of literature, because in it we see the cruel reason of identities and differences make endless sport of signs and similitudes;