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“Foucault Decoded: Notes from the Underground” Hayden White

“Foucault Decoded: Notes from the Underground” Hayden White

In this article, White elucidates Foucault’s purpose and rationale for “transcribing” the evolution of the human sciences. As White makes clear, Foucault thinks the human sciences aimed at studying man, society, and culture are trapped by figurative modes of discourse. Their theories, then, are simply “formalizations” of the syntactical strategies they use to name the “relationships” presumed to exist among their objects of study. And their “laws” are nothing but projections of the semantic ground presupposed by the modes of discourse in which they have “named” the objects inhabiting their respective domains of analysis” (232).


Rather than being a rationalist and believer in narrative accounts of history, Foucault thinks “histories” ought to be exercises in unmasking, demystification, and dismemberment as well as disordering, destructuration, and unnaming (233). Rather than deeming history as a method, Foucault deems history to be a symptom of a nineteenth century discomfort with the “temporality of all things” or what Foucault calls “temporal agoraphobia”—an obsession to fill in intellectual gaps of history due to a discomfort with disorder and uncertainty (233 and 234). Perceiving history as nothing but a myth, Foucault attempts to “write ‘history’ in order to destroy it” (234). Foucault, an anti-historian of sorts, embraces “archaeology” instead of history. An archeology emphasizes “ruptures,” “discontinuities,” “disjunctions” and “differences” rather than continuities, comparisons, similarities, and progression. Foucault does not believe in the continuity of science nor in consciousness (235). Therefore, in Les Mots et les choses, Foucault attempts to demonstrate that the human sciences have not evolved from a linear “revolution” in thought or consciousness, but rather throughout the history of human sciences, epistemes (epistemic domains) have embraced distinct modes of discourse in attempt to study its own objects using their own distinct strategies. Rather than proceed forward, these epistemes form alongside each other in attempt to fill gaps in knowledge left by the “discourse” of earlier sciences (234). In each episteme, in other words, human scientists attempt to grasp the “secret of life in language” (235)

Foucault identifies four “epochs” in the history of human science, each epoch of which employs different strategies or modes of representation for comprehending different objects of study. Rather than show the continuity from one epoch to another, Foucault focuses ob the ruptures in Western consciousness and discontinuities that separate epochs from one another (235). Rather than try to translate and analyze, which he considers a reductive exercise, Foucault tries to transcribe how each epoch “talked” about their objects of study (237). In doing so, he does not deem it necessary to connect a body of work to its social, economic, and political contexts nor to the life of its author (237). The “formalized consciousness” of any age is apparent in the modes of representation employed by each human science [an excellent point, I think, and an interesting one to discuss in class] (237). Therefore, in transcribing texts from specific epochs, Foucault tries to identify the syndrome or growth of disease “which consists of the impulse to use language to ‘represent’ the order of things in the order of words,” i.e. to explain the human condition (238).


Foucault’s purpose in transcribing is to “find the ‘threshold’ of historical, consciousness itself”—to reveal the “discontents” of every epoch that attempts to explain the human condition through objective language. Language cannot possibly “represent” the human condition in Foucault’s eyes. We can identify various modes of discourse the human sciences employ by how they fail to represent in language, or how they more or less commit linguistic violence. One like himself who studies the archaeology of ideas in a given epoch of intellectual history is actually studying the “structures of linguistic wages and epistemological commitments which originally constituted it” (240). Once one identifies the “prevailing ‘formalizations” about life, society, and culture in any given epoch—the meaning of which changes from epoch to epoch—one then investigates the “lexical and syntactical strategies by which the objects of study are identified and the relationships among them are explicated. This analysis then yields insights into the ‘modes of discourse’ prevailing at a given time, which in turn permits derivation of the ‘epistemological ground’ and the ‘wording’ activity underlying and sanctioning a given mode of discourse” (240).


Studying the modes of discourse are important because each epoch is locked within specific modes of discourse, which has significant repercussions because “reality” is accessed through these modes of discourse at the same time the “horizon of what can possibly appear as real” is delimited (241).

To show how powerful it can be to study the modes of discourse, Foucault shows the 18th century failure to develop a continuous, timeless “web of relationships” among objects due to their obsession with classification evident in their discourse of Measurement and Order (244). Foucault also shows how the 19th century adopted a discourse of Analogy and Succession in a failed effort to demonstrate how things were related to each other as members of specific families of species, modes of production, and language uses in order to place them in a “temporal series” and construct a true science of man (244). In the 20th century, he shows how discourse around Finitude and Infinity reflects recognition in psychoanalysis and ethnology of languages inadequacy to characterize the human condition.


Foucault also transcribes modes of discourse surrounding theories and treatments of insanity in his history of ideas to reveal the rationality of each epoch. Through this transcription, a “consistent tendency to project very general social preconceptions and anxieties into theoretical systems which justified the confinement of whatever social group or personality type appeared to threaten society during a particular period” is revealed (246).

Again Foucault identifies four epochs. In Middle Ages, insanity was blessedness and insane treated with respect and honor—models Christians could aspire to. At end of 16the century, insane became thought of as illness, disease. Insane turned from subjects to objects. During enlightenment—the age of reason—no sympathy showed to unreason or madness. In the vaunted “age of reason,” insane locked away with the poor and criminals. At end of 18th and beginning of 19th, shift in attitude toward insane again. Insane became regarded as mentally ill and were separated from the poor and criminals but not because of advancement in theoretically knowledge about mental illness. Rather shift in attitude derived from transformations in society—industrialization demanded larger labor force, which depended on the poor, (thus the poor taken out of hospitals) and the bourgeoisie fear of revolutionary, subversive behavior of criminals, which was a political concern, sent them to jails (((????))). Medicine at this time was a political discipline, full of prejudices, brutality, incomprehension, and lack of scientific knowledge (248). Then came Freud and his psychotherapy, which reflects an interpretive approach to studying man rather than a systematic or scientific one (248). The resulting mode of discourse surrounding the insane in human sciences during these periods was a history of silence. No dialogue. No effort to decode the madness. What Foucault reveals then is the unscientific nature of the human sciences (249).

In modern times, Foucault says, we know no more about life, society, and culture, but we talk as if we do. Language is treated like madness in Age of Reason—it is simultaneously “affirmed as a presence to consciousness and denied as a problem of consciousness” (250). In other words, it is employed as an analytical tool with capability to discover meaning of human nature and as instrument of representation that offers up humanity for analysis. This move from silence to strategy of representation opens up new problems in human sciences (250). The human sciences are now Positivistic and Eschatological—they’ve pursued neutrality/objectivity and social redemption at same time. Formalization and Interpretation are principle systems of human science. Foucault believes once human sciences are freed from captivity of language, which has existed since the 16th – 20th century, the status of science will be dropped altogether. We will embrace “pre-religious imagination” once again or at least so Foucault says at end of Les Mots et les choses.


White claims there is a transformational system built into Foucault’s conception of the succeeding forms of human sciences, despite Foucault’s unawareness of it.

White claims all scientific disciplines reflect a commitment to style of representation in order to comprehend some identified cognitive problem. All systems of knowledge begin in a “metaphorical characterization of something presumed to be unknown in terms of something presumed to be known, or at least familiar” (252). White says Foucault 16th century sciences employed the mode of metaphor as method to encode human experience at that time (252). This mode identified similarities in different things in attempts to show their relation. In 18the century, mode of metonymy became central to human sciences. Orders of being, as in “cause-effect or agent-act relationships” were attempted through this mode. As metonymy is strategy by which objects are reduced to their functions (sail for ship), universal grammar for instance, attempts to seek essence of objects of study in a part of totality, just like tables used to reveal “web of relationships” which connected entities into an “order of things.” In 19th century, mode of synecdoche arose, in which parts were studies to reveal the whole. Thus, White says, whether Foucault knows it or not, he does have “both a system of explanation and a theory of the transformation of reason, or science, or consciousness,” which ultimately reveals the “projective or generational aspect of language, the extent to which it not only ‘represents’ the world of things but also constitutes the modality of the relationships among things by the very act of assuming a posture before them”—an aspect of language that was lost when science disengaged from rhetoric in 17th century (254).

Vico identified back then four tropes and their corresponding ages in life cycle of civilization: age of gods—metaphor, age of heroes-metonymy, age of men—synecdoche, and age of decadence and dissolutions—irony. The postmodern age, it could be shown, is the age of irony.


What Foucault attempts to do in three works Folie et deraison, Mots et les choses, and L’Archeologie du saviour, is to reconceputalize European intellectual history and raise questions about inner logic in the evolution of human sciences. As such, he is member of scholarly community that belongs to the eschatological wing of structuralism, as opposed to the positivistic wing, who focus their attention on the ways in which “structures of consciousness actually conceal the reality of the world and, by that concealment, effectively isolate men within different, not to say mutually exclusive, universes of discourse, thought, and action” (259). They view human nature as irreducible and consider positivism a myth and science a poesis. All of life is a text, “the meaning of which is nothing but what it is” (259). Interpretation of text is their aim, but not interpretation that leads to discovery of underlying structure of text or the universe of things that text refers to. Instead, they employ “transcription” to “reveal the inner dynamics of the thought processes by which a given presentation of the world in words is grounded in poesis” (259). All systems of thought in human sciences, according to White’s interpretation of Foucault, are simply “terminological formalizations of poetic closures with the world of words, rather than with the “things” they purport to represent and explain” (259).

All human sciences, in my interpretation, are rhetoric.



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Innis on Benveniste:

According to Innis, Benveniste critiques Saussure for being ambiguous, vague, and imprecise because he did not clearly formulate why language is most important semiological system and how it is 226.

Russian semiotics attempts to address the question: “just how far can other sign systems, which exist in a vast array and with amazing complexity, model themselves on language?” 226

Benveniste identifies the following characteristics of a binary semiological system:
External empirical conditions:
a. mode of expression-manner in which system acts
b. domain of its validity—area in which system imposes itself and must be recognized or obeyed

Internal semiotic conditions:
c. nature and number of signs–
d. type of operation—relationship that unites signs and confers their distinguishing function upon them

ex. Traffic Light
mode of operation/epression—visual
domain of its validity—vehicular traffic on highways
nature and number of signs—chromatic oppositions between colors
type of operation—relationship of alternation, red , green; stop , go, stop, go,

all kinds of sign systems work on these same features.

His ultimate goal is to delineate and situate the various “orders of semiotic relationships” 226.

Benveniste studies binary system of traffic lights, music, and plastic arts. He delineates the formal principles of sign systems, on the model of language, and then studies the interchangeability between various systems. He determines that every semiotic system based on signs includes:
a. finite reparatory of signs
b. rule of order governing its figures
c. existing independently of the nature and number of the discourses that the system allows to be produced.

He concludes that language is the quintessential interpreting system, that it explains function of a sign, and it alone offers and exemplary formula of the sign. It comprises the meaning of signs and the meaning of enunciation 227.

Benveniste distinguishes between semiotic and semantic dimensions of language:
Semiotic—relations of signs to one another
Semantic—referential or enunciatory domain

This distinction permits larger domain of discourse and creates (heads up, Trish!) a “metasemantics.” The instruments and methods of this ‘second generation’ of semiotics contributes to other branches of general semiology 227.

“The Semiology of Language” Benveniste

Beneviste critiques Pierce for not distinguishing between the sign and the signified, which is necessary to avoid the simulacrum of signs (See Baudrilard). “Each sign must be included and articulated within a system of signs” –the condition of signification 229.

Benveniste credits Saussure for coming up with linguistic science. To find out “what is both integral and concrete objects of linguistics,” Sausssure identifies several methodological requirements:
a. language (la langue) must be separated from human speech

Sausuurre says semiology is a science that studies the life of the signs within society -231

Language is dual in nature: it is a social institution and a continuous discourse .

There are certain fundamental principles Benveniste identifies pertaining to relationships between semiotic systems:
Principle of nonredundancy—semiotic systems are not synonymous due to the nonconvertability of systems with different bases or in other words, the different functions of signs. Value of sign is defined only in the system which incorporates it 235

Methodological conditions for studying relationships between semiotic systems:
a. Same cultural background since cultural backgrounds influence sign systems.
b. Semiotic relationship between systems is expresses as relationship between interpreting system and interpreted system. Langague is interpreting system of society that can interpret signs. Signs can’t interpret language.

Music if considered language has syntactic features not semiotic ones. No music system or chosen sound scale. – 237 plastic arts have no unit of system.

Very important: “a system must designate the units it brings into play in order to produce meaning and to specify the nature of the meaning produced” – 238

Language is composed of units, and these units are signs. But units are not always signs. Signs are always units though.

In music, sound is unit, but sound is not sign (does not have meaning in itself)

Systems of signifying units = language. Systems of nonsignifying units = music.

Systems in which meaning is expressed by the initial elements in an isolated state, independently of the interrelationships which they may undergo (meaning is inherent in signs themselves) language


Systems in which meaning is imparted by the author to composition (meaning emerges from relationships forming a closed world) art 238

Every semiology of a nonlinguistic system must use language as an intermediary,

Language is thus the interpreting system of all other systems!!! 238 no other system has ability to categorize and interpret itself according to its semiotic distinctions 240

Language is semiotic in is formal structure and its functioning:
1. to speak is to speak about
2. comprised of distinct units, each of which is a sign
3. produced and accepted with same values of reference by all members of a community (IS THIS TRUE?)
4. only actualization of intersubjective communication (IS THIS TRUE?) 241

Language is invested with double meaning—combines two distinct modes of meaning, a semiotic and semantic mode

Semiotic mode:

Semiotic research = identification of units, description of characteristic features, discovery of distinct characteristics. 242

Sign exists when recognized as signifier by all members of linguistic community who understand associations and oppositions 242

Semantic mode:

Meaning is generated by discourse in semantic mode. Meaning is actualized and divided into specific signs, words. Semantic order identified when enunciated and within discourse. – 242.

Semiotics must be recognized; semantics must be understood. Recognition vs. comprehension.

Language system is only system that operates in both modes. Art, semantics, not semiotics.

Sausurre only has developed basic foundation for semiotics. We need to study the semantic domain as well in order to truly understand how language operates.

Benveniste identifies three kinds of relationships that exist between semiotic systems:
a. one system can generate another system
b. homology—correlation between parts of a semiotic system exists. Intuitive vs. rational; conceptual vs. poetic. Two linguistic structures of different makeup can reveal partial or extended homologies. Thus homology serves as a unifying principle between two fields
c. relationship of interpretance– relationship between interpreting system and interpreted system. 240

Benveniste says language alone permits society to exist; language hold all relationships together, which in turn, create society; language contains society – 240

Benveniste’s “The nature of the linguistic sign” in Cobly.

Begins by explaining what Saussure means when he says the sign is arbitrary. What he really means is that the bond between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary because the bond is unmotivated; the bond has no natural connection. Sister could be sos in one language and butt in another (my example).

Benvensiste says should we characterize the sign as arbitrary though? “There is a contradiction between the way in which Saussure defined the linguistic sign and the fundamental nature which he attributed to it.” 64

Yes, semiotics is science of signs, but really semiotics is science of forms. Signs really are contingent, not arbitrary. Yes, Saussure is right to point out one arbitrary nature of signs that exists to some extent if we agree any word could have been spelled any way. But really is this point helpful for us understanding how signs operate?

Benveniste says the connection between the signifier (sign) and the signified (concept) is not arbitrary. It is necessary. After all the “mind only accepts a sound form that incorporates a representation identifiable for it” – 65

Benvensiste says what Sausurre did that was so important was to show how the sign is both mutabile (always can change to it arbitrary nature) and immutable (being arbitrary, it can’t be challenged in name of rational norm) at once. What Saussure did not touch upon was the objective motivation of the designation to the action of various historical factors. 67

“The choice that invokes a certain sound slice for a certain ideas is not at all arbitrary.” 68

value of sign is relative to value of other signs. Language is a system of signs. A system implies an “arrangement or conformity of parts in a structure which transcends and explains its elements” 68 systems comprise necessity. “Values are values of opposition and are defined by their difference.” Necessity gives shape to opposition. -68

“The absolute character of the linguistic sign thus understood commands in its turn the dialectical necessity of values of constant opposition, and forms the structural principle of language” – 69

Colby’s introduction to Benveniste’s discussion of category of person in linguistics:

Pronouns give rise to linguistic phenomenon of deixis—direct situation in which utterance happens. Benveniste proves language use is dependent on context/situation at hand.

Summarizes Benveniste’s argument on the nature of pronouns. Then speaks to jakobson and kress’ contributions.

Jakobson says code is conceived as specific language use determined by addresser and addressee..

Also, another main point: Kress, Benveniste, and Jakobson all point out that the social influence of language use.

Benveniste “The nature of pronouns”

Most use of nouns refer to fixed and objective notion and identical with mental image it awakens. But not pronouns. I and YOU have no stable, fixed signified. Same with here, there, this and that, today, yesterday, etc. They are indicators.

Benveniste also points to dual function of the category “I”—“I” has a referrant (the utterer) but also has a referee (linguistic category of person which appears in parole) first is human second is item of language. One is human. Other is alphabet.

The importance of these types of pronoun’s functions is its permission of intersubjective communication. They are the basis of individual discourse. They are appropriated by speaker in an instance of discourse.- 288-289

Verb forms because of tenses, gender, person, etc. are dependent on instance as well.

Third person is exception to Beneviste’s deictic rules. They refer to an objective situation. Some verbs too such as he did. Syntactic representations he calls them. They function as economy of language rather than as indicators. 290

Therefore, what Benveniste concludes is for the need to distinguish between “language as a repertory of signs and a system for combining them and, on the other, language as an activity manifested in instances of discourse which are characterized as such by particular signs” – 290

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Ricouer: “What is text?” and “Metaphor and the problem of Interpretation”

Paul Ricoeur “What is a text? Explanation and understanding” from Hermeneutics and the human sciences. 1981.

In this article, Ricoeur attempts to deconstruct the binary between explanation and interpretation. Explanation, he explains, is thought to be borrowed from the natural sciences and is a central tool of positivism. Interpretation, on the other hand, as the main form of understanding, is thought to be specific to the human sciences and responsible for the division between the two sciences. Ricoeur explains, however, that for one, explanation is actually derived from the sphere of language and more specifically linguistics and two, explanation and interpretation are not opposites per se; rather, they have a complementary and reciprocal relationship and through reading are ultimately reconciled. By complicating the suppossed binary between scientific and philosophical interpretations of interpretation, Ricouer attempts to illustrate how interpretaton uses methodology to develop a hidden meaning of a text. Interpretation is thus both a scientific and philosophical practice.

In order to illustrate this point, Ricoeur begins by addressing the question, what is a text?. Asking this question allows him to explore the act of reading, an act where explanation and interpretation confront one another. Ricouer defines a text as “a discourse fixed by writing” (146). Several “upheavals” occur when writing replaces speech. One, unlike speech in which a speaker presents a “real” world to an interlocuter, the text, represents an imaginary world because of gaps in the text’s references, which ultimately must be filled by the reader. The author also becomes less distinct; the author of the text is constituted by the text rather than be self-designated and immediately identifiable as in speech. This distancing of the author from the text necessitates both explanation and interpretation in order to derive meaning from a text.

Structuralists claim that meaning is revealed through the structure of a text or more precisely, by analyzing the “logic of operations which interconnect” the relations between lower and higher units of language and the actants and actions within the narrative of the text (155). Text, in a sense, then is closed; it is both worldless and authorless. But Ricouer claims that explaining the structure of a closed text does not totally reveal the meaning of a text. Nor does it constitute reading. Reading is made possible because texts “opens out onto other things. To read is…to conjoin a new discourse to the discourse of the text. This conjuction of discourses reaveals, in the very constitution of the text, an original capacity for renewal which is its open character. Interpretaton is the concrete outcome of conjunction and renewal” (158).

Interpretation can be understood as appropriation in three senses. In one sense, the ultimate outcome of interpreting a text is self-understanding (158). In other sense, through interpretation, we make “one’s own what was initially alien” (159). In other words, interpretation overcomes cultural distance because we come to understand the world as well as the self. In the last sense, interpretation can be thought of as appropriation because we gain meaning from the text in the present. The subject of a text then is the world and the reader herself. Meaning is derived with a “realization of the discourse of the reading subject” and the culture around them (159). In this sense, a text takes on both a semiological dimension and a semantic dimension (159).

Ricouer thinks structural analysis is the first stage of constructing a critical interpretation. As he explains it: structural analysis can be regarded as “a stage—and a necessary one—between a naïve and a critical interpretation, between a surface and a depth interpretation, then it seems possible to situate explanation and interpretation along a unique hermeneutical arc and to integrate the opposed attitudes of explanation and understanding within an overall conception of reading as the recovery of meaning” (161).

He goes on to say that if we consider interpretation as revealing the here and now of the text’s intention, we must realize that we are not referring to the “presumed intention” of the author/writer but instead the text’s intention. Most simply then, “to explain is to bring out the structure, that is, internal relations of dependence which constitute the statistics of the text; to interpret is to follow the path of thought opened up by the text, to place oneself en route towards the orient of the text” (162). In this sense, a text objectively interprets itself through the process of signification. Drawing on Aristotle, Ricouer claims “interpretation is interpretation by language before being interpretation of language” (163).

Interpretation is not subjective in Ricouer’s eyes because it is possible to “depsychologise” interpretation and connect it with the text (164). Because of the relation between the text, the structure, and the realized meanings, interpretations are supported by the text. Appropriation as self-understanding, meaning-making, and cultural understanding is final act of reading derived through suspension of interpretation.

“Reading [in turn] is the concrete act in which the destiny of the text is fulfilled. It is at the very heart of reading that explanation and interpretation are indefinitely opposed and reconciled” (164).

“Metaphor and the central problem of hermeneutics” from same text

Ricouer begins by addressing two problems of hermeneutics concerning interpretation’s field of application and its epistemological specificity. Application is tricky because in written texts are autonomous (texts are independent of authorial intention, situaion of work, and original reader) and thus discourse must speak for itself. Epistemologically, interpretation is tricky because of its supposed opposition to explanation—the key to objective science. These two problems lead other scholars to believe in interpretation’s larger problem—that of subjectivity.

To get at this issue, Ricouer says we must go back to the binary of explanation vs. interpretation. Believing in the power of the hermeneutic circle, he explores metaphor as a “work in minature” (166). Work, by the way, according to Ricouer, is “the closed sequence of discourse which can be considered a text” (166). Ricouer explains that “all discourse is realized as an event but understood as meaning” (167) and since a living metaphor is both event and meaning, then it is justified to develop a deeper understanding of texts through exploration of metaphor.

Meaning of metaphor is dependent on context as well as on associations with commonplaces and cultural rules as well as semantic and syntactic rules. To understand new metaphors, we construct a network of interactions by directing our attention to the enitre semantic event, which is constituted by intersecting semantic fields (174). We construct meaning of text in a similar way.

Interpretation of text as well as metaphor is a dialectic of guessing and validating. Construction of interpretation in both cases depends on clues from the text and probability, which is determined both by facts from texts and connotations. Imagination comes into play.

“The world is the totality of references opened up by texts” (177). “Texts speak of possible worlds and of possible ways of orienting oneself in these worlds” (177). Interpretation thus becomes the apprehension of the proposed worlds which are opened up by the non-ostensive references of the text” (177). To interpret means to open one’s self to those possible worlds which texts discloses or opens up.

Ricoeur believes in the ability of the hermeneutic circle to make what is alien in a text familiar. The underlying principle of the hermeneutic circle according to the thinkers of Romanticism is that pre-understanding leads to interpretation leads to deeper self-understanding. Yet, “the hermeneutical circle is not correctly understood when it is presented, first, as a circle between two subjectivities, that of the reader and that of the author; and second, as the projection of the subjectivity of the reader into the reading itself” (178).

In terms of text, understanding parts leads to understanding of whole which leads to deeper understanding of parts. Therefore, according to Ricouer, the text directs itself to possible interpretations. Also, we need to think of a reader understanding herself “in front of a text, in front of the world of the work” (178). Standing in front of a text means that we do not project our own beliefs and prejudices onto the text; instead we “let the work and its world enlarge the horizon of the understanding which I have of my self” (178). Interpretation is ontological in this sense.

Essentially, what Ricouer aims to do is demonstrate that explanation of metaphor contributes to the interpretation of the whole text (180). He thus demonstrates through the hermeneutic circle and structural analysis that interpretation is to some extent methodolgical. Yet because of interpretation’s ontological nature, Ricouer also demonstrates the philosophical nature of interpretation. His scholarship, then, attempts to reconcile the long term debate between the natural and human sciences over the nature, role and potential of interpretation. Interpretation, in a sense, is both a science and an art, perhaps something in between….


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