I had assumed that my post on Judith Butler and the Adorno Prize would draw most fire from supporters of Israel incensed at my defence of Butler’s right to win the Prize. In fact it seems to have most annoyed supporters of Butler who have taken umbrage at my comments about her ‘impenetrable prose’.  My criticism is not primarily about Butler’s style; it is principally about the substance of her arguments and, more broadly, of poststructuralist arguments. I am not opposed to ‘difficult’ writing.  There are many philosophers with whom it repays to work through the difficulties, the obscurities and the obtuseness; Hegel, for instance, even Heidegger in parts. Butler, in my eyes at least, is not such a philosopher.

I have written little directly on Butler’s main theme, gender, but have written much, in the context of the debate about race, on poststructuralist / postmodernist conceptions of difference, identity, equality and agency, much of which is germane to the debate about Butler’s ideas too.  That critique is scattered across my first three booksThe Meaning of Race, Man, Beast and Zombie and Strange Fruit – so I thought I might over the next few weeks delve into the archives, as it were, and publish some extracts from those books. Some of the arguments are quite dated now – The Meaning of Race was published nearly two decades ago – but much of it, I think, remains relevant.

This first extract is from Chapter 8 of my book The Meaning of Race; the chapter opens with a discussion of Edward Said’s argument in Orientalism and moves on to discuss poststructuralist/postmodernist ideas of difference, equality, universalism and the human. (And before anyone misunderstands what I am saying, I am not suggesting that Said was a poststructuralist or postmodernist, simply that he drew upon certain poststructuralist themes.) This edited extract takes in the latter part of the discussion of  Said’s work and the beginning of the discussion of Foucault’s notion of discourse and of poststructuralist ideas of the ‘Other’.

Edited extract from The Meaning of Race
(Macmillan, 1996), pp 230-235


Rather than being rooted in the real world, discourse often appears, as Salman Rushdie writes of the migrant imagination in Shame, to have ‘floated up from history, from memory, from Time’. We can see this quite clearly in Edward Said’s work, in which the relationship between the discourse of Orientalism and the reality of the West’s domination of the Orient is often obscure.

At first sight it might seem strange to accuse Said of ignoring the social and material realities that give rise to the discourse of Orientalism. After all, one of the significant features of Orientalism is its insistence that literary and scholarly criticism must take into account the context of imperialism which has shaped their objects of study. Yet such are the contradictions within Said’s work that one sometimes wishes he himself would take heed of his strictures on the need for contextual reading.

On the one hand, Said holds that Orientalism is a representation, a fabrication by Western writers and travellers of an Orient that has no real existence. On the other hand, he argues that knowledge contained within the discourse of Orientalism played a key part in allowing Europe to subjugate the non-Western world. But if the discourse of Orientalism was effective in allowing Western politicians and generals to take actual control over the Orient, then it must have been more than simply a ‘representation’. As Robert Young has asked, ‘How can Said argue that the “Orient” is just a representation, if he also wants to claim that “Orientalism” provided the necessary knowledge for actual colonial conquest.’1

Said attempts to circumvent this problem  by arguing that the texts of Orientalism ‘can create not only knowledge but the reality they appear to describe’.2  What does Said mean by this? He could be suggesting that the reality of the Orient is contained within the texts of Orientalism.  If so, this would seem to be a highly textualised understanding of reality, especially coming from an author who has been critical of Orientalism precisely for its textuality. If indeed the texts contained the reality, there would be no need for contextual reading, for the context would lie within the texts themselves. Alternatively Said could mean that the texts of Orientalism impose on the Orient its reality. When Orientalists conceive of the Orient in a particular fashion, the Orient succumbs to that vision. David Goldberg clearly reads Said in this way:

Naming the racial Other, for all intents and purposes, is the Other.  There is, as Said makes clear in the case of the Oriental, no Other behind or beyond the invention of the Other in the Other’s name.  These practices of naming and knowledge construction deny all autonomy to those so named and imagined, extending power, control, authority and domination over them. To extend Said’s analysis of the ‘Oriental’ to the case of race in general, social science of the Other establishes the limits of knowledge about the Other, for the Other is just what the racialised social science knows.3

Goldberg transforms European colonialists into the witchdoctors of modernity who, through the invocation of ‘names’, extend ‘power, control, authority and domination’ over their subject peoples. A very potent magic indeed. In Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses, one of the central characters, Saladin, finds himself incarcerated in a detention centre for illegal immigrants. Saladin discovers that his fellow-inmates has been transformed into beasts – water buffaloes, snakes, manticores. He himself has become a hairy goat. How do they do it, Saladin asks a fellow prisoner. ‘They describe us’, comes the reply, ‘that’s all. They have the power of description and we succumb to the pictures they construct.’ Similarly Said and Goldberg seem to be suggesting that the only role allotted to the ‘Other’ is to succumb to the picture constructed by the Western ‘self’. It is a picture of the relationship between the West and its Other in which the Other is transformed simply into a passive victim. In other places Said challenges such an idea. But he is also drawn to it through his own theoretical conceptions of the West and its Others.

Elsewhere Said has claimed that ‘Representation itself [keeps] the subordinate subordinate, the inferior inferior’.4 In what way is this an understanding of the Orient different from that contained in the discourse of Orientalism itself, an understanding of the orient as a passive, submissive Other moulded entirely by the history-making West?  Said and Goldberg complain that the universalizing discourse of the West silences the voices of the Other. Yet it is Said and Goldberg themselves who silence the Other by conceiving of it as a compliant, inert object constituted solely by Western knowledge. The West produces its image of the Orient as the Other, and the Orient meekly accepts the image that is constructed…

There is yet another problem that arises from Said’s argument. ‘The real issue’, he claims, ‘is whether there can be a true representation of anything, or whether any or all representations, because they are representations, are embedded first in the language and then in the culture, institutions and political ambience of the representer’. Said plumps for the second definition and argues that ‘a representation is eo ipso implicated, intertwined, embedded, interwoven with a great many other things besides “truth”, which is itself a representation’. Representations cannot be ‘truthful’ and ‘truth’ is but a representation, constituted ‘by some common history, tradition, universe of discourse’.5  Having established that Orientalists’ ‘objective discoveries… are and always have been conditioned by the fact that its truths, like any truth delivered by language, are embodied in language’,  Said then quotes Nietzsche to the effect that language is but ‘a mobile army of metaphors, metonyms and anthropomorphisms’ and that ‘truths are but illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are’.6

But if true representations are not possible, and truth itself is but a representation, then in what way can we criticise Orientalism? After all, one representation is as good as another and there is no objective means by which to challenge the picture  that Orientalists provide us of the Orient. The relativism of Said’s outlook (a relativism with which, as we shall see later, he is not comfortable and even decries) undermines the possibility of challenging the very discourse he despises.

The problem in comprehending the relationship between the representation and the real arises from the concept of discourse which Said derives from Michel Foucault… Central to  Foucault’s notion of a ‘discourse’ is the idea that social facts can never be conceived of as being ‘true’ or ‘false’. The very language we use to describe facts imposes truth or falsity upon those facts. Hence it is the discourse itself that creates the truth about a particular topic and competing discourses create competing truths. Truth lies not in the relationship between discourse and social reality but in the relationship between discourse and power. It is the relationship between discourse and power that decides which one of the many truths is accepted as the truth. For Foucault ‘power produces knowledge’ and ‘power and knowledge directly imply one another’ because ‘there is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute… power relations.’7

For Foucault, a discourse is a way of constituting power, and is at the same time verified by that power. The knowledge that a discourse produces constitutes a kind of power, exercised over those who are ‘known’. When that knowledge is exercised in practice, those who are known in a particular way will be subject to it. Those who produce the discourse also have the power to make it true, to enforce its validity:

Truth isn’t outside power… [I]t induces regular effects of power. Each society has its regime of truth, its ‘general politics’ of truth; that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish between ‘true’ and ‘false’ statements; the means by which each is sanctioned; and the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true.8

But what does Foucault mean by ‘power’? He is very vague about this. Power, for Foucault, cannot be conceived of in class or social terms. It is not the property of an individual or a class, it does not emerge from the relationships between individuals or classes, not does it emanate from an identifiable source or institution such as the state. Power is simply omnipresent. Its threads are everywhere and it is only through power that ‘reality’ is constituted. Given the omnipresence of power, and its role in constituting reality, Foucault is forced to think of power relations in arbitrary terms. Power struggles do not emanate from social or historical movement but simply pit all against all: ‘There aren’t immediately given subjects of the struggle, one the proletariat, the other the bourgeoisie. Who fights against whom? We all fight each over. And there is always within each of us something that fights something else.’9

While Foucault himself never travels too far into this territory, belief in the arbitrary nature of both power and truth leads inevitably to an extreme relativism. If power is simply the constituting element in all social systems, how can we choose between one society and another? And if a discourse makes its own truth, whose validity is given by the strength of an arbitrary power, how are we to distinguish between different representations or discourses? We can neither relate ideas and representations to real social movements, nor can we pass value judgments on different sets of ideas.

The logic of the Foucauldian argument would lead us to suppose that it is the very act of attempting to establish an objective truth that is the problem… The phenomenologist Emmanual Levinas had already constructed an ethics in which he objected to the idea of knowledge in the traditional Western sense. In the process of understanding, he argued, Western philosophy undermines and devalues whatever societies, cultures or modes of living it comes across: ‘Western philosophy coincides with the disclosure of the other where the other, in manifesting itself as a being, loses its alterity. From its infancy philosophy has been struck by a horror of the other that remains other.’10

What Levinas means is that European intellectual activity cannot allow objects of study to remain outside its epistemological boundaries or to be defined in its own terms. For Levinas conventional knowledge, conceived of as the relationship between subject and object, always involves appropriating one to the other. This he calls ‘the imperialism of the same’, drawing a parallel between the physical subjugation of the Third World and the intellectual subordination of its ideas, history and values. Just as Western politicians and generals annex foreign lands, so the West’s intellectual and philosophers appropriate all other knowledge. Robert Young similarly argues that universalism (which, of course, is conceived of as ‘Western’ universalism)  ‘articulates a philosophical structure which uncannily simulates the project of nineteenth-century imperialism; the construction of knowledges which all operate through forms of expropriation and incorporation of the other mimics at a conceptual level the geographic and economic absorption of the non-European world by the West.’11

Since all knowledge and understanding requires the appropriation of the object by the subject, implicit in every act of understanding, says Levinas, is an act of violence. The only solution to this problem is to abjure entirely knowledge in the conventional sense. Instead of ‘grasping’ the object, says Levinas, we must ‘respect’ it; in the place of assimilation there should be ‘infinite separation’.

‘Respect’ for the Other has come for many to mean a refusal to judge others’ values or norms. It is not too great a leap from that to the argument that backward habits, reactionary institutions, illogical beliefs, all be defended on the grounds that they may not make sense in our culture but they do in others’… Richard Rorty has observed how what he calls ‘Enlightenment liberals’ seem to be caught in a dilemma over equality:

Their liberalism forces them to call any doubts about human equality a result of irrational bias. Yet their connoisseurship [of diversity] forces them to realise that most of the globe’s inhabitants do not believe in equality, that such a belief is a Western eccentricity. Since they think it would be shockingly ethnocentric to say ‘So what? We Western liberals do believe in it, and so much the better for us’, they are stuck.12

Rorty himself, a self-avowed ‘postmodern bourgeois liberal’, solves the dilemma by arguing that equality is good for ‘us’ but not necessarily for ‘them’.

At this point, difference becomes resolved into indifference, an unwillingness to engage with what anyone else has to say. It is an outlook described much more succinctly and lucidly than by any postmodern professor by the TV character Archie Bunker in the American sitcom All in the Family. In one particular episode, Edith tells Archie to lace how bowling shoes ‘over’ rather than ‘under’. ‘What’s the difference?’, demands Archie. When Edith tries to explain, Archie cuts her short: ‘I didn’t say “What’s the difference – explain it to me”. I said, “What’s the difference – who the hell cares?”.’


1Robert Young, White Mythologies (Routledge, 1990), p 129

2 Edward Said, Orientalism, (Penguin, 1985), p94

3 David Goldberg, Racist Culture (Blackwell, 1993), p150

4 Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism ((Chatto & Windus, 1993), p95

5 Said, Orientalism, pp 272, 273

6 Said, Orientalism, p 203

7 Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge (Harvester, 1980), p27

8 ibid, p131

9 ibid, pp207-8

10 Emmanuel Levinas, ‘The Trace of the Other’, in Mark C Taylor (ed), Deconstructing in Context (Chicago University Press, 1986), p346

11 Young, White Mythologies, p3

12 Richard Rorty, Objectivity, Relativism and Truth (Cambridge University Press, 1991), p207

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  1. Sam

    Hi Kenan,

    Thanks for posting this extract; I look forward to the others. Help me out though–I’m struggling to find a critique of “poststructuralist / postmodernist conceptions of difference, identity, equality and agency” in what you posted. (Admittedly, I haven’t read the whole book, but I will seek to do so.)

    All I can really see here are shouts of “hypocrisy” and “relativism”, which–as I’m sure you know–are very familiar to poststructuralists.

    On Said’s hypocrisy, I think you and him are talking past each other. Said describes what he thinks Orientalism (as a discourse) has done to the Orient, and you seem to say “but your description is Orientalist! (in the sense that it characterizes the Orient as submissive, etc.)”. But why does Said need to disagree with you here in order for his description (of the power of discourse) to be valid?

    To me, this is like when social psychologists claim they have demonstrated the existence of some cognitive bias and critics ask “but aren’t your findings themselves tarnished by cognitive biases?”. The psychologists’ response is “sure, probably”.

    Poststructuralists tend not to be particularly bohered by hypocrisy because they don’t see much value or meaning in the (universalist?) notion that a critique shouldn’t apply to itself. If you want to engage with poststructuralism more directly (in order to critique it, for example), I think you need to openly defend this notion, rather than assume your reader agrees with it.

    As for Foucault’s supposed relativism, again I think you are trying to hold poststructuralism to a standard that it is attempting to subvert. Why do we think that an idea is invalid (or at least flawed) if we can’t perceive in it a moral framework for distinguishing “good” from “bad”? Why is “that argument is relativist” considered a sufficient criticism? Note that the point is not to argue in favor of relativism; the point is just to try to see if it’s possible to think and communicate in a way that is not predicated on the need for an objective moral framework.

    In summary (and I apologize for the long post), I feel like the extract you posted effectively says “non-poststructuralists think certain things are important (eg avoiding hypocrisy and avoiding relativism) and poststructuralism doesn’t do those things, therefore poststructuralism is flawed”. I think if you want to offer a more meaningful critique of poststructuralism you need to explain why hypocrisy and relativism are necessarily undesirable (and, more importantly, avoidable!). From my perspective, the limitations of language mean that, for better or for worse, hypocrisy and relativism are unavoidable, so we had better find a way to engage with each other that doesn’t seek to avoid them.

    • Sam, I’m scratching my head here. Where did I talk of ‘hypocrisy’? I mentioned contradictory arguments (and self-contradiction is not the same as hypocrisy), an inadequate understanding of the social roots of power, a failure to understand the relationship the representation and the real. You write that ‘Said describes what he thinks Orientalism (as a discourse) has done to the Orient’. My point was that his concept of Orientalism cannot do what ‘he thinks Orientalism (as a discourse) has done to the Orient’. Of course, you may think that this is to ‘hold him to a standard that he is attempting to subvert’. If so, then this whole conversation is, I’m afraid, pointless.

      As for relativism, I agree that the charge that ‘that argument is relativist’ is not ‘a sufficient criticism’. All attempts to understand the social world have to find ways both of conceiving of the relative and of the universal and of relating the relative to the universal. My critique of poststructuralism stems in part from my view that poststructuralists theorists fail to do this adequately and that poststructuralist / postmodernist critiques of universalism are deeply flawed. And no, I did not lay out my argument as to why that is so in the post. But then it was a 1500-word extract from a book. If we could explain it all in 1500-word extracts then we would have no need to write books in the first place. So do read the book, indeed all four of my books, across which I have considered such issues so far as well as the forthcoming one on the history of moral thought, which will further develop some of the arguments about the relationship between the particular and the universal.

      • Sam

        Hi Kenan, thanks for your reply. I understand what you’re getting at with respect to hypocrisy, and I’m happy to agree that your accusation is more plainly one of (self-)contradiction than hypocrisy, but I don’t think that distinction really affects the points I made—just read ‘self-contradiction’ for ‘hypocrisy’.

        Regarding ‘an inadequate understanding of the social roots of power’, it seems to me that your paragraph beginning ‘But what does Foucault mean by “power”?’ demonstrates an inadequate understanding of Foucault. The quotation you use is hardly a definitive example of Foucault’s conception of power relations. In fact, Foucault prefaces the words you quote with ‘this is just a hypothesis’ and indicates a little earlier in the relevant discussion that he was, at the time of speaking, still ‘not too sure’ how we should conceive of the subjects of struggle. Your use of the term ‘power struggles’ is confusing, too. In the discussion you quote from, the participants are juxtaposing ‘power relations’ with ‘struggles’. To speak of ‘power struggles’ in this context seems misleading to me. Finally, would it be possible for you to expand on what you mean by ‘Foucault is forced to think of power relations in arbitrary terms’? I don’t really understand what you mean by ‘arbitrary’ in this context. (What would be a non-arbitrary conception of power relations, for example?)

        Regarding the plausibility of Said’s argument about the power of discourse, I think Judith Butler’s notion of performativity could really help you out here. Some decent social psychological studies might be of benefit too. It seems to me that much of the debate about poststructuralism comes down to a debate about how malleable human minds are. Yet anti-PS thinkers rarely want to debate the specifics of malleability—they would rather claim, like you seem to do with respect to Said’s argument, that ‘to say human minds are extremely malleable is patronising and offensive’. Part of the difficultly that anti-PS thinkers have with malleability is, I think, a desperate need to attribute agency to everyone. For example, you paraphrase Said’s argument as follows: ‘The West produces its image of the Orient as the Other, and the Orient meekly accepts the image that is constructed.’ Your use of the adverb ‘meekly’ operates as an implied criticism of the argument by suggesting that Said’s argument characterises ‘the Orient’ in a disparaging way. Yet, rephrased, Said’s argument need not do so. The argument is not necessarily attributing large quantities of agency to the West and a diminished level of agency to the Orient. As in Butler’s performativity, perhaps both the West and the Orient have the same level of agency, but they are all, for want of a better expression, slaves to the hegemonic discourse. The fact that the interests of the West are served by that discourse does not necessarily mean that the West are determining/controlling the discourse.

      • Sam: ‘Just read “self-contradiction” for “hypocrisy”’, you write, and your criticisms stand. I assume by this you mean, as you wrote in your initial comment, that ‘Poststructuralists tend not to be particularly bothered by self-contradiction because they don’t see much value or meaning in the (universalist?) notion that a critique shouldn’t apply to itself’, and that to challenge contradictory claims is to ‘hold poststructuralism to a standard that it is attempting to subvert’. It is true that most theories have within them an element of contradiction, or self-contradiction. In most cases, however, such theories seek to minimize or eliminate such contradiction. You seem to want at best to ignore, at worst to celebrate, such contradiction. If that is the case, then I stick by my previous point that this whole conversation becomes pointless.

        On Foucault: Far from the quote I used being ‘hardly a definitive example of Foucault’s conception of power relations’ it gets to the heart of that conception. Foucault ‘is forced to think of power relations in arbitrary terms’ ( not, I accept, that a particularly illuminating phrase) precisely because it is omnipresent and the very condition of social being. It is through power that the social subject is constituted. As a result, and ironically for a thinker whose great strength was precisely his ability to historicise what had previously been seen as eternal and fixed, power comes to be understood in ahistorical, almost natural, terms.

        I am not alone in reading Foucault in this manner. Such a reading is at the heart of Butler’s argument. As she puts it in The Psychic Life of Power, ‘If, following Foucault, we understand power as forming the subject, power imposes itself upon us, and weakened by its force, we come to internalize or accept its terms’ and power ‘assumes a psychic form that constitutes the subject’s self-identity’.

        And here we get to the problem of agency. Power, from this perspective, is not the product of humans; humans, rather, are the product of power. This is not new idea. There is a tradition of anthropology that has long viewed culture in much the same way. As Leslie White put it in his 1949 book Science of Culture:

        Instead of regarding the individual as… initiator and determinant of the culture process, we now see him as a component part, and a tiny and relatively insignificant one at that, of a vast socio-cultural system that embraces innumerable individuals and extends back into their remote past as well.

        It is a view that in turn reaches further back, drawing upon Burkean notions of the relationship between individual and community.

        Once power is viewed in this fashion, the very idea of being an agent becomes problematic. For Butler to become a ‘subject’ is to succumb to a process of ‘subjection’, and ‘subjection consists precisely in this fundamental dependency on a discourse.’ To become a subject is not to acquire the means to challenge power but rather to become enslaved by such power. Agency becomes little more than the ability to work within the structures of power. As Butler puts it in Gender Trouble, ‘All signification takes place within the orbit of compulsion to repeat; “agency”, then, is to be located within the possibilities of a variation on that repetition’, adding that ‘it is only within the practices of repetitive signifying that a subversion of identity becomes possible.’

        For Butler, one identifies with one’s gender through the repeated performance of the acts that make up that identity. We cannot challenge that process, only subvert it through parodic performance. Emancipation, for her, is not about fashioning the tools of resistance ourselves, but rather, as she writes in Gender Trouble ‘only a taking up of the tools where they lie, where the “talking up” is enabled by the tool lying there’. If this is not being ‘meek’ I don’t know what is.

      • Sam

        “Once power is viewed in this fashion, the very idea of being an agent becomes problematic.”

        “Agency becomes little more than the ability to work within the structures of power.”

        This is precisely what I was meant by “a desperate need to attribute agency to everyone”: it is your commitment to a particular conception of agency that is preventing you from being able to accept Foucault (and Butler)’s method of analysis. I think this is the type of thing that commenter James was getting at as well, when he wrote of ignoring “how optimistic or pessimistic [an idea] makes us feel”. Why is conformity with your preferred conception of agency a prerequisite for any conception of power?

        I can remember being frustrated and pessimistic when I first came to grips with the poststructuralist conception of power, but eventually I realised that frustration and pessimism are not solid bases on which to reject a method of analysis. And once I had spent a bit of time inhabiting PS thought, I found that it became much less frustrating and pessimistic.

        As for “emancipation [being about] ‘only a taking up of the tools where they lie’”, consider this: if you want to use language in your emancipatory efforts, aren’t you forced to “tak[e] up … the tools [e.g. words, meanings] where they lie”? We can struggle towards new words and new meanings, but surely the only tools we can use in this struggle are the existing words and meanings? Could you really say that promoting or supporting the use of language for the purpose of emancipation is ‘meek’? Surely it doesn’t make sense to use a word like ‘meek’ in this context because there is no practical alternative?

  2. Apologies in advance if my comments miss the point of this topic, but one area that concerns me with regard to postmodernist ideas of ‘Orientalism’ and Western imperialism is skepticism, or more accurately scientific skepticism. Is it really the case that debunking non-Western ideas like traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) or various forms of Eastern mysticism constitutes a form of Western imperialism? My problem with the sort of cultural relativism supported by postmodernism is that it can easily slide into epistemological relativism, entailing the rejection of both the scientific method and the possibility of (provisional) objectivity in determining fact from fiction, truth from falsehood.

    When skeptics like Michael Shermer, Rebecca Watson and Steven Novella meticulously refute the pseudoscientific claims of TCM proponents, or reiki practitioners, or Ayurvedic ‘doctors’, are they engaging purely in the “intellectual subordination of [non-Western] ideas, history and values”? Or are they engaging in valid criticism of outright nonsense? Incidentally, homeopathy is one example of a native Western variety of nonsense that scientific skeptics criticise just as strongly, so they cannot be accused of only attacking the Other.

  3. James

    There are, I think, a number of issues in the air here – and it is great that your are raising them. Let me just try to clarify one.

    I think that this post misunderstands the concept of power in Foucault. When Foucault says that power is everywhere, and that it is inescapable it sounds awful and oppressive and limiting if you continue to think of power in the old way (as a bad thing that some people have and that means they can do bad things). But Foucault was trying to completely change what we think power is. He doesn’t suggest that the bad kind of power doesnt exist or even that there aren’t things like class power etc. but he does draw attention to something more fundamental. The best way to begin to think about it is to think of power in the way we mean it when we talk about, say, electricity; when we say the power is on in our home – as something like energy.

    What Foucualt is interested in studying is that energy, how it moves, where it goes, what it makes possible and impossible; far from making it transhistorical he wants to examine parts of its history in specific fields.

    And for him power is not a bad thing. It is a thing that makes things happen. What that means in terms of politics is that he does not think (as the history of Liberalism has taught us to think) that power is something to be evaded, limited or contained. That, he thinks, is just impossible but also, when turned into a politics, positively baleful. Why? Because it teaches the marginalised, exploited and oppressed that their goal should be to hide from or get free from power rather than that they should use it.

    You say that Butler is meek for promoting subversion rather than fashioning ‘tools of resistance’. I don’t know what those tools are or would be. In history people and peoples that have opposed regimes have, always, done so when they recongise that they already had the power they needed, they had only to use it to subvert authority.

    Why do they not do this all the time? Because of the effects of what Foucault called power-knowledge: he didn’t say – as you imply – that power creates knowledge (and, therefore, is not saying that all claims about knowledge are really self-interested claims by the powerful and is not being ‘relativistic’ in the way some critics imagine). He is specifically talking about how, in the modern period, we invent all sorts of ways of defining and classifying people and about how this form of knowledge is a specific kind of ‘energy’ which makes some new things possible, such as thinking about some people as mad, deviant, evil etc. in new ways. That energy, that power-knowledge, is also a way in which we, as individuals and as groups, became, in some instances, ways in which we have thought about and experience ourselves. In exploring this, the history of how we think about ourselves, Foucault thought that we might also find ways to think of ourselves anew – not to evade power but to use it.

    The extent to which this conception is accurate or useful is, of course, up for debate (and much of the contemporary philosophical left in Europe has, like Judith Butler, moved on from these debates which are now some 40 years old). But I think that first we have to get right what the claim is and then we have to assess it properly not emotionally (in terms of how optimistic or pessimistic it makes us feel), or, indeed, politically (in terms of whether it supports our liberal politics or not). That said, it is noticeable that a strand of thought very closely allied to the political demands of migrants, gay people, Feminists, factory workers and so on, and which encourages those groups to seize power (rather than negotiate with the authorities for inclusions in the system of rights defined by that authority) is so regularly traduced and misrepresented (although I do not include Kenan Malik in this – he is honestly and openly seeking to work through these issues in this generous minded blog).

    • Fritz

      Power within human relations cannot be understood as independent from the acting individuals like a free flowing energy. According to Max Weber, power ist the chance to impose your will on the will of others.

      I think he is right. Foucault is mystifying power.

      • Sam

        E.g., from the essay I referred to previously: “there is no such entity as power, with or without a capital letter; global, massive, or diffused; concentrated or distributed. Power exists only as exercised by some on others, only when it is put into action, even though, of course, it is inscribed in a field of sparse available possibilities underpinned by permanent structures.”

    • James, my apologies for taking so long to respond – I’ve been caught up with other matters. A couple of quick points:

      The idea of power as analogous to energy is precisely what I am contesting. It is exactly such a view of power that lends it an ahistorical, almost natural, character.

      The problem with poststructuralist notions of power is that historically such ideas emerged at the very time in the postwar era that movements for social transformation were beginning to falter. As a result postructurlalists came to express both a desire for social transformation and a pessimism about the possibilities of such transformation. The retreat into language and discourse was an expression of that. You suggest that liberalism ‘teaches the marginalised, exploited and oppressed that their goal should be to hide from or get free from power rather than that they should use it’. Ironically, one could make a similar point about poststructuralism. As movements for social transformations have imploded over the past three decades, so many have settled simply for celebrating marginality.

      You complain of people ‘traducing’ a ‘strand of thought very closely allied to the political demands of migrants, gay people, Feminists, factory workers and so on, and which encourages those groups to seize power (rather than negotiate with the authorities for inclusions in the system of rights defined by that authority)’. It is, to the contrary, the failure of poststructuralism to do this, the fact that, indeed, it acts as an obstacle to such social transformation, and is a product of the defeat of radical movements for change, that leads me not to traduce it but to reject it.

  4. Fritz

    Nope, there is no power existing by itself which is put into action by individuals. What should be its onotlogical status? Where is it? How do people get in contact with it? Of course, it is “inscribed in a field of sparse available possibilities underpinned by permanent structures.”


    Just some more mystifying.

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