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Can the (sub)altern resist? A dialogue between Foucault and Said
Resistance comes First.
Where there is power, there is resistance. This phrase encapsulates the dialectic that Michel Foucault battled with almost throughout his scholarly life. In Orientalism, Edward Said took seriously Foucault’s ideas about the way knowledge is implicated in power. Yet, ultimately he did not fully appreciate that for Foucault power cannot be total. When Said argues that through ‘Orientalism as a discourse’ European culture not only ‘manages’ the Orient but ‘produces’ it, he overemphasises the productive force of power at the expense of the creative force of resistance. According to Said, Orientalism does not only constitute a particular discourse, it produces the Orient ‘politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically, and imaginatively during the post-Enlightenment period’.1 For both Orientals and Europeans, then, there is no escaping the fictional world established by the Orientalist corpus. It follows, for Said, that Orientalism has muted the ‘East’ intellectually and discursively. The object (the Orient) is ostracised from the discourse of Orientalism; it does not speak, it is not present within its articulation. Without the power to speak, the ‘(sub)altern’ remains trapped in a self-fulfilling prophecy.
It is this strategy of marginalisation through disciplinary power regimes that has been targeted by post-colonial theorists and ‘subaltern studies’, and rightly so.2 But in the following discussion I intend to question and theoretically advance a very specific methodical premise that undergirds the argument of Orientalism in particular and post-colonial approaches in general. I argue that overemphasising the power of the ‘west’, or a discourse such as ‘Orientalism’, does not only threaten to contribute to muting the ‘other’, it confuses the way resistance affects power. To be more precise: A gigantic constellation such as Orientalism - even the ‘west’ for which it functions - can never really shut down modes of resistance or counter-discourses. In earlier reflections on this, I have gone as far as to say that Said’s overemphasis on ‘western’ representations of the ‘east’ threatens to negate resistance to Orientalism.3 Ultimately, Said misunderstands Foucault when, years after the publication of Orientalism, he adheres to the common perspective that Foucault ascribes ‘undifferentiated power’ to the disciplinary regime of modern society. ‘With this profoundly pessimistic view’, Said criticises him,
went also a singular lack of interest in the force of effective resistance to it, in choosing particular sites of intensity, choices which, we see from the evidence on all sides, always exist and are often successful in impeding, if not actually stopping, the progress of tyrannical power.4
Immediately, one can return the critique and point to Said’s own bias towards the power of the ‘west’ which he highlights almost exclusively not only in Orientalism, but also in Covering Islam and his extensive writings on Palestine. But the fact that Said does not spend much of his talent on the ‘other’ as an agent of history has already been sufficiently addressed. What I am rather more interested in, and what has remained marginal in the post-colonial literature, is his methodical confusion about the dialectic between power and resistance that was a part of Foucault’s method throughout his career. Said undervalued, like many other critics of Foucault, that discourses and their corresponding knowledge- power dynamics cannot be possessed, organised or shut down by one social agent (e.g. individuals, institutions or disciplines). They are, in this sense, gliding phenomena; heterogeneous, rather than homogeneous, capillary rather than hierarchical, progressive rather than conservative. Said was mistaken to infer that a discursive constellation such as Orientalism can be all encompassing. Foucault draws attention to the diffusion of power, its ‘relayed’ locality within society, the individual and our psychological and physical existence. He clarified this view as early as in 1976 in his lectures at the College de France:
Do not regard power as a phenomenon of mass and homogenous domination - the domination of one individual over others, of one group over others, or of one class over others; keep it clearly in mind that unless we are looking at it from a great height and from a very great distance, power is not something that is divided between those who have it and hold it exclusively, and those who do not have it and are subject to it. Power must, I think, be analysed as something that circulates, or rather as something that functions only when it is part of a chain. It is never localised here or there, it is never in the hands of some, and it is never appropriated in the way that wealth or a commodity can be appropriated. Power functions. Power is exercised through networks, and individuals do not simply circulate in those networks; they are in a position to both submit to and exercise this power.5
In the way Said uses and, at the latter stages of his career, then criticises Foucault, he ignores a range of methodical nuances. True, if there is one central theme recurring in the different phases of Foucault’s scholarly life, it is his emphasis on the birth of a series of disciplinary strategies which he deems central to the making of western modernity and its modern subject. According to Foucault, a genealogy of these ‘disciplines’ reveals societal norms that were slowly perfected, institutionalised and enforced through a network of prisons,
clinics, asylums, medical organisations, educational routines, the penal system and jurisprudential practices. ‘Each society has its regime of truth, its “general politics” of truth’, Foucault famously stated in an interview in June 1976. It is these colossal regimes that determine ‘the types of discourse [society] accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances that enable one to distinguish true and false statements; the means by which each is sanctioned; the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true.’6 In other words, discourses (such as Orientalism) not only represent a particular issue, they do not only produce meaningful knowledge about it which in turn affects social and political practices, they are a part of the way power operates, reveals itself and is contested. Once a particular discourse sustains its effectiveness via disciplinary constellations and in practice, it can be conceptualised as a regime of truth.7
Ultimately then, such regimes appear as particularly overbearing power constellations. But where does that leave the power to resist? In the same interview mentioned above, Foucault seems to indicate that resistance remains viable: ‘The essential political problem for the intellectual is not to criticise the ideological contents supposedly linked to science, or to ensure that his own scientific practice is accompanied by a correct ideology,’8 he stresses at the end of the interview. The political task is to ascertain the ‘possibility of constituting a new politics of truth’. It is not a matter of ‘changing people’s consciousness - or what’s in their heads’, but to tackle the ‘political, economic, institutional regime of the production of truth’.9 The main target, in other words, must be the political economy of truth making, for it is here where the subject is moulded in accordance with the reigning norms of society. The battle is to be directed against the disciplinary systems that feed into that process of wilful distortion, for instance by giving a voice to the powerless.10
Between the possibility to resist and the disciplinary power governing the individual, Foucault places a vast, at times enigmatically paradoxical space that needs to be overcome in order to make possible the power of the powerless. It is here where we can locate one of the nuances that were not fully appreciated in Said’s interpretation of Foucault. In order to flesh them out, I investigate what I call Foucault’s ‘power-resistance dialectic’, emancipating his statement that resistance is immanent to power from the charge that it negates individual agency. This goes to the heart of the famous statement of Foucault - ‘where there is power, there is resistance, and yet, or rather consequently, this resistance is never in the position of exteriority in relation to power’ - exactly calibrating the ‘dimension’ in which he places the forces of resistance that constantly battle against the imposition of institutionalised regimes of truth (Orientalism included). I intend to pursue this argument in two principal ways: I will start by reinterpreting the power-resistance dialectic of Foucault in close liaison with the recent literature on the topic. Some of the material marshalled has been published in English and French after his death in 1984 and has remained untapped since then. In a second step, I will shift the focus on his writings on the revolution in Iran. Via a thorough reading of those articles it is possible to achieve a better understanding of his approach to power and resistance. As such, this second part
attempts to corroborate my suggestion that Foucault affirms political agency in general and the possibility of radical resistance in particular. This implies that Said misunderstood the reciprocal battles at the root of the power-resistance dialectic that is under focus here.
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