dialogues of exchange: foucault and said

August 27, 2014 § Leave a comment

When Edward Said wrote how Orientalism was “greatly indebted” to Michel Foucault, I didn’t realize the extent until reading Foucault’s “Orders of Discourse”. Said’s definition of Orientalism as a discourse comes directly from Foucault.  A discourse is a system of thought, a large unit of knowledge comprised of a node of disciplines, distributed among a society through texts and speech. For me, it is easier to think of a discipline as a microcosm of a discourse, since what makes a discipline–whether it be medicine, science, literature, et al–are groups of objects, methods, corpus of propositions considered to be true (or fact), a set of rules, definitions, techniques, and tools (Foucault 15); basically a discourse in a much larger sense. Similarly, Said defines Orientalism as a discourse that is not only “a mere political subject matter or field that is reflected passively by culture, scholarship, or institutions”; it is also, and more importantly,

a distribution of geopolitical awareness into aesthetic, scholarly, economic, sociological, historical, and philological texts; it is an elaboration not only of a basic geographical distinction but also of a whole series of “interests” which, by such means as scholarly discovery, philological reconstruction, psychological analysis, landscape and sociological description, it not only creates but also maintains; it is, rather than expresses, a certain will or intention to understand, in some cases to control, manipulate, even to incorporate, what is a manifestly different world (Said 12).

That last bit, where Said asserts Orientalism’s ability to maintain, control, manipulate, is crucial to Foucault’s ideas of the order of a discourse: “I am supposing that in every society the production of discourse is at once controlled, selected, organized and redistributed according to a certain number of procedures” (Foucault 8). Driving the existence of any discourse is the principle of exclusion and there are three rules to this principle. The first is prohibition, which is at once the blatant and tacit understanding that not everyone is free to say or do exactly anything; in society, there exists the “privileged or exclusive right to speak of a particular subject” (8). The second is the process of division and rejection, of the strict binary between reason and folly. In a word, of how actions, words, ideas are categorized or divided between what is right and what is wrong. Similar to the second, the third system of exclusion is the opposition between true and false, driven by the resilient desire for the will to truth.

Foucault gives an excellent example of the effects of these mechanisms of exclusion by offering the case of 19th century botanist Mendel, who during his time, was rejected within the discipline of botany for his innovative, totally foreign theoretical perspectives. He was deemed false, inaccurate–in opposition to the will to truth.

Mendel spoke the truth, but he was not “within the true” of contemporary biological discourse: it simply was not along such lines that objects and biological concepts were formed. A whole change in scale, the deployment of a totally new range of objects in biology was required before Mendel could enter into the true and his propositions appear for the most part, exact. (16)

Because his rhetoric was different, because his “objects” and “signs” did not conform to the current discipline of botany, he was excluded from the discourse.

This isolated case, attesting to the extent of the contingency of the makings of a discourse, is just one out of the unfathomable, complex web of the construction of a discourse. Discourses are founded upon discoveries and propositions that become the standard to which all other “fresh propositions,” new knowledge and new discoveries are measured against. The standard of a discourse, those initial discoveries and propositions, thus become the nature of any given field. But what if this “standard” was in error to begin with? Aren’t we in trouble if our foundational knowledge of a discourse is,  cloaked in the guise of being “natural” and true–always taken for granted–erroneous? These errors, going unnoticed and taken for being natural, thus have “their own positive functions and their own valid history,” being built upon over the years, and thus “their roles are often indissociable from that of the truth” (15 my emphasis).

Foucault’s delineation of the relationship between primary texts and commentary, and the impact of this commentary on a discourse, is of crucial importance to Said’s explanation of the treatment of ancient Eastern texts (primary texts) and how, found by certain Europeans, were read and thus commented on by the West.

One of the founding father’s of Orientalism was Abraham Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron who traveled as far as Suret and found a bunch of Avestan texts–primary, ancient texts–at his own disposable. “A universe in writing was available, but scarcely anyone seemed to suspect the immensity of those unknown lands. The realization began with his translation of the Avesta…[Anquetil-Duperron] interjected a vision of innumerable civilizations from ages past, of an infinity of literatures” (Schwab quoted in Said 77). Thus began the official shaping and construction of the Orient at the hands of Europeans, for Europeans: “For the first time, the Orient was revealed to Europe in the materiality of its texts, languages, and civilizations” (77). His translations–which are undoubtedly interpretations–provided opportunity for other Europeans to build upon these texts, as well as use his translations as guides to other subsequent texts. In comes William Jones, proficient in Arabic, Hebrew, and Persian, taking up the Orient as his personal study and “thereby turning it into a province of European learning” (78), and later, Napolean, among others.

So the relationship between Duperron finding  the Avestan texts (PRIMARY TEXTS) and the action of him translating these texts (SECONDARY TEXTS) would be according to Foucault, the start of a new discourse, creating “an open possibility for discussion” (Foucault 13) of the Orient, basically. The role of commentary is to say “what has silently been articulated deep down…it gives us the opportunity to say something other than the [primary] text itself, but on conditions that it is the text itself which is uttered, and, in some ways, finalized” (13). As Said brings to light, commentary of the Orient, written by Europeans, is all Napolean read before he invaded Egypt. When he did invade Egypt, his mind was filled with preconceived ideas of the discourse of what we’ve been identifying as orientalism; his view of the Orient was constructed by Europeans, a view that was already seen as natural and true.

I’m going to shut up now.


fall/staff + shake/spear: to reject falstaff is to reject shakespeare

August 14, 2014 § Leave a comment

I had to write a short review for class on Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part One. I was so excited that this was one of the two plays performed at this year’s Houston Shakespeare Festival–it is my favorite Shakespeare play! In my review I focus on the great Sir John Falstaff because….how could I not?! Overall, the performance was great and I had a lot of fun experiencing Henry IV in theatre for the first time!


In theatre, not all roles are created equal. Some roles, to name a few of Shakespeare’s most memorable, bear the weight of timeless legacy: Hamlet, Iago, Cleopatra, King Lear. But this school of sacrosanct stage players would be incomplete without its witty constituent, Sir John Falstaff, and in the Houston Shakespeare Festival’s rendition of Henry IV, Pt. One, actor David Rainey’s portrayal of “Sack-and-Sugar Jack” pays proper tribute to his character by bringing to light the qualities that not only reflect a comedic Lord of Misrule spewing wisdom and transcending social value systems; Rainey’s portrayal also reminds us of Falstaff’s one true vulnerability: his unwavering love for his protégée, Prince Hal.

That cowardice is one of Falstaff’s debasing characteristics is a topic for scholarly debate not to be explored here. Yet Rainey bestows Falstaff’s cowardice with a benevolence that only cajoles the audience into a loving embrace with the man that “lards the lean earth as he walks.” As he gives the false account of his heroic fighting in Act II, Scene IV where he fights “eleven buckram men grown out of two,” he jabs the air with his dagger with a vigor that quickly disappears when in actual confrontation. Rainey inflects this travesty with such comedic relief and likeness that the audience cannot help but love Falstaff more.

More importantly, Rainey’s rendering of Falstaff is clearest, no doubt reaching its apex, at the end of Act II, Scene IV where he adroitly converges the core elements of his character in the role-reversing charade between Falstaff and Prince Hal, each taking turns at playing King Henry and Prince Hal. When Falstaff assumes the role of King Henry, Rainey’s histrionics remind the audience of Falstaff’s carnivalesque aura as he substitutes heraldic insignia for festive tokens, signifying a retreat from social order and into a period of misrule. He clumsily places the flattened cushion over his head to resemble a jeweled crown and uses his “cup of sack” like a royal scepter, making it sway not between political affairs, but passion and pleasure. His hands repeatedly fall to his “stuffed cloak-bag of guts” as he delivers his witticisms, and it is in these instances where Rainey’s hand gestures give his words the gumption to score large shares of laughter from the audience.

But not only does Falstaff’s carnivalesque portrayal of King Henry confer him as Lord of Misrule. This enactment also literalizes Falstaff’s relation to Prince Hal as his comical, yet loving second father. When Prince Hal pretends to be his father and calls Falstaff a “trunk of humours, that bolting-hutch of beastliness, that swollen parcel of dropsies, that huge bombard of sack,” Rainey excels in emulating that Falstaffian vulnerability by oscillating between a once jubilant smile now turned dim to furtive, sullen looks at the floor—inevitably inspiring sympathy for that “goodly portly man”.

It is obvious that by Act V the bond between Falstaff and Prince Hal has been disrupted, and director Jack Young’s calculated positioning of Falstaff on stage needs to be lauded, as it brings the foreshadowing of his public rejection in Part Two to the forefront of the play. Once the center of attention in the Eastcheap tavern scenes, Falstaff has now been displaced into the background amidst the sword fighting and politically charged exchanges. Specifically in Scene I, the audience is presented with Falstaff at the far left of the stage—alone—while Prince Hal and his royal posse are huddled on the right side. Rainey gives Falstaff an anxious, hungry-for-acceptance manner as he slowly inches his way across the stage towards Prince Hal and, in an effort to join the conversation, says of Worcester, “Rebellion lay in his way, and he found it,” to which he is cut off by Hal who yells, “Peace, chewet, peace!”

My only critique for Rainey is that he could have delivered Falstaff’s most famous lines in a way that touches upon their profundity. That famous soliloquy where Falstaff ponders, “What is honor” was too comedic, in my opinion. One’s manner of deliverance and tone of words have everything to do with altering their meaning, and somewhere, amidst Rainey’s over jubilant execution, the shrewd potency of the soliloquy was lost. Just as he skillfully balanced his character between Lord of Misrule and loving mentor, it would have behooved his performance to temper Falstaff’s humor with a more serious tone when needed, in order to underscore the moments when he speaks of universal truths.

**title for this post comes from Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human.

keep calm and stop calling orientals ‘exotic’

August 9, 2014 § Leave a comment

I decided to get a little head start on my school readings to avoid initial bombardment once the semester begins. Since I’ll be taking Intro to Post Colonial Theory, I’ve started Orientalism by Edward Said. What follows is just a rehashing of Said’s pioneering stance on and epistemological delineation of Orientalism and its complex impact on history, ideology, material realities, and contemporary issues—just a concise synthesis to keep my thoughts fresh as I wait for class discussion.
The most obvious question to begin with is what exactly is Orientalism? Said is so painstakingly precise, yet complex when he approaches this question; his explanation couldn’t be more lucid, yet I find myself overwhelmed with the question. What is Orientalism? “How can one describe it all together as a historical phenomenon, a way of though, a contemporary problem, and a material reality” (44)? Well, it’s complicated.
Briefly, Orientalism is a discourse the West (Europe and America) created, structured, restructured in order to understand and “manage” the East (India and the Levant—basically, the Middle East but China, Japan, North and South Korea, Africa can also be considered similarly). The East—its people and its geographical boundaries—is subsumed under the term “the Orient,” and the Orient, more specifically the attitudes, perceptions, assumptions that are conjured up when the Orient is mentioned, is not an inherent aspect of the world. But when we think of the East, the Middle East, the Orient we (“we” as in the Western world) tacitly understand that there’s a difference between the East and the West—“them” and “us”. Asked to describe the East, it seems natural—I don’t think anyone would argue that this is unfamiliar or far-fetched—to label the Orient as “exotic”, “mystic”, “fascinating”, “unfamiliar”, “foreign”, “alluring”, “bizarre”, “romantic”, “avant garde”…but where do these distinctions come from? Surely, one would never think to call America a land of mystery, a country laden with exquisite exoticness just waiting to be discovered and experienced; but it is not so difficult to see India through that lens, is it? Why does this difference between the East (the Orient) and West (the Occident) exist?
To believe that the difference between the East and West has always been “there”, that it happened naturally, is to be “disingenuous,” as Said says. “The relationship between Occident and Orient is a relationship of power, of domination of varying degrees of a complex hegemony” (5). The late Renaissance was a period of “extraordinary European ascendancy,” a time where Europe experienced a surge of global power because of scientific, education, economic, and political advances. Out of this hegemony emerged a “sovereign Western consciousness out of whose unchallenged centrality an Oriental world” was constructed and shaped, “first according to general ideas about who or what was an Oriental, then according to a detailed logic governed not simply by empirical reality but by a battery of desires, repressions, investments, and projections” (8). While this European power flourished and reached its peek in the late nineteenth century, that Western power, that assumed superiority over the East lives on and still pervades the present day. It is a power largely based on the production of knowledge, and this knowledge tells the European or American encountering the Orient (whether in actual life, in texts, in thoughts, etc) that his nationality comes first, his individual impression second (11).
Over the course of history, this production of knowledge—which is Orientalism—has injected a “geopolitical awareness” of the binarized East and West into all cultural and political institutions where at its core is the template of “the ineradicable distinction between Western superiority and Oriental inferiority” (42), where “ideas about what “we” do and what “they” cannot do or understand as “we” do” (12). It is a discourse that is structured in a way that always promotes “the differences between the familiar (Europe, the West, “us”) and the strange (the Orient, the East, “them”)” (43). It shows up in literature (among the many authors Said enumerates as participating in Orientalism, he goes into specific detail with Aeschylus (56) and Dante (68)); in academic disciplines, in political and economic agendas/accounts (see accounts on Cromer, Balfour, Kissinger—Said bridges their Orientalist rhetoric in the political sphere past and present day).
Said cites three European projects on the Orient that officially created what he has been calling Orientalism. The first was by theoretician Abraham-Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron (1731-1805), who traveled to India where he translated a collection of Avestan texts, “opening large vistas” of Oriental vision for the Europeans to interpret for themselves. “For the first time, the Orient was revealed to Europe in the materiality of texts, languages, and civilizations” (77). The second of these projects was by William Jones, a poet, jurist, historian, and scholar who wrote, “it is my ambition to know India better than any other European ever knew it” (78). Leaving England to India in 1783, Jones embarked on a personal study of the Orient and documented his findings in to his work “Objects of Enquiry During My Residence in Asia”. In this written account Jones labeled, “codify[ed]”, “tabulat[ed]”, and compar[ed]” (77) the Orient to the West; he domesticated them, making it his goal to “rule and learn” (78) of them in every possible way for the benefit of the Europeans, so Europeans could better understand them, the Orient. Jones thus turned the Orient “into a province of European learning,” becoming the “undisputed founder of Orientalism” (78).
Most influential to Orientalism was the third project, Napoleon’s well known invasion of Egypt in 1798, where he installed French colonies and made Egypt an object of unlimited European study and inquiry, a “department of French learning” by bringing in travelers, scholars, conquerors to survey and write about the land (83). While this historical event has been well documented and studied by historians, Said makes the excellent point that Napolean’s interest in Egypt—the reason why he chose Egypt—was fostered and cultivated by “ideas and myths culled from texts, not empirical reality” (80). These texts were translated or written by European authorities—Orientalists—and therefore, prior to his arrival in Egypt, he already had specific expectations of the Orient, a vision of the Orient that was based off of European interpretation. Where is the Orient’s voice in all of this?
Although Napolean’s military occupation in Egypt failed, his invasion “gave birth to the entire modern experience of the Orient…what would happen as a continuing legacy of the common Occidental mission of the Orient would be the creation of new projects, new visions, new enterprises combining additional parts of the old Orient with the conquering European spirit” (87). From then on the Orient appeared to the world as an entity that always, inevitably harkened back to European powers; their history was not their own history but a history constructed by Orientalists.
That Said emphasizes the European encounter or experience with the Orient through texts is crucial, as it is most responsible for the dissemination of Orientalist vision. To begin, it is impossible for reality (Jameson’s the Real), the “swarming, unpredictable, and problematic mess in which human beings live”, to be transmitted 100 percent accurately into a text: “to apply what one learns out of a book literally to reality is to risk folly or ruin” (93). Yet that is exactly what European travelers, scholars, historians, scientists, etc did to “prepare” for their real encounter with the Orient. They read books, telling them what to expect, what the countries are like, how the people are. When travelers, and this is perfectly applicable to present day, say their experience in a new country wasn’t what they expected, it means that it “wasn’t what a book said it would be,” testifying to that “greater authority” a text may have over actual reality (93). This is one of the two “textual attitudes” Said elaborates on, and his point is that texts carry an aura of expertise and authority; they “create not only knowledge but also the very reality they appear to describe” (my emphasis 94). This is exactly the way discourses, like Orientalism, are created: “In time such knowledge [in texts] and reality produce a tradition, or what Michel Foucault calls a discourse, whose material presence or weight, not the originality of a given author, is responsible for the texts produced out of it” (94).
For me, Orientalism was one of the hardest books to summarize! As I’ve already mentioned, Said’s language is so clear and well organized, yet there is so much to unpack. This book is truly a masterpiece and I’m afraid I didn’t do it any justice at all. I’ve left out so many points, so many important details. I am hoping that what I’ve gone over in this post will only guide me back to the other elements I’ve left out.

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