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.


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