Michel Foucault and Archaeology

MICHEL FOUCAULT (1926 – 1984)


The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969)

Like many French intellectuals, Michel Foucault witnessed the now-legendary days of May, 1968 in which the students and later the proletariat or working class rose up against the forces of law and order, against oppressive institutions and against post-war materialistic society itself. During a dramatic month, French society itself seemed to be hanging in the balance, caught between total breakdown and a break away into a new future. Foucault held a prestigious chair in history at the Collège de France and was part of a network of patronage within a system that was rapidly becoming more institutionalized. The old free-wheeling ways of academic freedom and intellectual development among café convocations came to an end with the wave of post-War rise of the university system. Foucault remained, nevertheless, a freewheeling individual, moving back and forth from between Paris and Berkeley where he enjoyed the pleasures of the bathhouses of San Francisco. His life was marked by a suicide attempt, a nervous breakdown, and a police file when he was accused of theft as a student. He was institutionalized and eventually died of AIDS, a disease that was acknowledge in France and denied in America.

Foucault witnessed one of the great events of 20th century French intellectual life, May 1968 and saw its results: the incarceration of intellectual thought in the university. The revolutionaries were caught up in a revolution for which there was no plan of action and without direction the explosive situation fizzled into the status quo. Charles de Gaulle and his minions regained control and observers, such as Foucault, noted the cooperation of the media with the government in conveying approved information. Knowledge, Foucault realized, was intertwined with power and the spectacle of the exercise of power during the month of May changed his approach to history. The grand ideals could not longer be legitimized and the Enlightenment categories failed to come in close contact with reality. The events of May 1968 or “soiyant huitard” created a political opening for transgressive writing. As a result of his experiences as witness to a failed revolution, Foucault took up transgressive writing to disrupt the notion of language as a set of representations, which mirror the world. He re-looked at the familiar, at the social institutions that (de)form our lives in order to put the audience through the ordeal of de-familiarization. Foucault had long been concerned with how various aspects of culture evolved, but his mature work rejected traditional ways of writing history and became something he called “archaeology.”

The archaeological approach to the past was part of Foucault’s attempt to find a way out of the Marxist explanation of historical forces. For the post-war generation of disillusioned French scholars, the other fortress that needed to be taken was that of Marxism. The failure of Marxist theory and the extent of its limitations became glaringly clear during the events of May 1968. Disillusioned intellectuals emerged from the wreckage of Marxism with an undiminished need for a tool to critique society and Foucault and Barthes were part of that shift in that they understood that the Marxist mode of production had become irrelevant. It was the Mode of Information, as Mark Poster termed it in his (now outdated) 1990 book, The Mode of Information: Poststructuralism and Social Content, that became the key element in social control.

Roland Barthes (1916-1980) was well aware of the role the ordinary discourses, such as mass media, of everyday life played in shaping the public mindset and how these semiotic mechanisms were deployed to to control group thinking. The old form of Marxism had placed the locus of exploitation and alienation in the workplace, but by the late 20th century, it was becoming increasingly clear that oppression was dissipated and existed at many levels, from the family to knowledge itself. Of course oppression had always existed in these sites, but the resulting alienation of women in the family, for example, had always existed but once intellectual attention shifted from class to a more precise view of a complex social world, the old Base-Superstructure model was inadequate.


Foucault Pins

Once it was clear that it was clear that history had no goal and once it was clear that history was enmeshed in language, the question ceased to be what happened? but how did it became possible to make certain statements at a certain time? The answer did not lie in the historical context, for the search for “origins” had changed over the course of the century. Thanks to Structuralism, it was understood that there was no origin in the singular. There was no one point in time, such as in Greek tragedy, when a human event occurred, like Oedipus killing his father, that could be seen as one event that was preceded by other events and that led to subsequent events. There could only be a certain historical period when a certain social practice manifested itself out of, not one event, but many events. What was significant was not that the practice emerged but that at some point of time it became possible to speak of this condition. Therefore there was no origin, only discourse.

Nothing can come into being, except through language, and discourse is language. Therefore, all objects must necssarily be discursive or formed out of language. “Archaeology” is the treatment of the human sciences as an object of discourse or a discourse-object, without regard to their presumed external “value.” The discourse object is neither true nor untrue; it is an object to be studied from a stance of neutrality as to truth or meaning. In other words, the archaeologist studies not so much the object itself, but how the object was constructed out of discourse. The mechanics of discursive formation, as it were, and how the discourse was created had to be studied without being concerned about what “truth” content the discourse might or might not contain. This was an intellectual move that re-directed the way in which historians treat documents, meaning that if what was analyzed was the mechanisms of creating a discursive object, then the intellectual would be “disengaged” and critique would be re-located to mechanics and away from effects. The subsequent disempowerment of critique would be remedied in Foucault’s later work and The Archaeology of Knowledge should be understood as the second in a series of steps to rethink “history.”

Just as The Order of Things sought, on one hand, to make the past strange while creating a “history of the present,” on the other hand, The Archaeology of Knowledge distances the discursive object, distances it in order to make it strange–to alienate the concept or “serious discourse” from the observer. Although these two books can be seen as a sequence, first, establishing the end of the self dissolved in a new episteme and then second, examining the consequences of the disappearance of the active human agent which is a non-humanistic version of history. Between the two volumes, traditional history was severely challenged by Foucault, who said,

The document, then, is no longer for history and inert material through which it tries to reconstitute what men have done or said, the events of which only the trace remains; history is now trying to define within the documentary material itself unities, totalities, series, relations. History must be detached from the image that satisfied it for so long..history is that which transforms documents in to monuments..history aspires to the condition of archaeology to the intrinsic description of the monument.

This shift in perspective or point of view, from taking monuments and turning them into documents to turning documents into monuments would mean that, for example, instead of using records of slavery to tell the story of slavery in the South one would examine the documents themselves to see how and under what conditions these documents “describe” slavery.

The monumentalizing of documents or the archaeological effect had important consequences: the surface effect which replaces continuity with distinct elements that now need to be organized in a series to find the appropriate relations. The result of focusing on elements, discontinuity is made obvious and the discontinuity itself or the gaps becomes the object of study. With the end of continuity, the idea of total history also disappears and something Foucault called “general history” emerges. This general history is quite at odds with the expected mode of document reading. Foucault went to great length (literally many pages) to explain what he was not doing: he would not “interpret” the contents nor attempt to deduce the intention of the writer. Instead, as with Structuralism, the author disappears so that the discourse can be foregrounded. As Foucault wrote, “We must grasp the statement in the exact specificity of its occurrences; determine its conditions of existence, fix at least its limits, establish its correlations with other statements that may be connected with it, and show what other forms of statement it excludes.”

Foucault’s concept of discursive formations was perhaps his most fruitful contribution to the humanities. His former professor Georges Canguilhem (1904-1995) felt that Foucault’s archaeological methods constituted an historical a priori for knowledge or the precondition for knowledge. Knowledge is a metaphysical emanation of a “truth,” but the result of a series of statements (enounce or systematic statement) that may not be continuous but are related and eventually form a “discourse” over time, and that discourse becomes “knowledge.” Many scholars adopted Foucault’s ideas. Canadian scholar Ian Hacking became part of a Foucauldrian group of scholars in many areas who used Foucault’s ideas that knowledge was a construction of discourses and that these discourses which shape the world, arbitrarily through the language, construct society. In his 2006 essay “Making up People” in the London Review of Books, Hacking examined the emergence of various types of psychological “disorders” through discursive formations.

In Rules of Art (1992), Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) was another scholar who profited from using Foucauldrian methods in the study of the avant-garde in Paris during the 1830s. One scholar, Hacking, is interested in how discourses form people; the other scholar, Bourdieu, was concerned with how discourse formed cultural attitudes. One of the better known examples of a study of a discourse was Edward Said’s (1935-2003) Orientalism (1978), in which the author asserted that the “Orient” was a Western or Occidental discourse formed for the purposes of dominating the East. Said was the most overtly “structuralist” of these authors and violated Foucault’s strictures against Structuralism by setting up a formal opposition between the “East” and the “West.”

Foucault expended a great deal of space in setting up how and under what linguistic–not social or cultural–circumstances a discourse would be formed. He began with the “enunciative function” in which statements are made and related to one another. The “author,” Foucault cautioned “is not identical with with the subject of the statement,”a point he made over and over. The guide must be whether or not a sentence is a proposition or not and he pointed out that a sentence should not be analyzed in isolation. The sentence becomes a statement only when it is part of an associated field. As Foucault stated, “There is no statement that does not presuppose others; there is no statement that is not surrounded by a field of coexistences, effects of series and succession, a distribution of functions of roles.” The subsequent “objects” as Foucault called them are placed in “a domain of coordination and coexistence” where they are placed in a space “in which they are used and repeated.” This space is, for Foucault, is “the operational field of the enunciative function.”

The next stage is the organizations of these statements into a “discourse,” which Foucault described as “a group of verbal performances,” “a group of acts of formulations, a series of sentences or propositions.” “A discourse,” Foucault stated, “is constituted by a group of sequences of signs,” which demonstrate “assigned particular modalities of existence.”He further described the function of this series as a “discursive formation..the principle of dispersion and redistribution of statements that “belong to a single system of formation.” Foucault described “that whole mass of texts that belong to a single discursive formation” as the historical a priori, a term he employed in order to shake off the old fashioned notion of a “history of ideas.” Foucault was concerned with “positivity” or what we would also call productivity that produced discursive formations, which are objects and not ephemeral “ideas.” But then Foucault has to determine the “rules” that create a discourse, but he sidesteps once again and formulates, not rules, but the “archive” or “that which determines that all things said do not accumulated endlessly in an amorphous mass..” The archive “defines at the outset the system of enunciabiltiy” and “the system of functioning.”

The archive is closely linked to “archaeology” and Foucault laid out his steps carefully leading up to describing his method. Given that the archive exists at the level of what he called “practice,” that practice enabled “statements both to survive and to undergo regular modifications, the archive “forms the general horizon to which the description of discursive formations,” which Foucault explained must be uncovered in a search called “archaeology.” Archaeology “designates the general theme of a description that questions the already-said at the level of its existence: of the enunciative function that operates within it, of the discursive formation, and the general archive system to which it belongs. Archaeology describes discourses as practices specified in the element of the archive.”

Foucault ended his book on archaeology by expressing his doubts on the concept of the “author,” an issue that he would take up quickly. The author is not exactly eliminated but must be understood as the agent of a series of statements that in their turn must be properly placed within a discourse. The author is part of a larger practice and is subsumed under the task of examining the rules that allowed the discourse to form. Foucault also expressly distanced himself from Structuralism. Although throughout the book, he used linguistic and semiotic language, discussing sentences, statements and so on, Foucault’s intention was to denounce the Formalism of Structuralism. What he was trying to do was to move away from the major project of Structuralism which was the reading of specific documents and analyzing them through a “close reading” or a Formal analysis. Far from examining the “structure” of the discursive formation, Foucault examined the “practices” or the dynamics of how discourses were formed over time and the mechanisms of their placement (the rules that allowed them to exist) in the archive. Archaeology sought to redirect the gaze of the historian away from the “history of ideas” to the ways in which certain speech acts were gathered together into a specific practice.

Foucault’s position needs to be understood in relation to what he is “not” writing about. Reading Foucault always involves wading through many sentences that state what he is not doing in order to find a sentence that states what he is doing. The negative sentences will outnumber the positive sentences. Foucault’s rather backwards approach–that of backing into his position–is necessary because he must clear away the rubble of past methodologies. What Foucault is not doing is traditional history. “History” is not a natural phenomenon but a cultural construct. We all have a “past”, but the “past” is simply a random un-patterned cacophony of non-events and non-incidents until this jumble of moments is taken up by a historian and is constructed into something called “history.”

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Harold Bloom: A Map of Misreading


Literary Criticism and Close Reading

Although Harold Bloom (1930-), from the perspective of the 21st century seems like a historical figure, he was a liminal figure caught between Modernism and Postmodernism. It is one of the ironies of Bloom’s career that he fought titanic battles with waning New Criticism, won that battle by tossing together a salad of new theories landing on the shores of the Ivy Leagues, only to be confronted with even newer theories that would rise up and scorn him. Through it all Bloom persevered, writing forty books, all of which center upon the importance of the author as creator. To understand the implications of Bloom’s position in the world of criticism, it is an awkward one–in between New Criticism which swept the poet away in favor of the poem and Postmodern theory which posited the author as “dead” or a mere fulcrum of references.

New Criticism was a new and methodical way of reading in a more precise manner, called “close.” A “close reading” of the text is based on the understanding that a text is unified and that it means exactly what it says. The author and the historical context of the author, his or her biography or intentions were irrelevant. New Criticism was the founding method of literary in the sense that it focused on making distinctions between modes of criticism at a time when new ways of writing, from James Joyce to Virginia Woolfe to Ernest Hemingway, demanded new ways of analysis. The fact that writing was more self involved, backgrounding narrative in favor of exploring the textures of the language itself. It seemed sensible to René Wellek (1903-1995) to focus on literature as literature and his seminal Theory of Literature, published in 1946 establish a foundation for formalist criticism. It is important to remember that the formalist art critic, Clement Greenberg, was part of the literary community and like Wellek published in the Partisan Review.

In summing up René Wellek’s approach to New Criticism, Sarah Lawall’s 1988 essay, “René Wellek and Modern Literary Criticism,” sound eerily like something one would write of Greenberg:

His insistence on the study of “literature itself,” as the culmination of a broad critical historical, theoretical and multilingual inquiry, reversed the status of prevailing extra-literary schemes of interpretation: no longer did they exhaust a work’s significance, or function as its only source of value. Wellek’s own set of values–his claim that each discipline must establish its proper object of study, and that literary study must focus on the autonomous category of art: his affirmation that no critical perspective is neutral; and his rejection of critical relativism even though he sees literature as an integral part of cultural history–has been part of our literary debates for four decades.

Wellek was one of the mid-century critics who articulated this new position, coming in the wake of I. A. Richards, T. S. Eliot and Cleanth Brooks. New Criticism eliminated the author’s intention as being irrelevant to the outcome or effect of the book, but the efficacy of literature does not rest upon the way the text made the writer feel. By marking off these two “fallacies”–the intentional fallacy and the affective fallacy–are irrelevant. The focus should be the text itself which is then subjected to a close reading by the literary critic. Texts possess intrinsic meanings that owe nothing to the writer and must be read as a structure composed of words which are knitted together into a unified whole. The result of close reading is a seamless and consistent organic work of art that can be analyzed in a near-scientific manner. New Criticism would be conflated with the prevailing 20th century idea of “art for art’s sake,” but it proponents denied that history was totally precluded from consideration but, in fact, formalist criticism considered form to be content.

Bloom’s A Map of Misreading (1975)

Against this background, Harold Bloom, an outsider, reanimated the author as a Romantic hero. Like Walter Benjamin reviving the reviled Baroque, Bloom reasserted the importance of Romanticism and Romantic poetry an art form long on the critical wane. In imagining a curious mixture of the writer as a Byronic rebel and as a Biblical prophet who fought to bring a poem into being, Bloom recast literature as a record of a struggle between the “son” and his literary “father.” Although Bloom is often seen as the anti-thesis to Postmodern theories of all stripes–and indeed he also saw himself as the opposite of Jacques Derrida. In his 1986 article on Bloom, the writer for The New York Times Magazine, Colin Campbell, quoted Bloom heaping scorn on his colleagues at Yale:

”You cannot go anywhere,” he cries, ”without running into various covens and sects and various new orthodoxies of a self-righteous kind. There are the purple-haired semioticians; there are the deconstructionists; there are those who have abolished anything like a coherent discourse, for whom every text is an aberration..To try to find out what’s going on at Yale now is beyond my power.” But Campbell continued, Bloom is not finished. He speaks of ”punk ideologies,” of ”vicious feminism,” of new modes of ”stifling doctrine” and of “new Stalinisms.” He describes one young member of the English department as ”an out-and-out Marxist agitator” and ”a horse’s ass,’‘ and he says some leftist notions of bourgeois art have grown so crude as to be unrecognizable. ”It’s almost the poet-as-slumlord theory. They have their colleagues terrified. ”There is no method except yourself,” says Bloom, ”and this is what they refuse to learn.” Ideologists of every description hate the self, he says. ”They all deny that there can be such a thing as an individual.”

It is over thirty years since this article and in the 21st century, it is difficult to read Bloom without a frisson of irritation when confronted with his male-based patriarchal theoretical position–he refers to the young male poet as an “ephebe.” However, it is important to remember that this was a man who missed all the Civil Rights movements and it is possible to re-read his theories from the perspective of production. If art makers are cultural producers then what are the materials they utilize to make art? Despite his protestations to the contrary, Bloom’s work is every bit as Postmodern as that of his colleagues: it is performative and self-conscious, riddled with constructs derived from Greek and Latin, but if the reader manages to clear away the name droppings there are some interesting insights about the psychology of creation. In reviewing the book in “The Poet as Oedipus” of 1975, the late Edward Said stated,

Bloom is the most rare of critics. He has what seems to be a totally detailed command of English poetry and its scholarship, as well as an intimate acquaintance with the major avant-garde critical theories of the last quarter century. (He is De Vane Professor of the Humanities at Yale.) Yet for Bloom this gigantic apparatus, to which he has assimilated Freudian theory and the Kabbalistic doctrines of Isaac Luria, a 16th-century Jewish mystic, is no mere scholarly baggage. Since it is the essence of Bloom’s vision that every poem is the result of a critical act, by which another, earlier poem is deliberately misread, and hence re-written, it follows also that Bloom’s sense of the poems he has read is intensely combative, constantly experienced, actively felt.

In A Map of Misreading, Bloom continued his habit of creating his own linguistic terms to explain his concept of passing on the poetic tradition. His tropes became “anxiety” and “misreading” and, in his second book of the series, many of his terms came from the Kabbala. He explained “misprision”–a deliberate misunderstanding–as a “swerve” away from the predecessor by the new poet who completes the parent poem by retaining its terms and its fragments but means these terms in another sense. The Kabbala speaks of the “breaking of the vessels” as part of the primal process of Creation and Bloom uses the concept of vessel and breaking and emptying to describe the labor of literature. The new poet empties out him/(herself) humbly and “empties out” the precursor as well, an act that opens up the essential power of the earlier poem and functions as a return of the dead. Said explained how the views of Bloom challenged the status quo position on the role of the artist:

The ground of literature is the text, just as its father–the mixed metaphor is inescapable, and encouraged by every writer who ever wrote–is the author. This is the very citadel of literary orthodoxy. Only a great writer will challenge that fortress of certainty. He will see that a father is himself a son; he will also see that his own work must be protected not only from writers who will come after it, but also from the powerful authors that precede him, who remind him by their strength of their prior authority and his filial secondariness.

Such a vision immediately plays havoc with the stability of texts and authors, indeed with the whole order of culture. The past becomes an active intervention in the present; the future is preposterously made just a figure of the past in the present. No text can be complete because on the one hand it is an attempt to struggle free of earlier texts impinging on it and, on the other, it is preparing itself to savage texts not yet written by authors not yet born. Every writer and every text is not–cannot be–itself, does not have a rock-bottom Aristotelian identity. Instead of texts and authors, there are wills struggling to overcome other wills, there are patricides and infanticides whose paradox is that poetry is, if not the manifest result of such violence, then the constantly impressive evidence.

The ancestral poet is dead but still embarrassingly potent and present, but, as Kierkegaard said, “He who is willing to work must give birth to his own father.” Strong poets do not read poetry; strong poets can read only themselves. In comparison to weak poets who remain enslaved to the traditional system, who are creatively inhibited by obsessive reasoning and comparing their works to those of their precursors, strong poets are involved in acts of creative “correction” and deliberate misinterpretation. In his typically Baroque and deliberately dramatic writing style, Bloom declaimed,

<Only a poet challenges a poet as a poet, and so only a poet makes a poet. To the poet-in-a-poet, a poem is always the other man, the precursor, and so a poem is always a person, always the father of one’s Second Birth. To live, the poet must misinterpret the father, by the crucial act of misprision, which is the re-writing of the father. But who, what is the poetic father? The voice of the other, of the daimon, is always speaking in one; the voice that cannot die because already it has survived death–the dead poet lives in one.

Bloom wrote of “agon” in his books. On one level agon, which is a Greek concept, seems to refer simply to a contest but the origin of this “contest” is a dialogue in Greek theater between the protagonist and the antagonist. Agon originated specifically in literature as a verbal contest, a struggle of wit and language. Later, especially during Roman times, agon becomes firmly attached to competitive games, such as chariot races, and becomes linked to the idea of victory and winning. In using this term of antagonism, Bloom precluded more benign concepts to describe creativity, such as “homage” or “collaboration.” The artist strives, in a very Modernist fashion, to overthrow the past and to assert his genius. Genius is strong, but the age of the genius is weak and the strong poet runs the risk of drowning in the act of becoming a good reader of earlier poets. As Bloom explained in Kabbalah and Criticism (1975),

Strong poets must be mis-read; there are no generous errors to be made in apprehending them, any more than their own errors of reading are ever generous. Every poet caricatures tradition and every strong poet is then necessarily mis-read by the tradition that he fosters. The strongest of poets are so severely mis-read that the generally accepted, broad interpretations o their work actually tend to be the exact opposites of what the poems truly are.

This danger of encountering the genius of the stronger poet arouses anxiety for the challenger, as the whole being of the poet must be unique in order for the poet to survive. Bloom writing as if he is aware of Postmodern idea of the bricoleur stated that the strong poet usurps and appropriates that which is strong and available within the language. And Bloom writes as if he has begun to incorporate the idea of intertextuality when he notes that the great poem can refer only to other great poems and emanates from the intricate balance of psychic warfare. The good poet steals, leaps and located his/herself in the freedom that is discontinuity.


Harold Bloom (1930-)

But Bloom also remained true to the structured meaning of literature when he asserted that literature is a text, stating that poems are not things: poems are words that refer only to other words and any poem is an inter-poem and reading is only inter-reading. Although Bloom sounds rather like a holdover from New Criticism, he is also a critic who is aware of his own theoretical time when he asserted that a poem is never written but rewritten because every poem is belated–a very Postmodern stance. Art is necessarily an after-ing, every artist a latecomer who lives under the shadow of art. The artist must usurp and seize textual authority in an act of imposition and a declaration of property. Poetry is thus an aspiring to strength that is necessarily competitive and obsessive. However, Bloom was no Postmodernist, despite his traces and flirtations with the tropes of Postmodernist theories, for he was always concerned with self-actualizaiton through an act of will, through an assertion of self-consciousness. In other words, self-representation is achieved only through “trespass” or an act of invasion into the territory of another artist, who then becomes the “father.”

In a purely Freudian fashion, as if the sons are collectively assaulting the father, Bloom asserts that the strong poet must invent him/herself through a strong new poem that is a sin of transgression against origins. The poet obtains freedom, that is, obtains a meaning of his/her own, achieved against an a priori fullness of meaning–tradition which leads the new strong poet to a territory of his own. This freedom of meaning can be arrived at only through combat–a reading encounter by a strong poet who loves his/her own poetry, and must live it, in order to get it written and to open up a poetic space or a terrain captured from another poet. In asserting that poetry can come only out of a lineage of poetry, Bloom seemed to be rejecting the possibility of a poetic revolution, such as that of Stéphane Mallarmé. Indeed, his list of “strong poets” is somewhat limited to the Romantic poets of the 18th century and those of the early 20th century. By asserting the primacy of existing tradition and, incidentally, upholding a canon of “strong poets,” Bloom was able to save history and tradition, genius and originality from the historicism and eclecticism, and the appropriation and borrowing of Postmodernism.

As a Jewish writer, Bloom appears to think in an almost Biblical construct of “begets”, establishing a patriarchal lineage of sons wrestling with their dead fathers for poetic or artistic territory. The question remains whether or not Bloom’s concept of Agon can be un-colored and un-gendered and re-made into a general account of how artists come to terms with the past and find their own creative ground through psychological suffering and self-protection that forces them onto new territories. He continues the formalism of Structuralism by reading poetry out of historical context and continues the Structuralism of Structuralism by creating another figurative metaphor: a field of conflict, and continues the teleological imperatives of Modernism as art begets art within a closed world, combining works of art, psychologies and histories.

But Bloom, as is recalled, worked with the radical Yale deconstructionists, Paul de Man and Jacques Derrida. There are aspects of his work that seem to reconcile the Postmodern denial of originality and its assertion of belatedness with the Modernist need to explain and to celebrate “genius.” But in the final analysis, Postmodernism is about the gaps, while Modernism is about continuity and the continuous rupture with the past. Bloom sees the tradition of “art” as being a conflicted hand-off, Agon, between fathers and sons. Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault would have very different views about how art is made.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Post-Colonial Theory: The Subaltern



Can the Subaltern Speak?

One can posit phases in Post-Colonial theory, moving across time from the post-war reaction against colonial rule in the fifties and the sixties, Albert Memmi (1920-), Aime Cesaire (1913-2008), and Frantz Fanon (1925-1962), to name a few writers, the shift towards an analysis of culture through the lens of representation, the “cultural turn,” of the seventies seen in the work of Edward Said (1935-2003), and then, in the eighties, a decisive break away from the Marxist framework to a Post-Structuralist position. Post-Structuralism, which is a hybrid alliance of philosophy with linguistic theory with literary analysis, allowed for a surge of pluralism. Before the end of the 20th century, there was a tendency to view what is a very complex picture of colonized territories as a homogeneous subject, subsumed under the yoke of imperialism. But as more and more voices from the bottom up being raised on high and asserting themselves, multiple points of view came to light: women, gays and lesbians, a variety of colors and ethnicities and religions.

With the opening of the discourse came new problems, the most important being elucidated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (1942-) who asked a very good question in her groundbreaking 1988 essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” The term “subaltern” comes out of the empire itself, for it is a British term for a military designation. A subaltern is a lieutenant, an officer whose rank is one notch higher than the non-commissioned soldiers and below the high ranking officers. The term was carried over from the military to connote the “natives” who were designated as mid-level bureaucrats and factotum figures in the service of the Empire. In order to be effective the subaltern had to learn the language of the colonizer and thus lost authenticity and were slightly removed from their native culture. By speaking the language of the dominator or the ruler, the subaltern validated or “recognized” the Master.

The trap for the colonized was certainly recognized by the early post-colonial writers but it was a problem that has yet to be resolved. When one writes/speaks in what one hopes is an authentic voice, such as Luce Irigaray, then one is not always heard and the impact is limited to one’s own community. When post-colonial critics use the theories of European philosophers thinkers and apply these Eurocentric ideas to the post-colonial condition, these same writers who question the appropriateness of Europeans speaking of and about the same colonial condition are speaking in the language of the master. As the feminist Audre Lorde (1934-1992) gave a talk in 1984 titled, “The Master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” As a double outsider, a black and lesbian scholar, she asked,

What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy? It means that only the most narrow perimeters of change are possible and allowable.

Like Edward Said, Spivak is an exile, living on the faculty of Columbia University. It is a stunning fact that when she was appointed Professor in 2007, she was the first woman of color to be elevated to that rank in the entire history of the University. This one fact explains why her question is important but the fact that she is able to “speak” is due to her privileged position in academia. Spivak, a native of India, a former colonial possession, completed her graduate education at Cornell, an Ivy League institution, wrote her dissertation a white male writer. W. B. Yeats, under the supervision of the renowned scholar Paul de Man (1919-1983). These bone fides gave her “permission” to “speak.” It is ironic that, in her turn, she took up the worthy cause of giving voice to those who were silence/d in society and in so doing takes up the position of someone who is “speaking for” the others. The position of Spivak is split and ambiguous–the colonized speaking as a colonizer–an illustrates the difficulties faced by any Other who seizes the power to “speak.”

Who can speak? And under what conditions does one speak? What language should be used? The answer depends on the point of view. In “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Gayatri Spivak investigated the issue of the “subject” in 1988. Borrowing from Structuralism and Georg Hegel, Spivak pointed out that the West is the Subject, the one who speaks and the East is the Object, the one who is spoken of. But Spivak’s essay which challenged the use of Western methodology to examine the non-Western Other, contributed to an important questioning of using Marxism in Postcolonial studies. She stated that the group of scholars who were among the first to consider the “subaltern,” the “Subaltern Studies” group “must” consider the question of whether or not the subaltern can ever speak. As Vivek Chibber pointed out in his 2013 book, Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital, this group at the University of Sussex, used Marxist theory—a point also make by Spivak who effectively revealed the contradictions inherent in Western philosophy which empowers the One and silences the Other.


Spivak began her essay by referring to an unguarded conversation between Giles Deleuze (1925-1995) and Michel Foucault (1926-1984), which is an example of unintended ideological thinking. It was not her point to recount the conversation. Her point is that two Western philosophers were talking about the Other from the perspective of sovereign subjects. Not only that but Western philosophers, of whom Deleuze and Foucault are but examples, also interpret social and philosophical theories from a very limited and ideological perspective. Why use Marx instead of Mao? Why be confined to French thought? “The unrecognized contradiction within a position that valorizes the concrete experience of the oppressed, wile being so uncritical about the historical role of the intellectual , is maintained by a verbal slippage.” She insists that intellectual should attempt to know the Other and to not take the power position of interpreting the Other from the perspective of the One. The result is ironic: Michel Foucault had previously written about “epistemic violence” when a discourse is imposed upon a silenced group, and Spivak commented,

..a curious methodological imperative is at work. I have argued that, in the Foucault-Deleuze conversation, a postrepresentationalist vocabulary hides and essentialist agenda. In subaltern studies, because of the violence of imperialist epistemic, social, and disciplinary inscription, a project understood in essentialist terms must traffic in a radical textual practice of differences.

The issue of representation is critical here. By the time Spivak is writing, Foucauldrian thought has already been applied to a critique of those in power representing those not in power. Nevertheless, Deleuze and Foucault “represent” the oppressed group and speak for the “subaltern” while assuming that they themselves are self-knowing and transparent. Marx, who had a black son-in-law, refused to acknowledge that the oppressed masses of Europe could speak for themselves. They must be spoken for. Marx made a distinction between “Vertretung” or representation in the political context in terms of substitution in which the society is subordinated to itself and “Darstellung” the philosophical concept of representation in the sense of staging or signification.

Spivak pointed out that Edward Said also criticized Foucault for being complicit in the maintenance of power over oppressed people by mystifying power and by ignoring institutional responsibility. Said, a Palestinian in exile at Columbia University, maintained that Foucault and other European intellectuals, was caught up in the constitution of Europe as Subject. The Other is represented by the intellectual as, according to Spivak, “the Self’s shadow.” Both writers agree the position of the One is “epistemic violence,” the “heterogeneous project” to constitute the Colonial Subject as the Other. The activity of the intellectual One results in “an asymmetrical obliteration of the trace of the Other.” As she wrote,

This S/subject, curiously sewn together into a transparency by denegations, belongs to the exploiters’ side of the international division of labor. It is impossible for contemporary French intellectuals to imagine the kind of Power and Desire that would inhabit the unnamed subject of the Other of Europe.

Spivak charged that the nostalgia for lost origins is detrimental to any social realism within the critique of imperialism. In other words, the concern for the “oppressed” hides a privileging of the intellectual and of the study of oppression (over a study of the oppressed). Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) asked if Deconstruction could lead to actual practice: how to keep the Ethnocentric subject from establishing itself by selectively defining the Other. The problem is benevolent Western intellectuals. Spivak took up the possibility of Deconstructing the presence of the Westerner. Postcolonial critics attempt to displace their own production only by presupposing “text-inscribed blankness” to hide any recognition of the Other by assimilation to the Eurocentric science of writing. Like Fanon, Spivak makes a distinction between the Colonizer and the masses of the Colonized and the assimilated “subaltern.” The subaltern inhabits a buffer zone of in-betweeness or what Derrida referred to as “antre” or a situational indeterminacy. This class resides within the imperialist epistemic, which hides its essentialist agenda.

While Derrida points to the danger of appropriating the Other through this textual assimilation, Spivak noted that he, Derrida, has nothing to say about women. Third World women are triply disadvantaged; they are poor, black, and female. Spivak suggested that the colonies were subjugated through a “narrative of imperialism” and that First World intellectuals do not recognize the fact that the Oppressed can speak about and know their conditions. The subaltern, like women, have only the imperialist narrative just as women have only the phallocentric tradition. Women are silenced within this imperialistic phallocentric tradition. The track of sexual difference is doubly effaced through the ideological construction of gender, which keeps the male dominant. The subaltern female is even more deeply in this shadow. Her consciousness is ignored and unacknowledged and subsumed by masculine radicalism so that she is a historically muted subplot. Spivak wrote,

Subaltern historiography raises questions of method that would prevent it from using such a ruse. For the “figure” of woman, the relationship between women and silence can be plotted by women themselves; race and class differences are subsumed under that charge. Subaltern historiography must confront the impossibility of such gestures. The narrow epistemic violence of imperialism gives us an imperfect allegory of the general violece that is the possibility of the episteme.

The Third World Woman is a monolithic construction that is an imperialist subject production, a project Spivak called “..the ferocious standardizing benevolence..of human-scientific radicalism (recognition by assimilation)..” One never hears these women’s voices, only the voices of the Imperialist who claims to be “white men saving brown women from brown men.” If the Muslim culture puts women under black veils and covers them with long garments, then Western culture shrouds women with discourse and cultural constructions. The figure of the woman disappears and is shuttled back and forth between tradition and modernization. The imperialist measures the “protection” of women as a signifier of a good society.

The subaltern is lost in the colonialist rhetoric, in the imperialist program. Derrida found complicity between European writing, which revealed structures of desire, power, and capitalization. To a woman, a person of color, or to a non-Westerner, this revelation would hardly be surprising. To fight against inclusiveness and assimilation into male discourse as “victims,” it is important to be specific and factual instead of creating “pathetic” critiques of Eurocentrism. Another possibility is to intervene through silence, that is, a refusal to be engaged with an imperialist enterprise. To speak or to be silent? If one cannot speak what difference would silence make? The subaltern is still represented and the woman is still under the “protection” of imperialism. Spivak closes without closure.

The Subaltern cannot speak. There is no virtue in global laundry lists with “woman” as a pious item. Representation has not withered away. The female intellectual has a circumscribed task, which she must not disown with a flourish.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Post-Colonial Theory: Edward Said




Perhaps the most influential and widely read Post-Colonial critic was the late Edward Said (1935 – 2003) a Palestinian intellectual who was born in Jerusalem and died in exile in America. His well-known book, Orientalism was published in 1978 and is probably the often utilized structural analysis of Post-Colonial theory. Said’s approach is the first fully developed analysis of Post-Colonialism that is impersonal, intellectual, and yet in the tradition of engaged scholarship. A generation after that of Albert Memmi and Aime Cesaire and Frantz Fanon, Said was more of a New Yorker than a colonized individual and belongs to the postmodern phenomenon of the global diaspora. In the privileged precincts of Columbia University, Said joined the “cultural turn,” in which literary theory and Foucauldrian discourse became methodological tools through which to view culture.

It is obvious that “culture” is neither nature nor natural, but how is culture made and for what purposes? By the seventies, Marxism had been folded into a postmodern theory of representation which is where “Orientalism” can be located. With the now-expected antecedents of Hegelian logic embedded in critical theory, it was possible for Said to build on the foundation of previous scholars. In contrast to Memmi and Cesaire and Fanon who viewed colonialism as a psychological sickness created by the twisted intertwined Master/Slave dialectic, Said took a Post-Structuralist–he read the discourse of “orientalism,” consisting of text of 18th and 19th century European scholars and antiquarians who constructed a representation of an idea of an East that was not the West and conversely of a West that was not the East.

The basic assumptions that underly the book include the historical fact of European colonial domination and imperialist exploitation that put European scholars in the position to gaze upon the exotic other and to study this alien otherness for European purposes. As was noted in an earlier post, the European concern with the East can be traced back as far as the religious clash between Christianity and Islam that began in the seventh century and continues today. For centuries a parity was reached when the demarcation between religious territories was sealed by the Austro-Hungarian empire, but, after two world wars in the 20th century, the wound was reopened and laid bare. When the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East began to weaken, the Europeans, led by the French under Napoléon, began to encroach upon northern Africa. Under the scientific gaze of Europeans, Egypt and by extension the Holy Land became an object of study and a place of imaginative exploration.

This land, Holy to Christian and Muslim, this territory that was an eternal historical battleground trod over by many civilizations was the starting point for Said who turned the intellectual tables on the West. For Said, “Orientalism” or the Western construction of the “imaginary Orient” was fashioned by Europeans through practices of writing, which had the effect of representing the Other, the East. Few people, except for hard core historians and literary theorists have ventured much beyond his introduction and most readers probably find his later work, Culture and Imperialism (1993) more interesting to read. When he established the notion of the “Occident” in opposition to the “Orient”, Said was echoing Georg Hegel and Simon de Beauvoir and using these intellectual sources, Said re-positioned the West as the masculine One to the East’s feminized Other.

That said, Michel Foucault’s elaboration on the “discourse” is probably the most important of Said’s intellectual influences. Foucault’s impact can be discerned clearly in traces: the repeated exhortations as to what Said is not saying and the long meandering sentences with endless pauses with semi-colons. When Said established a literary or discursive “field” in which “the Orient” is constructed through language and representation, he was following the concepts of Foucault. Foucault dated the habit of Western Othering from the post-Medieval substitution of the leper with the mad person as the Other in society. Someone had to be an outcast. As Foucault pointed out in Madness and Civilization, this Other was constructed through discourse, or non-expressive utterances, that constructed an object to be first written of and then examined and then incarcerated. The language must be created for the Other to be spoken of and for the discourse to be constructed. People had always lived in territories that had a Muslim history but in order for these groups to be elucidated they had to be discursively constructed–named and studied and controlled.

Foucault posited the power of the “gaze” of the One that would then represent the Other. In his later work, Discipline and Punish, he linked “voir” (to see) with “savoir” (knowledge) and “pouvoir” (power). Thus seeing (the gaze of the authority) produces knowledge, which produces power. Through historical circumstances, it was the Western regions who “advanced” technologically faster than the East and thus it was the Europeans who took it upon themselves to name the regions, “The West” and “The East,” “The Occident” and The Orient.” Today to merely use these terms is Eurocentric–Europe is at the center of the world and all other regions relate to it–a totally imperialist position. The imperialist stance and language is part of the discourse of Orientalism, which is an example of how the powerful represent the powerless. from former Secretary of State, Henry Kissenger, stating the the problem of the Middle East that the region did not experience the Enlightenment to the more recent work of scholar Bernard Lewis who insisted that the Muslim nations deliberately refused to participate in Modernism, the “Orient” has been seen as the uncivilized, barbaric, backward Other.

orientalism_John Frederick Lewis_The Reception

John Frederick Lewis,. The Reception (1873)

But all that has been stated by Western scholars is merely words, language which have created a veil of representation that allows the East to be spoken of from a position of power, not truth. Said, following Foucault, stated that “Orientalism” is a discourse, a whole network of interests. Orientalism as a practice of writing was mainly a British and French enterprise due to the particular closeness of these nations with the “Orient.” Another way of expressing this “closeness” is to point to the long history of colonialism and imperialism by these two nations in the Middle East. “Orientalism” was but part of a network of cultural effects that justified Western control over such a backward region. The Orient is not a fact of nature but an idea that has a history with its own vocabulary and its own imagery. European culture gained in strength and identity be setting itself up against the Orient, so, as Said stated, the two geographic entities support and reflect each other–as opposites in a mirror.

Like a mirror, the images reverse each other with the privileging on the side of the Occident. In Lacanian language, the Orient is the narcissistic reversal of the fictional Self of the Occident or the “idea” of Europe. This Orient is a European idea and invention, not, as Said warned, essentially an idea with no correspondence in reality. The East is a European construction that facilitates a very real relationship of power and domination between West and East. Orientalism became a textual grid through which “The Orient” was filtered into Western consciousness.In saying that the West was a prevailing ideology, Said borrowed the concept of hegemony or prevailing “cultural form” from a new influence on Post-Colonial theory, Antonio Gramsci (1891 – 1937) and his odd assortment of Prison Notebooks from 1929-1935 . According to Gramsci certain cultural forms or representational discourses have dominance over others and reflect cultural leadership. Orientalism was a collective European notion of European superiority with the West having the upper hand. The network of discursive structures was put in place by European scholars over time with the intention to understand (to produce knowledge) in order to control and manipulate a very different world: the Orient.

The European encounter with the alien culture was not only a cultural clash but also a meeting between unequals. By the beginning of the Nineteenth Century, the Orient was but a shadow of its former self. According to Said’s arch intellectual enemy, Bernard Lewis, Professor Emeritus at Princeton, the Middle East had deliberately made the collective cultural decision to eschew Western scientific modernism and thus “missed” the Enlightenment at a crucial moment. The technological gap between East and West was signaled by the stunning victory of Napoléon over the Egyptians in 1794 (where his army discovered marijuana. Soon everyone was inhaling and Baudelaire writes under the spell of the weed. The British imbibed the drug as a “medicine” and the Queen herself used hashish for menstrual cramps.). The Western imagination was fevered by thoughts of the depravity of the East and, although Said did not discuss art, by the second decade of the nineteenth century, Ingres was painting his many paintings of the legendary harems and Delacroix actually paid a visit to the secluded ladies of Algiers. The idea of the Orient was “appropriated” both artistically and scientifically by the all conquering Europeans. It is at this point in time, the early decades of the 19th century, when the West was actively changing the West, Lewis wrote,

Some centuries earlier, the Islamic Middle East had led he world in science and technology, including devices for measuring time. But Middle-Eastern technology and science ceased to develop,precisely at the moment when Europe and more specifically Western Europe was advancing to new heights. The disparity was gradual but progressive.

Not only could Western powers come and go in the Middle East as they pleased, but it was also at this time that the East became the object of the European gaze. The scrutiny of the “Orient” is linked to imperialism and empire with the Middle East the first and closest territory of conquest. As Foucault stated in Discipline and Punish, to see is to produce knowledge and to have power. The Orient was constructed along the lines of other conquered territories, as “inferior”, as “feminine”, as “uncivilized”, as “barbaric”, and as the Other. Europe is powerful and articulate; Asia is defeated and distant. The Orient is insinuating and dangerous; and Western rationality is undermined by Eastern excesses. These literary characterizations fulfilled two needs, first to justify the domination of one group over the other and second to create an identity for the dominant group. The Orient was contained and represented within the dominating framework. The rise of Orientalism as a system of representation coincides with the rise of European empires. Between 1815 and 1914, Europeans directly controlled 85% of the globe.

Orientalism as a European textual construction is implicated with colonial authority and is a product of exteriority in which the Orientalist is the one who represents the Orient as the other. If the Orient could represent itself, it would; but it cannot, and therefore, it is the task of the Orientalist to represent the silenced culture. Thus the Orient is made clear to the Westerner, and the representation of the East functions in terms of traditions, conventions, and codes. The Oriental is “irrational, depraved, fallen, childlike, different”, while the European is “rational, virtuous, mature, normal”. This “knowledge” of the Oriental produces “the Oriental”. The Orient is divided into two spaces: the Near East and the Far East, but this Orient is but a stage where the East is confined. The Orient is penalized for being outside the system of Western Christianity’s morality. The tropes of Orientalism were collections of free-floating fragments that were accumulated into units of knowledge. This “knowledge” was a resistance to the strangeness of the Orient. Said pointed out,

..Orientalism is not a mere political subject matter or field that is reflected passively by culture, scholarship, or institutions; nor is it a large and diffuse collection of texts about the Orient’ nor is it representative and expressive of some nefarious “Western” imperialist plot to hold down the “Oriental” world. It is rather 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 (the world is made up of two unequal halves, Orient and Occident) but also a whole series of “interests” which, by means as scholarly discovery, philological reconstruction, 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 (or alternative and novel) world; it is, above all, a discourse that is by no means in direct, corresponding relationship with political power in the raw, but rather is produced and and exists in an uneven exchange with various kinds of power..

Said wrote that the Western writers had a strategic location, or a location of power, from which s/he writes texts that become part of a strategic formation or a discourse where the “oriental studies” reside. He pointed out that the practice of Western representation of the East, from the “exterior” is done on the assertion that if the East could represent itself it could and since it cannot, the West must do this task of representation. These cultural discourses are ” not ‘truth’ but representations. “It hardly needs to demonstrated again that language itself is a highly organized and encoded system, which employs many devices to express, indicate, exchange messages and information, represent and so forth.” As a result of this “representation,” regardless of the century, the Orient is always fixed in time and place in the mind of the West and the represented “history” of the “Orient” is conceived of as a series of responses to the West which is always the actor and judge of Oriental behavior. Edward Said made the point that this binary opposition based upon the semiotics of power results in paternalistic or aggressive foreign policy decisions. He noted that Henry Kissinger based his policy towards the Orient upon the very binary relations that Orientalists had been constructing for centuries.

Henry Kissinger, architect of the last stage of the Viet Nam War, divided the world in terms of the colonizer: there are those societies which are pre-Newtonian and post-Newtonian, undeveloped and developed. In other words, Kissinger assumed that the experience of the Enlightenment is necessary for “civilization”. His assumptions were based upon the supposed superiority of Western—Newtonian—scientific, rational thinking that produced “superior” technological society. In the year 2007, Kissenger warned against imposing Western ideas upon a region that did not share the same history,

In the West, democracy developed within a religion that, even when it when it was the dominant religion, elaborated a distinction between what was God’s and what was Ceasar’s. That doesn’t exist in any other religion. Then we had the Reformation. Then we had the Enlightenment. Then we had the age of discovery. None of these precedents exist anywhere else.

Edward Said lived long enough to witness September 11th an event that elevated Bernard Lewis to a consultant to the Bush administration. He also lived long enough to watch the American invasion of Iraq in March of 2003, an invasion predicated “Oriental” perfidy and the need of backward peoples to be rescued by democracy. Forty years later and two invasions of Iraq later, Orientalism was still one of the best known books, widely read in theory but completely ignored in practice. Edward Said died in exile, never wavering from his position that Israel was a colonial entity established by imperialist powers and imposed illegitimately upon a people that were considered to have no claim to territory or to identity.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]