My Thoughts on Foucault & Said’s “Orientalism”

Michel Foucault’s assertions that “power comes from below” and “where there is power, there is resistance” is fundamentally at odds with Edward Said’s formulation of Orientalism (94). The discourse Foucault speaks of is an all encompassing discourse that threads through force relations (as opposed to power relations).  He separates discourse from terminal forms of power in a way that Said does not. Foucault emphasizes that state’s power is always local and unstable, whereas power is everywhere (93).  Simultaneously, Foucault counters Marxist analyses of society and power, contending that “there is no binary and all- encompassing opposition between rulers and ruled at the root of power relations” (94).

Said speaks of Orientalism as a discursive power that shapes perceptions and representations of the peoples of the Orient. He paints the picture of a great power bearing down on those ‘Oriental’ peoples.  He makes no mention of how those subjugated participate in the discourse that shapes their perception and representation.   Michel Foucault emphasizes that power originates from below and that institutions that do rise to prominence and influence lie at the intersection of supporting force relations, not in relation to superstructural positions or in regards to relationships (94).  Where Said denies Orientalism status as a participatory discourse, Foucault asserts, “Where there is power, there is resistance” (95).

Marxist interpretations of society treat social cleavages as a battle ground.  The proletarian class is interminably at odds with the wealth- holding class, and society’s trajectory is towards a revolution.  Foucault’s formulation of power rejects this, as power is not something “acquired, seized, or shared.”  Foucault concedes that there are “great radical ruptures, massive binary divisions” but he resolves this, explaining that these divisions are indicative of a ‘mobile and transitory points of resistance, producing cleavages in a society that shift about” (96).  Yes, “where there is power, there is resistance” applies here. What makes revolutions possible are the “strategic codifications of these points of resistance” not the collective weariness of proletarian class, rather the convergence of points of resistance.

As I read this, I visualized a seismological model of earth’s fault lines.  Various faults lie atop a very liquid interior (let’s call this liquid interior discursive power).  The thermodynamic activity beneath effectively shifts the plates in a manner that causes them to collide and diverge (the manifestation of power relations and relations of force).  The effect is an earthquake (revolutions), and as the plates shift, movement (transitory manifestations and concentrations of power).  This movement is what is visible, not what lies below.  Perhaps this explains Edward Said’s emphasis on top- down power relations and discursive powers, and also Marx’s conception of a society stratified by class.  “Power comes from below” and the individual does indeed matter.

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