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Asien-Orient-Institut PRO GED

Foucault in Perspective

A short piece by Neslihan Demirkol

Neslihan Demirkol


The Pro-Ged’s Kick-Off Meeting was held on February 22, 2019, with fruitful discussions on gender equality, diversity and critique through transnational Perspectives. The esteemed professor of sociology at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center, Marnia Lazreg gave an inspiring keynote speech at the closing session of the Kick-Off Meeting. Having studied broadly in the fields of human rights, social class inequality, cultural movements, and gender in the Middle East and North Africa, Prof. Lazreg’s lecture was mainly based on her latest book, entitled Foucault’s Orient: The Conundrum of Cultural Difference From Tunisia to Japan (Berghahn 2017). She focused on the influence of the Orient and Foucault’s “oriental experience” on his critical thought, a subject which has not received much attention in the scholarship on Foucault, as well as briefly touching upon the effects of his thoughts on academic feminism.

The main argument of Prof. Lazreg’s lecture, and her book, was that there is confusing divide between East and West in Foucault’s thought.  She supported this by referring to his writings, especially quoting the original preface of Folie et déraison: Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique in 1961: “the Orient is for the Occident everything that it is not.” Besides, she mentioned Les mots et les choses where Foucault introduced the book with an excerpt from Jorge Borges on a fictional Chinese encyclopedia about an odd classification of dogs. Prof. Lazreg’s argued that she aims to scrutinise this gap between his demystifying thought and his identification of the Orient as an enigma for the West. She traced the sources and evolution of Foucault’s view of the Orient as articulated in his philosophical-theoretical orientation and examined how his experiences of these cultures were framed by his philosophical/theoretical orientation. 

To this end, Prof. Lazreg conducted multi-disciplinary research on the Foucault’s experience in non-West countries. Foucault lived in Tunisia for two years between 1966 and 1968, travelled to Japan twice in 1970 and 1978, and was in Iran as a journalist. Thus Prof. Lazreg offered a detailed analysis of Foucault’s writings, speeches, lectures and interviews, a thorough archival search as well as in-depth interviews with people who got in contact with Foucault during his stay in this countries, such as students of his lectures, Foucault scholars of the countries in questions, translators of his books and interpreters who accompanied him during his visits. All this material collected through anthropological, sociological and philological methods laid the basis for a better understanding about the influence of the exclusion of the Orient from his understanding of Western ratio on Foucault’s perception of cultural differences and his experiences with non-Western cultures.

Foucault always had a critical attitude towards Marxist thought and even during his visits in Tunisia, Iran, or Japan, he mentioned Marx negatively. Prof. Lazreg argued that Foucault’s refutation of Marxist thought was, in fact, a part of his critique of Kant’s cosmopolitan anthropology and humanist philosophy. Nevertheless, while attacking humanist philosophy for identifying the Western experience as the universal human experience and the standard for the evaluation of other societies, Foucault did not succeed in decentralising his view of human philosophy, either. His main argument against Kantian anthropology was that the subject of it, “human”, is dead and what is universal is not human nature but language. Thus, Foucault’s tool for scrutinising Western culture was structuralist anthropology, and it seems like this tool served him well in deciphering Western culture and its history. However, his attempt to apply an anti-humanist approach failed in understanding the Orient. His travels to the Orient stand for more than mere memories, they hint about how Foucault’s non-humanistic approach was not able to explain the intersubjective character of cross-cultural interaction in non-Western cultures, thus to comprehend its social meaning. Lack of knowledge of local languages, e.g. Arabic, Persian and Japanese, also played a role in Foucault’s limit-experience. In all those settings, he was dependent on interpretation. He was able to communicate with a specific group of society and only through mediation.

According to Prof. Lazreg, Foucault experienced non-Western cultures through variations in tone and character. Foucault’s experience of these three non-Western cultures was mediated by “colonisation”, “religion” and “revolution“. For Foucault, Tunisia was the French-assimilated Orient and subsumed under Ancient Greek. He failed to perceive the Tunisian part of the culture hidden behind the French cover. In Iran, he was carried away by the “political spirituality“ of Shi’ism. It was the key in his interpretation of resistance and risk-taking in the protests. Japan was a challenge for Foucault. In Japan, he experienced the “limit“ between the Orient and the West. He got lost in the culture and had to admit that he needed to learn more about the culture. However, he never did, and his anthropological method failed in cracking the code of Japanese culture.

According to Prof. Larzeg, Foucault’s difficulties in grasping the cultures of Japan, Tunisia, or Iran were the symptoms of his reluctance to overcome the epistemic divide between the Orient and the West. Prof. Larzeg argued that Foucault suffered from constant references to cultural differences. It was not necessarily because he believed that Western culture was superior, but because the West became a standard of reference. In conclusion, Prof. Larzeg argued that, contrary to Foucault scholars’ claims, the journeys of Foucault to the Orient did not have an effect on his philosophical thinking. Despite his experience in the Orient, Foucault insisted on using the terminology of cultural differences in defining and interrogating Western identity.

Prof. Larzeg also briefly touched upon Foucault’s effects on academic feminism. Prof. Larzeg stated it is surprising that academic feminism found the source of theoretical aspiration in Foucault’s critical thinking, although he never wrote on the  issue of women. She argued that feminism is the heir to the humanistic tradition oriented towards to universal conceptions of rights and freedom, and the feminist academic project is, or was, a liberatory project in its heyday. Furthermore, one of the features of the second wave feminism was the introduction or re-introduction of the female subject in discussions of literary as well as social scientific knowledge. Literature was looking for ways of making women visible as well as re-valuing women’s everyday life.

Moreover, Foucault’s intellectual program provided the academic feminist movement with a method, archaeology, genealogy as well as concept for understanding and analysing cultural dynamics and diversity. The fact that Foucault is as a critique of Western philosophy and social sciences provides an alternative way of thinking to established knowledge. Foucault’s concepts and critical thought are both provocative and renovative as they demystify the dynamics and structure of power relations. Prof. Lazreg also argued that some aspects of Foucault methodology were neglected. She suggested that we need to reconsider or take a better look into some of the concepts that have become common currency such as power. Everybody thinks power is like a currency; everybody has a little bit of power. However, what Foucault wanted to look at was how the power is exercised, how it is applied in the periphery, how people become subjects of power in the non-institutionalised circles. It is a way of embracing, including subjugated knowledge. Another neglected feature of Foucault’s thought is the element of critique. She suggested that, based on the critical attitude of Foucault, feminist academics should apply more criticism to their works as the producers of knowledge, categories of knowledge, and thus as the exercises of power.