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Tuesday 4 May 2021, by siawi3



Kenan Malik


I had assumed that my post on Judith Butler and the Adorno Prize would draw most fire from supporters of Israel incensed at my defence of Butler’s right to win the Prize. In fact it seems to have most annoyed supporters of Butler who have taken umbrage at my comments about her ‘impenetrable prose’. My criticism is not primarily about Butler’s style; it is principally about the substance of her arguments and, more broadly, of poststructuralist arguments. I am not opposed to ‘difficult’ writing. There are many philosophers with whom it repays to work through the difficulties, the obscurities and the obtuseness; Hegel, for instance, even Heidegger in parts. Butler, in my eyes at least, is not such a philosopher.

I have written little directly on Butler’s main theme, gender, but have written much, in the context of the debate about race, on poststructuralist / postmodernist conceptions of difference, identity, equality and agency, much of which is germane to the debate about Butler’s ideas too. That critique is scattered across my first three books – The Meaning of Race, Man, Beast and Zombie and Strange Fruit – so I thought I might over the next few weeks delve into the archives, as it were, and publish some extracts from those books. Some of the arguments are quite dated now – The Meaning of Race was published nearly two decades ago – but much of it, I think, remains relevant.

This first extract is from Chapter 8 of my book The Meaning of Race; the chapter opens with a discussion of Edward Said’s argument in Orientalism and moves on to discuss poststructuralist/postmodernist ideas of difference, equality, universalism and the human. (And before anyone misunderstands what I am saying, I am not suggesting that Said was a poststructuralist or postmodernist, simply that he drew upon certain poststructuralist themes.) This edited extract takes in the latter part of the discussion of Said’s work and the beginning of the discussion of Foucault’s notion of discourse and of poststructuralist ideas of the ‘Other’.


Edited extract from The Meaning of Race
(Macmillan, 1996), pp 230-235

Rather than being rooted in the real world, discourse often appears, as Salman Rushdie writes of the migrant imagination in Shame, to have ‘floated up from history, from memory, from Time’. We can see this quite clearly in Edward Said’s work, in which the relationship between the discourse of Orientalism and the reality of the West’s domination of the Orient is often obscure.

At first sight it might seem strange to accuse Said of ignoring the social and material realities that give rise to the discourse of Orientalism. After all, one of the significant features of Orientalism is its insistence that literary and scholarly criticism must take into account the context of imperialism which has shaped their objects of study. Yet such are the contradictions within Said’s work that one sometimes wishes he himself would take heed of his strictures on the need for contextual reading.

On the one hand, Said holds that Orientalism is a representation, a fabrication by Western writers and travellers of an Orient that has no real existence. On the other hand, he argues that knowledge contained within the discourse of Orientalism played a key part in allowing Europe to subjugate the non-Western world. But if the discourse of Orientalism was effective in allowing Western politicians and generals to take actual control over the Orient, then it must have been more than simply a ‘representation’. As Robert Young has asked, ‘How can Said argue that the “Orient” is just a representation, if he also wants to claim that “Orientalism” provided the necessary knowledge for actual colonial conquest.’1

Said attempts to circumvent this problem by arguing that the texts of Orientalism ‘can create not only knowledge but the reality they appear to describe’.2 What does Said mean by this? He could be suggesting that the reality of the Orient is contained within the texts of Orientalism. If so, this would seem to be a highly textualised understanding of reality, especially coming from an author who has been critical of Orientalism precisely for its textuality. If indeed the texts contained the reality, there would be no need for contextual reading, for the context would lie within the texts themselves. Alternatively Said could mean that the texts of Orientalism impose on the Orient its reality. When Orientalists conceive of the Orient in a particular fashion, the Orient succumbs to that vision. David Goldberg clearly reads Said in this way:

Naming the racial Other, for all intents and purposes, is the Other. There is, as Said makes clear in the case of the Oriental, no Other behind or beyond the invention of the Other in the Other’s name. These practices of naming and knowledge construction deny all autonomy to those so named and imagined, extending power, control, authority and domination over them. To extend Said’s analysis of the ‘Oriental’ to the case of race in general, social science of the Other establishes the limits of knowledge about the Other, for the Other is just what the racialised social science knows.3

Goldberg transforms European colonialists into the witchdoctors of modernity who, through the invocation of ‘names’, extend ‘power, control, authority and domination’ over their subject peoples. A very potent magic indeed. In Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses, one of the central characters, Saladin, finds himself incarcerated in a detention centre for illegal immigrants. Saladin discovers that his fellow-inmates has been transformed into beasts – water buffaloes, snakes, manticores. He himself has become a hairy goat. How do they do it, Saladin asks a fellow prisoner. ‘They describe us’, comes the reply, ‘that’s all. They have the power of description and we succumb to the pictures they construct.’ Similarly Said and Goldberg seem to be suggesting that the only role allotted to the ‘Other’ is to succumb to the picture constructed by the Western ‘self’. It is a picture of the relationship between the West and its Other in which the Other is transformed simply into a passive victim. In other places Said challenges such an idea. But he is also drawn to it through his own theoretical conceptions of the West and its Others.

Elsewhere Said has claimed that ‘Representation itself [keeps] the subordinate subordinate, the inferior inferior’.4 In what way is this an understanding of the Orient different from that contained in the discourse of Orientalism itself, an understanding of the orient as a passive, submissive Other moulded entirely by the history-making West? Said and Goldberg complain that the universalizing discourse of the West silences the voices of the Other. Yet it is Said and Goldberg themselves who silence the Other by conceiving of it as a compliant, inert object constituted solely by Western knowledge. The West produces its image of the Orient as the Other, and the Orient meekly accepts the image that is constructed…

There is yet another problem that arises from Said’s argument. ‘The real issue’, he claims, ‘is whether there can be a true representation of anything, or whether any or all representations, because they are representations, are embedded first in the language and then in the culture, institutions and political ambience of the representer’. Said plumps for the second definition and argues that ‘a representation is eo ipso implicated, intertwined, embedded, interwoven with a great many other things besides “truth”, which is itself a representation’. Representations cannot be ‘truthful’ and ‘truth’ is but a representation, constituted ‘by some common history, tradition, universe of discourse’.5 Having established that Orientalists’ ‘objective discoveries… are and always have been conditioned by the fact that its truths, like any truth delivered by language, are embodied in language’, Said then quotes Nietzsche to the effect that language is but ‘a mobile army of metaphors, metonyms and anthropomorphisms’ and that ‘truths are but illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are’.6

But if true representations are not possible, and truth itself is but a representation, then in what way can we criticise Orientalism? After all, one representation is as good as another and there is no objective means by which to challenge the picture that Orientalists provide us of the Orient. The relativism of Said’s outlook (a relativism with which, as we shall see later, he is not comfortable and even decries) undermines the possibility of challenging the very discourse he despises.

The problem in comprehending the relationship between the representation and the real arises from the concept of discourse which Said derives from Michel Foucault… Central to Foucault’s notion of a ‘discourse’ is the idea that social facts can never be conceived of as being ‘true’ or ‘false’. The very language we use to describe facts imposes truth or falsity upon those facts. Hence it is the discourse itself that creates the truth about a particular topic and competing discourses create competing truths. Truth lies not in the relationship between discourse and social reality but in the relationship between discourse and power. It is the relationship between discourse and power that decides which one of the many truths is accepted as the truth. For Foucault ‘power produces knowledge’ and ‘power and knowledge directly imply one another’ because ‘there is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute… power relations.’7

For Foucault, a discourse is a way of constituting power, and is at the same time verified by that power. The knowledge that a discourse produces constitutes a kind of power, exercised over those who are ‘known’. When that knowledge is exercised in practice, those who are known in a particular way will be subject to it. Those who produce the discourse also have the power to make it true, to enforce its validity:

Truth isn’t outside power… [I]t induces regular effects of power. Each society has its regime of truth, its ‘general politics’ of truth; that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish between ‘true’ and ‘false’ statements; the means by which each is sanctioned; and the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true.8

But what does Foucault mean by ‘power’? He is very vague about this. Power, for Foucault, cannot be conceived of in class or social terms. It is not the property of an individual or a class, it does not emerge from the relationships between individuals or classes, not does it emanate from an identifiable source or institution such as the state. Power is simply omnipresent. Its threads are everywhere and it is only through power that ‘reality’ is constituted. Given the omnipresence of power, and its role in constituting reality, Foucault is forced to think of power relations in arbitrary terms. Power struggles do not emanate from social or historical movement but simply pit all against all: ‘There aren’t immediately given subjects of the struggle, one the proletariat, the other the bourgeoisie. Who fights against whom? We all fight each over. And there is always within each of us something that fights something else.’9

While Foucault himself never travels too far into this territory, belief in the arbitrary nature of both power and truth leads inevitably to an extreme relativism. If power is simply the constituting element in all social systems, how can we choose between one society and another? And if a discourse makes its own truth, whose validity is given by the strength of an arbitrary power, how are we to distinguish between different representations or discourses? We can neither relate ideas and representations to real social movements, nor can we pass value judgments on different sets of ideas.

The logic of the Foucauldian argument would lead us to suppose that it is the very act of attempting to establish an objective truth that is the problem… The phenomenologist Emmanual Levinas had already constructed an ethics in which he objected to the idea of knowledge in the traditional Western sense. In the process of understanding, he argued, Western philosophy undermines and devalues whatever societies, cultures or modes of living it comes across: ‘Western philosophy coincides with the disclosure of the other where the other, in manifesting itself as a being, loses its alterity. From its infancy philosophy has been struck by a horror of the other that remains other.’10

What Levinas means is that European intellectual activity cannot allow objects of study to remain outside its epistemological boundaries or to be defined in its own terms. For Levinas conventional knowledge, conceived of as the relationship between subject and object, always involves appropriating one to the other. This he calls ‘the imperialism of the same’, drawing a parallel between the physical subjugation of the Third World and the intellectual subordination of its ideas, history and values. Just as Western politicians and generals annex foreign lands, so the West’s intellectual and philosophers appropriate all other knowledge. Robert Young similarly argues that universalism (which, of course, is conceived of as ‘Western’ universalism) ‘articulates a philosophical structure which uncannily simulates the project of nineteenth-century imperialism; the construction of knowledges which all operate through forms of expropriation and incorporation of the other mimics at a conceptual level the geographic and economic absorption of the non-European world by the West.’11

Since all knowledge and understanding requires the appropriation of the object by the subject, implicit in every act of understanding, says Levinas, is an act of violence. The only solution to this problem is to abjure entirely knowledge in the conventional sense. Instead of ‘grasping’ the object, says Levinas, we must ‘respect’ it; in the place of assimilation there should be ‘infinite separation’.

‘Respect’ for the Other has come for many to mean a refusal to judge others’ values or norms. It is not too great a leap from that to the argument that backward habits, reactionary institutions, illogical beliefs, all be defended on the grounds that they may not make sense in our culture but they do in others’… Richard Rorty has observed how what he calls ‘Enlightenment liberals’ seem to be caught in a dilemma over equality:

Their liberalism forces them to call any doubts about human equality a result of irrational bias. Yet their connoisseurship [of diversity] forces them to realise that most of the globe’s inhabitants do not believe in equality, that such a belief is a Western eccentricity. Since they think it would be shockingly ethnocentric to say ‘So what? We Western liberals do believe in it, and so much the better for us’, they are stuck.12

Rorty himself, a self-avowed ‘postmodern bourgeois liberal’, solves the dilemma by arguing that equality is good for ‘us’ but not necessarily for ‘them’.

At this point, difference becomes resolved into indifference, an unwillingness to engage with what anyone else has to say. It is an outlook described much more succinctly and lucidly than by any postmodern professor by the TV character Archie Bunker in the American sitcom All in the Family. In one particular episode, Edith tells Archie to lace how bowling shoes ‘over’ rather than ‘under’. ‘What’s the difference?’, demands Archie. When Edith tries to explain, Archie cuts her short: ‘I didn’t say “What’s the difference – explain it to me”. I said, “What’s the difference – who the hell cares?”.’


1Robert Young, White Mythologies (Routledge, 1990), p 129

2 Edward Said, Orientalism, (Penguin, 1985), p94

3 David Goldberg, Racist Culture (Blackwell, 1993), p150

4 Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism ((Chatto & Windus, 1993), p95

5 Said, Orientalism, pp 272, 273

6 Said, Orientalism, p 203

7 Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge (Harvester, 1980), p27

8 ibid, p131

9 ibid, pp207-8

10 Emmanuel Levinas, ‘The Trace of the Other’, in Mark C Taylor (ed), Deconstructing in Context (Chicago University Press, 1986), p346

11 Young, White Mythologies, p3

12 Richard Rorty, Objectivity, Relativism and Truth (Cambridge University Press, 1991), p207