Refracted Input

Clare O’Farrell’s blog on books, TV, films, Michel Foucault, universities etc. etc.

Posted on my site

Le terme de «folklore» n’est qu’une hypocrisie des «civilisés» qui ne participent pas au jeu, et qui veulent masquer leur refus de contact sous le manteau du respect devant le pittoresque…
L’homme est irrevocablemet étranger à l’aurore. Il aura fallu notre façon de penser coloniale pour croire que l’homme aurait pu rester fidèle à son commencement, et qu’il y a un lieu quelconque au monde où il peut rencontrer l’essence du «primitif».

The term ‘folklore’ is nothing but a hypocrisy of the ‘civilised’ who won’t take part in the game, and who want to hide their refusal to make contact under the mantle of respect for the picturesque…
Man is irrevocably a stranger to dawn. It needed our colonial way of thinking to believe that man could have remained faithful to his beginnings and that there was any place in the world where he could encounter the essence of the ‘primitive’. (trans. Clare O’Farrell)

Michel Foucault, (1994) [1963] ‘Veilleur de la nuit des hommes’ In Dits et Ecrits vol. I. Paris: Gallimard, p. 232.

Random thoughts in response
The passage above comes from a personal letter written in 1961 and published in 1963 to Rolf Italiaander. In the 1950s, Itaaliander taught young Congolese in a small village the art of copper engraving inviting them to use it as a form to express anything they liked. Foucault arranged for an exhibition of this art at the French Institute in Hamburg. It would appear that Itaaliander was accused of interfering with the purity of primitive culture by teaching Western technologies of artistic expression.

This remark by Foucault, originally made some 48 years ago now, demonstrates why his work continues to resonate today and draws attention to his radical rejection of any social Darwinist ideas of human cultural evolution.

There is no hierarchy of human culture either in terms of its historical or its geographical location. We are never any closer to some pure point of authenticity and truth. Human culture is already an interpretation of the world from its very first moments. One cannot buy into the romanticism of the primitive – which is assumed to be so much closer to pure truth and ‘nature’. Conversely one cannot make the colonial assumption that one civilisation or one period of history (now) is more advanced and more evolved than another. As Foucault remarks elsewhere, we are limited beings and we cannot occupy the whole territory – we can only move around on it in our attempts to make the physical and social environment workable for us.

This point of view immediately irons out all pretensions to the claims of superiority by one group of humans (either historically or geographically) in relation to another and allows for lines of mutual respect and openness to be constructed. It also addresses the false tolerance with which we are incited to treat other cultures even if they operate savage and oppressive practices against their own members. I am thinking here of practices such as female circumcision which somehow survive intact even if other cultural practices within that community inevitably change (usually to advantage men) with Western contact.

If we regard all human culture – without exception – as a complex way of dealing with the environment and social interaction, then we all have an obligation not to dismiss certain intolerable practices as quaintly folkloric simply because they are not part of our own ‘culture’, but to work with other human communities to modify the way human beings treat each other everywhere. From the Western point of view, this does not mean engaging in the patronising paternalism of an allegedly more enlightened Western culture (along the lines that ‘Western democracy will save the world’ for example). Neither, on the other hand, does it mean the rejection of a corrupt and over-civilised Western culture which has lost touch with its primitive roots.

5 thoughts on “Foucault on race and colonialism

  1. Selim K. says:

    INCREDIBLE! Thanks a million times, how resonant this is with Levi-Strauss’ chapter ‘the writing lesson’ in Tristes Tropiques, as Derrida says LS sees emergence of a new structure only in terms of former’s catastrophic effacement. He shows them writing and they are already doomed, but Foucault, exactly in the same situation points out the colonial condition underlying such a discourse. Wish Dits et Ecrits will be completely translated into English one day.


  2. Clare says:

    Thanks for reminding me of this. I had been wondering how to analyse my unease with Star Trek’s notion of the ‘prime directive’ of (alleged) non interference with other cultures.


  3. Kelli says:

    Thanks Clare – I really like the way you describe how we can “regard all human culture – without exception – as a complex way of dealing with the environment and social interaction” right at the end. This is a very satisfying way of looking at it. I wonder though – you went on to describe two things this does not mean (partonising paternalism OR rejection of Western culture). Do you have a view on what this does mean?
    (I am epistmology hunting!)


  4. Clare says:

    Hi Kelli, Many thanks for this really useful comment. It has inspired me to write a whole blog post in response!


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