The Discourse of Power and the Power of Discourse
Essay on Stuart Hall (2018), The West and the Rest: Discourse and Power
The Power of Discourse or the Discourse of Power
by Juliane Forßmann, 2023
This plant is today a popular inhabitant of gardens all over the world. It is the emblem of several cities, for example in California. Surely, it is a beautiful and harmless plant, but its name has a far from innocent history. It is scientifically known as Bougainvillea. Indexing plants by Latin names was initiated by the Swedisch botanist Carl Linnaeus in the early 18th century. In 1789 the plant was included in Generates Plantarium, a botanical guide by Antoine Laurent de Jussieu. The entry states that the official discoverer was the botanist Philibert Commercon. In the 1760s Commercon had travelled on board a French navy vessel on a voyage around the globe. The French king had sent his admiral Louis Antoine de Bougainville to circumnavigate the world to find new territories for the French crown. Bougainville had included various scientists on board his two vessels, e.g. experts in botany, history, and cartography. On landing in Rio de Janeiro (in the region now called Brazil) in 1767, the plant was found and named to honour the admiral. Until today it is registered as Bougenvillea in the International Plant Index, according to the rules of the international code of nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants.
In Steward Hall’s text he depicts “the West” as a concept, a “set of representation” that has set in motion a “structure of thought and knowledge” (2018, p.142). In his analysis he draws on, amongst other sources, Michel Foucault’s theory on the link between discourse, knowledge, and power. This essay will focus on in a very limited way on aspects of scientific discourse.
Crudely put, Foucault identifies various European periods of knowledge production and calls them epistemes. The modern episteme corresponds roughly with what is commonly called the Age of Enlightenment. It is the age when Europeans began to measure and categorize the world. It is also the age of the explorers; therefore, Europeans did not only map their own homelands but extended their drive to measure and map to the homelands of other populations across the globe. In earlier epistemes, Foucault theorized, objects were named according to resemblances, for example in botany parts of the plant Euphrasia was held to resemble the human eye and therefore called eyewort. In the modern episteme the coining of words and names became disconnected from appearances and, according to Foucault, became mere signifiers (Foucauld, 1970). I would like to content that in the case of scientific names, be it in the realm of flora or fauna, the names were not neutral signifiers but emblems of power. Also in cartography the naming of lands and islands expressed a lasting usurption by new rulers. The beautiful plant in the photo above is still worldwide known as Bougainvillea and its indigenous name was obliterated – Q.E.D. So the description, naming and indexing plants according to the rules of European science can be seen in terms of assimilation of the Other into European culture. The usurper did not bother to find out its native name and the role it played in the indigenous cultures where it grew.
The explorers did not stop at categorizing the flora they found abroad but extended their descriptions to peoples. Hall points out that this represents the “outlines of an early ethnography or anthropology” (Hall 2018, p. 163). While new names for plant species were straightforward emblems of power (especially when named after members of the European elites (Bougainvillea after de Bougainville), the discoursive stratagies applied to native peoples were a more complex and devious undertaking. Hall summarizes Foucault’s concept of discourse:
“Discourses are ways of talking, thinking, or representing a particular subject or topic. They produce meaningful knowldedge about that subject.This knowledge influences social practices, and so has real consequences and effects.” (ibid, p. 160)
Foulcault claims that there is a reciprocity between knowledge and discourse and both are linked to power; knowledge produces discours and vice versa. Power is discursively produced. By power Foucault means most of all influence on the formation of social practices. So how did European explorers / invaders produce power through their discription of the native peoples they came across? For example, by means of what Hulme (in Hall, 2018, p. 171) calls “stereotypical dualism”. This is a two-step process in which a number of characteristic traits are merged to produce a simplistic image of a person. This in turn is used as a representation of a whole people; subsequently the resulting stereotype is split in a good and an evil version. In various writings Rousseau had established the idea of the noble savage (Gardner, 2019), an idea that carried over to de Bougainville and his crew on arriving in Tahiti in 1768. One of the natural scientists aboard described the Tahitians as a people “without vice, prejudice, needs or dissention” (Moorehead in Hall, 2018, p.166), a view later reiterated by Bougainville himself in his travel writings.
The contrast to this instance of belittling by idealization consisted in the concept of the ignoble savage. The idea was that humans in societes without European-type governmental structures led brutish lives. This is very much linked to Thomas Hobbes’ political philosphy laid out in Leviathan or the Matter, Forme and Power of a Commonwealth Ecclesiastical and Civil (1651). Explorers in search of new territories for European sovereigns ignored that peoples in the New World “did have several, very different, highly elaborated social structures”; this is what Hall calls “misrecognizing the difference” (Hall, 2018, p. 167). Scientific discourse opened up the opportunity to discredit those who attempted to defend their homelands. Those who accepted their new rulers were labelled as peaceful, those who fought were denigrated as savages. Hall convincingly argues how the discourses of the Enlightenment produced knowledge and a model of modernity to which anything outside the European societies was compared, judged., ansubjugated. Homelands, native populations, plants, animals and objects were renamed, categorized and usurped with the help of the Enlightenment discourse.
Hall makes a complex and interesting argument of the reciprocal relationship of knowledge, discours, and power that led to the birth of the “set of representations” that is called “the West” (ibid, p. 142). I am tempted to say that it is a very complex way of saying that “Western” scientific discourses were used to justifiy the greed of European nations, so that exploitation of the Other could take place without guilty feelings. It was so cleverly done that explorers actually convinced themselves of the inferiority of the natives of the New World. These convictions were facilitated by the sciences and took in turn root in European population and their social practices. It all lead to a dynamic circle with a life of its own. Many of the resulting beliefs and practices are so deeply rooted in our minds that we are still labouring under it in the present.
Foucault’s theories, it has to be said, are characterized by an absence of women. To a lesser degree this is also the case with Hall’s chapter “The West and the Rest: Discourse and Power”, as he draws largley on male theorists. So let me briefly introduce a woman before this essay ends. In recent years it was discovered that Philibert Commercon, the botanist who was credited with the “discovery” of the plant that is called Bougainvillea and that has been sold to garden owners around the globe many times over, was ill on the arrival at Rio de Janeiro. Instead of him his valet left the ship and found the plant, brought back various specimen and desribed them. The valet was in reality Jeanne Baret, supposedly Commercon’s lover. As women were not accepted on board navy vessels she circumnavigated the world dressed as a young man. Also as a woman she could not publish her findings in her name – women were also not accepted by the scientific community (Ridley, 2018). But careful: This is just another narrative, this time grown on feminist soil. Hopefully, more will be unearthed. Would it not be wonderful to rediscover the original name of the Bougainvilla?
Bougainville, Louis-Antoine de (1771): Voyage autour du monde, par la frégate du roi la Boudeuse, et la flûte l’Etoile, en 1766, 1767, 1768 &1769. Paris: Saillant & Nyon.
Foucault, Michel (1972): The Archaeology of Knowledge: And the Discourse on Language. New York: Pantheon Books. Online verfügbar unter https://monoskop.org/images/9/90/Foucault_Michel_Archaeology_of_Knowledge.pdf, zuletzt geprüft am 23.04.2022.
Gardner, Helen (2019): Explainer: the myth of the Noble Savage. Online verfügbar unter https://theconversation.com/explainer-the-myth-of-the-noble-savage-55316, zuletzt aktualisiert am 22.10.2019, zuletzt geprüft am 23.04.2022.
Hall, Stuart (2018): Essential Essays. Identity and Diaspora. 2 Bände. Durham/London: Duke University Press (2).
Ridley, Glynis (2011): The Discovery of Jeanne Baret: A Story of Science, the High Seas, and the First Woman to Circumnavigate the Globe. A Story of Science, the High Seas, and the First Woman to Circumnavigate the World. New York: Broadway Paperbacks.
Image of Bougainvilla: Von Lumbar, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39539.