Oriental despotism and the political monsters of Michel Foucault’s Les anormaux
David J McInerney
On 29 January 1975 Foucault spoke of two political monsters in revolutionary France: one of them incestuous (the king), the other cannibalistic (the crowd). The figure of the despot constitutes a norm of political conduct, if we understand the ‘normal’ as constituted in its relation to its spectral, abnormal ‘others’. In 1959 Foucault’s tutor Louis Althusser had suggested that the ‘oriental despot’ was a spectre [épouvantail] constitutive of western political thought. Foucault’s lecture, on the other hand, discussed how the despot and the rebellious people became political monsters during the French Revolution. This paper considers the oversight of Foucault’s work relative to Asia and extends his account of political monstrosity through an analysis of how James Mill articulated his political theory in The history of British India (1858) around the thesis that ‘the fear of insurrection’ constitutes the necessary impetus for the movement from ‘semi-barbarous’ to ‘civilised’ society.
Michel Foucault devoted much of his lecture of 29 January 1975 to discussing what he called ‘the first political monster’: the despot. For those of us studying the history of European discourses on Asia the word ‘despot’ is intimately associated with the word ‘oriental’ and, very often, with the writings of Montesquieu and James Mill. Does this lecture contain some special treasure, some uniquely Foucauldian account of the history of the uses of ‘oriental despotism’ within European histories of Asia and modern political thought?
The potential uses of Foucault’s lecture on political monsters are difficult to assess here, but from previous discussions of Foucault’s ‘Eurocentrism’ we might anticipate some likely inadequacies of it as an account of oriental despotism. As Edward Said notes, ‘the imperial experience is quite irrelevant’ for Foucault; we should also note, however, Said’s claim that this ‘theoretical oversight’ is the norm in the academic discipline of intellectual history (Said 1993, p. 47).
This lecture might be said to confirm Said’s reading of Foucault, as even the closest reading of it fails to discover even a single reference to Asia. Indeed, from Foucault’s account, you might almost believe that the ‘despot’ emerged ex nihilio within Jacobin pamphlets condemning Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, while, similarly, another political monster – ‘the rebellious people’ – seems to have emerged in aristocratic reactions to the September massacres of 1792 (Foucault 2003, pp. 98–99). Furthermore, while Foucault refers to the ‘reactivation’ and ‘revival’ of ‘ancient themes’ in this discourse of the ‘despot’ he never discusses the ‘oriental’ in relation to that discourse, despite the fact that even the most cursory glance at the eighteenth-century discourse on ‘despotism’ discovers that Foucault’s political monster first appeared in literature on the East, and prominent writers such as Montesquieu were deploying the monstrous figure of the ‘oriental despot’ as early as 1721, drawing upon travel accounts from the sixteenth century and a tradition in political philosophy extending back as far as Aristotle (Rubiés 2005; Grosrichard 1998). In this light, Foucault’s suggestion that the themes of revolutionary and reactionary discourses on political monsters in late eighteenth-century France ‘reactivate ancient themes’ seems to entail an especially symptomatic ‘oversight’ relative to the conjuncture immediately preceding it. This oversight should not, however, lead us to consider Foucault’s conceptual apparatus as necessarily inadequate for such an analysis, or to attribute this to a ‘state of mind’ or ‘intention’ on Foucault’s part; it is quite possible, on the contrary, to see this as symptomatic
of Foucault’s positioning within his own conjuncture, and the seeming ‘irrelevance’ of such issues to his audience, as a recent essay by Amit S Rai (2004) demonstrates the potential for applying Foucault’s concept of monstrosity to oriental despotism. (...)