The Discourse of Aboriginality: Part I


The starting point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is, and is ‘knowing thyself’ as a product of the historical process to date, which has deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory… therefore it is imperative at the outset to compile such an inventory.

Antonio Gramsci,
The Prison Notebooks

. . . . . . .

This paper marks the culmination of the evolution of my thought over the course of the past two years. In fact, it represents conclusions and ideas and above all an analysis to which I have been gradually moving my entire life. This opening statement is being made in order to address and indicate the immense difficulty I am having writing this essay. I find that words do not come easily, and that my usually ever-present passion regarding these issues has gone up and left me. Until recently, I had no questions with which to get at the source of my inability to write, except “Why can’t I do this? Am I not getting the material?” Yet I know the material intimately and it presents no crisis of confusion. I just can’t seem to articulate that knowledge onto paper in a clear, concise and practical manner.

It finally took a discussion with a friend to make me realize that what was stifling and stonewalling my efforts to produce this thesis had nothing at all to do with what I knew. I had simply failed to ask myself the question: “What is holding you back?”, and it took me no time whatsoever to recognize that what has stymied the expression of my thoughts for so long is the deep-seated fear that the Carleton department of political science would not accept and in fact would reject out of hand the fundamental, underlying premise of my work: that is, that the forms and practices of knowledge falling under the name of scientific discourse (including social science) are as complicit today in the ongoing effects of genocide and ethnocide of Aboriginal peoples in this country as the original colonialists in their overt and brutal use of physical violence were at and around the time of contact. The work which follows is my effort to make these effects belonging to the conventional practices of knowledge about Native peoples visible, and to begin an analysis of how that works. In other words, to begin to bring into focus what I call the discourse of Aboriginality—that is, the traditionally accepted way of representing, and thereby acting upon, Native peoples in Canada—as an instrument of power.

This contention is obviously a controversial one, but one I hold to strongly and steadfastly as a historical fact nonetheless. The complete lack of Aboriginal perspectives (there are more than one) on the historical institution and development of the Canadian nation-state is but one example (and there again there are many) bearing this contention out. The problem I face, therefore, is how to translate this understanding of five centuries of Native/non-Native relations into the language of political science, a language which I claim to be demonstrably incapable of expressing such notions, without becoming immediately alienated from my own convictions, experiences and knowledge by that discipline and its discursive practice.

The inclusion of this opening statement, I think, is a good start, and in a very personal way, sets the stage for what follows in the obviously much more analytical section of this essay. Beyond that, my argument will have to rely largely on the critical groundwork set down by Michel Foucault and Edward Said.

It is ironic in a context where one is allegedly encouraged to engage in “the free and open exchange of ideas,” as the maxim goes, that certain, very palpable, limits are set and internalized as to what can and cannot be accepted as legitimate subjects of scholarly discourse. Up until now, my sense of these limits has prevented me from expressing what I feel to be important truths about the everyday, lived experiences of the Aboriginal peoples who are of this land but have yet to be asked if they wish to be of this country called Canada as well. As a Cree person myself, it is my sincerest wish for some sense of the realities of Aboriginal life to become apparent to the reader by the end of this essay. I can think of nothing better to do my people proud by. Nor can I think of anything more important to scholarship in this country.

Rick Harp
Ottawa ON
March 1993

. . . . . . .

The preceding statement has been included at the beginning of this essay because I feel it clearly speaks to the underlying motivation for my writing this paper. I also wish to inform the potential reader of the provisionality and partiality of my claims going into this essay. Such claims are, for the purposes of this paper, to be seen less as completed research than the raising of questions for future scholarship. To my knowledge, nothing like the Foucaultian notion of discourse has been applied to the context of Native/non-Native relations in this country. While much research has been done on imagery of native peoples, to concentrate on images alone fundamentally misses the point. For if one is to comprehend what those images accomplish politically, one must focus on the relations of power which ultimately create the conditions of possibility for such imagery.

In examining and laying out the general discourse of Aboriginality, I will be drawing heavily upon the insights and methodology of Edward Said’s Orientalism, which in turn utilizes the ideas and analyses of Michel Foucault. Part One, then, presents an initial overview of Foucault’s notion of discursive practice and its relationship to political power. Part Two introduces Said’s analysis of Imperialist discourse in the context of the Orient. Part Three outlines two major themes of the discourse of Aboriginality—the Noble Savage and the Vanishing Indian Race—and their political implications. Against the historical background thus established, Part Four situates and discusses current Canadian debates surrounding Native peoples and considers how these contemporary debates stand in relation to their predecessors.

PART I: Power, Knowledge and Discourse

When we say that sovereignty is the central problem of right in Western societies, what we mean basically is that the essential function of the discourse and techniques of right has been to efface the domination intrinsic to power… My general project [has been] to reverse the mode of analysis followed by the discourse of right from the time of the Middle Ages. My aim therefore was to invert it, to give due weight, that is, to the fact of domination, to expose both its latent nature and its brutality. I then wanted to show not only how right is, in a general way, the instrument of this domination—which scarcely needs saying—but also the extent to which, and the forms in which, right… transmits and puts in motion relations that are not relations of sovereignty but of domination.

Michel Foucault,

. . . . . .

According to Michel Foucault, in the course of Western societies’ transition from feudalist to capitalist modes of production, a dramatic shift took place in the means by which power had traditionally been exercised. Whereas power had once predominantly worked through a relatively limited number of brutal and visible agents such as public executions and flagellation, a progressively larger proportion of its application came to operate by means of what Foucault terms multiple, “disciplinary” modes of exercise. In the 17th and 18th centuries (and beyond), power thus became a matter of forces exerted within society, not applied from above by a lord or monarch. Yet as the above quotation indicates, we find that even to this day the discourse of right originally associated with royal power curiously persists in spite of the disappearance of its rational basis in the physical presence of the King. While the co-existence of mechanisms of discipline and the discourse of right may appear at first glance to be contradictory—the question being how one can reconcile the freedoms associated with the rules of right with the restrictions intrinsic to disciplines—Foucault asserts that such co-existence is in fact vital to the functioning of power in Western liberal-democratic societies.

Based on the claims of Michel Foucault, this paper begins with the fundamental assumption that discourses of truth, while productive, are by their very nature limiting and exclusionary as well, and operate on the basis of a number of rules which effectively fix their parameters. This chapter provides a schematic outline of this Foucaultian notion of discursive practice, as a critical and necessary instrument for the exercise of disciplinary power. The point cannot be over-stressed that to examine the operations of discourse is to at one and the same time refer to the nature, form, and unity of the strategic operations of power. Indeed, what is most germane within Foucault’s philosophic thought for the purposes of this paper is his contention that discourses of truth, and by extension the various fields of knowledge that emerge out of their practice, do not function independently of power but rather constitute an integral and critical mode of its execution.

After an initial elaboration of the configuration and contours of ‘disciplinary’ power, this chapter will proceed to outline the more salient aspects of the productive yet limiting and exclusionary effects of discourse. The two preceding sections thus permit the final section of this chapter to lay out what these effects (which are simultaneously the effects of power) imply for the analysis of discourse, or, the relationship between knowledge and power. Thus, by the end of this chapter, this paper will be well-positioned to begin posing its major question of whether or not the notion of discourse is capable of shedding new light on the shape and form of Native/non-Native relations in Canada to date.

The Scope and Shape of Disciplinary Power

The range, forms and functions of disciplinary power initiated in the 1600s operate within and through two of the most immediate locations of human existence and experience—bodies and behaviours. What power of a disciplinary nature does to these human elements is precisely what its adjective implies: it disciplines, that is, it organizes individuals’ bodies and behaviours by means of various techniques and procedures into broadly defined categories of what is to be considered acceptable and unacceptable patterns of normality. According to Foucault,

a real and effective ‘incorporation’ of power was necessary in the sense that power had to be able to gain access to the bodies of individuals, to their acts, attitudes and modes of everyday behaviour. Hence the significance of methods like school discipline, which succeeded in making children’s bodies the object of highly complex systems of manipulation and conditioning.

By way of contrast, prior to the 17th century, political power largely flowed from without, and was applied in a top-down manner by either sovereign to subject or lord to serf. The difference, then, lies in the fact that power came to be directly implicated and insinuated within the practices, relations, and structures of concrete, everyday life. In a very real sense, it is no longer the King’s body which provides the major field of power’s operation, but the social body, or society, itself.

In the course of their being disciplined, such everyday modes of behaviour—ranging from gestures, mannerisms, and other kinds of body language, to verbal and written forms of communication—take on a highly routinised and structured form across space and time. Codes of conduct are literally created, laying out over time and in specific contexts, appropriate and inappropriate forms of behaviour in virtually every facet of life, whether it be a style of dress, manner of address, or deference to authority. According to Foucault, such coded behaviours constitute what are commonly referred to as the norms of a society. In contrasting these codes of social conduct with those of law, Foucault makes an important distinction, one to which this essay will turn later in the chapter:

The discourse of discipline has nothing in common with that of law, rule, or sovereign will. The disciplines may well be the carriers of a discourse that speaks of a rule, but this is not the juridical rule deriving from sovereignty, but a natural rule, a norm. The code they come to define is not that of law but that of normalisation.

Again, it is with the displacement of more overt expressions of force as the predominant mode of the exercise of power by disciplinary forms of its articulation, that a new ‘economy of power’ emerges, in which what Foucault describes as technologies of surveillance provide a maximum return of domination on a minimum of investment of force. These surveillance techniques came to function alongside and underneath existing state apparatuses, and are

both much more efficient and much less wasteful (less costly economically, less risky in their results, less open to loopholes and resistances) than the techniques previously employed which were based on a mixture of more or less forced tolerances (from recognised privileges to endemic criminality) and costly ostentation (spectacular and discontinuous interventions of power, the most violent form of which was the ‘exemplary,’ because exceptional, punishment).

The term surveillance is apt for it conveys an image of society wherein every individual observes, keeps a close eye on—in other words, surveys—not only themselves but other ‘fellow members’ of the social body so as to ensure its norms are lived up to. Thus, to the extent that one is always aware of the constant, observant gaze of others, particularly at or near moments of transgression of established ethical or moral codes of conduct, it can be said that a mode of surveillance is at work within Western liberal-democratic society.

To the various normalised phenomena which function in the effective interests of power, Foucault attributes the label “micro-mechanisms” of power. These micro-mechanisms operate in a reciprocal and mutually reinforcing manner with more general mechanisms of power; and, while the latter provides the overall strategy and direction under which the former perform, it is the existence of these micro-mechanisms which make such global forms of power possible to begin with. Although Foucault does not name these particular forces, one can reasonably assume they include such forces as racism, sexism, and capitalism. In other words,

the manifold relationships of force that take shape and come into play in the machinery of production, in families, limited groups, and institutions, are the basis for wide-ranging effects of cleavage that run through the social body as a whole. These then form a general line of force that traverses the local oppositions and links them all together… Major dominations are [therefore] the hegemonic effects that are sustained by all these confrontations.

Up to this point, this chapter has deliberately avoided any specific reference to discourse as a major mechanism of disciplinary and normalising power in order to first provide a necessary sketch of the shift this new power represents. It is to the major aspects of discursive practice that this essay now turns.

The Discourse of Power and the Power of Discourse

To engage in discourse is to speak or write authoritatively on a particular subject. As a fundamental means by which individuals interact within society, discourse is subject to the same disciplinary effects of power as any other behaviour. Thus, discourse by no means represents a spontaneous way of communicating and representing reality. Discourse, therefore, as the concrete realization of the intimate relationship between knowledge and power, can and must be seen as no less a political arena than other conventionally defined realms of politics. Indeed, as alluded to earlier, Foucault’s recognition of discourse as intrinsically political effectively expands the field in which legitimate political analysis can take place, including the subject of this essay.

Given that discursive practice is motivated by power, it is still not clear where knowledge per se fits into that relationship. In noting that discourse is motivated by power, is not to attribute its direction and intentions to the desires of a given individual. Rather, it is to refer to the material conditions of possibility which power produces and in which individuals come to function. According to Foucault, the particular conditions of possibility for the production of knowledge are determined by the fact that

the disciplines have their own discourse. They engender, for the reasons of which we spoke earlier, apparatuses of knowledge (savoir) and a multiplicity of new domains of understanding. They are extraordinarily inventive participants in the order of these knowledge-producing apparatuses.

Implicit, then, within such apparatuses of knowledge (including for example, but in no way limited to, universities), is a certain “will to truth,” or in this case “will to knowledge.” Seen in this light, the claims of the physical or social sciences to the ‘objectivity’ and ‘value-free’ character of their research and knowledges, ring, if not hollow, at least rather suspect. However, to regard the production of truth as politically motivated is not tantamount to claiming that such motivation is the function of individual intent. The obvious analytical implications of these latter points will be taken up later in the chapter.

Perhaps the most important aspect of discursive practice to appreciate for the purposes of this paper is the manner in which it, as an instrument of power, positions individuals not only as objects of knowledge but knowing subjects as well. In fact, the very concept of ‘the individual’ reveals the identifying and constituting effects of power at work, in their privileging “certain bodies, certain gestures, certain discourses [and] certain desires… as individuals.” In the interests of clarity, an object is that which is acted upon by a subject; knowledge is therefore understood as an effective act of power. Thus, one who is positioned as subject must take an object. The net effect of this subject-object relationship in reality is the imposition of a certain viewpoint, complete with its own set of rules, on that reality and all those who dwell within it. Of course, such a overruling point of view could not be sustained—and this is the critical point—if it did not ultimately rest upon the physical domination of its object. In the West, such domination has been obtained, maintained and, in the last analysis, remains predicated on the state’s monopoly on violence—an apparatus dominated by the interests of the bourgeois class. Nevertheless, the point to be made here is that one never positions one’s self as an object of knowledge—rather, one is positioned, within a domain of knowledge whose conceptual field is strictly circumscribed, delimited and codified by a discipline external to the object under consideration.

For example, the reason why departments of Native studies can be set up across the country in the dominant culture’s educational institutions so as to ostensibly “understand them” is because the dominant culture is able to do so. This is essentially the same reason why there are no Settler studies programs in any of their wholly Native-controlled counterparts (of which there are in fact none). As a result of the non-Native, dominant society’s wrestling control over the vast proportion of Canada’s natural and human resources, it is financially and socially able to institute a program solely devoted to the study of those Indigenous peoples that such resource development has in fact displaced. Thus, Native peoples, as an object of this physical subjugation, are easily rendered as objects of knowledge as well.

By bringing into relief the fact of domination, one is thus better able to understand how even the seemingly innocent act of naming is a form of objectivising and can thus be construed as a kind of violence, for it is reproductive of that domination. Again, to name reality, to represent it, implies the power to do so without risking serious censure but only up to a certain point. For one is not allowed to say or write just anything. As Foucault notes, if a given statement (or series of statements) is to be considered as rational and thus incorporated within conventional knowledge, it must be “within the true”; that is, it must draw upon, consciously or otherwise, a specific conceptual framework as well as a set of already established knowledges and ways of knowing. In other words, one must adopt the disciplinary rules of formation of subjects and objects. Utilizing ideas from outside the accepted conceptual framework sees one either rejected or ignored. Thus, it can be seen that even those who come to be most authoritative within their field are compelled, if not constrained, to speak authoritatively, as it were.

Another aspect of discursive practice serves to qualify the one just mentioned: that, rather than functioning by means of repression, discourse is properly seen as being eminently productive instead. Indeed, it is through its production and constitution of its own ‘reality’ that power by way of discourse serves to at one and the same time reproduce and efface the reality of its dominating effects. Discursive power does not so much deny or disallow or say ‘no’ to the existence of other views of reality; it simply overwhelms them, in much the same way intensely bright light wipes out from view any trace of its antithetical shadow. Moreover, as Foucault observes, this process is a necessary one for power’s self-perpetuation:

If I were to characterise, not its mechanism itself, but its intensity and constancy, I would say that we are forced to produce the truth of power that our society demands, of which it has need, in order to function… Power never ceases its interrogation, its inquisition, its registration of truth: it institutionalises, professionalises and rewards its pursuit. In the last analysis, we must produce truth as we must produce wealth, indeed we must produce truth in order to produce wealth in the first place.

And so, in a sense, power ought to be regarded as extremely generous, as liberal-democratic power is often regarded, even if what it has to offer so freely is highly conditional in its being employed.

Perhaps the most shining example of power’s production of truth-effects through the instrumental practice of discourse is the creation and institution of the juridical discourse of right and its masking of the disciplinary effects of power’s exercise within Western society. As indicated earlier, the discourses of discipline are entirely different from those of law, rule, or sovereign will. These concepts belonging to the discourse of right, and the theory which conjoins them, were originally developed by jurists, or legal experts, as a means with which to justify the domination of the King, who only subsequently came to be known as the Sovereign.

Notable among these jurists, of course, was Thomas Hobbes, author of Leviathan. What he and his fellow compatriots of the monarchy laid out was a theory capable of uniting, in an internally consistent fashion, a system of ideas and actors whose respective functions were of an essentially complementary nature. In the process, this theory explained, accounted for and, above all, made sense of a reality where the Sovereign/King held sway and subjects obeyed, to the point where, eventually, to think otherwise becomes non-sensical. Nothing within the confines of this theory of sovereignty, however, recognized the extent to which juridical thought was elaborated

in response to the demands of royal power, for its profit and to serve as its instrument or justification… Right in the West is the King’s right.

Ultimately, the legal edifice of Roman Law ushered in by the absolutist monarchies of the 12th century with the expert assistance of the jurists was to escape the control of the monarch. The King, along with feudalism, were displaced as a change in political regimes eventually saw a new dominant force emerge across Europe in the bourgeoisie, whose capitalist interests, Foucault claims, were greatly responsible for the institution of a new, disciplinary form of power. And yet, this theory of sovereignty persists to this day.

According to Foucault, there are two main reasons for the persistence of the theory of sovereignty: the first being its historical effectiveness as an instrument of criticism of all that has stood in the way of instituting a disciplinary society; and secondly, that

the theory of sovereignty, and the organisation of a legal code centered upon it, have allowed a system of right to be superimposed upon the mechanisms of discipline in such a way as to conceal its actual procedures, the element of domination inherent in its techniques… Modern society, then, from the nineteenth century up to our own day, has been characterised on the one hand, by a legislation, a discourse, an organisation based on public right, whose principle of articulation is the social body and the delegative status of each citizen; and on the other hand, by a closely linked grid of disciplinary coercions whose purpose is in fact to assure the cohesion of this same social body.

The length of this quote is justified by the degree to which it points out the incongruous but nonetheless complementary nature of these two phenomena which, together, provide the instrumentality of power so obviously vital to its exercise.

The reason that discipline and right can co-exist stems from a mutual ignorance, as it were, of the effects and practices of the other. Ultimately, however, what is important to remember here is that by following a mode of analysis of power which is centered around a notion of sovereignty belonging to the discourse of right, one is utilizing a theoretical framework whose essential role has been to fix the legitimacy of that power, hence the domination it perpetuates as well. As a result, one cannot help but begin and end such an analysis without reaching conclusions upholding the legitimacy of that domination as well. Or, as Foucault has said, by subscribing to a “theoretical coronation of the whole,” one inevitably overlooks the micro-mechanisms which actually organize society and secure its discipline and order and legalities.

The Analysis of Power and Knowledge

In his displacement of analyses of power which employ the very discourses created by power, Foucault is able to offer an analysis of his own, one in which the critical focus is on the mechanisms and strategies of power rather than its modes of legitimation. In order to begin an analysis of power, and thus of discourse and knowledge as mechanisms of power, one must realize at the outset that power is, first and foremost a practice. That is, power only exists insofar as it is exercised. As such an intrinsically active and fluid force, it can be neither held, transferred, nor alienated, despite the claims of social contract theory (i.e. theories of sovereignty) to the contrary. One should not, therefore, seek to find power where it accumulates in the Sovereign but rather think of where it circulates instead. From this proposition flows all others.

Given that power does not localise itself in any particular person or group, the level at which it is analyzed should focus not so much on asking what power is, but how it works. According to Foucault, the questions to be pursued are as follows:

what are these various contrivances of power, whose operations extend to such differing levels and sectors of society and are possessed of such manifold ramifications? What are their mechanisms, their effects and their relations?

By concentrating at the level of power’s mechanisms and not the once removed theory of its origins and existence, one is better positioned to see what power accomplishes by way of those mechanisms and how they operate on its behalf to maintain relations of domination.

Thus, in analyzing the mechanisms of power one is necessarily led to focus upon the effects of power as well. There are two main consequences of this focus on power-effects: the first, which emerges out of a long term perspective on power such as Foucault’s, establishes the continuity of domination in the West; the second, places to the side the question of individual intent vis-à-vis the practices and effects of power. Before turning to these aspects, however, a final word about the level of analysis to be employed regarding power.

No longer a top-down feudal relationship, power’s exercise has come to operate throughout society, that is, it comes from below. Accordingly, in order for one to critically analyze power one must focus their attention not on unitary, coherent, systematising, overarching theories of governance and history but on the minutiae, the ‘ignoble’ aspects of everyday life. Discourse, then, as one of the many common and constantly circulating aspects of subject-object relations, necessarily becomes one of the major points of the analysis of power.

If, as Foucault claims, the effects of domination persist across the political regimes of both monarchies and liberal-democracies, one is forced to conclude that the circumstances of war which preceded these regimes have not ended but simply gone ‘underground’ in the form of politics. Foucault lays down this precise hypothesis by effectively reversing the assertion of Clausewitz that war is politics by other means, suggesting that one necessarily thinks of

politics as sanctioning and upholding the disequilibrium of forces that was displayed in war. But there is also something else that the inversion signifies, namely, that none of the political struggles, the conflicts waged over power, with power, for power, the alterations in the relations of forces, the favouring of certain tendencies, the reinforcements etc., etc., that come about within this ‘civil peace’—that none of these phenomena in a political system should be interpreted except as the continuation of war.

Again, such a historical perspective on power in the West permits one to take a more critical view of the war-like effects of its practices, including the ostensibly innocuous practices of speaking and writing. None of the above ought to be in any way construed as a judgement upon one’s morals. For the individual subjective intent of a speaker or writer of discourse is largely irrelevant to the more global effects and motivations that work through and within his body, acts and behaviours. Properly speaking, the only role the ‘individual’ actually plays in the exercise of power is as a body that is in fact constituted by power; that is, individuals, through which power/discourse speaks and acts,

are not only [power’s] inert or consenting target; they are always also the elements of its articulation. In other words, individuals are the vehicles of power, not its points of application.

Thus, an instrument of power—or discourse—will produce effects of domination no matter who wields it nor to what end; and once again, that includes the use of any parts of a conceptual framework which relies on the instrumental practice of discourse. And while resistance to the dominating effects of discourse is not impossible by those who suffer its effects most, it must ultimately come to grips with the fact that power and knowledge are intimately bound up with one another. This question of resistance will be taken up later in this essay.

On the basis of Foucault’s account of the relationship between discourse, knowledge and power discussed above, this paper brings into focus the discourse in operation vis-à-vis the Native peoples of this land. From this perspective, some of the questions this paper addresses are: What are the limits and exclusions of the discourse around Aboriginality in the Canadian context? What are the organizing themes of this discourse? How does the discourse of Aboriginality relate to the historical and political fact of European colonization and Imperialism in this country? Finally, how does this discourse work to reproduce effects of domination? The immediate object of this paper is to pose these questions in a way that can be heard and investigated as politically relevant, as well as offer some provisional and tentative directions for further research.


PART II > Imperialism and Edward Said’s “Orientalism”

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