The following essay was originally submitted as an assignment for my university and was graded as a 1st class essay.
Power is a critical area of study in political science and the broader social sciences. Much of our conceptualisation of the world around us revolves around power, particularly when it comes to disparities between different entities. This is no different when it comes to the field of International Relations (IR), in which the study of power plays a huge role. With this in mind, it is vital that we, as IR theorists, appreciate different approaches to the study of power and how these different approaches affect our understanding of the social world. As such, this essay aims to highlight the dissonances between mainstream IR and Poststructuralism in regard to power.
To do this, we will begin by outlining the main features of Poststructuralism’s understanding of power: discourse, deconstruction, genealogy, and intertextuality. We will then look at Orientalism as a case study of Poststructuralism’s understanding of power. Following this, we will contrast Poststructuralism’s understanding of power with that of mainstream IR theory. To finish, we will conclude by summarising the key points made in this essay.
Power According to Poststructuralism
Poststructuralism is a theoretical perspective that emerged during the 1960s as a response and critique of Structuralism. It is based upon a relativist ontology which asserts that reality does not exist beyond subjects (the observers), leading us to a subjectivist epistemology which asserts that subjects impose meaning on objects (the things that are observed) (Moon & Blackman, 2014). Simply put, no objective reality exists outside observation; reality is constructed by observers. Thus, knowledge is not discovered; it is created. As a result, Poststructuralism aims to deconstruct conceptions of reality to understand the social world and the power dynamics that exist therein.
Poststructuralism’s conception of power is primarily linked to knowledge creation and centres around four main concepts: discourse, deconstruction, genealogy, and intertextuality. These four concepts amalgamate to produce subjectivities (the vantage points from which an observer observes the world). Thus, power is understood as the productive capacity to constitute particular subjectivities as natural, objective conceptions of reality (Hansen, 2020).
During the late 1960s, philosopher Michel Foucault introduced the concept of discourse. As defined by Foucault, discourse refers to ‘ways of constituting knowledge, together with the social practices, forms of subjectivity and power relations which inhere in such knowledges and relations between them’ (Weedon, 1987). According to Poststructualism’s ontological basis, reality does not exist beyond observation. Instead, reality is constructed by the meaning imposed upon objects via language. Depending on the language used to describe an object, the meaning of the object changes. For example, a person firing a gun may be labelled as either a ‘soldier’ or a ‘terrorist’. A ‘terrorist’ firing a gun has different connotations than a ‘soldier’ firing a gun, even though, at the fundamental level, it is just a person firing a gun. In other words, discourse asserts that objects do not have a given essence; their essence is produced by language.
Around the same time as Foucault, another philosopher Jacque Derrida introduced the concept of deconstruction. Derrida posited that language is a system of unstable dichotomies where one term is valued as superior (Hansen, 2020). Words only make sense in relation to other words. To understand the meaning of one word, we must look at where it is positioned in relation to other words. For example, we cannot understand what ‘chimpanzee’ means without other words, such as ‘animal’. Similarly, we cannot understand what ‘chimpanzee’ means without comparing it to what it is not, such as ‘human’. However, these connections between words are unstable because they are never attributed indefinitely. For instance, while the ‘chimpanzee’ may be an ‘animal’, it is often seen as more ‘human’ than other ‘animals’. Therefore, its ‘animalness’ is unstable and may change within a given context. Thus, a ‘human-animal’ dichotomy exists, where ‘human’ is valued as superior to ‘animal’. In other words, deconstruction asserts that a system of unstable dichotomies artificially produces the essence of an object.
Alongside discourse, Foucault also developed the concept of genealogy by building upon the work of renowned philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Foucault and Nietzsche argued that mainstream history is far too homogenous and misrepresentative of a past comprised of gradual, contested, and often forgotten histories. Therefore, genealogy is concerned with drawing attention to the politics involved in making the past look a certain way to understand the discursive and material structures of the present (Hansen, 2020). For instance, understanding and critiquing colonial myths concerning world history can help us better understand the current power dynamics between Europe and its ex-colonies (Halperin, 2006). In other words, genealogy asserts that knowledge of the past is constructed and informs the meaning subjects impose upon objects in the present.
In 1969, philosopher Julia Kristeva introduced the concept of intertextuality. According to Kristeva, the social world can be understood as being comprised of texts that form broader intertexts (the knowledge produced by a body of texts) (Kristeva, 1980). The meaning that a subject imposes upon an object is enshrined in an intertext. Intertexts are developed over time and inform the observations that subjects make about objects. For example, to say that ‘Africa’ is ‘backwards’ is to draw upon the intertext that constitutes ‘Africa’ as ‘pre-modern’, ‘barbaric’ and ‘savage’. Whenever a new text references ‘Africa’, it builds upon the old body of texts that constitute ‘Africa’ as ‘backwards’. This intertext then informs any observations that subjects make of ‘Africa’. In other words, intertextuality asserts that the meaning a subject imposes upon an object is reinforced, preserved, and propagated by a wider intertext.
Poststructuralism’s four concepts of discourse, deconstruction, genealogy, and intertextuality overlap to produce subjectivities. The essence of an object is produced by language (discourse). Language is a system of unstable dichotomies (deconstruction). These unstable dichotomies are constructed over time by controlling our knowledge of the past (genealogy). This knowledge is reinforced, preserved, and propagated by intertexts (intertextuality). These intertexts produce subjectivities which are adopted by subjects, informing their conception of reality. Consequently, power emerges when particular subjectivities are produced and constituted as an objective conception of reality when no such objective reality exists.
In summary, power, according to Poststructuralism, can be understood as the creation and propagation of knowledge. Ontologically, Poststructuralism posits that there is no objective reality outside observation. Epistemologically, therefore, any conception of reality is the result of subjectivities. Thus, power is the capacity to produce subjectivities and constitute them as objective reality via the creation and propagation of knowledge through language: a system of unstable dichotomies propped up by homogenous accounts of history reinforced by intertexts.
Orientalism: A Case Study in Poststructuralist Power
Orientalism refers to the body of knowledge propping up the dichotomous relationship between ‘Occident’ and ‘Orient’. As this essay will demonstrate, this body of knowledge is created via the amalgamation of discourse, deconstruction, genealogy and intertextuality. It is then used to produce subjectivities regarding the ‘Orient’, which are, in turn, presented as objective reality. Thus, Orientalism can be understood as a form of power that privileges the Western conception of reality.
In his 1978 book Orientalism, philosopher Edward Said established Orientalism as “a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient” (Said, 1978). Said posited that the existence and development of every culture impels the existence of a different and inevitably competitive ‘other’. In endeavouring to build its self-image, the West created the ‘Orient’ to serve as its ‘other’. Consequently, Orientalists have constructed subjectivities surrounding the ‘Occident’ and ‘Orient’ to explain why Eastern societies are dominated by Western societies, establishing this hierarchy as a natural truth. In doing so, the ‘Occident’ is justified in speaking for and controlling the resources of the ‘Orient’ (Said, 1978).
As discussed in the previous section of this essay, subjectivities are the product of knowledge created via discourse, deconstruction, genealogy and intertextuality. In the case of Orientalism, this is no different.
The object being observed are the people, cultures, and countries that encompass the geographical regions commonly defined as Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. The essence of the object is captured in the term ‘Orient’ (discourse). The ‘Orient’ is constituted as ‘irrational’, ‘regressive’, and ‘unjust’ in contrast to the ‘rational’, ‘progressive’, and ‘just’ ‘Occident’, those people, cultures, and countries that encompass the geographical regions commonly defined as Europe, North America, and Australasia. Thus, an unstable ‘Occident-Orient’ dichotomy exists, where ‘Orient’ is positioned as inferior to ‘Occident’ (deconstruction).
The ‘Occident’ and ‘Orient’ are presented as continuously antagonistic objectivities stretching back to antiquity in the form of ancient Greece, the birthplace of Western civilisation, and ancient Persia, the birthplace of Eastern civilisation (Said, 1978). The ‘Occident-Orient’ dichotomy is constructed by homogenous Western accounts of world history (genealogy). This grand narrative has been built up and propagated over time by a wide body of Western scholarly and creative works (intertextuality). Notable Orientalist works include Jean-Leon Gerome’s The Snake Charmer, Rudyard Kipling’s The White Man’s Burden, and Disney’s Aladdin. Thus, knowledge of the ‘Orient’ and the ‘Occident’ is the artificial creation of the West.
As a body of knowledge, Orientalism has been propagated by Western societies as an objective conception of reality and imposed upon non-Western societies. In turn, Orientalist knowledge helps justify superior ‘Occidental’ intervention and domination over the inferior ‘Oriental’, framing it as being in the best interests of the ‘Oriental’ and the moral duty of the ‘Occidental’ as it coincides with the natural reality constructed by Orientalism (Said, 1978). It has been so effective in its purpose that writers who belong to the communities that constitute the ‘Orient’ have begun internalising Orientalist ideas in their works (Lau, 2009). Thus, Orientalism acts as a pervasive form of power that impacts all areas of the social world, from government policy to pop culture.
In summary, Orientalism refers to a specific type of knowledge creation and propagation process that is servile to Western power. To produce subjectivities, it draws upon the four central concepts of Poststructuralism: discourse, deconstruction, genealogy, and intertextuality. Orientalism serves as the perfect medium through which IR theorists can study and apply Poststructuralist power. In doing so, IR theorists will be able to broaden their understanding of the social world and the power dynamics that exist therein.
Dissonances in Approaches to Power
The foundation of difference between Poststructuralism and mainstream IR theory lies in their ontological and epistemological positions. Where Poststructuralism follows a relativist ontology and subjectivist epistemology, mainstream IR theory largely follows a realist ontology and objectivist epistemology. A realist ontology asserts that reality does exist beyond subjects. Building on this, an objectivist epistemology asserts that meaning exists within objects (Moon & Blackman, 2014). Simply put, a single objective reality does exist; reality is not constructed by observers. Thus, knowledge is not created; it is discovered. These starkly contrasting ontological and epistemological positions explain why there is a difference in methodology between the two approaches. Poststructuralism seeks to deconstruct conceptions of reality. Meanwhile, mainstream IR theory seeks to understand and explain the single apparent conception of reality.
In regards to power, mainstream IR theory follows a more straightforward approach centred around political scientist Robert Dahl’s definition: “A has power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something that B would not otherwise do” (Dahl, 1957). In an IR context, power is something that is possessed by a country, allowing it to force another country to do something it would not otherwise do. It is usually measured using a comparative indicator, such as Gross National Product (GNP) or military capabilities (Sterling-Folker & Shinko, 2007). If country A has a higher GNP or military capabilities than country B, it can force country B to do something it would not otherwise do. Thus, country A has power over country B. For mainstream IR theory, power is apparent and measurable on a case-by-case basis. However, for Poststructuralism, power must be uncovered and cannot be easily measured.
Mainstream IR theory locates power in objects. However, these objects must affect other objects (Sterling-Folker & Shinko, 2007). For instance, a tank does not have power if it is not used to destroy buildings, kill people, or deter attackers. Therefore, mainstream IR theory recognises the importance of action. The object must act in order for it to have power. Country A must use its tanks to force country B to do something it would not otherwise do. In response, country B may decide to fight back against country A with its own tanks to resist doing what country A wants it to do. As a result, a disruption of the balance of power occurs, and then more power is used to re-establish balance. At the end of the day, the country with the greater quantity or quality of tanks (the greater power) is the one that will win out in the end. As political scientist Stefano Guzzini summarises: “power implies potential change, which in turn implies a counterfactual situation of potential continuity” (Guzzini, 1993).
Meanwhile, Poststructuralism locates power in subjects. However, these subjects require structures – albeit fluid structures that are susceptible to change – to impose their subjectivities on other subjects. Orientalists rely on the knowledge base of Orientalism to spread their subjectivities regarding the ‘Orient’. Due to power’s abstract nature, subjects can resist powerful subjectivities like Orientalism by producing their own or by even reconfiguring the structures that impose such subjectivities (Sterling-Folker & Shinko, 2007). For instance, Occidentalism, a counter-discourse to Orientalism, has produced subjectivities that constitute the ‘Occident’ as inferior to the ‘Orient’ (Margalit & Buruma, 2004).
Mainstream IR theory and Poststructuralism recognise resistance to power imposed by structures as a critical point of analysis; the difference lies in their approach. Mainstream IR theory is focused on two or more competing structures (country A and B) using their power (tanks) to resist one another. Poststructuralism is focused on how resistance to a structure (Orientalism) is a form of power itself and how it has the potential to reconfigure existing structures (Occidentalism). In other words, mainstream IR theory focuses on the competition of structures that want to stay in being. Poststructuralism focuses on resistance to structural ways of being (Sterling-Folker & Shinko, 2007).
Mainstream IR theorists separate the analysis of power from its practice. On the other hand, Poststructuralists argue that analysing power is practising power because taking structures as analytical givens only rectifies them. Therefore, there exists an ethical dimension to all Poststructuralist analyses of power, and heeding the voices that contest given structures is central to Poststructuralist analysis. However, mainstream IR theory can ignore these voices entirely because it is sceptical of the displacement of existing structures and accepts structural reconstitution as an objective reality. This makes the prospect of reconciliation between the two approaches challenging as mainstream IR theory views the study of power as a morally neutral endeavour, whereas Poststructuralism views it as morally corrupt (Sterling-Folker & Shinko, 2007).
In summary, the dissonances between mainstream IR theory and Poststructuralism lie in their ontological and epistemological foundations. Mainstream IR theory is based on a realist ontology and objectivist epistemology. Poststructuralism is based on a relativist ontology and subjectivist epistemology. While common points of analysis may exist, both approaches lead theorists in different methodological directions. Mainstream IR theory focuses on competing structures that want to stay in being. Poststructuralism focuses on structural ways of being. As a result of these stark differences in ontology, epistemology, and methodology, an ethical dilemma prevents reconciliation between the two approaches.
To recap, we began this essay by outlining the main features of Poststructuralism’s understanding of power. According to Poststructuralism, power is the capacity to produce subjectivities and constitute them as objective reality via the creation and propagation of knowledge through language: a system of unstable dichotomies propped up by homogenous accounts of history reinforced by intertexts. This was followed by an overview of one type of Poststructuralist form of power: Orientalism. As a body of knowledge, Orientalism constructs a natural, objective reality to justify superior ‘Occidental’ intervention and domination over the inferior ‘Oriental’, framing it as being in the best interests of the ‘Oriental’ and the moral duty of the ‘Occidental’.
After this, we contrasted Poststructuralism’s understanding of power with that of mainstream IR theory. The root of dissonance between the two approaches lies in their ontological and epistemological foundations, which inform two starkly contrasting methodologies. For mainstream IR theory, power works on the surface. For Poststructuralism, power works beneath the surface. While simultaneously following both approaches is near impossible due to ethical complications, mainstream IR theorists should at the very least familiarise themselves with the approaches of Poststructuralists and vice versa. Doing so will provide both camps with a broader understanding of the social world, which only serves to enrich the field of IR and the broader social sciences.
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