In 1986, Mahdi Amel critiqued Edward Said's Foucauldian account of the interconnectedness of knowledge and power in Orientalism. Amel's main contention in response to Said is that structuralism—which he sees both Said and Michel Foucault as representing—is not able to offer an adequate account of the relationship between material conditions of production and discursive ones.1 An adequate account would be one that could further the aims of emancipatory politics, which for Amel—who was an unquestioning, “traditional” historical materialist—must be justified rationally and through a historical process specific to that society. In Amel's account, Said's focus on mechanisms and discourses of power as mechanisms of interpellation, or of the formation of subjectivity, occludes any possibility for thinking the overcoming of the power structures specific to colonial capitalism. Amel thus turns Said's Foucauldian account of power-knowledge against itself: how can we ever escape power if knowledge can never be disinterested and truth (as a counter to ideology or power-knowledge regimes) does not exist? Like other contemporary Arabic thinkers of the past century, Amel was committed to rationalism. Further, he understood rationality to be the most fundamental battleground for emancipation in postcolonial societies plagued by the rise of bourgeois nationalism, which premised its politics (that he saw Said as representing) on the principle of self-preservation rather than those of self-determining reason, subjectivity, and the self-consciousness of the working class.2 This commitment to reason is one that Amel shared with Arab secularists of the past century like Sadiq Jalal al-ʿAzm, Anwar Abdel Malak, Abdallah al-Alayli, Hussein Mroue, and others.3 There is no room here for discussing Amel's account of scientific rationality, arguably an account that he never was able to fully work out before his assassination. However, it is important to note that Amel was influenced by Gaston Bachelard and the debates in French epistemology as much as he was by dialectical materialism. The concept of an epistemic break (qafza fikriya) is fundamental for his understanding of the emergence of scientific thought from a break or cut with ideology.4 Amel attempted to fuse this epistemological account of rupture with dialectics: this is perhaps his central theoretical preoccupation. He argued that the overcoming of capitalist structures requires a corrective to structuralism through an account of contradiction, which dialectical materialism can provide, that would allow for a cut, or coupure, from the state of stuck-ness in colonial conditions that plagues postcolonial societies. This break or cut from existing contradictions is assumed as a revolutionary end, perhaps a “tiger's leap” out of history. In a sense, Amel rehearses the central dilemma of leftist thought in the wake of Marx: is the overcoming of contradiction once and for all in history a resolving of contradiction? Is there such a thing as a grand exit from capitalist relations, a radical cut, or does transformation occur immanently from within the alienated social forms of capitalist society, from within the colonial relation itself? Contradiction, in a Hegelian account, is never something that can be resolved; it is only worked through retroactively, realized after the fact but only for another contradiction to then present itself. It is perhaps Lenin's formulation that influenced Amel the most: there are gradual transformations that must occur, which are almost like stages but more like periods of transformation before society can emerge from its long prehistorical slumber. For Amel, there are temporalities within the specific historical time of capitalism. He works through the problem of temporality in his later and unfinished works, where he argues for a theory of multiple coextant temporalities of structure within the synchronic, empty time of modernity.5
Amel contends that Said, like Foucault before him, fell into the trap of assuming the unity of thought (wihdat al-aql) as a power-knowledge structure in the West, as a synchronically frozen structure that cannot be overcome. Said claims that Western thought is permeated by the discourse of Orientalism even in its most radical thinker, Marx. Amel reads Said's account of knowledge as a positivist and historicist one, for it conflates an object of thought with a real object. Said confuses a representation (Orientalism) with the object itself (Western thought). But for Amel, neither the “East” nor the “West” exists as real entity outside nationalist ideology: both sites are permeated by one primary contradiction and antagonism, that of class. Said's conflation does not allow for an objective account of material contradictions within thought itself, which arise—for Amel—from real conditions of class struggle (in theory and reality). Class society is for Amel the condition of possibility of identity thinking itself. The “East” and “West” are identities, however, only insofar as they are traversed by negativity: the West is not One, and neither is the East; they can only relate to each other as opposing identities if we are able to think the negativity (class struggle) that permeates both and relates them to each other. In other words, what Said misses in his account is that East and West are indifferent to each other; neither is a resolute homeland in itself, but each can only relate to the other through this indifference.
A Whole That Is More Than the Sum of Its Parts
Amel's main question in his response to Said can be posed as such: if the heart is for the East and the mind for the West, then to what whole do these parts correspond? Are they parts of a whole that can be identified dialectically? A whole that would be more than the sum of its parts, or, to be more precise, a “whole that is equal to the parts but not equal to them as parts”?6 What organic totality can be achieved from the part/whole relationship if we take East and West as parts, a heart and a mind?7 The dialectical approach would seek to unravel how the whole is present in each of its parts yet remains autonomous from them—that is, the dialectically achieved relation itself. Amel argues that Said's problem, the “unequal partnership” of parts (East and West), cannot be solved without a dialectical account of the totality that appears in its parts.
Amel's rejoinder to Said's “positivism”—where he sees Said reifying the two distinct entities of East and West, heart and reason—is formulated through an understanding of dialectics that can be traced to Engels and Lenin. Amel questions the use of heart and mind as representatives of East and West and asks to what possible whole or totality they belong. This problematic corresponds to what Lucien Sève would call a scientific theory of emergence rooted in the dialectic without vitalism.8 The “organic totality” of capitalist society is nothing but a totality that cannot totalize, permeated by contradiction; in other words, capitalism is a condition of possibility (Grundlage) for both “East” and “West,” and colonization is the base (Grund) that gives capitalism its fundamental character. It is in this dialectical sense that colonial capitalism installs a new ground—albeit violently—a new explanatory base for a next level of transformation in any society (which is not necessarily one of progress). Particular nations, colonized nations in the East, can no longer refer back to their own histories as the support or base for their present or future, for they are now bound to the laws of capital, to its historicity, and to its logic of internal relations.9 In other words, the colonized are doubly alienated, from their own history and within the real abstractions of capitalist society. Colonial nations are locked into a “stunted history,” relegated to a tragic repetition of essence, a tragic one because of an irresolvable conflict between institutions (postcolonial states like the sectarian Lebanese state) and demands for justice.
Amel argues that a dialectical account of a relational totality is needed, one that has a nonlinear dynamic. Can this account allow for the overcoming of conditions of inequality, without an account of what kind of “body” we assign the heart (East) and the mind (West)? What kind of correspondence or relation can there ever be between East and West? If it is simply a demand for equal recognition, is not all recognition premised on misrecognition, a mismatch of organs without a body, a fragmented body in a body, which always leaves something more to be desired?10
We can say that Amel rehearses a critique of Foucault's residual Kantianism through Said11 in order to argue that the limited horizon of the transcendental-empirical doublet is itself conditioned by the objective material contradiction of class struggle. The dialectic, for Amel, is the only way to apprehend and overcome these conditions. This is because the dialectic does not have an ahistorical account of conditions of possibility; a condition of possibility (class society) is instead based on a particular historical temporality that corresponds strictly to capitalist society itself.
Said's particular reading of Marx in relation to the discourse of Orientalism in the West is premised on the argument that Marx, the individual thinker, could not escape the hegemonic ruse of reason, which is a unity insofar as it relates to individual thought from the outside. Marx's shortcoming, in Said's reading, is that he could not relate to or recognize the existential human condition of Oriental suffering from colonization. Said's rejoinder to Marx is premised on the assertion that he cannot be simultaneously compassionate to the East and rational about the revolution of relations of production installed by colonization. If Marx feels sympathy with the suffering of the East, he cannot also think the conditions of that suffering. Amel argues that Said adopts here a classical approach to contradiction: a statement cannot be true and false at the same time. Either Marx should condemn colonization in both feeling and thought, or his contradictory statements are deemed false, complicit in the promulgation of Orientalism. However, the first premise of the dialectic is to overcome the limits of classical logic and reject the principle of noncontradiction: contradictions index a truth that is not simply irrational and absurd but essential and actual. For Amel, insight lies not in saying that discourse is contradictory but only in saying that we must be able to grasp reality in a concept.12
Marx's disavowal of compassion, then, returns in his affirmation of the rational unfolding of history defined as a history of progress: disavowed compassion masquerades as violent reason. Said interprets Marx's rationalization of colonization—the agent of revolutionizing relations of production, and thereby a necessity for actualizing freedom—as a renunciation of “existential human identity” (ʿhuwiyat wujudiya insaniya). This disavowal of the heart affirms “abstract collective ideals” like freedom and necessity. Marx, the feeling individual, is a pawn in the drama of collective and abstract Western reason. Amel argues that this presentation of Marx cannot but be grounded in a discursive account of knowledge, knowledge always already as a will to power. As such, Marx's individual knowledge cannot escape the collective discourse of Orientalism. Moreover, Marx's rationality is nothing but the reflection of collective Western reason. Ultimately, Amel questions the Saidian reduction of knowledge to discourse. He argues that this reduction affirms a bourgeois understanding of sociality as a collection of individuals that expresses itself in one discourse. If knowledge cannot escape domination by Western reason, and if no individual subject in the West can escape Orientalist discourse (besides Montesquieu), then by what means can we think universal emancipation? Although Amel does not present his problematic in terms of subjectivity, the objections he raises to the interpretive framework that relies on discourse and knowledge point us in this direction. Interestingly, Amel elsewhere levels a similar accusation at Althusser, arguing that Althusser's account of ideology and structure also leaves no room for an exit from ideology.13
Amel asks: if Marx, the critic of capitalism, is included in the discourse of Orientalism and thus rendered unfit for emancipation in the non-Western world, what is left for the East other than the heart? If Marx were to give the East his heart and reserve reason for the West, then what can the East really do with the heart? Compassion, sentiment, and sympathy—although commendable human traits once we can wrestle them out of a Smithian understanding—do not make the reorganization of social life beyond capitalist relations possible. Colonized nations in particular need less feeling and more Marxist science, Wissenschaft, which is neither positivist nor simply ahistorical. Amel does sound like a crude mechanist defender of iron laws of history, but his main argument with Western Marxism is that colonized nations have their own singular trajectory to socialism, which is not dictated only by the developments in Western capitalism.
In this text, Amel builds his critical analysis on the way Said reads Marx in Orientalism ; Said argues that Marx's position on colonization in India is contradictory to and directly complicit in imperialist knowledge. Amel dwells on the hesitancy in Said's reading: Marx rationally justifies colonization as a force of progress despite his sentimental acknowledgment of the plight of Easterners in the wake of colonial violence. Said's repudiation of Marx hinges on Marx's lack of compassion with an Other. In other words, Marx has to be heartless to the suffering of non-Europeans to be mindful of the necessities of progress despite the violence of colonization. On Amel's account, Said's reading of Marx can only result in relegating any rationalist (and thereby dialectical) position to Orientalist discourse and any sentimental affective account to the “East.”
After all, why can't one think and feel at once, without that translating into the impossibility of knowing in a disinterested manner? If there can be no disinterested knowledge, then by what means can we apprehend social conditions and the means to their overcoming?14 For Amel, it is a political necessity to excavate a dialectical account of domination in the “East,” and this dialectical account cannot but be at odds with a Foucauldian framing of knowledge-power regimes because the latter foreclose the possibility of a different kind of knowledge (or thought) emerging from within the (empirical) determinations of modern society.15
Amel notes that this limitation, in a Foucauldian analysis of discourse, results from the coming together of a “cultural structuralism” (bunyawiya thaqafiya) and a “Nietzschean nihilism.” He argues that this synthesis of structuralism with antirationalism reaffirms the unity of reason (wihdat al-aql), foreclosing the emancipatory potentialities of rationality. How do we make sense of this assertion? The structuralist account of discourse determines subjectivity and produces an illusion of a unified subject of reason that is outside materiality. Put differently, Amel's main disagreement with Foucault and Said lies in the ways in which they affirm a materiality—which is apprehended ideologically in capitalist society—as an outside to subjectivity and assert subjectivity as that which is determined or posited by discourse.
Although Amel does not name this problem as a Kantian one, this is precisely what it is. Foucault's account of subjectivity, as that which is historically constituted by a set of empirical conditions and in a “specific mode of subjection,” is what we could call a “hyper-Kantian” problem.16 Said in a sense imports a Kantian problem into his account of Orientalism: if all forms of experience and practices of experience are historically conditioned, then subjective knowledge (such as Marx's) cannot escape the normative horizon within which it is conceived. In other words, systematically organized thought (what could be called an objective idealism in Hegelian parlance), Orientalism here, pervades all spheres of reference to the subject-object dualism. If every practice and behavior and attitude is laden with thought,17 then even Marx's short-lived compassion is underwritten by thought. Marx's thoughts on the Orient fall into a system of knowledge, relations of power, and relations to the self: he verifies Orientalist knowledge, affirms its relations of power, and allows it to trump his feelings in his own relationship to himself. Marx the individual is bereft of critical acumen, as is any other “self.” Said and Foucault assume (the existence of) this loop of power, which corresponds to Kant's conception of experience as that which is formed by an activity of thought.18 Marx, like all other European thinkers of his time, was like a fish contained in a bowl that he did not see, the captive of a discourse that only Said, through Foucault, could somehow identify. Amel asks, then: but how do Foucault (and Said) escape the fishbowl of Western reason? The iron rules of discourse unfortunately don't allow subjects outside of them; we are all enframed in discursive practices, caught up in their image, destined to speak a “will” disguised as “truth” to power.
Here it is important to note Foucault's own avowed poststructuralism, what Hubert L. Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow would deem his method “beyond structuralism and hermeneutics” (Dreyfus and Rabinow, Michel Foucault). Foucault did think that structuralism was the most advanced of the human sciences. However, he was not interested in a universal theory of discourse or power; his interest was in histories of discourses and practices. In this sense, structuralism itself deserved an archaeology, which is arguably the main aim of The Order of Things . Foucault's relationship to structuralism is thus debatable and inconclusive, to say the least. Amel, in this text, assumes Foucault's structuralism and insists on it.
Another interesting point to consider is Said's actual relationship to Foucault. Foucault in his later years was extremely weary of intellectuals speaking truth to power: universal intellectuals can hardly speak truth to biopower precisely because of the way knowledge is implicated in technologies of power and is no longer a superstructure of power. Said and Foucault do share a fundamental agreement that there is no recourse to any totalizations in theory, no objective laws, no pure subjectivity that is untainted by mechanisms of power. Amel's point of contention with both is related to these issues in particular. For Amel, we cannot simply base politics on cultural practices that constitute the histories of our present, as Foucault would like. The postcolonial world is a lesson in that regard, where cultural practices themselves become impediments to the overcoming of capital. Mahdi Amel discusses the sectarian state in his book Fi al-dawl al-taʾifiya .
Amel may indeed sound like an outdated Marxist in this regard, but it is these very terms that he considers to be the fundamental stakes in the critique of Said's account of knowledge and discourse.
Anwar Abdel Malak, for instance, argued in 1985 that Orientalism, as a distinctly European discourse, resulted from a post-Hegelian, antirationalist Romanticism in Europe, a sphere of thought premised entirely on imaginary projections of Western fantasies.
See Ziad Kiblawi's discussion of Amel's relationship to Bachelard's historical epistemology in Reading, Repeating, and Working Through .
While studying at Lyon, where Gilles Deleuze was teaching at the time, Amel read Husserl closely. His PhD advisor was Henry Maldiney, a French phenomenologist. Amel's relationship to phenomenology requires further investigation, but suffice it to say here that work on temporalities of structure may need to be analyzed while taking this into consideration.
It is important to recall that for Hegel, the organic whole, if we were to take the body as an example here, would be a dead corpse: one that can revert to parts in the hands of an anatomist.
Nationalism itself is a modern invention that forever freezes identities as though they were “essences” stuck in a temporality of repetition. Amel calls national identities “stunted essences,” ossified and petrified images of culture that stand in the way of collective politics.
Alain Grorischard's brilliant and often overlooked critique of Said in The Sultan's Court pursues an analysis of Orientalism not as discourse but as fantasy.
That said, Amel had an antagonistic relationship to Hegelian dialectics. This is probably related to his theoretical formation in the context of mid-twentieth-century France. Whenever Amel refers to Hegel, he does so by characterizing him as an idealist teleological thinker: Hegelianism for him is the philosophy of absolute knowledge, of abstract idealism that is bereft of a materialist account of reality. Amel thus maintained a strict separation between idealism and materialism. He also argued that structural Marxism and Althusserianism fell into a similar trap, whereby the unity of a thought structure, as an ideological structure, has no outside.
In his theoretical works, Amel argues for a Kantian concept of the mode of production.
Amel posits scientific thinking against ideology. This is a very complicated point that cannot be addressed here; suffice it to say that Amel understands science as Leninist dialectical materialism.
The question can be stated in other terms: if capitalism is characterized by real abstractions (economic, juridical, legal), which are conditioned by mediation (of both the subjective and objective), there can be no recourse to immediacy for understanding and apprehending these relations.
Many arguments can be made against this assertion. The most interesting one may pertain to the question of subjectivity, particularly in the wake of Judith Butler's correctives to Foucault in her theory of performativity. Foucault himself had no interest in the category of the subject, beyond his late lectures on self-care and governmentality. Although Amel has no account of subjectivity beyond the working class, his problems with Foucault are very similar to his objections to Althusser. Both thinkers—in a Spinozist manner, as Warren Montag has pointed out—reduce materialism to the materiality of ideas, ideologies, discourses. See Montag, “Soul Is the Prison.”
Foucault's relationship to Kant and Nietzsche is intriguing. A crucial reference here would be Djabballah, Kant, Foucault.