Of Barbarians and Savages

27 08 2010

This project of analyzing the intelligibility of history therefore implies three tasks: finding the strategic thread, tracing the thread of ethical divisions, and reestablishing the rectitude of what might be called the “constituent point” of politics and history, or the constituent moment of the kingdom. I say “constituent point” or “constituent  moment” so as to try to avoid, without erasing it altogether, the word “constitution.” As you can see, it is indeed a matter of constitution; the point of studying history is to reestablish the constitution, but not at all in the sense of an explicit body of laws that were formulated at some given moment. Nor is the goal to rediscover a sort of foundational juridical convention which, at some point in time-or architime-had been established between the king, the sovereign, and his subjects. The point is to rediscover something that has its own consistency and its own historical situation, and it is not so much of the order of the law as of the order of force, not so much of the order of the written word as of the order of an equilibrium. This something is a constitution, but almost in the sense that a doctor would understand that term, or in other words, in the sense of a relationship of force, an equilibrium and interplay of proportions, a stable dissymmetry or a congruent inequality. When eighteenth century doctors evoked the notion of “constitution,” they were talking about all these things. We can see this idea of a “constitution”-in both the medical and the military sense taking shape in the historical literature relating to the nobiliary reaction. It designates both a relationship of force between good and evil, and a relationship of force between adversaries. If we are able to understand and reestablish a basic relationship of force, we will be able to get back to this constituent point. We have to establish a constitution, and we will not get back to that constitution by reestablishing the laws of old, but  thanks to something resembling a revolution-a revolution in the sense of a transition from night to day, from the lowest point to the highest point. From Boulainvilliers onward-and this is, I think, the important point-it is the linking together of the two notions of constitution and revolution that makes this possible. So long as historicojuridical  literature, which had essentially been written by the  parlementaires, understood “constitution” to mean essentially the basic laws of the kingdom, or in other words, a juridical apparatus or something of the order of a convention, it was obvious that the return of the constitution meant swearing an oath to reestablish the laws that had been revealed. Once “constitution” no longer  meant a juridical armature or a set of laws, but a relationship of force, it was quiteobvious that such a relationship of  force could not be reestablished on the basis of nothing; it could be reestablished only when there existed something resembling a cyclical historical pattern, or at least something that allowed history to revolve around itself and brought it back to its starting point. You can therefore see how this medicomilitary idea of a constitution, or in other words, a relationship of  force, reintroduces something resembling a cyclical philosophy of history,or at least the idea that the development of history is circular. And when I say that his idea “is introduced,” I am really saying that it is reintroduced at the point where the old millenarian theme of the return of the past intersects with an articulated historical knowledge.

This philosophy of history as philosophy of cyclical time becomes possible from the eighteenth  century onward, or in other words, once the two notions of a constitution and a relationship of force become established. With Boulainvilliers, we see-I think for the first timethe  idea of a cyclical history appearing within an articulated historical discourse. Empires, says Boulainvilliers, rise and fall into decadence depending on how the light of the sun shines upon their territory.l The revolution of the sun, and the revolution of history: as you can see, the two things are now linked. So we have a pair, a link among  three things: constitution, revolution, and cyclical history. That, if you like, is one aspect of the tactical instrument that Boulainvilliers perfected.

Second aspect: When he is looking for the constItuent point which is both good and true-what is Boulainvilliers trying to do? It  is quite obvious that he refuses to look for that constituent point in the law, but he also refuses to find it in nature: antijuridicalism (which is what I have just been telling you about), but also naturalism. The great adversary of Boulainvilliers and his successors is nature, or natural man. To put it a different way, the great adversary of this type of analysis (and Boulainvilliers’s analyses will become instrumental and tactical in this sense too) is, if you like, natural man or the savage. “Savage” is to be understood in two senses. The savage – noble or otherwise – is the natural man whom the jurists or theorists of right dreamed up, the natura) man who existed before society existed, who existed in order to constitute society, and who was the element around which the social body could be constituted. When they look for the constituent point, Boulainvilliers and his successors are not trying to find this savage who, in some sense, exists before the social body. The other thing they are trying to ward off is the other aspect of the savage, that  other natural man or ideal element dreamed up by economists: a man without a past or a history, who is motivated only by self-interest and who exchanges the product of his labor for another product. What the historico-political discourse of Boulainvilliers and his successors is trying to ward off is both the savage who emerges from his forests to enter into acontract and to found society, and the savage Homo economicus whose life is devoted to exchange and barter. The combination of the savage and exchange is, I think, basic to juridical thought, and not only to eighteenth-century theories of right-we constantly find the savage-exchange couple from the eighteenth-century theory of right to the anthropology of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In both the juridical thought ofthe eighteenth century and the anthropology of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the savage is essentially a man who exchanges. He is the exchanger: he exchanges rights and he exchanges goods. Insofar as he exchanges rights, he founds society and sovereignty. Insofar as he exchanges goods, he constitutes a social body which is, at the same time, an economic body. Ever since the eighteenth century, the savage has been the subject of an elementary exchange. Well, the historico-political discourse inaugurated by Boulainvilliers creates another  figure, and he is the antithesis of the savage (who was of great importance in eighteenth-century juridical theory). This new figure is just as elementary as the savage of the jurists (who were soon followed by the anthropologists) but is constituted on a very different basis: he is the barbarian.

The barbarian is the opposite of the savage, but in what sense? First, in this sense: The savage is basically a savage who lives in a state of savagery together with other savages; once he enters a relation of a social kind, he ceases to be a savage. The barbarian, in contrast, is someone who can be understood, characterized, and defined only in relation to a civilization, and by the fact that he exists outside it. There can be no  barbarian unless an island of civilization exists somewhere, unless he lives outside it, and unless he fights it. And the barbarian’s relationship with that speck of civilization-which the barbarian despises, and which he wants-is one of hostility and permanent warfare. The barbarian cannot exist without the civilization he is trying to destroy and appropriate. The barbarian is always the man who stalks the frontiers of States, the man who stumbles into the city walls. Unlike the savage, the barbarian does not emerge from some natural backdrop to which he belongs. He appears  only when civilization already exists, and only when he is in conflict with it. He does not make his entrance into history by founding a society, but by penetrating a civilization, setting it ablaze and destroying it. I think that the first point, or the difference between the barbarian and the savage, is this relationship with a civilization, and therefore with a  history that already exists. There can be no barbarian without a preexisting history: the history of the civilization he sets ablaze. What is  more, and unlike the savage, the barbarian is not a vector for exchange. The barbarian is essentially the vector for something very different from exchange: he is the vector for domination. Unlike the savage, the barbarian takes possession and seizes; his occupation is not the primitive cultivation of the land, but plunder. His relationship with property is, in other words, always secondary: he always seizes existing property; similarly, he makes other serve him. He makes others cultivate his land, tend his horses, prepare his weapons, andso on. His freedom is based solely upon the freedom others have lost. And in his relationship with power, the barbarian, unlike the savage, never surrenders his freedom. The savage is a man who has in his hands, so to speak, a plethora of freedom which he surrenders in order to protect his life, his security, his property, and his goods. The barbarian never  gives up his freedom. And when he does acquire a power, acquire a king or elect a chief, he certainly does not do so in order to diminish his own share of right but, on the contrary, to increase his strength, to become an even stronger plunderer, a stronger thief and rapist, and to become an invader who is more confident of his own strength. The barbarian establishes a power in order to increase  his own individual strength. For the barbarian, the model government is, in other words, necessarily a military government, and certainly not one that is based upon the  contracts and transfer of civil rights that characterize the savage. The type of history established by Boulainvilliers in the eighteenth century is, I think, that of the figure of the barbarian.

So we can well understand why, m modern juridicoanthropological thought-and even in today’s bucolic and American utopias-the savage is, despite it all and even though it has to be admitted that he has done a few bad things and has a few faults, always the noble savage. Indeed, how could he not be noble, given that his specific function is to exchange and to give-in accordance with his  own best interests, obviously, but in a form of reciprocity in which we can, if you like, recognize the acceptable-and juridical form of goodness? The barbarian, in contrast, has to be bad and wicked, even if we have to admit that he does have certain qualities.  He has to be full of arrogance and has to be inhuman, precisely because he is not the man of nature and exchange; he is the man of history, the man of pillage and fires, he is the man of domination. “A proud,  brutal people, without a homeland, and without laws,” said Mably (who was, as it happens, very fond of barbarians); “it tolerates atrocious acts of violence because they are regarded as being publicly acceptable.'” The soul of the barbarian is great, noble, and proud, but it is always associated with treachery and cruelty (all this is in Mably). Speaking of barbarians, Bonneville said: “[T]hese adventurers lived only for war … the sword was their right and they exercised it without remorse.” And Marat, another great admirer of barbarians, described them as “poor, uncouth, without trade, without arts, but free.” The barbarian as natural man? Yes and no. No, in the sense that he is  always bound up with a history (and a preexisting history). The barbarian appears against a backdrop of history. And if he is related to nature, said Buat-Nançay (who was getting at his closest  enemy, namely Montesquieu), it is because – well, what is the nature of things? “It is the relationship between the sun and the mud it dries, between the thistle and the donkey that feeds on it.”

Within this historico-political field where knowledge of weapons is constantly being used as a  political instrument, the great tactics that are developed in the eighteenth century can, I think, be characterized by the way they use the four elements present in Boulainvilliers’s  analysis: constitution, revolution, barbarism, and domination. The problem is basically this: How can we establish the best possible fit between unfettered barbarism on  the one hand, and the equilibrium of the constitution we are trying to rediscover on the other? How can we arrive at the right balance of forces, and how can we  make use of the violence, freedom, and so on that the barbarian brings with him? In other words, which of the barbarian’s characteristics do we have to retain, and which do we have  to reject, if we are to get a fair constitution to work? What is there in barbarism that we can make use of? Basically, the  problem is that of filtering of the barbarian and barbarism: how can barbarian domination be so filtered as to bring about the constituent revolution? It is this problem, and the  different solutions to the problem of the need to filter barbarism so as to bring about the constituent revolution, that will define-both in the field of historical discourse and in this historico-political field the  tactical positions of different groups and the different interests of the nobility, monarchic power, or different tendencies within the bourgeoisie. It will define where the center of the battle lies.

Michel Foucault – Society Must Be Defended, Chapter 9, 3rd March 1976