Revisiting Foucault: War in peace and the question of 'power'

'The essence of our life consists, after all, of the political functioning of the society in which we find ourselves.' - Foucault

The word “peace” can connote the presence of a good degree of justice and harmony,or the absence of (overt,armed and violent) conflict. The observation in his treatise 'On War' by Carl von Clausewitz (1780 – 1831) –“war is the continuation of politics by other means” - is well-known. (See also ‘The Art of War’ by Sun-tzu, BCE 380-316, and ‘The Arthashastra’ by Kautilya.) Among Michael Foucault’s chief concerns is the question of power: its forms and manifestations; its workings and effect. Power is not to be associated only with force, punishment and repression by the state. It functions also at the sub-state level; is regulatory and “productive”, for example, of discourse. Foucault, inverting Clausewitz, says that 'politics is the continuation of war by other means.'

Political power puts an end to war, but not in order to suspend the effects of power or to neutralize the disequilibrium revealed by the last battle of the war (Foucault, 'Society Must Be Defended'). On the contrary, the state can use military victory to re-inscribe that relationship of force in institutions, economic inequalities, language, and even on the bodies of individuals (op. cit.). From the 1910s to the early 1970s, aboriginal children of mixed race were placed in white foster-homes or settlement camps in a policy of forced assimilation that sought to “speed the disappearance of aboriginal culture” (Michael Sandel, Justice, 2010).

What passes for Law (sometimes mistaken for 'Justice') is born of battle, massacre, conquest and their “horrific heroes”; is born in burning towns and villages; in ravaged fields, together with the innocent who died at break of day (Foucault). Power circulates. It is a network where some, submitting to power, get to exercise power. “Racism” by the state can be directed against groups of its own population, and “peace” can be but a code-word for war. Power produces discourses of “truth”, and so even when the history of peace is written, at root, it’s a history of war. History is the discourse of power - and its intensifier: the description of a war can be a weapon of war. The history of some is not the history of others, and what looks like right to one group is the abuse of power, violation and exaction to another (Foucault).

Destruction of the ‘Other’

“Race”, Foucault argues, doesn’t have a scientific, biological, meaning: the real meaning of “race” is historical and political.  (See, ‘The term “racism” and discourse’ in Sarvan - Sri Lanka: Literary Essays & Sketches, 2011.) Racism is a mechanism of power, exercised to serve a particular function. It fragments people into unequal categories, with one being classified as superior; the other, not only as inferior but abnormal. The relationship is mortal: the life of one group is thought to depend on the death or total subjection of the other. Biologically, the death of the inferior group is necessary not only for one’s group to survive, but to become healthier and purer; more successful and happy. Thus, the violent destruction of the ‘Other’ becomes a way of regenerating one’s own group (Foucault). We must bear in mind that “people are seized with a kind of madness when they take to violence. The violence carries them along, transforms them and makes them – even afterward, when it’s all over – unrecognizable” (Sven Lindqvist, 'Exterminate All The Brutes' - 2007).  Power claims to possess the truth, the only truth. In its control of discourse, it not only writes and re-writes, but it suppresses and erases. After almost three quarters of a century, Thea Halo took her mother, a Pontic Greek,back to visit her childhood village in Turkey. The title of the resulting book tells it all: 'Not Even My Name' (2001).

In ‘Romeo & Juliet’, it is innocence (ignorance) that makes Juliet– she’s not quite fourteen - ask: “What’s in a name?”  As I have pointed out elsewhere, in Sri Lanka whether a name ends with a vowel or consonant can make an awful lot of difference: for example, Rajaratne (Sinhalese)  or Rajaratnam (Tamil). Names of streets and buildings are changed, statues destroyed and graves desecrated. (For the last, see Anne Abaysekara’s 'Open letter to the Defence Secretary' - The Island, Colombo, 19 May 2010.) The attempt is to alter and erase; falsify and re-write. Ananda Commaraswamy (1877 – 1947) is a scholar of international repute, one who did much work on Buddhism, Buddhist philosophy and art. Yet, seen as a Tamil, the street named after him is now ‘Nelum Pokuna Mawatha’. I received the following message from a friend in Colombo (August 2012): “Gandhiji's statues were brutally vandalised twice in recent times, a few months ago in Trincomalee, and last week in Jaffna. It reveals the sheer hatred in the populace of all Tamil (and by extension Indian) cultural symbols”.    

“Most people in the South are ignorant of the true state of affairs in the North and East, while the others are just indifferent. Yours sorrowfully, Anne Abeysekera” - personal message from a (Sinhalese) friend, 6 August 2012. The outside world chooses, prefers, to think that with the annihilation of the Tigers, there’s now peace in the Paradise Isle, the land of the Compassionate Buddha. But what is the nature of this “peace”? For whom is it “peace”? In reality the war continues to be waged without compassion - and now (the Tamil Tigers having been eliminated) with complete impunity. (See, for example, ‘State Violence in Sri Lanka: The International Community and the Myth of Normalisation’ by Samuel Thampapillai in ‘Somatechnics’, Edinburg University Press, 2011.)


Of a truth, “absolute power corrupts absolutely” (Lord Acton). As Foucault notes, what leads to a brutal and unjust society is not defeat itself, but what is done after victory. I quote from my letter to Mr. Hemantha Warnakulasuriya (President’s Counsel and former Ambassador), published by him in 'The Island' newspaper (Colombo, 9 July 2012):  “You do not address issues such as massive military occupation; state-sponsored colonization, the expropriation of land; the cultural onslaught (‘culture’ in its wider meaning); the lack of equality, and the sense of dignity that goes with it; discrimination in opportunity and employment etc.” To this list, one could add insult, intimidation and brutality become commonplace; abduction and murder. Most often, the victims are not middle-class Tamils but simple, innocent, folk: unknown and helpless; human and deeply grieving. World over, the wounds (physical, psychological) of such victims go unattended; their cries unheeded, and their tears un-wiped.

The term“landscape” has led to words such as skyscape, winterscape, “the landscape of thought”, and to “memoryscape”. Rosalind Shaw observes (Memories of the Slave Trade, 2002) that the remembering of violence and injustice, “memoryscape”, can be non-discursive: though not verbally expressed, it exists. To “dismember” is to take apart, usually with violence. To “remember” is to recall, but it is also to “re-member” (make a “member” again); to heal and re-join what has been separated. The struggle is to protect and preserve; to remember and to “re-member”, in the face of cruel power. The struggle is to realize real peace, and a society that is just and free, concerned and caring, ethical and decent.

* (With thanks to Liebetraut Sarvan for comment and criticism.)

Charles Ponnuthurai Sarvan studied at the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya and left for England two years after his graduation. He obtained the degree of Master of Philosophy and Doctor of Philosophy from the University of London. He was the contributing Editor of English Literature: Introductory Essays (National Educational Company, Lusaka, 1981) and co-author of Readings in Poetry (Lusaka, 1986). Professor Sarvan, now retired, taught in Sri Lanka, England, Nigeria, Zambia, the Middle East and Germany.