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Author: Svetlana Yefimenko

Knowledge as War Strategy: Ancient History with Foucault in Mind

Knowledge as War Strategy: Ancient History with Foucault in Mind

I’ve been reading too much Foucault.  So, let’s talk about barbarians.


Foucault develops a historico-political discourse which relies upon the seemingly uncouth figure of the barbarian.  The term has its roots in the Latin barbaria “foreign country,” in the Greek barbaros “foreign, strange,” and perhaps most significantly, in the Proto-Indo-European root barbar, which was intended to reproduce the unintelligible babble of foreigners.


Unlike the eighteenth century formulation, the ancient barbarian was not primarily identified with violent domination, but with linguistic ignorance.  Barbarians were outsiders who did not speak as we speak and whose speech was nonsense.  Inclusivity was a matter of communication, not proximity, as we come to know and are known through what we can convey and understand. There’s a sense of homelessness here, of not belonging, of profound strangeness: he doesn’t understand us, he cannot know us, and therefore he must remain a mystery.

When the ancient historian Herodotus attempts to trace the origins of the Greeks, he tells the story of the king Croesus who wonders which empire to align himself with – the Athenian or the Spartan.


Herodotus explains that the Athenians were descended from the indigenous Pelasgians, while the Hellenic Spartans had arrived in Greece much later: “And indeed these two nations had held from very early times the most distinguished place in Greece, the one being a Pelasgic, the other a Hellenic people, and the one having never quitted its original seats, while the other had been excessively migratory … The Hellenic race has never, since its first origin, changed its speech … The Pelasgi, on the other hand, were, as I think, a barbarian race” (Herodotus, Histories, Book 1).

In keeping with the ancient emphasis on linguistic knowledge and ignorance as indicative of barbarism, Herodotus identifies the Athenians as descended from barbarians who were nevertheless native to Greece.  The Spartans, who had always spoken Greek and were therefore not barbarians, had been “excessively migratory” and were not indigenous to Greece.  Here we find the eternal theme of ancient, original right, and it manifests itself in the investigation of who is more truly Greek.  In Herodotus, this is a significant reversal of the savage-barbarian dichotomy we find in Foucault’s analysis.  For the latter, it is not the barbarian but the savage who is native to the contested territory: “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” (Foucault, Society Must be Defended, 195).

Through the lens of such analysis, the Athenians were noble savages who emerged naturally from the land, and it was the Spartans, who arrived as a later threat to the Athenian civilization, who were the barbarians.  Obviously, this difference stems from the fact that where Herodotus emphasizes language as isomorphic with barbarism, Foucault emphasizes physical domination.  However, Foucault’s text illuminates the possibility that, in some sense, the ancient privileging of language is a reflection of how knowledge is tactically deployed as an instrument of war and is therefore domination par excellence.


When Croesus hesitates between Athens and Sparta, the Delphic oracle reveals to him not only Athens’ barbaric origins, but also how the Athenians were easily deceived by a clever trick of a woman dressed as a goddess – the foolish crowds believed she was Athena herself.  Upon hearing these revelations, Croesus concluded that the Athenians were, quite naturally, rather stupid.  Understandably, he chose to ally with Sparta.  Foucault writes: “All the obscure processes that go on at the level where groups come into conflict … become history’s primary thematic … This is the dark history of alliances … the history of expenditure, exactions, debts, trickery … and of stupidity” (Foucault, 134-35, italics mine).  Barbaric origins and credulity are recounted in a counter-history which mocks the Athenians for lacking not physical strength, not original right to the land, but knowledge. This is how Herodotus establishes Spartan pre-eminence.  After all, they have always spoken Greek and they don’t fall for stupid tricks.  Thus, the Spartans possess knowledge. This conclusion seems counter-intuitive when we recall that Athens is credited with the creation of theater, philosophy, historiography, geometry, medicine, the peer jury, democracy, and just about everything else…


…while Sparta is not remembered for any orators, artists, or historians at all.

Indeed, the warlike people of Laconia were notorious for their brief, terse speech, for their disdain for intellectual pursuits, and for resenting what they regarded as Athenian effeminacy, treachery, and chattiness.  This is where the term laconic originates.

Even Plutarch relates that when Lysander defeated Athens during the Peloponnesian War, he sent a triumphant message to Spartan leaders: “Athens is taken.”

They responded with: “’Taken’ was enough.”

Like their swords, Spartan wit was short, sharp, and sure.

We see that knowledge as war tactic must not be reduced to knowledge as institution. What Spartans know is how to be silent.  Spartan knowledge manifests itself in their unwillingness to talk — they know, so they do not speak.  Athenians’ famous oration skills, so frequently employed in the clever tactic of sophistry (to the great lamentations of Socratic wisdom), struggles against the equally tactical Spartan silence.  In praising Sparta, Herodotus praises precisely those qualities which led to the ruin of the Germanic warrior aristocracy.


However, neither for Herodotus nor for the historical record do these competing knowledges result in victory for either Athens or Sparta as they did for the Gauls.  Since “historical knowledge … is both a description of struggles and a weapon in the struggle” (Foucault, 172), what is Herodotus’ contribution to the battle for pre-eminence?  In a way, his counter-history declares a stalemate.  In dredging up the ancient memory of Athenian barbarism, he not only denies the nation linguistic origins, but also challenges the politico-historical legitimacy of expelling the barbaric Pelasgians from Athens.  Simultaneously, he denies the Spartans their propagandistic self-representation as autochthonous to Greece. Croesus may align himself with proud, militaristic Laconia, but the Spartans have no songs.  


(or maybe this is all mere sophistry)


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Henry IV, Part 1

Henry IV, Part 1


In twelve words: Prince Hal wants to party, but political rebellion ruins all his fun.

I think: When Alexander III visited Troy, someone offered to show him the lyre that once belonged to Paris.  He refused.  He pointed out that Paris played it for the sake of women, love, and seduction.  Alex the Great said he’d much rather see the lyre of Achilles, upon which that great hero once sang of the “heroic deeds of men,” presumably when he was sulking and avoiding combat.  Ironic?  Oh, sure.


Setting aside the sexism (because where can it go, if not to the side?), I share Alexander’s tastes.  I’ve read, and loved, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Othello, and The Scottish Play (I can’t call it by its real name – you know, the one that begins with an ‘M’ and sounds a little bit like McBurger – because I’m superstitious and afraid of its curse). Although I’m convinced that Hamlet is one of the most perfect creations in history, and Othello’s credulity is marvelously wrought, yet… yet… I cannot help noting their mood of pettiness.  The plays are about vain and vainglorious desires.  They’re about people doing the things that people do.


There’s Othello, who with the self-absorption of any proper lover, is like the guy at the bar who just wants to complain about his girlfriend.  There’s Hamlet, who sees only himself.  He’s eternally ferreting around his psyche, fascinated with his inclinations and fears, luxuriating in his great, tragic darkness.  It’s all about him, like, all the time.  In short, these tragedies are the lyre of Paris: personal, seductive, and vain.


But Shakespeare’s historical plays are about the ascension of civilizations, the struggles of nations, and the power dynamics concealed behind what we cheerfully call “progress.” Julius Caesar, Richard III, and Henry IV burst forth, like the songs of Achilles, with the “heroic deeds of men.”  It is Shakespeare’s expansive range to play upon both lyres.  He summons the microcosmic dramas of individuals.  Then he waves the wand of his imagination to stage the vastness, glory, and decline of centuries.  We, too, can shift from moment to universe, from the mundane to the eternal, because we’re inescapably both.  Today, I’m not myself.  Today, I’m universal.  So, let’s talk about royalty.

King Henry IV is really stressed out.  First of all, it’s time to show those Muslims and go on a Crusade.  Second, the nobility of England don’t like the king’s policies.  Third, Wales and Scotland are rebelling.  And finally, his son is utterly useless.  The young Prince Henry (who, for reasons surpassing understanding, calls himself Hal) doesn’t care about Crusades or rebellions.  He hangs out in taverns with his sidekick Ned Poins, fat Sir John Falstaff, prostitutes, and other degenerates.  The prince drinks and swears and gambles and steals and plays tricks and is, in other words, simply no good.

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He tells the audience, however, that he’s the worst prince in history only temporarily.  He plans to reform himself.  Besides, the more he disappoints his father now, the greater will everyone’s shock be when he transforms into a proper son.  Sometimes, your friends pretend to forget your birthday so that when they lunge at you from behind a couch with balloons and cake, you’re extra surprised.  Same logic.

The grumpy nobility unites with the rebels in Scotland and Wales to overthrow the king.

Wales - Castles - Owain GlyndwrWhile King Henry frets and wrings his hands, Prince Hal and Poins prance in disguise, robbing their friend Falstaff.  Why?  Because Hal knows Falstaff will turn the robbery into an absurd story to present himself as a hero.  Hal thinks this is funny.  He has a wicked, wicked sense of humor 😉 After his dad tells him he’s stupid, Hal decides that maybe now is the time to show everyone what a great guy he really is.  So, he helps fight the rebels.  Falstaff is also forced to defend the king.  Instead, he falls down and plays dead because he thinks honor is a dumb thing to get killed over.


Meanwhile, Prince Hal saves the king’s life.  He even gets wounded.  But he continues fighting, because, look, he’s actually been noble all along.  There, you see?  He told you so.  Are you surprised???????

Wait a minute, you think.  Are these the heroic deeds Achilles sings of?  Why, there’s lust and vulgarity and personal preference all over the place!  And Shakespeare smiles wryly and turns to his glass of ale.


With jarring brightness, Shakespeare illuminates the shadows between what we are and what we think we are.  Prince Henry lives idly, wastefully, and corruptly, but assures us that such dissoluteness is not his true character.  He explains:
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wond’red at
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapors that did seem to strangle him.
If the “base contagious clouds” are not part of the prince’s true nature, then they are probably Falstaff, Poins, and the other street criminals he drinks with.  It’s their vulgarity, not his own, which “smothers up his beauty from the world.”  The prince will “please again to be himself” later, to the delighted surprise of his court.  But the analogy flails a little.  The sun, of course, does not “permit” the clouds to conceal its radiance.  The clouds’ movement is a matter of indifference to the sun, which persists in its brightness regardless of them.  It is difficult to make the claim, however, that the prince persists in his goodness in taverns and brothels.  And if he is not himself in such places, then who is he?


I think, perhaps ungenerously, that the prince is deceiving himself.  We condemn the vices of others which we render justifiable or even charming in ourselves.  The prince seems to think that Falstaff and Poins are cheap by nature.  His own nature, however, is sunnily royal, and cheapness is merely a mask.  But this is strange.  Goodness is not an object one can lightly toss off or throw on.  Again: if he is not himself, who is he?  Donning a cloak of artificial corruption is, at best, a naïve and self-indulgent way to inspire higher praise later.  At worst, it’s an insincere motive which justifies frivolity and idle pleasure, summarized with the Machiavellian formula: the ends justify the means.  Well, perhaps.  If the ends are valuable and important, lenience is acceptable.  But let’s examine the prince’s proposed ends.  He wishes to shock, amaze, and be “wond’red at” when he will finally “please again to be himself.”  Is it acceptable to deceive an aging, worried father for the sake of incurring wonder and praise?  I’m not so sure.  If Prince Henry is conscious of the implications of his self-justification, then he is a deliberate charlatan.  He is aware that he must inherit the throne as King Henry V.  He knows he must eventually abandon Falstaff and Poins, and is therefore simply using them for very skewed purposes.

But let’s say it isn’t the prince speaking, but the narrator.  Through Hal’s mouth, the narrator informs the audience of the prince’s destiny.  Then we can assume that Hal is not acting, not pretending to be a corrupt fool, but rather struggling with the promise of kingship by drinking it out of consciousness.  When King Henry needs him, however, he awakens to his royal nature and defends it honorably.  In this case, the prince undergoes a psychological transformation, wherein, again, he is not what he thinks he is.  He experienced himself as a petty drunkard and a thief, but revealed himself to be an able descendent of an able time.  The latter approach is ethically much more satisfying.  But it’s less credible.  Can one reinvent himself to conform to the needs of a moment?  Perhaps.  After all, “some have greatness thrust upon them.”

A Moveable Feast

Ernest Hemingway

A Moveable Feast

Ernest Hemingway

In twelve words:
Hemingway’s having a blast in Paris with other cool artists and writers.face

I think:
If you’re an optimist, convinced that life is sunny and people are basically good, then you should know that finishing a Hemingway novel will knock all that nonsense right out of you, because, come on, the world sucks. But if you’ve read, say, Farewell to Arms or For Whom the Bell Tolls and are used to everything exploding and everyone dying, then you’ll find his memoirs a pleasant respite. Here, Hemingway is at his most charming.


Young + poverty-stricken + in love+ in Paris + 1920s + writing = bohemian paradise. 

Basically, if you’re into starving artists, you’ll love this book.ErnestHemingwayHadley1922

Hemingway is 25 or so, living in one dilapidated hole after another with his first wife, Hadley, and their young son, Bumby (I’m pretty sure that’s not his real name). His short stories aren’t really selling, and he hasn’t written a novel yet, so he’s often uncertain, and spends a lot of time meditating on the art of writing itself. If you want to write like Hemingway, take these ruminations very, very seriously.

Hemingway’s Tips for Writers

1. “I always worked until I had something done and I always stopped when I knew what was going to happen next. That way I could be sure of going on the next day.”

2. “I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, ‘Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.’”

3. “When I was writing, it was necessary for me to read after I had written. If you kept thinking about it, you would lose the thing that you were writing before you could go on with it the next day. It was necessary to get exercise, to be tired in the body, and it was very good to make love with whom you loved.”

4. “The blue-backed notebooks, the two pencils and the pencil sharpener (a pocket knife was too wasteful), the marble-topped tables, the smell of early morning, sweeping out and mopping, and luck were all you needed.”

Of course, if you’d rather write like Milton or Ruskin, ignore this advice because, after all, Hemingway’s grass never glitters with dew, and in his streamlined world, pretty little robins never land on any lady’s elegantly outstretched fingers. He’s a man’s writer and, even at his most tender, he is reserved, gruff, and unsentimental.


The best of the book, I think, are the candid glimpses we’re offered of Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and the myriad of other expatriate artists living in Europe in the ‘20s. The most enchanting and convincing portrait Hemingway paints is of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who appears fragile, beautiful, crazy, brilliant, and maddeningly unpredictable. In fact, I secretly (want to) believe that the complex relationship between two artists who lived too much is what Hemingway’s memoirs are really about.







I’ll set the scene:during a trip, the two of them are in a hotel in Lyons, and Fitzgerald is lying on the bed, hands folded, eyes closed, convinced he’s dying and demanding to have his temperature taken. Hemingway, complying grudgingly, rushes all over the place, finally finding an enormous, wooden, bath thermometer to stick under the sick man’s arm, but Fitzgerald is too drunk to know better. This part is not only absurd, but funny. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, Hemingway can be funny. I laughed out loud, right in the middle of a coffee shop, and everyone probably thought that if Hemingway makes me laugh, I am a perverse and morbid creature. Anyway, the thing about the two of them is that Hemingway understands Fitzgerald, and Fitzgerald knows it. They even compared penis sizes. Yes, really. It sometimes seems that whenever Hemingway didn’t want to kill Fitzgerald in frustration, he was a little bit in love with him. But, you know, that’s how love is.