Political Genealogy after Foucault: Savage Identities

Political Genealogy after Foucault: Savage Identities

Political Genealogy after Foucault: Savage Identities

Political Genealogy after Foucault: Savage Identities


Combining the most powerful elements of Foucault's theories, Clifford produces a methodology for cultural and political critique called "political genealogy" to explore the genesis of modern political identity. At the core of American identity, Clifford argues, is the ideal of the "Savage Noble," a hybrid that married the Native American "savage" with the "civilized" European male. This complex icon animates modern politics, and has shaped our understandings of rights, freedom, and power.


One of the more interesting oddities in the whole history of Western philosophy is the case of the great British utilitarian and social philosopher Jeremy Bentham. When Bentham died in 1832, his body was bequeathed to the University of London. However, that did not mean that his cadaver was used to help advance the study of medicine. Rather, when his flesh had finally decomposed, his skeleton was dressed in his own clothing, except for his skull, which was removed and replaced with a wax head fashioned to look exactly like the original Bentham. This figure-I'm not certain if one may still refer to this figure as Jeremy Bentham-was then seated in one of Bentham's favorite chairs, and placed in a tall, wooden box along with his wide-brimmed yellow hat, meerschaum pipe, and eyeglasses. To this day the box sits in a hallway at the University of London, usually open for students to look in and see Bentham as they pass through the halls on their way to classes.

I have long thought that Bentham-the dead man in his box more so than the live one-would make an appropriate symbol for modern political subjectivity, not so much in its ideological aspects, but rather in the sense that political identity is largely a fabrication, a construct, that as political subjects we are trapped in a corrugated “box” or enclosure of sorts, identified through being rendered visible-identity itself a function of a certain kind of public display.

In a way, then, the dead but unburied Jeremy Bentham is the inspiration behind this book, which conducts a genealogical critique of modern political identity. Relying upon the work of Michel Foucault, I will trace the emergence of the private, autonomous individual-of what might be called the “Savage Noble.”

The Savage Noble represents a reversal of the immortal terms conventionally identified with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose “noble savage” still plays in the background of Western consciousness. Indeed, Rousseau's precivilized figure of man animates that dark region known as “wilderness”

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