Sarmiento encore

Savage and barbarian were, I am told (and must find out), categories in nineteenth century international law.


There is a stunning passage in Foucault’s book Society Must be Defended (1975-76) that compares the figure of the “savage” with that of the “barbarian” as these emerged in 17thc. historical writing in France. His description of the “barbarian” is useful for thinking about the rise of 21st century authoritarians and fascists, from Trump to Duterte, Putin to Assad, and others all over Europe, Asia and Africa. But, as Foucault also points out, the same characteristics associated with the “barbarian” is attributed to the revolutionary in late 18th and 19th, even 20thc. Europe and elsewhere. Nietzsche, for one, was fascinated by 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 others serve him. He makes others cultivate his land, tend his horses, prepare his weapons, and so 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 [French historians] in the eighteenth century is, I think, that of the figure of the barbarian. So we can well understand why, in modern juridico-anthropological 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). The soul of the barbarian is great, noble, and proud, but it is always associated with treachery and cruelty. 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.” (196-97)


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Filed under Bibliography, Race book, Resources, Theories

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