‘Power needs to be understood as “incitement”’. Discuss.

Michel Foucault posited that power and knowledge were intertwined and enmeshed, with power dictating what can be known and how it is known, and knowledge in turn acting as an important support for power. Thus knowledge and power are constantly evolving and are historically contingent.

When Foucault spoke of incitement, he was talking about the way that knowledge governs consciousness, in other words, the power that constructs the world view of a society, and in turn impacts the way the behaviour of people in that society.

To illustrate this concept I will refer to the shift in meaning that occurred in Dinka and Nuer societies in the years that they were battling the government in Khartoum for control of Southern Sudan.

Two Different Approaches to the Anthropological Study of Ritual.. The National Museums of World Culture, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
Dinka Tribesmen. The National Museums of World Culture, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

The system of knowledge of these two tribes was predicated on the understanding of ethnicity as performative.

It was very common for Dinka captured during raids to be absorbed into Nuer societies, and eventually being accepted as fully Nuer.

In addition, seeing as the tribes were exogamous, it was common practice for Dinka and Nuer to intermarry, with the women moving to live with the husband’s family and giving birth to children who were viewed as fully belonged to the tribe the woman married into (Evans-Pritchard).


This structure of meaning collapsed under the pressure of the war that broke out in Southern Sudan when the SPLA split into warring Dinka and Nuer factions (Hutchinson).

The multi-centred and multi-focused power/knowledge equilibrium shifted as structural power brought into play the global demand for oil (of which Southern Sudan has massive reserves), the struggle with the government in Khartoum and friction between the southern Sudanese fanned by internecine battles in the SPLA.

The result was a change in the categories of meaning and knowledge regarding what constituting ethnicity, that was now no longer viewed as ‘performative’ but rather as blood-based.

This shift in knowledge/power dramatically changed what was seen as acceptable behaviour in times of war.

Whereas women and children had up to then been viewed as external to fighting, because of their ability to change ethnicity and thus shift from Dinka to Nuer or vice versa, the newly created knowledge/ incitement based on the understanding of ethnicity as being based on blood, turned these vulnerable and unarmed members of societies into the ‘enemy,’ and so the killing taboo no longer applied, and Dinka and Nuer soldiers started killing any women or children from opposing tribes who were unfortunate enough to be found in their way.

Nuer tribes
The Nuers

Thus we see the power of incitement as meanings and knowledge shifts, changing the entire structure of a society and what they view as acceptable or unacceptable behaviour.

Another example of incitement can be found in Stoler’s case study about the shift in discourse that occurred in Colonial Sumatra over a period of fifty years at the turn of the Twentieth century.

She traces the shift by comparing the reaction to two similar murders (coolie killing a planter’s wife), fifty years apart.

When the first murder happened the reaction was muted.

The killing was seen as an internal affair, a dispute between an Asian worker and the planter he worked for. Thus it was hardly mentioned in newspapers and did not raise concerns for the planters and the colonial administration.

Fifty years later, however, the discourse/ incitement had shifted dramatically.

Major shifts in structural power (Wolf) were being experienced worldwide, as new categories of knowledge were created with the rise of the communist regime in Russia and the conflicting discourse of capitalism.

political discourse. Power needs to be understood as “incitement

This new power/ knowledge was internalised by the people in Colonial Sumatra, governing their consciousness and the way they viewed the second murder, which occurred in the 1920s.

This time the killing of a planter’s wife was no longer seen as a private matter, with no implications for wider society.

Instead the coolie was viewed as an ‘extremist agitator’ and the murder as the harbinger of atrocities to come, as nationalist and communist actors fomented the anger of the coolies and led a rebellion against European settlers.

This resulted in mass hysteria, with papers linking the murder to Moscow and women sending impassioned pleas to Queen Wilhemina begging her to protect them.

This uproar led to the deployment of the army to quell the non-existent communist and nationalist uprisings, and also to planters rejecting the reasonable demands that workers were making for better work conditions and fair pay.

Power needs to be understood as “incitement

The final example I will be referring to is a case study by Michael Taussig of the murder and mayhem that was leashed in Putomayo because of a discourse of savagery that terrorised European settlers and Huitoto Indians alike.

When the Spanish arrived in Columbia and Peru they discovered the classification of the auca, a term that had been used by the Inca to refer to Indians who they viewed as rebels and infidels.

As noted by Foucault, however, power/knowledge is multifocal, which can be seen in this case by the fact that the European settlers unconsciously merged the auca classification with that of the wild man mythology originating in Europe.

The result was that they came to view the auca as wild cannibals who raped and pillaged white settler communities.

The terror inspired by this power / knowledge / incitement led to a reign of terror in Putumayo, as the Spanish managers employed by the rubber company coerced Indians to collect rubber for them, while inflicting horrible torture or even killing the defenceless Indians.

rubber plantation

The discourse was not only internalized by the Spanish, but also by the Huitoto Indians themselves, who came to self-discipline themselves when they did not reach their daily 10kg target.

In fact a local newspaper at the time described how the Indians threw themselves on the ground to be beaten as soon as they saw that the needle on the scale did not reach 10.

In conclusion, as seen in the three examples above, power and knowledge act in unison as incitement.

Over time, as structural power shifts and new forms of knowledge are created, these act together to construct the consciousness of people, and through that by changing their interpretation of events occurring around them and the way they react to them.

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