The Genealogy of Indigenous Theory

The emerging field of indigenous theory is directly concerned with political change. Its development, however, emerged largely from Western theoretical sources, particularly those critical of enlightenment discourse. This essay asks the question: How are the options for political action influenced by the genealogy of theory? The term genealogy is used here to indicate movement or development along a particular course. This is not to imply teleological development. I intend to show, rather, that movement along this course is contingent on the choices of theorists, which tend to locate the political within discourse, rather than directly in political action. Thus, if theory is to inform action, the options for political action are constrained by this contingent genealogy of theory.

This essay develops a model of the development of certain theoretical components that are “inherited,” i.e., passed from one theorist to another. Beginning with Marx, the theoretical threads I will follow pass through Gramsci and Foucault, (re)converging in Said and are inherited as a “package” by Linda Tuhiwai Smith, the indigenous theorist I will focus on. The essay next addresses historical and theoretical circumstances that lead to the intellectualization of political struggle and thus constrain the options for political action, particularly for indigenous peoples. The essay concludes with brief ideas on alternative courses available to indigenous theory.

This essay uses the term genealogy in two senses: in the traditional sense of a lineal descent among ideas, and in the theoretical sense in which questions are posed regarding previous lines of inquiry. The model it proposes is genealogical in the first sense, and its central question is genealogical in the second.

The Genealogy of Indigenous Theory

Karl Marx delineates the concept of historical materialism in the preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy : “In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable of their will, relations of production which corresponded to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of productions constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and which correspond definite forms of social consciousness, The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.” (Marx/Tucker, 1978, 4)

Historical materialism became a canonical doctrine of the next generations of thinkers, including Gramsci and Foucault. Historical materialism came to be directed not merely at the political-economics of history, but at epistemological development and discourse. Further, it became conceived as the site of power in modernity. Thus, in the beginning of this theoretical progression, it is the material conditions that determine outcomes. Over the course of the development of this theoretical thread, the prime mover of the political was increasingly viewed as being in the realm of thought, i.e., intellectualized and embedded in discourse.

Gramsci inherited a fundamental materialistic worldview from Marx – he is Marxist. But he adds a cultural dimension to Marx’s economic determinism by creating an application of Marxism specific to Italy. Gramsci further enriches Marxist thought through geographic metaphors. Gramsci’s analysis is replete with topographic metaphors, and the very substance of his analysis is often geographic, for example, in Some Aspects of the Southern Question.

Foucault recognizes the centrality of Marx in the preface to Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus: “[d]uring the years 1945 – 1965 (I am referring to Europe) there was a certain way of thinking correctly, a certain style of political discourse, a certain ethics of the intellectual. One had to be on familiar terms with Marx …” (Deleuze and Guattari, 1983)

With Foucault, as with many intellectuals of his era, when one descended from the realm of theory to cite the specific reality that the theory was based on, it was a particular political economy, one predominantly influenced by Marx and Marxism.

Foucault inherited from Marx, as did Gramsci, a materialist conception of power, and was for a time a Marxist. But Foucault broke with Marx over the issue of where, in the material realm, power was primarily exercised. While Marx contended that its exercise took place in the realm of exchange of material goods, Foucault shifted his gaze toward the human body not as merely a mechanism of labor, but as the site of the disciplinary regime itself.

As Mark Poster describes it:

“This alternative premise does not deny the existence of human beings and things, or their interaction, but it does maintain that the significant objects of investigation for historical materialism are arrangements in which the model of labor does not serve as the impetus of interpretation. The premise of technologies of power suggests that discourses and practices are intertwined in articulated formations having the domination of one group over another as their primary trait.” (Poster, 1984, 52)

Foucault analyzes Marxism as a phenomenon, rather than a political project. Theoretically, he breaks from Marx by viewing Marxism in the context of the history of ideas. In The Order of Things, Foucault locates Marx in a specific historical perspective: “[a]t the deepest level of Western knowledge, Marxism introduced no real discontinuity [in Western historico-economic thought]; it found its place without difficulty … within an epistemological arrangement that welcomed it gladly (since it was this arrangement that was in fact making room for it) and that it, in return, had no real intention of disturbing and , above all, no power to modify, even one jot, since it rested entirely upon it. Marxism exists in nineteenth century thought like a fish in water: that is, it is unable to breathe anywhere else. ” (Foucault, 1994, 261-262)

For Foucault, Marx’s method was based on a grand narrative increasingly becoming suspect by theorists of the postmodern viewpoint. Utilizing, but transcending structuralism, Foucault articulates a micro-politics of power as a technique of locating material relations without relying on such a narrative. Nevertheless, Marx’s historical materialism remains central to Foucault’s project. In an analysis of The Archaeology of Knowledge, Dominique LeCourt shows that Foucault carried out “a certain number of analyses of an astonishing value from the perspective of historical materialism;  … in his own language, he reproduces – but in displacement – concepts which function in the Marxist science of history.” (LeCourt, 1975, 190)

Foucault and Gramsci’s ideas converge in the thought of Edward Said. Said finds it “useful to employ Foucault’s notion of a discourse” (Said, 1978, 3) – the dynamic exchange of ideas, statements, assertions which constitute for Foucault a form of power exchange he calls power/knowledge.

Said’s metaphor of a cultural landscape (not insignificantly one that is global with few or no empty spaces) borrows from Gramsci’s application of Marxist thought to cultural space. Said thus relies on Gramsci’s translation and of Marx to make it adhere to an Italian context, i.e., to make it a realistic cultural representation. Said views, utilizing Gramsci, the replacement of “direct political control” with a kind of domination described as “cultural hegemony, ” consisting of “directive” or ruling ideas. (Said, 1993, 249)

Said acknowledges his debt to Gramsci by explaining his use of an approach to scholarship forwarded in the Prison Notebooks. For Gramsci, History deposits in people traces – through heredity, family or other experiences – which accumulate to constitute a book, but this book contains no inventory.  The scholar’s task is to compile this inventory, which is a task of interpretation. The reason for this task is to understand one’s own history in terms of “others’” history. It is a pluralistic project that illustrates Said’s commitment to secular, democratic and inclusive theoretical and political solutions. The goal then is effectively to become someone else, to forge a new identity that includes the inventory of the “other.”

Yet if Said prefers to locate the struggle on this idealistic landscape, it is a battlefield on which the “other” is at a disadvantage. While Said asserts that there is no “Archimedean point beyond the question from which to answer it … no vantage outside the actuality of relationships among cultures,” he engages in confrontation with the “West” from its own nucleus, and using its own language – that of literature. Said further acknowledges and describes a geographicity and a cultural dimension of Gramsci’s take on Marx. And it is in the realm of culture that Said makes his mark.

Despite Foucault’s interest in anti-colonial struggles, Said notes that he (as well as the theorists of the Frankfurt school) do not engage theoretically with imperialism, and retain a focus on Europe. As Said puts it, Foucault’s work is “drawn from what are considered exclusively Western sources … a theoretical oversight that is the norm in Western cultural and scientific disciplines.” (Said, 1993, 41.)

Said hints that what might be called the genealogy of theory is on the side of the oppressed. Using Lyotard’s definition of postmodernism – the “loss of the legitimizing power of Western emancipation and enlightenment,” Said suggests that the power of the Western literary narrative is on the wane, and that any renewed effort in this direction is merely reactionary (Said, 1993, 57)

Said acknowledges his debt to “a certain generation of French writers,” and “of them all … Foucault” whose method he describes in the words of R.P. Blackmur as “a technique of trouble.” (Said, 1975, 283) Said shares  and admires Foucault’s view of history as “a succession of functional conditions that give rise to the existence not only of knowledge, but of man himself.” (Said, 1975, 238) Prefiguring his own notion of intertextuality, Said notes Foucault’s “hampered” attempts to “[get] to the bottom” of his Archeology of Knowledge, which “yields only the … assertion that man is a temporary interruption, a figure of thought, of what is already begun.” (Said, 1975) Man is always/already the product of and the creator of his/her narrative/existence. Said here reveals his own departure from Foucault’s hermeneutic (or perhaps post-hermeneutic) approach, to his own genealogical approach, which may owe a debt to Foucault’s later work – Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality. Even the notion of “otherness” is ascribed to Foucault.(Said, 1975, 284) which became the theoretical center[piece] of Said’s most noted work.

As a Maori academician, Linda Tuhiwai Smith locates herself within the field of research, which she views as a “significant site of struggle.” (Smith, 1999, 2) Said is referenced on page 2 of Smith’s Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. The assertion the research is a significant site of struggle comes directly after her use of Said’s idea of the Orient as “Other,” and is thus an acknowledgement of the centrality of Said’s work in hers. She goes on: “in this example, the Other has been constituted with a name … indigenous peoples.” (Smith, 1999, 2)

Said’s notion of ‘otherness’ is used by Smith in an explication of the creation of a hierarchy of humanity. Creating the ‘oriental’ imposed a construct as part of a hierarchy that allowed for control, and varying treatment of different indigenous groups.

Smith locates herself in a specific position – that of an indigenous researcher. While noting that there are many reasons for indigenous people to consider the occupation of ‘reasearcher’ a distasteful one, her project consists of representing indigenous peoples “back” to themselves, representing the ‘West’ to indigenous peoples, and of the ‘other’ representing the West ‘back’ to itself. The latter two are inversions of the original project of what Said calls orientalism – i.e., “the politics of how these worlds are being represented ‘back to’ the West.” (Smith, 1999, 37) Foucault’s notion of discipline is applied as part of Smith’s construction of the relations between indigenous peoples and their oppressors. She views many Western practices, including research as disciplining the colonized.

While Smith unearths some preconceptions of Western scholarship, she simultaneously inherits some of those preconceptions. Smith claims that indigenous peoples have been “oppressed by theory.” (Smith, 1999, 38) Theory has not, in Smith’s view, “looked sympathetically or ethically at us [indigenous peoples].” (Smith, 1999, 38)

But Smith acknowledges and asserts the importance of theory for indigenous peoples, for whom it “gives … space … to take greater control over [their] resistances.” (Smith, 1999, 38) Smith asserts the need for “conceptual tools” i.e., research methodology with which indigenous peoples may gain perspective on their (created) position and alter that (position).

Smith inherits from Foucault the notion of Western research’s use of an “archive” of knowledge and systems. Foucault’s cultural archive is conceived as a  “’storehouse’ of histories artifacts, ideas, texts and/or images, which are classified, preserved, arranged and represented back to the West.” (Smith, 1999, 44) Smith uses much of the Western cultural archive not only to critique Western research practices, but to construct an indigenous research archive.

For Foucault, the archive establishes the “‘rules of practice’ [that are] taken for granted” by Western research (Smith, 1999, 42) This Foucauldian notion is related to Said’s (vis a vis Gramsci) inventory, and may be viewed as the data from which analysis is drawn. This data of course is always/already partially “cooked,” i.e., interpreted at the very moment of its emergence, so the process of creating an inventory is akin to a re-interpretation rather than an original interpretation of “raw” data. Smith alternates between recognizing the “cooked” nature of data from this archive, and accepting it whole. Smith narrates her own genealogy of the methodology of Western research in which she focuses on the enlightenment as a locus of the set of ideas from which imperialism and colonialism sprung as ideologies.

Smith acknowledges the relative infancy of the field of “writing theory” pertaining to indigenous peoples in contemporary settings. This illustrates a dilemma of the emerging field of “indigenous theory” – the head start [achieved] by Western theory creates a gap in the level of sophistication, and the lack of a rich discourse in indigenous ideas forces indigenous theory to enter the discourse of Western theory [at a severe disadvantage]. Smith quotes Janet Abu-Lughod to show that history is a discourse in which the ‘Other’ is disadvantaged: ‘if history is written by the victor …then it must … deform the history of others.” (Smith, 1999, 67) Yet she chooses to engage in a “site of struggle” which deforms her own viewpoint by entering, and challenging, Western discourse.

Smith cites Said, who asks the questions: “Who writes? For whom is the writing being done? In what circumstances?” (Smith, 1999, 37) She views these questions as providing the “ingredients for a politics of interpretation.” (Smith, 1999, 37) Smith acknowledges her debts to Western theories that are positioned as critiques of the enlightenment theoretical narrative. She lists two major examples  of this “better” theory, Marxism and Western feminism. (Smith, 1999, 43) Of the two, Feminism is viewed as the more radical critique because of its challenge to epistemology, despite continuing challenges by “women of colour.” (Smith, 1999, 43)

Smith risks casting herself as the voice (rather than a voice) of indigeneity. This is seen in her generalizations: “ … indigenous languages have no related word for time or space…” (Smith, 1999, 50) Smith inherits a decidedly Western notion of indigenous peoples, and fails to problematize the term. While she sites crucial similarities that internationalize the struggle of the disparate groups constituting “indigenous peoples,” the term is partly a product of the orientalism she critiques.


Consequences for Political Action

The consequences of this genealogy of theory from Gramsci and Foucault, through Said to Smith, constitute a subtle yet pervasive location of political struggle within discourse. Gramsci asserts a critical role for “intellectuals,” whom he separates into two classes, urban and rural. The role of the intellectual is intimately related to political action, as Gramsci’s “organic intellectuals of the working class” are crucial facilitators of action via their work in the party. Gramsci’s project involves a transition from ruling class hegemony to a hegemony of the working class. The organic intellectuals of the working class are defined on the one hand by their role in production and in the organization of work and on the other by their ‘directive’ political role, focused on the Party. Through this the proletariat can escape from corporatism and economic determinism and move towards the hegemony of the working class.

Gramsci’s role for intellectuals blends political action and theoretical work – a role that is possible by extending the definition of “intellectual” beyond conventional boundaries to include all who function in the realm of thought. An “intellectual” for Gramsci includes those who do not function in thinking-work as a profession (hence the possibility for the existence of an extensive working class intelligensia), and could extend to “all men.”

Gramsci’s agenda for education is also instructive in understanding his conception of the role of intellectual work. His aim is to “produce a new stratum of intellectuals, including those capable of the highest degree of specialization, from a group that has not traditionally developed the appropriate attitudes …” (Gramsci, 1971, 43) Gramsci intends to transform the working class into an intellectual class, thereby subsuming the political under the domain of intellectual labor.

After a brief sojourn with Marxism, and a long hiatus from activism, Foucault’s activism centered around the Group Information de Prisons (Prison Information Group), which viewed the subversion of discourse as a means  of confronting power. Specifically, the group’s aim was to “question the social and moral distinction between the innocent and the guilty.” (Foucault, 1971) It is a genealogical approach to activism: [their] actions pose new questions that reframe debates which constitute discourse, and thus undermine its creation by subverting emerging (or established) consensus.

In The Archaeology of Knowledge, Foucault delineates the concept of “discourse as a method.” (Foucault, 1972, 46) This suggests that Foucault advocated focusing all activism into the intellectual realm. But it is too simple to state that Foucault privileges the intellectual over the physical. Foucault would question the distinction between thought and action: “[e]ven before prescribing, suggesting a future, saying what must be done … thought, at the level of its existence, in its very dawning, is in itself an action – a perilous act.” (Foucault, 1977) Foucault contributes to the constraint of action not by directly privileging discourse over action, but by subsuming the latter under and into the former.

Foucault was also a member of a particular generation of French intellectuals who, after disillusionment with anti-colonial struggles in the developing world, began to ask how, given then-current developments, one could remain Marxist. This disillusionment would have a significant effect on Said’s view of the option for political action.

Said acknowledges his theoretical debt to this “generation of French intellectuals … of them all Foucault …” He notes in Culture and Imperialism that the deaths of Sartre, Foucault, Barthes and others in the 1980s “mark[ed] the passing of an old order” in which a breadth of knowledge gave them “a critical intellectual style.” (Said, 1993, 328) Said’s approach is informed not only by the theory of his European predecessors, but by their experience of the Cold War world. After the support by the French intellectuals of a series of mainly communist anti-colonial struggles, a “moment of exhaustion and disappointment was reached” (Said, 1993, 27) after which their attention turned toward supporting basic democratic rights rather than revolution. Said notes that “[o]ne began to hear how futile it was to support revolutions, how barbaric were the new regimes that came to power …” (Said , 1993, 27) As if apprehending a lesson from this shared experience, Said similarly advocates pluralistic, democratic and secular solutions for current political conflicts.

Said’s skepticism of revolutionary and exclusionary approaches is seen in his observation that “neither Yeats nor Fanon offers a prescription for making a transition after decolonization to a period when a new political order achieves moral hegemony.” (Said, 1993, 236) Said views Fanon’s and Yeats’ agendas for political reform as limited.

Said despairs over his position as a ­­­ solitary voice in this discourse stating that he “feels outnumbered and outorganized by a prevailing Western consensus…” (Said, 1993, 28) Said employs his method from the complex position of one who is simultaneously elite and marginal, privileged and powerless. Said chooses a marginal, albeit privileged, position at the nexus of the creation of discourse. This is not to imply that this is Said’s fault. He is a victim of the very type of structural problem he describes.

Further, Said’s assertion that cultural forms are hybrid and impure also informs and constrains the options for action open to oppressed groups because it forces them to accept the intrusion of others onto their territory. By asserting that even indigenous peoples are hybrid, and therefore not the “original” peoples of “the land,” Said’s thought privileges those who claim rights as settler populations – Israelis or haole for example.

But the notion of hybridity applies to indigenous theory as well – the very notion of “indigenous theory” is, from the start, radically hybrid. While Said’s analysis is responsive to unfolding events in the Middle East, it is on this landscape of ideas, that significant struggle occurs between domination and liberation of “others.”

Smith inherits Said’s “package” of theoretical  components. She thus views resistance as lying in a cultural discourse, one in which research hold a prominent position – she considers research a “critical site of struggle.” (Smith, 1999, 2) Smith’s focus on a site of struggle within discourse is seen in her interaction with the ideas of Frantz Fanon. Fanon articulates three phases of the development of the “native intellectual; first, the need on the part of the intellectual to prove themselves as legitimate intellectuals, second, a disturbance, accompanied by a need to remember who they are, and third, a compulsion to seek to awaken ‘their’ people through a revolutionary and national literature. (Smith, 1999, 70) Thus, even Fanon (who presents one of the few alternatives to engaging directly within the system of Western academia), views entry into, and creation of, a Western-style discourse as a liberatory project. Further, Smith uses Fanon in this manner, i.e., as support for a discourse-centered focus of struggle, rather that emphasizing Fanon more notable approach – that of violent resistance.

Linda Tuhiwai Smith constructs a project for the liberation of indigenous peoples in which intellectual work holds a prominent position. Her project includes four ‘directions:’ healing, decolonization, mobilization and transformation, and three ‘tides:’ survival, recovery and development. It constitutes a methodology that transforms indigenous people from passive-observed to active-participants. Thus, methodology is the (key) to her project – Indigneous peoples’ research, on themselves and on the “outside” world, becomes a critical component of liberation. While some of the directions, tides, etc. imply political action, it is the thinking-work that guides and informs this action.

Consistent with an indigenous approach, Smith locates the operation of resistance discourse within a cultural sphere. With the loss of control over material resources, culture is increasingly viewed as the location in which indigenous peoples can engage in critical discourse. Smith situates the Western practice of research with in a political framework – its exercise has effects on indigenous people in particular, that co-opt indigenous traditions wreak havoc on indigenous societies and more recently, degrade the dignity of their very existence (as in the Human Genome Diversity Project – evidence that the US government is continuing colonial practices on indigenous peoples by mapping and patenting indigneous peoples’ DNA.)

Smith acknowledges a contingency produced by research: “In its clear links to Western knowledge research has generated a particular relationship to indigenous peoples which continues to be problematic.” (39) She does not view her own engagement in theoretical work as producing a contingent effect of constraining political action for indigenous peoples. She appears to view herself, rather, as conducting a deconstructionist project from an indigenous/Maori perspective.


            It is in the thought of Fanon that alternatives to a discourse-centered approach to political struggle can be apprehended. In her dealings with Fanon’s thought, Smith exhibits a striking avoidance of his most obvious conclusions, the option of armed resistance to imperial oppression. Fanon is notable because he represents an alternative to discourse-centered struggle articulated from within the intellectual realm. His thought pre-empts the common-sense charge that intellectuals intellectualize political struggle. As Said notes: “Both Fanon and Foucault have Hegel, Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, Canguihelm, and Sartre in their heritage, yet only Fanon presses that formidable arsenal into anti-authoritarian service.” (Said, 1993, 278) Fanon states that the practice of violence binds the colonized together because it constitutes their only work. (Fanon, 1967) The practice of thinking-work may have the opposite effect – that of dividing the colonized. While Smith presses her archival arsenal into anti-authoritarian service in the theoretical realm, she uses Fanon’s thought to support struggle on a theoretical level averting the physical resistance Fanon primarily advocates.


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Gramsci, A.. (1971). Selections from the Prison Notebooks. New York:

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Canguilhem and Foucault. London:NLB.

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Information. New York: Polity Press,

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Smith, L.T. (1999). Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples.

London: Zed Books.

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