Critical Inquiry 15 (1):108-131 (1988)

For the West … China as a land in the Far East becomes traditionally the image of the ultimate Other. What Foucault does in his writing is, of course, not so much to endorse this image as to show, in the light of the Other, how knowledge is always conditioned in a certain system, and how difficult it is to get out of the confinement of the historical a priori, the epistemes or the fundamental codes of Western culture. And yet he takes the Borges passage seriously and remarks on its apparent incongruity with what is usually conceived about China in the Western tradition. If we are to find any modification of the traditional image of China in Foucault’s thought, it is then the association of China not with an ordered space but with a space without any conceivable arrangement or coherence, a space that makes any logical ordering utterly unthinkable. Significantly, Foucault does not give so much as a hint to suggest that the hilarious passage from that “Chinese encyclopaedia” may have been made up to represent a Western fantasy of the Other, and that the illogical way of sorting out animals in that passage an be as alien to the Chinese mind as it is to the Western mind.In fact, the monstrous unreason and its alarming subversion of Western thinking, the unfamiliar and alien space of China as the image of the Other threatening to break up ordered surfaces and logical categories, all turn out to be, in the most literal sense, a Western fiction. Nevertheless, that fiction serves a purpose in Foucault’s thought, namely, the necessity of setting up a framework for his archaeology of knowledge, enabling him to differentiate the self from what is alien and pertaining to the Other and to map out the contours of Western culture recognizable as a self-contained system. Indeed, what can be a better sign of the Other than a fictionalized space of China? What can furnish the West with a better reservoir for its dreams, fantasies, and utopias? Zhang Longxi, author of A Critical Introduction to Twentieth-Century Theories of Literature , is currently writing a dissertation in comparative literature at Harvard University. His previous contribution to Critical Inquiry is “The Tao and the Logos: Notes on Derrida’s Critique of Logocentrism”
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