Book notes: Foucault and the Iranian Revolution

If a bombshell lands in academia, does it make a sound outside?

foucault2I was only vaguely familiar with “Foucault and the Iranian Revolution: Gender and the Seductions of Islam” when it came out in 2005 and can only surmise what impact it might have had. The book reprints French intellectual (his term) Michel Foucault’s coverage of the Iranian Revolution for an Italian newspaper in 1978. It examines the strange reverence in which Foucault held the “spiritual politics” of the Ayatollah Khomeni and his followers, who impressed the writer with their willingness to die for their revolution. In Paris, Foucault was ridiculed and criticized for this “misstep”. In North America, though, little has been known about the episode. Janet Afary and Kevin B Anderson do a service for intellectual history by translating Foucault’s articles, the responses from his critics, and by contextualizing his Iran writings in his larger body of work. Instead of seeing this as an aberration, they argue that “something more organic to his core theoretical stance, was at work in creating the deep flaws that marked his writing on Iran.” These misguided writings, they contend, were of a piece with his larger critique of the Enlightenment and modernity.

First allow me a sharp digression: a few months ago, I was enjoying lunch in a local restaurant and trying not to listen in on the conversation at the next table too blatantly. The two young professional office workers at the next table were discussing their problems with the office “IT guy” who seemed to have committed the cardinal sin in the corporate world of being socially awkward. “If only there was a way,” she mused, “that we could get a mental health professional to assess him with a straightforward rigorous test and quantify that he has some sort of personality disorder with a specific diagnosis. Then we could be justify removing him.” Their conversation, peppered with the sort of grad school jargon everyone learns in master’s programs now, bothered me for weeks, for reasons I couldn’t quite get a handle on. We’ll come back to this.

The reverence with which Michel Foucault’s work is still treated in some parts of North American academia is a bit mystifying given that intellectual independence is still held as an ideal. His work doesn’t hold as much weight in History as in fields like lit crit, although I certainly experienced it as a weight in grad school. Foucault spent a year in our department doing research in the 1970s and many of the older professors knew him personally. He stayed with some of them and there was a rumor among the grad students that the elderly prof who put him up made Foucault sleep on the couch due to his outré sexual practices. I worked under one of the few Profs who didn’t seem terribly impressed with Foucault. She was French, perhaps not surprisingly.

Maybe I came to Foucault too late. His admirers seem to discover his books as undergrads and experience them as a revelation. I had already read way too much by the time I got around to Foucault to hear out the academics who touted him as an iconoclast launching the most complete and stringent critique of modernity and the Enlightenment thus far. I saw that critique as warmed over Nietzsche with a dollop of anarchist theory and a strange aftertaste of some reactionary idealization of pre-modernity. It was too vague and overarching to work as a heuristic- ironically, he resorts entirely too often to sweeping “grand narratives”. And when I read other historians’ works on madness, prisons, or sexuality, they often pay lip service to Foucault’s work and then show where it falls apart as history. Finally, there were plenty of academics who applied a “Foucaultian lens” to their own research with some success, but often that method struck me as uncritical trend-hopping- a sort of careerist repackaging of ideas. To be honest, quite a bit of academic writing strikes me as putting old ideas into new cans.

I was also struck by how little I heard about Foucault while in France. Afary and Anderson suggest this has to do with the lukewarm reception his History of Sexuality received there as well as the backlash he received about lauding the Iranian “spiritual revolution” while downplaying its dangers and excesses. To be fair, Foucault was not the only leftist to be happy to see the repressive Pahlavi regime- that weird mélange of disco decadence and authoritarian surveillance- die a dog’s death in Iran and with very good reason. He was also highly percipient in recognizing that political Islam was going to have a major impact on world events in years to come. In trying to understand the phenomenon, Foucault was in the right place at the right time. He was doing his duty as a public intellectual.

He was strikingly naïve, however, in thinking the Ayatollah and the mullahs around him were going to cede power once the revolution was accomplished. And Foucault was incredibly misguided in thinking that the rights of women and homosexuals would be protected, provided they didn’t “go against the rights of the majority”. When called out for his mistakes, as it became clear to many that the theocratic terror that many on the Iranian left had feared was coming terribly to pass, Foucault simply objected to being called out and refused to respond. He accused his critics, even those on the Iranian left, of Islamophobia.

So, how could Foucault have been so wrong? The authors contend that his mistakes here were of a sort with his flaws elsewhere: that they flowed from “his hostility to modernity and its technologies of the body” as well as the post-structuralist left’s strident critique of “the secular liberal or authoritarian modern state and its institutions”. In one striking passage, Foucault describes the industrial capitalism that came out of the Enlightenment as “the harshest, most savage, most selfish, most dishonest, oppressive society one could possibly imagine.” To say that Foucault’s critique lacked in nuance might be stating the obvious.

But the authors also highlight his fascination with death and with limit experiences that confront death- such as being martyred for a political cause. Furthermore, they highlight a major flaw in his work that has long been problematic- his blind spot for patriarchal power and how it was used against women- became a much more serious issue when the mullahs wanted to bring it back in Iran. While feminists have drawn much from his work, Foucault was no feminist.

The book, then, throws its strongest punches from the left, which makes them land more effectively. The writers are not conservatives raging against the influence of postmodernism in the academy. But they recognize something that one of Foucault’s critics, an Iranian feminist, pointed out to him to no avail: “The Western liberal left needs to know that Islamic law can become a dead weight on societies hungering for change.” The book is also a useful reminder that radical Islamists might be anti-imperialist and fighting against Western military and cultural hegemony, but they are doing so in order to create another hegemony opposed to nearly every value that liberals cherish.

Nevertheless, even if we forget Foucault, critiques of the Enlightenment and of modernity will not go away. We are children of the Enlightenment for good or ill. The goods include our notions of human rights, representative democracy, feminism, social equality, modern medicine, and the scientific method.

But what I think bothered me about the two yuppies sitting near me in the restaurant was how perfectly they articulated the ways that a “scientific” assessment regime rooted in instrumentalist logic can be used as a tool to root out and be rid of nonconformists. We can perhaps dismiss the “anti-intellectualism” of reactionaries, Trump supporters, and the “uneducated” classes, but we cannot remain oblivious to the many ways that surveillance, quantification, and instrumental rationality penetrate the lives of all, but especially of those “uneducated” lower classes. The further along we go in creating a completely rational society, the more frequently we will have to deal with outbursts of irrational violence under various labels. To paraphrase J.G. Ballard, given the hyper-rational alternative, psychopathology becomes the last form of freedom left.

Get it here:

Foucault and the Iranian Revolution: Gender and the Seductions of Islamism


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Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does a bunch of other stuff.

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23 thoughts on “Book notes: Foucault and the Iranian Revolution

  1. Holy shit, Rufus. How you aren’t teaching this stuff in 300-level courses escapes me totally.

    The book, then, throws its strongest punches from the left, which makes them land more effectively.

    This line makes me very, very sad.

    Foucault always struck me as making the domestic analogy: that is, when I was a waiter at the restaurant, I was fond of saying that life was like being a waiter.

    BECAUSE OF COURSE IT WAS.

    Anyway, of course he saw life like being a bunch of power dynamics. He kind of heralded intersectionality… being someone who had so very much privilege in these areas, so very little in those, and came up with a philosophy that would explain that sort of thing perfectly.

    And, of course, along the way, destroyed a lot of things because he happened to make the right allies at the right time and happened to have the right enemies and everything came together in a perfect storm.

    And we’re left saying “what the hell happened?”

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  2. It was Fanonism pure and simple. Anti-imperialism works very well as a political ideology to get rid of Europeans and Americans running Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The attempts to turn it into an all encompassing critique of the West led too many people who should have known better to believe some very stupid things. When you combine it with the Marxist critique of liberalism, capitalism, and bourgeois identity you get something even more pernicious.

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  3. Well, I suspect that the “scientific” analysis that could slap a label on that IT guy and make him disappear from the world of those two women you mention does not exist. They appear to be wishing for the existence of a right to never feel uncomfortable, something which has nothing to do with the Enlightenment, as far as I know.

    I’ve spent oodles of time around people who bear labels from DSM, which is pretty much the thing they are asking for. Nevertheless, employment law, at least in CA, protects such people from being fired. And that comes from the Enlightenment, too. I’d much rather be with those people with the labels than with people who have their attitude.

    I admit I’ve never read Foucault, and only know about his work secondhand. There appears to be some pretty worthwhile lenses (as you say) in there to have.

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    • Ah, I wasn’t clear- two young professionals, one male and one female, were talking. Probably doesn’t change the story too much.

      This was also inspired by a grad student friend who is being hounded by administrators at the university for writing poems in chalk on the sidewalk, which they feel could indicate she is “in crisis” or might “trigger” others and put them “in crisis”. I can’t talk much about that story, however, because I don’t want to give her more problems.

      I do think Foucault can be useful if ingested with a large grain of salt. What depressed me about his epigones in academia was they never seemed to have any salt handy.

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      • OMG OMG….

        Some IT guy “weirds us out. How can we get him fired”? How old were these “young professionals”? Mid 20s? Life isn’t perfect. You gotta deal with assholes and dicks and people who think different than you. Deal…

        Reminds me of some stupid sex harassment vid I had to watch where they made the young woman make all the wrong decisions to move the story along. As I said when critiquing the training vid, “if this woman was as incapable of taking action, in any form, and constantly made such bad decisions, she’s incapable of functioning in a professional office environment and I’d have fired her long ago.”

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        • There does seem to be a certain type of person that wants to remove any person who they find aesthetically unpleasing in some way even if the latter did nothing but mind his or her own business.

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      • Thanks for the correction. It now sounds to me that perhaps some “I’ll protect you” drama was playing out.

        The idea that power determines what is visible and what is not is quite a valuable one, I think. It has bearing on the scientific endeavor, which is a social one, and on the anecdote we’re talking about. As best I understand, this idea comes from Foucault.

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          • Perhaps it’s that because we can now articulate “power hides itself” and “there is no center” and be understood by one another, that we can discard all that apparatus of postmodernism. Perhaps the purpose of all that apparatus was to get the the point where we have some shared understanding of those phrases.

            Perhaps it’s also the case that for academics to be taken seriously by other academics, they must write and speak about these things in a way that is foreign to the layperson. Perhaps this is another example of “power determines what is visible”.

            But yes, there are many avenues and alleyways that were dead ends. That’s what discovery is like.

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            • The idea that power determines what is knowable/sayable is particularly attractive for academics because it means that discourse critique is a critical form of activism. My problem is that only takes you so far. It’s hard to find a non-alienated social interaction in Foucault since every social interaction reduces to an articulation of power. It’s also hard to tell what makes one locus of power worse than another, which is fairly important for resistance.

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              • Yep. It’s an important idea and framework, but far from being the only important idea or framework. Honestly, some find it valuable because it is a handy-dandy general way to tear just about any argument down.

                I remember reading a piece in the Communications of the ACM, the house organ for the professional/academic society for computing (the Association for Computing Machinery, or ACM) that argued, non-ironically, that all computing research was wrong because it was done by men. I think that’s basically metastasized Foucault. I’ve also read the claim that the Theory of Relativity is wrong because it was formulated by men. This was in the 80’s.

                There’s a lot of good criticism of science to be had a la Foucault – why did we look at this, rather than that? Why didn’t we consider these datasets over here? Why were all psychological/medical experiments done only on men up until maybe the 1970s? But data is data, and proofs are proofs. It’s like the authors don’t comprehend how science work.

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  4. Lessing’s argument about the Electoral College remind me a lot about the arguments about the trillion dollar platinum coin from the debt celling crisis. Many liberals believe that these were perfectly fine ways to get around problems because they were in the letter of the law. Others found them at best cute and really not within in the spirit of the law. The norms of American government are still important to many Democratic politicians and they do not want to do more damage to the American system.

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  5. Rufus, excellent work.
    I’ve read through this a couple of times and went and reviewed some of Foucaults work. The one thing I can’t find in this work or in Foucaults is a pivot point that would have the two yuppies see the IT guy with any measure of individual agency.

    About the only thing I find that could address it is the ‘rational society’, but in history societies that were considered rational often didn’t recognize individual agency.

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  6. Iran became simultaneously more open to women and less, after the Revolution. The Ayatollah was a strict literalist, not a mysogynist. As such, women can and do have a degree of freedom in Iran that they do not enjoy in Saudi Arabia, where the Wahabis rule the morality police.

    And this is just the laws on the books, not even beginning to skim the surface of the underground economy, which for the middle class in Iran is just a part of life.

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  7. I certainly appreciate this:
    warmed over Nietzsche with a dollop of anarchist theory and a strange aftertaste of some reactionary idealization of pre-modernity

    I enjoyed the review immensely.
    The prose is wonderful throughout, and I like the use of storytelling in the piece.
    I really have nothing to add; just to say that I liked the review.

    A related observation:
    It is rather odd that Reagan’s support of the mujahideen in Afghanistan and el proceso in Argentina never seem to rate the outrage as some ultimately effectless intellectual.
    I don’t see holding JP Souza accountable for WWII, nor do I see a markedly better world had he written waltzes.

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  8. This is a fantastic post.

    I think of Foucault not as a critic of Enlightenment and modernity writ large, but as a critic of institutional overreach, who happens to have been active during a time with overreach of Enlightenment and modernist thinking. Foucault is particularly critical of “objective” methods being used to justify violent enforcement of social and political norms. In the parlance of Dungeons and Dragons, he is a chaotic good fighting against the lawful evil. Your yuppies are indeed real and evil, and many physicians are not even cognizant of the same trend in themselves.

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  9. “If only there was a way,” she mused, “that we could get a mental health professional to assess him with a straightforward rigorous test and quantify that he has some sort of personality disorder with a specific diagnosis. Then we could be justify removing him.”

    Two different worlds could collide here. On the one hand, psychiatry, about which Foucault was highly critical for the sentiments expressed here (tarring eccentrics as “disorderd” and the like). On the other, these “disorders” are protected by the ADA and other cognate laws. The worker, as disabled, would have a bona fide discrimination case here.

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