Two reviews of Foucault in Iran

The problem of Islam as a political force is an essential one for our time and for the years to come, and we cannot approach it with a modicum of intelligence if we start out from a position of hatred. –Foucault

Two reviews of Foucault and the Iranian Revolution by Afary and Anderson that present a somewhat different take on the book. In general, reactions were positive to this book, which takes quite a critical line on Foucault and his political naivete in going to Iran during the revolution, not to mention his white male sexist attitudes.

However, these reviews offer a more critical reinterpretation of the book.
Babak Rahimi, in a October 2006 review published on H-Net situates Foucault’s involvement through the lens of transgression:

Each of Foucault’s writings is an act of transgression, testimony to an anti-transcendental imagination that contravenes established conventional norms (especially academic ones), challenges the harmonization of theory and the homogenization of conceptions and practices, and pushes the limits of rationality by imposing new boundaries.

Having set out his stall in this manner, Rahimi continues:

Foucault was keen to portray the new movement as a “rejection of the regime,” something that negates rather than affirms power, something that “strikes” and “demonstrates” while including (almost) everyone in Iranian society. Despite its diverse make-up, the movement nevertheless “constitute[d] a perfectly unified collective will” since it accommodated numerous groups and organizations who were united in their opposition to the Shah’s regime. It is in this regard, and only in reference to an indeterminate social movement, that Foucault identified the Iranian revolution in 1978 as a “political will,” a will for “political spirituality” that “yearns for the end of dependency, the disappearance of the police, the redistribution of oil revenues, an attack on corruption, the reactivation of Islam, another way of life, and new relations with the West, with the Arab countries, with Asia, and so forth” (p. 221).

Foucault’s involvement then can be understood through this motivation: the overturning of power. But the phrase “the reactivation of Islam” is eye-catching today, so much so that Rahimi adds:

Here, the “reactivation of Islam” does not imply a reintroduction of religion into politics or a return to “traditional society” or the archaic Islam of the medieval era, but a political experiment to overcome the secular conception of modernity that imposes a rigid boundary between “religion” and “politics”–hence the description of Islam as “another way of life” that would not separate the two.

This reading then allows Rahimi to underscore that the ways events turned out was “unforseeable” and that the book is sometimes “unfair” to Foucault’s position. This then allows Rahimi to move into the kill:

However, what Afary and Anderson reveal in this book is their own “orientalist” views which, through accusations and hostile misreadings, aim to contort, suppress and, ultimately, silence Foucault’s original interpretation of the Iranian revolution. Having depicted a belligerent and even (yes!) an anti-modern Foucault, who was allegedly unapologetic for the Islamists’ atrocities after the revolution, for which “he had helped to build support” (p. 133), the book misleadingly presents Foucault as an educated (though stupid) white man who was naively seduced by the obscurantist features of Khomeini and Islamism.

Whether you find this counter-attack convincing or not may depend on your own views on this event, but Rahimi at least is clear why he found the book so poor, namely it does not tally with what Foucault himself said he was trying to do:

One issue in particular that struck me as a significant problem with the book was the way the authors decontextualize Foucault’s immediate situation and spontaneous reaction in observing the unfolding of the Iranian revolution. This disregard for the immediate context allows Afary and Anderson to portray Foucault as an uncritical supporter of the Islamist movement, who failed to predict the dangers inherent to the Islamist movement (in its Shi’i Iranian version). But Foucault clearly rejects such a rigid conception of the historian who can (or should) hypothesize a unity in social historical time, foreseeing both the
perils and progress of history. We find his most basic justification for rejecting conventional approaches to history in his recognition of the
incompleteness (or indeterminacy) of human action. He writes, “I cannot write the history of the future, and I am also rather clumsy at foreseeing
the past. However, I would like to grasp what is happening, because these days nothing is finished, and the dice are still being rolled. It is perhaps this that is the work of a journalist, but it is true that I am nothing but a neophyte” (p. 220). Foucault’s concern for the ” what is happening ” authenticates his general approach to understanding the history
of the past and the future as an indeterminate and chaotic process.

It seems to Rahimi finally then that if one critiques an author then one should begin (or include) a critique of what they were trying to do and not begin or go straight to a critique of what they didn’t try to do (eg., for failing to see the outcomes of the Khomeini regime).

One can do that, but here I’m reminded of Colin Gordon’s words in his review of the History of Madness:

These questions are not answered to our — nor doubtless to his — full satisfaction in Foucault’s text. There is now a burgeoning academic sub-literature of complaint about the things which Foucault left undone, as though he had neglected his duty to write his readers’ books as well as his own. We are not, however, forbidden from attempting some of those uncompleted tasks ourselves.

As to Rahimi’s claim that Foucault’s “general approach to understanding the history of the past and the future as an indeterminate and chaotic process,” one might have quite a fruitful debate about the implications of that.

* * *

Quickly noted since it is a bit older: Jonathan Rée in the Nation, which is mentioned by Rahimi:

But while he remonstrated with his friends in Iran, Foucault never yielded an inch to his critics in Paris. Despite their accusations, he had not taken it upon himself to advocate Islamic government: He had simply recorded some of the aspirations of the protesters, while trying to dismantle the stale and defensive notions that filled the heads of Western observers. “The problem of Islam as a political force is an essential one for our time and for the years to come,” he wrote, “and we cannot approach it with a modicum of intelligence if we start out from a position of hatred.” At the end of March, when the veteran leftists Claudie and Jacques Broyelle called on him to confess his “mistake,” he blew his top. He was appalled by the peremptory summons to confess his “errors,” saying that it “remind[s] me of something, and of many things, against which I have fought.” And if things were indeed turning out badly in Iran, that did not invalidate his remarks about how they might have been different; nor did it show that events were bound to revert to a familiar pattern and lose their capacity to surprise us. But Foucault was wounded by the taunts of his critics, and at the end of May 1979 he retired from the conflict. His adventure as a contrarian political journalist was at an end.

4 Responses

  1. I liked the book on Foucault in Iran – but more for the social and historical context it gave to the pieces of journalism he wrote for the Italian and French papers (and for the new translations). As far as the authors’ understanding of Foucault’s project goes, though, I think they misunderstand the critical impulse of genealogy when they argue that Foucault was anti-modern and preferred the historical alternatives he discussed to contemporary regimes of liberal humanism…

  2. […] like to know that Afary and Anderson, who recently published Foucault and the Iranian Revolution, previously discussed here) have published a longish article in the Nation about their trip to Iran in […]

  3. […] might guess, Foucault and the Iranian Revolution, which we have had cause to discuss on this blog already. And of course the reason he loves it is that he can use it to trash Foucault: In the late 1970s, […]

  4. […] Two reviews of Foucault in Iran […]

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