Danny Postel review of Afary & Anderson Foucault in Iran book

I missed this review by Danny Postel of Afary and Anderson’s Foucault in Iran book, which was published in The Common Review in 2006.


Indeed, it was not despite the revolution’s Islamist dimension that Foucault’s intellectual-political juices got flowing, but because of it. He saw in the Iranian experience
the promise of a whole different kind of rebellion—not just another national liberation struggle against colonialism, but something that went deeper: a revolt against modernity itself. Whereas third-world revolutions of the Marxist-Leninist variety were trapped, as Foucault saw it, in the language of the Enlightenment, the Iranians had chosen a different path—one that departed on a fundamental level from the logic of all modern revolutions and that promised not merely a new political order but, in his words, a whole different “regime of truth.”

Why did Foucault interpret the events around him in the particular way he did? Why, in the case of Iran, did he suspend the deep-seated skepticism and antiutopianism which so marked his overall approach to political questions? What exactly was it about the Iranian revolution that animated Foucault and stirred his imagination, leading him to view the events of 1978–79 as world-historical in nature?

Postel then discusses two proposals by Afary and Anderson to reply to these questions. 1. Foucault was so anti-Enlightenment that when he saw protests against it in Iran he was swept away; 2. on a personal level his fascination with “pain, punishment, surveillance, and codes of sexual “normality” and “abnormality,” on the one hand, and the penchant he displayed for sadomasochistic homoeroticism in his private life” (here Postel draws on James Miller’s biography of Foucault) led him to be swept away by the displays of grief and penitence he observed during Muharram (a time of mourning for the murder of Hussein, Mohammad’s descendant).

Afary and Anderson continue to draw on Miller’s emphasis on the so-called “limit experience” he finds embedded throughout Foucault’s work, and Postel gives a sympathetic hearing to it. In the end he concludes:

Afary and Anderson are engaged in an admittedly speculative enterprise, and are thus wide open to criticism. Champions of Foucault will likely disagree with the conclusions these authors reach. This is as it should be. Among the virtues of this book is that its publication of original source material in English will allow readers of Foucault to judge for themselves. The full text of everything Foucault ever published on Iran is here, in Foucault’s own words, allowing us—and history—to ruminate on one more illuminating chapter in the history of philosopher-kings.

Postel’s site is here. He is the author of Reading Legitimation  Crisis in Tehran: Iran and the Future of Liberalism.


2 Responses

  1. An excerpt from the book Foucault and the Iranian Revolution by Janet Afary and Kevin B. Anderson is available on the University of Chicago Press website. The excerpt is an article from 1978 by Michel Foucault titled ” What Are the Iranians Dreaming About?”

  2. Thanks. I already linked to that last year! See here.

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