Foucault and Iran

|

When Michel Foucault's American admirers discuss his work, his enthusiasm for Iran's Islamist revolution doesn't get much attention. This is partly because most of his articles on the topic are not available in English, and partly because his fans just don't know what to make of such an unsympathetic position. It's usually written off as an aberration or a mistake.

Writing in the socialist journal New Politics, Janet Afary and Kevin B. Anderson—authors of the forthcoming Foucault, Gender, and the Iranian Revolution: The Seductions of Islamism—take a closer look at what Foucault said and how it fits his body of work. Rejecting the idea that his stance was an anomaly, they argue that "Foucault's Iran writings reveal, albeit in exaggerated form, some problems in his…one-sided critique of modernity." They also note that Foucault is not the only leftist to misjudge radical Islam—an important point at a time when principled opposition to the war in Iraq sometimes morphs into sympathy for fundamentalist thugs.

[Via Doug Ireland.]

NEXT: The Rest of Blogdom

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Yet another in the growing list of links between leftism and Islamism. The left has apparently been driven insane by the failure if its God, Marxism, and its hatred for the USA, and will embrace anyone at all, so long as they kill Americans.

  2. You’d think the guy would have learned something from Sartre’s boneheaded support of Maoism.

  3. RC-
    That explanation doesn’t fit this case all that well, given that Foucault died 20 years ago.

  4. Chill!
    Buy some queer leftist action figure to play with:

    http://www.theory.org.uk/action.htm

    “Keenly aware of the fluidity of social identities, this 6.5″ Michel Foucault waves his baton in poststructuralist style at all challenges. Shrouded in a special removeable French cloak and with a built-in thoughtful head movement, this superb action figure is essential for both professional philosophers and junior postmodernists.”

    😉

  5. The idiocy of so many human beings can lead one to despair. I am often quite ashamed to be part of the human species. Sometimes I feel that if humans were to become extinct, it would be a small loss to the universe at best.

  6. R.C. Dean,

    Foucault was hardly a doctrinaire leftist; and Foucault rejected (openly and rather nastily, losing some friends in the process) Marxism. And Foucault loved the USA. Please, when you comment on things, at least know what the fuck you’re talking about.

  7. R.C. Dean,

    Also, it would have beneficial if you had actually read the article.

  8. It isn’t Foucault’s fault the most repulsive element of the broad front coalition seized power after the Shah fell.

    Sure it is, joe, In fact, the Mad Mullahs were probably #2 on the list of groups the USA wouldn’t have been happy with running Iran, #1 being the Iranian Communists. EVERYBODY expected the Shiite clerics or ther young, radical lay supporters to take over.

    Kevin

  9. kevrob,

    It probably should be noted that Foucault ended all commentary on Iran in May of 1979. He died in 1984.

    How exactly was the rise of clerics in Iran Foucault’s “fault?” And the clerics, or anyone else, weren’t on the U.S. “list,” because the U.S. barely fathomed what was going on there. The revolution in 1978-1979 caught the U.S., and especially the American intelligence community, by almost complete surprise.

  10. Even if that were true, kevrob, it would demonstrate that Foucault had a poor understanding of Iranian political infightingk, not that he suppported the Mullah’s political beliefs. It is is sleazy to interpolate support for the Islamist position from his support for a broad, popular front coalition against a brutal Quisling monarch.

  11. Read the article, guys. Foucault didn’t merely support the revolution against the Shah, which would be a completely defensible position. He supported the Islamists.

    I should add that I think Foucault is an interesting thinker with a strong libertarian streak, especially at the end of his life. I’m not condemning his whole body of work. But I suspect the New Politics writers are correct to see a connection between his critique of the Enlightenment and his naive embrace of Khomeini’s revolution. And he could be a pretty sloppy historian — and, apparently, a sloppy reporter — as well.

  12. I am in principle against removing thugs from office by force.

    But of course I’m against the thugs.

    How truly French.

  13. Jesse,

    Good thing with all his slop Mr. F wasn’t a nuclear scientist, eh? Or running an oil refinery for that matter.

    Bad facts, unclear thinking. Great man.

    Only in the social sciences and literature depts.

    Well Paglia hates him. That is enough for me.

    Ah. But he had a few libertarian thoughts. Were they related to the Jeffersonian foreign policy against the weak (the Barbary Pirates?) or the Jeffersonian foreign policy against the strong (England)?

    Well I’m a total believer in a Jeffersonian foreign policy. We need to give the jihadis (as they were called in Jefferson’s day) hell. Just as Jefferson did.

  14. heh, yeah, barbary pirates, islamists…

    sloppy is as sloppy does.

  15. Jesse Walker,

    I did read the article.

    He supported the Islamists.

    Yet his support began to wane by the time his last article was published on the matter in May of 1979. Foucault had a penchant for dropping the subject when he realized that he had made an error.

    M. Simon,

    Anyone taking their intellectual cues from Camille Paglia is a moron.

    Well Paglia hates him. That is enough for me.

    Ah. But he had a few libertarian thoughts. Were they related to the Jeffersonian foreign policy against the weak (the Barbary Pirates?) or the Jeffersonian foreign policy against the strong (England)?

    Well I’m a total believer in a Jeffersonian foreign policy. We need to give the jihadis (as they were called in Jefferson’s day) hell. Just as Jefferson did.

    It was not until the second war with Algiers, in 1815, that treaties ending all tribute payments by the United States were forged. Indeed, Jefferson’s actions led to the humiliating loss of the Philadelphia in 1803; and even the treaty of 1805 that was negotiated between the U.S. and Tripoli allowed for the payment of ransom of $60,000 for each American held captive by the dey of Algiers. So Jefferson’s actions were not as successful (nor as robust) as the myth-makers try to make out.

  16. M. Simon,

    Do you also support Paglia’s derisive statements regarding blogging? 🙂

  17. Jason: I was mostly responding to Joe, who wrote that “It isn’t Foucault’s fault the most repulsive element of the broad front coalition seized power after the Shah fell” and “It is sleazy to interpolate support for the Islamist position from his support for a broad, popular front coalition against a brutal Quisling monarch.” I was only roping in you and Kevrob to the extent that you were discussing those comments without noting that the premise was wrong.

  18. M. Simon,

    The thing about Paglia is that her ideas are as stifling and doctrinaire as the 1970s version of feminism that she was rebelling against. And despite her criticism of Foucault, she too revels in the Dionysian; the “limit expereinces” that Foucault was so fond of.

    What made Paglia popular was her attacks on political correctness and doctrinaire feminism; but neither of these were particularly original criticisms by the time Sexual Personae came out in 1990.

  19. Jesse Walker,

    I was only roping in you and Kevrob to the extent that you were discussing those comments without noting that the premise was wrong.

    I see; thanks. 🙂

    So do you think that Foucault was completely wrong regarding the Enlightenment project; or merely excessive in his criticism?

  20. Partly right and partly wrong.

  21. I like Paglia’s “Junk Bonds” essay on Mr. F. and the rest.

    That does not mean I like everything she says.

    It is like Bush. I’m voting for him because I like his foreign policy. War, war, war.

    His domestic policy (social) sucks.

    Unlike Libs. I can discriminate. I can vote for most of what I want if I can’t get it all (the Lib candidate will give me nothing of what I want because – surprise – he has zero chance. Zip. Nada.) And Bush gives me what I want most. War on the Islamic fascists.

    Paglia for instance is a cipher when it comes to economics. She is a “social” libertarian. And an engaging speaker too. Entertaining. Does that mean I like every thing she says? Why should I have to? Is this another of the Libertarian binary choices? All right or all wrong?

    –==–

    Well OK. my history is weak when it comes to Jefferson and the Pirates. Still it does point out that our foreign policy today (despite what Libs might tell you) is not too different from Jefferson’s.

    What is differnt is that today we are the strongest power in the world – all others are weaker by orders of magnitude. Going to war with powers that piss us off is not unJeffersonian. Jefferson was wise in chosing to be in opposition to powers we had a reasonable chance to defeat. Today that could include if necessary all the powers of the world combined. Which in many ways was our position re: the European powers in the early 1800s. We were in opposition to all hereditary monarchies. (well not militarlily until we got stronger)

    My point in all this? Bush’s foreign policy is very Jeffersonian. A conclusion your usual Libertarian might not come to.

  22. Jason says:

    And despite her criticism of Foucault, she too revels in the Dionysian; the “limit expereinces” that Foucault was so fond of.

    Me too. I’m from the “sex, drugs, rock ‘n roll” generation. But I believe in balance. Apollonian work during the day and Dionysian party all night. other wise there is the Apollonian tendency towards spiritual dryness or Dionysian hedonistic excess.

    Balance. The extremes.

    All work and no play…….

  23. Jason asks:

    Do you also support Paglia’s derisive statements regarding blogging? 🙂

    I like some of her work. Why should that make me one of her camp followers? Is this more of the Libertarian “if you are not all right you are all wrong” system?

    Such a narrow way of thinking.

    Life is a buffet. You get to pick and choose. You don’t have to eat the meat to get the potatoes.

  24. Jason asks:

    Do you also support Paglia’s derisive statements regarding blogging? 🙂

    I like some of her work. Why should that make me one of her camp followers? Is this more of the Libertarian “if you are not all right you are all wrong” system?

    Such a narrow way of thinking.

    Life is a buffet. You get to pick and choose. You don’t have to eat the meat to get the potatoes.

  25. Jason asks:

    Do you also support Paglia’s derisive statements regarding blogging? 🙂

    I like some of her work. Why should that make me one of her camp followers? Is this more of the Libertarian “if you are not all right you are all wrong” system?

    Such a narrow way of thinking.

    Life is a buffet. You get to pick and choose. You don’t have to eat the meat to get the potatoes.

  26. Puffing up the mullahs takes on a different character when your country is the place that gave Khomeini exile, and you are an influential social critic.

    Kevrob

  27. What in the Foucault are you people talking about?

  28. M. Simon,

    That does not mean I like everything she says.

    Clearly you like her enough that you would take her word on something without investigating the matter yourself.

    Well OK. my history is weak when it comes to Jefferson and the Pirates. Still it does point out that our foreign policy today (despite what Libs might tell you) is not too different from Jefferson’s.

    You mean vaccilating and incosistent? That sounds about right.

    Jefferson was wise in chosing to be in opposition to powers we had a reasonable chance to defeat.

    Again with the myth-making; I’m sorry, but the historical record simply does not support this assertion.

    We were in opposition to all hereditary monarchies.

    Ahh, no. You’ll find that the various administrations of the early republic were more than willing to deal with the hereditary monarchies of Europe diplomatically or otherwise (indeed, it was the Jefferson administration which attempted to create an international pact with European states to ignore demands for payment by the Barbary pirates – most of the other states to be included were of course hereditary monarchies). Trying to spin the early republic into some sort of period where “world revolution” was the modus operandi is absolute non-sense and completely ahistorical; and this is even more doubly so after the early 1790s with the rising disenchantment with the revolution in France.

    Me too. I’m from the “sex, drugs, rock ‘n roll” generation. But I believe in balance. Apollonian work during the day and Dionysian party all night. other wise there is the Apollonian tendency towards spiritual dryness or Dionysian hedonistic excess.

    Foucault didn’t call for such an extreme; indeed, his thoughts on “limit experiences” require some base from which to work from.

    I like some of her work. Why should that make me one of her camp followers? Is this more of the Libertarian “if you are not all right you are all wrong” system?

    When did I ever claim that you were a “camp follower” or anything like this? Please, keep your unsupported inferences to yourself.

    Such a narrow way of thinking.

    The truly narrow way of thinking is yours; again, you’re the one so credulous that you would take Paglia at face value regarding her criticisms of Foucault, not I.

  29. I think that I remember hearing on a tape about Foucault, that he wrote some racist stuff. I never encountered that in any of my reading of his works, which is not much though, nor did I get confirmation via the Google. Can anyone help, or perhaps my memory is not clear on this matter.

    JB:

    “The thing about Paglia is that her ideas are as stifling and doctrinaire as the 1970s version of feminism that she was rebelling against.”

    This doesn’t ring true at all. Camille Paglia’s ideas seemed very fresh and to contain far more nuance than those of her opponents_ Especially during their confrontations. Full disclosure: I’ve enjoyed much of her writing.

  30. Edward Said observed that Michel Foucault and a few other Continental lefties were not very supportive of the Palestinian cause.

  31. M. Simon:

    Bush’s foreign policy is very Jeffersonian.

    What?? That’s absurd! Jefferson would never have attacked Iraq or given the Israeli government money to prosecute their occupation of Palestinian land and he would have committed all most none of Bush’s current foreign interventions.

    The condition of different descriptions of inhabitants in any country is a matter of municipal arrangement, of which no foreign country has a right to take notice.
    Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval, 1816.

    We would be guilty of great error in our conduct toward other nations if we endeavored to force liberty on other nations in our own form.
    Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Mann Randolph, Jun 24, 1793

    The people wish for peace… They feel no incumbency on them to become the reformers of the other hemisphere, and to inculcate, with fire and sword, a return to moral order.
    Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 1811.

    Wretched, indeed, is the nation in whose affairs foreign powers are once permitted to intermeddle.
    Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Vaughan, 1787.

    Unmeddling with the affairs of other nations, we presume not to prescribe or censure their course, happy could we be permitted to pursue our own in peace, and to employ all our means in improving the condition of our citizens.
    Thomas Jefferson to Mme de Stael, 1807.

    Commerce with all nations, alliance with none, should be our motto.
    — Thomas Jefferson, (1799)

    War is an instrument entirely inefficient toward redressing wrong; and
    multiplies, instead of indemnifying losses.

    – Thomas Jefferson

    I recoil with horror at the ferociousness of man. Will nations never devise a more rational umpire of differences than force? Are there no means of coercing injustice more gratifying to our nature than a waste of the blood of thousands and of the labor of millions of our fellow creatures?
    ~Thomas Jefferson

    Honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.
    ~Thomas Jefferson

    The spirit of this country is totally adverse to a large military force.
    — Thomas Jefferson

  32. Concerning my post:

    “Edward Said observed that Michel Foucault and a few other Continental lefties were not very supportive of the Palestinian cause.”

    That’s just something that I happened to come across. From this, I’m not drawing any inferences concerning the founding topic of this thread.

  33. This being a Foucault thread, I’m excused from having to RtFA, because, what is a “text” anyway?

    Oops.

  34. his history of prisons and punishment is a must-read. it’s not very dense, i think, once you get around the frenchiness of it all. it should appeal to libertarian minded folk.

    and as someone else said, limit breaking != hedonism. or if it does, it’s hedonism with a lot of homework and a curfew.

  35. This article is an essay which retraces the genesis and the culmination of the views that one of the past century’s most prominent philosophers, the French Michel Foucault, held on the birth of Islamism in Iran.

    The article, written from a leftist perspective and addressing what it calls the “International Left”, is republished here, for we believe that it provides a good example of how, that ?international left’, through one of its most eminent figures, provided Khomeini and his revolutionary coalition with what they needed most, in particular in order for them to rally behind their ?cause’ Iran’s highly educated middle classes: secular-looking legitimacy. Today, 25 years after that disastrous alchemy of “Spiritual Politics”, even the most radical elements of the theocratic establishment inside Iran bear witness to the fact that the revolution was not, at its inception, prior to it being “taken over by the masses”, as the Tehran conservative daily Kayhan puts it, a purely religious phenomenon. At its start, there was a legitimate demand for political participation and the application of the 1906 Constitution; constitutionalism versus absolutism; more consensual modernization versus what the authors, Afary and Anderson, justifiably call the Shah’s “highly authoritarian program of economic and cultural modernization.” For those who witnessed and took part in those early events, the Tehran Goethe Institute’s “Nights of Poetry”, back in 1978, attended by the society’s most politically dynamic and progressive elements, did not preach the revolutionary overthrow of Monarchy nor the establishment of an Islamic theocracy. During those nights, Iranian intellectuals asked for what had come to be termed as “open political atmosphere.” What metamorphosed that embryo of freedom into the monster of the “revolution of Islam”, now inscribed into the “constitution” of the Islamic republic, could be the subject of a different article. Here, we want to end this introductory note on the following correction-reminder:

    The authors assert that, shortly after “tak[ing] power”, Khomeini “sponsored a national referendum [italics by RP] that declared Iran an Islamic republic by an overwhelming majority.” In our opinion, no virtuality could be more farfetched and detached from reality. What Afary and Anderson call “national referendum” was nothing more than a religious fatwa, from an Imam whose “picture” had, only a few months earlier, adorned the surface of the moon, disguised as a referendum. There was no choice presented to the Iranian people, neither in form nor in content. What there was, in the shadows of freshly “imported” AK47 rifles from “brother” states and those summarily executed officers of the Imperial Army whose tragic end seems not to have reached the authors’ compassionate list of atrocities committed by the Khomeini against “homosexuals” and “leftists”? what there was, was Khomeini’s injunction: “Islamic Republic; Not a Word More; Not a Word Less.” It is tempting to ask Afary and Anderson and the “international left”, which, in their own words, has failed “to chart an adequate response to religious fundamentalism”, on the basis of which principles, reliable data, and ethics they call that demagogical populist plebiscite a “national referendum”?

    The authors’ introduction, prior to proceeding with Foucault’s “Distinctive Positions” is rigged with yet another farfetched such statement. In tracing back Foucault’s fascination for Khomeini’s “morbid transgressive powers” to the philosopher’s Nietzschean embracement of the “artist who pushed the limits of rationality”, the authors assert that “millions” of Iranians “risked death as they followed him [Khomeini] in the course of the revolution.” This is simply nonsense! Masses, as opposed to the revolutionary vanguard, which, by definition, constitutes a tiny social minority, both qualitatively and quantitatively, do not take “risks”, particularly not “death” risk! Masses join the engine ignited by the vanguard only and only when the “risk” element is sufficiently low. Any Leninist would know that! Paradoxically and technically speaking, one of the main catalysts of Khomeini’s access to power was the Shah’s soft approach to the power struggle that opposed him to the heretic “saint”: He, not Khomeini, freed “political prisoners”, including members of armed Marxist and/or Islamist organizations that later became known and labeled, worldwide, as terrorists; He, not Khomeini, put stringent conditions on the use of legitimate force, even in the face of open provocation of chaos; violation of private properties; and savagery, the most abhorrent example of which was staged at the Rex Theatre, in the southern city of Abadan, where an estimated 400 people were burned alive by the “revolutionaries”, heralding hyper-terrorism on a global scale…

  36. Rick Barton,

    This doesn’t ring true at all. Camille Paglia’s ideas seemed very fresh and to contain far more nuance than those of her opponents…

    They may have seemed “fresh” in the early 1990s, but they weren’t (a lot of other people had been making the same criticisms of doctrinaire feminism, Paglia just packaged it better). And she is no more nuanced than her opponents; she is as doctrinaire as they are when it comes to issues of gender.

    Edward Said observed that Michel Foucault and a few other Continental lefties were not very supportive of the Palestinian cause.

    I don’t see how you get the idea that Foucault was of the left.

    Ramin Prahim,

    …for we believe…

    Who the fuck is “we?”

    …that it provides a good example of how, that ?international left’, through one of its most eminent figures, provided Khomeini and his revolutionary coalition with what they needed most, in particular in order for them to rally behind their ?cause’ Iran’s highly educated middle classes: secular-looking legitimacy.

    Yet the article states itself that most people reacted negatively to his articles; and that Foucault was roundly criticized from across the ideological spectrum. Indeed, it appears that Foucault did not provide any legitimacy at all to the Iranian revolution; this fact is further demonstrated by the fact that most people have discounted his articles about Iran to be wrongheaded. If this is an indorsement, it sure as hell is a very ineffective one.

    The rest of your statements read the authors out of context.

  37. Rick,

    America doesn’t have a large military force in relation to it’s population.

    300 million people (roughly) 1.5 million under arms (roughly) That is .5%

    The deal is because of the way we train and the equipment we have we are 10X to 100X as effective as any other competing force.

    Now I admit we do spend a lot on the military but in this time of war it still only amounts to 4% or so of GDP. Possibly as much as 6% if you count extras.

    Our war budget as a % of the economy is around what we spent in the mid and late 50s.

  38. Jason Bourne:

    “And she is no more nuanced than her opponents; she is as doctrinaire as they are when it comes to issues of gender.”

    When I saw her in direct confrontations with them, Camille Paglia just seemed to expose one fallacy after another. She was more analytical. I think that’s why she drove them crazy.

    I don’t see how you get the idea that Foucault was of the left.

    It wasn’t me actually. That was the characterization of the person who wrote about Said’s lamentation. I don’t know who the others were but it wouldn’t surprise me if Foucault didn’t belong in the same political box. He sort of defies political categorization anyway.

    M.Simon:

    “Now I admit we do spend a lot on the military but in this time of war it still only amounts to 4% or so of GDP. Possibly as much as 6% if you count extras. Our war budget as a % of the economy is around what we spent in the mid and late 50s.”

    It’s not just how much of our money that our government spends on the military. It’s what they do with that money that is of concern. Is the war budget as a % of the economy still the same as the late 50’s if we use the 6% of GDP figure?

  39. Rick,

    How the money is spent of course is a political question.

    Bush in a landslide.

  40. I might note that every bomb that goes off in Iraq increases the number of recruits applying for positions in Allawi’s police and military.

    So for what it is worth, Iraqis seem intent on defending their own country.

    If a people so long under the boot of a tyrant are willing – with help – to defend themselves despite the continued bombing of recruiting lines than I’m very hopeful about the outcome in Iraq.

    I believe things will quiet down once elections are held in January.

  41. Rick,

    I’m starting to come around to your point of view. America ought to pull its troops out of Iraq ASAP.

    Iran is close. We should send them there for vacation.

  42. Rick Barton,

    When I saw her in direct confrontations with them, Camille Paglia just seemed to expose one fallacy after another. She was more analytical. I think that’s why she drove them crazy.

    Look, I’m not defending the doctrinaire feminism of the 1970s, I am stating that Paglia undermined one dogmatic position so as to support another one.

    He sort of defies political categorization anyway.

    That’s basically my position; he had so many nasty things to say about the left, particularly the European left, that it is hard to classify him as one. Indeed, his very early rejection of Marxism (in the late 50s to early 60s when he was really just a kid still) makes him all the more peculiar.

    M. Simon,

    I might note that every bomb that goes off in Iraq increases the number of recruits applying for positions in Allawi’s police and military.

    That’s the claim (we hear it all the time from Rumsfeld, etc.); no one has actually ever demonstrated that this is the case.

    So for what it is worth, Iraqis seem intent on defending their own country.

    That’s unestablished so far; we have seen the Iraqi army flee the scene of a fight in the past however.

    I believe things will quiet down once elections are held in January.

    That’s what they said about the June handover too.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.