His own private Iran: David Farber on Foucault and Khomeini.
BY JANET AFARY AND KEVIN B. ANDERSON
CHICAGO: UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. 312 PAGES. $24.
For the young American intellectual hipster at the end of the 1970s-in the aftermath of Watergate and the fall of Saigon, in the midst of energy crises and stagflation--it was all about the French. Reading Barthes (in translation) over bad coffee at Puerto Rican bakeries kept cynicism at bay and gave hope that you could get paid to write semiotic analyses of televangelism or revival movie houses. At a time when leftist politics had lost direction, Bernard-Henri Levy, with his dashing hairdo and billboard pronouncements, drove the last stake through the heart of Stalin's epigones and the dream of communist utopia; in doing so, he cleared the ground for ... something else. Derrida, if mostly incomprehensible, let us focus our pinched gaze on the dyadic conventions, like love and sexuality, that kept most of us occupied anyway as we danced in the furious pugilistic trot that was de rigueur in those days, No future for you; no future for me.
But the king of the French was Foucault. You could hole up for days reading a few pages of The Archaeology of Knowledge. The English translation was like a pustule. It drove you crazy. Or maybe Foucault actually wrote it that way; the density, the repetitiveness and verbal slippage kept you interested, waiting for a lucidity that never arrived. It read well stoned too--which was useful in the late '70s.
The Foucault we read then, the Foucault we knew, told us that power was a constellation that covered the sky. Nobody made it and nobody controlled it. It rolled like the zodiac. Power was carried in the cells of language and in the grammar of modern thought. Or, put another way, you were fucking doomed. At best, you could train your weary soul on uncovering the systemic forms of power's rationalizing desires. For those who came of age after the antiwar protests and the implosion of the New Left, after the already-mythic highwater of the prior decade's revolt, Foucault's dyspeptic certainty--that it had all gone wrong several hundred years earlier, when Enlightenment rationality had begun its so-clever repressive rule over the human spirit--was somehow comforting. It certainly took my generation off the hook. The late '70s was not a time for grand political stands. Or was it?
Who among us, in the American hipster badlands of the '70s, knew that the steely-eyed Michel Foucault, scourge of Kant and Mill, was at that very moment falling in love with the craggy visage of the grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, finding hope for us all in the transgressive fury of the Iranian revolution?
The philosopher went to Iran in fall 1978 to bear witness to a society in upheaval. There, like a hypercerebral John Reed, he took up the revolutionary cause. Foucault had found a rupture in the fabric of the Enlightenment project of rational domination, and he celebrated it. In their laser-like Foucault and the Iranian Revolution: Gender and the Seductions of Islamism, Janet Afary and Kevin B. Anderson tell all. They even include, in the back of their hardheaded account, translations--good ones--of Foucault's many commentaries on Iran, as well as contemporary rebuttals by those who knew better.
Bringing Foucault's ill-informed enthusiasm for the Iranian revolution to light is not just a matter of exorcising or excising a malign spirit from Foucault's corpus. In their brilliant unraveling of Foucault's Iranian moment, Afary and Anderson seek to guard us more generally from accepting what we do not know simply out of repugnance for what we do. Foucault, they show, fell for the oldest trick in the book: If we're bad, they must be good. The epigraph that opens Foucault and the Iranian Revolution, taken from the 1978 writings of an Iranian feminist critic of the French thinker, sets the stage for this charge: "The Western liberal Left needs to know that Islamic law can become a dead weight on societies hungering for change. The Left should not let itself be seduced by a cure that is perhaps worse than the disease." While few in the progressive vanguard today are cheering on the Iranian theocracy or al Qaeda political theorists, the advice is still appreciated and worth repeating regularly.
More tellingly, in exposing Foucault's Iranian enthusiasm, Afary and Anderson also want us to reconsider his overripe critique of Enlightenment rationality. Siding with Jurgen Habermas, they ask why Foucault was unable to address the "emancipatory impulses" of the Enlightenment, choosing instead to historicize only its repressive disciplining mechanisms. In answering this question, they remind us that Foucault was always more interested in self-liberation and creative exploration than in outlining a just political system or an equitable social organization. That's what made him such a '70s sort of philosopher.
Foucault fell for the ayatollah and his supporters because he dreamed of a non-instrumental form of politics, one driven not by policy but by spiritual hunger. In Iran, he believed he had found an answer to the tired polemics of the Left--namely, the "political spirituality" that moved the white-shrouded demonstrators to accept a martyr's death rather than back down from the enemy's guns. For Foucault, this was politics practiced through the prism of Artaud's theater of cruelty. Act One: The shah, dying of cancer, orders his troops to fire upon the rapturous, chanting crowds. Act Two: The demonstrators, trusting in the paradise promised them by their mullahs, return again and again to the bloody streets; with ritualistic precision, they dance before the guns, chanting Marg bar shah!--"Death to the shah!" Act Three: The shah flees the country and Khomeini returns from French exile (in an Air France jumbo jet); several million ecstatic Iranians turn out to greet the ayatollah as he makes his way by motorcade into Tehran (waving to the throngs from the backseat of a Chevy Blazer).
Afary and Anderson are much less taken by the drama. They censure the philosopher for failing to see how well the Iranian Islamists' critique of modernity rhymed with "similar political invocations by the Right in Europe four decades earlier." In scholarly tones, they explain how little Foucault had understood what he was seeing. What Foucault perceived as communal religious traditions deriving from the collective soul of the people in service to the political general will, Afary and Anderson examine as merely another iteration of the "invented traditions and identities around which imagined national or religious communities are formed"--in this case, the form had been deliberately crafted and manipulated by Khomeini and allied clerics, who by no means served the interests or desires of all Iranians. The shah, mourned by few, had an apt name for the Khomeini-ites: the Black Reaction.
Besides reminding us that Foucault had a free-floating affection for martyrs, driven, Afary and Anderson claim, by his psychologically suspect fascination with death, the authors also seek to understand what led Foucault to ignore some of the Islamists' less endearing beliefs--for instance, that homosexuals should be executed and that women should submit to men. Here we are reminded of Foucault's fascination with acts of sex between men that were not subsumed by the legal and social order of homosexuality. In Islamic societies, Foucault believed, male pleasure traditionally had been given opportunities and freedoms that did not exist in Europe. Foucault saw this sexual expression, and the homoeroticism and sexual adventures he had personally experienced in North Africa, as signs of traditional Islamic culture's superiority to that of the Christian West. He even seemed to believe during his phase of Iranian enthusiasm that Islam literally approved of sex between men. Tunisian sociologist Fathi Triki, who knew Foucault well, is quoted as telling the authors: "I believe that Foucault was very subjective and at the same time very naive ... French intellectuals are very exacting concerning specialized knowledge, except on Islam."
Foucault's lack of concern for women, an absence that marked his writing, played out in his cheerleading for the ayatollah as well. For him, the Iranian revolution was an expression of the "absolute collective will" of society as a whole, and he seemed blind to the rejection of the ayatollah's gender order by many Iranian women. This blindness did not go unnoticed in France. In a wonderfully snide article titled "What Are the Philosophers Dreaming About? Was Michel Foucault Mistaken About the Iranian Revolution?" two French journalists, Claudie and Jacques Broyelle, ripped into Foucault's apparent indifference to Iranian women's subjugation and demanded that he and other pro-Khomeini French intellectuals admit the moral indecency and political idiocy of their position. Foucault indignantly replied: "I am 'summoned to acknowledge my errors.' This expression and the practice it designates remind me of something and of many things against which I have fought. I will not lend myself, even 'through the press,' to a maneuver whose form and content I detest." It was a clever dodge, but Paris would have none of it.
In 1979, as the cruelty of the Iranian revolution became painfully clear, Foucault's reputation in France suffered. He moved on to other enthusiasms, more or less successfully, in the few years of life he had left. While never repudiating his support of the Islamist revolution, he ceased praising it.
Foucault's revolt against the "order of things" and his scholarly panegyrics against Enlightenment discipline seemed so uplifting at the tail end of the '70s, amid the hurly-burly of filthy city dreams. Today, I take my excellent morning coffee at the well-lit Cafe Lift and am studiously rereading William James.
David Farber is professor of history at Temple University, Philadelphia, specializing in twentieth-century American history. He is the author of Taken Hostage: The Iran Hostage Crisis and America's First Encounter with Radical Islam (Princeton University Press, 2005).