He Had Seen the Future and it Worked

So Foucault went to Iran in 1979, to see what he could see.

While many liberals and leftists supported the populist uprising that pitted unarmed masses against one of the world’s best-armed regimes, none welcomed the announcement of the growing power of radical Islam with the portentous lyricism that Foucault brought to his brief, and never repeated, foray into journalism…Foucault’s Iranian adventure was a “tragic and farcical error” that fits into a long tradition of ill-informed French intellectuals spouting off about distant revolutions, says James Miller, whose 1993 biography “The Passion of Michel Foucault” contains one of the few previous English-language accounts of the episode. Indeed, Foucault’s search for an alternative that was absolutely other to liberal democracy seems peculiarly reckless in light of political Islam’s subsequent career, and makes for odd reading now as observers search for traditions in Islam that are compatible with liberal democracy.

Yeah. Odd – painful – embarrassing – cringe-making. It’s like watching a putative radical cheering Hitler’s election, or getting misty-eyed while watching ‘Triumph of the Will,’ or putting a lovingly-framed photo of Pol Pot on the wall.

Foucault was virtually alone among Western observers, Anderson and Afary argue, in embracing the specifically Islamist wing of the revolution. Indeed, Foucault pokes fun at the secular leftists who thought they could use the Islamists as a weapon for their own purposes; the Islamists alone, he believed, reflected the “perfectly unified collective will” of the people.

Oh, Christ. How fucking stupid can you get. Especially when you’re someone who’s famous for sniffing out the insidious, non-obvious forms of domination and power. ‘The perfectly unified collective will of the people’ – what the hell would that be? Unless they all happen to be pod people, there is no such thing! You’d think anyone with even the most rudimentary acquaintance with actual human beings, let alone a theorist of power, would be well aware of that. No – what there is is the perfectly unified collective will of some people, which is a terrific instrument for tyrannizing over the rest of the people. The more ‘perfectly unified’ i.e. passionately held, unquestioned and unquestionable, mindless, irrational, fervent it is, the more sharp and thorough an instrument it is. It’s something to be terrified of, not something to rejoice at. Especially – especially (did he miss it because it’s so god damn obvious?) – if the people with the perfectly unified enraged collective will are the stronger part of the people – to wit, the men – the adult men, the straight men, the majority-religion men. Along with the collective will thing, they have sticks and whips and fists.

The Iranian Revolution, Anderson and Afary write, appealed to certain of Foucault’s characteristic preoccupations — with the spontaneous eruption of resistance to established power, the exploration of the limits of rationality, and the creativity unleashed by people willing to risk death…In his articles, Foucault compared the Islamists to Savonarola, the Anabaptists, and Cromwell’s militant Puritans. The comparisons were intended to flatter.

Savonarola! And what did he think Savonarola would have thought of someone like him?! The limits of rationality, the creativity unleashed by people willing to risk death – oh, hell. He pretty much was getting misty-eyed at ‘Triumph of the Will’ then.

“We think of Foucault as this very cool, unsentimental thinker who would be immune to the revolutionary romanticism that has overtaken intellectuals who covered up Stalin’s atrocities or Mao’s…But in this case, he abandoned much of his critical perspective in his intoxication with what he saw in Iran. Here was a great philosopher of difference who looked around him in Iran and everywhere saw unanimity.”

Saw it, and cheered it on. Very clever. Well done.

Foucault, who died in 1984, refused to engage in public mea culpas, despite the fierce debate that broke out in France over his ideas about Iran…Anderson says that the debate over these 25- year-old writings has relevance when some leftists focus more energy on criticizing an administration they scorn than on speaking against a radical Islamist movement that also violates all their cherished ideals.

But, some people think Foucault’s view had some merit.

Other Foucault scholars also see an enduring value in his turn toward political spirituality. James Bernauer, a Jesuit priest who teaches philosophy at Boston College and has written several books on Foucault and theology, sees in the late Foucault’s embrace of spirituality a resource for thinking about how to integrate politics and religion…”Foucault had an ability to see this, to see past the pervasive secularism of French intellectual life, that was quite remarkable.

Ah, a Jesuit priest! Well in that case. No, I’ll stick with that pervasive secularism deal, thanks. The more pervasive the better.

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