Political Spirituality

I’ve been reading Foucault and the Iranian Revolution by Janet Afary and Kevin B. Anderson, and the picture it paints is not pretty.

As Afary and Anderson note, although Foucault’s particular fascination with the revolution is well known in France, the full range of his writing about it has never been translated into English. In fact, since much of that writing was originally published by the Italian daily Corriere della sera, and until now was not republished, the full extent of his thoughts has rarely been taken into account even by Foucault’s French readers. Foucault made two, week long trips to Iran in the fall of ’78. He interviewed a number of prominent political actors, wrote nearly a dozen brief journalistic essays, and gave a long interview defending his distinctive views of the revolution. His response, in short, was deeper and more enthusiastic than his more well known, contemporaneous support of Solidarity and of Vietnamese refugees. Yet, the three volume, English language collection of Foucault’s “essential works” (in fact, otherwise uncollected brief essays and interviews) includes only one of the Iran pieces—and the last and most qualified. As Afary and Anderson point out, since that essay came at the end of a prominent political dispute, in which Foucault’s critics on the Parisian left took him to task for his uncritical support of Khomeini and Islamic government, reading it in isolation has been a confusing experience.

Fortunately, Afary and Anderson redress that problem. Their volume reprints all Foucault’s Iran writings, as well as the criticisms leveled against them at the time by, among others, an anonymous Iranian feminist and the prestigious Marxist historian of the Middle East Maxime Rodinson. Those reprints are prefaced by a long, patient depiction of Foucault’s context and by a sustained effort to reconsider the relation between Foucault’s brief enthusiasm for the revolution and his work more generally.

Given the fact that admirers of Foucault in English pay little attention to this aspect of his career and that, until quite recently, some defenders doubted that Foucault was actually enthusiastic about Islamic revolution, this is certainly welcome attention. Unfortunately, so far, it doesn’t look like the book will become much of an event. It’s still quite new, but as of yet, so far as I can tell, there hasn’t been much buzz. In the course of a nearly hagiographic defense of Foucault (“the gentle apostle of radiant uncertainty”), Jonathan Rée gave it a long, eloquent, but I think glibly backhanded dismissal in The Nation. The key lines: “One could hardly have asked for more. One might have asked for less, however.”

According to Rée, in other words, Afary and Anderson are carried away by prosecutorial zeal and make far too much of a minor episode. Although they “have spent ten years working on their book,” he says, “it has not been a labor of love, and their summaries of Foucault’s achievements are consistently hostile and tendentious.”

I think that’s not right. Most basically, Afary and Anderson’s tone is moderate to a fault. They have nothing like the verve and style Rée shares with Foucault, but I suspect that’s deliberate. Their book turns down the flame as low as possible. Likewise, their judgments—though certainly arguable in some cases—are generally plausible and far from extreme. No daring leaps of the sort that Foucault himself practiced.

Their most contestable claim is simply that Foucault’s view of the revolution is integrally related to attitudes displayed consistently throughout his work—in particular to a one-sided hostility to the modernity of the west. (At one early stage in the revolution, Foucault worried that visions of Islamic government too closely resembled “the catchphrases of democracy–of bourgeois or revolutionary democracy. . . . We in the West have been repeating them to ourselves ever since the eighteenth century, and look where they have got us.”) Afary and Anderson believe that attitude blinded Foucault not just to the likely outcomes of Islamic government, but more particularly to the repression it promised women and homosexuals.

More specifically, Afary and Anderson construct an unfamiliar picture of Foucault as not just an anti-modernist, but as a defender of traditional societies. Rée leaps all over this, calling it “preposterous,” and I suspect he’s basically right. But it’s worth noting that, as Afary and Anderson emphasize, in all his major works, Foucault describes the ostensible improvements of modernizing reform as less appealing than what they displaced. That doesn’t seem controversial.

Likewise, Rée dismisses as misinterpretation A & A’s emphasis on the importance to Foucault of “limit experiences,” suggesting that such “notions . . . have no place in his work except as butts of his teasing paradoxes.” This is, I think, simply untrue. Not central perhaps, but there’s no doubt that Foucault spoke several times about limit experiences, and the case can be made, as for example in this essay by Gary Gutting (Project Muse) that they played a significant, though submerged role in his thinking over all.

It would be easy, in short, to overemphasize A & A’s minor stumbles or contestable claims (like their further argument that the last volumes of the History of Sexuality were significantly inflected by Foucault’s interest in the customs of homosexuality in Muslim societies) and to miss the central problem. In my view, the most striking, indisputable, and disturbing claim is simply that Foucault was fascinated by “political spirituality,” and that when his critics and friends pointed out to him its dangers, he was initially indifferent (state repression in Iran after the revolution appears to have changed his mind somewhat) because he was far more concerned about the evils of modernity and the arrogance of the west. At one point Foucault’s Gallimard editor Claude Mauriac worried about the dangers of combining “spirituality and politics”: “we have seen what that gave us.” Foucault’s response was simply to ask: “And politics without spirituality, my dear Claude?”

A & A have a plausible case that Foucault was fascinated by the revolution, not just because it was a challenge to repression or to American imperialism, but because, as he said, it was “an attempt to open a spiritual dimension in politics.” They likewise have a colorable claim that this interest depended on a significant blind spot in Foucault’s thinking and further that this blindness was part and parcel of his larger concerns about governmentality, subjectification, etc. Their book deserves to be taken seriously—though on the evidence of Rée alone I suspect strongly that they won’t be.

Update. For a better review than Rée’s, see Wesley Yang’s excellent
piece in the Boston Globe.

This article was first published on The Valve on September 15 and is republished here by permission.

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