June 18, 2006


The philosopher and the ayatollah: In 1978, Michel Foucault went to Iran as a novice journalist to report on the unfolding revolution. His dispatches — now fully available in translation — shed some light on the illusions of intellectuals in our own time (Wesley Yang, June 12, 2005, Boston Globe)

"IT IS PERHAPS the first great insurrection against global systems, the form of revolt that is the most modern and most insane." With these words, the French philosopher Michel Foucault hailed the rising tide that would sweep Iran's modernizing despot, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi Shah, out of power in January 1979 and install in his place one of the world's most illiberal regimes, the Shi'ite government headed by Ayatollah Seyyed Ruhollah Khomeini.

Foucault wasn't just pontificating from an armchair in Paris. In the fall of 1978, as the shah's government tottered, he made two trips to Iran as a "mere novice" reporter, as he put it, to watch events unfold. "We have to be there at the birth of ideas," he explained in an interview with an Iranian journalist, "the bursting outward of their force; not in books expressing them, but in events manifesting this force, in struggle carried on around ideas, for or against them."

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.

"As an Islamic movement it can set the entire region afire, overturn the most unstable regimes, and disturb the most solid," Foucault wrote enthusiastically. "Islam — which is not simply a religion, but an entire way of life, an adherence to a history and a civilization — has a good chance to become a gigantic powder keg, at the level of hundreds of millions of men." [...]

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. [...]

When Foucault went to Tehran, he was France's dominant public intellectual, famous for a critique of modernity carried out through unsparing dissections of modern institutions that reversed the conventional wisdom about prisons, madness, and sexuality. In his most famous work, "Discipline and Punish," Foucault argued that liberal democracy was in fact a "disciplinary society" that punished with less physical severity in order to punish with greater efficiency. More broadly, his counternarrative of the Enlightenment suggested that the modern institutions we imagined were freeing us were in fact enslaving us in insidious ways.

In the fall of 1978, an escalating series of street protests and violent reprisals and massacres by the Iranian police had placed the shah and the Iranian populace on a collision course. The uprising consisted of a broad coalition, including Communists, student leftists, secular nationalists, socialists, and Islamists. But by late 1978, the Islamists — directed by Khomeini from Paris, long a center for Iranian exiles — were the dominant faction. The shah abdicated in January 1979, and Khomeini returned to rapturous rejoicing on Feb. 1, 1979.

The mistake here is the notion that Foucault didn't understand how totalitarian Khomeinism was.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 18, 2006 8:58 AM

self-hating, European homosexuals have always been entranced by oriental despotism.

Posted by: Tom C.,Stamford,Ct. at June 18, 2006 9:21 AM

and vice versa

Posted by: oj at June 18, 2006 9:26 AM