[iDC] on foucault and iran

Brian Holmes brian.holmes at wanadoo.fr
Thu Jan 19 09:04:06 EST 2006

Judith Rodenbeck wrote:
> Our recent discussions of theory/praxis touched on the example of Michel
> Foucault's engagement with the Iranian revolution. Under discussion was the
> problematic presented by Foucault's "theoretical" engaagement with the
> "actuality" of conditions in Iran at the time. Though a sidebar to the
> discussion on iDC, this review is nevertheless relevant to any discussion
> that takes up theory/praxis issues.
> http://www.postelservice.com/filling-void.pdf

The review and indeed the whole case are relevant, and I 
will certainly read the book that gathers together 
Foucault's articles, open letters etc. on the Iranian 
revolution. This was a turning point both in world history 
and in the micro-history of the radical left in France. My 
own research into Third Worldism in France has shown a 
tendency for thinkers whose deep, almost metaphysical 
critique of "the West" led them to distrust the entire 
construction of democracy and civil society, to look to the 
violence of cultural Others as a possible exit from a 
totalizing trap. Cornelius Castoriadis, though he defined 
himself as a revolutionary and attempted to critique the 
imaginary of the Western societies, was particularly 
critical of such totalizing critiques. Yet the extremism of 
some Third Worldist thinkers was also widely used by 
right-wing pundits to condemn every aspect of the 
anti-humanist cultural critique that had developed in the 
structuralism and post-structuralism of the 60s and 70s. So 
the whole complex of issues becomes rhetorically fraught, 
entangled in the battles of opposing political positions.

Considering the above, the extent to which Foucault can be 
accused of complicity with Iranian fundamentalism is to my 
mind still open to question, and I suspect one should 
carefuly read his texts and also try to gain a wider 
understanding of the Iranian revolution itself - the first 
of the wave of Islamic revolutions which has not stopped 
since then - before making any judgment. Interestingly 
enough, I have just finished reading Foucault's College de 
France courses of 1977-1979, which close on a precise, and 
in a sense, "structuralist" description of civil society (in 
Ferguson's concept of it) as the necessary pendant to a 
liberal economic order, and therefore, as something like a 
functional component of capitalism itself. This could be 
assimilated to the "typical" anti-humantist position. 
However, it's a very cool, distanced analysis, without any 
calls to go burning libraries or assassinating politicians 
or anything like that. The claims of the editors of 
Foucault's letters, as summarized in the review offered 
above, seem to me rather tendentious, and may in fact 
obscure some deeper and more difficult problems. Yet the 
point is not just to absolve Foucault because he has a 
seductive  style. While awaiting more careful study, one 
might at least read another review which throws a different 
light on the subject:


best to all, Brian

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