by Wu Ming 1
In October 1978, Michel Foucault (hereafter cited as MF) visited Iran. The country was already shaken by street protests against the Shah. The regime was brutally repressing demonstrations, with the only result of strengthening the people’s determination. The overthrow of Reza Pahlavi looked imminent, many felt that a revolution was around the corner, but nobody knew what revolution it would be. In those autumn days the rallying cries were few, focused and clear; all political movements and social classes converged into a single, urgent request: «Down with the Shah!». There were already some who demanded an “Islamic government”, but the Ayatollah Khomeini was still in exile in Paris, and the movement was manifold and “in fusion”.
MF got enthused by all the energy circulating in the social body, and wrote several articles for the Italian newspaper «Corriere della Sera». He had brilliant insights but was also the victim of his own “oversights”. Such oversights were partly intentional: MF declared himself unable to «write the history of the future», and never posed himself the problem of what regime would be born of the revolutionary event. He just felt the need to analyze the event itself as a historical fracture, the rupture of an order, the end of a political and social model. MF interpreted what he was seeing as an ongoing «strike against politics» entailing the rejection of any compromise, of any traditional pattern of negotiation. Where there is one and only purpose declared to all and sundry with crystal clarity («Down with the Shah!»), there can be no mediation. In the face of a whole society unanimously wishing to overthrow a tyrant, MF raised some questions about such collective will and the role played in it by political spirituality, a dimension that the West had long lost. Was it possible to reassert the problem of a relationship between the political and the spiritual? While asking this question, the philosopher wrote:
«I can already hear some Europeans laughing, but I, who know very little of Iran, I know they are wrong.»
[I preferred to quote the sentence as published in the «Corriere della sera» on October 22, 1978; a shorter version is often quoted as published on «Le Nouvel Observateur» on October 16, 1978, with no diminutio auctoris («I, who know very little etc.») and «the Frenchmen» (les français) replacing «some Europeans» (degli europei).]
Once back in France, MF continued to follow the unfolding of events. At last the Shah went into exile. From that moment, though, the revolutionary event began to «congeal», the theocratic component took over, multiplicity began to give way to Oneness and a new regime started to form. The unanimity of the single request changed sign when it was diverted to the plebiscite of April 1979, a referendum sanctioning that Iran should become an “Islamic republic”. The theocratic component was already persecuting the other revolutionary currents. Finally, yesterday’s “fusion” gave way to an ice age.
Although publicly urged by several people (feminists, human rights activists, left-wing Iranian exiles), for a while MF did not shift the focus of his analysis, and refused to confront the old/new problem of a Terror that was already becoming a Thermidor. He wanted to reflect on other issues, first and foremost on Islam as a carrier of a new relationship – a revolutionary one, it went without saying – between spirituality and politics. Thus, when he finally distanced himself from the regime’s crackdown on liberties, many judged his statements too timid, and too late. Since the spring of 1979 until his death in 1984, he never wrote on the subject again.
The period of MF’s enthusiasm for the Iranian revolution is the most notorious in his biography, and has attracted much criticism. Yet, in comparison with the way many European leftists described that event, always forcing it into pre-existing conceptual frameworks (Marxist-Leninist, anti-imperialist ones), MF’s “blunders” look almost negligible. In his articles (this should be noted: they were pieces written in the spur of the moment, not carefully reasoned essays), MF approached the Iranian revolution in its singularity, investigating its being different from any known revolutionary event.
For this reason, it isn’t really Iran that I’d like to discuss here: I’ve never been there, I am no expert of Shiite Islam, I have never dealt with Persian history. I’m interested in this story because there is a potential «Iran» everywhere, in the sense that every real event is singular. Whereas all false events and media pseudo-events resemble each other despite being described as unique (“unprecedented” is one of the most misused and overused words of our time), real events have in common the fact that they bear little resemblance to each other.
Maybe I will not say anything radically new: several commentators and scholars have addressed the concerns raised by MF’s coverage of those events. However, secondary literature on MF forms a quagmire, and a very few people have the time or willingness to go through it. Moreover, with a few notable exceptions, it is quite boring stuff,which is (as several pointed out) the opposite effect the works of MF can produce on the reader. Maybe a text of synthesis, written by a “profane” (an author of adventure novels!) outside the usual contexts can have some usefulness. Only at the end I will draw conclusions that go beyond the scope of «Foucauldian Studies».
In the last few years MF’s oversights have been amplified for polemical purposes at the expense of what he managed to grasp much earlier than everyone else. His Iranian “débacle” is usually presented as emblematic of the bankruptcy of engagés thinkers, of the ease with which 1970s left-wing intellectuals played with anti-Western and «Third-Worldist» fire. In the more right-wing version of this argument, what we have is real slander.
A few years ago, the right-wing newspaper «Il Giornale» wrote that «MF did not hesitate to acknowledge in Khomeini the marks of a prophet of freedom». This is false, as MF simply analyzed the figure of Khomeini as the «convergence point [point de rencontre] of collective will» and inquired into the reasons of this centrality.
Recently, the U.S. magazine Reason wrote that MF «[visited] the country twice under the Ayatollah». This is another falsehood, as Foucault never returned to Iran after the revolution.
Another recurring lie is that Foucault met with Khomeini, which never happened. FM saw the Ayatollah only from a distance and never exchanged a word with him.
On the other side, that of post-modernist and post-colonial criticism, MF’s approach is denounced as a Eurocentric and – paradoxically – “Orientalist” one. Such limitations allegedly caused his “blindness” in the face of abuse and liberticidal policies.
Let’s proceed in order. If MF falls into the category of «left-wing intellectuals», he does so only in a twisted, peculiar way. His being “on the left” bears little resemblance to anyone else’s «being on the left», and his political commitment was very different from that of Sartre, even if the causes they supported were mostly the same. Therefore, MF was not one of the mauvais maîtres [bad teachers]. He wasn’t a maître [master] at all: he wished not to be the master of anyone, he never set up cliques, never surrounded himself with followers like Lacan did. Indeed, on several occasions he admitted he felt lonely.
Loneliness was basically a side effect of his philosophical approach: according to him, knowledge was worth achieving only if it entailed putting in a crisis the one who achieved it, and critical thinking must first of all criticize itself.
MF constantly refused to provide people with any line of conduct and challenged the intellectuals’ pretension of taking a «prophetic stance»:
«It’s true that certain people [...] are not likely to find advice or instructions in my books to tell them “what is to be done” But my project is precisely to bring it about that they “no longer know what to do”, so that the acts, gestures, discourses that up until then had seemed to go without saying become problematic, difficult, dangerous…» (stated during a roundtable on prisons, May 1978, a few months before the trip to Iran).
If one can speak of MF’s “eurocentrism”, this has to do only with his fields of interest, not with “values”. His research was “eurocentric” in the literal sense, because it maintained a focus on European history, and this is really all we can say about this accusation. There is no book or speech in which MF does not reject – even with excessive ardour – all «anthropological universals». He always opposes to them «a systematic skepticism». Not that he considered it impossible to find trans-historical and cross-cultural invariants, nor did he consider it necessary to preclude analysis from finding a universal, but this must be done only in the ultimate instance: «One must admit nothing of this order if not strictly indispensable». What MF was interested in was the specificity of every practice, every speech, every event. His method dealt with history as a succession of fractures, of unexpected twists that are not always visible. One must find these discontinuities under the apparent continuity.
This approach is clearly present in MF’s articles on Iran: his constant concern was to understand the difference and discontinuity of that event. He wanted to trace the lines of a “discourse”. Specifically, the discourse of the Iranian revolution in its early stages. For this reason, he was wary of “big words” with a capital, majestic initial: what was important was neither the Orient nor Modernity. As we’ll see, not even the Revolution was important (MF uses the word with great circumspection, always surrounding it with distinctions). Not even the Event.
This is both the strength and the limit of Foucault’s thought. I’ll talk about this in a few minutes.
Let’s go back to MF’s reports from Tehran and other Iranian cities. Many insights have proved to be valuable in the following years.
I have already mentioned the relationship between spirituality and politics, a subject that the new century brought back in the world’s agenda.
One of the most interesting, counterintuitive passages occurs when MF describes the Shah’s claims to have “modernized” the country as the only true «archaism» in Iranian public life. That «modernization» was the uncritical import of a model, on the one hand following and mocking the West, on the other (mildly) attempting an “adaptation”, a false “localization” through huge amounts of orientalist kitsch coming from an already modernized elsewhere:
«There was a detail that struck me when I visited the bazaar, which had just reopened after more than a week of strikes. There were dozens and dozens of incredible sewing machines lined up in the stalls, big and elaborate the way nineteenth century newspaper advertisements show them. They were decorated with drawings of ivy, climbing plants, and flower buds, in crude imitation of old Persian miniatures. All of these out of service Westernisms wearing the signs of an out of date East also bore the inscription: “Made in South Korea”.»
MF also saw a new role of radical Islam looming at a global level. Here, as always, he was careful not to generalize: he did not speak of Islam as a single block, but looked for singularities. For example, he pointed out that it was Shiite Islam he was seeing in action, then specified that there were different views within the Shia clergy.
MF expressed the idea that there would be a revolutionary development inside Islam:
«[Now] every Muslim state can be revolutionized from the inside, starting from its centuries-old traditions.»
As we read this sentence, we should keep two things in mind:
- MF did not intend “revolutionized” in the sense of class struggle, but in the sense of an event that produces a fracture in history;
- moreover, such an “inside” is relative. In a globalized world it is impossible to clearly identify cultural boundaries, because we are all heirs of various traditions. Each tradition (in the strict sense, the practice of handing down of culture to those who come later) is multilinear and has many origins. We can speak of an “inside” only if the premise is that the borders are open. So when MF says, «starting from its secular traditions», the emphasis should be on «starting». It’s a departure, not an arrival. Even in this case MF thinks of a discontinuity of processes: the revolutionary development of Islam will meet with other, different reagents. In this context, MF asks himself whether radical Islam will appropriate the Palestinian cause:
«What would it be if this cause encompassed the dynamism of an Islamic movement, something much stronger than those with a Marxist-Leninist or Maoist character?»
Hamas will be founded only nine years later.
Tehran, June 2009. Exactly thirty years after the proclamation of the Islamic Republic, protests erupt against alleged electoral fraud in favor of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. A new movement takes to the streets, largely composed of young people (with the exception of the higher clergy, in Iran almost everything is largely composed of young people!). It’s the so-called “Green Movement”. Although the Western media – at least initially – describe them as pro-Western, liberal etc., those activists shout «God is great!» from the rooftops of Tehran, support Mir-Hossein Mousavi (former prime minister from 1981 to 1989) and take inspiration from the 1979 revolution in his «in-fusion» phase, when the input of spirituality in politics (and vice versa) opened up new possibilities rather than closing them.
Speaking of «other reagents», those activists use the Internet and the social networks. They make use of tools provided by the digital “revolution, and they do it their own way, infusing them with their practices.
In an article published on October 8 1978, MF metaphorically describes the relationship between the movement and the preachers of the Shiite clergy:
«These men of religion are like so many photographic plates on which the anger and aspirations of the community are marked. If they wanted to go against the current, they would lose this power, which essentially resides in the interplay of speaking and listening.»
That’s what happened thirty years later. By rejecting a subordinate role in the interplay of speaking and listening, the Green Movement undermined the clergy, which entered a new phase of divisions and internal conflicts. Observers close to the movement accused the “Supreme Leader” Alī Ḥoseynī Khāmeneī to seek his legitimacy “in the barracks rather than the mosques.” Once the interplay of speaking and listening is put into crisis, what remains is repression.
Now we’ve come to the point I want to make, starting from what I think is the true limit of Foucault’s approach. Intent as he was on seeking discontinuities, fractures, singularities, specific discourses, MF didn’t notice the return of an invariant. He ignored, under the layers of discontinuities, the forewarns of an “old”, recurrent problem I do not hesitate in defining “universal”.
Yes, all real events have in common the fact that they bear little resemblance to each other. But thermodynamics teaches us that energy dissipation is an irreversible process which leads to the undifferentiated state we call “thermodynamic equilibrium”. When a revolutionary event loses energy, this reduces its specificity. It begins to lose the differences that set it apart from the rest, the characteristics that separated it from the background. The Iranian revolutionary event was different, but when energy started to decrease, it encountered the same problems of all other revolutionary events, in a very quick precipitation from internal fighting through Terror to Thermidor. Once again, the falling back concerned equality, and women were the first revolutionaries to be sacrificed. In France, in the autumn of 1793, the Jacobin-led Convention decreed the dissolution of women’s revolutionary clubs. In 1979 Iran, the restriction of women’s freedom was one of the first concerns of the newly installed Khomeini regime. In the spring of 1979, in a matter of a few weeks, a hail of discriminatory laws struck Iranian women. In Tehran, on March 8, Hezbollah militants attacked a great demonstration of women protesting against the crackdown. The protesters shouted “No to dictatorship!”, “We made the revolution to be free” and “Freedom is neither Eastern nor Western: it is universal”. The attackers responded with stones and sticks.
The entropy of the revolutionary event unveils the famous “ultimate instance” in which the recourse to a universal is justified, and this universal is the idea of equality, the one which (with a hyperbole Foucault would not have liked) Alain Badiou calls the “Eternal Idea”. The failure of a revolution is always revealed by its collision against this idea, its not being up to this universal. A universal which, although often misunderstood, is understandable to everyone, because everyone can understand the implications of the motto: “Do not unto others what you would not want them do unto you”. It isn’t by chance that this motto exists in all cultures.
Revolutionaries are often forced to soil their hands and make tough choices, but if a revolution does not show the intention of fulfilling the above-quoted words, then it falls back to being nothing, it becomes a false event.
MF’s coverage of the Iranian revolution has much to say to us. This case shows that even an insightful, fruitful approach will not really address the real if it doesn’t confront the problem of universality. Which, to me, is like saying: the problem of communism.
Today, universality is rejected even in the ultimate instance, even when the recourse to it is unavoidable. The (initially right) discourse of “differences” and “singularities” has turned into the uncontrolled proliferation of new (national, ethnic, political, subcultural, sexual) identities. Looking for an experiential core that’s common to the entire human species – that is to say, ideas of equality and justice that apply to everyone – seems to be a forbidden task. Even on the left, any universalistic view is aprioristically considered totalitarian, as if that were still the danger, rather than the pernicious keep-your-gaze-low, everyone-in-their-place mentality surrounding us. For this is the meaning of “tolerance” nowadays: I’ll tolerate the others unless they invade my space. The “back off!” cry uttered by the tolerant may be slightly more polite than that yelled by the intolerant, but the content is “Back off!” all the same. Each one of us is required to stay in his/her own niche, with a minimal “discourse of human rights” to make sure (who knows until when) that tension does not degenerate into open, identity-against-identity warfare.
We must reassert the problem of universality while always keeping in mind singularities.
I conclude with the words of another philosopher. His life wasn’t up to the idea of equality (and this is the least we could say), but he gave us a beautiful image. In his Letter on “Humanism”, Martin Heidegger evokes a man’s sinking and emerging from his “adventure” “into the unthought” to find a world with its aura of ‘primordial mystery” restored.
Today, the universal is the “unthought” into which we have to re-emerge, and equality is the mystery we must evoke. Among other things, the lesson of such “good teachers” (reluctant teachers) as Michel Foucault will help us to do so.