The Treason of the Clerics
The whole of Foucault's Iranian journalism--a total of fifteen articles and interviews--was republished in France in 1994 as part of a four-volume anthology of his occasional writings. Ever since then, French critics have made the most of his "error" over Islamism, and some of them sought to implicate him in the attacks on Washington and New York in 2001. In the English-speaking world, however, the Iranian writings have hitherto been ignored; but the anomaly is now being put right with some authority by Janet Afary and Kevin B. Anderson. In Foucault and the Iranian Revolution, they tell the full story of Foucault's sudden induction into the journalist's trade and his contacts with exiles in Paris and rebels in Iran, concluding with an appendix of 100 pages comprising translations of Foucault's articles, together with some of the reactions they provoked, copiously annotated and explained. (The translations are sound, though I have amended some of them here.) One could hardly have asked for more.
One might have asked for less, however. Although Afary and Anderson have spent ten years working on their book, it has not been a labor of love, and their summaries of Foucault's achievements are consistently hostile and tendentious. Noting that he was skeptical about self-congratulatory Western narratives of progress and modernization, they make the preposterous assertion that "Foucault privileged premodern social relations over modern ones." Turning to sexuality, they quote his Japanese lecture about the Freudo-Marxist epic of sexual liberation but interpret it as a solemn declaration of faith rather than an exercise in delicate satire, thus demonstrating not only a spectacular impermeability to irony but also an inability to turn the page and read Foucault's reminder that the story was, in his opinion, "misleading and untenable, for hundreds of reasons." After that it is no surprise that they misunderstand Foucault's histories of asylums, hospitals and schools, which, pace Afary and Anderson, were not celebrations of the self-affirming inner subjectivity of the oppressed but arguments for seeing subjectivity as a complex byproduct of systems of discipline. Finally, they seek to give philosophical depth to their indictment by suggesting that Foucault was influenced by Heidegger's notion of "being towards death," which may be true for all I know, though Foucault could have told them that Heidegger was trying to explain the difference between our sense of the future and our sense of the past, rather than advocating some reckless dicing with "limit situations."
Having constructed an imaginary Foucault intoxicated by "authenticity," "creativity" and "living dangerously"--notions that have no place in his work except as butts of his teasing paradoxes--Afary and Anderson offer their readers the astonishing assurance that "Foucault's concept of authenticity meant looking at situations where people lived dangerously and flirted with death, the site where creativity originated." And having transformed the gentle apostle of radiant uncertainty into a philosophical version of Charles Manson, they credit him with an "uncritical enthusiasm for the Islamist movement of Iran." Foucault's quizzical mixture of excitement and disappointment over Iran, together with his perceptive remarks about corruption as a political issue and the recrudescence of political spirituality in the Muslim world, are passed over in silence as Afary and Anderson condemn him for an "uncritical embrace" of Islamism and try to explain it in terms of a kinky fascination with "limit experiences," "new forms of creativity" and even (yes, they are serious) the "transgressive powers" of Ayatollah Khomeini.
Noting that Foucault sometimes described the Iranian rebellion as "irreducible," Afary and Anderson suggest that the French word irréductible had a peculiar significance for him, conveying a blanket justification for every form of "opposition to Western modernity." But there is no great mystery about the word: Go into any French nursery and you will find that Astérix and the other valiant Gauls in the classic children's books are known as irréductibles Gaulois on account of their refusal to obey the well-established laws of history and bow to the might of the Roman empire. Whatever else you may think about them, the Iranian revolutionaries were as irreducible as Astérix, Obélix and Panoramix; and so too was the philosophical historian who did his best to listen to what they had to say.
On the one occasion that I met Foucault, in his immaculate white apartment in Paris in 1976, he expressed uneasiness about his works being translated into English. They were all written, he said, in opposition to the know-it-all leftism of the Communist Party, and without that framework, there was no telling what effect they might have. I tried to reassure him as I gulped at my big tumbler of whiskey, while he leaned back and smiled and sipped his mineral water. All these years later, Afary and Anderson seem to have proved him right: His skeptical radicalism is not easily transplanted. I am reminded that Foucault had a serene way of rising above captious criticisms: He would simply invoke the most elementary axiom of political existence, not to mention Some Like It Hot: "Nothing's perfect."