Foucault and the Iranian Revolution: Gender and the Seductions of Islamism is not exactly a title you would expect to encounter at NRO. Indeed, I would never have heard of this book at all if a left-wing friend of mine had not generously given it to me.
Actually he did more than give it to me: He pressed it on me. I expressed skepticism: I’ve read enough on Michel Foucault already, thanks. More than enough, really. “No,” my friend said, “You have to trust me on this. It’s worth it.”
And it was!
In the late 1970s, the French philosopher Michel Foucault succumbed to a bizarre infatuation with the Iranian Islamic revolution. In this, it might be said, Foucault was merely following tradition: French philosophers have a long and ugly history of apologetic for tyranny, from Voltaire’s enthusiasm for Frederick the Great up through the craze for Maoism that swept Paris in the 1960s.
But of all the absurd infatuations ever to sweep literary Paris, none has ever matched the absolute incongruity of Michel Foucault’s enthusiasm for the Iranian Islamic revolution of 1979. Foucault, a man utterly devoid of religious feeling, a homosexual who reveled in the brutalities of San Francisco’s sado-masochistic bar scene, decided in 1978 that the Khomeini revolution offered mankind’s best hope for personal liberation.
How could Foucault – for all his absurdities, obviously no idiot – have talked himself into believing anything so manifestly absurd?
That is the question that coauthors Janet Afary and Kevin Anderson set out to answer.
Foucault perceptively perceived that communism was fading as a challenger to the western liberal order he despised. Perceptively (indeed presciently), he decided that radical Islam offered the only effective challenge to western liberalism. He welcomed this challenge and published more than a dozen essays celebrating the Iranian revolution, most of which have never been translated out of French. Afary and Anderson have translated them all, gathering them as an appendix to the book. They make for very embarrassing reading.
But as Afary and Anderson point out, this embarrassment is no mere misjudgment. The mistake Foucault made about Khomeini is integral to Foucault’s own thinking – and calls into question much about Foucault’s own work.
Through his life, Foucault was fascinated by extreme experiences, experiences of torture, flagellation, mutilation and death. These experiences were central to Foucault’s own erotic life, as James Miller details in his lurid biography (Not recommended for children!) The spectacle of Shiite worshippers whipping themselves into religious frenzy on Ashura – or seeking death and martyrdom in hypnotic mass demonstrations – exquisitely appealed to Foucault, as blood, spittle, and delirium always did.
In 1966-67, Foucault had taught for a year at the University of Tunisia. He had benefited from the easygoing attitude toward homosexuality then prevailing in North Africa. Thereafter, he had often chosen much younger North African men as companions and lovers. He seems to have assumed without much further inquiry that Islam the religion and code of law accepted and tolerated homosexuality.
Foucault got that wrong of course. But it took him a long time to accept his error. Even after the Khomeinites began putting homosexuals to death, Foucault insisted that the sentenced men had been punished not for their sexual orientation, but for support of the shah, with homosexuality as a convenient excuse. (He may in fact have been right about this latter point – but it’s an odd defense to come from a man like Foucault: “Homosexuality was not the reason for murder. It was the pretext for murder. See – nothing to worry about!”)
Afary and Anderson assign a deeper cause to Foucault’s persistent misreading of the Khomeini revolution: His deep disdain for women. The Khomeinites never concealed their determination to shroud and subordinate women. This intention did not bother Foucault. In all his many writings denouncing the evils of post-Enlightenment society, the status of women was one theme that had never much interested him. Indeed, as Afary and Anderson point out, at the moment of his deepest engagement with the Iranian revolution, Foucault was at work upon the books he regarded as his masterwork, his History of Sexuality – a history that treats the emancipation of women in the later Graeco-Roman period as a catastrophe that put an end to the happy classical period when reproductive sex was regarded as an unpleasant duty, with pleasure to be sought between men and boys.
For Foucault, sexual pleasure was intimately bound to rituals of domination and outright acts of brutality. The Judaeo-Christian attempt to separate sex from cruelty was the poisoned apple in his Garden of Eden. He recognized that the Graeco-Roman world had departed forever. But some part of him seems to have hoped that the Islamic revolution might offer a return.
Till now, most students of Foucault have treated the Maitre’s yearnings as an odd, embarrassing, but ultimately trivial derogation from his great contributions to modern thought. Afary and Anderson have restored them to the place that Foucault himself believed they occupied: the very center.
They have written more on this subject than most of us will probably wish to read. But as for me … well, I’m glad I trusted my friend.