The Charge of Orientalism

Outside the former US embassy in Tehran.

We live at a time of uprisings. Whether it is against autocratic regimes outside of Europe, or against the asset strippers of the IMF and World Bank within it, people around the globe are banding together in a collective drive towards revolt. At the same time, the hopes of millions in the Middle East for an end to tyranny are under threat.

This threat comes from the counter-revolutionary forces of the Egyptian military, from Bashar Al-Assad’s murderous regime, and from the West’s unrelenting desire to use its weapons to shape the fortunes of the Arab world to its advantage. Under these circumstances, with such a degree of uncertainty, and with the weight of past disappointments lying heavily on our ability to think another world many observers lapse into what Adam Curtis has termed ‘Oh Dearism‘; a posture of resignation when faced with a situation which defies the simplistic narrative of “good guys versus bad”.

Predictably the polarised spectacle of media “debate” leaves little room to take up a position in support of Arab self-determination. For some, to say one is in support of the uprising in Syria is tantamount to direct support for the most violent sections of Islamic fundamentalism. Conversely, for others, to openly question the constituents and motivations of the opposition or to talk of a sectarian element in the conflict is little more than an apology for the Assad regime or at least ignores the genuine revolutionary character of the uprising. To paraphrase Michel Foucault – whose writings on Iran provide the occasion for this piece – this is the risk and the interest in talking about the Middle East.

Undoubtedly there is a risk, particularly for those Western commentators who throw their weight behind an uprising and refuse to take the standard cynical position which Western voices predominantly show towards Arab aspirations. The risk is firstly that you will be associated with a bad outcome or at least an outcome that runs against your stated expectation; “look at what has happened! Did you want this? How could you have supported this rabble? You must recant!” Such accusations and demands were put, and posthumously are still being put to Michel Foucault over his support for the Iranian uprising of 1978-79.

I say “uprising” rather than support for “Khomeini’s revolution” as I hope it will be made clear over the course of this piece that it was the former which was always the subject of his journalism in those months. Janet Afary and Kevin B. Anderson’s 2005 book Foucault and the Iranian Revolution collected Foucault’s writing on Iran for the first time in English. The authors have also included their own lengthy essay attempting to demonstrate that Foucault’s “error” was the result not just of a misreading of the events but the symptom of a more general malaise in his work. Such is the risk of talking about the Middle East.

What will follow is a series of rebuttals to some of the author’s core claims about Foucault’s oeuvre and his approach to the Iranian Revolution, particularly that he viewed the uprising in an undifferentiated and orientalist fashion, a symptom they claim of his privileging of archaic social practices and flawed approach to modernity.

Foucault’s Pre-Modern Privileging

Foucault travelled to Iran on two occasions in late 1978 during which the anti-Shah movement was at its height. He was commissioned by the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, in which the majority of his writings on Iran were published, the last appearing in February 1979. It is important to note that in these articles Foucault was writing reports and not theory, and thus the attempt to analyse them as a continuation or emanation of his overtly theoretical texts is immediately problematic. This can also be said of some of Marx’s journalism, some of which (see The British Rule in India) have evoked accusations of excusing tyranny in favour of ‘world-historical development’.

Similarly, it is worth noting that Foucault was one of the few Western intellectuals who had taken such interest in Iran and was certainly the most prominent in writing on the subject at that time.  As such he was in many respects sticking his neck out. Nevertheless, it still takes considerable misreading of Foucault’s reports on Iran to justify the accusation of orientalism that Afary and Anderson then project onto the rest of his work.

Their main argument is that in criticising the grand narratives of progress and enlightenment in Western history Foucault reconstructs his own meta-narrative about an idyllic pre-modern past corrupted by technological rationality. This “new” meta-narrative reveals itself in Foucault’s genealogical studies (and his Iranian reports) which “stage a binary construct wherein traditional social orders were privileged over modern ones”. Hence for the authors, Foucault’s support or at least blind spot regarding the reactionary religiosity of the Khomeini movement was the correlate to his dismissal of the foreign-backed modernisation program Iran had undergone under the Shah.

In addition to this notion of an idyllic pre-modern past, they attribute to Foucault an analogous view of the East as an exotic counter-discourse to the rationality of the West. Curiously they argue that Foucault’s orientalism is structured temporally according to the opposition modern/pre-modern rather than the geographical East/West, and this despite quoting a passage from the preface to Madness and Civilization which they admit demonstrates Foucault’s opposition to viewing the East as an “other” along any kind of binary axis.

Additional examples used to verify this claim are equally unconvincing. In one they latch onto a short passage where Foucault citing practices from ancient Greece and Rome states he is in favour of developing silence as a cultural ethos. The authors read into this the French philosopher’s support for pre-modern hierarchical and paternalistic relationships that subordinate women and children. He fails to criticise the power-relation at work since he privileges these archaic practices over modern “callous forms of individualism”.

While it is indisputable that such hierarchical relationships existed it is a simplistic leap of reasoning to assume that Foucault was unaware of this, or that in supporting practices involving silence he was passing a general endorsement of those social arrangements. In fact, his examination of the use of silence was part of a series of studies on “technologies of the self” which were wide-ranging and sophisticated. The authors also seem to forget that the principle that children “should be seen and not heard” was practised in various institutions (especially educational) as recently as the mid 20thcentury and beyond. It is thus something of a stretch to consider regimes of silence as primarily pre-modern. The encomium to silence was in fact equally to do with practices of listening and learning that Foucault examined in the writing of Epictetus, Plutarch, and Seneca.

The core of Afary and Anderson argument is that through his critique of modernity Foucault comes to privilege archaic practices (in particular from antiquity) and it is this privileging, combined with what they take as his superficial and orientalist view of Iranian culture, that leads him to show uncritical support for Khomeini. Another important instance of this is their claim that Foucault’s interest in the ritualistic and self-effacing nature of some of the Iranian protests derives directly from his supposed preference for early Christian forms of confession and penitence. Here is an example from his reports they draw attention to from the article titled The Revolt of Iran Spreads on Cassette Tapes published in Corriere della Sera on 19 November 1978:

“On December 2, the Muharram celebrations will begin. The death of Imam Hussein will be celebrated. It is the great ritual of penitence. (Not long ago, one could still see marchers flagellating themselves.) But the feeling of sinfulness that could remind us of Christianity is indissolubly linked to the exaltation of martyrdom for a just cause. It is a time when the crowds are ready to advance towards death in the intoxication of sacrifice. During these days, the Shi’ite people become enamoured with extremes.”

For the authors, the French philosopher is “mesmerised” by such public displays and this fascination for both Islamic and Christian passion plays and rituals is troubling since it ignores how fascistic regimes have often deployed the rhetoric of martyrdom and self-sacrifice to bolster their ideology and further their ends. At a broad level, this is undoubtedly true, although one might point to common instances of liberal regimes using a similar rhetoric of self-sacrifice in public discourse especially around issues of the military.

However to really understand Foucault’s interest in these practices and why he thought their prominence was key to the possibility of a rupture in Iranian society during the revolution, it’s necessary to look at them from the perspective of a person’s autonomy and their relation to self and other.

This article was originally published at Askesis. It is adapted with permission of the author. Photograph courtesy of Örlygur Hnefill. Published under a Creative Commons license.