Foucault on Iran, Some Fool on Egypt

But perhaps its historic importance will not hinge on its conformity to a recognized ‘revolutionary’ model. Rather, it will owe its importance to the potential that it will have to overturn the existing political situation in the Middle East and thus the global strategic equilibrium. Its singularity, which has constituted up until this point its force, consequently threatens to create its power of expansion. Indeed, it is correct to say that, as an ‘Islamic’ movement, it can set the entire region afire, overturn the most unstable regimes, and disturb the most solid. Islam — which is not simply a religion, but an entire way of life, an adherence to a history and a civilization — has a good chance to become a gigantic powder keg, at the level of hundreds of millions of men.”

Michel Foucault
“A Powder-Keg Called Islam,” February 1979

To think Michel Foucault a fool because of particular supposedly foolish political statements – ones at any rate less prescient than the above regarding Iran and the future of Islamism – seems deeply foolish to me. As for myself, to be “thought a fool” like Foucault or even merely like a certain Mr. Falk (not Peter) would be, let’s be honest and open about it, a major step up.

In my umpteen-hundredth explanation as to why seemingly my sole critic in the universe other than myself, commenter Miguel Cervantes, gets me wrong, I left out the most important point: My unimportance. Does, could, or would whether I supported or support the “liberal revolution” in Egypt, or would whatever I think about it today heading into tomorrow, or would whatever I am now or someday thought to think or to have thought about it, matter to anyone, and, if so, how at all – especially given my already openly admitted lack of qualifications in regard to and actual distance from events in Egypt?

So, once again: Not only is what I was, am, or will be “for” or may be thought to have been for in Egypt quite immaterial to me – since whether I’m right or wrong will have vanishingly small effect on my life – but it is even immaterialer because whether I’m right or wrong or come out in favor of this, that, or the other faction is even less than that-barely-thinkably-significantly significant for Egypt, for any known Egyptian, or even for any known human being with influence on policy toward Egypt. To re-formulate my thesis: To be “thought a fool” on Egypt would for me be an incredible step up, since it would imply that some substantial set of someones somewhere beyond a few readers was thinking about me at all, taking me seriously enough to care to judge the relative wisdom or foolishness of whatever political position or expectations they happened to be attributing to me (quite possibly wrongly).

I await with less than fervent anticipation the proof of my unsuspected larger political significance. Until such time, I’ll have to rest on some I think difficult to disprove brutal approximations:

  1. I don’t matter to Egypt, or to U.S. policy on Egypt, or to thought in general on Islam and liberalism.
  2. I am unknown to politicians, imams, priests, philosophers, diplomats, and, of course, to citizens generally in Egypt, America, or anywhere.
  3. There is no becoming-known-ness in prospect for me. It’s a daily struggle for me to convince myself that I might in some way come to matter even to me.

Maybe my posts are encrypted and transmitted by secret channels to the super-secret CIA station in Alexandria where they also plot the destruction of the trees of Heliopolis. Even then, so what? Though I am sorry about and for the trees, this is the first I’ve heard about them.

Regarding the somewhat slightly higher than my profile possible foolishness of Foucault on Iran, how do we understand its import? How do we understand the import of what any thinker, theorist, philosopher, or nobody-blogger thinks or theorizes or philosophizes or blogs? I don’t have time to today to construct my theory of the meaning of theory, but I can say for now that one advantage this situation of at most incredibly infinitesimal practical-political or even cultural-intellectual influence gives me may be that it advantages me in no way to think one thing or the other. I am not “interested” in any substantial way and I perceive myself as being in no danger of becoming substantially “interesting.” The only matters for me at all, what might matter to to me or to which I might matter, are my thinking on the particular subject and what in the subject might matter to my thought.

On that level, Foucault’s supposed foolishness is interesting to me, but calling his foolishness foolish is also a merely political, highly interested judgment. It’s not clear where Foucault’s famous supposed foolishness came to matter to anyone anywhere very much either, but the division in Foucault’s thinking – general prescience, short-term deformations – had a familiar form and perhaps instructive form.

I found the quote with which I began in a good summary of the Foucault controversy published in New Politics in 2004: “Revisiting Foucault and the Iranian Revolution.” My own reading is that Foucault got quite a bit right on the things he was qualified to get right, specifically on the importance, uniqueness, and general course of the Iranian revolution in broad historical terms, and he got them more right than did many in particular on the French and Iranian left who very much wanted to believe something different.

In other regards he was overly-optimistic from a view on personal freedom and especially on the lives of women, more generally on the concrete expression of the Islamic revolution within Iranian culture in the secular short term. He was wrong on the costs of history, that cruel judge always on the verge of impeachment. Foucault, we tend to suspect, was possibly overly influenced by his personal contacts with the Islamists especially before the revolution – in short by the stimulation of his ego and perhaps of his professional ambitions.

Much more can be said about the history of the infatuations of philosophical men, though no one knows what goes on behind closed intellectual doors. (Let’s just say that Foucault was hardly the first  to have fallen for a pretty face:

) Foucault’s love affair with the Ayatollah, if that’s what it was, may have caused heartache to others perhaps more justly deserving of Foucault’s attentions, and it condemned Foucault’s friends and followers to years of divagationary throat-clearing. Beyond that – hard to see how it actually mattered to the real victims or the real beneficiaries of the Islamic Revolution. How it might matter to “us” is a philosophical question we are always still getting to.

5 comments on “Foucault on Iran, Some Fool on Egypt

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  1. Oh, gosh, I feel flattered, the revolution set back the state of human rights in the region back to the era of Tammiyah, 800 hundred years back, it had a similar effect in the Grand Mosque (Haramain) siege in the Sunni world, which in time gave us Al Queda and the Taliban, in the course of time, it would claim Sadat’s life,

  2. I think you once criticized me for taking shelter behind the idea of being unimportant. But it’s okay. That aside, I agree with what you’ve written here and in your next post about belief and that is of course, what really matters to you deep down–my approval I mean.

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