Scholars and theorists thrashing about in the waters of postmodernism sooner or later encounter a bizarre and stupefying fact: Michel Foucault had a thing for the Islamic revolution, had, in fact, a rather unnatural affection for it. To what can we attribute this shattering aporia?
David Frum, in a brief blog review of a recent scholarly interrogation of this theme, Foucaut and the Iranian Revolution: Gender and the Seductions of Islamism, writes:
...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?
Sketching the lineaments of the book's argument, or, perhaps, what he might like the argument to be, Frum adduces three reasons. First:
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.
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.
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. (snip) 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.
Ahem. Frum's reading has that eerie feel of deja vu about it, a sense that this is a standard critique of lefties and postmodernists, now dragged out to do duty against an easy target. And indeed, an Amazon reviewer makes a related argument:
The third element, which frames the book, is an extended argument that in Foucault's reading of the Iranian revolution his own larger philosophical perspective is revealed. This element, which I do have expertise in, is comically bad. (snip) For instance, the authors insist that he saw ancient Greek sexual life as superior to ours, which Foucault explicitly denies. Second, they engage in egregious misinterpretation. For example, they read Foucault's book on the prisons as a plea for earlier forms of punishment. The first few pages of the prison book, detailing the excruciating torture of an attempted regicide, should be enough to convince anyone of the paucity of that interpretation.
Foucault, that reviewer argues, is misread by the authors of the volume; an explanation for his "misreading" of the Islamic revolution will have to await another work. This, however, is not to state that there is no substance whatsoever to that conservative trope. But is it applicable to Foucault? Does it matter? If the authors' interpretation is egregiously flawed, then none of this is of any consequence; but if their interpretation even approximates Foucault's rationale for the embrace of the Ayatollah, it might well illuminate something about the further reaches of the left.