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Foucault and the Iranian Revolution

Interroger l'actualité avec Michel Foucault: Téhéran 1978 / Paris 2015
It is far from Tehran 1978 to Paris, Copenhagen or Oslo 2018, but with Foucault's help we may be able to understand a little more of the religious language of the Iranian revolution.


In September 1978, Michel Foucault flew to Tehran to cover the uprising against Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi for the Italian daily Corriere della Sera. At that time, the uprising against the shah was in its most dramatic phase. From August to December, extensive strikes and millions of demonstrations paralyzed the country, and in January 1979, the Shah fled from Iran. A more than 18 month long course of demonstrations, confrontations with the Shah's police, general strikes and numerous political meetings was thus over. In February, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini then returned to the country. Khomeini was the leader of the militant Islamic part of the resistance to the Shah and his regime, a resistance that also included secular nationalists and leftists. The outcome of the revolution is well known: Khomeini quickly took power and soon transformed Iran into a theocratic Islamic dictatorship.

From the outset, Foucault's reports from Iran were the object of polemics. His analyzes, when they were published, were seen as supporting not only an Islamic revolution but also the priesthood that resulted from the revolution. After 9/11 and the war on terror, Foucault's dedicated reports on the Iranian people's uprising have not become less contentious. In a Western political public that almost unequivocally tends to identify Islam with terror, Foucault's enthusiasm for the overthrow of the Western-backed Shah appears almost incomprehensible. It is in the context of this specific historical economic cycle – where Western neo-imperialism is staged as the "clash of civilizations" or "the export of democracy" and where terrorist attacks in Western cities are understood as attacks on "our values" and "our way of life" – that the French philosophers Alain Brossat and Alain Naze return to Foucault's analysis of the Iranian revolution. The honor of their book is to use Foucault's journalistic reports as a starting point for a study of politics today. And on the contrary, using the current business cycle to understand Foucault's analysis in 1978.

Western politics = mass manipulation?

Brossat and Naze move back and forth between Foucault in Iran in 1978 and France today, recording a historical course of withdrawal of the political in the West. They describe it as an erosion of political strife, such as the disappearance of the "class struggle", in whose void the political becomes spectacle, staged politics, spin, and ultimately demagogic post-fascism (Berlusconi, Sarkozy, Trump et cetera). With reference to the Enlightenment, the West is bragging about its (national) democracy and understands itself as a post-metaphysical, secular political governance, but in reality, politics in the West has degenerated into what, according to Brossat and Naze, can only call mass manipulation, where it is about alternately scaring and inciting or passivating the population. Since 9/11, referring to Islam as a looming backward religion incompatible with the enlightenment, individualism and freedom of the Western world. It is this cancellation of the political, where historical struggles are most resumed in culture and never played out politically, which is the starting point for both Foucault's reports from Iran as well as for Brossat and Nazi's actualization of the reports today.

For in the revolt against the Shah, Foucault sees something other than the slow resolution of the political struggles of history, and it is not a fanatical mass dedicated to submission and barbaric violence he sees, which is otherwise the dominant representation of the Iranian revolution and political Islam in the West. Today. No, quite contrary to the dominant Western view, according to Foucault, the Iranian uprising was characterized by the emergence of a liberating political force. And not only that: This force in Iran in 1978 was nourished by religious beliefs, by Islam, according to Foucault. He calls this force or dimension "political spirituality". It is a spirituality that has to do with the belief that it is possible to create another world in this world. A belief that has disappeared in the West, Foucault writes. This is what we know as "the end of history" or "capitalist realism" and which Brossat and Naze describe as the disappearance of the class struggle. In the West, we have lost the ability to imagine another way of life. We are trapped, bombarded by images and representations that at the same time offer us a quick identity fix and empty ourselves of any form of sociality. We live in an already erected architecture that prevents us from imagining another world. In Iran, Foucault believes that there is an opening that can give us access to a better world in this world.

A critical outreach analysis

As Brossat and Naze write, Foucault's trips to Iran offer us an interesting model for interventionist contemporary analysis, where philosophy and journalism are transcended in a critical outreach analysis that does not content itself with reproducing already sanctioned knowledge, but opens up for a radical rethinking of basic categories such as the political and religion.

There is another policy Foucault sees in Tehran, a programless policy that breaks with the West's revolutionary model.

Foucault seeks to understand the Iranian uprising as a genuine political event and is intrigued by the special power he sees in demonstrations and meetings where the separation of politics, religion and everyday life dissolves in favor of the establishment of another space, a heterotopia where society is no longer able to reproduce, but suddenly becomes a new political-aesthetic work to be created by a people of resistance. "The Shah must be gone," it sounds again and again. In the uprising there is a rupture where a new collective political subject arises who rejects the Shah's rule.

Brossat and Naze point out that Foucault is interested in the rejection of what we, with the Comité invisible, can call the "destructive moment of the uprising", which opens up an intact room for opportunity. Inspired by his reading of the German Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch, Foucault understands the Iranian revolution as an uprising in which a deposition occurs: the Shah is deposed and his Western-backed modernization project is thrown aside. Not in favor of the anti-imperialism of the period, but in favor of something else, a new position that Foucault is thus trying to describe as political spirituality. The revolutionary rupture is characterized here by a kind of inherent dynamism that cannot be traced back to socio-historical or economic conditions, nor can it be understood as a program to be realized and lead to the creation of a new society, a new constitution. The event is characterized by a dissolving force that shakes all the confidences and displaces transmitted notions of revolution as the establishment of a new state.

Another policy

It is another policy Foucault sees in Tehran, a programless policy that breaks with the Western revolutionary model of the American, French and Russian revolution, where the uprising or revolt continues as a revolution that always ends with the re-establishment of politics as a new state. In Iran in September and November 1978, there is a revolt Foucault experiences where the historical time is suspended and a symbolic space opens up where the Iranian people gather and reject: "The Shah is going away." And Islam is the language of the revolt, Islam offers a vocabulary with which the mass can gather in opposition to the regime. When the army shoots hundreds of protesters, the funeral turns into a political-religious event that further accelerates the uprising. Revolt and religion merge into revolutionary rejection.

There is far from Tehran 1978 to Paris, Copenhagen or Oslo 2018, but if we want to avoid ending up as a counter-revolutionary backdrop whose historical contribution is a fascist defense of an already hollowed-out welfare society, it is necessary to try to understand the religious language attribute that it Iranian Revolution dressed. To take the trip with Foucault and make a connection to the revolutionary masses in North Africa, the Middle East and Persia. They are again showing the way and have been up and running since 2011.

Mikkel Bolt
Mikkel Bolt
Professor of political aesthetics at the University of Copenhagen.

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