My attention has been drawn to a new book about Foucault in Iran. I would like to say a couple of things about this topic, partly because I suspect that this episode in Foucault’s career will be pressed into the service of certain current arguments. In fact, I suspect the existence of those arguments ‘authorised’ the commissioning of the book – ‘topicality’ is a familiar imprimatur. The ‘topicality’ in question would be something like ‘Western left intellectuals being naïve about Islam and, motivated by opposition to the West, seduced by an Other they almost totally misunderstand.’ I’m guessing, of course. (see this article, btw)
So, just two small points. It would certainly be foolish to try and represent Foucault as some sort of typical ‘left intellectual’, as occupying that polemically convenient place. To assign him to this place runs directly against the unpredictable, contradictory lines of his thinking and action. Pro-Iranian revolution, yes; reportedly also pro-Israeli, scornfully dismissive of Marxism; who, if he found the ‘political spirituality’ of the Iranian revolt intuitively fascinating also loved and perhaps found neon fragments of utopia in the vast highways and the bars of California.
Secondly, to find the future in the past. Not the immediate past, which typically appears only as the pre-history of the present, but a past so different, so unfamiliar, that it confronts and questions the assumptions of the present and so clears a space for a possible future. Or, indeed, a past which offers us figures, sketches of such a future. So, for example, the sexual practices of ancient Greece – were these not, for Foucault, partly a way of thinking his way outside modern notions of ‘sexuality’ and the historically ingrained ‘regime’ supporting them. And didn’t Foucault discover also in the Greeks an idea of ‘self-fashioning’, of life as art, which dissolved some of the Present’s cherished categories and, at the same time, pointed towards or opened a space for the New.
There is a phrase of Kristeva’s that comes to mind here – ‘an archaeology in search of a utopia’. A curious phrase: a digging into the past which both unsettles the foundation of a seemingly natural Present but which also unearths forms, practices, concepts which suggest other possibilities of being in the world. Sometimes a site of ruins and a construction site can be remarkably similar. Now this motif, wherein the search for the New, the genuinely New (a search partly prompted by the ‘false’ novelty of the commodity-world) co-exists with the leap into the ancient/ archaic past, seems to me an eminently Modernist theme, and we might place the likes of Foucault in such a category. I assume that this take on Modernism is not unfamiliar to you, this antiquarian/ avant-garde simultaneity. I take it we recognise those moments when the present seizes on something from the remote past as it flashes up like a cryptogram or photographic negative of the Future.
But what has this to do with the Iranian revolution, which is not an event in the remote past but in the present. Yes and No. The present is not homogeneous after all. Interestingly enough, that phrase from Kristeva I quoted to you, ‘an archaeology in search of a utopia’ was one she used about her trip to China. Not a tiger’s leap into the past but a geographical leap into a space where forms from the past (as it were) were still current. What Kristeva, it seems, half expected to find in China was the ancient and the New joining hands over the Present. The archaic and the avant-garde, with the latter taking some of its poetry from the former, could here side-step, avoid the traps set by the present, the trap of being just the ‘latest thing’, the latest instalment of Progress.
To which there are a number of responses. First, and most quotidian, she misunderstood the nature of what was happening in China. So, all there is to say is that her representation of what was happening didn’t correspond to the reality. You’ve then got things nicely set up for an easy polemical point. Well done. Secondly, bracket off, for the time being, the ‘reality of what is going on in China’ and look at the thinking to which ‘China’ gives shape. Look at it in its own terms. Look at the concepts that China generates, see if they are interesting, productive concepts.
Now needless to say, in talking about Kristeva and China I am also necessarily talking about Foucault and Iran. Believe me, I’d intended to look in detail at one of his writings on the subject, to examine the thinking of those writings, but not just in terms of the impoverished categories of representation/ misrepresentation, but no, this post has already wandered far beyond the bye line of the Kotsko readability rule, and those of you who have reached this far, you surprise me. But perhaps I will post something else, after all, on one of Foucault's Iranian essays.