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An Important Contribution to Critical Theory
on June 30, 2005
"Foucault and the Iranian Revolution" is by far the most important contribution to critical theory, and to Foucault studies, in years. Coming at a time of a deepening crisis in world politics as well as political philosophy, when the secular liberal ideal is dying and religious fundamentalisms of various stripes--Christian, Islamic, Jewish, Hindu--feed like bacteria on its still moving, breathing corpse, Afary and Anderson's book offers a refreshingly sober and expansive view of the contradictions and aporias of contemporary critical theory. Concentrating on a neglected moment in Foucault's career as a journalist and political commentator, the authors amass a wealth of fascinating details, old and new, to show how Foucault's credulity toward (and even sympathies with) the most reactionary and illiberal elements of the Iranian Revolution, far from being an anomaly or sudden lapse of judgment, was instead the logical outgrowth of his own idiosyncratic theories about modernity, social movements, history, and knowledge. As the authors write: "Foucault's Orientalist impressions of the Muslim world, his selective reading and representation of Greco-Roman texts, and his hostility to modernity and its technologies of the body, led him to prefer the more traditional Islamic/Mediterranean culture to the modern culture of the West."
In short, Foucault was drawn to the radical Islamism of the Ayatollah Khomeini--rather than to the feminist and socialist forces who had helped overthrow the despised Shah--precisely because of his aversion to all modern political institutions and norms, whether liberal or radical. Islamism, which had the appearance of pure, romantic fusion or unity in the will of the people (in essence, an Iranian version of Rousseau's general will), seemed to link the Shi'ite past with a present revolutionary Now. Ironically, just as an unreflexive, orthodox Marxism had blinded an earlier generation of "fellow travelers" to Stalinism, Foucault's own anti-Marxism and anti-feminism--his refusal to identify either with the socialist tradition or with women's liberation--made him blind to the authoritarian strain within Islamism. Although Foucault's defenders, and there are many today, will deny that the great French theorist had any flaws as a social critic, what comes through in Afary and Anderson's narrative is the portrait of an intellectual whose own political isolation and personal arrogance made him susceptible to the worst kind of idealism.
The poststructuralist revolution in theoretical thought, which Foucault more than any other thinker helped lead, has done serious damage to our ability both to comprehend the meaning of historical events and to render sound moral and political judgments concerning their meaning. This, to me, is the implicit lesson of Afary and Anderson's important and indispensable book. This, and the authors' own exemplary conduct as theorists and historians: by scrupulously avoiding polemic, complicating our view of Islam, and maintaining a moral center in their narrative, the authors remind us that, by reaffirming its socialist feminist roots, critical or radical theory can yet serve as an antidote both to Western imperialism on one side and Islamism (or apologia for Islamism) on the other. "Foucault and the Iranian Revolution" is therefore must reading for anyone interested in the state of theory, or the state of the world.