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Foucault and the Iranian Revolution: Gender and the Seductions of Islamism
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97 of 115 people found the following review helpful
on June 22, 2005
This book has three elements. A full third is a compilation of Foucault's writings and interviews on Iran. It is a valuable addition to the Foucault literature. Second, there is a historical recounting of Islamism as it pertains to the Iranian revolution. I do not have the expertise to comment on this. 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.

The authors claim that Foucault values traditional forms of life over modern ones, and thus embraces (like the radical Islamists) a return to the past. In order to make their case, the authors resort to three strategies. First, they neglect Foucault's own statements about his writings. 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. Finally, they misread Foucault's own sentences, in one case (p. 16) citing a long quote and then interpreting it as meaning something opposed to what it actually says.

Foucault insisted throughout his life that his work sought to deny the view that history naturally progresses from the worse to the better. The authors seem to think that this means that his view of history was that it moved from the better to the worse. It is harder to imagine a more fundamental mistake in the interpretation of Foucault's work.

All of this is unfortunate, particularly since Foucault, normally an astute observer of events, sorely misread the Iranian revolution. This requires explanation. The authors have provided the resources on which to base such an explanation. However, given their inability to understand even the basics of Foucault's work, the explanation itself will have to await another book.
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35 of 58 people found the following review helpful
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.
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10 of 25 people found the following review helpful
on July 21, 2005
This is a timely publication and an excellent contribution to Foucault studies. If you are interested in anything related to Foucault this is a must read. Also, if Islamic Fundamentalism and it's constant clash with Western Imperialism is your cup of tea then pick this book now.

The Authors, Janet Afary and Kevin Anderson, provide a detail overview of Foucault's writings and interviews on Iran. The authors also recount the historical Iranian revolution. And to connect this two, they offer some analysis and arguments in the context of Foucault's larger work.

Foucault's concern largely dealt with power, knowledge and discourse. I haven't read all of Foucault yet and nor have I read much on Iranian revolution. However, I didn't have any problem following the arguments in the book. What I found fascinating about Foucault is his emphasis on human irrationality. I think _Madness and Civilization_ talks about this in details. That is why the authors found it interesting to talk about Foucault's fascinations with martyrdom. They provide some detail background about Shiite (a sect in Islam) rituals and its connection with the revolution. Some of this practices are regarded as controversial in mainstream Islam.

The authors point out that the Iranian leftist and feminist sects were a major part of the movement. However, as we have seen with past revolutions it didn't turn out as we have expected. Radical Islamism got rid of the secular element pretty easily. The book goes into detail how Foucault "got it wrong" and some other interesting issues related with it.

Political analyst are saying that Ahmadinejad's recent 'landslide' victory can be summed up as a revival of the spirit of the Iranian revolution. I am curious how Foucault would have responded to this. Maybe positively? In a way, Foucault was 'anit-modernist'. He talks about 'political spirituality' to be a alternative to modern democratic institution. It is possible, that Ahmadinejad banked on some anti-American / anit-Western sentiment. What does that mean for radical Islamism which have to deal with compassionate conservatives?
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4 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on January 9, 2007
It is an absolute introduction to understanding the events that shaped the Iranian Revolution (as a revolution from the Right) and the relationship that Foucault's arguments have to international political sphere.
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13 of 41 people found the following review helpful
on July 12, 2005
This book is excellent! It is about time someone wrote the real account of how western intellectuals who knew too little about the culture and history of Iran, implicated themselves in a process that had nothing to do with them and helped set into motion a chain of events that has brought terrorism to the world via hardcore Khomeini radicalism that hides itself behind the guise of Islam.
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18 of 57 people found the following review helpful
Foucalt loved Islamism, he felt the Iranian revolution would in a postmodern sense bring about a new society with seperate but equal situations for women, where a perfect utopian clergy would supervise a state of greatness. In the first in a long line of appologist leftists he is the prophet, the prophet of the lefts tryst with destiny, whereby the left jettisons all of its loyalty to ideas like equality and defense of minorites and instead embraces totalitarian theological fascism. Foucault was the first and it is important for english language readers to digest the magnitude of his infatuation. Foucault concluded in 1978 that the Shah was '100 years behind the times'. In a sense he was correct, these ideas that men and women are equal, that minorites should have rights, that gays should have rights, that nations should not be run by religion, they are indeed old hat, they were indeed products of that thing called the enlightenment, something that led scholars such as Twain and Jefferson to doubt the viinity of Jesus, and dare to ask if perhaps a state should not be run by religion fundamentalists.

Today we live in the Foucault world. The world where extremist fascism is aided and abetted by leftist appollogy, where the left is supporting the Burka, the Abbaya, the Chador, the Purdha, the virtual disappearence of women from society, where the modern west should be sold down the reiver to theocratic slavery so that every person can be equal in poverty. Foucault rejected Marxism and in Islamism he saw the answer to the worlds problems. In the millions the Iranian Revolution murdered, in the democracy it slaughtered, he saw the answer. Not a suprise given that we has brought up by the same left that denied the existence of Stalin's Gulag. The fact that he doubted the enlightenment is not a suprise given that everything to him in the West was evil.

Foucault never bothered to confront himself on this one lie. He never bothers to ask 'am not I a product of the West, is not my self hate a product of being a westerner?'. Leftists everywhere yearn for the Caliphate, Foucault was the first.

Seth J. Frantzman
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