Foucault and the Iranian Revolution

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

In the fall of 1978, the leading Italian newspaper Corriere della sera sent French philosopher Michel Foucault on two trips to Iran in order to report on the growing political unrest that would eventually develop into the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Foucault wrote eight brief articles for Corriere della sera as well as a number of others for French publications, all of which grew out of his two visits to Iran.

Only three of these articles have been available in English translations until Janet Afary and Kevin B. Anderson’s book Foucault and the Iranian Revolution: Gender and the Seductions of Islamism. The authors reprint as an appendix to their book all of Foucault’s writings on Iran, along with some of the attacks his reports generated in the French press. This alone is a valuable contribution to Foucault studies in the United States, yet Afary and Anderson’s book is also certain to spark controversy and debate, because the bulk of the volume consists of a critical reading of Foucault’s Iranian writings, which the writers use to question the theories presented in Foucault’s better-known writings.

Before 1978, opposition to the government of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi came from a variety of sources: liberal, secular groups that objected to the shah’s human rights violations and the widespread corruption of the regime; Marxist groups that identified the shah with Western imperialism; and Islamic groups that were opposed to the shah’s efforts to reduce the role of Islam in Iran, along with the country’s growing modernization and Westernization. The trigger for more widespread revolt against the shah was a protest against an official press story that libeled the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in January, 1978, when several students were killed by the Iranian Army.

Traditions of Shiite Islam dictate that mourners memorialize a person forty days after his or her death, so in February Shiite groups across Iran organized marches to honor the fallen students and to protest the shah’s regime. More demonstrators were killed, and a continued cycle of protest and violence developed, organized around the Shiite forty-day tradition of mourning. Eventually, as these protests gained in strength and scope, the shah was forced to flee the country in January, 1979.

Khomeini returned to Iran in February, and the Islamic Republic that took power turned out to be perhaps even more brutal and more repressive than the shah’s monarchy. In the aftermath of the revolution, there were numerous summary trials and executions; women’s rights, which had been expanded under the shah’s Westernist regime, were curtailed; and political opposition was quashed.

At the time he visited Iran, Michel Foucault held the position of professor of the history of systems of thought at the Collège de France, a very prestigious post, and he was one of France’s most prominent intellectuals. He had risen through the ranks of the French educational system on the strength of a number of controversial, groundbreaking books. One of Foucault’s central contributions was a far-reaching critique of the progressive notion of history. Modern people typically imagine that they are better off than their forebears and that modern societies give greater individual autonomy to a greater number of people than premodern societies, yet Foucault questioned the idea that human societyespecially in the Westis generally advancing and that the growth and extension of rationality has necessarily led to greater human freedoms.

For example, in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1977), one of Foucault’s most influential works, he examines the changes that have taken place in philosophies of punishment over the last several hundred years. If most readers were to look at this history, they might conclude that what they have seen is improvement: Cruel corporal punishment has been replaced by a more humane system that emphasizes instead the rehabilitation of the prisoner. Foucault rejects this simple narrative. He begins his book with two examples that are designed to illustrate the shift in approaches to punishment and criminality that took place between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The first is a rather graphic, shocking description of a public execution that took place in France in 1757: Robert Damiens, who had been convicted of the attempted regicide of Louis XV, was drawn and quartered, in dramatic and brutal fashion, in front of a large crowd. Foucault’s second example is a description of the timetable of a prisoner’s day in a juvenile facility in Paris in 1837. The details in this document are mundaneoutlining periods of work and instructionand what is notably absent from the rules of the latter facility are spectacular...

(The entire section is 1970 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

Library Journal 130, no. 7 (April 15, 2005): 90.

Middle East Journal 59, no. 4 (Autumn, 2005): 701-702.

The Nation 281, no. 5 (August 15, 2005): 31-34.

The New York Review of Books 52, no. 18 (November 17, 2005): 15-18.