Book notes: Foucault and the Iranian Revolution


Rufus F.

Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does many things. He is the author of the forthcoming book "The Paris Bureau" from Dio Press (early 2021).

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23 Responses

  1. Avatar Jaybird says:

    Holy shit, Rufus. How you aren’t teaching this stuff in 300-level courses escapes me totally.

    The book, then, throws its strongest punches from the left, which makes them land more effectively.

    This line makes me very, very sad.

    Foucault always struck me as making the domestic analogy: that is, when I was a waiter at the restaurant, I was fond of saying that life was like being a waiter.


    Anyway, of course he saw life like being a bunch of power dynamics. He kind of heralded intersectionality… being someone who had so very much privilege in these areas, so very little in those, and came up with a philosophy that would explain that sort of thing perfectly.

    And, of course, along the way, destroyed a lot of things because he happened to make the right allies at the right time and happened to have the right enemies and everything came together in a perfect storm.

    And we’re left saying “what the hell happened?”Report

  2. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    It was Fanonism pure and simple. Anti-imperialism works very well as a political ideology to get rid of Europeans and Americans running Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The attempts to turn it into an all encompassing critique of the West led too many people who should have known better to believe some very stupid things. When you combine it with the Marxist critique of liberalism, capitalism, and bourgeois identity you get something even more pernicious.Report

  3. Avatar Doctor Jay says:

    Well, I suspect that the “scientific” analysis that could slap a label on that IT guy and make him disappear from the world of those two women you mention does not exist. They appear to be wishing for the existence of a right to never feel uncomfortable, something which has nothing to do with the Enlightenment, as far as I know.

    I’ve spent oodles of time around people who bear labels from DSM, which is pretty much the thing they are asking for. Nevertheless, employment law, at least in CA, protects such people from being fired. And that comes from the Enlightenment, too. I’d much rather be with those people with the labels than with people who have their attitude.

    I admit I’ve never read Foucault, and only know about his work secondhand. There appears to be some pretty worthwhile lenses (as you say) in there to have.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to Doctor Jay says:

      Ah, I wasn’t clear- two young professionals, one male and one female, were talking. Probably doesn’t change the story too much.

      This was also inspired by a grad student friend who is being hounded by administrators at the university for writing poems in chalk on the sidewalk, which they feel could indicate she is “in crisis” or might “trigger” others and put them “in crisis”. I can’t talk much about that story, however, because I don’t want to give her more problems.

      I do think Foucault can be useful if ingested with a large grain of salt. What depressed me about his epigones in academia was they never seemed to have any salt handy.Report

      • Avatar Damon in reply to Rufus F. says:

        OMG OMG….

        Some IT guy “weirds us out. How can we get him fired”? How old were these “young professionals”? Mid 20s? Life isn’t perfect. You gotta deal with assholes and dicks and people who think different than you. Deal…

        Reminds me of some stupid sex harassment vid I had to watch where they made the young woman make all the wrong decisions to move the story along. As I said when critiquing the training vid, “if this woman was as incapable of taking action, in any form, and constantly made such bad decisions, she’s incapable of functioning in a professional office environment and I’d have fired her long ago.”Report

        • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Damon says:

          There does seem to be a certain type of person that wants to remove any person who they find aesthetically unpleasing in some way even if the latter did nothing but mind his or her own business.Report

      • Avatar Doctor Jay in reply to Rufus F. says:

        Thanks for the correction. It now sounds to me that perhaps some “I’ll protect you” drama was playing out.

        The idea that power determines what is visible and what is not is quite a valuable one, I think. It has bearing on the scientific endeavor, which is a social one, and on the anecdote we’re talking about. As best I understand, this idea comes from Foucault.Report

        • Avatar veronica d in reply to Doctor Jay says:

          Yep. “Power hides itself” is an incredibly important notion. That said, I’m not sure if we really need all of postmodernism to get that point.Report

          • Avatar Doctor Jay in reply to veronica d says:

            Perhaps it’s that because we can now articulate “power hides itself” and “there is no center” and be understood by one another, that we can discard all that apparatus of postmodernism. Perhaps the purpose of all that apparatus was to get the the point where we have some shared understanding of those phrases.

            Perhaps it’s also the case that for academics to be taken seriously by other academics, they must write and speak about these things in a way that is foreign to the layperson. Perhaps this is another example of “power determines what is visible”.

            But yes, there are many avenues and alleyways that were dead ends. That’s what discovery is like.Report

            • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to Doctor Jay says:

              The idea that power determines what is knowable/sayable is particularly attractive for academics because it means that discourse critique is a critical form of activism. My problem is that only takes you so far. It’s hard to find a non-alienated social interaction in Foucault since every social interaction reduces to an articulation of power. It’s also hard to tell what makes one locus of power worse than another, which is fairly important for resistance.Report

              • Avatar Doctor Jay in reply to Rufus F. says:

                Yep. It’s an important idea and framework, but far from being the only important idea or framework. Honestly, some find it valuable because it is a handy-dandy general way to tear just about any argument down.

                I remember reading a piece in the Communications of the ACM, the house organ for the professional/academic society for computing (the Association for Computing Machinery, or ACM) that argued, non-ironically, that all computing research was wrong because it was done by men. I think that’s basically metastasized Foucault. I’ve also read the claim that the Theory of Relativity is wrong because it was formulated by men. This was in the 80’s.

                There’s a lot of good criticism of science to be had a la Foucault – why did we look at this, rather than that? Why didn’t we consider these datasets over here? Why were all psychological/medical experiments done only on men up until maybe the 1970s? But data is data, and proofs are proofs. It’s like the authors don’t comprehend how science work.Report

  4. My opinion of Foucault goes back and forth.Report

  5. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    Lessing’s argument about the Electoral College remind me a lot about the arguments about the trillion dollar platinum coin from the debt celling crisis. Many liberals believe that these were perfectly fine ways to get around problems because they were in the letter of the law. Others found them at best cute and really not within in the spirit of the law. The norms of American government are still important to many Democratic politicians and they do not want to do more damage to the American system.Report

  6. Avatar Joe Sal says:

    Rufus, excellent work.
    I’ve read through this a couple of times and went and reviewed some of Foucaults work. The one thing I can’t find in this work or in Foucaults is a pivot point that would have the two yuppies see the IT guy with any measure of individual agency.

    About the only thing I find that could address it is the ‘rational society’, but in history societies that were considered rational often didn’t recognize individual agency.Report

    • Avatar James K in reply to Joe Sal says:


      Of course, societies that weren’t considered rational have an even poorer track record of respecting individual agency.

      And I have to agree that this is an excellent post @rufus-fReport

  7. Avatar Kim says:

    Iran became simultaneously more open to women and less, after the Revolution. The Ayatollah was a strict literalist, not a mysogynist. As such, women can and do have a degree of freedom in Iran that they do not enjoy in Saudi Arabia, where the Wahabis rule the morality police.

    And this is just the laws on the books, not even beginning to skim the surface of the underground economy, which for the middle class in Iran is just a part of life.Report

  8. Avatar Will H. says:

    I certainly appreciate this:
    warmed over Nietzsche with a dollop of anarchist theory and a strange aftertaste of some reactionary idealization of pre-modernity

    I enjoyed the review immensely.
    The prose is wonderful throughout, and I like the use of storytelling in the piece.
    I really have nothing to add; just to say that I liked the review.

    A related observation:
    It is rather odd that Reagan’s support of the mujahideen in Afghanistan and el proceso in Argentina never seem to rate the outrage as some ultimately effectless intellectual.
    I don’t see holding JP Souza accountable for WWII, nor do I see a markedly better world had he written waltzes.Report

  9. This is a fantastic post.

    I think of Foucault not as a critic of Enlightenment and modernity writ large, but as a critic of institutional overreach, who happens to have been active during a time with overreach of Enlightenment and modernist thinking. Foucault is particularly critical of “objective” methods being used to justify violent enforcement of social and political norms. In the parlance of Dungeons and Dragons, he is a chaotic good fighting against the lawful evil. Your yuppies are indeed real and evil, and many physicians are not even cognizant of the same trend in themselves.Report

  10. Avatar Ryan Benson says:

    Amazing Post. Thank you for sharing.Report

  11. Avatar Jon Rowe says:

    “If only there was a way,” she mused, “that we could get a mental health professional to assess him with a straightforward rigorous test and quantify that he has some sort of personality disorder with a specific diagnosis. Then we could be justify removing him.”

    Two different worlds could collide here. On the one hand, psychiatry, about which Foucault was highly critical for the sentiments expressed here (tarring eccentrics as “disorderd” and the like). On the other, these “disorders” are protected by the ADA and other cognate laws. The worker, as disabled, would have a bona fide discrimination case here.Report