- On Historical Singularity and Universal Histories:Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi's Foucault in Iran
The 1979 revolution and the subsequent establishment of the Islamic Republic have cast lengthy shadows on the historiography of modern Iran. Since 1979, scholars have produced innumerable texts attempting to understand a revolution that has been viewed by many, to quote historian Charles Kurzman, as "unthinkable." The very notion of an "Islamic" (as opposed to a liberal or Marxist) revolution shook European and American social scientific assumptions about modern political movements to their core. More recently, scholarly bewilderment about the revolution has in some cases given way to outright hostility, as the violence of a post-revolutionary state self-consciously styled as "Islamic" has, for many, confirmed suspicions that violence is the inevitable outgrowth of Islamism. For many, the autocratic tendencies of the post-1979 state have seemingly vindicated a belief in a historical telos that privileges secular Enlightenment rationality as a necessary component of progressive modern politics. The march of history, in this view, has a set path toward progress; deviations from this path produce aberrant politics and rogue states.
It is thus that the post-revolution historiography of Iran has produced numerous well-regarded works in explicit defense of universalist Enlightenment ideals. Many of these scholars pit their work not only against political Islam, but also against several influential intellectual currents including Nietzschean and Heideggerian anti-humanism, Fanonian anti-colonialism, and postcolonial studies, all of which are imagined to share unsavoury "culturally relativist," "nativist," or even crypto-fascist tendencies with Islamism. Curiously, this trend has emerged despite the influence of postcolonialism, post-structuralism, and critical race theory across the humanities. Despite falling out of step with humanistic critical theory, this reading of Iran's Revolution remains buttressed by a much broader political common sense — exacerbated by the events of 9/11 and global rise of groups like ISIS — that views liberal secularism as the only bulwark against [End Page 560] the encroachment of irrational Islamist terror. As a result, despite the differences in their social and historical contexts — not to mention their often-militarized political divergences — disparate Islamist groups are too easily collapsed into one essential and ever-threatening category by popular writers and academics alike.
Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi's Foucault in Iran: Islamic Revolution after the Enlightenment is an ambitious challenge to this limiting understanding of the Islamic Revolution. Wrestling readings of revolutionary events away from both the grip of the post-revolutionary state and the constraints of well-worn Enlightenment frameworks, Ghamari-Tabrizi aims to "look at the revolutionary events in Iran outside the discursive frames that make revolutions legible" (xiii). In other words, Foucault in Iran seeks to deuniversalize European theories and experiences of revolution, which are imagined as secular by definition. Ghamari-Tabrizi asks: "Is it possible to think of dignity, humility, justice, and liberty outside Enlightenment cognitive maps and principles?" (1). Ghamari-Tabrizi's timely intervention has wide ranging implications beyond the historiography of modern Iran. He warns that our desire to domesticate the unknown futures of the unfolding present disallows us from seeing contingency, novelty, or singularity in global events. The troubling consequences of what the author terms "Enlightenment rationalist fundamentalism" are exemplified by the disturbing events in Egypt in 2012–2013, when many leftists and liberals supported a military coup and the mass slaughter of Islamists because of a desire to avoid "a second Iran" (3).
In order to provincialize European political history, Ghamari-Tabrizi turns to a seemingly unlikely source: French philosopher Michel Foucault, who in the months before the fall of the shah visited revolutionary Iran and wrote thirteen articles in support of the uprising. Along with its significant intervention in our understanding of Iranian political history, Ghamari-Tabrizi's book also has groundbreaking implications for our collective understanding of Foucault's late oeuvre. To date, Foucault's Iran essays have largely been dismissed as naive adventurism, Orientalist romanticism, or simply not worthy of serious scrutiny. The author takes issue with these dismissive readings...