Foucault’s Fantasies

When you are studying any matter, or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only: what are the facts, and what does the truth of the facts bear out?
Bertrand Russell’s advice to the future.

While the Iranian regime of the Ayatollah Khomeini was murdering those in whose name he had stolen the revolution, there were some Westerners who could think only of praise. The labour councils that had rallied against the Shah had been newly subsumed into the state machinery under the principle of velayat-e faqih – the “guardianship of the jurisprudent” – which in this case meant a capitalist system minded by religious medievalists; under a banner of “separate but equal” had been erected sexual apartheid; homosexuals were simply executed. Corpses hung from cranes.

To my knowledge, Michel Foucault never retracted a single word of the article with which he had heralded in the looming regime’s “political spirituality” in 1978, perhaps the most mundane covenant ever to have graced the halls of revolutionary history:

When Iranians speak of Islamic government; when, under the threat of bullets, they transform it into a slogan of the streets; when they reject in its name, perhaps at the risk of a bloodbath, deals arranged by parties and politicians, they have other things on their minds than these formulas from everywhere and nowhere. They also have other things in their hearts. I believe that they are thinking about a reality that is very near to them, since they themselves are its active agents.

It is first and foremost about a movement that aims to give a permanent role in political life to the traditional structures of Islamic society. An Islamic government is what will allow the continuing activity of the thousands of political centers that have been spawned in mosques and religious communities in order to resist the shah’s regime. I was given an example. Ten years ago, an earthquake hit Ferdows. The entire city had to be reconstructed, but since the plan that had been selected was not to the satisfaction of most of the peasants and the small artisans, they seceded. Under the guidance of a religious leader, they went on to found their city a little further away. They had collected funds in the entire region. They had collectively chosen places to settle, arranged a water supply, and organized cooperatives. They had called their city Islamiyeh. The earthquake had been an opportunity to use religious structures not only as centers of resistance, but also as sources for political creation. This is what one dreams about [songe] when one speaks of Islamic government.

In response, Claudie and Jacques Broyelle

called upon Foucault to admit that his thinking on Iran had been “in error.” Foucault’s response, published two days later, was in fact a non-response. He would not respond, he wrote, “because throughout ‘my life’ I have never taken part in polemics. I have no intention of beginning now.” He wrote further, “I am ‘summoned to acknowledge my errors’.” He hinted that it was the Broyelles who were engaging in thought control by the manner in which they had called him to account.

For some academics, it may indeed be a valorous pursuit to avoid the emotive charges of their opponents. Polemics can misrepresent hard-won and valuable intellectual approaches as sloppy scholarship, for some simply not worth the ephemeral visit into the public sphere. But this is not at all the case for Foucault; his post-structuralism, and its fantastical pretensions, lay behind both his political conclusions and the aloof posterity with which he met his rivals. A perfect method to explore this is through the state of intellectual decadence into which he sent the otherwise entirely innocuous discipline of “gender history”.

Gender history appeared to be a terribly useful innovation for feminism; its horizons were broadened and its subject was nuanced, favourable to the realisation that it was nonsensical and ahistorical to consider the oppression of women without their relationship to men, and to the societies in which they lived and died. Yet its prospects faced an early trauma: Joan Scott, enamoured by the size of Foucault’s vocabulary, delighted in the chaotic  wordplay she inaugurated into the discipline in 1986. For post-structuralists, cultural discourse takes priority in our understanding of gender, modelled on Foucault’s concept of “power” as dispersed and thereby subjective in every instance; and since every interpretation is inevitably different, the experiences of individual women are inherently unknowable. The central point, therefore, is that in order to emancipate women, society’s common language of oppression must be identified and transformed. There was even a hint at solidarity implicit in the curious suggestion that democratic and authoritarian regimes share “flawed master narratives”.

But Scott’s feminist objective to “emancipate” women had absolutely nothing grounded in the real world. Her reaction to “essentialised” women’s consciousness took the other extreme. Foucault’s denial of objective truth abandoned empiricism with a flick of the hand; and if no historical writing can support itself in material evidence, then everything may have an equally legitimate claim to pseudo-truth if the odd decontextualized line from a diary or speech can be thrown to its defence. This is why Foucault considered the murderous and misogynistic Iranian Counter-Revolution so laudable; the dilute methodology of post-structuralism is far more likely to degrade women than it is to uncover the roots of their oppression. Certainly, there is no way of knowing when they do.

This utter frivolity – being the randomness of thought that grips the intellect once material reality is said to be illusory to it – saturated many “histories” that proclaimed grand narratives of sexuality and the body. No text can fully subsume an experience. It ignores, after all, the individual’s social geographical variances and, of especial note here, their personal reactions to sexual biology, while condemning the illiterate to historical silence. Illustrations to comprehend the transformation of “the body” ameliorate only the last of these deficiencies. Fletcher’s Gender, Sex & Subordation in England, 1500-1800 (1990), unlike Olwen Hufton’s The Prospect Before Her (1996) of the same period, entirely dismisses any consideration of the empirical analysis of ordinary lives made of such fruitful use by Hufton in order to make sense of the accompanying religious discourse. Indeed, a source frequently cited by Fletcher is Thomas Laqueur’s Making Sex, a tale of the gendered perception of sex which ends with a rather telling paradox: “But basically the content of talk about sexual difference is unfettered by fact, and is as free as mind’s play.”

In complete tune with this, Scott asserts that the welfare state reinforces “paternalistic” masculinity – in spite of such “facts” that both men and women have equal access and that women can be elected to exercise responsibility over it. For comparison’s sake, the second volume of Foucault’s History of Sexuality, in which he analysed Greek practice, was an ambitious venture given the author did not speak even the ancient language on which he played so much stress in cultural formation; indeed, in the process of writing he elected to remedy his ignorance of Roman and Greek culture by travelling to California. Post-structural gender theory is the flipside of crude Marxism. “Symbols” alone, although indeed experienced in the eye of the subject can only, when studied independent of circumstance, reflect the eye of the historian. Such authorial pretensions to feminist politics were, in other words, the culmination of many years of wasted scholarship.

Michel Foucault and his post-structuralist chums were more than fantastical zombies, a little too allured by the intellectual decadence of Western academia. More, even, than futile were their approaches: they were and remain today actively regressive in the study both of truth and the material realities upon which it depends. Neither women, nor homosexuals, nor the labouring people of Iran will be free for so long as their chains are denied and their words are suffocated by those pretending to care for them. This is the approach, in other words, that allies the far left to the extreme, murderous right.

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