Foucault on Revolutionary Iran: Imperialism and the Discourse of Modernity
Nima maghibi

During the 1979 anti-imperial Iranian revolution, Michel Foucault went to Iran and was fascinated by the force of the image that he witnessed: "on the one side, the entire will of the people, on the other the machine guns."  Unlike most Western analysts of the revolution, Foucault refused to see the role of religion as indicative of the movement's primitivism; in fact, he described the Iranian revolution as "the most modern form of revolt" and dismissed the popular idea that the deposed Shah was too modern for a predominantly backward country.  Instead, he wrote: "The Shah is what is old here in Iran.  He is fifty, even a hundred, years behind. . .  His is the antiquated dream of opening up his country by means of secularization and industrialization.  His project of modernization, his despotic weapons, his system of corruption are what is archaic today."

Foucault's analysis of the revolution earned him much scorn and ridicule in the French media.  His interpretation of that crucial moment in Iranian history, however, deserves greater attention especially in light of a recently published book by Mideast foreign correspondent Robin Wright.  In The Last Great Revolution: Turmoil and Transformation in Iran (2000), Wright argues that the Iranian revolution stands alongside the French and the Russian revolutions as one of the three most innovative and modern of the twentieth century.  According to Wright, "Iran's upheaval is arguably the Modern Era's last great revolution.  It effectively completes the process launched in the West  by other ideologies that were adopted by or adapted to all other parts of the world."  

In this paper, I will explore the implications of Foucault's and Wright's reconceptualization of Western notions of "modernity" in the context of the Iranian revolution by drawing on Homi Bhabha's notion of the "time-lag."  Bhabha argues that the split or the "caesura" in the "progressive myth of modernity" is the space where other narratives emerge and introduce a "time-lag" into the teleological narrative of modernity.  It is through the "time-lag" in the "disjunctive space of modernity" that the postcolonial subject can be represented.

The modern Iranian subject B as seen by Foucault B represents herself through Bhabha's concept of a time-lag.  While popular media representations portrayed the revolution as anachronistic, Foucault and Wright viewed it as quintessentially modern.  This paper will aim to address the following questions:  Can Foucault's and Wright's position be seen as a destabilization of the concept of modernity given that they turn to Western paradigms in order to define a unique "modern" moment in Iran?  What constitutes the desire for a modern period?  What is at stake in the desire to locate the moment of modernity in Iran?  How do we read the desire for a "modern" moment given modernity's complicitous relationship with colonial and imperial interests?