Behrouz Ghamari – Foucault, Spirituality, And The Perils Of Universal History, Paper delivered at the Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism, July 2015
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Response by Jorge Daniel Vásquez and Megan Eardley
The beginning of Friday’s session was marked by a radical commitment to putting the analysis of religion within a framework that addresses “happiness” in its political and revolutionary dimensions. Behrooz Ghamari raised questions concerning limits and the moving boundaries between history and memory as he reflected on his experience as part of the organizational process of the Iranian Revolution. Addressing the personal interest that Michel Foucault had in Shiite Islam (its rituals and legal practices) and his theoretical writing on the revolution in Iran (1978-1979), Ghamari argued that Foucault’s readers need to understand the characteristic ambiguity of the political process alongside an analysis of revolutionary religious expression. He reveals a Foucault for whom religion is a space in which the popular imagination is formed— both in the policy of the Iranian Revolution and in the Carter administration in the United States. The ambiguity that is engendered by revolutionary religious claims may open a space through and in which teleological thinking might be transgressed.
Foucault arrived in Iran a week after the “Black Friday” massacre, when even the death of more than two hundred protestors, shot down from helicopters, could not stop people from their revolution. Foucault’s presence in Iran can serve as an anchor for understanding his thinking about the history and the subject (i.e. the history of the present – its reinvention, the ambiguity that it produces) that is configured through a political spirituality: the subject is ‘entirely’ wrapped in a History that is not determined, but becomes a particular form of self-production, keeping the subject in a constant search for that is worth defending even beyond one’s own life. Thus, the analysis of the ‘politics of spirituality’ is located far from the reduction of revolutionary religious expression to an “archaic fascism.” On the contrary, it gives way to an important analytical challenge; to consider the religious-political phenomenon in its completely modern sense (reflecting on the relationship between different spheres in which the subject is produced). This analytical move allows Ghamari to return to questions surrounding the murder of the cartoonists of the Charlie Hebdo magazine and the “Arab Spring” beyond the Manichaeism of the freedom of expression as universalized value or Enlightened anti-Islam. To take the analysis further, we might echo some of the questions raised in the debate.
In the global geopolitical context, to what extent is the analysis of the Arab Spring articulated in the same terms as Foucault’s analysis of the Iranian Revolution? What is the relationship between the specter (the ghost of the Iranian Revolution) and the ways we engage with revolution as either as a rupturing event or as an inheritance? Another entry would be to think about Foucault and the Iranian Revolution alongside the way Susan Buck-Morss thinks about the abstraction of the Haitian Revolution in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit.
The talk also opened possibilities of imagining a confluence of political spirituality and a political reading of the eschatological tension of St. Paul’s theology. Is a return to Saint Paul—and the tension between the now and the to-come—an attempt to take us out of the teleological prison of modern thought? What are Foucault’s links with theoretical Orientalism and how can an event like the Iranian Revolution be read not as a ‘break’ in Foucault’s thought but as a radicalization of the project which is manifested in his College de France seminars since 1977?
Jorge Daniel Vásquez Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales, Ecuador and Megan Eardley Princeton University School of Architecture