This article investigates the validity of repeated accusations of a “peculiar” or otherwise “hidden” Orientalism in French philosopher Michel Foucault’s (1926–1984) oeuvre before, during and after his infamous involvement in the Iranian Revolution of 1978–1979. After an introduction to the problems relating to these allegations of Orientalism in Foucault’s work, via his three most significant biographers of the 1990’s (Didier Eribon, David Macey and James Miller) the polemicisation of Foucault’s relation to the East and the characterisation of his Orientalism as “peculiar” (Janet Afary and Kevin Anderson), as well as the modern-critical emphasis on difference in the engagement of West and East and the subtle charge of a “hidden” Orientalism in Foucault’s work (Danny Postel) are addressed. Concurring with the recent reading of Marnia Lazreg, Foucault’s contra-Marxism is employed as a hermeneutical key to understanding his “unique” Orientalism (pertinently different from the pejorative assertion of it being “peculiar”). The Nietzschean influence on Foucault’s orientation towards the Orient (especially in terms of the “low Orient”, or Islamic cultures) is thoroughly explored via Ian Almond’s analysis of a “new Orientalism” in the works of several “postmodern” exponents, including Foucault. The conclusion is that there was indeed a kind of Orientalism present in Foucault’s work, but that it should be regarded as unique, in the sense that a sharp division between the Occident and Orient was already present in Foucault’s first major work (and was thus not “unmasked” by the Iranian Revolution), that it was profoundly influenced by Foucault’s Nietzschean appreciation of the “low Orient” and that it was determined both by Foucault’s staunch contra-Marxism and his idiosyncratic critique of modernity. A synthesis of these opinions and an interpretation of Foucault’s unique Orientalism are then presented, based on three modern-critical questions: What is, what do we know, and what must we do? It is claimed that Foucault’s unique Orientalism and his resulting hesitance about critical matters in Iran in 1978 and 1979 did not amount to a careless neglect of intellectual responsibility, but rather to a principled avoidance of the arrogance of those who claimed to speak with authority on matters “we Western Others” should rather be silent about. Like Nietzsche before him, toward the end of his life Foucault learned to be quiet sometimes, so that he could learn to talk, to be silent in the right way, to recover from himself and to make it possible for others to live with him. This is what Foucault’s “Orientalist mistake in Iran” in fact was: a courageous attempt to cross over, as he dared to speak when others were silent, as he dared to be silent when others were speaking, and as he dared to be hesitant and unclear when Western-liberal commentators thought they could clearly and fluently articulate the problematic events in Iran. Foucault dared “not-speak” – neither the trusted old binary language of modernity, nor the pretentious, all-abiding, all-inclusive tongue of its postmodernist counterpart. Perhaps the humbling lesson to be learned from both Foucault’s unique Orientalism and his problematic expedition to Iran in 1978 could be that “intellectuals” have to be silent sometimes, in order to learn to speak. And when they speak, they should do so cautiously, continuously interrupting themselves. More globally, the West has to learn anew to embrace understatement when faced with its Other. The world would be a singularly different place if there was more hesitation in the Self’s relation to the Other, more uncertainty in the West’s dealing, or rather reckoning, with the “East”, if there was a greater sense of Self-interruption of its Occidental certainties, if Self-discomfort could become the feature of its panoptic gaze on its Orient Other, as “An-Other Self”.
Keywords: Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi; Danny Postel; David Macey; Didier Eribon; Eric Paras; Foucault in Iran; Foucault in Japan; Foucault in Tunisia; Ian Almond; Iranian Revolution 1978; James Miller; Janet Afary; Kevin Anderson; Khomeini; Marnia Lazreg; Michel Foucault; Michiel Leezenberg; Nietzsche; (High and Low) Orientalism
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