John Rajchman | Foucault’s Turning Point – and Ours

By John Rajchman

Is it useless to revolt – to ‘rise up’? Foucault asked this question in 1979, responding to storm of criticism unleashed by his newspaper reports on the events unfolding in Iran.

Is it useless now, when, faced with new forces, we rise up again against the powers that be? And what would it mean to think of our ‘uprisings’ today (with their ways of assembling, occupying, mobilizing) outside ‘the wondrous and daunting promise’ of Revolution which, in Foucault’s words then, had served to classify and domesticate the real forces unleashed by them, organizing our sense of time, popularizing our hopes, telling us in advance how they should unfold and ‘appear in truth’?  What would it mean to view them instead so many other ‘singular’ moments of revolt, insurrection, dissidence, disobedience, ‘occupation’, calling for new ways of thinking, a new kind of ‘critique of the present’, carried now on in the 21st century?  In re-opening the ‘Iran dossier’ Behrooz Ghamari poses such questions in a striking way, writing at a moment born of attitudes formed by attitudes to 9/11 attacks and the ‘failure’ of the Arab Spring, suggesting how Foucault’s question might apply not only at the time, but also today in a much altered geo-political and media context.

In Foucault’s question 40 years ago, there were two further inter-related elements: a principle of political refusal and a principle of historical singularity. An irreducible element in all ‘uprisings’, he thought, is a refusal of existing power – ‘we don’t want to be governed like this any more’ (for some now an apt motto for Black Lives Matter).  It is always a matter of ‘refusing and rising up’. At the same such refusal/uprisings, while they come from a specific history, are yet not simply ‘of’ them – they are thus ‘singular’, outside usual ways of predicting, explaining, narrating, requiring us to re-examine our thinking (what used to explain things, now itself needs to be explained). The question then becomes: is it useless to refuse and to rise up, if we don’t already have the ‘framework’ or ‘script’ in which to place its uprising, a ‘promise’ as to where it all will end up? Foucault’s question as thus a complex one, and as such, formed part of a larger attempt to rethink the very nature or critique, descending from Kant, as a kind of politics of truth. How then can we ‘speak truly’ about and in uprisings, regarded as singular disruptions no longer contained in anything like the grand narrative of Revolution – in particular, the great promise of ‘World Revolution’. How can we then talk about uprisings in many different places, as with Iran, at once in and outside the old imperialist European ‘center’?

Foucault’s question thus brought together a cluster of elements we can now see formed part of a larger series and changes and new investigations in his work. How then did the question of uprisings/revolutions of arise? The publication of his Writings and Courses now helps us to better answer this question: the idea ‘uprising/revolution’ arose at a kind of turning point in Foucault’s own work, from 1978-80, giving rise to new sorts of investigation, broken off by his untimely death. It was then that he made his turn from its earlier focus on modern Europe (and the constitutive role of Revolution in this ‘modernity’ – we haven’t yet cut off the King’s head in political theory) in favor of a ‘trip’ back to Greek antiquity to find alternative story of ‘subjectivization’ and ‘techniques of self’, their relations with truth and spiritual techniques, before coming back to the question of politics in his last Course. We now have a fuller picture of this turning point, itself broken off, left unfinished, the questions of Revolution taken up again in terms of ways of ‘speaking truly’ he was raising in his last Course, adding cynical parrhesia to prophesy, prediction, and established science – in the case of Revolution, to be found in anarchism, nihilism, Dadaism, the militant ‘way of life’. We now see how much the question was intertwined in his mind with the question of the art of ‘speaking truly’ in and about uprisings – for example, the one in Iran that he ‘witnessed’.

Earlier Foucault had associated the idea of Revolution with a kind of coalescence (and coding) of multiple ‘struggles’ in a great ‘battle’ for which theory would serve as a kind of critical tool-box – at the time, conveyed through enquêtes and endless réunions of GIP, the group at the time least like a Party, in Deleuze’s retrospective view.  But what happens when this great battle, bringing together many ‘struggles’, itself no longer seems to mobilize a Revolution, its earlier ‘solidarities’ undone, indeed, where the ‘disciplinary society’, against which it was directed, itself seems to be, in Foucault’s words, ‘in crisis’, confronted with new forces it can no longer contain? It is in this context that the question of Revolution assumed a new form, and became part of a larger attempt to re-think or re-invent Critique itself and its relation to politics. A key ‘methodological’ formulation of the problem is to be found ‘La Table Ronde, May 20, 1978’ (known in English as ‘Questions of Method’), in which, responding to the objections of social historians, Foucault contrasts his attempt to ‘eventalize’ history from their own search for a ‘unique necessity’. In this discussion, before his trip to Iran, we already find a striking formulation of the question of ‘political spirituality’ and its relation to the larger question of a new ‘politics of truth’

It is in the interviews and writings in Japan that Foucault begins to work out the implications and questions of the question (one day great to publish and translate them as group, adding some not included in Dits et écrits). It is in then that he declares that, following the death of Mao (in 1976) there are no real ‘Marxist movements’ anymore to mobilize and give shape to revolt, leading to an ‘impoverishment of political imagination’. It is rather the Marx of historical writings like 18 Brumaire or Civil War in France that inspire us in this new juncture. He then adds:

‘As for the future of Euro-communism, the important question today is not about its future, but instead concerns the idea and theme of revolution. Since 1798, Europe has changed in function of the idea of revolution. European history has been dominated by this idea. It is precisely this idea that is in process of disappearing in this moment.”

One had thus had to pose the whole question outside the grand scheme of anti-imperialist, then third world (or guerilla) Revolution, found, of course, as well in Europe. As he puts it in a Zen monastery: “If a philosophy of the future exists, it must be born outside Europe or equally born in consequence of meetings and impacts between Europe and non-Europe”.  It is precisely with quote that Behrooz begins his own book. Perhaps indeed we now live in a world where there are uprisings in many places, re-casting (or ‘decentering’) the old relations with imperial modern Europe, without a single ‘world Revolution’ to bring them all together. Iran is the actual uprising Foucault tried to look at with this in mind, though of course, much has happened there after.

In these years, Foucault was also interested in ‘spiritual practices’, both in and out of Europe – in Japan, found, for example, in Mishima’s suicide as ‘Japanese way of death’, drawing on many ‘Asian’ traditions going back to China, Confucianism, Buddhism, which Foucault hoped to discuss with his Japanese interlocutors. In particular, he was interested in the ways ‘refusal’ inherent all uprisings was connected to a willingness to die – as with ‘martyrs’ in other traditions. At the time, he was investigating these same questions in Europe. It is after all to religious authorities that ‘not wanting to be governed like this any more’ would lead Kant to speak of an emancipation of Reason from its self-incurred tutelage. But the problem goes back earlier to the striking analysis of the anti-ecclesiastic ‘counter-conducts’ he was analyzing in Security Territory, Population at the time, and their relation to what he had hoped to develop in a book on ‘Pastoral Power’, never in fact published, but which, was connected to his larger investigation of ‘Western’ political rationality, and how it had led to the formation of the modern ‘welfare-warfare’ state, which, in effect, was what had kept Revolution out of Europe.

But what then of this sort of ‘spiritual ‘revolt’, elsewhere, outside European modernity or with another relation to it – for example in Iran? Behrooz now elaborates this question for today, arguing that it problematizes the great modern European ‘binary’ of secular or laique/religious. It was Foucault’s own view at the time that in the un-scripted situations of ‘uprising’, religions are often called upon to offer mobilizing symbols or rituals, of which Shiriati was one source at the time. Behrooz now proposes we see this early phase as part a larger battle of ‘dissent’ groups at the time, unleashed in opposition to the Shah, before the current Islamic Regime took hold, leading to his own imprisonment as a young ‘Marxist’ activist. Against the ‘failure’ or ‘confiscation’ narrative of the Revolution, he thus wants to restore something of the ‘virtualities’ of this early phase from the official story of a Revolution, that would lead to his own incarceration, which he describes in a striking fictive autobiography, published at the same time as his study of Foucault. It is now, after the fact, through these means at once artistic and scholarly, that he himself tries to ‘speak truly’ about what happened to him, opening up new questions in the present, for the present.

As such, his work forms part of the much larger group of retrospective views of what Foucault was calling ‘Marxist movements’ at the time. How now do we look back at Communist Revolution, its failures and outcomes in many places? Perhaps, instead of thinking of Communism as a single great ‘hypothesis’, residing in the mathematical skies, ever waiting to be ‘actualized’ (in a world that necessarily includes the States that actually resulted from those revolutions and the new problems they posed), it is more useful to talk of Communisms and Revolutions in the plural, in which in particular, Communist China is a very ‘singular’ case, unlike, say, Cuba or Russia.  In any case, it seems we now raising all these questions against the background of the attempt, after 1989, to present ‘neo-liberalism’ as a kind of grand counter-narrative to the Communist Revolution, leading to a ‘globalization’ at once in labor and wealth, with which, in many different ways and places, we are now contending. Is it then ‘useless to rise up’ today? How, with whom, where?

I’d like to add a few reflections about that. Perhaps today it is useful to ask in what ways the question of ‘uprising/revolution’, the long history of relations between the links between the two, was from the start also an ‘aesthetic’ and ‘media’ matter – a matter of how to make an uprising visible, of talking truly about it, when it happens or after the fact. For uprisings are also moments of upheaval in sensibility, explored by writers, artists, intellectuals meeting freely together outside their usual institutions. Indeed, the question of uprising/revolution is already to be found in 1789 – to see, to read, the storming of the Bastille as a Revolution, the very idea of Revolution had itself to be invented. From the start, Revolution was thus a ‘historiographic’ or even ‘hermeneutical’ question as well as an historical one, as Jean-Claude Milner has recently argued in his fresh attempt to ‘read’ the Revolution. But with Milner, we are at some distance from the idea of ‘past-futures’ or ‘horizon of expectation’ once associated with the idea – from its ‘wondrous and daunting promise’, in Foucault’s words. Milner, for his part, now wants to ‘read’ the Revolution without the Belief in it and its assurances about the new Future. In many ways now, we are trying to find a ‘virtuality’ in Revolutions that goes beyond the eventual outcome and official story, which was their ‘real’ future. We are thus close to the time Foucault was calling ‘the present’ or l’actuel, going back to Kant: a time without the ‘promise’ of any already scripted or given future, any ‘horizon of expectation’, even a ‘messianic’ one (or ghost of a messianic one), or a pure ‘to come’ outside anything to be found in our present arrangements.

Perhaps the arts have something to tell us about this kind of time – not so much a ‘poetry of the future’, as a role of poets and poetry in the present and aftermath of singular ‘refusal-uprisings’ as with the remarkable role of Farsi poetry readings to which Behrooz draws attention in Iran. (One day, it would be great to study more closely the key role poets and poetry played in the long history of uprisings/revolutions). For the role of art in revolutions was not at all restricted to the familiar heroic iconography of leaders and masses or peoples, marking together towards a grand future. They often explore and document ideas or potentials, taken up later in other ways, creating ‘complex’ times of montage and juxtaposition, even if eventually closed off by Armies and resulting States. The question of uprising/revolution has thus, in other words, always, at the same time, been an ‘aesthetic’ matter, not simply in poetry, but also in film, photography, today with social media, installation, performance. We see this in a striking way in the way cinema accompanied and figured in the changing relations with Revolutions – in the same years as Foucault was writing, for example, in Chris Marker’s remarkable documentary, Le Fond de l’air est rouge. It’s great that this 13/13 sequence has involved artists and activists, as well as scholars, together with an accompanying film program.

Jacques Rancière has especially insisted on the ways, since Kant at least, ‘aesthetics and politics’ have become inseparable from one another; and in several recent writings, he takes up the issue with respect to the question of ‘uprising/revolution’. Indeed, he thinks that a key feature of the ‘times we are living in’ is a kind of ‘voisinage indécis’ – an unsettled adjacency – between artists and artist groups and our activism: its ‘indignations’, its ways, sometimes using social media, of mobilizing, assembling, often raising questions of inequality and corruption, new forms of exclusion, yet, seemingly, without a common ‘program’ to deal with them, in this sense, without a clear or agreed ‘politics’.

In his contrition to an exposition called ‘Uprisings’, Rancière worries that this ‘activist’ side of images of uprisings has been lost, reduced to the same aesthetic role as the ‘pathos-formel’ in Warburg’s Atlas, which had inspired the show’s curator, Georges Didi-Huberman. In his catalogue essay, he says that the attempt to connect uprisings, with their new questions, debates, dreams, imaginings, with armed take-over of a State was the ‘impossible dream’ of Marx, adding that ‘it is true that the impossible of politics is frequently possible in art’. In En quel temps vivons-nous?, he takes up theme again with more recent cases (like role of the Army in the Arab Spring) in the process, expressing some doubts about the whole idea of ‘insurrection to come’, still, to his mind, hostage to Marx’s ‘impossible dream’.

In Foucault’s case, these aesthetic and media questions about how to make visible or invent new ways of talking, in and about uprisings were part of the larger, abandoned project of a ‘reportage d’idées’ to be carried on outside European universities and media (and related already to his analysis to the question of ‘the public’ in Kant’s own journalistic writings). Perhaps we see this question of a new ‘journalism of ideas’ in terms of the kind of ‘documentary aesthetic’ found in the arts today, for which Foucault’s own great historical art, mixing archive and ‘fiction’ in a new truthful sort of ‘fabrication’ might serve as an inspiration. I’ll break off these admittedly inconclusive and entangled remarks with this suggestion…

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