An Empire of Cant

An Empire of Cant

Hardt, Negri, and Postmodern Political Theory

Cant-the word is English and is said to have been first used in the sixteenth century as a description of the saintly singsong of the Puritans. More generally, it denotes an unreal manner of speech, either thoughtlessly repetitive or used with the consciousness of its untruth to attain any kind of object, whether it be a matter of religion or politics, dead theory or living reality.
-Eduard Bernstein, The Preconditions of Socialism

As the shah tottered, Foucault prophesied. Perhaps this revolution would demonstrate “an art of not being governed,” he wrote in the fall of 1978. The mullahs were not “fanatics,” but the voice of the oppressed. An “Islamic government,” he supposed, might initiate a new “political spirituality” of the sort unknown in the West for half a millennium (since modernity’s rise, that is). Look at those demonstrations! A revolt against “the planetary system”! Against “global hegemony”! “Inspired by a “religion of combat and sacrifice”! The Iranian revolution could herald a “transfiguration” of the world. And those women who don the veil-what an impressive political statement! Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini? Just “the point of fixation of a collective will.”

After the shah fell, Foucault fumbled. The Iranians, it turned out, were to be governed again. There were “summary trials,” “hasty executions,” and these were “alarming,” he said in an open letter to Mehdi Bazargan, once an oppositionist with whom he conversed about revolutionary events, and now prime minister, thanks to Khomeini’s designation. Did the fact of Iran’s new repression “condemn” the “intoxication” of its revolution, Foucault asked aloud? And he wondered: “In the expression ‘Islamic government,’ why cast suspicion on the adjective ‘Islamic’? The word ‘government’ by itself is enough to awaken vigilance.”On Foucault and Iran in English, see especially, Didier Eribon, Michel Foucault (Harvard University Press, 1991), pp. 281-295; James Miller, The Passion of Michel Foucault (Simon and Schuster, 1993), pp. 306-324; and Foucault’s essays “Open Letter to Mehdi Bazargan” and “Useless to Revolt?”, in Michel Foucault, Power: Essential Works of Foucault, Vol 3 (The New Press, 2000).

Foucault did what postmodernist theorists (like himself) often warned against. He crammed particular developments into his own intellectual macrocosm and then pronounced on them. Had he approached “Islamic government” on its own grounds, he would have started with classical Islam’s refusal to separate religion and political authority-the notion, as Khomeini once put it, that “all of Islam is politics.” (Khomeini published ...