Religion, and Revolt in Foucault
Michel Foucault’s work is often read as providing the reader little reason
for hope. On this reading,
contemporary human beings, caught within an implacable web of power
relations, are left with few if any options for escape.
Such a bleak reading does a disservice to Foucault because
it disregards another and equally compelling dimension of his work. While it is undeniable that there are passages in Foucault that
might lead one to believe that power produces subjects and binds
them within an iron cage, for example in Foucault’s portrayal of
the disciplining of the modern subject presented in Discipline
and Punish, a much different picture emerges when one takes
into account the writings from the last period of Foucault’s life,
those writings associated with the (unfinished) History of Sexuality
Although it is true that for much of Foucault’s writing life he wrote
under the sign of Nietzsche’s anti-Enlightenment destroyer of idols,
another figure emerges from the shadows late in Foucault’s work. Kant’s influence becomes evident in late texts
such as Foucault’s “What is Enlightenment?,” in which Foucault seeks
to rehearse the question that Kant elaborates in his famous essay
of 1784.1 Another example of the inspiration Foucault
derives from Kant and the Kantian conception of critique is present
in Foucault’s “What is Critique?” from 1978.
However, Foucault’s essays are not merely rehearsals of Kant’s
position: In both texts, Foucault seeks to rescue a version of critique
that he believes has been overlooked by Kant’s inheritors.
According to Foucault, the nineteenth century reception of
Kant’s critical project conceived of his project in narrow epistemological
terms. Foucault seeks to retrieve a forgotten alternative
understanding of critique, one that would align it less with a critique
of what can be known and more with the question of what each individual
Readers who disregard the critical dimension of Foucault’s work also disregard
the ambiguous place of religious discourse within it. Granted, for the most part, Foucault conceives
religion in primarily negative terms, as a set of discourses and
practices that govern subjects and do not allow them to govern themselves.
Furthermore, in texts such as “Omnes et Singulatim,” Foucault shows how
the institution of the Christian practices of “pastoral power” paves
the way for modern practices that seek to govern all conceivable
aspects of living populations.2
This is one way Foucault characterizes religion in “What
“The Christian pastoral, or the Christian Church insofar
as it deployed an activity that was precisely and specifically pastoral,
developed this idea—unique, I believe, and completely foreign to
ancient culture—that every individual, whatever his age or his status,
from the beginning to the end of his life and down to the very details
of his actions, ought to be governed and ought to let himself be
governed, that is to say, be directed toward his salvation, by someone
to whom he is bound in a total, and at the same time meticulous
and detailed, relation of obedience.”3
The rise of social sciences such as statistics and psychology serve to
conceive each individual as the member of a population; such discourses
largely serve the interests of the modern state through “individualizing”
discourses and discourses and techniques that constitute the population
as a governable one.
There is another characterization of religion present in Foucault that
is admittedly not as prevalent as his conception of religion as
a set of utterly heteronomous practices that give rise to modern
discourses of governmentality.
This second, more positive characterization of religion lies
in its capacity to contest these nascent forms of state control
instituted during the modern period (which are the very forms of
governmental control that Christianity helped foster). The first example I will elaborate in this
paper is that of the sixteenth century Protestant Reformation, which
sought to resist these emerging forms of “governing in its various
domains: how to govern children, how to govern the poor, how to
govern armies, how to govern different groups, cities, states, how
to govern one’s own body, how to govern one’s own mind.”4
The Reformation presents a turn toward individual autonomy
that presages Kant’s own elaboration of the question of autonomy.
According to Foucault, the Reformation represents a Scriptural
critique of emerging disciplinary discourses and practices.
The second example of critical religiosity Foucault elaborates is more
problematic. In the late
1970’s, he praises the Iranian Revolution as a religious revolution. Although many of his pronouncements on events
in Iran have proven to be false, it is interesting to contrast his
characterization of the Iranian Revolution as a spiritual revolt
that expressed the ultimate form of critique in which individuals
are willing to forsake their individuality and lay down their lives
in order to refuse forms of governmentality.
I begin by examining Foucault’s conception of critique. With this analysis in place, I seek in the
second section to pose the question of the place of religion within
Foucault’s texts. I proceed
by interpreting the place of religious autonomy in Kant’s original
answer to the question of Enlightenment in order to pose the question
of autonomous religiosity in Foucault.
If we take seriously Foucault’s criticism of Christianity
as a set of irremediably heteronomous practices in which the individual
is subordinated to a spiritual teacher to whom she must confess
everything, what are the implications for religious practice?
On Foucault’s terms, is anything like an autonomous religiosity
possible, or does this remain as problematic for Foucault as it
was for Kant? Put more simply,
what might religious discourse contribute to an aesthetics of (autonomous)
Critique, and the Question of Religion
The clearest and most complete picture of Foucault’s conception of an
aesthetics of existence emerges in the second volume of the History
of Sexuality project, The Use of Pleasure.
The Use of Pleasure depicts the Greek male aristocrat
who is able to become autonomous and constitute himself independently
of the heteronomous forces seeking to determine him.
Foucault is clear that he is not entering upon this path
of investigation out of a sense of nostalgia for what was or what
might have been. We are
not to look to the Greeks for the reasons the German Romantics once
looked to them, as models to emulate or reasons to despair over
the emerging conformism of modern society. Rather, according to Foucault, we look to the
ancients in order to examine forms of autonomous existence that
may have relevance for us today.
Foucault only examines ancient practices of self-fashioning
in order to awaken in his reader the possibility of autonomous existence
and thereby provide his reader with a measure of hope for the future.
We do not look to the Greeks in order to bemoan what might
have been, but instead in order to see what might in fact become
possible. Foucault returns to the Greeks in order to portray possibilities
for autonomous existence that might prove relevant for us today,
not so that we might be better informed regarding the past, for
this would be nothing more than an arid scholasticism born solely
of the will to know.5
Foucault explicitly criticizes such epistemological impulses in his essay
“What is Critique?” Here,
he distinguishes two types of critique present in the Kantian project. The first is exclusively epistemological, and
has been the prevalent appropriation of Kant’s work down to the
present. Two different examples
of this idea of critique as epistemological critique present themselves
in the form of Neo-Kantianism and in certain strains of contemporary
analytic philosophy, but Foucault’s own examples of epistemological
critique are mainly drawn from nineteenth century positivism.
Critique in its epistemological guise seeks to determine
conditions for the possibility of true utterances in order to properly
ground scientific discourse. For Foucault, such a narrow construal of critique
disregards the most fruitful aspect of Kant’s conception, critique
as an explicitly political phenomenon that seeks to rediscover philosophy’s
original impulse. This impulse
is present in the Socratic need to ask who one is in relation to
others. Critique is the project the individual undertakes
to fashion herself out of the very governmental relations seeking
to determine her: Critique for Foucault is the practice of autonomy.
Concrete examples of such autonomy exist: Socrates provides one, as does
Kant. The place of the intellectual
becomes a question at this point, for the intellectual both performs
such critical work upon herself and to help facilitate it in others
through her words and deeds. As
“I can’t help but dream about a kind of criticism that
would try not to judge but to bring an oeuvre, a book, a sentence,
an idea to life; it would light fires, watch the grass grow, listen
to the wind, and catch the sea foam in the breeze and scatter it. It would multiply not judgments but signs of existence; it would
summon them, drag them from their sleep.
Perhaps it would invent them sometimes—all the better. All the better. Criticism that hands down sentences sends me to sleep; I’d like
a criticism of scintillating leaps of the imagination. It would not be sovereign or dressed in red. It would bear the lightning of possible storms.”6
The role of the intellectual is neither to pass nor to
make judgments; the intellectual’s function is neither epistemological
nor moral. Rather, the intellectual’s
role is to point toward possibilities that have not yet been conceived. Imagining otherwise requires a disrespect of
tradition, tradition as embodied in religious practices as well
as in secular societies.
The disrespect for traditional hierarchies is an aspect
of both imagining otherwise and genealogy. In addition, such disrespect requires a certain amount of fearlessness
in the face of what might result from this critique of traditional
hierarchies. However, one
does not engage in critique as an end in itself: Critique only becomes
possible if certain configurations of power and knowledge have become
intolerable. Critique becomes a necessary response to existing
relations of power and knowledge when individuals begin to hear
themselves ask “How not to be governed like that, by that
in the name of these principles, in view of such objectives and
by the means of such methods, not like that, not for that, not by
them?”7 This question is the counterpart to a question
that for Foucault was posed during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries,
that of government. According
to Foucault, the Protestant Reformation presents a prominent example
of the sixteenth century answer to the question of government. Martin Luther’s gesture of critique toward
the Church came at a time “when the governing of men was essentially
a religious practice linked to the authority of a church, to the
magisterium of Scripture, not wanting to be governed in that way
was essentially a seeking in Scripture a relationship other than
the one that was linked to the operating function of God’s teaching.”8
Although Luther’s act was aimed at a particular type of religious
authority and its specific practices, the intertwining of religious
and secular authority at this point in history gives this act more
than religious significance. It is a more general act of critique embodied
in speech and writing, critique in Scriptural terms. As Foucault writes, “from Wycliffe to Pierre
Bayle, I believe that critique was developed in an important, but
of course not exclusive part, in relation to Scripture.”9
Intellectuals such as Luther, Socrates, and Kant must
possess a certain amount of fearlessness in speaking critically. Foucault intends his series of lectures entitled
Fearless Speech to be a genealogy of the critical attitude
as characterized by Foucault’s portrayal of Kant in essays such
as “What is Critique?” These
lectures illuminate the ancient concept of parrhesia, in
which the individual carries out the duty of telling the truth to
those in power, despite that such truth-telling might mean her death.10 The thinker for Foucault must possess the means to make her views
known. The critic must possess
the courage to speak, and the determination not to be silenced. Certainly, the requisite courage varies and
depends on the given situation.
Within current American society for example, more courage
may be required to speak out than might have been required several
years ago. No matter the intellectual climate, the possibility of being silenced
or (more benignly) ignored is ever-present. Parrhesia always includes the possibility of the death of
the speaker, a possibility admittedly more real in ancient Greece
than it is for most people today.
For the ancients, parrhesia was an expression of freedom:
One could only be free if one could speak the truth to the ruling
classes, i.e. practice critique.
Parrhesia according to Foucault is a key concept for
contesting reigning conditions, but it is also revelatory of the
individual and presents a possible path toward autonomous existence.
This means that the parrhesiast’s activity must go
beyond outright refusal of societal conditions. The parrhesiast speaks out to contest
certain configurations of knowledge and power that she has found
to be unacceptable. Ultimately,
the only way to silence the parrhesiast is to kill or imprison
her. Although Foucault emphasizes ancient Greek
sources of parrhesia in this series of lectures, many religious
martyrs could serve as examples of parrhesia, from those
early Christians who opposed the Romans down to the present.
Modern examples echoing this ancient conception are readily
available as well. They
include a host of political dissidents in Eastern Europe, the Far
East, and South Africa, both known and unknown.
Included among these modern parrhesiasts are individuals
whose very religious identity provides the grounds for them to speak
out against conditions in society, figures such as the Tibetan Dalai
Lama or Archbishop Tutu of South Africa.
These individuals speak out against oppressive regimes because
their religious beliefs require that they do so.
Through their speech and deeds, such individuals provide
an example for others and a hope that conditions might be changed. Such figures point toward the possibility of
an autonomous existence deriving from religious faith. In the next section, I explore this possibility
and contrast it with another possibility Foucault elaborates, that
of religious revolt.
Foucault on Autonomy and Religious Revolution
15. For Foucault, religion in general
and Christianity in particular pose difficulties for the project
of autonomous self-fashioning, for an aesthetics of existence. In this section, I wish to investigate an aspect
of Foucault’s relationship to religion not often investigated, which
is the possibility of critique immanent within religious discourse,
alluded to in the case of the Reformation above and present for
Foucault in the example of the Iranian Revolution, which Foucault
addresses in two essays on the Iranian revolution. In order to present
this question of religious critique and revolution, I begin with
a rehearsal of Kant’s position presented in his 1784 essay “What
16. Kant’s essay is part of a newspaper
exchange. Moses Mendelsohn
put forward the initial answer to the question of Enlightenment,
and Kant’s answer presents his own conception and initiates a dialogue
with Mendelsohn’s earlier text.
Kant begins with his famous definition of Enlightenment as
the demand for the departure from a “self-incurred immaturity.”
One’s unenlightened immaturity is not due to a lack of knowledge
but to a lack of resolve. Enlightenment
requires courage, a courage not wholly unrelated to Foucault’s conception
of parrhesia. However, Kant’s conception of enlightenment
emphasizes institutional change, whereas Foucault’s presentation
of the parrhesiast underscores the individual’s role in critiquing
the present. In order to autonomously fashion one’s existence
meaningfully for Foucault the individual must be willing to write
and speak against intolerable conditions in the present, a task
that is made much easier, as Kant notes, if institutions exist to
foster this activity. This is at the root of Kant’s distinction between
the public and private use of reason.
For Kant, reason’s public employment is that of the scholar
who writes and speaks before a public audience and speaks for everyone. That same individual might also employ reason
in its private aspect, through her role within a state or institutional
17. Religious institutions play
a role in the process of Enlightenment, and they can either help
or hinder it. Kant presents
the example of the member of the clergy who has the private duty
to speak in conformity with given institutional norms, but also
has the duty to speak out against these very norms when employing
reason in its public aspect, when such institutional norms hinder
the possibility of Enlightenment for both her congregation and the
wider public. In her former
role, the minister serves as an agent of her particular institutional
affiliation and is not permitted to speak freely, while in her latter
guise she must speak freely as an individual and member of
the enlightened public. For Kant, the public and universal employment
of reason must be kept distinct from its employment within private
18. Foucault does not hew so strictly
to the distinction between the private and public employment of
reason that Kant outlines. Instead,
Foucault examines religious discourse as a specific example of how
relations between power and knowledge become constituted and how
they in turn constitute subjects.
Christianity in particular interests him because he sees
in the practices of the early Church mechanisms that will be expanded
and intensified in order to administer individuals and populations.
This is the predominant conception of Christianity present
in Foucault’s writings. However, Foucault does not see religion as
only a dangerous precursor to modern forms of governmentality. In addition, he sees religion as opening up
spaces for critique. Oddly
enough, we can begin to make sense of Foucault’s remark that the
Reformation provides a critique of emerging forms of governmentality
if we examine Foucault’s views of the Islamic revolution that toppled
the Shah of Iran.
19. The idea that revolution expresses
a secular sentiment against a hidebound traditional society that
has become intolerable is a relatively recent one.
Indeed, the idea is really only as old as the French Revolution.11 The American Revolution did not manifest the
anticlericalism found within the French Revolution, mainly because
religious life was not so intimately tied to the political life
of the ruling elite in the American colonies as it was in pre-Revolutionary
France. The Russian Revolution took up this anticlericalism,
and it came to be understood that revolutions, despite the pain
visited upon the masses, were ultimately for the good of them, because
it is only through revolution that they could be free of the shackles
of traditional religious and political life.
20. Foucault points out that such
a conception of revolution as exclusively secular and wholly progressive
supplants an older idea in which religion itself provides the vehicle
for social change. Revolution
represents the extreme of critique, and its status as a progressive
force is of recent origin. As
Foucault writes in “Useless to Revolt?”:
“If societies persist and live, that is, if the powers that be are not
“utterly absolute,” it is because, beyond all the submissions and
coercions, beyond the threats, the violence, and the intimidations,
there is the possibility of that moment when life can no longer
be bought, when the authorities can no longer do anything, and when,
facing the gallows and the machine guns, people revolt.
“Because they are thus “outside history” and in history, because everyone
stakes his life, and his death on their possibility, one understands
why uprisings have so easily found their expression and their drama
in religious forms. Promises
of the afterlife, time’s renewal, anticipation of the savior or
the empire of the last days, a reign of pure goodness—for centuries
all this constituted, where the religious form allowed, not an ideological
costume but the very way of experiencing revolts.”12
21. This revolutionary aspect of
religion unsettled the Romans during the time of Christ, and it
unsettled both Church and political authorities in the doctrinal
critiques that became the Reformation of the sixteenth century.
More recently, it unsettled observers of the Iranian religious
revolution as well.
22. Foucault was fascinated by
events in Iran, for it seemed that what he was witnessing was a
manifestation of a mythical general will.
Prior to events in Iran, Foucault believed that such a phenomenon
was a mere metaphysical abstraction on the order of, as he put it,
God or the human soul.13 It was thought to be something ineffable, a
mere dream of political philosophers, and yet here it was: the general
will as a manifestation of religious revolutionary zeal.
23. The Iranian revolution in its
earliest stages, which Foucault is observing and commenting upon
here, unites individuals and groups; it does not permit of factionalism. Foucault cites the example of Iranian Kurds
who unite behind this general will by identifying themselves with
Iranians who wish to overthrow the Shah—they utter the same revolutionary
slogans and seek the same result as the Shiites but in their own
language. Groups unite in order to achieve this single
goal; the result of this action proves unforeseeable but awesome. The dangers accompanying manifestations of
religious zeal are magnified when this zeal takes a revolutionary
form as it does in Iran. For
example, the distinction between public and private that Kant so
rigorously sought becomes meaningless in such situations, and distinctions
between the individuals cease to have meaning.
This revolutionary zeal seeks its one goal, but cannot limit
itself to this one goal. If the public/private distinction does not
apply, and differences between individuals become negligible, then
the question of autonomy will eventually need to be addressed. The interview in which Foucault expresses awe for the events in
Iran also begins to address the question of minority and individual
rights within this new post-revolutionary society, which remains
an issue to this day.
24. Admittedly the categories that
characterize Western ways of thinking cannot be applied to situations
such as the Iranian revolution without distortion, but something
like a need for autonomy can be seen in the various youth-led reform
movements that have begun to take shape in recent years in Iran.
The clerical hierarchy in Iran perhaps knows that it must
adapt to this reforming tendency if it is not to find itself in
the same position as its predecessor. The revolution in Iran began when the situation
there became intolerable, and people united, in the name of religion,
to undo what they perceived as the Westernization of their country. People began to speak and act against the government
of the Shah, but they spoke and acted with a single revolutionary
voice; differences between individuals were erased. The danger from a Western point of view is that the religious revolution
in Iran replaced one form of heteronomy with another, and that the
question of autonomy has become forgotten.
The revolution in Iran was the reverse of what a revolution
was supposed by modern Westerners to have been, hence the unease
of Western observers to these events: it did not fit into their
preconceived notions of what a revolution ought to be, for revolution
at least since the French Revolution was conceived as the means
whereby a population rises up to depose a heteronomous (and largely
religious) form of government and replace it with an autonomous,
enlightened, and secular form of government.
The revolution in Iran has not proceeded according to these
expectations, hence the unease of Western observers.
25. Revolution is certainly the
most drastic form of critique.
The forces of revolution boil over when political and social
situations have become so unbearable that change is necessary even
if revolt should require the death of its participants.
The changes instituted by what has come to be known as the
Protestant Reformation are at least as decisive for Europe and the
West as the Iranian Revolution has been for the Middle East, but
the form this revolution has taken is very different.
The essential difference between the Iranian religious revolution
and the Reformation is that the Reformation entailed a turn toward
individuality. It was, as Foucault points out, a critique that concerned Scripture
and writing. The object
of the reforms instituted by Luther concerned the individual: it
was the individual who ought to have the right to interpret Scripture
in her own way. The individual,
rather than a religious hierarchy, becomes the authority on religious
matters. Interpretation of religious texts becomes both a right
and obligation for members of Protestant denominations.
Whereas the general will expressed by the Iranian Revolution
sought to erase differences between individuals, the Protestant
reforms sought to assert a circumscribed individual autonomy.
It is no longer the Church hierarchy that must care for each
and all (the goal of the pastoral power instituted by the early
Church); it is the individual who becomes the authority. It is a limited autonomy, for this religious
autonomy answers to Scriptural rather than religious authority. Each individual becomes responsible for the
interpretation of the texts, and has the obligation to communicate
her interpretations to others.
26. The Reformation’s effects were
felt throughout society because this was a revolt away from certain
institutions and ecclesiastical modes of governing subjects and
toward inwardness and autonomy that affected all of society. If the Church’s authority could be radically questioned, and the
authority of rulers within society was based at least in part on
the blessing of the Church, then secular authority could be questioned
as well. More fundamentally, the questioning of the
Church’s authority contributed to an attitude that made possible
the questioning of various forms of authority.
As Foucault reminds us, the Reformation came at a time when
there was no real distinction in Europe between Church and secular
authority.14 For Foucault, the Reformation stands as a prominent
example of critique, similar to the critical attitude Kant proposes
in “What is Enlightenment” and that Foucault interprets in his own
Kant had been a presence in Foucault’s philosophy all along, as
Beatrice Hán ably points out in her book Foucault’s Critical
Project: Between the Transcendental and the Historical, (Stanford: Stanford UP, 2002).
2. Michel Foucault, “‘Omnes et Singulatim’: Toward a Critique
of Political Reason,” The Essential Works of Foucault, 1954-1984,
Volume Three: Power,
Ed. James D. Faubion, (New York: New Press, 1997).
3. Michel Foucault, “What is Critique?” in What is Enlightenment?
Eighteenth Century Answers and Twentieth Century Questions, Ed. James Schmidt, (Berkeley: U of California Press, 1996),
4. Michel Foucault, “What is Critique?”, 384.
5. This impulse provides the French title for the first volume of
the History of Sexuality (La Volunté de Savoir). Here, the naked desire to know manifests itself
in the scientia sexualis,
a coordinated set of discourses about sex that refused to utter
its name. “This was in fact a science made up of evasions
since, given its inability or refusal to speak of sex itself, it
concerned itself primarily with aberrations, perversions, exceptional
oddities, pathological abatements, and morbid aggravations.” All in order to judge the individual and gauge the health of populations,
ultimately in the furtherance of life. See History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction, (New
York: Vintage, 1978 ), 53.
6. Michel Foucault, “The Masked Philosopher,” Essential
Works of Foucault, Volume I: Ethics, Subjectivity, and Truth,
(New York: New Press, 1997), 323.
7. Michel Foucault, “What is Critique?”, 384.
8. Michel Foucault, “What is Critique?”, 385.
9. Michel Foucault, “What is Critique?”, 385.
10. See e.g. Fearless Speech, Ed. Joseph Pearson, (Los Angeles:
Semiotext(e), 2001), 10-20: “In parrhesia, the speaker uses
his freedom and chooses frankness instead of persuasion, truth instead
of falsehood or silence, the risk of death instead of life and security,
criticism instead of flattery, and moral duty instead of self-interest
and moral apathy. That,
then, quite generally, is the positive meaning of the word parrhesia
in most of the Greek texts where it occurs from the Fifth Century
B.C. to the Fifth Century A.D.”
11. See Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (New York: Penguin,
1963) for a discussion of the modern conception of revolution. There are noteworthy differences between Arendt’s
conception of revolution as the impingement of the social onto the
political realm and Foucault’s conception of revolution outlined
in his remarks on the Iranian Revolution.
For example, the striking thing about the revolution for
Foucault is that it serves as a manifestation of the general will,
a concept that Arendt ties to misguided attempts by theorists to
circumscribe the realm of free political action.
12. Michel Foucault, “Useless to Revolt?” in Essential
Works of Foucault 1954-1984, Volume 3: Power, Ed. James D. Faubion,
(NY: New Press), 2000, 450.
13. This is Hannah Arendt’s attitude as well: for Arendt, Rousseau’s
conception of the general will is a pernicious metaphysical abstraction
that denies the avenues for individual political expression, for
spontaneity within the public realm.
It is thus related to the rise of the social, and the withering
away of the distinction between the authentically public sphere
and the private sphere of necessity.
14. Indeed, it is arguable that it is these very reforms that
made possible such a distinction between religious and secular forms
of authority and governmentality.