One should attemtp to elaborate the geneaology, not so much of the notion of modernity, but rather of modenity as a question for examination. — Michel Foucault, What is Revolution?
The setting was that of the legendary Café de Flore in Paris. True, the Flore is no longer what it used to be to (the now profoundly transformed) French cultural and intellectual scene only twenty or thirty years ago.
Perhaps one should say, bearing in mind all the Paris-begot international publicity created in the aftermath of the publication of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's famous account of the “The Gulag Archipelago” in 1975, that it is is no longer the hub of all the typically Parisian and supposedly chic intellectual agitation of which the very concept of “revolutionary ideology” has been, paradoxically enough, the principal beneficiary and the major victim ever since the events of May 1968 rocked the foundations of a very conservative and conformist European society.
The Flore had ironically been a significant token in the imagination of many an intellectual in the “periphery” during the ideologised and revolutionary era that followed the end of the Second World War and reached its peak with the unfolding of politically decisive colonial conflicts in Algeria and (what was then known as) Indochina. An era whose political passage was perhaps most powerfully symbolised by the dramatic images of the retreat of the US forces from Vietnam.
In Paris, the end of the same era, at least in intellectual terms, was marked by the politico-philosophical debates and, at times, comically loud exchange of invectives among members of the local chattering classes which at times involved more serious members of the French intelligenstia such as Michel Foucault. This was occasioned by the publication of a number of essays by a group of ex-Maoists refered to as the “New Philosophers” (“Les Nouveaux Philsophes”) by an indulgent and visibly amused French media.
These were, as André Malraux had jocosely pointed out in 1974, former hot “café” ultrarevolutionaries who had finally and, one should not omit to say, theatrically awakened to the ugly truth of Communist disregard for what Lenin once disdainfully dismissed as “excellent and yet politically irrelevant and harmful ethical considerations” in the wake of the publication of Solzhenitsyn's revelations of the horrors of forced labour in Soviet internment camps.
For despite all its “progressive” diatribes against the characteristically “capitalist” fetishisation of labour, every honest observer of contemporary history would readily concede that the Soviet regime's maddeningly inefficient quantification of human labour did indeed set an unequaled record of brutal and inhumane consistency only surpassed, in strictly qualitative terms, by the destructive irrationality of National Socialism.
A record whose making, contrary to what these opportunistic seekers of the eleventh hour media celebrity in Paris simplistically claimed, was not so much a natural consequence of Marxism, if by that one means a critical attempt at analysing the contradictions and the pretentions of a fragile and finite present, as that of all ideology with its characteristic distortion of the culturally complex symbolism that has invariably informed human social practice throughout history. Not the least of which, of course, is the possibility of reflection on a world whose mystery Marx had never so much sought to unravel as to render less pliably “mystified”.
As the later political developments of the last quarter century were to prove, both the New Philosophers in the West and their erstwhile and lesser cultivated “revolutionary” comrades in the periphery have been equally and fatally blind to the crucial distinction between critical thought and dogmatically reductive ideology.
Neither bloc could, owing to the very character of its reductively theatrical demonisation of the political adversary and its ideas, free itself of the very ideological notion of the “chief enemy”. The only difference being that for the New Philosophers a grossly simplified and distorted representation of yesterday's oft bombastic discourse on the need for revolution had come, no less ideologically than before their sudden convesion to the values of liberal modernity, to assume the theoretical mantle of the ultimate political nemesis.
It goes without saying that the violence with which Marxism was attacked in Paris in the late seventies was of a verbal nature whereas at the same time in the periphery and, more precisely, in revolutionary Iran the struggle with the “enemy” was (and still remains) of a literally violent character.
Strangely enough, in both socio-cultural contexts the prospect of dispassionately critical reflection on the past and the present still remains the major victim of the socio-cultural upheavals of that moment in contemporary history, in addition to being the sorely missing ingredient in the weaving of the fabric of the cultural life of two otherwise very dissimilar societies. Regardless of their respective pretentions to an “exceptionally” elevated cultural or civilisational historical status.
As far as contemporary Iranian history is concerned, it would then seem superfluous to underscore the importance of the fatal association established by the more aggressive variety of blindness to the value of critical thought (and the cheaply politicised understanding of the “enemy” that such blindness invariably engenders) between the notion of revolution and the violent elimination of the political adversary.
So significant has in fact been the impact of the said association that even today, after twenty-five years of uninterrupted misery, its costly distortion of the idea of radical social change continues to influence and sadly disempower Iranian society. To the point that when, as is the case today, there is an undeniably urgent need for an authentic revolution in Iranian affairs, most of my self-serving and, as Hegel would say, “slavish” compatriots sheepishly prefer the narcotic and illusory comfort of fictive “reforms” to the masterfully assumed perils of an honestly cathartic revolution.
Without stretching the analogy too far, one could perhaps say that it is still the workings of ideology and its comforting elision of the intuition of the real's fragile complexity which must still be held responsible for widespread allergry to critical thought in Paris today (in the aftermath of “La Nouvelle Philosophie”) as well as the seemingly endless sway of shameful public apathy in Iran after the “Islamic Revolution”. For ideology is the stultifying negation of all serious thinking on and, as Sartre would say, responsible involvement in the affairs of this world. Be it in Paris or in Tehran. The question would then seem simple to ask and, as the noted French Marxist theorist Louis Althusser would say, historically vast but pratically difficult to theorise: What is ideology and how has it influenced contemporary Iranian history?
This I wanted to discuss with Daryush Shayegan on that cold and rainy April day at the Flore, that is to say, the most ideologically de-ideologised Parisian cultural and, of late, touristic landmark.
I felt nervous and angry at myself for having failed to take the appropriate precautions to ensure that I would arrive on time for my meeting with one of the contemporary world's most influential cultural theorists and comparative philosophers. How fortunate, I thought all the same, that long after the exciting and Flore-dominated era of such luminaries as Sartre, Camus, Mauriac, Breton, Genet, Barthes and Lacan had passed, one could still meet there an erudite observer of contemporary civilisation whose work, despite what I have always considered its overly positive evaluation of the historic role of the West and its uncircumventable invention of the political horizon of modernity, has earned him a unique and truly universal intellectual reputation. For Dariuysh Shayegan's intellectual reputation happily exceeds the perimeters of the cultural ghetto which the ill-conceived field of Middle Eastern studies, so Edward Said very effectively argued in “Orientalism”, has been become in the West.
Fortuantely enough, my worries turned out to be excessive for the traffic in Paris was not terribly unmanagable on that particular day and I arrived just in time to be greeted by Shayegan's broad smile and warm handshake. During our pleasant luncheon, the discussion, of which I shall present a synopsis nourished by references to Shayegan's various writings herein, chiefly revolved around his later thought as expounded in his latest and characteristically controversial book, “La Lumière Vient de l'Occident” published in Paris in 2001 and widely commented by the French media. Wherein the question of the role of ideology in the periphery and that of the negative intellectual impact of Politically Correct in the multicultural West (in particular the US) occupy, so to speak, the hermeneutic centerstage.
Shayegan's thinking must be viewed as the intellectually indispensable fruit of a remarkable transcultural quest whose object is thinking what the noted Iranian philosopher and cultural critic seductively terms the “multiple layers of modern consciousness”. It is cruical to remember that whilst Shayegan's influential analyses of the essentially ideological and Westernised character of contemporary Islamic fundamentalism (notably in its Shiite/Iranian and intellectually more advanced variety) in such previous publications as “Qu'est-ce qu'une Révolution Religieuse” and “Le Regard Mutilé”, have established him as an internationally recognised authority on the contemporary intellectual transformations of traditional societies, their successful reception has somewhat tended to eclipse the resolutely comparative character of his earlier as well as that of his later and more substantially theoretical writings such as, for example, his latest essay.
Indeed, his awareness and impressive knowledge of the diversity of the contemporary world's sources of cultural inspiration tend to confer upon Shayegan's work a uniquely edifying and therapeutic quality that is not easily matched elsewhere in the annals of recent and (oft) conceptually naive musings on the cultural and the political future of a multicultural, postmodern world.
When referring to the “multiple layers of modern consciousness”, Shayegan means, obviously enough, several things but the principal connotation of this conceptually over-determined formula, or so it appears at least to this reader, is the unmistakably modern fragmentation of self-consciousness that, beginning in the début-du-siècle Vienna, anticipated and eventually paved the way for the contemporary “postmodern” subject's radical break with the traditionally monolithic conceptions of cultural identity that had been prevalent, equally that is, in the East and in the West.
As Shayegan underscores in his reading of the writings of the influential Italian philosopher, Gianni Vattimo, postmodernity is nothing other than the radicalised expression of trends already at work within the cultural space of modernity, a certain mode of its overcoming (“Verwindung”) and not, as many of its anti-modernist and nativist adversaries or philosophically mediocre, neo-liberal ideologues may pretend, politically desirable or incorrect rejection amounting to no more than, in theoretical terms, its Hegelian and metaphysical subsumption (“Aufhebung”) in a new and “undemocratic” institutional framework.
Breaking with conceptions that had underpinned the “traditional” universe of a particular culture's historical lifeworld, modernity radically transcends and relativises the merely biographical fact of its subject's belonging to a culture, race, religion of origin or even, as in the case of the turbulent and Islamic East, deceptively loud professions of declared and official ideological hostility to the West.
But more significant in Shayegan's perspective, as one might expect from this uniquely lucid Iranian intellectual, is the fascinating and yet seldom commented fact that modernity has profoundly affected its subjects in ways that, paradoxically enough, highlight the decisive structural continuity between the West and its historically constructed and culturally antagonistic “others”. Notable among the latter, as Shayegan memorably argued in his earlier writings, are the hardline, theatrically religious and contemporary enemies of a certain ill-defined and yet intellectually no less than defining “Satanic West”.
So visibly decisive has been the unacknowledged intellectual debt of all fundamentalism to the West that, the radical and constructive critique of his irritating overemphasis on the supposed uniqueness of the West's discovery of modernity notwithstanding, the culturally sensitive reader of Shayegan's latest book should easily fathom, at least in principle, why the light of intellectual progress, that is to say, radical self-critique, can still shine from the West (despite all its undeniable historical shortcomings).
This one can do by simply reflecting on the decisive impact that its crucial and misunderstood intellectual history has had on the self-understanding of its various supposedly radical opponents; opponents who can henceforth, in the aftermath of the flight of the “God” ensuring the “immutability” of the horizon of an irreversibly exceeded Western ontology, break the bonds of their ideological opposition, that is to say, perpetual intellectual dependence on their former colonial tutors in the West. For the West, as Shayegan convincingly argues again in his latest essay, is not simply a geographical or a mere historical reality. It is an uncircumventable civilisational and ontological horizon of thought and action which can neither be simply skewed nor gradually imported in the manner of cleverly dispersed components of a costly nuclear reactor.
One should remember that in his earlier readings of the theoretical underpinnings of the writings of Ali Shariati, the influential ideologue of an increasingly militant political Islam in pre-revolutionary Iran whose thought was instrumental in furnishing the Revolution with its rigid ideological orientation, Shayegan had pertinently argued that Shariati's use of the equivalent Persian term for the notion of worldview (“Jahanbini”) in his attempt to underscore the supposed uniqueness of his brand of highly politicised Shiite Islam, an Islam whose aim is not that of promoting the education of a class of traditional and cultured theologians and clergymen (“Ayatollahs”) but, rather, that of political activists and warriors (“Mojaheds”) equipped with the appropriate ideological outlook required for the realisation of their revolutionary project, bespoke the decisive omnipresence of the eminently Western, pseudo-Hegelian and, above all, “instrumentalist” conception of thought as ideology.
As Heidegger would put it, it was ideology, understood as a militant world-picture (“Weltanschauung”) and a means to the realisation of a concrete politico-historical project, that, once again, presided over the predictable material and spiritual destruction that its unleashing of the fatally radicalised tendency of the “uprooted modern masses” to deadly self-alienation (through identification with a “Charismatic Great Leader”) occasioned in the context of a deeply confused and comically self-deluding Iranian society in 1979.
The fact that this well-known transhistorical drive chose the manifestly distortedly symbols of Shiism (in the intellectually impoverished Iranian context) to express itself could not (and did not) shield its monstrous institutional offspring from the prospect of succumbing to the fate of all other rigidly officialised state religions famously analysed by Hegel in his “Phenomenology of the Spirit”, to wit, the irreversible loss of their symbolic content as coupled with that of their socially pervasive cultural influence.
Indeed, Shayegan is among those rare analysts who had predicted such an outcome in the Iranian context and pointed out that the realisation of a Shariati-style ideologico-revolutionary project would inevitably cost the “revolutionized” Shiite clergy its socially defining role as the custodian of the transhistorically regulative and symbolic capital that Shiism had historically accumulated ever since Islam became the predominant religion of Persia.
More revelatory, however, of the deep and yet unconscious conceptual “Weststruckness” bedeviling the ideologised and fanatically “revolutionary” opponents of the “Satanic West” (in Iran) was, according to Shayegan, nothing less than the very political self-understanding of the radical Islamists (inspired by Shariati) who embarked on the ambiguous project of creating an “Islamic Republic”.
In so doing, Shayegan ironically remarked, these latter day janissaries of a new brand of “World Islam”, whose ideology bore the unmistakable imprint of the conceptually impoverished variety of “Third Worldist” Marxism (“marxisme vulgaire”), brilliantly examined in “Le Regard Mutilé”, did nothing other than illustrate (to the intellectually sensitive observer of a self-defeatingly wishful Iranian society) the salient and characteristically muted fact of their radical doctrinal break with the visions of their uncompromisingly “traditionalist” forerunners. Among these were, for example, the infamous Islamist extremist Navab Safavi and even the young Khomeni himself, that is to say, the pugnacious and determined author of “Kashf Al Asrar”.
For whilst the preceding and notoriously violent generation of Islamic “traditionalists” simply wished to protect what they thought of as a time-honoured, traditional social structure and ethos as well as, significantly enough, the political hierarchy designed to preserve it (at whose apex, in Navab Safavi's own view, one would still have to place the monarch or the Shah conceived as a good father of a large nation/family whose behaviour should be modeled on that of Ali Ibn Abi Talib, the first Imam of Shiite Islam) against all attempts at an European-inspired and impiously corrupting “modification”, the new, acutely power-conscious and “revolutionary” proprietors of a rather cheaply acquired apparatus of state coercion felt the need for the establishment of the agency of a “revolutionary/republican” state to ensure the durably efficient imposition of their unbending and official political ideology underlying their new brand of radical Islam. That is to say, a political system whose safeguarding would require the repression of all expression of political and doctrinal dissent even from prominent members of the traditionally outspoken Shiite clergy.
The institutionalisation of the impact of this Iranian variety of the internationally famous and rightly feared virus of “ideological intolerance” of dissident political thinking and praxis (so characteristic, by the way, of the “traditional” Islamic Persia's creative history of thought), Shayegan persuasively argued, meant that the construction of an “Islamic Republic” in Iran could not be considered, in the conceptual or the historical sense of the term, an attempt at resurrecting some native political and cultural “tradition” whose social pertinence could have been thought of as repressed by the artificial imposition of “Western-invented modernity” on the fabric of a traditional Muslim society.
Indeed, no more solid historical evidence to support this assertion is needed than the indisputable fact that even after a quarter century of its understandably prolonged existence, the said political project — the Islamic Republic — has clearly amounted to no more than the ever provisional installation of a self-contradictory and impossibly self-destabilising (in purely administrative terms) political structure whose costly undertaking has, as suggested above, only served to reflect the depth of what Shayegan famously called the intellectual “schizophrenia” that has consistently beset the cultural lifeworlds of traditional societies in their historical encounter with the misappropriated exigencies of an ominously misunderstood modern world.
The schizophrenia in question constitutes the core of an intellectual confusion that has been invariably compounded by the politically fatal popular ignorance of the complex history of a spiritually valuable (and epistemologically obsolete) native “tradition” whose study can no longer be left to its intellectually inadequate and fetishising Orientalist “specialists” for reasons of sheer cultural and political urgency.
Such traditional societies, Shayegan brilliantly argued, whether they regard themselves as “Islamic” or simply “Asian” or “African”, can never recuperate the supposedly lost and fictive purity of the lifeworld of their respective historical traditions and have not adequately assimilated, socio-politically speaking, the profoundly secularising and critical implications of the authentic civilisational revolution that is “modernity”.
They tend to stagnate, as Shayegan memorably puts it, in this in-between (“entre-deux”) ontological region in which only self-defeating dependence on a curiously heterogeneous cocktail of vague reminiscences of declining native/popular traditions and superficially appropriated, “radical” ideas of indisputably Western origin seems to provide the elements of the sole recipe used in concocting what is, invariably and as a matter of systemic necessity, nothing other than ethnocentric ideologies of “resistance” to the “cultural onslaught” of the West.
As contemporary Iranian history has so poignantly illustrated, such self-deluding and simplistically “ideological” rejections of modernity, identified as a corrupting and exclusively Western invention in a manner that Lord Curzon, the legendary Viceroy of Colonial India would certainly not have disavowed, has only increased the cultural and the economic dependence of these traditional societies on the West whilst inflicting great moral confusion and material suffering upon them.
Hence, it is unsurprising that, in the context of his laudably demystifying critique of Huntington's simplistic notion of “civilisation”, Shayegan should contend, again with great irony, that the Islamic Republic will never be truly “Islamic” and is not, politically speaking, yet a “Republic” in the modern sense of the term. Enough confusing juxtaposition and amalgamation of heterogeneous and asymmetric concepts is just enough.
To those who thought (and still think, albeit self-servingly) that the “worldview” of the Islamic Revolution's major ideologue bespoke a nativist attempt aimed at recapturing a sense of political and cultural autonomy from the intrusive and imperialistic cultural presence of the West, Shayegan eloquently retorted that what indeed distinguished Shariati's and, more generally, the Iranian fundamentalists' ideological, narrow and impoverishing use of the classical concepts of Islamic Persia's glorious tradition of theosophical mysticism (a tradition whose most universally admired and culturally influential representative is perhaps the fourteenth century poet and mystic Hafiz Shirazi) was nothing less than the ideologised expression of the impact, unconsciously absorbed and universally relevant, of the emergence of a historically unique phenomenon commonly known as “modernity” discovered by the West.
Modernity is a cultural earthquake, in Shayegan's view, whose intellectual shockwaves have thus been incessantly felt and, as with Islamic fundamentalism, often unconsciously assimilated by its most dogmatic and unbending adversaries in the form of “revolutionary ideology”.
In this respect, as Shayegan has repeatedly pointed out, the official and intellectually confusing grafting (“placage”) of an essentially Western-inspired assortment of supposedly formative socio-political policy guidelines (often tyrannically and disastrously imposed) or “ideology” on a meta-historical (“métahistorique” in the vocabulary of Henry Corbin, Shayegan's close friend, pioneer French translator of Heidegger as well as noted specialist of traditional Shiite Iranian philosophy and mysticism,) content of traditional and socially influential religious symbols has inexorably led to the ironic and massive secularisation of the cultural lifeworld of a superficially modernised society such as that of pre-revolutionary Iran's. A society that has ever since the Revolution, as Hegel would say, profoundly privatised, personalised and modernised the multiple connotations of the much abused, inherently non-ideological and ever self-redefining cultural signifier that Islam will always have been.
Equally significant in the context of Shayegan's analysis of fundamentalism's Iranian incarnation was the crucial fact that the monolithic, confrontationally upheld and ideologically determined notion of a Revolutionary/Islamic Identity, in as much as it was conceived as a supposedly distinct identity underpinned by the idea of its revolutionary and historical distinctness, was shown to be nothing other than a derivative variant of the pseudo-dialectical and clearly Western fantasy of a unique cultural identity comfortingly endowed with its allegedly unique history of irresistible conquest of a spiritually inferior “other”.
A morally “superior” history, that of Islam's inevitable rise to global prominence, which, neither Marx nor Kipling would have fundamentally disagreed, is thought as “providentially” blessed with the force of its “manifest destiny” in the linear course of its very worldly and political unfolding.
Here, one need not be a specialist of the contemporary history of the Middle East in order to fathom how Shayegan had indirectly touched upon the destructive workings of a deceptively expansionist and cheaply ideologising political demagoguery that, in the context of the turmoil in post-revolutionary Iran, pursued the realisation of its putatively international and ideological ambitions with the sole aim of constructing and consolidating an Islamic government in one leading Muslim country, whilst, officially at least, it awaited the dawn of the “World Revolution” represented by the return of the hidden twelfth Imam of Shiite Islam.
Nor does one have to be thoroughly familiar with Hannah Arendt's analysis of modern totalitarianism to concede that a Stalin would have certainly understood and approved this very effective use of the seductive and characteristically otherworldly promise of “The Messiah” (cynically exploited in post-revolutionary Iran) to set up a formidably effective and technologically Westernised system of constant surveillance and ideological classification and vetting of the “other” devised for the sole purpose of perpetuating the cultural and the political domination of a ruthlessly self-interested and cunning oligarchy over an ethically deliquescent and profoundly sick body politic.
The reference is, obviously enough, to the state of post-revolutionary Iranian society whose general self-confidence and expectations were programmatically lowered by means of a “Cultural Revolution” that aimed at facilitating its cost effective governance by the same diehard clique of “Guardians” of the sacrosanct “revolutionary ideals” and their comically cocky, brutish and heavily armed offshoot, the Basij militia, who, lest their dogmatically “culturalist” observers once again fail to notice the non-traditional character of their use of all available and effective technology of coercion, have doggedly pursued the refinement of their system of fundamentalist surveillance and repression of their cultural and political opponents by heavily drawing upon the methodological aid furnished by the Soviet tyrant's “Godless”, contemporary political disciples in the far East.
As paradoxical or commendably penetrating as Shayegan's emphasis on the unconsciously formative cultural impact of the West on the self-conception of its fundamentalist “others”( and in particular, in the Iranian context) may indeed appear to the hopelessly small minority of conceptually sophisticated analysts of socio-cultural phenomena in the East and (in particular, in the Islamic world), one must never fail to remind oneself of the virtual impossibility of over-estimating its intellectual value.
For not only is it easy to forget that modern history is irreversibly universal (in terms of its manifold cultural and socio-political implications) but that a vast quantity of loud and stultifying nativist propaganda, coupled with the West's own equally fundamentalist conception of the particularity its historical destiny and cultural identity (exemplified by Huntington's muddled and sloppy notion of “The Clash of Civilisations”), has so far tended to impede the dispassionate mapping of what Shayegan views as a radically new and internationally formative space of cultural transmutation (“espace de transmutation”) whose emergence characterises the modern world — a new chapter of universal history, that is to say, whose incomplete elaboration presupposed the universally visible decline of monolithically-defined and traditional conceptions of cultural identity. End of Part I
Simon F. O'Li (Oliai) is an independent researcher in philosophy and comparative history based in Paris. He is associated with various institutions such as “L'Université Européenne de la Recherche” and UNESCO.