Sunday, January 30, 2011

Is Egypt another Iranian Revolution?

One of the places I've been keeping up with news about Egypt is The Daily Dish. Over there they have received this letter from a reader. In it the reader concludes on this point:
It seems likely to me that if the Dish and the internet had been around during the Iranian revolution, your coverage of the early days of that event would have fit in to the pattern of coverage typified by your response to the events in Egypt. The Shah was worse than a dictator, he was a monster. And the people who stood up to him were brave. They wanted to be free. But in hindsight, we know that the Iranian Revolution was a lot more complicated than that.
This is actually something I have been thinking about, particularly given Foucault's somewhat infamous support of the Iranian revolution. That Foucault would have supported the revolution has never surprised me, and much of his analysis from the time still strikes me as right on. For example, "The problem of Islam as a political force is an essential one for our time and for the years to come, and we cannot approach it with a modicum of intelligence if we start out from a position of hatred." And anyone who has dipped even their big toe into the writing of Ali Shariati knows that there existed in Iran at that time a powerful, coherent, and beautiful leftist Islamic strand of thought. That strand was betrayed and outmaneuvered in the wake of the Iranian Revolution, and what they ended up with was the Ayatollah. All of this reminds me of the distinction between a demonstration and an experiment in science as explained by Isabelle Stengers.
A demonstration is when you know the outcome, and you are merely showing that outcome. Think here of Galileo dropping two different weights from the Tower of Pisa. An experiment, on the other hand, is where the outcome is not known beforehand. You might have some idea, certainly some expectations, but ultimately the outcome is indeterminate until the experiment is run. Think here of the first time the atomic bomb was set off. There were a lot of ideas about what would happen, but there was a possibility that the atomic bomb might set the whole world on fire. Or it might not have worked at all. That's the nature of an experiment.

Revolution isn't ever a demonstration, it is always an experiment. The results are always indeterminate until the experiment has run. There is always the chance that a revolution just might set the world aflame.