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Reading Foucault in Karachi


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-Illustration by Nadir Siddiqui/

In the year 1978 as Iran heaved with the pent up fervor of the Revolution brewing within it, the philosopher Michel Foucault arrived there as a special correspondent for the Italian newspaper Corriere de la Serra. In those netless days, news traveled only through humans and their few creaky machines and the missives of the correspondent’s eyes that were seeing the action became the lens for millions of others.

Michel Foucault, however, was not just any foreign correspondent; he was one with an agenda; a philosophical one. A trenchant critic of modernity, Foucault had already taken apart the seeming sterility of modern institutions to reveal just how they managed to subjugate the self.  Modernity, he argued had just taken the mechanisms of control out of sight, keeping the duped modern ensnared in its mechanism. An example of his “genealogical” method of revealing this invisible architecture of control that modernity imposed on the individual was his work “Discipline and Punish”. Taking apart the modern prison complex, Foucault argues that the blood and gore of the medieval pre-modern past have simply been replaced with an ever watchful, closely bounded and insidious subjugation.

With all these convictions and all this anger against bloodless and clean looking forms of control, it was no surprise when Foucault landed up in Iran, right before the Revolution, he was amazed. Without time travel, he had seemingly escaped modernity and landed squarely in the pre-modern medieval. Here was a proximity to blood, a closeness to passionate revolt, a disdain for order that suggested a total rejection of the modernity defined simply as all that was Western. Relieved of the disenchantment modernity had heaped on him, Foucault penned down praise filled articles about the Iranian Revolution, its genuine fervor, its un-modern authenticity completely ignoring how it curbed freedom of thought or women’s rights or any other coincidental casualties of the purge of the Enlightenment.

Reading Foucault in Karachi, one feels compelled to try a similar experiment. Amid the endless bloodletting it is hard indeed to find some sterile modernity exerting some willful but unseen puppetry. The mechanisms of control Foucault was so peeved about are hard to find here; the panopticon and the industrial complex with its working cogs, industrious and silent are not found here. Instead, we have a hate-filled terror, bent on destroying any order that dares impose itself, bomb places of worship, burn down schools, turn down vaccinations and exchange women to settle scores. The conflicts are visible and perpetual, and individual and tribal and ethnic and sectarian. There is no distance from danger here and no alienation from the primal. People kill and die and kill again and it all happens in full view. There is little modernity to be found, if Foucault were alive, perhaps he would love Karachi just as much as he adored Iran before the Revolution.

Medieval Karachi does not need a visit from Foucault to learn about hating modernity, the ills of unfettered freedom to criticise this or that, to question religion, to worship only science and progress and to allow women to do whatever they want are already degraded projects. In our current film-protesting, drone hating, Nato blocking moment, Pakistan then is at its most post-modern, roundly disavowing everything modernity stood for (YouTube especially and mobile phones lately). There is but a single hiccup in this prescription; Foucault’s disavowal of modernity, was poised on an experience of it; an enumeration of its ills after its avowal. The prison complex, the artifice of expertise all followed first an interaction with what modernity had built and what the pursuit of enlightenment had destroyed.

Reading Foucault in Karachi poses this difficult question, whether Pakistan’s current fever of post-modernity is flawed by a basic lack of experience with modernity in the first place. Just like a suitor whose proposal was never heard, or a bite spat out before it was properly tasted, this Pakistani post-modernity pantomimed by everyone from the Taliban to Imran Khan rests on an anachronism. It is all too well for post-modern philosophers like Foucault to have lamented their disenchantment with the enlightenment; but to those reading Foucault in Karachi, the recipe suggests not the rebellion post-modernity represented but a stagnation in the unconsidered ills of the present. Reading Foucault in Karachi then becomes simply a stubborn okay to our messy, bloody disorder by attaching to it, a clever philosophical critique.


Rafia Zakaria is a columnist for DAWN. She is a writer and PhD candidate in Political Philosophy whose work and views have been featured in the New York Times,  Dissent the Progressive, Guernica, and on Al Jazeera English, the BBC, and National Public Radio. She is the author of Silence in Karachi, forthcoming from Beacon Press.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Author Image

Rafia Zakaria is an attorney and human rights activist. She is a columnist for DAWN Pakistan and a regular contributor for Al Jazeera America, Dissent, Guernica and many other publications.

She is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (Beacon Press 2015). She tweets @rafiazakaria

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (18) Closed

sattar rind Nov 29, 2012 09:26pm
i like Foucault and read his all books. ok rather almost all. but i not sensed anything what Ms Zakaria has written. yes. its an other thing that i am old enough to remember all his view. therefore i am sorry. besides Foucault never completyed his any work all the work he left in uncompleted thus they are great even.
Naeem Nov 25, 2012 06:57am
And exactly what do you mean with "non persons" and "non witnessses"? Self therapy or not ,his writings were not a reflection of his biases towards his desires!
Shehryar Nov 23, 2012 02:30pm
It is true that Foucault is a philosopher who ( for some strange reason) supported Iranian Revolution but I do not think that he is a prophet of chaos. His philosophy does centre on the issue of 'Subjectivity' and the way it is constructed through 'institutional' practices of modernity, but he also believes that power is not merely negative. In fact, it is necessary to make knowledge and living possible. It must not be understood just as oppression. The power relations are everywhere and without them we cannot order our lives. Looking at it in this light, Foucault does not seem to advocate chaos and disorder. He might have thought that Iranian public is doing something noble as it is over throwing the oppressive regime. Also the way, he deconstructs 'the construction of the self', it can be concluded that he is asking the individual to reformulate his/her identity themselves. They should see that their identity is a construct and by realizing that it is not essentialist, they can re construct it on their own terms. Now here it becomes complicated that what are the terms on which an individual can formulate his/her identity? It is possible that those terms might become discretionary and lose their normative power. So the critique of Foucault should be focused on this issue. His Iranian writings can be passed as something 'temporary' that crossed his mind and he did not realize its repercussions. I would like to hear what do you say about this.
Madan Nov 23, 2012 09:17am
argumentum ad hominem, against Foucault?
ZZX-1 Nov 23, 2012 11:00am
Non-Sequitur: Poor logic. Does not follow.
Azad Nov 25, 2012 04:53am
The discussion is about Foucault's philosophy and his contributions to knowldege. Why are you talking about his personal life?
ZZX-1 Nov 23, 2012 08:17am
Why did you not mention his suicidal tendencies, loneliness and according to his biographer James Miller: "Foucault engaged in homosexual activity with men whom he encountered in the underground Parisian gay scene, also indulging in drug use; he particularly enjoyed the thrill and sense of danger that these activities offered him". These are important aspects of his personality and writing ... why did you avoid them?
ZZX-1 Nov 24, 2012 09:02am
You digress. Nothing was said about him not being a saint or being a criminal or less than human. All that was said was that his live style affected his thought process and vise versa...influenced what he wrote---he was not objective but in self therapy through his writing. Homosexuality was his infusion. No pun intended. Amid the chaos his move to Iran was not without purpose: Shall we say in search of drugs and the other bit of 'excitement' experimenting with non-persons and non-witnesses.
Blood-Ink-Diary Nov 24, 2012 09:03am
Btw, my second reply is to: ZZX-1 (about Foucault's personality). cheers.
DharmendraGoel Nov 24, 2012 10:17am
RafiaZakaria iswell travelledandwellversed modern lady from Pakistan with all its very obvious contradictions. she holds great instincts and passion for a modern scientific attitude againast ante diluvian stuck- up prejudices of the Taliban and their spiritual mentors the Medieval Mullas and ulemas,. She would love to raise the ladies o f Karachi jump over the tedious process of slowly resiling away from medieval mentality by sheerly giving up shararas and Salvars by ultra-short flimsy skirts , perhaps. Whether medieval Khandani debaucheries of old feudal Seraglios could be improved for woman's liberation by Cabaret-Hall sleazy dancing one must ask Ms Rafia of Karachi. D. Goel
Blood-Ink-Diary Nov 24, 2012 09:16am
ZZX-1, this is your rebuttal? *yawns* ! Well, seems like you really knew him! "He was not objective but in self-therapy through his writing", ever wonder that one can be quite objective in "self-therapy", but, maybe, you have a different take on self therapy - ofcos, no pun intended! Good day to you !
samiranboruah Nov 24, 2012 06:44am
It would be a mockery if one tries to reduce the philosophical contribution of Foucault, particularly his works on the concept of power and knowledge, just in few newspaper reporting on Iran and try to comment on the present situation in Pakistan by deriving farfetched parallel. Besides, it is irrational to compare Pakistan with Iran. Before the revolution, Iran was run by a puppet government of USA with all its modern cultural paraphernalia supported by the mainstream western media including New York Times, BBC etc. In that historical moment it was strategically important to demolish those modern cultural paraphernalia to dislodge that puppet regime, the regime that tried to legitimize the western hegemonic control of Iran in the disguise of modernization and cultural emancipation. After independence Pakistan need not had to worry for such western hegemony. On the contrary, from the very beginning Pakistan played the role of an accomplice to the western powers, facilitating them to extend their hegemonic control. So there is a basic difference. Since revolution Iran is fighting continuously against the western hegemony, but since independence Pakistan is consciously and consistently accommodating the western hegemony. Regarding post modernity it is rather the western powers who are displaying it in their fleeing contradictory and inconsistent behavior and attitude towards the third world countries, particularly in the Middle-East. Pakistan is rather the object of Post modernity, not the subject. Of course, Pakistan
Harbans Mukhia Nov 25, 2012 05:15am
Well written piece, Ms Zakaria, except that "medieval" was not as lawless as you assume or as Karachi is today, nor was Foucault as anti-modernity !!!
Blood-Ink-Diary Nov 24, 2012 06:16am
No one disputes that Foucault was a human, nor, did he claim to be a saint, thus, if he suffered "suicidal tendencies, loneliness", what is such a crime? Let's not fool ourselves to negate from the fact that most of us at some point in time have suffered a day or two in loneliness - we are flesh and blood - human, not mechanical creatures, no? Perhaps, the documentation of his personality, tendencies, etcetra woule require another article, I do not think Ms. Zakaria intended this piece to be about his overall personality, hence, let's try to understand the offerings in this piece. Cheers.
Jaffar Nov 23, 2012 08:31pm
Rafia, while I agree to an extent with the shortcoming you have highlighted in Foucault's observation (and I agree with most of what you write), the ills cannot be separated from the influx of modernity in the region. I feel it is the blind imposition of modernity on the region which has made us overlook so many factors that have led to the situation today. While the positives of modernity cannot be ignored, the way it has been employed in the region definitely stands to be questioned. Moreover, a more contextual reading of Foucault for the region will draw different consequences from the ones you seem to have drawn in this article.
Mohammed Baluch Nov 23, 2012 10:16am
With your argument, one should also avoid reading Oscar Wilde and other great writers and philosophers because they indulged in the pleasures of the flesh and cared not to mask their frailties in a veil of hypocrisy?
BRR Nov 23, 2012 06:12pm
Wonderful insightful writing.
Alex Nov 23, 2012 10:53am
Facts of life. Truth that defined the man. Facts and truth are never an ad hominem. His life style and travels had this motive force that influenced all he did and wrote, according to his biographer.