Reading Foucault in Karachi

Published November 23, 2012

-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.



Back to bedlam
Updated 25 May, 2022

Back to bedlam

FEAR tactics have never worked in the past, and most likely will not this time either. The government’s ...
25 May, 2022

Balochistan blaze

THE forest fire on the Koh-i-Sulaiman range in Balochistan’s Shirani area is among a series of blazes to have...
25 May, 2022

Unequal citizens

INDIFFERENCE would have been bad enough, but the state’s attitude towards non-Muslims falls squarely in the...
Updated 24 May, 2022

Marching in May

MORE unrest. That is the forecast for the weeks ahead as the PTI formally proceeds with its planned march on...
24 May, 2022

Policy rate hike

THE State Bank has raised its policy rate by 150bps to 13.75pc, hoping that its latest monetary-tightening action...
24 May, 2022

Questionable campaign

OVER the past couple of days, a number of cases have been registered in different parts of the country against...