June 28, 2009

Uses and Abuses of Reading

Three summers ago, Hamid Dabashi wrote an essay about imperialism and its cultural weaponry. At its core is a correction of the distortion that comprises the cover of Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran, an image that, says Dabashi, attempts to fill an amnestic void.

Nafisi's memoir has been widely read and much praised. Its clear and saccharine portrait of western values defying the tyrannical forces of Iran's current ruling regime helps explain her current position at Johns Hopkins, where at the School for Advanced International Studies, she joins colleagues like Fouad Ajami and Francis Fukuyama.

In a 2003 address, she offers the following contradictory statements about reading practices in Iran, which it seems would be, or should be, the focus of her book. First, as for her work's title and its chapters like "Gatsby," her insistence is that western literature means freedom. She says:

Nabokov once said, 'Readers are born free and they ought to remain free.' Grasping this simple yet profound statement is essential to understanding why I chose Lolita and why my book is both a celebration of reading, as well as a window into a stark world offering few choices. Contrasting sharply with daily Iranian life, Lolita stands tall as a literary figure symbolizing personal choice and the freedom of thought – precisely what Iranians are denied. The revolution didn't just seize their political rights and the right to own private property, it stole from millions of readers a fundamental freedom to imagine and think for oneself. The Iranian readers' plight is akin to those who have suffered under communism and fascism, where the regimes' conception of the world, imposed on an entire nation, eradicates any contradictory voices.

At the same time, though, she acknowledges that there are many forces at work in the cultural currents of Iran, with nothing as simple as a leaden ideology stifling all reading and thinking. But even when conceding this obvious truth she insists on removing the political from the discussion. There can only be, for her, the claim that there is a magical transformation when an individual -- beforehand, utterly crushed by evil -- beholds a western "masterpiece" :

Across the republic, regular people, not the elites or the so-called "reformers," are restive in their demand for change. The same students who took hostages during the 1970's and 1980's are now thoroughly disillusioned and find what modernity has to offer appealing. As was the case in the past, young Iranians are spearheading an ideological transformation as they are increasingly drawn to the language of secular liberalism and its architects; Alexis de Tocqueville, Hannah Arendt, et al. … Once strictly forbidden authors and literary masterpieces are beginning to see the light of day and are consequently growing in popularity. Activists, questioning the very pillars of the revolution, are also pressuring the regime to hold a referendum on the constitution.

The nonsensical certainties are easy enough to dismiss, easier even than seeing Foucault's error of being seduced by the ecstatic sheen of the 1979 revolution. But there is a richness of simplicity in one part of Dabashi's correction. Setting aside his claims for the post-colonial project associated with Spivak, Said, and Amy Kaplan, there is this:

In fact the case of this cover provides an intriguing twist on Roland Barthes' binary opposition between the denoted and connoted messages of a photograph and its caption. The twist rests on the fact that the picture of these two teenagers on the cover of Reading Lolita in Tehran is in fact lifted from an entirely different context. The original picture from which this cover is excised is lifted off a news report during the parliamentary election of February 2000 in Iran. In the original picture, the two young women are in fact reading the leading reformist newspaper Mosharekat. Azar Nafisi and her publisher may have thought that the world is not looking, and that they can distort the history of a people any way they wish. But the original picture from which this cover steals its idea speaks to the fact of this falsehood.
The cover of Reading Lolita in Tehran is an iconic burglary from the press, distorted and staged in a frame for an entirely different purpose than when it was taken. In its distorted form and framing, the picture is cropped so we no longer see the newspaper that the two young female students are holding in their hands, thus creating the illusion that they are 'Reading Lolita'--with the scarves of the two teenagers doing the task of 'in Tehran.' In the original picture the two young students are obviously on a college campus, reading a newspaper that is reporting the latest results of a major parliamentary election in their country. Cropping the newspaper, their classmates behind them, and a perfectly visible photograph of President Khatami--the iconic representation of the reformist movement--out of the picture and suggesting that the two young women are reading Lolita strips them of their moral intelligence and their participation in the democratic aspirations of their homeland, ushering them into a colonial harem.

The vitality of literacy Dabashi describes includes a discourse of reform and the press, the poster for a reformist (dismissed by Nafisi) and the public act of looking, reading, and being -- in nothing more and nothing less than posture and pose -- publicly political. Nafisi may cite Arendt but she misses what Arendt would have drawn our attention to: the two women and their willingness to be seen reading the reformist paper in the schoolyard; a public, participatory act in an ongoing project of Iranian politics.

There are indeed western voices at work within Iran. There is, Danny Postel says in Reading Legitimation Crisis in Tehran, much talk of Arendt, Said and Chomsky, but also readings of Heidegger, celebrations of Kant, citations of Popper, and obviously, a use of Habermas. They are taken up in varying degrees and for various purposes, and used within a cultural climate that is politically fraught and changing now, again, but hardly alone and pure, so as to give some new name to a moribund situation. As Dabashi writes:
No one will ever know, reading Reading Lolita in Tehran, that Iranians, like all other nations, have a literature of their own, a constellation of women writers, poets, artists, activist, and scholars second to none, that they are survivors and dreamers in terms not just global to their geopolitics but also domestic to their own perils and promises, and that in the span of the same period of time (the 1990's) that Azar Nafisi deigned to live in Iran and sought to save the soul of a nation by teaching a privileged few among them "Western Classics," Iranians had produced a glorious cinema that has captivated the globe in awe and admiration, produced a feminist press and literature rarely matched in any other country, and elected more women to their parliament than those in the United States. The narrative eradication of Persian literature and Iranian culture while writing in an entirely Iranian context mutates into a more global dismissal of world literatures at large, any literature or culture that might pause and pose an element of resistance to imperial designs and their ideological foregrounding.

June 25, 2009

The Significance of Precise Organization, or What We Are in Fact

From Ted Barron's discovery, the voice of Henri Cartier-Bresson, trying to give shape to the eye that seizes, through the mechanism, the crucial instant of shapes themselves converging.

"We have to be alert. . . . It is given. Take it."

The rigorous interplay is found, recognized; there, in the instant, a way of cognition, a means of entering the world's difficult realities.

June 16, 2009

Forms of Revolt Without Revolution

Uprisings belong to history, but in a certain way, they escape it. The movement through which a lone man, a group, a minority, or an entire people say, "I will no longer obey," and are willing to risk their lives in the face of a power they believe to be unjust, seems to me to be irreducible. This is because no power is capable of making it absolutely impossible. Warsaw will always have its ghetto in revolt and its sewers populated with insurgents. The man in revolt is ultimately inexplicable. There must be an uprooting that interrupts the unfolding of history, and its long series of reasons why, for a man "really" to prefer the risk of death over the certainty of having to obey.

--Michel Foucault, on Iran, May 1979

Zahra Rahnavard

I think that the first thing to do is to recognize the fact that there are democratic pluralists in Iran fighting for democratic values and civil liberties. Their struggle for empowerment or Iranian civil society goes beyond a simple act of contestation. The process of democraticization in Iran is a day-to-day challenge which is not only political, but also social and cultural.

Democracy is not a place where you sit and relax for the rest of your life. It is about responsible civic participation and intellectual integrity. So without this sense of responsibility I don't see how we could manage to have a strong civil society wherein people find their confidence in speaking and acting. . . .

The actors in Iranian civil society need to find their own logics and practices of togetherness rather than those imposed on them. But this cannot be done without intellectual maturity. Maturity is the condition of possibility for pluralism in Iranian society.

--Ramin Jahanbegloo, Iranian dissident, 2006

With the semi-spontaneous demonstration in Tehran and other major cities (including Shiraz, where we have had eyewitness accounts by members of my family), the civil unrest that began on 13 June with opposition to the announced results of the presidential election of 12 June has entered a new phase. The assumption of the election having been rigged is now a "social fact." It is no longer relevant if the election was or was not rigged. Millions of Iranians believe it was and they are putting their lives on the line to announce and assert it — with at least 12 fatalities, as just reported by The Guardian.
We need to have a careful and accurate summation of what has happened so far. On 12 June upward of 80% of eligible voters, about 40 out of 46 million, have voted. This has been the most magnificent manifestation of the political maturity of Iran as a nation and their collective democratic will. This nation does not need, nor has it ever needed, either a medieval concoction called the Vali Faqih in Qom or Tehran to patronize it or else a Neocon chicanery called "Iran Democracy Project" in Hoover Institution in California to promote it. This nation, as always, can take care of itself. It needs nothing but the active solidarity of ordinary people around the globe to be a witness to their struggles and demand from their media an accurate and comprehensive representation of their movement. So please, hands off Iran! No "democracy project," no sanction, no threat, no military attack, no regime change.
The day after the results were announced, on 13 June, there was a spontaneous demonstration in Tehran by supporters of Mir-Hossein Mousavi demanding recount and charging vote rigging. The following day, on 14 June, the government staged a major pro-Ahmadinejad rally in which his supporters were bussed in from surrounding villages. It is important to keep in mind that Ahmadinejad's supporters come from the poorest and most disenfranchised segments of Iranian society, subject to his and his campaign's populism and demagoguery. From this fact one should not conclude that all the impoverished segments of Iranian society, suffering from double digit inflation and endemic unemployment, are on his side or fooled by his charlatanism. The supporters of Mir-Hossein Mousavi and the Reformist movement come from a vast trajectory of Iranian society.
Today, on 15 June 2009, the uprising has assumed an entirely different dimension and may have already transmuted into a full-fledged civil disobedience movement, with hundreds of thousands (according to BBC, which is usually quite conservative in its estimations), demonstrating peacefully and joyously between Meydan-e Enqelab and Meydan-e Azadi. Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mohammad Khatami have led the demonstration and made speeches, as has Zahra Rahnavard, now an inspiration and role model for millions of Iranian women. Please take a good look at her and keep a print of her picture and the picture of other women participating in these demonstrations in your files before some other charlatan comes and crops it for the cover of the next edition of Reading Lolita in Tehran, or else puts together a collage of it for yet another book on "Sexual Revolution" or "Sexual Politics" in Iran. Whoever has won this particular presidential election, lipstick jihadis, career opportunist memoirists, obscene and fraudulent anthropologists on a summer "field work" in Iran, useless expatriate "opposition," and comprador intellectuals in general are among its main losers.
--Hamid Dabashi, June 15, 2009