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.