“What appears to be a new Iran”: the ABC News host takes us inside Iran with these words, while the ABC News reporter in Iran is ready to match him with the following: “We needed a permit, but once we got it, the city opens up to all kinds of surprises.” Meanwhile, the reporter spills the end of her report reassuring us that changes are on their way but not overnight, and a new Iran is embracing pop music, iPhones, Steven Jobs, and most importantly, nose jobs so that Iranians can look more Western. This overtly Orientalist narrative presents Iran as a new and young country, in contrast to an ancient, old, mystic, and mysterious Iran that has captured and mesmerized the Western unconscious for centuries. The reporter finishes her report by conditioning these changes on the nuclear deal that will facilitate all these sweeping shifts and alterations.
Not everybody shares this Orientalist narrative, but the promising economic market in the near future of Iran is what focuses many analysts’ ample attention. Richard Javad Heidarian, a specialist in geopolitical and political affairs, unveils another aspect of this ubiquitous hope: “And similar to the case of China, an Iran–West rapprochement holds the promise of unlocking one of the world’s most promising markets, with broad implications for the global economy.” Regardless of all these cost-benefit driven analyses, the deal generated two opposing queues of political observations, rotating around a simple “yes” or” no” response to the deal. John Bell, the director of the Middle East program at the Toledo International Peace Centre in Madrid, provides us with a snapshot of all the debates over the deal: “The debate over the Iran nuclear agreement has been vibrant and will continue all the way up to the American Congressional vote. Progressives have lined up with the deal, as has most of the world. However, there are many voices in the U.S., Israel, and the region lined up against it.”
Yet, all these narratives, based on Rouhani’s take-over, are less interested in the Iranian people and how they are entitled to choose their destiny, and thus they reduce politics to horse trading, at the center of which lies the nuclear deal and a possible change in political relations with Western countries. The Iranian people are pariahs in these new narratives that subordinate possible progressive changes in Iran to political deals between Western powers and the Iranian regime, that is, to what would be decided out of the public spotlight, away from the streets and the people’s quest. This is a top-down perspective on the future of the Iranians.
Despite all of this media-incited optimism to present Iran as a fertile ground for Western investment, I remain skeptical about this excessively hopeful climate. While all of these narratives point us to the new face of a young Iran, and amid all the shifts in the discourse of the media, we need to pause and reflect. Is everything on the right track? Has Iranian civil society been empowered in the last three years? Is it recovering its former significance? What is the right perspective to understand what is going on in today’s Iran? While many analysts have concentrated on the political battles over leverage, which have made their way into the media on a daily basis, I want to connect this surface of political changes to an analysis of how supporters of Rouhani’s office, many of whom are respected political figures of our civil society, have chosen this path to bring changes and step-by-step reforms in Iran through Rouhani’s policies of fostering political relations with the Western powers. How can these progressives be so sure that a better future will come from a deal between Western capitalism and Iranian conservatives?
The Nights of the Pariahs
We think of the media and its ideological propaganda and apparatuses as a light that makes our complex world clear and visible for us. But in reality they induce a habit of laziness in our eyes so that we are unable to penetrate into the darkness and establish our own narratives. Instead, the media always comes up with narratives for us and generously instill and inculcate them into our minds. That is why we need night and darkness, in which we renew ourselves with our own looking and thinking; the metaphor of night and darkness clarifies how we should individually develop our own critical perspectives. Darkness is a boon for us if we learn how to wrest back our individuality in and through it.
This metaphor of night and darkness has long been embedded in philosophy and, for example, is well portrayed at the beginning of Deleuze and Guattari’s What Is Philosophy? Aptly beginning their work with the following words, Deleuze and Guattari signal that philosophers love night contemplations, for this is the moment of intellectual rest for their minds:
The question what is philosophy? can perhaps be posed only late in life, with the arrival of old age and the time for speaking concretely. In fact, the bibliography on the nature of philosophy is very limited. It is a question posed in a moment of quiet restlessness, at midnight, when there is no longer anything to ask.
Nights and darkness are the moments in which we rediscover our individuality, potentialities, ontological loneliness, and homelessness, and the feeble echoes of our disparate souls waiting to be put into words and worlds. When we are all by our selves, we can put more visibility into our eyesight and thus see what remains behind the shell of appearances, because there is nobody around to guide us but ourselves. This is an ongoing battle over our individuality and independence that media—and, by extension, society, masses, and all external forces—deprive us of. Darkness assists us in vanquishing kitsch. But what is kitsch?
When Politics Turns out to Be Vanity Kitsch
Milan Kundera, in his Unbearable Lightness of Being, astutely describes “kitsch” through the example of attending a communist political march, in which, as Sabina recalls, people were apparently all celebrating life together but were actually painting their own individualities with the color of the state-formed masses. That is why Sabina was not willing to attend the march and could not find her own voice amid all the collided voices of the people. As Kundera concludes:
When I say “totalitarian” what I mean is that everything that infringes on kitsch must be banished for life: every display of individualism (because a deviation from the collective is a spit in the eye of the smiling brotherhood); every doubt (because anyone who starts doubting details will end by doubting life itself); all irony (because in the realm of kitsch everything must be taken quite seriously.
Let’s evoke the famous Cartesian phrase in order to reformulate Kundera’s description of kitsch; the kitsch that dissolves our individual and critical thinking into the storm of totalitarian state–guided masses. “I think therefore I am” has been a touchstone of philosophers since the beginning of modernity, if we assume any beginning for it. The art of totalitarian kitsch is to transform individual, creative, independent, and critical subjects into homogenized, passive, dependent, and submissive masses through grand marching, pre-constructed ideologies, and monitoring a big radar screen on which every movement is to be engineered and turned into a controllable blip that fades away soon. What Kundera signals is not a fear of any collective activities and joint political struggles for the better future, but he alludes to the unimaginable jeopardy of distorted political ideas that seek to salvage us and our world, but in their corrupted forms, only bring more misery and plight into our lives. The hatred that Sabina feels toward Grand Marching in occupied Czechoslovakia was not a bourgeois liberal phobia of anything that bears a leftist mark on itself. She was not a typical snobbish liberal who, by default, opposes any independent collective demand for basic and radical changes outside the step-by-step box and electoral myths. Her unsettling fear reflects the legitimate and decent concerns of an individual who knows that when radical ideas are turned upside-down, they only cater to the market of fascist, totalitarian regimes, apparatchiks of the horror screen, and terror-mongers. Amid all the fanfare and fracas of the media that manipulate our minds in order to shed their “light” upon the reality of our world, which is not the case as discussed, we need to strip off the illuminating lens of the media, the lens that has spoiled our eyes, so as to permeate reality and articulate our own narratives. We need to be isolated and alone in our composure-generating nights in order to be able to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Iran is on the verge of a state- and media-orchestrated mania designed to subvert and undermine our collective struggle for real changes inside our country. Only five years after the Green movement, this movement and the way we occupied the streets seem like a far-off countryside from our childhood days, when we had the Benjaminian power of infants, the power to do magic and make the impossible possible in the streets. Now, our collective struggle finds itself on the horn of a saddening dilemma: Regime change through continued sanctions or even foreign intervention or, alternatively, subordination to the regime and its ritual of presidential elections every four years, in which we are permitted to choose one of the already sifted and pruned candidates, whose pledge and loyalty to the regime’s political platform has been proven in advance. In Iran we have a voice only as a cog in the propaganda machine of the regime and if we concede to its political platform for change.
In recent years, Iranian civil society has become traumatized and vulnerable due to harsh sanctions. People are eager to end them because of their unbearable economic status, but they also remember their terrifying experience with the hardliners of Ahmadinejad’s sort. These two internal causes have given the Rouhani administration, and indeed the whole conservative line of thinking, more currency, which crystalized in the last presidential election in Iran. Those conservatives in Iran have benefitted from the regional context, as the Middle East has plunged into proxy wars, and ISIS with its genocidal ambitions has become a threat in neighboring countries. This geopolitical and strategic picture in the Middle East has given Rouhani’s conservatives a chance to present themselves as the only viable alternative for the people. Thus, the regime succeeded in managing the situation for its own good, presenting any demand for radical, revolutionary, and basic changes in Iran as equivalent to the real regional threats, such as ISIS. This is why many activists and analysts have turned into the conservatives’ apologists and advocates, without keeping a critical stance or articulating the failure to advance human rights inside the country. This identification with conservatives was not because these activists and intellectuals believe in the platform of the conservatives represented by Rouhani, but it was because these supporters have found Rouhani’s sanctuary the safest among others: better than ISIS, sanctions, or war.
When our civil society—which is traumatically pitched on the verge of war, sanctions, and hardliners such as Ahmadinejad—seldom raises its fingers to organize an independent domestic struggle; when many activists, intellectuals, and analyzers have, in the past three years, turned to the propaganda machine by supporting all of Rouhani’s tears and blood to achieve the deal (many of them taking less and less interest in human rights and in finding alternative ways of independent domestic struggle for radical change); and finally, when imperial superpowers have evolved from warmongers to peace-mongers, whose only concern is bringing their multibillion dollar companies into an Iran of millions of hungry consumers, we need to keep our critical distance from all who slip into either pro-war or pro-peace categories, and instead describe a third way: about radical changes, but a radicalism that does not dissolve our heterogeneous masses into conformist homogeneity. Should we want to lay out the foundation of “us” again with no avail from “top-to-bottom” management, this “us” must not be kitsch, and should be formed and entrenched in nights, when we are left alone to discover ourselves, each other, and our real power to do magic.
Jacques Rancière, a radical philosopher and historian, proposes in his Proletarian Nights the idea of worker-intellectuals, worker-poets, and worker-activists as opposed to intellectuals who observe a phenomenon without being directly engaged with any political activity. As he argues, these worker-intellectuals, during the July Monarchy, were the ones who staged and commenced political unrest by appropriating the intellectual discourse through arts, philosophy, writing, and other sorts of intellectual production. As Rancière states:
But their solicitude is in vain when they try to warn these workers against those who would like to wrest from them the well-earned quietude of their night. If they speak, it is to say that they don’t have any night of their own because night belongs to those who order the labors of the day. They speak to win the night of their desires: not their night, the “brutalizing night of sleep” that joiner Gauny sees approaching, but our night, the kingdom of shadows and appearances reserved for those who can stay awake instead of sleeping.
As Rancière articulates, working-class people could appropriate this political and social awareness through their sleepless nights in which they, instead of taking rest, would devote their time to recuperate their individuality stemming from their independence from the state apparatuses, bourgeois and petty-bourgeois discourse, and all the ideas that had sought to absorb these workers into the dominant discourse so as to dismantle their possible threats. Nights, in Kundera’s words, could make kitsch disappear into the air and detach those avant-garde workers from the state-established and state-entrenched workers/masses, whose vexation and frustration of the system never turned to the formation of a new intellectual discourse and, consequently, appropriated the bourgeois discourse. When these worker-intellectuals became alone in the nights, and became detached from other people, they could form an independent identity that rendered new theoretical, artistic, and political configurations that aimed to change the dominant discourse and build up a new intellectual world. They discovered how to think and unite themselves at night when, exactly as Deleuze and Guattari suggest, philosophy, and thus thinking, can occur and materialize. They had snapped back into darkness, into their individuality, and into staging historical changes. Their destiny was not chosen; instead, they did chose it.
Once an erudite friend of mine brought up a striking example to illustrate our locked and doomed political time and tide. He suggested imagining a person who is stuck in his room while everything around him is burning and he knows that fire could catch him any second. Suddenly, he notices the window and finds himself on the horn of his fate: either jumping out the window to escape the excruciating agony and pain of being burned alive in the room, or remaining in it while waiting for his final minutes in the fire. My friend turned to me and, in a very low voice, as if either his catatonic paranoia or past traumatic experience made him feel we may be bugged, told me that we have freedom to choose how we die, not to choose how we live. His striking words emanated from his bones and veins and thus, as a Persian saying goes, whatever comes from your heart, pushes its way to the hearts of others. His example describes well our political climate in which activists, workers, intellectuals, and ordinary citizens are assigned to choose whether to be ruined and devastated under severe international sanctions, with a future in limbo; or to perish in another forged war on terror; or to turn themselves into the advocates of the regime and therefore be more oppressed and stifled on a daily basis by it.
As our political alternatives dwindle away, as the deal benefits both Western capital and the regime, we need to pursue a third way: appropriating our own ideology that keeps its critical distance from the state-sponsored one (which caters to the conservatives’ market); staging people to air their own voice through arts, poetry, cinema, music, and eventually occupying streets; and never allowing ourselves to evolve into any state propaganda, because, at the end of the day, we turn out to be the most wanted enemies of the regime. While many activists, thinkers, and ordinary people put all their eggs in the basket of Western saviors, and others choose the other basket, Rouhani and the regime, we should emphasize that our emancipation does not depend on any of these powers, whose only concern is patrolling and surveilling our unlimited power and reassuring themselves that the people lack power and will not call the shots in the streets, in newspapers and magazines, in academia, and in their nights. Our third way is to prove them wrong.
Although I support the deal because it may alleviate the suffering of the Iranian people, I do not see any reason to celebrate it. There is no salvation in choosing the way we can perish, but only when we choose our way to live, only when we have occupied our own words, discourse, and political climate, and only when we have retrieved our nights and our individuality—only then can real celebration begin, in our hearts, in our streets, and on the faces of all the dear friends we have lost.
1. “From Nose Jobs to Steve Jobs, Young Iranians Embrace Western Influence,” video, This Week With George Stephanopoulos, ABC News, July 12, 2015.
2. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, What Is Philosophy? trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 2003), p. 1.
3. Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, trans. Michael Henry Heim (London: Faber and Faber, 1984), p. 253.
4. Jacques Rancière, Proletarian Nights: The Workers’ Dreams in Nineteenth-Century France, trans. John Drury (London: Verso, 2012), pp. 15–16.