Postmodernism in Modern Iran

By Dinara Pisareva

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Introduction to Postmodernism or What Does an “Elephant” Look Like?

A crucial thing to remember about modernity and postmodernity is that they are fictional categories and do not reflect any actual physical changes (although, in some cases postmodernity is referred to as postfordist or post-industrial period in Europe) that have occurred in the world, but rather transformation in minds and attitudes towards ideas.[i] Modernity was about finding “higher” meaning of life in public and political activities, “enlightened” nature of human beings and the everlasting battle between “Self” and “Other” (as it is described by Walters[ii] in his article about the preeminence of “anti-policies” in modern public policy domain), this grand dichotomy of human civilization[iii]. Patriotism, nationalism, all the “isms” together with glory, virtue and immortality were marks of modernity, same as cold rationality of Dachau and encouragement for greater enhancement of human self-destructive capabilities.[iv] Postmodernism was born out of “disenchantment” and disappointment in values of modernity, its grand ideas, metanarratives and disastrous attempts at major political transformations. In this sense, postmodernism is a purely reactionary phenomenon, a “reverse” from greatness, universalism and search for perfect social order to the daily-based concerns of individuals. In other words, politics has become local, specific and issue-oriented as the postmodern concept of “power relationship” introduced by Foucault is said to exist everywhere, in every sphere of human life.[v]

In this sense, postmodernism is a purely reactionary phenomenon, a “reverse” from greatness, universalism and search for perfect social order to the daily-based concerns of individuals.

The problem and definition of “identities” have become another focus of postmodernism[vi] – postmodern identities are much more complex, multi-leveled, fragmented and irreducibly conflictual. There is no more “supreme” identities or priority of some identities over others. As Derrida points out, an individual is not anymore Jewish or Palestine, homosexual or heterosexual, European or Asian, postmodernism rejects this selected and “dichotomist” construction of identities and realities. Identity conflicts are not anymore a “problem” that needs to be solved, harmonized or smoothed – postmodernism rejects giving up fragments of “Self” for the modernist goal of individual’s “normalization.”[vii]

The other valuable contribution of postmodernism besides philosophy and social theory is the postmodern art that underlines importance of human sensual experiences.[viii] Shakespeare’s “all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players” perfectly describes “performative” side of postmodernism and also hints that it is, actually, not as “post” as we believe it to be. This metaphor about life as “theatre” and individuals as “actors” today is used in postmodern psychology, specifically in the couple counseling, when success of marriages is estimated as an ability of individual “Selves” to take on various “masks” that would allow them to better adjust expectations about each other.[ix] It is not an attempt at transforming individual “Self” as it was done earlier by traditional psychologists (anger management, treatment of anxiety and depressions), but it is rather a further “exploration” of its unlimited creative potential.[x]

So postmodernism is narrow-focused, incoherent and has multiple appearances, not attached to moral values, customs or traditions, and prefers to criticize rather than suggest. All of these descriptions are fragments of postmodernism, but exactly as in the story aboutc a blind men and an elephant a sum of all known parts still does not explain how postmodern “elephant” really looks like.

Traditional Iran

Islamic Republicof Iranas many other Middle Eastern societies suffers from the existential mismatch between supreme national identity and multiple other ones.[xi] The need for some kind of reconciliation seems to haunt many Arab scholars, although they differ on what approach might be the successful one. If, for example, to look at the arguments of respected Iranian historian Hamid Ahmadi, it would appear that Iranian national identity is unitary and strong due to its political, cultural and religious components.[xii] However, Ahmadi’s narrative of Iranian political legacy seems quite controversial and occasionally hypocritical, especially the implication about Iranian “institution of state-monarchy” as a bonding part of Iranian identity[xiii] and not the source of one of the strongest antagonisms in Iranian society that can be expressed as “autocracy vs. democracy.”[xiv] The “glory past” of ancient Iran also should be viewed from the dual perspective – not only as a reason for national pride, but also as a source for divide between “Persian” and “Arab” Iranians.[xv]

In regards to culture, it certainly represents less problems, with obvious supremacy of such authors as Firdausi, Hafiz, Sa’di and Rumi whose legacies, according to Ahmadi, have gone far beyond borders of Iranian civilization and acquired an “universal” meaning.[xvi] But even during this praise for Persian poetry, author introduces elements of struggle, describing how hard it was for Iranians to take a victory over Arabic language (a language of Qur’an) and revive Iranian culture, in many ways thanks to support of Muslim ulema who stated that both Arabic and Persian were described as languages of “residents of heaven” in hadith.[xvii]

Finally, Islam is the third factor that supposedly merges together complicated Iranian identity.[xviii] Ahmadi asserts that Islamic and Iranian culture not only are not antagonistic, but on the contrary they reinforce each other.[xix] He also rejects the popular opinion that Islam came to Iran with Arab invasion and insists that western Iranians had known about this religion long before the coming of Arabs.[xx] In comparison with Ahmadi, Farideh Farhi has more sober assessment of Iranian chances for acquiring a “common narrative” as he recognizes that, despite some positive factors such as Iranian territorial integrity[xxi] that differs very much from historical experiences of other nations in the Middle East (and serves as one of major factors in formation of Iranian nationalism), certain “divisions” within Iranian nation simply cannot be reconciled, meaning again “autocracy vs. democracy.”[xxii] Also, unlike Ahmadi, Farhi does not ignore rest of the world and Iranian negative image in many foreign countries.[xxiii] He carefully pushes the thought that further promotion of Iranian “unique” position in regards to the other states might not be reasonable or feasible due to the globalization, when it is simply impossible to completely isolate population from external influences and information[xxiv] (unless you are China or North Korea).

Iranian need to find a “common narrative” among these chaotic turbulent gyrations that constitute its internal and external politics seems very utopian.

Iranian need to find a “common narrative” among these chaotic turbulent gyrations that constitute its internal and external politics seems very utopian. Ahmadi seems to believe that, in the end, superiority of Iranian culture, Islam and strong authority will overcome all “divisions,” and such outcome is actually possible in case of strong centralised power combined with rigid religious and ideological policy-making, however, it prompts another question –  how “unique” would such national identity be in comparison with those of other autocracies? Another question here is whether “Iranian nation” really exists or should be brought into existence as, for example, Farhi sees contemporary Iranians not as a homogeneous nation with common mythology, but as different groups whose demands and preferences often go in opposite directions and hardly fit Ahmadi’s traditionalist framework.[xxv]

How Iran Met Postmodernism: Consumer Culture Theory

Consumer Culture Theory generalizes results from numerous researches done on symbolic, cultural and ideological aspects of consumerism.[xxvi] Modernity has presented consumerism as a passive process that unlike production simply destroys the value of the commodity, but in postmodernity consumption and commodity value have changed towards recognizing that real value of any product goes beyond its direct functions and encompasses symbolic and cultural meanings transferred to and from consumers.[xxvii] Basically speaking, postmodern market has become a source of identities and interests that are not only consumed, but also transformed by consumers themselves, and that changes them from passive objects of consumption to active producers of new symbols, signs and meanings, and as a result in today’s world consumption is recognized to have significantly affected the process of identity formation.[xxviii] Researches on consumer culture have also confirmed that identities of most people are not unified or rational and do not exist within one particular narrative.[xxix]

In case of Iran, it has a long historical experience with consumption of Western goods and culture as Iranwent through economic liberalization in early 1990s, right after the Iran-Iraq war[xxx]. Economic destruction of Iran after the war did not leave many options but to open market, start economic liberalization and try to attract foreign investments in order to restore Iranian economy.[xxxi] As a result of such neoliberal policies under Rafsanjani, post-revolutionary young Iranian generation got access to Western culture, symbols and values.[xxxii] Sharp interest of Iranian youth in “Western” ideas and culture made a traditional part of Iranian society anxious, and immediately youth was accused in becoming “decadent.”[xxxiii] When Ahmadinejad won presidential elections in 2005, he sent a clear message he is not going to support liberalization, instead focusing on protecting true Islamic values and culture from corrupting influence of the West.[xxxiv] Despite such negative attitude from central government, consumption of Western goods and access to Internet have continued to supply alternative ideas and information to Iranian population, highlighting weaknesses of the current Iranian political regime.

Inescapable Global Modernity: Youth and Sex in Postmodern Iran

Despite living in the state with vigorous attitude to norms of behavior, Iranian youth (at least in large cities) is not concerned too much with its moral outlook, preferring to party, engage in various sexual relationships and in general enjoy the feeling of danger that such activities create.[xxxv] Assessment of such attitude can be done from various angles, but in postmodern view the desire to be in control of your body is an important element of resistance against the subjectification in power relationship.[xxxvi] It was Michel Foucault who wrote that power can be exercised in different forms, but it is impossible to fully escape power relationships as they exist on every level of our life, and such instances when state tries to control bodies of its citizens to achieve maximum homogenization of society were called by Foucault as “biopower.”[xxxvii] Contemporary Iranian leader, Ahmadinejad, tries to establish total control not only over what people can think and express in public, but also over what they are allowed to do with their bodies privately and in what ways.[xxxviii] Thus, de jure Iranians have lost almost all self-ownership over their desires and bodies, while de facto Iranian youth is able at least partly to exercise and emphasize their self-ownership anyway.

More than one researcher has written about Iranian secret parties, with a great amount of alcohol, drugs and sex, right under the vigilant eye of morality police.[xxxix] In particular, Pardis Mahdavi provides in-depth analysis of paradoxical nature of Iranian youth and how their intimate lives affect their identities and vice versa. Mahdavi is amused that, although, law of sharia forbids Iranians to have sexual relationships before marriage, statistics shows that on average Iranian females marry at 26, while their first sexual intercourse occurs around age of 16; for males – the ages of 29 and 15 respectively.[xl] This gap of ten years is hard to rationalize as girls in Iran can face serious punishment for being accused in promiscuity, but apparently whipping and detention do not scare them away from pursuing physical pleasures. And as Mahdavi has observed, sexual life of Iranian youth has a great variety and often involves multiple partners, so while monogamous relations are also not a rarity, statistically they have roughly the same percentage as multi-partnered ones.[xli] Moreover, during the interviews for research she noticed that most young Iranians identify their sexual preferences as “bi” rather than “hetero” or “homo,” and a theme of homosexuality is another striking aspect in Iranian society.[xlii] Although, officially, homosexuality is considered to be a crime and a psychological deviation, many young people in Iran do not differ between relations with opposite- and same-sex partners. If anything, many see sex itself as a continuation of more general affection, romantic relationship or close friendship that contributes, but not defines the context of relationship, and this mature and unbiased approach towards such sensitive issue is another unique description of Iranian youth.[xliii]

If anything, many see sex itself as a continuation of more general affection, romantic relationship or close friendship that contributes, but not defines the context of relationship, and this mature and unbiased approach towards such sensitive issue is another unique description of Iranian youth.

This confrontation between Iranian government who tries to control every aspect of peoples’ lives and frustrated response of young generation is more than just a question of satisfactions or preferences.[xliv] After studying young subcultures in other Middle Eastern states, it is hard to find another example that has such great focus on deeply private issues like sexual life. In general, young people embrace freedom and some other universal values as it was observed during the Arab Spring, but few try to challenge state control over their personal lives or show their frustration with inability to live the way they want, regardless of public morality and norms. Iranian approach towards sexual relations is distinctively postmodernist as “liberation” in postmodern sense is not a fighting against an authoritarian dictatorship, but a resistance on every “microlevel” of an individual life, including the freedom to build a sex life without interference or guidance from the third parties.[xlv] Michel Foucault said that individuals always have choice in power relationships whether to be subjected or to resist, and Iranian young generation is a live example of how every power relationship can be at least partly turned roundabout.[xlvi]

…it was clearly “wrong” to enjoy having sex as it was also “wrong” to individually enjoy life without presence of community or state… and modernity still has not grasped why many people reject this collective onanism…

Iranian context also can be used to consider social transformations that have happened in other regions and societies, for example, in the post-Soviet space. Identities of these nations were formed under traditional assumptions that pursuing individual desires was “bad,” while social justice and common good were “good,” and even after the collapse of USSR these societies are still ready to sacrifice a lot of personal freedoms for reaching some new utopias (there is no need to go far, having “Kazakhstan – 2030” strategy). From Marx’s communism and to Ahmadinejad’s theocracy, the first thing they have in common is “collective identities” that want to embrace everyone and make each person happy. Another seemingly unrelated thing is that in both the USSRand Islamic Republic of Iran there was very conservative approach towards sex and its meaning, and it was clearly “wrong” to enjoy having sex as it was also “wrong” to individually enjoy life without presence of community or state. And if modernity still has not grasped why many people reject this collective onanism, then postmodernity was born out of such suppressed frustration (as Freud would probably point out), deconstructing all moral standards and judgments of private by public. There is no false “cause-effect” relationship in postmodernism: taking part in group sex does not, for example, makes woman a bad kindergarten teacher, or dislike of Qur’an does not make man a bad Muslim.

In retrospect, despite the emergence of postmodernism, modernity has never ceased its great influence on human minds across the world, making societies reconstruct their “ferrets” again and again, and perhaps in this sense Anthony Giddens[xlvii] was, unfortunately, right arguing that transition from modernity has yet to happen, and we still live within the same modern narrative.

About Postmodernism in Modern Iran

Emergence of postmodernist sentiments in Iran means that Iranian society, first of all, moves “forward,” not backwards, (as it is happening now in many modern societies) because, if nothing else, postmodernism is a mature and sober modernism that is capable of critically viewing its achievements and objectives. And critical approach is essential in such matters as “nation” or “national identify” in order not to take these things too seriously as for many societies this process of creating non-existent identities eventually becomes the cause of their defeat.

The other implication of supposed Iranian postmodernism is the restlessness of youth that wants more freedom, and freedom can be a dangerous thing for political stability. It is not enough to just be “disenchanted” with reality in order to make demands for changes, there is also a need to have something valuable enough to fight for. Long-term debate about what makes “democratization” successful shows that we still have not figured out neither how transition to democracy happens nor what should we do to enhance the process. So maybe the road to freedom starts not with educating people about “democratic culture” and promoting economic growth, but with individual resistance to “chastity” and “purity” and realization of individual right to fulfill sexual desires without being directed by state authorities. There is a mistaken view that postmodernism unlike modernism is valueless, but that is not the truth – postmodernism values individual freedom instead of collective values of equality, justice and prosperity. What “freedom” is can be defined in various ways, nevertheless, Iranian youth could find some closure in words of Jean-Paul Sartre who once said that: “Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you.”

 

Dinara Pisareva is a student at the KIMEP University.


[i] Steven Best and Douglas Kellner, “Dawns, Twilights, and Transitions: Postmodern Theories, Politics, and Challenges,” Democracy & Nature: The International Journal Of Inclusive Democracy 7, no. 1 (2001), 103.

[ii] William Walters, “Anti-Policy and Anti-Politics: Critical Reflections on Certain Schemes to Govern Bad Things,” European Journal of Cultural Studies 11, no. 3 (2008): 267-88.

[iii]A. Fuat Firat and Alladi Venkatesh, “Liberatory Postmodernism and the Reenchantment of Consumption,” Journal Of Consumer Research 22, no. 3 (1995), 240-42.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Best and Kellner, “Dawns, Twilights, and Transitions: Postmodern Theories, Politics, and Challenges,” 105.

[vi] Ibid., 106.

[vii] Jacques Derrida, “Violence and Metaphysics” in Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 136-47.

[viii] Firat and Venkatesh, “Liberatory Postmodernism and the Reenchantment of Consumption,” 250.

[ix] Kenneth J. Gergen, “The healthy, happy human being wears many masks” in The truth about the truth: De-confusing and re-constructing the postmodern world, ed. W.T. Anderson (New York: Tarcher/Putnam, 1995), 136.

[x] Ibid., 136-144.

[xi] Farideh Farhi, “Crafting a national identity amidst contentious politics in contemporary Iran,” Iranian Studies 38, no. 1 (2005), 7-9.

[xii] Hamid Ahmadi, “Unity within Diversity: Foundations and Dynamics of National Identity in Iran,” Critique: Critical Middle Eastern Studies 14, no. 1 (2005), 134.

[xiii] Ibid., 135-38.

[xiv] Farhi, “Crafting a national identity amidst contentious politics in contemporaryIran,” 8.

[xv] Ibid., 15-16.

[xvi] Ahmadi, “Unity within Diversity: Foundations and Dynamics of National Identity inIran,” 140.

[xvii] Ahmadi, “Unity within Diversity: Foundations and Dynamics of National Identity inIran,” 141-42.

[xviii] Ibid., 142.

[xix] Ibid., 144.

[xx] Ibid.

[xxi] Farhi, “Crafting a national identity amidst contentious politics in contemporaryIran,” 11-12.

[xxii] Ibid., 17-18.

[xxiii] Ibid., 18-22.

[xxiv] Ibid., 19.

[xxv] Farhi, “Crafting a national identity amidst contentious politics in contemporaryIran,” 8-9.

[xxvi] Eric J. Arnould and Craig J. Thompson, “Consumer Culture Theory (CCT): Twenty Years of Research,” Journal Of Consumer Research 31, no. 4 (2005), 871.

[xxvii] Aliakbar Jafari, “Two Tales of a City: An Exploratory Study of Cultural Consumption among Iranian Youth,” Iranian Studies 40, no. 3 (2007), 371-72.

[xxviii] Arnould and Thompson, “Consumer Culture Theory (CCT): Twenty Years of Research,” 871-72.

[xxix] Ibid., 873.

[xxx] Jafari, “Two Tales of a City: An Exploratory Study of Cultural Consumption among Iranian Youth,” 368.

[xxxi] Ali Akbar Mahdi, “Iranian Women between Islamization and Globalization” in Iran Encountering Globalization, ed. Ali Mohammadi (London &New York: Routlege/Curzon, 2003), 47-50.

[xxxii] Jafari, “Two Tales of a City: An Exploratory Study of Cultural Consumption among Iranian Youth,” 369.

[xxxiii] Ibid.

[xxxiv] Ibid.

[xxxv] Pardis Mahdavi, “Passionate uprisings: Young people, sexuality and politics in post-revolutionary Iran,” Culture, Health & Sexuality 9, no. 5 (2007), 446-47.

[xxxvi] Firat and Venkatesh, “Liberatory Postmodernism and the Reenchantment of Consumption,” 258.

[xxxvii] Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the Collège de France 1975-1976 (New York: Picador, 2003), 243.

[xxxviii] Mehrangiz Kar, “The Invasion of the Private Sphere in Iran,” Social Research 70, no. 3 (2003), 832-35.

[xxxix] Jared Cohen, “Iran’s Young Opposition: Youth in Post-Revolutionary Iran,” SAIS Review 26, no. 2 (2006), 6.

[xl] Mahdavi, “Passionate uprisings: Young people, sexuality and politics in post-revolutionaryIran,” 451.

[xli] Mahdavi, “Passionate uprisings: Young people, sexuality and politics in post-revolutionaryIran,” 450-52.

[xlii] Ibid.

[xliii] Ibid.

[xliv] Ibid., 455-56.

[xlv] Best and Kellner, “Dawns, Twilights, and Transitions: Postmodern Theories, Politics, and Challenges,” 104-5.

[xlvi] Michel Foucault, “The Subject and Power,” Critical Inquiry 8, no. 4 (1982), 777-95

[xlvii] Anthony Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1991), 187-201.

 

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