I’m sure I’m not the only one following these events with excited trepidation and a feeling of almost wanting to be there (but glad also to be watching it from afar). Which makes me wonder: what is it about revolutionary moments that fires the imagination and keeps us, or me at least, plugged into them like to a virtual intravenous drip? Is it personal — that I grew up in the 1970s feeling that I had missed the 1960s; or a desire to re-experience the feeling I had living in Ukraine for a year during the tremendous societal opening-up of 1989-90 as the Soviet Union began crumbling all around? Or is it that these events capture, and never satisfy, that constant generic craving of something — to fill that lack or gap or “basic fault” in human nature that modern social relations exacerbate and that consumer capitalism is so expert at fueling (well beyond anything the Buddha could have imagined)? (For all its evident shortcomings and overextensions, Morris Berman’s Coming to Our Senses: Body and Spirit in the Hidden History of the West remains one of my favorite articulations of that gap, a quasi-Foucauldian psychosomatic excavation of the ‘modern soul.’)
Or is it mainly a hope for change, that utopian ‘principle of hope’ Ernst Bloch‘ writes about, that makes us want to believe that things can change for the better — which is why conservatives, who don’t believe change will ever be for the better, reject the whole idea as childish and annoying? But can this one turn out any better than, say, Ukraine’s Orange Revolution of a few years ago? (A few things did improve after that one: media control was loosened dramatically, or at least decentralized among rival oligarchs, with arguably positive effects on the whole; and political options became more open and more imaginable. But the last few years have seen a constant, ongoing deflation of political spirit in Ukraine.) Will Iran’s ‘Green Revolution’ be messy and bloody (as it appears today) or will it triumph only to then dissipate into political machinations, co-opted like so many others? What’s the activists’ game plan for afterwards? For that matter, would I have been there alongside Foucault cheering on the students and clerics in the 1979 revolution, and how is this moment different from that one?
Understanding the dynamics of revolutionary or ‘open’ moments is important — which is part of what attracts me to the thinking of Deleuze, Guattari, DeLanda, William Connolly, Brian Massumi, Teresa Brennan, Nigel Thrift, and others for whom processes of “affective contagion” make up a crucial dimension of political change. In his summary of models of affective contagion (Non-Representational Theory, pp. 235ff.), Thrift describes an intensifying anxious obsessive-compulsive “time structure” in Western liberal-democratic polities, where “a growth in desengagement and detachment is paralleled by moments of high engagement and attachment” (p. 240), like this one unfolding in Iran.
I’m convinced that the arts (defined in Deleuzian terms as affective-perceptive ‘blocks’ of sensate composition) — especially the practices that shape, sustain, and recreate cultural symbologies — are central to successful cultural-political change, and I’m interested in how they are working in this particular situation. Is this just a struggle between an Islamic-traditionalist-pietist nationalism and a youthfully cosmopolitan, web-savvy, West-leaning liberalism, as much of the western press has been portraying it? Or theocrats versus ‘people power’ (which seems to me vastly oversimplified)? Is Mousavi’s ‘Green’ movement just another ‘color revolution’ modeled on the Serbian, Ukrainian, and Georgian examples? What role do colors and flags, music, and iconography play here — and are there any possibilities for them breaking across the rival constituencies? How might the aesthetics of non-violent protest do that? Knowing so little about the Persian/Iranian context, I can only speculate, rather feebly. But what seems obvious is that there is a cultural clash, and that one side has the guns, the riot gear, and the psychopathic order-keepers (the Basiji militia), while the other has the Twitter feeds. (It’s been said that “Tiananmen + Twitter = Tehran”. See Andrew Sullivan, Marshall Kilpatrick, The Huffington Post, and Hot Air on this.)
One of the more interesting web sites from the ‘greens’ has been the Tehran Bureau, which is now back up after a cyber-attack on Sunday put it off-line for several hours. Among the many snippets to be found there is this one, observed at a rally being addressed by “the real star of the campaign,” Mousavi’s wife Zahra Rahnavar:
“The entire infield of the stadium was packed with women, mostly in their twenties, wearing as much green as they could, faces painted the color of algae, waving banners, singing and dancing, yes dancing, to several electronic pop songs about Mr. Mousavi.
“Meanwhile male organizers pulled rank with each other over who should be allowed access to the sections nearest the stage. A few scuffles broke out, and cooler heads had to intervene; foreign media was watching. In the bleachers a section of perhaps a thousand men stared on at the sea of femininity.
“The stark contrast between the impassioned, yet composed female supporters with the sometimes rowdy, always ogling males, made me wonder how this country has survived so long being run by men. Or perhaps maybe it’s not.”
How much of the Green side is driven by a simple desire for “Yes we can” style change, a vague notion that mobilizes and focuses a scattered alliance of constituencies — women, web-browsing and pop- and dance-music listening students, intellectuals, theocrats pushed out of the circles of power, et al.? And on the other side, poised against change are rural conservatives, army vets, inner-circle theocrats — the whole range of Bush-supporting Iranian equivalents (where Bush/Palin=Ahmadinejad and Mousavi=an aged and more acceptable Obama)? Is this Iran’s Obama moment?
Art, of course, takes a back seat to politics in these moments, and that’s no doubt a part of the problem, as Emma Goldman pointed out (“If I can’t dance at your revolution…”). Art was very present in Paris in ’68, and the two sides were as far apart as Iran’s today, so that alone is no predictor of success or failure. But Iran’s art scene has shown a lot of signs of health in recent years, all things considered. Its national cinema, at least five to ten years ago, was celebrated as among the best around — though Vadim Rizov at GreenCine points out that that has been successfully squelched. Exhibitions like this one in New York suggest that the makings of a genuine artistic culture (by which I don’t mean “Art Incorporated” as Julian Stallabrass calls it) are there, in the cracks at least. Arts & Ecology reports about an environmental art festival that took place in northern Iran last year.
from environmental artist Ahmad Nadalian’s site on the Tree of Life art festival
But can art modify a political situation as polarized as this one?
The Big Picture has some great photographs of the last few days’ events. Among the more interesting coverage, Daily Kos has had some good blogging by electronicmaji, Cliff Lyon, and Fletcher Christenson, among others. The World Socialist web site has predictable critiques of the liberal-left media’s “falling in line” with the West’s uncritical reception of the events (though it’s not so clear to me that the West quite knows how to receive them). However the events unfold, the post-event analysis should be just as interesting…