Planomenology‘s Reid Kane has posted an extensive analysis of the Iranian events from a perspective informed by Zizek and Agamben, among others — the first I’ve seen in this vein, though I’m anticipating others like it in the left-philosophical blogosphere. The piece draws too much, for my taste, on a monolithic (Marxist) understanding of capital and defers too hastily to Zizek’s weaker moments (I’m being respectful here). Reza‘s comments (see below the article) provide some important correctives to the piece, as does Ali Alizadeh’s piece here. But the article makes some useful points on Foucault’s original engagement with the Iranian revolution, and especially on the possibilities opened up by the new media landscape. Reid also reminds us that Guatemalan unrest had previously been dubbed “the Twitter revolution.”
“When corporate controlled media had a monopoly on nearly all non-local-direct communication, it was very easy to control what people did by restricting the coordinates of what they consider possible. Such coordinates are structured around what Levi, following Niklas Luhmann, calls ‘topics‘, or what George Lakoff calls ‘metaphors’ or ‘models’. The positions of every social agent are determined relative to these topics, for or against them, and they are thereby constrained to the actions their positions allow. What the advent of new media amounts to is an equalization of the ‘topics’ market, toppling the corporate monopoly on what topics are legitimately discussed, be it in print journalism, radio or television journalism, books, academic and scientific research, et cetera.
“The radical permeability of new media means that new topics can proliferate out of the control of corporate media, and indeed we see this beginning to happen with Iran. Yet the mere fact of these technologies and their permeability does not guarantee the proliferation and mutation of topics, and even if it did, it does not guarantee that topics like ‘torture’, or worse, won’t be legitimated.”
I would say that the Iranian events, and especially the media’s hyper-reflexivity on its own role in these events, is opening up more space for an inter-permeable, inter-reflexive discussion among divergent positions in which critical intellectuals can play an important role.
For me, though, it’s not just that these events are irreducible to ’spectacle’ — a point made well in Reid’s analysis. It’s also that people’s options (contrary to his argument) are not reducible to “a choice between masters,” as he puts it. People make their lives, when they can, without reference to their masters, and what’s important is that events like these can contribute to the longer-term ceding of space/territory from the masters to the space of the everyday, the commons, the multitude (call it what you will). Of course, that space can be reincorporated into a new master discourse, as the 1979 revolution obviously did – which is why the work of interpretation of such events is crucial. And, of course, even with a successful ‘revolution,’ global neoliberalism will be there to shape the game at many levels. But Zizek et al’s assessment of neoliberal capitalism is too monolithic and ignores the richness of ways in which people make their lives and give them meaning. (See, for instance, J. K. Gibson-Graham‘s and Arturo Escobar‘s work for more empirical and praxis-based correctives.)
New media can allow for much more of that kind of opening up and ceding of territory to occur, but I agree that it’s important for critical intellectuals to engage with how this is done. This is essentially what Susan Buck-Morss was advocating in her sharp little book from a few years ago, Thinking Past Terror: Islamism and Critical Theory on the Left, with its talk of the need to develop a “global public sphere” and “global counter-culture” that is conversant with various streams of Islamic, Arabic, and Middle Eastern political thought. We in the West need to get much better at that task, and people like Talal Asad, Akbar Ahmed, Leila Ahmed, Saba Mahmood, Chandra Mohanty, and others may be better guides to that territory than Zizek, Agamben, et al.
Alizadeh’s analysis, mentioned above, provides the internal context few western media have bothered with, including a description of the different polities associated with each of the main electoral candidates, and chides the western left for its “blindness” to “the political dynamism and energy of our movement.”
“While Karroubi went for the liberal option of differentiating people into identity groups with different demands (women, students, intellectuals, ethnicities, religious minorities, etc), Musavi emphasized the universal demands of ‘people’ who wanted to be heard and counted as political subjects. This subjectivity, emphasized by Musavi during his campaign and fully incarnated in the rallies of the past few days, is constituted by political intuition, creativity and recollection of the ‘79 revolution (no wonder that people so quickly reached an unexpected maturity, best manifested in the abstention from violence in their silent demonstrations). Musavi’s ‘people’ is also easily, but strongly, distinguished from Ahmadinejad’s anonymous masses dependent on state charity. Musavi’s people, as the collective appearing in the rallies, is made of religious women covered in chador walking hand in hand with westernized young women who are usually prosecuted for their appearance; veterans of war in wheelchairs next to young boys for whom the Iran-Iraq war is only an anecdote; and working class who have sacrificed their daily salary to participate in the rally next to the middle classes. This story is not limited to Tehran. Shiraz (two confirmed dead), Isfahan (one confirmed dead), Tabriz, Oroomiye are also part of this movement and other cities are joining with a predictable delay (as it was the case in 79 revolution).
“History will prove who the real participants of this movement are but once again we are faced with a new, non-classical and unfamiliar radical politics. Will the Western left get it right this time?”