Better US-Iranian relations could usher in more diverse portrayals of Iran—in popular literature and scholarship.
With the signing of a nuclear agreement between Iran and the U.S., years of sanctions on Iran have ended and I hope a new era in U.S.-Iran relations begins, an era which will enable both Iranian and American scholars to complicate their notions of the other nation through fieldwork and research. Up to now, it has been very difficult for non-Iranians to visit Iran, let alone spend time there as researchers, creating a peculiar situation in which the majority of Iran scholars in the U.S. are first- and second-generation Iranian immigrants. While these scholars have produced some excellent research, we must nonetheless acknowledge the strange nature of a field in which citizenship (or parents’ citizenship) in the country is a necessary credential.
Scholarship in the first twenty years following the revolution was principally concerned with why the revolution happened. It was primarily authored by Iranians who left during the revolution, or learned (while in graduate school in the U.S.) that they could not return. This scholarship, while often excellent, also often reflected a (strong) political bias. In time, those discourses began to change. For better or worse, the past ten years have been defined by what we might call the “autobiographical turn,” best symbolized by Azar Nafisi’s controversial Reading Lolita in Tehran. Reading Lolita’s incredible commercial success enabled the publication of a spate of other memoirs, which capitalized on similar themes, traded in similar stereotypes, and generally promulgated the idea of Iran as a place that was mysterious and foreign. Critics accused Nafisi of promoting a neo-conservative agenda. This was, of course, in the wake of the invasion of Iraq, when Washington insiders were bandying about phrases like “Real men want to go to Tehran” and fear of an imminent invasion of Iran was running high.
If one’s degree of “Iranianness” is now inevitably part of Iran scholarship, is there a way to be reflective about it without becoming autobiographical in all the ways that offend scholarly notions of objectivity?
I, too, had plenty of criticism to offer of Reading Lolita and many of the other memoirs. At the most basic level, they traded on American readers’ insatiable desire to “know the enemy,” and were primarily content to rely on stereotypes about Iran rather than to challenge Americans’ existing perceptions. Over time, though, what troubled me more than the memoirs themselves was the response within the academy and the way in which anxieties about who “gets” to speak for Iran were subsequently shaping scholarship on Iran.
Claiming some tangible link to Iran—having been born in Iran, educated in Iran, having conducted fieldwork in Iran, having family in Iran, and so on—became a practice which signaled one’s authority to speak, especially in a world in which so few Americans could visit or conduct research in Iran. I noticed that established Iranian-American scholars (typically first-generation immigrants, whose coming of age had been shaped in some way by the revolution) were increasingly personalizing their writings, even in fields where this was conventionally frowned upon. Younger scholars (typically second-generation authors who had experienced the revolution primarily through their parents’ nostalgia and regrets), too, felt that they needed to lay claim to Iran by evoking parents’ memories of flight from Iran, and later, by undertaking and recording their “voyage of return,” which also characterized many of the memoirs, like Azadeh Moaveni’s Lipstick Jihad.
If one’s degree of “Iranianness” is now inevitably part of Iran scholarship, is there a way to be reflective about it without becoming autobiographical in all the ways that offend scholarly notions of objectivity? I remain inspired by Joan Scott’s cautionary words about the “evidence of experience,” and her reminder to be skeptical about the use of experience as the basis of knowledge—particularly historical knowledge. Of course, Scott ultimately concludes that it is hard to escape the idea of experience in the writing of history, especially given the degree of association in English (and most other languages) between the verbs “to see” and “to know,” which suggest an inevitable relationship between seeing and knowing. If we are linguistically conditioned to believe that to see is to know, our chances of diversifying the kind of knowledge about Iran that circulates in both popular and scholarly discourses on Iran is probably unlikely to change—especially given the fact that we live in a world in which personal experience is increasingly the basis for popular entertainments as evidenced by the dominance of “reality” TV shows.
If we can’t escape from experience, how can we make it more explicitly a problem to discuss in our scholarship? Scott suggests some useful directions, and Rey Chow points out others. Chow, and Gayatri Spivak before her, both caution against what Chow calls the “lures of diaspora”—in other words, the tendency of the diasporic subject-scholar to reify the “lost homeland” and to represent the arcane homeland and its “natives” in order to promote their own privilege in the host country. Unfortunately, up to now, any debate about how best to represent Iran has primarily been characterized by assertions that the Iran I know, the Iran I have seen, doesn’t match up with your Iran, regrettably returning us to the very point of our inquiry’s departure: the problem of invoking one’s access to Iran, or “Iranianness,” as the basis for one’s authority.
So when we ask, Who writes Iran? perhaps what we really are asking is, How can we write Iran differently, how can we enable a plurality of voices, and—if we cannot escape experience—at least increase the number of experiences, or visions, of Iran that appear in Iran discourse in the U.S.? Maybe it is foolishly optimistic, but I hope that the end of sanctions is the beginning of a diversification of the scholarship, a moment at which even if the solipsistic representations cannot end, they might proliferate, ultimately giving us a more nuanced view of Iran in popular and scholarly discourse.
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