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Where Is This Place? Crowds, Audio-vision, and Poetry in Postelection Iran

Setrag Manoukian

A week after Iran’s disputed presidential elections of June 12, 2009, a video began circulating on YouTube ( video 2, oldouz84 2009b).1 Over an almost pitch-black screen, multiple chants of “Allahu akbar” are heard. A woman’s hushed voice comments on the image and the sounds, making sense of the otherwise nondescript scene. She talks about the night, the chants, and the people who intone them. “This is Iran,” she says, referring to the images, the sounds, and her own words.

By establishing a link between collective action and individual sensation, the video constitutes Iran as a specific place and captures what has been so far one of the most distinctive and elusive features of current events in the country. While the election and its aftermath signal a constitutional crisis in the Islamic Republic of Iran, their significance goes beyond jurisprudence to touch the affective domain where politics becomes a form of life. Through a close reading of the video and a discussion of the events related to it, this essay poses the question of the relationship between politics and experience in contemporary Iran.

Darkness

The video ( video 2, oldouz84 2009b), roughly two and a half minutes long, depicts the same scene from beginning to end. The screen is black, with a square of light in the lower middle, the blurred contours of what appears to be the top of an apartment building. Above this rectangle of light, a few more bright points flicker in the dark. At times the image trembles slightly, giving an imperceptible sense of movement to the otherwise standstill black. The darkness is overwhelming and indefinite.

From outside the frame, a whisper announces a “day of destiny.” The video is dated June 19, 2009. That morning, Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic, in his Friday prayer sermon had celebrated people’s massive participation in the elections, reiterated his support for the incumbent president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and declared that protests against the elections should come to a halt or they would be suppressed. Although in previous days there had been clashes between security forces and people on the streets, Khamenei’s speech marked the beginning of widespread repression. The following day, Saturday, June 20, security forces and plainclothes individuals with batons attacked the crowds, beating, wounding, and killing. The crowds responded in kind. Announcing the violence yet to come, the darkness of the video captures a moment of suspension before confrontation.2

Giorgio Agamben (2009c) defines as “contemporary” that person who looks into the darkness of an epoch while perceiving a light directed at him or her but moving farther and farther away, as the light of galaxies in the expanding universe. For Agamben, seizing the present as something that shines while moving out of reach requires the courage to look into darkness, to grasp something beyond chronological time, to isolate a moment and read it as full of unrealized possibility. This cosmological perspective on contemporary experience finds its precise correlate in the images of the anonymous video that embodies the courage to look into the darkness of a June night and to perceive the temporal disjuncture the election brought to everyday life in Iran. It is both a commentary on and an intervention into the postelection events of the summer of 2009.

For many Iranian and foreign commentators, what is at stake in Iran is the alternative between democracy and tyranny.3 Some see this alternative as a tension within the order of the Islamic Republic. Others see it as the limit of the republic itself. Many analysts juxtapose state to society, the “palaces of power” to the streets, and see a fracture between two irreconcilable entities.4 However, traditional political categories are inadequate to describe the forms of what is happening and capture the existential dimension of the protests. If, as many argue, the elections of 2009 mark a point of no return in the political life of Iran, a more “contemporary” perspective is called for. As Hamid Dabashi (2009) suggested, a perspective is needed that analyzes the current situation together with its particular expressive forms. The dark images of the video, the multiplicity of sounds, and the whispers of a voice offer one such perspective.

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Notes

I thank Arang Keshavarzian and Michelle Hartman for their suggestions, Carin McCormack for her editing, Faisal Devji for the encouragement, and Dilip Gaonkar, who with his perceptive comments invited me to go further. The essay was written in July and revised in late October 2009. Unless otherwise noted, all translations are mine.

  1. This video is part of a series of videos uploaded by the same user, oldouz84. There are so far four of them, which I have numbered according to the date they were posted on YouTube (see references). They have the same black image, the same chants, and the same voice-over, but the relationship among these elements is different in each. In all of them the voice-over announces a date, but it does not always correspond with the date on which they were posted. Their titles on YouTube are taken from words uttered by the voice-over. In video 1 (oldouz84 2009a), dated June 16, the woman’s voice offers a prose commentary on the chants. Video 2 (oldouz84 2009b), dated June 19, the one I focus on, is the one that so far has circulated most widely. Its words are similar to those of video 1, but the text is more structured“> Video 3 (oldouz84 2009c), dated June 20, is a continuation and a breakdown of the poem of video 2. Video 4 (oldouz84 2009d), the last posted so far, is dated June 21, and it develops the words in video 3.
  2. A text written as if the writer were expecting to die in the protests of the following day circulated that same evening on the Internet in both Persian and English (hanaa 2009).
  3. On June 15, former minister of culture Ataollah Mohajerani declared in a blog post (later removed) that the events marked the end of the Islamic Republic and the beginning of Islamic rule (Mohajerani 2009). See also the dissident intellectual Abdul Karim Soroush’s analysis (2009).
  4. For a concise discussion, see Ehsani et al. 2009.

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