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People: free will versus complex animals that must be controlled

The language that is understood in our modern democracy [is] through putting thousands of people on the street. […] We need to go out and do mobilization. […] It is the only thing that will push into a meaningful engagement; not a discussion. […] Our power remains in our numbers. Unity is our strength.

Above is an excerpt from a short talk given by S’bu Zikode. Below is the speech in full.

There are two broad schools of thought on people, that they are capable of effective self-determination and free action, or that they are almost exclusively shaped by the social, environmental, and material conditions of their daily life and so they cannot be trusted to decide their own fate.

These two streams of thought take on many different forms, have various names, and are championed by various causes. They both seem to regularly offer the same examples of human atrocities, such as global wars, as events that prove the basis for their argument. A war that mobilizes a great mass of people to kill and die is represented as either:

  1. The horror of people lacking good judgment and committing murder or mass suicide; or
  2. The oppressive power of privileged factions organizing a system of government that coerces the mass of people to commit murder.

These ideas of a people, as reactionary networks of individuals or people as the most suitable for determining their own lives touches on all aspects of life, from deciding on types of healthcare to how best to determine good forms of employment.

These schools demand broadly different approaches to governance. Simply put they demand rule by a supposedly enlightened elite that knows best or direct decision-making by empowered collectives of people. These governing bodies range in size from national or international governments to local boards or movements.

B.F. Skinner is famous for supporting the notion that people cannot govern themselves. He helped develop behaviouralism. This presents people as shaped by their social and environmental context, their behaviours shaped in response to stimuli (rewards and punishments). Of course, an ‘engineer’ could then command people’s behaviours. Here is an example.

Here is a a video of Skinner giving a short talk on the subject.

There is also the notion of people having the capacity for self-determination by applying their free will. This is not a complex form of reflex or manipulated bahaviour.

The will of the people is, to quote the philosopher Peter Hallward, “a deliberate, emancipatory and inclusive process of collective self-determination.” This requires that people not be slave to purely behavioural control. The application of free will requires the people to “resist the power of the historical, cultural or socio-economic terrain to determine” their/our own way. (quotes from Hallward’s essay, The will of the people, available online)

Here is an eloquent articulation of why and how people must organize together:

Our politics starts by recognizing the humanity of every human being. We decided that we will no longer be good boys and girls that quietly wait for our humanity to be finally recognized one day. Voting has not worked for us. We have already taken our place on the land in the cities and we have held that ground. We have also decided to take our place in all the discussions and to take it right now. We take our place humbly because we know that we don’t have all the answers, that no one has all the answers. Our politics is about carefully working things out together, moving forward together. But although we take our place humbly we take it firmly.

[…]Our politics starts from the places we have taken. We call it a living politic because it comes from the people and stays with the people. It is ours and it is part of our lives. We organize it in our own languages and in our own communities. It is the politics of our lives. It is made at home with what we have and it is made for us and by us. We are finished with being ladders for politicians to climb up over the people.

[…]To think about all this we must start with the history of where we come from. Who are we and what type of society we want to build.

It has become clear to us that whenever we talk about history we are seen to be launching an offensive. It has become clear to us that this is because the rich want to believe that we are poor because we are less than them – less intelligent, less responsible, less clean, less honest, less educated. If we are poor because we are just less than the rich then we must be happy for every little thing that we are given, we must be happy with a hamper or some old clothes when our children are dying in the rats and the fire and the mud.

But we are not poor because we are less than the rich. We are poor because we were made poor. The rich are rich because they were made rich. If your ancestors had the land you will go to university and get a nice job and look after your family well. If your ancestors lost the land you will be lucky to find a dangerous job that you hate so that your family can just survive.

The above are excerpts from a speech given by S’bu Zikode. Zikode is the president of Abhalali baseMjondo, a South African shack dwellers movement that began in early 2005.

Jacques Ranciere writes the following in his book, The Ignorant School Master:

There is stultification whenever one intelligence is subordinated to another. […] That subjection is purely one of will over will.

[…]There aren’t two sorts of minds. There is inequality in the manifestations of intelligence, according to the greater or lesser energy communicated to the intelligence by the will for discovering and combining new relations: but there is no hierarchy of intellectual capacity.

[…] Whoever looks always finds. He doesn’t necessarily find what he was looking for, and even less what he was supposed to find. But he finds something new to relate to the thing that he already knows.”

Revisiting Nights of Labour: Jacques Ranciere video lecture

June 4, 2010 1 comment

The French philosopher Jacques Ranciere gives a lecture in Delhi, following the release the Hindi translation of his famous book, Nights of Labour: Workers’ Dream in 19th Century France.

SaraiMediaLab provides some background:

Ranciere wrote The Nights of Labour after years of archival work. It traces the world of worker intellectuals in 19th century France, who, through their poems, music, letters, produced a world that did not celebrate work as in conventional socialist texts, but a life outside it. Radical in its style and argument, Nights of Labour, offers not just a revision of working class history, but the relation between politics, knowledge, aesthetics and equality, all of which have become topics of Ranciere’s future books.

Revising Nights of Labour – Part 1:

Revising Nights of Labour – Part 2:

Revising Nights of Labour – Part 3:

Revising Nights of Labour – Part 4:

Revising Nights of Labour – Part 5:

Revising Nights of Labour – Part 6:

Iranian cinema’s roots in local aesthetics

March 26, 2010 Leave a comment

Clip from the film, "The Cow"

In brief, I am going to review a relationship between Iranian film and philosophy.

I have two reasons for my interest in this.

1) I think it’s necessary for me to have a deeper analysis of Iranian aesthetic traditions in my core study of its political philosophy.

2) I am increasingly dissatisfied by my writings on international relations. I find that I’m able to more or less represent facts, yet I am having trouble articulating the truths of lived experience. At times, I find that there is even a tension between facts and truth. For this reason, I’m curious to examine various modes and traditions of communication in order to learn something from them and hopefully apply something new to my writing in order to improve it.

I argue in support of Hamid Dabashi’s thesis (presented in his book Masters and Masterpieces of Iranian Cinema) that the particular films collectively called Iranian neorealist cinema cannot simply be seen as derivations of movements with similar names coming out of Italy or France. Iran’s neorealist cinema is of course influenced by the works of contemporaries in Europe and elsewhere; however it has roots within indigenous modes of representation, of artistic expression, and of thought that express the specific nature of the country’s cinematic form.

More precisely, the very long tradition of Iranian poetry has left an indelible mark on the people’s psyche, and it has served to express notions of philosophy and theology as well as a manner of story-telling that is evident in the country’s neorealist cinema.

One of the first Iranian films to be recognized as neorealist had as director a woman who was first of all a poet: Forugh Farrokhzad. The influence of modern and pre-modern poets is readily recounted by the numerous filmmakers of this cinematic form.

Iran’s poetry has a certain relationship with forms of representation that is evident in the manner of neorealist filmmaking. There is within them an intersection of fact and fiction that has the potential to unfold a multi-dimensional representation that is porous and supple to the understanding of reality. Here, the real and the imaginary mingle, reality and truth can be at odds, and the firm ground of our conceived existence fades to general abstraction.

I will very briefly present and examine the character of this intersection of fact and fiction in Iran’s neorealist cinema: its roots, its expressions, and its possible consequences. This aesthetic tradition has a notable difference with a common form of representation within the West. Traditional Iranian poetry, and the films that borrow from it, are not purely dependent on a mimesis that holds representation as a semblance of reality (this is icastic mimesis). In traditional Iranian poetry, the icastic can cohabitate with a phantastic mimesis that is not limited to what actually exists. Fact and fantasy intrude upon each other and can become indiscernible. The use of both modes of mimesis can help us see what is other than the real within reality. By real, here is meant “the constellation of signs before they have been forced into signifiers that we now collectively call reality.”[1]

Being a majority Muslim country, the aesthetic genealogy of Iran has grounding in Islamic tradition. There is therefore a relationship between concepts of the real and reality within Islamic philosophies and its practice in art. It is very evident in the reading of the Qu’ran that the scripture tries to grapple with the absence of a visible God. This is a concern much discussed in literature: it also has an impact on art and processes of thought.

Here, pure simulation corresponds to representation of the face of God, and in Islamic tradition depictions of this face is prohibited. So, we see a very particular philosophy and visual art develop from this grounding in the Qu’ran. As Hamid Dabashi has put it in an essay on this subject, belief in the real is “predicated on the constitutional impossibility of seeing, or showing, the Face of the Unseen.”

“The Islamic hermeneutics is categorically predicated on a constitutional mistrust of the Face-value, of the sur-Face meaning, and the reversal of trust in the promises of the Hidden, in the Unseen, in that which is to be dis-covered, unveiled.” [2]

From this is derived the notion that there can be no exact or direct representation of the real because the very point of human departure within constituted reality is uncertain, we are uncertain of reality because the face of the real remains occluded.

Within Iranian neorealist cinema, we are thus in some way witness to this conviction when the mundane shots of a faucet, street, or silent human interaction are turned into an implied (partial) vision of the hidden Sign of the real. In such scenes we become aware of “the presence of an absence.”[3]

Mulla Sadra, a well known Iranian philosopher (1561-1636), also discusses this: that communication does not transfer essence but meaning. That reality is constituted in the human mind, and that each person’s reality is unique though related to each through the unseen presence of God, which stands as an invisible unifying gravity. There is no visible universal source of reference for us to grasp, so there can be no single unchallenged vision of reality. We can only intuit the real and not truly conceive it. This produces “a unity of abstractions,” based on the subject’s understanding of reality within the context of time and space. The doctrine of unity within multiplicity is borrowed from some forms of Sufism. In this philosophy, we reside in contingent realities where even the essence of existence as we understand it resides in the mind.[4]

Abbas Kiarostami, one of Iran’s most prominent filmmakers has discussed exactly this. When interviewed about his film, “And Life Goes on,” he states that:

“The perception of reality is such a complex and nuanced phenomenon that we cannot really give a definitive answer to this question. The best of all positions undoubtedly consists of being ceaselessly in motion between dream and reality: This is a place of ideal life, my space of preference. My attitude is to refuse all convictions of reality, it is to sit between the two chairs of the real and the dream, to stay in motion and alive. My perception of reality is always the source, the mobilizing force that pushes me to make movies. The real always has a power of fiction and of poetry that excites me and stimulates my creativity. This is the way I stay always faithful to reality… It is a constant rule that animates all my films.”[5]

The prominent place of phantastic mimesis in Kiarostami and other directors’ films is not reliant on equivalence, on a semblance of constituted reality. Neither phantastic nor icastic mimesis is given primacy. The hybridity of the two modes of mimesis within Iranian poetics has been effectively examined by one of the classic thinkers of Persian philosophy, Nasir al-Din Tusi, in his Foundation of Logical Learning, written in 1244. The use of as well as the theorizing of these mimetic representations is not new to the culture, it is simply new to Iranian cinema, having been first introduced in the early 1960s thanks to such pioneers as the previously mentioned poet, Forugh Farrokhazad’s only film, The House is Black.

Because the elements of these films are not necessarily related to a fixed reality, they reside in relation to each other rather than in a direct equivalence with a fixed point of reality. What is interesting here is that these filmic representations are not exactly reproductions they are performative, emotive, sentimental, psychological, atmospheric, form over content. This cinema does not pose as a technical representation of reality, but rather a poetic representation, and, so, technique does not easily dominate the message of the product, it does not dominate its “use-value.”[6] The films are not operational configurations or programmatic. They cannot easily be assembled as a centralized vision of society. They are dotted by uncertainties, unasked questions, incomplete visions, and unquantifiable sentiments.

These films do no do what the philosopher Jean Baudrillard warns might become the role of a simulation as a “generator where myriads of intersections produce all the questions and possible solutions, so that choices can be made.”[7] There is no “determination,” and not “all is resolved in the inscription and decodage” of the works of such directors as Farrokhzad, Kiarostami, and Mohsen Makhmalbaf.

There can be no instantaneous unambiguous response to what the audience witnesses in these films; to seek such would lead to frustration. The films are not coded in binary, with the dichotomy of question/answer; there is no self-fulfilling prophesy, no answer inscribed within a prescriptive question. There is no attempt to unite the universe of the discussed under the “aegis of a single principle;”[8] no homogeneous substance.  Each plane or dimension can itself be multi-phased and indistinct. The images are not fragments of a principle whole but include the unfolding of multiple perspectives and possibilities.

The audience must deal with the erosion of determinacy, the implosion of true and false. Fact and fantasy bleed into each other, and it becomes clear that such things as historical facts do not necessarily represent or expose the truth. Meanwhile, the truth of lived experience is manifested by the film in which self/other, and past/present/future also collapse into each other.

In this sense, the films invite the participation or engagement of the audience. Not in the manner digitized modes of participation in some new media: the director does not have the same degree of control or determination over audience response. Because reality “is not broken down […] into scenarios of regulated oppositions.”[9]

So the films are not bound to equivalence, they are not bound to direct reproduction. They can be grounds for the production of new imaginations and new understandings of reality, as well as for grappling with what is other than real within reality.

There is no terrain of distinctive oppositions, so the films do not produce a space where politics or views of society can be easily reduced to a binary logic of good/bad, true/false, right/wrong, Left/Right. There are no monolithic oppositions, no clear ideological or moral judgments. It is a terrain of nuance where differences interrelate and coexist, where the same and the other, I and Them, the inside and the outside are not separated by hard lines.

Contemplation becomes near unavoidable in this environment.

So, remembering Kiarostami’s statement about his approach to representations of reality in his films, he seems wary that what might collectively be understood as existence, what we might grasp as reality, “can be confused with its own image.”[10] Just as in the philosophies of Mulla Sadra, subjectivity, therefore, is taken to have a prominent role in the composition of a multidimensional reality.

To borrow a section from Arundhati Roy’s, The God of Small Things, the best of Iranian neorealist cinema seems to play the part of the medium “that connects reflections to images, glints to light, weaves to fabrics, needles to threads, walls to rooms, love to heart to anger to remorse.”[11]

There is a relation between art and truth: the “showing forth” or the “unconcealment” of what’s hidden and covered up[12]. As Slavoj Zizek puts it in a short article, Ideology I: No Man is an Island, within constituted reality, “actuality is more than potentiality, present more than future…” while “in subjectivity, potentiality strands ‘higher’ than reality: subject is a paradox entity which exists only as ex-sisting, standing outside itself in an ontological openness.”[13]

With the mingling of icastic and phantastic mimesis, subjectivity has a prominent role as constituted reality loses its place as the primary point of reference.

The ambiguity generated by this approach to representation is especially interesting in the context of Iran’s political history, and of its experience with a particular form of aterritorial colonialism. Iran’s territory was never fully occupied by foreign powers such as in the case of India by the British. The country was cut into zones of influence first by Britain and Russia as well as the Soviet Union. Later, the United States took up the mantle of foreign domination of the country’s domestic affairs after it orchestrated a coup in 1953 that deposed a nationalist democratic government and returned the last shah to absolute power after a short hiatus.

In this period of colonialism, the country’s leaders were often under the sway of foreign powers, its key institutions administered by hand-picked foreign experts, its military at times carefully balanced by outside influence, and after the 1953 coup, a foreign trained and very brutal secret police terrorized the people.

Technically, the country had sovereignty over its territory, but in actuality it was regularly powerless to define its own domestic policies in the face of outside intervention. This colonial experience has helped generate continuous states of transition, a no-place, a constant sense of waiting, as if on a border between full domination and freedom. This is enhanced by the experience of domestic politics, of an active multi-generational resistance against the tyranny of successive national governments that now spans over a century in time.

This is a society in flux, with domestic and foreign elements constituting major forces in a tension that influences its mutating outcome. There is a continuous state of uncertainty. This to some extent is more easily expressed by a communication that resists a binary approach, that is comfortable with ambiguity, ambivalence and chaos.

Films that have characteristics of fragmentation, multi-locality, are non-chronological, and have multiple frames of subjectivity are very useful in that they can ease discussions of these historic and political experiences. As Hamid Dabashi has put it, Iranian cinema tells the story of the politics of uprootedness.

I think it is important to realize that these films are not simply the continuation of traditional forms of art. They are not rooted in a dead history. They are used to express lived experience. They can and do articulate the creative expression of emancipatory struggles, the traumas of long war, and the active voice of many generations who have lived and continue to live within a threshold between oppression and liberation.

Note: There are a number more sources that fed into this writing, frankly, I’ve lost my original fully cited piece so this is a rough version hastily that’s re-edited.


[1] Dabashi, Hamid. “Masters and Masterpieces of Iranian Cinema.” Mage Publishers, 2007, p. 117.

[2] Dabashi, Hamid. “In the Absence of the Face.” 2000, http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2267/is_1_67/ai_62402554/?tag=content;col1

[3] Ibid.

[4] Rahman, Fazlur. “The God-World Relationship in Mulla Sadra.” In Essays in Islamic Philosophy and Science, State University of New York Press, 1975, New York, USA, pp. 238-252. Ideas of unity in multiplicity abstractions on p. 251.

[5] Dabashi, Hamid. “Masters and Masterpieces of Iranian Cinema.” p. 306.

[6] Baudrillard, Jean. “Simulations.” In Continental Aesthetics, Blackwell Publishing, 2007, pp. 412-427.

[7] Ibid., p. 416.

[8] Ibid., p. 417.

[9] Ibid., p. 420.

[10] Ibid., p. 427.

[11] Roy, Arundhati. “The God of Small Things.” IndiaInk Publishing, 1997, pp.225-226.

[12] Heidegger, Martin. “The Origin of the Work of Art.” .” In Continental Aesthetics, Blackwell Publishing, 2007, pp. 182-211.

[13] Zizek, Slavoj. “Ideology I: No Man is an Island.” Lacanian Ink, http://www.lacan.com/zizwhiteriot.html.

Language and its dimensions of violence – Slavoj Zizek video lecture

February 10, 2010 Leave a comment

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The role of stories in Indian culture

February 2, 2010 2 comments

Below is a lecture given by professor S.N. Balagangadhara (aka Balu) on the role of stories in Indian culture. He mentions that, in those stories that are indigenous to India, their diverse and prolific nature makes them important in learning forms of socialization. They are ways of representing the world as well as models of how to go about the world. He proposes that this provides a map for emulation, that they provide sub-intentional learning or mimetic learning.

He also briefly touches on the internalization, both within and without India, of the European experience of India being forwarded as the story of India. He gave this lecture in 2009, in Estonia’s University of Tartu.

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Part 5 – Q&A:

Seeing the Unseen

February 1, 2010 1 comment

AllahHamid Dabashi has an interesting article, In the Absence of the Face, that investigates the unseen or faceless presence of God in the Quran, as a collapse of the sign into the signifier.

He quotes the 6th/12th century Shaykh Abu al-Futuh al-Razi, who tried to explain why Joseph smashed the idols in his prison:

… Calling them [the idols] gods is not but a meaningless name. The reason is that the Name is not the Named. Because if the Name were the Named, then by virtue of calling them god they would be god and it would be proper to worship them, and they would have been god by attributes, and yet that is impossible….

Here is another excerpt from the article:

Alif. Lam. Mim. This is the Scripture whereof there is no doubt, a guidance
unto those who ward off (evil). Who believe in the Unseen, and establish
worship, and spend of that We have bestowed upon them; And who believe in
that which is revealed unto thee (Muhammad) and that which was revealed
before thee, and are certain of the Hereafter.

— The Qur’an 2:1-4

The inaugural moment of the Qur’an, of Re-Citation, is alphabetical. Audible, inarticulate, visible, meaning-held-at-bay, alphabet: Alif. Lam. Mim mean nothing. Signatures, though, authoritative. Letters coagulating to no word. Pseudo-Signs announcing themselves. Signifiers signifying nothing beyond their visuality. Signifiers feigning the Sign. Alif. Lam. Mim are the optical illusions of Signs precisely at the moment when they are about to suppress the visible absence of the Sign and mutate that absence, and thus that in/ability, into the instrumentality of the Signifier, the Sacred, the alphabetical ordering of access to Truth Manifest. The Truth is about to be Manifest-ed right here where it cannot be Manifest and it must hide its in/ability to be Manifest. Signatures of the Unseen: Alif. Lam. Mim are neither Signs nor Signifiers. They are both Signs and Signifiers. In that disabling contradiction is the enabling configuration that makes the Sacred, the aggressive substitution of the suggested Signification for the suppressed Sign, of the meaning of the Name for the shape of the Face, of the Hermeneutics of postponement for the Semiotics of the present, of the Metaphysics of fear for the Aesthetic of pleasure, possible.

[…The] visible substitution of the invisible Sign by determinedly collapsing it into a pregnant Signifier.

Read Hamid Dabashi’s article here.

Killing in war: Jeff McMahan audio lecture

December 2, 2009 Leave a comment

From philosophy bites:

If someone is shooting at me in a war, surely it is morally acceptable for me to shoot back and kill him or her. Jeff McMahan of Rutgers University, author of a new book on this topic, challenges the view that such killing is always acceptable.

Listen to the lecture here.

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