Lamentations of Laleh Khalili
A response to "New
By Sohrab Mahdavi
September 23, 1999
Sometime in mid 1980's the Dutch Museum came vis-à-vis a problem
for which there was seemingly no solution. Staring disconcertedly at the
curators stood a painting of the Master Painter Rembrandt, gashed open
by the blade of an unimpressed visitor. It was a disaster of international
proportion. Mass ranks of expert, scientist, connoisseur, art-historian
were flown in to observe first hand the wrought havoc, then to decide and
embark on a course of action to save the defaced painting.
Through the valiant effort of this army of preservationists, and with
the aide of every possible technological breakthrough they were able to
restore the painting to a state were no one, least the Dutch public whose
historical treasure this was, could tell, save by the earlier din which
echoed vandalism alive, that the restored painting was indeed so.
Lungs could now exhale in sheer relief, happy that at least the appearance
of things could be face lifted. And that's what virtually took place. Through
fine-tuned instruments, technicians were able to lift the paint, with lapidary
precision, off the gnashed canvas, and carefully graft it onto a new and
more durable one.
Is this the end of a happy story? Perhaps. But the nagging question
that kept popping into the mind of many post-restoration visitors was:
Is this now to be regarded as the "original" piece? If so, what
would the ontological status of the surgeried canvas be? Had the Great
Master himself been alive, would he have detected the slight? Would he
have claimed it his own?
But the most important question was yet to be asked: Should we have
left the mutilated painting be? After all, it was - along with infinite
change of climate, sunshine, UV, dust and moth - part of the baggage that
made up its history.
Capitalism is obsessed with keeping records. It has appropriate everything
that comes its way in the form of inventorization, cataloging, indexing,
taxonomizing, digitalization, encryption, codification, DNAificatin, cryogenics.
To be is to be recorded.
This is post-fetishism, cause the fetish has taken second seat to its
cataloging - to its double. The hyper-real has set in, the "more real
than the real", the ekstasis of the object, the apotheosis of the
image of the fetish, instead of the fetish itself. The icon has gone virtual.
Lamentations of Khalili sit well on many ears. They are the expression
of many a diasporatic dreams and memories floating in hyperspace looking
for a ground to land on. The sorrows of a generation unsure of its foundation
in this gelatinous mass called reality. A generation used to staring at
the hypertext, and who can only feel and express its affinities through
the endless tapping of fingers on the keyboard. The stock in trade of many
Iranians in Los Angeles and kindred other places around the globe where
museums are rife and buildings are studded with placards and lengthy explanations
about the significance of such landmarks, and where concert halls are duly
packed with those ready to unleash their thunderous claps at the mention
of the name of the old country.
But what Khalili is not ready to understand ["New
is good"] is that her lamentations at the absence of a conservationist
attitude are the very stuff that form the identity-in-absence of Iranians
abroad. They thrive on the to and fro movement of the head which represents
their once-existing-but-now-lost history.
The Print Media
Must be grateful to Benedict Anderson for showing that capitalism was
the driving force of the Print -- among its first commodities -- to acquire
a universal prominence. It was capitalism voracious drive to open new markets
that engendered the Great Recording escapade of the Print. Science came
on the heels, lending its helping hand in cataloging everything it chanced
upon, from diseases, to moors, rituals, rites, to territories and precincts
and geography. Everything was charted and delineated for easier commerce
From its very inception, capitalism could not stop but spew out volumes
upon volumes of Print, historical records, scientific texts, and maps.
To be was to be cartographied. We have History, a sense of nation-state,
because we have books, maps, roads, in short, Print. Half way around the
world we can sit behind computers and re-affirm our sense of being fed
from one land.
We can click on pictures of Persepolis, Chogha Zanbil, or leaf through
travel logs of an Iranian hitching his way across the land we are now accustomed
calling the ground of our roots. We are obsessed with that which is no
more, doused in the inebriety of our ancestral glory - in short, at the
failure of our project. This is the cement that bonds our national determination.
Continuous Time vs. Messianic Time
Our temporal sensibilities are those of modern consciousness. We see
time as a continuum, interspersed with upheavals, "breaks and flows",
and affected schism a là Foucault. In sharp contrast to the pre-modern
consciousness of "Messianic" time whereby man stood at the dawn
of time, knocking at the door of calamity, disaster, Armageddon, searching
for the Zoroastrian Sushianss. Our historic (sic) ancestors never cared
a hoot about legacy, history, and a sense of the nation. Everyone stood
shaded under the umbrella of a sacred language which was orally transmitted
(Hebrew, Latin, Arabic, Sanskrit).
Relations where vertical, all subjects before the king who was only
subject to god. The diversity of ethnicities and races were preserved under
the sacred language and its divine rep on earth, The King. It was print-capitalism
that established horizontal relationships. The book, the newspaper, which
spoke the vernacular language of the masses, created an "imagined
community", where identities were reified and affirmed.
The sacred language came on a par with the vernacular, losing its very
significance and power. The King could only see his divine status slip
away. He had to align himself with a new language, one that would have
a unificative might. Born was nationalism. Capitalism has destroyed everything
it has set foot on. It has brought dental cavities via sugar; it has promulgated
malaria, hypertension, and disease. It has also given us the Print, and
Nationalism. It has been quick to record everything before destroying it
in the process. It has given us a new sacred language.
We write and communicate in English. Our desires and passions and sexuality,
indeed our very historical sense is shaped by the spiral Guggenheim, the
politically correct Smithsonian, the west-wooded Armand Hammer. Shirin-e
Neshat can rapturously sing for our eyes in uppity exhibition halls around
Khalili's torments over the crime of bounty hunting must explain where
the target market of such goods may be. It is the very museums and rich
capitalist clientele that provide the need for them. The indefatigable
machine of capitalism must consume. Eighty per cent of all waste in the
world is generated in the most advanced nations. Forests, mines, energy,
all being daily exploited only to slack the unquenchable thirst of this
Detached from its natural surrounding, the artifact finds its way into
airtight caskets for exhibition. And not only artifacts. No one knows how
many Iranians in the past year have decamped for Canada only. Unofficial
estimate run athwart two million (and this is not to speak of New Zealand,
Australia). They have flown off with the family to a dream that may take
years to materialize.
But this is okay, since there is always the Iranian to bind us brotherlilily,
wherever we have chosen to nook, beneath the heritage of our national pride.
We can read Khalili rant about our lost cause, labor under the burden of
what we have left behind for a dream in hyperspace, or pulp a smile at
the thought of the "stern old men" at least having the sense
of guarding our national heritage.
The Unnoticed Story
Several years ago, in the pre-K2 era, Iran-e Farda monthly published
the result of a research done at an Iranian university. Participants, all
students under 28 years of age, where confronted with an imaginary scenario.
"If a foreigner approached you and offered you a good pay, would you
go with him to Nasser Khosrow to purchase a piece of the old country, which
may or may not be historically significant, and then smuggle the find abroad."
Ninety Eight per cent said yes. Of those, a good number actually said that
they would do it even if the foreigner didn't pay. They would do it as
This probably mortifies those with weak ears, our compatriots abroad
who find their heart cringe with pain at the thought of such disaster of
national vilification. But this is our collective unconscious, we live
in the messianic time: let the head of a dog boil in the cauldron that
doesn't boil for me. Or, borrowing a page from our French post-revolutionary
counterparts, "après nous la déluge." Our temporal
sensibilities are those of the "Messianic" time. We live at the
end of time, ready to pack our bags and leave for a different world with
everything we manage to fit in it.
When Reza Shah, and then in mock repetition his ill-begotten son, were
leaving country, they did not forget to fist some soil in their hand, never
to mention wads of cash, treasure which had already been packed in their
airplane-in-waiting. Their gesture was in line with the nationalism they
advocated and help edify. The acephalic father-son never imagined that
the country that they had so richly watered with the sense of its Aryan
Heritage could culminate in the Islamic Republic, whose very appellation
is emblematic of the contradiction between messianic and modern temporality.
Ironically, the language of Khalili smacks of that very contradiction.
It laments the losses of a people in end-time Armageddon while trying to
weave itself a sense of modern, preservationist, nationalist identity.
No Laleh, hunger for modernity does not discard history. Modernity is history
par excellence. In messianic time, "they kill writers, you know."
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