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Lamentations of Laleh Khalili
A response to "New is good"

By Sohrab Mahdavi
September 23, 1999
The Iranian

A Story

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.

Enter Capitalism

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. (Baudrillard)

The Lamentations

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 and flow.

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. (Khatami)

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 the States.

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 Leviathan.

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 a service.

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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