Saturday, September 20, 2008

Intellectual Vocation and Comprador Intellectuals

If intellectuals occupy a niche in society, and by virtue of their activity demand a space and a place where we listen, think about what is said and then try to understand the lives around us against the plethora of their voices, then indeed it is an important space to occupy. I always thought, in this context, that an intellectual must defy and naturally stay in opposition, not only to the established mores but to his/her own laziness and not only preach from a public pulpit but take on the pulpit itself, to stop all screeching noises from making a mess of the public sphere. I do not intend to stay that an intellectual must always oppose but that an intellectual must stay in opposition.

In one of his great essays, called On defiance and taking positions, Edward Said laments over the role of intellectuals, who having hogged the limelight, strayed into rhetorical defeat, obeying the diktat of one establishment doctrine after the other. Said had a public spat with many of his contemporary "thinkers" but if looked at retrospectively, most of those people have turned out to be rhetoricians, able enough to teach at humanities departments but unable to become luminosities because their flaws are not in their method but in their thinking, which breeds on ethnic, religious, class, colour and other primordial paranoid baggage. On say the issues regarding intellectuals in the Middle East, in an interview, Said says:

"The united states has internalized imperial rule. That sets intellectuals above such issues, perhaps because of a general sense of helplessness and impotence and fragmentation due to specialization. The intellectual community doesn't operate according to principles, and doesn't consider itself bound by responsibilities toward the common weal. Or doesn't feel responsible for the behaviour of the United States internationally."

However, back to the original point which refers to "intellectual vocation''. Said refers to "critical awareness, skepticism and an ability for irony". "The intellectual", he points out, "is not simply a professor, not simply a professional, wrapped in the mantle of authority and special language and special training.........the intellectuals role is as an opponent of consensus and orthodoxy. His role is not to consolidate authority but to speak truth to power. The intellectual vocation must be to alleviate human suffering and not celebrate what in effect does not need celebrating. To enter into the public sphere means not to be afraid of controversy or taking positions". Said also goes on to say that 'the intellectual must act as a kind of public memory; to recall what is forgotten or ignored; to connect and contextualize and to generalize from what appear to be fixed truths............"

In context of the above, I have been thinking of the role of what Dabashi, the Iranian critical theorist calls the Comprador intellectuals, an entity that has abounded of late, a group of people whose farcical and incredibly ugly positions have not only dominated sound bytes but newspapers, Internet spaces, public discussion fora and the space in the universities. And unfortunately, these intellectuals have been employed by US and other western powers to speak on behalf of the Muslim populations under siege, especially after terrorist outrages in Britain, Spain and the US. By Comprador is meant definition wise a person who "is a native of a colonised country who acts as the agent of the coloniser", for various interests, be it commercial or other imperial reasons. Dabashi cites various examples, especially the ones of Vali Nasr( he has written a book on Shia revival in the Middle East and goes on to effectively prove the usefulness of an order in the Middle East whereby the Shiites and the Americans can together balkanize the area, sharing oil, technology, shield Israel and destroy in spirit at least the common enemy, that is orthodox Islam) or Fouad Ajami ( Arab Shia academic who for ages wrote tome upon tome, seeking American adventures in Iraq, leading to the present situation).

Dabashi's analysis of Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran however is more acute and in the literary genre as it allows the reader to actually understand the Comprador way. I, unfortunately haven't read Nafisi's Reading Lolita but if I allow myself to trust Dabashi, which I am willing to do, Dabashi says in the passages quoted below:

"Reading Lolita in Teheran is the locus classicus of the ideological foregrounding of the US imperial domination at home and abroad in three simultaneous moves: (1) it banks on a collective amnesia of historical facts surrounding successive US imperial moves for global domination--for paramount in Reading Lolita in Tehran is a conspicuous absence of the historical and a blatant whitewashing of the literary; (2) it exemplifies the systematic abuse of legitimate causes (in this case the unconscionable oppression of women living under Muslim laws) for illegitimate purposes; and (3) through the instrumentality of English literature, recycled and articulated by an "Oriental" woman who deliberately casts herself as a contemporary Scheherazade, it seeks to provoke the darkest corners of the Euro-American Oriental fantasies and thus neutralise competing sites of cultural resistance to the US imperial designs both at home and abroad, while ipso facto denigrating the long and noble struggle of women all over the colonised world to ascertain their rights against both domestic patriarchy and colonial domination. In the latter case, the project of Reading Lolita in Tehran is just on the surface limited to denigrating Iranian and by extension Islamic literary cultures and feminist movements; its equally important target is to dismiss and disparage competing non-white cultures of the immigrant communities, ranging from African-American, to Asian-American, to Latino-American, and other racialised minorities.

Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran has a very simple plot. A female professor of English literature at an Iranian university, having been born to a privileged family and thus educated in Europe and the United States, is finally fed up with the atrocious limitations of an Islamic republic, resigns her post, goes home, collects seven of her brightest female students and they get together and read some of the masterpieces of "Western literature," while connecting the characters and incidents of the novels they thus read to their daily predicaments in an ungodly Islamic republic. The plot, factual or manufactured or a combination of both, provides an occasion for the narrator to give a sweeping condemnation of not just the Islamic revolution but with it in fact the entire nation, the poor and the disenfranchised, that has given rise to it--for which she has absolutely nothing but visceral contempt. To connect this simple plot and its extended services to the US imperial operations at home and abroad, we need a larger theoretical frame of reference in comparative literary studies.

By far the most immediate and intriguing aspect of Reading Lolita in Tehran is its cover, which shows two female teenagers bending their heads forward in an obvious gesture of reading something. What exactly is it they are reading, we do not see or know. Over their heads we read "Reading Lolita in Tehran." The immediate suggestion is very simple. The subject of the book purports to be reading Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita" in Tehran, and here are two Iranian-looking teenagers in their headscarves reading (one thing or another). The two young women appear happily engaged with what they are reading, and they do so in such an endearing way that solicits sympathy, and even evokes complicity. What better picture to represent the idea--leaving it to the imagination of the observer that they are indeed reading Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita ? Right? Wrong.

The denoted message here seems quite obvious: these two young women are reading "Lolita" in Tehran--they are reading ("Lolita"), and they are in Tehran (they look Iranian and they have scarves on their head). The connoted message is equally self-evident: Imagine that--illicit sex with teenagers in an Islamic Republic! How about that, the cover suggestively proposes and asks, can you imagine reading Lolita in Tehran ? Look at these two Oriental Lolitas! The racist implication of the suggestion--as with astonishment asking, "can you even imagine reading that novel in that country?"--competes with its overtly Orientalised pedophilia and confounds the transparency of a marketing strategy that appeals to the most deranged Oriental fantasies of a nation already petrified out of its wits by a ferocious war waged against a phantasmagoric Arab/Muslim male potency that has just castrated the two totem poles of the US empire in New York".

Dabashi writes a masterly critique of this book, tracing its reading against the reading and reception of the original Lolita and in the process of its reading, now in a remote Tehran, the very act of reading becomes a counter subversive act, distorting not only Iranian culture and history but similar cultures and histories. The full text of this essay here.

The above example merely illustrates the sad situation of the intellectuals today, those that are serving empires and personal ideologies, obeying one or another internal distortion, deliberately ignorant of Hamlet's soliloquies or Ozymandias' statue. Said's intellectual vocation or even Gramsci's more studied definition of an intellectual lies shattered. The success or failure of America's designs in Iraq are questions that can be answered only if the questions are asked in the spirit of a pure intellectual vocation. We must not forget the role that an intellectual can adopt unknowingly, giving in to the Gramscian concepts of hegemony wherein the intellectual resumes the role of the oppressor, cosying in to a space now provided by late capitalism. On most questions these days, from extraordinary rendition to Guantanamo, from Abu Ghraib ( barring some futile Lacanian observations by Zizek) to Afghanistan, there is a void, a sensational absence of space devoted to debate, to skeptical questioning, to asking for answers, for alleviation, for justice.


swiss said...

well there's ten minutes of my life i won't be getting back! but at least it's less than the couple of hours i lost reading the book but the iran therein is no less unrecognisable to me than what's presented here as criticism.

i read the book because i was missing, and continue to miss, absent friends. the iran i found wasn't the one i recognised in them and as the book progressed, so did my irritation with it. as it was i ended up listening to the cd of iranian music they gave me and dreaming of the train journey to tehran i have (still!) yet to take

Alok said...

I have read parts of Reading Lolita in Teheran and found it totally worthless and idiotic and not just for the reasons Dabashi cites. The book fails even before one could go on to political motivations of the writer. I was surprised to learn that she was a professor of literature at some prestigious american university. She has the most shallowest things to say about Nabokov and Henry James and her general views on literature are similarly idiotic, boring and just plain wrong.

What do Dabashi and intellectuals who hold similar positions have to say about general political repression in Iran? How does one criticize the status quo from the outside and not be seen as supporting American interference? That's what interests me.

Kubla Khan said...

Thanks Swiss.

I am sorry for the 10 minutes you lost.the countries we know of and their representations are at odds with each other but that is true for all countries generally. the representative forces and the colours they take are dependent on your persuasion.

Alok: Dabashi is in the mold of the post-colonial intellectual, aware and sensitive to maladaptations of discourses that emanate from the outside.
regarding his on take on Iran, i would suggest that you read his Iran A country interrupted. therein, he outlines his views on 'repression'in Iran and other post colonial countries these days. His discourse on countries in evolution is interesting, influenced by Said and is in consonance with other similar discourses by people like Gayatri Spivak and Homi Bhabha.