Friday, June 26, 2009

the control of appearance and the face

Giorgio Agamben has written that today the power of the state is not founded anymore on the monopoly of the legitimate use of violence but first of all on the control of appearance.

Rather than aimed at suppressing a truth that lies underneath, the control of appearances is predicated on asserting the power of simulation. The more assertive and forceful this simulation appears, the more it will appear as “true.”

State media repeat allegations that the protests on the streets of Tehran and other cities are the outcome of maneuvers and plots organized by the enemies of the Republic, the Muhajeddin Khalq, U.K, U.S. or Israel.

Denunciations of foreign plots have been an important dynamic in Iranian politics at least since the end of the nineteenth century. They helped to constitute a ground of “truth” underneath the deceiving surface, a truth on which popular sovereignty could be constructed in terms of a national identity. In many cases these allegations of foreign interference were true.

Paradigmatic and foundational in this regard are the events of 1953 when a CIA engineered coup d’etat –that included both the participation of the crowd and the army—toppled prime Minister Musaddeq who was promoting the nationalization of oil. This “truth” was hidden for many years and helped to cement distrust towards the shah and the US. The US embassy takeover during the revolution of 1979 was symbolically relevant in that it was aimed at “revealing” the continuous plotting of the American government against the people of Iran. All the documents found in the embassy were published in a multivolume collection as evidence of this truth. In a parallel move the US government published those same documents not long afterwards, in order to demonstrate that there was nothing to hide. In 1999 the State Department published documents that demonstrated US involvement in the coup of 1953.

Something of this dynamic of “truth as revelation” remains today, in all those declarations that insist on the capacity of the state and its officials to be “vigilant” and denounce plotting. By celebrating the cleverness of Iranians (“we are not in Georgia”) and their capacity of defense, these declarations sustain the ideal of a truth that prevails over enemies’ deceit.

Today however, the dynamic denunciation/truth works in a different way. The aim of the media is less oriented towards demonstrating the “truth” of the allegations and focuses instead on sustaining their fabrication by demonstrating its power of assertion.

The truth of such accusations has already been “demonstrated” by the history of Iran and events like 1953, to the extent that there is no need to insist on their “truth.” Allegations that the Muhajeddin Khalq are behind protests on the streets, on gas stations and bombs, are confirmed by the numerous terrorist attacks the group perpetrated in the past against Iranian officials and civilians. The fact that current protests are taking place on the anniversary of the 1981 events --when armed Mujaheddin took to the streets in reaction to being ousted from the government and eventually began their terroristic acts-- strengthens the idea that what is happening today is something already seen and already dealt with.

[This seems also the role of TV confessions. As in the past 30 years
Prisoners were made to confess on TV to have received orders from foreigners and MKO to create disorder and chaos. As if recognizing the anonymity of the crowd, their faces were covered by pixels. By this erasure of the face changes the nature of the act. If these public confessions were once broadcasted to “identify” and make his or her faults visible and revealed, now by concealing the face of those who confess, the act of confession it self takes precedence over the identity as the mark of the control of appearance.

See for example how a blogger relates the first hand account by a young man who was arrested for a few days during the protest. Here is how the young man describes the procedure of “confession”:

He said in the second day some plain cloth people came with papers forcing people to sign them. The papers were prewritten confessions all in different handwritings saying the signer is a member of a pro-Mousavi organization. Detainees were also paid to go to streets and say things, admitting to having violated national security and Islam. Reza said some people sign them and some other just faked their signatures and names. There were not enough confession papers for all people.

The prisoners were later moved to Evin prison where they were approached again for confessions:

“In the morning a man who introduced himself as intelligence agent came, saying he would record their confessions with a camera. He promised that if one of them would confess in front of the camera, he would free them all, that they will blur his face, and he would have nothing to worry about. (see the whole account here).

As clearly described in this account, what is important for the police and intelligence agents is to obtain confessions. The fact that they are blatantly fabricated is not hidden but actually put in relief by the policemen themselves. What counts is to have the power to maintain the “appearance” of the confession, not the “truth” of it.]

More than ever the struggle is being fought at the level of media and language. Though the attempts at controlling independent and foreign media inside Iran have been quite successful, in the long run however, what makes the difference and what gives power to the state is not so much the monopoly of information, as much as imposing the recognition that the state can effectively fabricate news.

Somehow paradoxically, the more the accusations of terrorist and foreign plots sound implausible, the more they are powerful, because they point to the state’s capacity of controlling appearance. The concerted effort by different media outlets hours to denounce the plots of terrorists and foreigners soon after the leader’s Friday prayer was effective in demonstrating the power to control the production of news.

Telling in this regard are the allegations the newspaper Javan made in relation to the killing of Neda, the young woman whose death by bullet was captured in two videos that circulated all over the world. The newspaper suggests that the woman was shot by thugs hired by a BBC journalist who wanted a scoop. The struggle over the control of appearance takes the form of an accusation against a media opponent who allegedly killed the woman to fabricate a piece of news. What matters here is not the denunciation of this “truth” but the entitlement to these assertions. The more implausible they appear, the more their force of assertion.

[A few days later, while the president ordered an official investigation, one of the TV channels broadcasted a journalistic investigation of the killing, interviewing witnesses and showing evidence that supported the idea that Neda’s death was a pre-arranged plot: the site of the killing was far away from the protests, the person who drove Neda to the hospital thought the dynamic of the events was suspicious, the caliber of the bullet is much smaller than the ones used by security forces.]

In a play of mirrors, media outside of Iran, in Persian or other languages, have become the stage that both questions such denunciations of plots and makes them more effective by turning them into “news.” Presented as implausible or ridiculed, these denunciations when discussed on global media, are used as evidence of the real power of fabrication of the Iranian state and thus somehow reproduce it even if only to challenge it.

Global media rather than assuming the burden of representation for themselves delegate it to the “citizen journalists” in Iran. [what they instead keep for themselves are decisions on how to run the story, how much relevance should be given to it and until when—see for example Cohen’s notable editorial “the end of the beginning NYT June 23 that declares the first phase of the movement over in terms that seems to have more to do with the need to move on to other news than with facts on the ground. Coverage of the events on the internet editions of American and European newspapers and TV has been particularly nuanced and this too is part of the control of appearances]

Film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf stated that people on the streets are at once commanders, defenders, ambassadors, martyrs and journalists, describing what appears to be a new social type emerging out of the crowd [on the crowd see previous posts]. These “citizen-journalists” produce video and short TXT-like dispatches that seem to defy the logic of the control of appearance, at least until they are not captured by the media and used for their own interpretation.

Most telling are those videos where moments of distraction and everyday chat are suddenly disrupted by images of people running or security forces beating them. These videos capture the indefinite character of the crowd, assembling and dispersing in relation to the actions of the police but also in relation to changing moods and dispositions (fear, bravery, anger, indifference, laughter).

[Many first hand accounts describe participation in the protests as a momentary engagement, not totally disconnected from the “everyday.” People walk, people check out the scene, get involved and leave not too long afterwards. Conversely, many protesters assume the posture of passers by, they walk as if they were going about their business to avoid being beaten etc. According to the same accounts, the police often beat everyone up, as they do not distinguish between protesters and passers by]

When the videos are captured and aired by more organized media, they enter the economy of images that has come to dominate our life. They are called upon as evidence of what is happening. Their character however remains indefinite except for the few viewers who can recognize the places where they have been shot and the actions of the people in them. Inevitably the most violent ones are those that are repeatedly shown, and what one sees are not individuals but gestures that remain unintelligible except as images of blood.

To the state control of appearance, Agamben juxtaposes the face as the site of an appearance that does not aim at communicating this or that truth, but reveals the power of language itself, the open possibility of expression. He writes that this “emptiness” of the face is like an abyss in which the inadequacy of being human comes through. Even if captured and already consumed by the media and MKO, Neda’s face covered in blood remains shocking in that it does not communicate anything but the indistinct possibility of a life.

Monday, June 22, 2009

There have been several “interpellations” of the crowd. State media call them thugs, vandals or terrorists. They accuse them of being members of the MKO. They draw parallels between today and the events of June 1981 when MKO armed supporters took the streets of Tehran inaugurating a long wave of terrorist attacks that killed many of the ideologues and leaders of the revolutionary movement.

The opponents call the protesters the “people” and attribute sovereignty to them. In his letter Mousavi described them as those who have really understood the essence of the Islamic Republic, those who ---even if unaware of the struggles of thirty years ago -- are in fact continuing and realizing the ideals of those days.

In the meantime, a parliamentary commission set up to investigate attacks against university of Tehran students has declared that they do not know who the plain-cloth (lebas-shakhsiha) individuals who entered the campus are and that it will take time to find out. This admission points not only to the differences among state officials, but underlines how some of the “defenders” of the order are today an anonymous force that the state itself cannot or does not want to recognize.
As a counterpoint to this anonymity, Saturday the Tehran chief of police announced that they were going to suppress any protest whatsoever.

All these elements highlight the “fear of the crowd” in both senses: the crowd generates fear; the crowd itself is afraid.

This fear is evident in the numerous videos that circulate on the internet that are reconfiguring the ways in which events such as mass protests are experienced. Slogans such as “don’t be afraid don’t’ be afraid” or “we will protect you, we will protect you” --even if addressed to Mousavi-- are in fact a spell against the fear that runs through people on the street confronting guns. Neda’s video is the most terrifying of all. It both represents fear and effects it.

Among the videos, there is one that stands out for the way in which it draws the viewer into the experience of the crowd. The perspective of the camera/cell-phone is that of someone walking down a street along with many other people. The crowd is not compact but walks in small groups, sometimes shouting a slogan. There are some people walking in the opposite direction. A couple of them pick up stones. This scene continues for few minutes in tense suspension. It is as if the camera encounters the events as they unfold in this long walk. The crowd thickens, The camera frames the name of the street and a voice, probably the “cameraman,” repeats the names written on the sign. It is an intersection. Slogans are heard and eventually gunshots. People hide behind cars. All of a sudden a large groups passes by holding a wounded or dead person, everyone runs, including the camera, amidst screams and scenes of panic.

June 21, 2009

Though some are still silent, many have spoken now.
Ayatollah Khamenei in his sermon for the Friday Prayer on June 19 spoke about the need to find strength and unity in God in the face of the enemy. Making reference to Quranic verses and the Prophet Muhammad, he said that in times of need the Muslim community needs to be united and that difficult situations are a test, but that in the end they can be resolved through faith and commitment. He noted that the strength of the Republic was measured by the high participation in the elections (85%). He was particularly emphatic in praising the spirit of true confrontation and debate that characterized the elections even though he objected to some of the tones and insults that were used by the candidates, including President Ahmadinejad.

All along his speech, Khamenei drew lines between the inside and the outside of the established order (nezam), and placed people and situations within or without. He characterized all the four candidates as complete insiders citing both their past actions and his personal knowledge of them as evidence of their integrity and commitment to the Republic. He evoked several foreign governments as “enemies,” as total outsiders. Insiders are interlocutors, people who might not all share the same opinions but with whom one can amicably disagree. Outsiders are enemies that should be fought and whose “plots” shall be uncovered.

On the inside, Khamenei drew more lines of distinction, between winners (the President) and losers, between those he sides with and those he disagrees with. At times paternal at others menacing, he said that the time had come to call things over, accept the result of the elections as it was declared, stop street demonstrations and get on with things. He therefore drew a sharp and renewed temporal line between the words and actions of the past few days and what lay ahead. From Friday onwards, whoever crosses the threshold he delineated goes “outside” the established order, even if they were previously insiders.

It is the role of the Supreme leader to act as a guarantor of the established order and to draw the lines between inside and outside, between people and actions that are considered as fitting the order and people and actions that are not. The figure of the Supreme Leader is itself at a threshold between inside and outside: the post is at once inside and outside the constitutional order.

The leader is bounded by the constitution and by allegiance to the sharia as interpreted by Twelver Shiites. According to the constitution itself, the leader is above and beyond (outside) the order so that he can effectively guarantee and supervise that the government of the Republic is in conformity with the sharia. He is outside government but inside the sharia. Acting according to the sharia, is not the equivalent of obeying a set of pre-established rules, especially in cases such as these when what are at stake are not settled matters but unforeseen situations. Being inside the sharia therefore is less a stable position than the continued and changing engagement with Islam. It is a teleological orientation and in many ways a personal one, given that there is no single authority that is considered infallible in this respect, and there is a wide variety of opinions on what constitutes acting according to the sharia. Deep knowledge of the sharia and the recognition of that knowledge by peers are two of the criteria that the constitution lists as necessary for the post. In fact, the choice and evaluation of the actions of the Supreme Leader lie in an elected council of scholars who are to supervise the actions of the leader.

From the point of view of doctrine and history there is a marked productive tension between Islam and power in Shiism, at least in the ways in which this school is currently interpreted in Iran. On the one hand Shiism gives more relevance to the actual presence of a guide of the community, someone who through his knowledge and acts testifies for the true interpretation of Islam and is therefore able to conduct the community. On the other hand this guide is absent, absconded and only to return at the end of time, making worldly power something to keep distant from or be suspicious of, since it is somehow tainted with illegitimacy.

This productive tension is present in a secularized version in the Constitution. Even though the parallel is probably not entirely fitting, the post of the Supreme leader can be considered as the “state of exception” that constitutes the order of the Islamic Republic, the condition of possibility for the exercise of government. By attributing the role of guarantor to the Leader, the constitution places its own legitimacy outside its order.

This is the reason why it is inappropriate to call the Islamic Republic a theocracy. Islam in the last analysis is located outside the state, and not within, and it is the condition of possibility of IRI to the extent that it remains outside of it. If this line were to be crossed, if the engagement with the sharia placed the Supreme Leader within the confines of the Republic rather than outside, the Republic would find the resolution of its contradiction but also its “end.” The engagement of the Leader in the exercise of government therefore always runs the risk of neutralizing the power of the post, since a more direct involvement in politics curtails the absolute “outsider” status of the office.

This contradiction came to the fore with the question of the succession to Imam Khomeini. Ayatollah Khomeini was the leader of the 1979 revolution, the scholar who with his interpretation of the Sharia had constructed the theological theory that justifies the order of the Republic. As a founder Khomeini was both guarantor and political actor in the Republic, but this combination proved impossible to realize in the succession given the constitutive contradiction of the office. When, with the succession, the role of leader was instituted as a post, rather than as the irreplaceable role of Khomeini. Candidates who had the necessary knowledge and scholarly recognition either did not recognize the order of the Republic, or if they did, they were seen as political opponents of the current leadership. In other words, they were either too much outside the order or too much inside of it.
The solution was to choose someone who did not have the sufficient knowledge and recognition but who was a trusted politician, Khamenei. In fact a few months before Khomeini’s death the constitution was amended, giving less relevance to the degree of scholarship the leader had to posses and insisting on his political experience as a criteria for his choice. Since his election, Khamanei had therefore to both acquire the sufficient scholarly recognition (by finally becoming ayatollah) as well as show sufficient distance from everyday engagement in order to build his role as guarantor.

During the past twenty years (1989-2009) Khamenei’s “distance” from politics, his role as outsider, has varied in degrees. He has been often portrayed as a supporter of this or that line of action and he has spoken his mind on many contentious points, including relations with the United States. Last Friday however, though framing his speech in terms of unity and collective commitment, he has located himself “within” the government of the Republic in such a way that makes his role perilous.

In what he admitted was an exception, Khamenei named the people he was talking about and in particular discussed at length Hashemi Rafsanjani. He praised Rafsanjani as a column of the Islamic Republic and someone he has known for fifty years. Khamenei therefore placed Rafsanjani firmly on the inside and criticized the Ahmadinejad’s accusations of corruption against Rafsanjani during the campain. Later in his speech however Khamenei went on to say that politically he is much closer to Ahmadinejad and disagrees with Rafsanjani on many counts.

In the post-election context, this disagreement is not a simple question of degree, as Khamanei implied. On one hand it signals the implicit speculation that were Rafsanjani to challenge electoral results, he would fall himself “outside” the order. On the other hand it marks an unprecedented entrance of Khamenei into government. Whatever it will happen, Khamenei has narrowed the distance that his role prescribes and by claiming political agency for himself, he has significantly reduced the role of guarantor of the office of Leader.

In this regard, it is noteworthy that in many other passages of his sermon Khamenei acted instead as a distant guarantor, as if to dispel the impression that he had taken a political position. He not only praised the unity of the “people” but went on to say that compared to the many countries in which there is total disregard for spiritual values (ma’naviyat elahi) the population of Iran and its youth in particular are particularly attentive to these values, even if superficially it might appear otherwise.

The speech also marked the definitive “interpellation” of the crowd. By finally identifying protesters as “idiots” Khamenei distinguished them from those 85% of the people who voted ten days ago. After a few days of incertitude, the boundaries have been sharply drawn and Saturday afternoon saw the enactment of those consequences.
IRIB, the state radio and television channels, portray Saturday’s clashes and death as a plot by the archi-enemy of the Islamic Republic and make reference to the defeat they suffered in 1980. But this is a defensive move that seriously reduces the political space of the “inside.” Denouncing “plotting” (see below) it remains caught in that interpretative framework.
It will be hard for Khamenei to reassert the distance that is the necessary correlate of his post, and thus draw the crowd back inside the established order. And it will be hard to deal with the crowd as an outsider.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

a loud silence

June 18, 2009

Marches and police interventions continue. Spontaneous and organized gatherings are taking place in Tehran and other cities of Iran. Militias in plain clothes and security police operate on streets and squares but also in private homes and dormitories, beating, arresting.

The crowds shout slogans but are being described as mostly silent. Some interpret this silence as a peaceful response. Avoiding words that could be accused of being subversive, the crowd does not seek provocation. Silence is itself a sign of what people cannot say but show with their presence.

Silent are also the militia and security forces. It is not clear to whom they respond and who is in charge of them. At this moment, they are more than anyone else the real embodiment of the order (nezam) and act in capillary ways to discipline behaviors and thoughts. Their silence is action.

The main political actors are also silent. Yes, they make declarations and respond to each other. Their requests and replies have set in motion several administrative procedures to confront the situation. There is an official inquiry into the events at the university of Tehran. There is the partial recounting of the votes. There are letters to the ministry of Justice. In the overall however the declarations are few and most of all cautious. Things are being worked out in silence.

The usual channels of communication are suspended. Disruptions of txt services, blockage of social networks, websites, newspapers. As a consequence the available “official” media come under heightened suspicion and are seen as unfit to describe “things as they are.”

Opposition leaders give instructions inviting people to join a demonstration or wear green and black. Given the uncertainty in communication, these messages are also scrutinized: can that piece of instruction be trusted? Or is it a rumor, a provocation meant to harm those who follow it? At the same time state officials in the media often fail to acknowledge the situation on the ground or depict it in unlikely terms. All this generates indeterminacy and noise.

Silence as presence, as action, as caution, as censorship, as indeterminacy. These different kinds of silence are caught in the dynamic between “confusion” and “plotting” outlined below.

How power gets constituted between these two poles? Between the vision that Iran is a mess --a chaotic situation where it is unclear who commands over what-- and the idea that everything, including disorders, happens because it is orchestrated-- how is power articulated? How is legitimacy constructed and reproduced?

Religion and the nation are often evoked to describe the relationship between Iranians and their government. Certainly one could talk about the current situation as being about different ideas over what constitutes Iran as a nation, or describe the contending parties as embodying different approaches to the question of religion and politics.

But these commentaries would miss an important question, the relationship between power and truth. Truth here refers both to facts (who won the elections?) and to the more abstract question of representation and will (who represents Iranians? Who do Iranians want?).

Both confusion and plotting entail skepticism over the possibility of meaningful action. The question of truth forces a different logic, one that is oriented at (re) establishing a link between a people and its government, by peaceful or violent means, through different kinds of loud silences.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Some thoughts on the Elections in Iran

Regardless of what will happen in the next few days, one of the striking features of current events in Iran is their resemblance to other political conjunctures of the past century. Things do seem to repeat themselves, albeit always in a different way. Of course the political scene and its actors are today quite distinct from the past. And yet, if one takes for a couple of minutes a more distant approach, one can notice “family resemblances”. There are many elements in what is happening today that are reminiscent of the constitutional revolution of 1906, elements that also recall the movement for the nationalization of oil in 1953 or make one think back to the Revolution of 1979 that instituted the Islamic Republic of Iran.
First of all, it is the rhythm itself of the events. A sudden acceleration of the political climate after years in which things were working “as usual.” As usual does not mean that there have not been significant events and transformations but that politics in everyday life has been characterized by a certain regularity.
Today instead, as in 1906, 1953, or 1979 the regular rhythm of things has precipitated into a fast pace, characterized by a sudden turn of events, often difficult to follow because comprised of so many different elements.
As in 1953 or 1979, today, faced with this acceleration, commentators and people alike are caught between interpreting what is happening either as “confusion” or as an organized “plot.” On the one hand, The immediate declaration of victory of the two candidates, the uncertainty of the aftermath, the different statements, the radically different depiction of what is happening between media that affirm the victory of Ahmadinejad and others that talk about a “coup,”—all these elements convey a sense of uncertainty and confusion, in which it is almost impossible to follow events and understand what is happening. There is a sense of emerging chaos. Politics here seems to be the result of a myriad of uncontrollable events and effects, to the extent that one does not understands anymore who decides what, what will happen next etc.
On the other hand however, everyone is speculating about the possible prearranged nature of the election, or the protests for that matter. Behind the confusion many read a design of one sort of another. Some point to the influence of foreign media and powers, others to the organizational force of the state itself etc. If one looks at 1953 and 1979, not for any lessons but for certain political patterns, both confusion and plotting where at work in a mixture of improvisation and strategy, and this is maybe a characteristic of Iranian politics that should be noted.
Second, the role of different political actors comes to the fore, and more specifically those of the crowd and of leaders. The crowd has been one of the most important political phenomena of Iran in the twentieth century. The crowd, that amorphous non-homogeneous association of people on the street that mobilize and disperse in a matters of hours, forceful and yet quite indecipherable, because fragmented and based on the immediacy of its presence, rather than on a clear political project. The crowd is not really a subject, in the sense of an agent endowed with a precise and directed will, but rather a milieu, a context for emotions and reactions, out of which different positions and subjects might emerge. Out of the crowd for example, at specific moments, the “people” are born as an actor, mobilizing and mobilized by this or that pretender or leader. But also “thugs” or “youth” or other subjects emerge from the crowd and take a more definite shape, but also a less overwhelming one, they are actors with more definite goals and desires, courses of actions and outcomes. The crowd instead is like a receptacle from which these different actors emerge but in itself is more indistinct than "youth" "reformists" "secularist" "hizbullah" or "thugs" and it is thus in some way a more powerful assemblage that reconfigures itself at every moment, protean and amorphous.
In 1906 the crowd made its appearance in Iranian politics when street protests called for the institution of a constitutional monarchy. The crowd was eventually defeated by cannons, though the heir to the throne did institute a parliament a few years later. The first appearance of the crowd was not as distinct as it was to become later, but nevertheless, gatherings of people in streets and squares became an important element of politics in Iran and have remained since then.
In 1953 the crowd took to the streets and squares to support Prime Minister Musaddiq and his project of nationalizing oil revenues in protest against the Shah. In a matter of hours another crowd (the same?) marched in favor of the Shah. The alternations of protests created a situation of uncertainty that eventually resulted in a coup and the destitution of Musaddiq. Historians have demonstrated once and for all that the crowd had been “manipulated” by a few “organizers” who had been paid by the CIA. Regardless, one should reflect on the particular affective power of this crowd, that, manipulated or not, assembles, protests and becomes a political actor. But what does the crowd assert? What is the statement of the crowd? In 1953 there were competing statements that eventually resulted in the political gain of the shah and his establishment.
In 1978-9, in the course of a few months, what had begun as an isolated protest became a mass movement that brought to the street the majority of the Iranian population, women and men, young and old, rich and poor. People with different, sometimes opposed political worldviews marched all together, eventually demanding the departure of the Shah. This became the unison cry of the crowd, a cry that was as forceful as vague. Beyond vagueness everyone in the crowd had different ideas about the future of Iran and this later lead to clashes and struggles within the revolutionary front, but one should also consider the force of that superficial and uniform statement: the shah must go.
Certainly the situation today is very different, and one should not compare, but rather use family resemblances to take notice. Again the combination of confusion and plotting has the crowd at its center. Soon after Ahmadinejad’s victory the crowd manifested itself and in the clashes found its raison d’etre. One of the first initiatives Ahmadinejad has taken is to organize a enormous rally to celebrate the victory, as if the “real” result of the elections were to be measured by the capacity to mobilize the crowd, to assemble people on the street in a show of support, and a to demonstrate the actuality of his electorate. The visual, mediatic element here should not be forgotten, and the elected president gave a press conference immediately preceding the event. Opponents pointed out --a routine comment for all organized mass events in the Islamic Republic-- that people had been brought by bus and given special work permits to attend. The two defeated opponents, Musavi and Karrubi are in turn claiming a crowd of their own. Musavi called for a protest for tomorrow, Tuesday June 16, the Ministry of Interior denied permission and he cancelled the demonstration fearing that the “crowd” might be harmed. One sees the importance of turning the crowd into a recognizable “people”—that is a people to whom a political stand, a strategy a slogan can be attributed. At the moment one does not know if the crowd will find its statement and what kind of political consequences that will bring. What is of note however is that, confused and plotted, the crowd is the indistinct out of which politics is born in Iran.
Leaders as well seem to be under the spell of repetition. Certainly one has to free associate in order to draw some conceptual parallels and be very cautious not to forget how different from the past are things today. But making associations might help to throw some light on what is happening. Not in terms of predictions, but rather as ways of posing questions. Among leaders too “confusion” and “plots” are in evidence.
At the top, an isolated figure detains the ultimate power, at least on paper. Depicted as either all-powerful or manipulated (plotting, plotted or instead confused)-- he is the ultimate target, the symbol of the order of things. As every symbol it is endowed either with an immense capacity to act, to decide, to repress or instead with a very limited one, himself controlled by others or simply incapable to impress a course of action. There is no structural resemblance between the position of the shah in 1906, 1953 or 1979 and that of the supreme leader, nor any similarity in personality or outlook. Laws (the sharia and the laws of the Republic) bind the supreme leader. Even if he has authority on both, he has to act within their frame, though he can use one against the other.
The parallel that one can make however, and it is an important one, is the image of a sole figure at the top, depicted as quite lonely, even detached. He can be seen as controlling the situation or instead being controlled, but there remains this strong image of an individual at the top who has, or could have, the last word on the question. This embodiment of power has several consequences. It establishes a political landscape that is at once absolute and reversible, as if from the opinion, the actions or the ideas of this person depended the articulation of the whole political system, which is therefore seen itself as both absolute and reversible. And this is in itself a call to the crowd, its counterpoint. As the leader is the embodied individuation of power, the crowd is the embodied diffusion of power—both absolute and reversible and thus dependent on each other.
Around him, other leaders struggling against each other. Many have noted how this elections have marked a shift in the arguments and rhetoric the candidates used during the campaign. Though fierce political struggles have been part of the Islamic Republic since its inception, never have candidates accused their rivals so openly, often verging on insults. This has created not only opposed camps, but a real sense of difference, of possible alternatives. It is impossible to say at the moment, however it does seems that what made the crowd associate, especially for the opposition, was this sense of difference, however indeterminate that might be, more than a concrete alternative political vision.
Both Ahmadinejad and Musavi are as much a product of the crowd as their assemblers. Ahmadinejad in his press conference stated that it was the “people” of Iran who made their decision. An equal claim comes from Musavi, in his accusation of vote manipulation. For Ahmadinejad this is more than just a populist strategy. It is an art of government that works as much through communication as through money. For the contender communication is even more important, as the effort to claim for himself the “will of the people” is now doubled.
Both confusion and plot play an important role in the ways in which the actions and words of the president and his contenders are interpreted, by the media and the crowd. The key to understand what is happening is in this relation. To whom plots will finally be attributed? And towards what claims? How will “chaos” be deciphered? Who will win the battle of interpretation in the short run, might loose it in the long run, as the underneath, forcefully denied will come back again and again to undermine and derail the strategies of the victors.
There is something in between the idea that things happen in Iran out of a confused assemblage and the idea that there is an underlying design that guides events. There is something that holds this tension together between confusion and plotting and constitutes it as the main framework for thinking about politics. It is a claim to truth. Whoever or whatever can speak for the truth, can really state things as they are, establishes the ground for legitimacy and recognition. Who really won the election? From the perspective that privileges the idea that political events in Iran take place in a state of and because of confusion as well as from the perspective that they take place because of plotting, the question of truth might seem quite futile. The elections after all could be seen as just a tactic in a play of power, either by the president and his entourage or by his opponents who try to seize the opportunity. And yet, the question of truth will continue to resonate and as many commentators observe, might never be resolved. The “truth” about the 1953 coup finally emerged, with full documentation—but what mattered more and maybe still does is the power that the “truth” of 1953 exercised for so many years over the crowds of Iran. How will the “truth” of these elections play out?
History repeats itself through difference, and no one knows how events will unfold in the next few hours or days. What can be said however is that a lot will depend on how this claim of truth will be articulated between confusion and plotting.