Roundtable: Iranian Literary Modernity as a Guiding Paradigm

As part of a series of three panels and a roundtable session on the topic of Iranian literary modernity, the purpose of this roundtable is to investigate the possibility of supplementing the study of modern Persian literature with that of Iranian literary modernity.

Though insightful in many respects, we construe the former paradigm as being remarkably susceptible to the ideological demand to trace literary works back to contemporaneous political vicissitudes, the anachronistic overdeterminism of indigenous archaisms, the life and works genre, the well-defined chronological, monographic and descriptive (or positivist) analytical enterprise, or the gravitational pull of Western prototypes which incites the tendency to engage in strict comparativisms drawing on a priori binaries such as East-West, religious-secular, modern-traditional, etc.

This roundtable will engage with the audience in a deliberate and conscientious discussion over the merits and viability of studying Persian literature in the context of literary modernity, an idea indebted to postcolonial and radical historiographic inquiry.

An award-winning novelist, Jairan Gahan (University of Toronto) brings forth a wealth of knowledge on report-stories and affective narrative styles as they emerge from literary and documentary accounts of Tehran's red-light district, thus providing the social historical vantage point. Parisa Vaziri (University of California, Irvine) is able to offer insight into the filmic offshoots of literary productions, particularly as they are related to her research on the strange contemporaneity between the avant-garde and ethnographic modes of literary modernism. Milad Odabaei's (University of California, Berkeley) contribution to the discussion will derive from his research on translation and time, particularly his examination of how translation enters the crises and regeneration of Iranian historical traditions. Joanna de Groot (University of York) furnishes the discussion with the gender dimension particularly as it is related to her critique of iconic texts that foreground the relationship between gender and modernity. Hamid Rezaei Yazdi (University of Toronto) draws from his research to offer a radical intervention in the ideologically evaluative paradigms for reading "modern" Iranian literature by instead drawing attention to a historically grounded genealogy of literary modernity in Iran.

Roundtable participants will use this diversity of interests to actively solicit spectatorial involvement by way of questions, thought experiments, and active feedback on the preceding three panels in an attempt to collectively draw major conclusions and expose avenues in need of exploration.


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I contribute to this panel through a study of changing affects and emotions involved in the vast collection of literary works on the red-light district of Tehran, Shahrinaw, (1920-1960), in an era of relatively rapid urbanization, and robust socio-moral reform both of which are contingent to ethos of modernity in Iran. In particular, my focus is on how the narrative styles and rhetoric of report-stories (not simply those of fiction, which have been studied more often) work toward generation of affects of compassion (shafaghat) and kindness (mihrabānī), which in turn foster notions of responsibility and responsible civil action in the form of charity.

I pay special attention to the literature of the genre of report-stories—such as Man ham girya kardam (1922, Jalilī), Rūzigar-i siyāh (1924, Khalilī), Man fāhisha nabūdam (1945, Mirzā-Nādirī), Ghurūbī dar mahalla-yi badnām (1954, Mashāyikhī). Sākin-i mahalla-yi gham (1963), Tūti (1969, Hāshimi), and Chirā bi fāhisha-khāna raftam (1974, Syed)—which became mostly popular from the 20s onwards, and gone prolific in the 50s. Such exposé works are analytically powerful since they embody the moral calling to compassion, which is a pivotal component of reform, the sine qua non of the 20th century Iran politics.

I follow Berlant who argues that representation of suffering plays a role in the production of intimate public social relations and an “intimate public sphere”. In this light, looking into the emergence and mechanisms of this genre of moral literature, I tackle larger questions of the role of literature in defining modern subjects, the role of compassion in modern narrative styles, and ultimately the role of emotions in the construction of the responsible modern citizen in the 20th century Iran.

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Since the theme of this roundtable session revolves around the question of literary modernity in Iran, the focus of my contribution to this session will be on replacing the posthumously dictated benchmarks of "modern" literature with historically specific factors contributing to literary modernity in Iran. The purpose of this approach is to offer a radical intervention in the ideologically evaluative paradigms for reading "modern" Iranian literature by instead drawing attention to historically grounded genealogies of literary modernity in Iran. By proposing the latter as the guiding paradigm for re-reading what is termed modern Iranian literature, I will be able to contribute to the central theme of the roundtable through an analysis of the organic local and historical conditions that informed the modernity of Iranian literature. Specifically, I will draw on my research to highlight the role of the classical genre known as the munāzirah as the deep structure of what later came to be termed – specifically in the case of Jamalzadeh – as the first collection of “short stories.”

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My contribution to this roundtable revolves around an interest in the simultaneous rise in ethnographic documentary and Iranian New Wave film in the 1960s. While traditional film scholarship contextualizes the Iranian New Wave through connections to modern Iranian literature, European filmic modernisms such as Italian Neorealism and the French Nouvelle Vague, I argue for a more nuanced reading of the Iranian New Wave that places the movement in relation to the contemporaneous rise in government-funded salvage, or ethnographic, documentary. Anthropology’s late 20th century critical turn has revitalized the ways in which scholars think about the discipline’s methodological byproducts. Racialization is not only a methodological byproduct of anthropology, but its conditions of possibility (V.Y. Mudimbe). Ethnographic documentary, an anthropological mode of data collection, became a popular form of visually preserving traditional forms of life deemed to be decaying in the throes of modernization in mid-20th century Iran. It was also the prominent form in which New Wave filmmakers articulated the modernness of their enterprise. I argue that the sudden government-funded interest in New Wave filmmaking and ethnographic documentary sustained a racializing mode of disjunctive temporality undergirding the concept of the modern. This disjunctive temporality is evident in the different treatments of subjectivity, space, and landscape in the ethnographic documentaries and New Wave films often attributed to the same directors.

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This round table examines the possibilities opened up by examining Iranian history as well as textual and other forms of cultural production under the rubric of “modernity.” My contribution to the roundtable is twofold. First, I’d like to generate a conversation on the dynamics of transposition of categories of European historiography such as “modernity” onto the material of Iranian history. Is it possible to discern a “form” within the textual and cultural productions of modern Iran that recalls that which has been elaborated in other contexts as “modernity”? Secondly, I would like to discuss the role of translation in formation of the textuality of Iranian literary modernity. I will theoretically elaborate the concept of “translation,” and offer a number of examples of how translation enters Iranian political and textual cultures and engenders new forms.