Anonymous emails on refusal, revolution, and representation

On 1 sep 2009, at 6:25:04pm, B wrote:

Dear X,

N put me in touch with you. Your blog has been part of the strange mediation I myself, we at Bidoun and maybe others abroad have had of the events following the Iranian election this summer. As we have been commissioning our next issue (the theme of which is NOISE), we’ve been struggling with a kind of double bind in regard to representing these events, or whatever they are — between the intolerable dissonance of excluding them and the false harmony of joining the chorus of opposition and advocacy which we fear only ever co-opt the real-political dynamics of “organic” uprisings into a instrumental antagonism which can be seen to serve as a supplement to power…

This has been an ongoing issue for us — dealing with the strange and ubiquitous rift between experience and what can constitute a historical event… especially in Iran, when it is specifically the authenticity of experience, of the “people,” and their revolution, which is contested between the revolution and the revolutionary state…

And finally, for us — in our role in problematizing identity, region, and journalism — even as we produce a regional journal which invariably perpetrates a mode of identification…

We found in the subjectivity and incompleteness of your account something approaching a strategy for parsing all of this. In fact your metaphor of ice-cream and melon juice as a form of camouflage has become a kind of motto for us in clarifying why we publish an arts magazine at all.

We would very much like to work with you in preparing a version of your blog for print in our next issue — but would like to present a number of obstructions in its design.

There are a few episodes we are drawn to — one in which you leave to join a protest only to go to the doctor with stomach irritation, his prescription of mood stabilizers and your listing of their effects… your bus ride and the metaphor of indifference, ice-cream, melon juice, and camouflage… We don’t want to overdetermine the narrative — it is really up to you in the end — but what we are interested in is an account of your experience which strategically omits everything which is not direct experience. Not to give direct experience some authentic primacy, but a gesture towards preserving the real-poltical potential of the event — which was, after all, as little a product of the reform movement as it was the BBC, M16 or CIA. Without mentioning Ahmadinejad, Mousavi, the election, the state, hearsay and news, political analysis, past events, or even Iran, what will remain of the event?

Please be in touch with me if you are interested, if you are sympathetic to this treatment, or if you have a better idea. Whatever the case we would like to do something together. Perhaps a phone call is in order? Send me your number and we can speak — All the best from New York.


On Sep 4, 2009, at 11:16 AM, x wrote:

dear b,

thanks for your message.

I certainly don’t want to add to the NOISE of your next issue.

I have been thinking about your mail and what to reply but I don’t really know what to write. there would be a lot to say about your general approach and interpretations of the events. but I don’t really feel qualified to comment as I don’t even know you. just be assured that you got the thing with the ice-cream and melon juice completely wrong.

best wishes, x

On 4 Sep 2009, at 3:30:47 PM , B wrote:


I’m a bit confused why you would thank me for my message, or even grant me your best wishes given the nature of your reply. To withhold any information as to the nature of my error while assuring me I have made one is a form of discursive subjection that I find viscerally chilling. You’ve conceded that you don’t know me, but do so having impoverished the field of my possible being to a point that precludes reply. I would be only insulted if I didn’t sense that the three or four sentences you have returned to me were circumventing an anger that is understandably hard to articulate. Please forgive me if I’m being presumptuous in even this claim to understanding, but presumption is probably the only medium in which we can read and write to one another — in that I too, do not know you. An engaged response would help me clear up my presumption as to your intention — and here, maybe, I can disrupt yours about mine.

My father was a secular marxist guerrilla living underground for 15 years prior to the revolution. Early in this span his party disavowed vanguard armed struggle and committed to a program of revolution through education. Like most other urban guerrillas in Iran, the lion’s share of their activity was devoted to just staying alive, an end from which a great deal of them were denied. On the first day of the iranian revolution, my father and his friends were holding a meeting to discuss a chapter of assigned reading on guerrilla warfare. Outside, the people stormed the barracks of Tehran. Needless to say they cut their meeting short, but the irony of this is difficult to appreciate for the few hundred in exile, who wether they survived or not, for the most part, had already given their lives.

Arriving in America, from Iran at three years of age, I’ve had the benefit of being raised largely in the story book poverty befitting the son of an exiled non-violent marxist guerrilla — and now, having entered the privileged grounds of the culture industry, have the double privilege of having reached it without passing through a formal educational apparatus. I spend my new, bourgeois leisure time trying in one way or another to formulate a revolutionary theory that can truly weaken power. In my work with Bidoun I have been struggling with an institution (albeit a small one), that propagates Saidian problematics purely in the negative. It does not want to deal with war, poverty, gender, cultural difference, etc in the same way as everyone else — but ends up not dealing with them at all. Perhaps there was a time when this silence was in itself articulate, gesturally, in the material discourse of media — for me, this time has now passed. What happened in Iran is the last toll of that bell.

I have to add — that this kind of biographizing is something I like to avoid at all costs. I have done it as a sacrificial ante — in the wager that I am asking a lot of you in a reply. It is possible that I am wrong, and am greatly overestimating your silence. I hope not.

Can you please tell me what in my general approach and interpretation you take issue with. It might mean something.

Yours, B

On Sep 6, 2009, at 10:58:00 PM, x wrote:

Dear B,

you are right. I really had difficulties to articulate myself in response to your email. my three or four sentences which were a somewhat helpless attempt to tell you briefly that I was not interested in contributing to your next issue ended up being passive-agressively puzzling. I’m sorry.

So let me try to explain (unfiltered and uncut this time).

I was indeed confused and angry. confused because I wasn’t sure how much I had already been part of something that I find alienating and angry because your request -repeating vividly why i often (not always) have such problems with bidoun collided with the events in iran. an issue where i seem to have zero tolerance for any approach that involves clever cynicism, cool indifference or content surfing, let alone exploiting everything including one’s own search for possible meanings of identity and agency and turning it into a aesthetically yummy appetizer for the bored vampires of the lower eastside and other leisurelands on the planet. all of which can be features of bidoun sometimes.

I totally believe in humor and even sarkasm is fine but bidouns strategies of trying to be ahead of the game that sometimes leads to surprising complexity and depth, often suddenly turn shallow by turning every topic into fun in a pretentiously ‘hedonistic’ way.

ok so step by step: (you will see that I am indeed very upset and most likely wrong and unjust in some points. so watch out.)

our next issue (the theme of which is Noise)

what on earth makes you wanna put the incredible precision of this movement, of these amazingly courageous and beautiful people into the context of NOISE? Noise is a multiple signal that usually covers any articulation. human articulation for example usually just happens on a small segment of the frequency spectrum.

If you add noise, the voice will not be understable any longer. from the moment I witnessed the way people in iran started to express their criticism and hopes and wishes I was amazed by their sharp and witty humour (before the election) and their focused and disciplined choice of expressions. every one of these expressions was minimalistic and precise. and they were in fact apprehended.

i can only guess that in bidoun’s constant search for the extra clever drift into ambiguity the link would be: what is noise for the neighbours is music in our ears.

we’ve been struggling with a kind of double bind in regard to representing these events,

let me assume ignorance: what you are really struggling with here is your fear of connecting your emotional and somewhat insecure (fair enough, we all are) political attachment to these events, to your professional profile as a cutting edge fanzine made by really cool dudes. where your inner demon says: let’s just pretend we missed the deadline before we make a fool of ourselves. and your sad inner panda says: but then I will be really really sad. in my opinion the situation doesn’t allow for such sensibilities and vanity. if worst comes to worst you have to do this in your pyjamas if you mean it guys!

or whatever they are—

‘or whatever they are’ (how can you dare to use a whishywashy ‘whatever-they-are’ here if you decided –in your struggle– to actually ‘represent’ the events in your magazine )

between the intolerable dissonance of excluding them

sad panda speaking..

and the false harmony of joining the chorus of opposition and advocacy

ok, maybe the choirs of opposition and advocacy abroad were indeed partially alienating. if what you mean is that on ralleys you had to walk in between monarchists waving the flag of the shah and militaristic mujaheddin, i can understand the hesitation. naturally we did not experience such things in iran.

which we fear only ever co-opt the real-political dynamics of ‘organic’ uprisings into a instrumental antagonism which can be seen to serve as a supplement to power…

what instrumental antagonism are you referring to? what and why will serve as a supplement to power? in my opinion we are talking about a civil rights movement that forms a power in itself. people demand their rights: 1. reforms (that’s why everybody went out to vote even though they struggled with that move. nobody goes to vote when they are actually planning for an uprising), 2. their right to have their vote counted (and that’s when it took the shape what you call uprising), 3. the protection from police violence, torture and rape, 4. a juridical system that deserves its name (no show trials and the immediate release of the political prisoners) 5. the clearing up and prosecution of crimes committed by basij, police and prison guards, 6. the clearing up of how many people were killed and were they are buried . 6. getting rid of the coup d’etat team that hijacked the country.

every movement is under the threat of being turned into something else or being crushed. but I really don’t understand your hesitation in supporting people’s (very comprehensible) demands.

In fact your metaphor of ice-cream and melon juice as a form of camouflage has become a kind of motto for us in clarifying why we publish an arts magazine at all.

the ice-cream and melon juice was NOT a metaphor. it was a clever but desperate means employed to be able to subvert the ban on demonstrations, to still go out in the streets and to try and not get KILLED for it. the reason why it might have sounded funny in my reports is the fact that people have shown me again and again that it is more empowering and powerful to laugh then to cry in the face of unspeakable violence.

i don’t know if you can imagine how cynical it sounds when you announce this brave and really desperate camouflage as successfully deployed in your magazine therapy sessions. again assuming ignorantly, i suggest that you use camouflage as a life style because you’re ashamed of being caught doing something for real like taking sides for example.

but what we are interested in is an account of your experience which strategically omits everything which is not direct experience. Not to give direct experience some authentic primacy, but a gesture towards preserving the real-political potential of the event

you’re right, I tried as much as I could to stick to what i personally saw and experienced, and i struggled to not get caught up in the spiral of violence but instead to stay close to the precise expressions of peoples demands and the force that they created. but that doesn’t mean that the real-political dimension and potential solely lies in direct action on the streets. it was the contribution that i felt i could make also for my own sake because it helped me stay sane. other people, other blogs, news agencies are much more capable of understanding and interpreting the history and the more abstract political dimensions. the struggles behind closed doors and publicly on basically all governmental and clerical levels, the gestures of public figures, public letters, speeches or simply silence of certain prominent individuals as much as the history and infra structure of the reform movement all of which played and play such an important role as well. not as leading the movement but as part of its forces and its roots within the political history in iran after the revolution.

— which was, after all, as little a product of the reform movement as it was the BBC, M16 or CIA.

i totally disagree. in my opinion especially on the level of real-political cause and effect the events are strongly linked to the reform movement. as much as they are a continuation of the things that started in the khatami period they are also in search for reforms in the future. nobody wanted or wants a revolution. that is my impression. people want things to change discursively and collectively and reform their system, politically, economically and socially.

Without mentioning Ahmadinejad, Mousavi, the election, the state, hearsay and news, political analysis, past events, or even Iran, what will remain of the event?

I am with you in the attempt to not focus, to not even mention ahmadinejad or mousavi. you can even talk about the civil rights movement universally as it is not unique in its demands and its struggle, not even in the violent suppression in response to it. for me it is not about ahmadinejad or mousavi. it is about the power of the people about their stories, their hopes, their demands, their needs, their courage and how we can relate to them globally based on empathy and solidarity, on collectivity, on love. and more specifically it is about the way that the people of iran have managed to erase and replace the image of iran equals ahmadinejad. now the whole world knows that the government of a country and the people are two separate things. they are making use of everything they have at hand and turn it into a powerful tool in the cause. from slogans from the revolution that they subvert and poetically appropriate and set free of a fixed meaning to consumer technology that they use to communicate directly and unhierarchically to the world about their situation, as citizen journalists, changing the landscape of journalism forever.

to make a long story very short. if i wouldn’t have been upset about the appearance of your request, i would have simply told you, that for me the events are not over yet and i am still on the internet several hours a day. it is not the time where i feel the neccessity to go back to what i have written a month ago. it feels odd to publish something from the past while it is still going on. just not so much event-based, more waiting for opportunities, eroding the system with boycott, microdissidence and defacement, making love, writing poetry, while fearfully watching the trials, searching for the bodies, waiting in front of evin prison all with the same spirit of ‘we’re in this together’ until victory. my reports were so directly related to each day. what would they do now? i don’t see the point. maybe only as a supplement to something. a footnote.

ok, enough for now. i guess i was pretty offensive. maybe it helps to know that i only just get that angrily engaged with people of institutions that mean something to me. so it was partially a smouldering unhappyness with the only viable mouthpiece that tries to connect with and among discourses across the region called the middle east that made me rave like that. i hope my torrent can turn into something productive in the end.


On Sep 30, 2009, at 3:31:37 AM, B wrote:

Dear X,

First of all I want to thank you for your reply. I’ve purchased a keyboard which burns my fingertips when I lie. If only I could — but in all honesty I didn’t find your letter unjust or offensive. I disagree on a thousand points mostly in minute ways — despite the expensive binding of our issues you mustn’t imagine we constitute an us in the way necessitated by some of your critique — but differences aside, I have appreciated your letter more than I can say and in the last analysis I am forced to concede to you your refusal.

You’ve won this point in your second to last paragraph, but before I can throw in the towel I have to address the paragraphs preceding it, and then — if I can possibly convince you — hold you to your very last sentence.

It is excruciatingly difficult to proceed in saying what I want to say about your analysis of Bidoun — there is an endless string of precursors, endless qualifying paragraphs, the first among them that despite it’s static manifestation four times a year Bidoun is not one thing from one mind and that there is struggle and debate and doubt — of course we all know recourse to rigorous self-critique is the first refuge of the illegitimate… To really begin I think I have to start at the ending: Bidoun can not be justified in terms of it’s final form as a printed book; a cultural product, a commodity object… It is indefensible, and in the same way as everything else; under the auspices of culture, under capital, under the state. There is of course an enormously unsettling paradox at play here, and one I sense you felt reaching into your own “search for possible meanings of identity and agency.”

I am with you there.

Having recently had a month off, I decided to spend it pursuing a long standing dilemma regarding my own participation in all of this, and what if any alternative may be possible. I encountered this archaic text on the first day of my “vacation” — after a google-search of the word refusal:

“Culture in fact… is always bourgeois. In other words, it is always a relation between intellectuals and society, between intellectuals and the people, between intellectuals and class; in this way it is always a mediation of conflicts and their resolution in something else. If culture is the reconstruction of the totality of man, the search for his humanity in the world, a vocation to keep united that which is divided — then it is something which is by nature reactionary and should be treated as such… “Opposition” culture does not escape this fate either; it merely presents the body of labour movement ideologies dressed in the common clothing of bourgeois culture.”
—Mario Tronti, The Strategy of Refusal

This is of course, not the conclusion, but the backdrop of our drama. The problem of living remains. Let’s entertain that our every cultural endeavor is preceded by a necessary failure — if our intention is to reveal something, if there is one thing which can possibly be revealed, and which could be in turn revealing, is it not the crushing totality and inevitability of this very failure? Isn’t the worst humiliation to pretend to be free? Is there nothing more reactionary than taking as our individual responsibility to decorate our internment, through lifestyle, through exercise of choice, personal philosophy, activism, volunteerism, spirituality — to synthesize some small holistic harmony from the violent and indifferent arbitration of power? This is, of course, not some grandiose defense of Bidoun, it’s the conditions of it’s failure and a small part of explaining the seemingly obtuse and self indulgent strategy I approached you with — only part of my reasoning, because to imagine the events in Iran represent primarily a creative editorial dilemma is preposterous beyond measure.

However — by the same measure, for us to assume a direct, facile relation to real events and real ethics in a real world without acknowledging our real form as an alienating and alienated commodity object is hypocritical. There is a flaw in the otherwise astute dichotomy you proposed between the cool dude and the sad panda — the truth is there could be nothing cooler, easier and less reprehensible for us to do than join in full force the profoundly just and apprehensible chorus of solidarity and indignation. There is nothing more cooly cynical than the fact that if we published an entire GREEN ISSUE, our sales figures would most likely double, we would sell out among the cool vampires of the lower east side and be reprinted widely. We would win an award. It is a sad panda that sabotages this for us. A sad panda and an honest desire to render the actual, devastating, incompensable brutality of being a political subject, actually and at all times. A sad panda, an honest desire and a creeping suspicion that all of this good reporting, well researched contextualization, solidarity and commiseration covers up a scandal which is far more grave and intractable. The scandal of normality, a scandal from which all news and politics serve to distract, and the apprehension of which is the spring of every revolution.

But this is all an afterward. The truth is you are right — my proposal is useless. It would be stupid to isolate some existential anecdote from the streets of Iran, like a false bookend on something which has in reality not yet happened, much less finished. It is only from outside I could think that because news coverage has stopped something must be over. It’s obscene; we would be producing something for consumption, exactly as you said — an aesthetic appetizer. I want to propose we do something in less than our pajamas, I want to hold you to the sentiment of the last sentence of your last letter and allow us to publish this correspondence. Whatever it is… The terms and specifics being completely at your discretion… My deepest gratitude for your time.


On 6 Oct 2009, at 16:31, B wrote:

X, I am not sure if I’m hoping you didn’t get my last letter or did and didn’t want to respond… Please do let me know.


On Oct 6, 2009, at 3:08:34 PM, x wrote:

dear b, i got your letter, thanks. sorry for not responding immediately. it’s been really busy.

i will try to write tomorrow. i hope that’s ok.


On 13 Oct 2009, at 23:10, B wrote:

x… we are sending the issue to the printer on Saturday… Nervously awaiting your response…


On Oct 14, 2009, at 4:20 AM, x wrote:

hi babak, i’m sorry. it was so hectic until yesterday. now I’m in beirut with more time.

i wasn’t aware that you were awaiting my response so urgently. i assume it’s because you need an answer to your idea to print our discussion?

i have to say, i’m not very fond of the idea.

what’s the point? why not just take it for what it is, a discussion between two people about their different viewpoints and experiences that will hopefully have been enriching for both sides. i don’t see why we would want to turn this into a product.

when i said we might need to do this in our pyjamas, by ‘this’ i meant standing up for the movement, not a critical self-reflection and discussion about bidoun. also i would not want to mix a discussion about the movement in iran and a reflection on bidoun in a public framework. it was part of the process of our discussion and within that framework hopefully productive but it would become something else once the framework is extended. there is nothing wrong about openly discussing bidoun’s possible roles, potentials and problems. just not as part of trying to engage with what is going on in iran. do you see what i mean?

best, x

On Oct 14, 2009, at 11:11:03 AM, B wrote:


I’m not sure. I really am not sure about that last sentence — I mean, first of all I don’t think the correspondence has been about Bidoun so much as the problems between cultural production, engagement and being a being, alive — and I would argue discussing our possible roles is the only way we can talk about what is going on in Iran in complete honesty. We are in a situation now where we either print this — which honestly has been, yes — enriching and challenging and difficult for me… I really don’t know exactly how I feel if everything is considered in a vacuum, but I am dealing with the real possibility of publishing an issue in which we say NOTHING on the subject so I’m not an objective observer. Isn’t there something impossible about cordoning off the real experience in iran from the bullshit of everything else? The bullshit continues and the real recedes infinitely as it’s perpetuity is retraced each day to fit the present. What happened in Iran happened everywhere else in the world, through words, images and commentary — all of which invariably alienates and transforms the actuality of the experience as it is transcribed into history. I honestly believe our correspondence is special in that it does not distill, translate, inscribe, interpret or historicize the events but is an ACTUAL EFFECT of the events themselves — bullshit and all.

I’m sorry for all the capitols, it’s just that I would be disgusted to print an issue where we say nothing — I believe these letters are USEFUL — maybe more useful to the void that we publish into than to either of us. I think it would be a shame not to do this — I feel like I’m selling a car or begging for bread but I can’t be coy about this. We could publish it anonymously but we must must publish this… Please.


On Oct 15, 2009, at 12:43:55 AM, x wrote:

b, hey,

listen, I really don’t want to be the grinch here. I just personally don’t see the point. but maybe you are seeing this from a different perspective and you have an idea how it could be useful for others. i just hope that it is not the fear of “be(ing) disgusted to print an issue where we say nothing” that drives your plea for publishing.

it’s in your hands now. you do what you think is right. just one really important condition: no names to anyone (not even privately). you have to promise because I’m going back soon.

best wishes,