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  • Mastaneh Shah-Shuja مستانه شاه-شجاع

Zones of Proletarian Development, Chapter 3, Part 1.

Updated: Apr 20, 2023

[The following is a recent face to face interview with Mastaneh Shah-Shuja, the author of the magnificent Zones of Proletarian Development (OpenMute, London, 2008). We think the entire book is outstanding but our short discussion revolved mostly around chapter three which is an uncanny prediction of the September 2022 uprising against the Islamic Republic. Edited excerpts from chapter three are reproduced below with Mastaneh’s kind permission. We have divided it into four parts for your convenience. We also aim to translate these into Farsi as soon as possible. Meanwhile, you can contact Mastaneh with questions and comments at: ]

Interviewing Mastaneh Shah-Shuja.

People’s Clowns (PC): Comrade Mastaneh, we have been after this interview for a long time. You kept rejecting our request for a face to face.

Mastaneh: Well, friends, there is no need to take it personally. These days I am just an old woman trying to pay off my mortgage and raise my kids. I am no longer politically active. I don’t have the time for it.

PC: We understand and that is fair enough. Mastaneh, your book came out in 2008. Correct?

Mastaneh: Yes, I finished writing it in 2005 and no one would publish it until Mute magazine stepped in around 2008. I want to convey my gratitude to them if I haven’t already done so. Sadly, Mute is now defunct which is a real shame. It was a hugely intelligent internet magazine.

PC: Can you give us a summary of the book’s main points? What were your aims?

Mastaneh: I called it a study-extension of the class struggle. I was trying to find ways of studying the contours and substance of the class struggle that are intrinsically action-oriented. I was also trying to find new ways of organising the space we need in order to think, debate and conspire against capital and the state. I cobbled together my approach from two sets of people: the first were Russian psychologists - thinkers like Vygotsky, Bakhtin and Leontiev. And the second group were revolutionary individuals and groups who had written about or organised partially successful moments of rupture in the past – people like Pannekoek, Camatte, and the Situationist International.

PC: And you came up with the notion of ‘zones of proletarian development’.

Mastaneh: The phrase is not mine but yes, I used it to show how liberated spaces can be turned into learning zones during which we talk with each other, exchange tactics and move beyond our actual level of development. That is what the Paris Commune was at its best, a zone of proletarian development, and we are witnessing the beginnings of that on the streets of Iran today.

PC: Was the book a best seller?

Mastaneh: You are joking, right? I would say its reception was lukewarm at best. There were a few very good reviews (one or two nasty ones by Leninists). I do remember a few famous radicals emailing me and saying nice things about the book. People like Ian Bone from Class War, the American critical psychologist Bruce Lerro, and the communist novelist Stewart Home and the late anarchist David Graeber , who were all very supportive. I won’t forget that.

PC: And how was it received by the Iranian community, after all one entire chapter is about football riots in Iran?

Mastaneh [smiles]: Ah, I was hoping you wouldn’t ask me that question. Well, the truth is, not a single Iranian contacted me or gave me the slightest indication that they had read the book. Not one. I was really disappointed. What is wrong with you Iranians?

PC [laughing]: Well, the short answer to that is … a lot! Still, it really surprises us that not a single Iranian was interested in broadening their horizon. Do you think the prevalence of a deep-seated conservatism, classism, sexism and racism amongst Iranians had anything to do with it?

Mastaneh: To be honest, no, I wouldn’t say that. I’m not saying my background (being a working class woman of Afghani-Iraqi origin) did not play a role but I think the main reasons were to do with the fact that the book was in English and it had an unusual writing style (lots of pictures, etc.). I think most Iranian leftists and intellectuals still have stereotypical perceptions about working class literature and people. In 2005 they would have expected a dry analysis of political economy and I gave them something different. In 2022 they were still looking at factory gates, waiting for the classic general strike. And that is why they missed teenage girls screaming at the ruling class and dancing their way toward revolution.

PC: But you clearly saw and theorised all of that, back in 2005. Parts of your book seem to be written by Nostradamus himself! Even the images, which are almost twenty years old, look contemporary.

Mastaneh [laughs]: Nostradamus? Well, I am not sure how to take that but yes I think if you get the study-extension of the class struggle right, you can see more clearly than bourgeois commentators. Then you understand the connections between different parts of the proletariat – the factory worker, the office worker, the unemployed, the houseworker and the youth, etc.

PC: We realise you are busy so let’s bring this interview to a close by discussing chapter three.

Mastaneh: Yes, chapter 3 is a detailed analysis and theorisation of a series of Iranian football riots (21-27 October 2001). The theoretical lodestar for this case study is Bakhtin. It posits proletarian carnivalesque against Islamic spectacle, and clearly theorises the cultural conflict that recent events have exposed even further. It follows this conflict within language and shows how Islamic monologue is being neutralised through proletarian dialogue, including the use of laughter, parody, irony, vulgarity and mockery to undermine God and capital. Then it looks at the embodied version of this conflict and this too we are seeing in the ‘scream’ of youngsters and their dancing and collective joy-seeking on the streets of Iran. Hysteria as resistance against hierarchy.

PC: In other words, just about everything the Iranian left, whether traditional or new, has never really understood about the class struggle.

Mastaneh: Quite, but thankfully the Iranian proletariat (including teenage boys and girls) understood all of this because they were ahead of the left. The Iranian left does not want to smash the wheel as the early Daenerys Targaryen did. They just want to win the Game of Thrones. I sincerely hope the proletariat stays one-step ahead of the left (wing of capital) and manages to retain its autonomy. That is what matters.

PC: A good point to end on. Thanks for your time.

Mastaneh: I hope your readers find the book useful.

Well, you say that now, Daenerys, but what if you go batshit crazy?

[The following is an excerpt from chapter 3, pp. 121-130 of Zones of Proletarian Development, Mastaneh Shah-Shuja, OpenMute, 2008. We have lightly edited and simplified it in a few places, with the permission of the author].


Iranian Football Riots as Bakhtinian Carnivalesque (Part 1)

This chapter applies Bakhtin to a weeklong series of Iranian football riots (21-27 October 2001) during the qualifying rounds for the 2002 World Cup. In the first section, the carnivalesque and dialogic dimensions of rioting are discussed. By re-accentuating Bakhtin’s concept of carnival, I will demonstrate its opposition to the concept of spectacle (Guy Debord, 1987). Various aspects of the carnival, such as parody, grotesquerie, drinking, eating, sexual contact, excess and hysteria are examined. In the second section, I outline the sequence of events that led to the riots and the dynamics of the forces involved (i.e., the rioters and the police). In the final section, I apply the above-mentioned Bakhtinian concepts to the case study and draw conclusions.

In a world encumbered by an increasingly tyrannical ‘roll-out-neo-liberal-fascism’ hell-bent on colonising every nook and cranny of oppositional creativity, writing from a Bakhtinian perspective has become an enterprise fraught with peril. The mere association of Bakhtin with the proletariat (understood broadly as the dispossessed and alienated class of wealth producers) is sufficient to awaken the self-appointed ogres of conservatism from their intellectual slumber. Awoken monsters can be very grouchy. Sadly, this confrontation cannot be avoided since Bakhtin is so useful for comprehending the social struggle.

The Islamic Republic of Iran is imploding. As a working class atheist, I celebrate this slow death agony with all the joy and euphoria I can muster. I know that the coming cataclysm in Iran will witness the proletariat dancing gleefully on the dung-heap of bourgeois-religous morality. Emma Goldman is alleged to have said, ‘If I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution’ (Goldman quoted in Steinem, 1995: 4).[1] We shall gyrate all night long to the memory of Emma (Goldman) and Mazdak, Karl (Marx) and Sylvia (Pankhurst) whilst feasting on a barrel of ‘blood wine’. But we shall also take care to remind ourselves that this time round it was different because a genuine social revolution had taken place and not the mere political seizure of power that our Engels-Leninist ‘friends’ are so fond of. And we shall know that it all began with seven days of carnivalesque football rioting in October 2001 that heralded a rupture in proletarian pessimism.


3.1.1 Carnival re-accentuated

In this section I will describe those Bakhtinian concepts that aid our investigation of proletarian football rioting. I shall begin with a theme that runs through Bakhtin’s life and work - the carnival.

  • Carnival versus spectacle

As Bakhtin has observed, ‘Carnival expresses the people’s hopes of a happier future, of a more just social and economic order, of a new truth’ (Bakhtin, 1973: 269). In contemporary Iran, this resurgence manifests itself in various forms ranging from the New Year Festival of Norouz (literally, ‘new day’) to the more vociferous football riot.[2] Carnivalesque, as a social mode of being and consciousness, has its roots in cultural traditions of resistance that predate even the medieval European carnival. I will trace the contours of this remarkable evolution below but I would like the reader to bear in mind throughout that carnivalesque also stands in opposition to what Debord (1987) called the spectacle - a set of capitalist social relations mediated by the image.

One of a handful of researchers who has noticed this relationship is David M. Boje (2001). He claims that much of global protest is carnivalesque. Indeed the anti-capitalist protesters of Seattle costumed in sea-turtle shells facing the police overdressed in Darth Vader masks as well as the parodic anti-sweatshop movement have many ideological affinities with Bakhtinian notions of resistance. For Bakhtin the carnival has many attributes. In its purest form, the carnival is a peculiar folk humour that has existed without merging with the official culture of the ruling class. The spectacle, on the other hand, can manifest itself as religious procession. Lent in Christianity and Ashura in Islam, exemplify such official ceremonies, which stand opposed to the spirit of carnival.[3] ‘In Brueghel’s painting of the Battle of Carnival and Lent’, writes Michael D. Bristol (1983: 643),

the personification of carnival rides on a wine barrel instead of a horse, and the combatants brandish cooking utensils instead of weapons … [After all] the comprehensive rethinking of the social world in terms of common, everyday material and physical experience is central to the process of ‘uncrowning’.

The ironic image of Iranian demonstrators, imitating Argentineans, in brandishing kitchen utensils and banging pans during recent street demonstrations is perfectly in tune with this scenario (Kayhan Weekly, p. 1, no. 915, 25 July 2002).

The function of carnival is, however, not restricted to maintaining an ‘unsoiled’ proletarian culture. As Boje observes, carnival is a theatrics of rant and madness seeking to repair felt separation and alienation (Boje, 2001). The very excess experienced during carnival,

prepared a new, scientific knowledge of this world which destroyed all alienation; it drew the world closer to man [sic], to his body, permitted him to touch and test every object, examine it from all sides, enter into it, turn it inside out, compare it to every phenomenon (Bakhtin, 1984a: 381).

During the Feast of Fools, for instance, the clergy and nobility were parodied and ridiculed, their belief system subjected to the cruellest of condemnations, but the parody was nearly always a regenerative one. Bakhtin was very clear on the conflict between carnival and spectacle, even though he penned his work on carnival many years before Debord’s seminal tome on the spectacle,

Carnival is not a spectacle seen by the people; they live in it, and everyone participates because its very idea embraces all the people. While carnival lasts, there is no other life outside it. During carnival time life is subject only to its laws, that is, the laws of its own freedom (Bakhtin, quoted in Morris, 1994: 198).

In short, carnival participants experience social solidarity and cohesion rather than passive consumption and detachment that are hallmarks of spectacularised ceremonies. This solidarity is connected to what Bakhtin called ‘a shared social purview’ between the interlocutors in dialogue and permits the disclosure of suppressed thoughts and feelings (Gardiner, 1992: 113).

  • Carnival historicised

It makes sense to distinguish between three interrelated phenomena: first, the historical or original carnival which we can call the ‘classical carnival’ (this refers to carnival in its ancient and Middle Ages manifestations); second, the re-enactment of this historical carnival in numerous new, contemporary settings, which we can refer to as ‘displaced carnival’; and, thirdly, carnival as a site of contestation which could occur anywhere and at any time following a cycle of struggle or shifting balance of class forces. The last form of carnival we could call, ‘carnival revisited’. This categorisation follows closely the distinctions made with regard to primitive capital accumulation in the introduction section.

What needs to be remembered is that within these three forms of carnival, there exists a confrontation between carnivalesque as a radical social mode of being and consciousness and the spectacle, which is a set of mystified bourgeois social relations mediated by the image. As it becomes clear my investigation into Iranian football riots falls under the second and third abovementioned categories, that of ‘displaced carnival’ and ‘carnival revisited’. The shifting tectonics of Iranian society seems to have created new fault lines where proletarian carnivalesque and Islamic spectacle confront each other in a convoluted social struggle.

Already risking a fatwa from the ayatollahs of Bakhtinology over my association of Bakhtin with proletariat, permit me to irreversibly settle my own fate by linking Bakhtin with yet another unfashionable word - the ‘D’ word. For I believe, Bakhtin who contextualised carnival in its Renaissance settings was also cognisant of its ‘Dialectics’ of evolution, ‘Carnival was the true feast of time, the feast of becoming, change, and renewal. It was hostile to all that was immortalised and completed’ (Bakhtin quoted in Sandywell, 1998: 198). This is not to deny that at times ‘his understanding of carnival is overly idealised and ahistorical, and that his conception of the people is vague…’ (Gardiner, 1992: 182). These ambiguities and the fact that Bakhtin refers to evolution as ‘unfinalized’ has caused confusion, allowing his postmodernist admirers to deny the existence of antagonism (negation) and synthesis (negation of negation) in his Weltanschauung. In general, negativity has been an overlooked element of carnival.

David Gross was one of the first to buck the trend and re-introduce the element of negativity into the carnival. In relation to the European precursors of the carnival, the medieval fairs and the travelling troupes of entertainers, Gross (1978: 128) has postulated the following functions,

First, they provided popular entertainment and amusement. Second, they offered at least momentary relief from hard work by creating a different kind of space and mood as an antidote to the routines of daily life. And last, but very important, they introduced into a given, fixed world the experience of negativity and otherness.

Scholars of carnival usually emphasise only the first function elicited above. In the case of Iranian football riots the significance of creating zones of proletarian development (ZPD) as well as the introduction of negativity and otherness into an official ideology that frowns upon transgression even more sternly than its European fascist prototypes of the 1930s, cannot be overstated. Gross goes on to chronicle the domestication of the medieval ‘pre-carnival’, a trend accelerated through cultural fragmentation and specialisation,

Gradually this essentially medieval phenomenon was institutionalised in three directions: towards the fair, the circus, and the carnival. By being fragmented and formalised in this way, each part lost much of its potential impact and negativity (Gross, 1978: 128).

The fair was the most susceptible to commercialisation and has now become a mercantile and information network for agricultural capitalism. The circus tried to hang on to its craft and artisan-based image since it sees itself as performance art. ‘Unlike the fair and circus’, Gross continues, ‘which were largely cleaned up by the 1920s’, the carnival has managed to retain elements of subversion (Gross, 1978: 129). A similar division of labor occurred in Iran where pre-carnival types became formalised around, i) Norouz or New Year’s celebration (with its distinct pagan undertones); ii) underground ‘masques’ and ‘raves’ (comprising of both rich and poor youth); and iii) the tradition of secularised street theatre and the recently acquired penchant for carnavalised demonstrations.

The grotesque aspects of carnival manifest themselves in the underground culture of the proletariat specially its undomesticated faction (sex-workers, drug addicts, the permanently unemployed, the ‘young’, etc). The ungovernability of this group has been a constant source of despair for the regime’s ‘moral police’.

This 'sacrilegious' behaviour finds an echo in both the radical and reactionary strata of Iranian society. Instances of public drinking and sexual liaisons have been reported amongst the younger generation of football rioters, whilst an example of reactionary (sober) profanity was reported recently in the London based Kayhan weekly. During Friday prayers, a ‘pro-reform’ minister of parliament from the central city of Yazd was at first verbally abused and then set upon by supporters of Khamene’i, the traditionalist ‘spiritual leader’ of the regime (KayhanWeekly, p 3, no. 915, 25 July 2002). What distinguished this jolly fracas from the customary intra-capitalist conflict over territory and power was the use of prayer-stones as projectiles. The fact that such blasphemy could not even enter the imagination of malcontents previously suggests how far things have shifted.

These examples raise the relationship between carnivalesque and power. One reading of Bakhtin sees carnivalesque as the collective parodic ‘centrifugal’ forces in opposition to the project of centralisation and bourgeois hegemony. Once monologism (a stable, unified, absolutist language) loses its iron grip on the proletariat, heteroglossia (conflict between official and unofficial discourses within the same national language or within an utterance) expresses itself publicly and hence more dynamically,

Parallel to his opposition of ‘carnival’ to ‘official’ within cultures is another between whole national cultures which are ‘self-sufficient’ (in the sense of not knowing their otherness to others) and those which are no longer sealed-off and deaf to their polyglot ambience: Bakhtin understands the Renaissance as just such a moment of passages from closed to open across the cultures of Europe (Pechey, 1989:43).

As I said in the last chapter articulating a thought process aids in its process of completion and clarification. Official language tries hard to prevent this articulation. Or to give it a more politico-ideological edge, Vološinov (1987: 89) notes,

the wider and deeper the breach between the official and unofficial consciousness, the more difficult it becomes for motives of inner speech to turn into outward speech … wherein they might acquire formulation, clarity, and rigor.

But official culture cannot win for ever. It is precisely this polyglot lava of desire and passion witnessed in riots and demonstrations, heralding an immanent cultural resurgence, which petrifies a mullah-bourgeoisie cognisant of its impending hour of doom. As Bakhtin suggests in Rabelais, during the early Renaissance era, people ‘built a second world and a second life outside of officialdom, a world in which all medieval people participated more or less’ (Bakhtin quoted in Bernard-Donals, 1998: 118).

In fact, Bakhtin goes as far as to suggest that carnivals and feasts came more and more to be associated with crisis time, ‘moments of death and revival, of change and renewal … of breaking points in the cycle of nature or in the life of society and man’ (Bernard-Donals, 1998: 118). In such intense moments of renewal, the ritualistic aspects of the spectacle are demystified. A religious ritual such as Ashura, for instance, is a highly formalised and rhetorical argument that permits of no alternatives. As Bloch (1989: 42) makes clear,

Ritual is a kind of tunnel into which one plunges, and where, since there is no possibility of turning either to right or left, the only thing to do is to follow. A genuine proletarian carnival, by contrast, has no script and no end point; it is truly ‘unfinalized’.

The ‘crisis time’ being experienced by Iranian capitalism is analogous to the Renaissance in yet another crucial respect. Gradually a vernacular Farsi (enriched by various ethnic dialects) is superseding the official Arabesque-Farsi monologue of the Muslim elite. This humorous vernacular is now beginning to reach both low and high art, infusing it irreversibility with a proletarian sense of parody and irony. Bakhtin observed how early Christianity condemned laughter and how seriousness was used strategically to prevent criticism of feudal mores,

An intolerant one-sided tone of seriousness is characteristic of official medieval culture. The very contents of medieval ideology- asceticism, sombre providentialism, sin, atonement, suffering, as well as the character of the feudal regime, with its oppression and intimidation- all these elements determined this tone of icy petrified seriousness (Bakhtin quoted in Morris, 1994: 208).

In this regard, it is noteworthy that the majority of the mullah-bourgeoisie, acutely aware of the need to inject a false, self-deprecating official humour into the body politic welcomed the ‘election’ of the ‘smiling mullah’, Khatami, to the office of Presidency in 1997. The intention was to create a partial ‘glasnost’ where constructive criticism can regenerate ‘civil society’, which, in turn, would stabilise Muslim political society.[4]

The top-down project of openness and reconstruction failed. The 2001 football riots were one stark manifestation of this failure. The state then turned to the military faction of the regime and recalibrated the ratio of coercion and consent in favour of the former. Proletarian ‘violence’ forced the regime to retaliate by using tension as a mode of stabilisation and reconstruction. Thus the rise of Ahmadi-Nezhad and his thugs.

In this context, ‘violence’ is one of the key issues usually downgraded by scholars of carnivalesque.[5] In contradistinction, René Girard emphasises ‘mimetic violence’ as underlying the carnival rite. Dionysus, he believes, was worshipped by the revellers of Saturnalia as a ‘god of homicidal fury’ (Girard, 1977: 118). Likewise, as Hilda Hollis (2001: 1) has pointed out, other students of carnival such as the novelist George Elliot acknowledge more readily than Bakhtin ‘the threat posed by carnival when it is not simply a textual metaphor. People are killed, maimed and raped during festal fun and freedom’.

Of course Bakhtin readily acknowledged that the crowning of the carnival King ‘already contains the idea of immanent decrowning’ (Bakhtin, 1984b: 124), but more often than not he views this process as an ambivalent cultural rite devoid of violent class antagonisms. Yet even symbolically ‘the Masque of the Furies, called riots’ contained an element of aggression. The ‘bonfire of vanities’ associated with Savonarola’s decrowning in Romola, has similarities with the bonfires lighted annually around Norouz, the Persian New Year’s celebration. This cleansing Zoroastrian fire of Norouz has taken on explicit anti-Islamic overtones in recent years.[6] Zarathushtra, after all, had sought a god who laughed and danced joyously. Sadness and gloom he associated with Darkness. As the proletarian group, Melancholic Troglodytes has correctly grasped,

In the early years of the Islamic ‘revolution’ the celebration of May Day became an arena of fierce contestation where opposing philosophies of life vied for power- a proletariat expressing the rapture of life with songs, dancing, poetry, debate and games, arrayed against the forces of darkness, parading with the solemnity and discipline of storm-troopers-in-waiting (Melancholic Troglodytes, 1998: 15).

I am mindful of the fact that many instances of violence perpetrated during carnivals have had a reactionary character. Historically, ‘part of the festivities of the Roman carnival included the ritual degradation of Jews, who were forced to participate in races through the streets of the city’ (Dentith, 1995: 74). Some forms of charivari involved humiliating those who had transgressed sexual ‘norms’, and the ‘farce of Saint Point’ was a catholic ritual which ‘involved going with some ladies after a party to a prison where Protestants were locked up, freeing them, getting the ladies to chat to them, and then drowning them’ (Dentith, 1995: 75). However, it is essential to underline that the carnival (and even more so the carnivalesque) are imbued with features and attributes which makes them more amenable to a subversive undermining of authority rather than the buttressing of hierarchy and ‘common sense’. The laughter, mocking, parody, irony, aggression, sexual overtones, dialogic interactions, grotesquerie and heteroglossia dimensions of carnivalesque make it, at least potentially, an emancipatory ‘ready-made’.

To summarise: I have argued in this section that an expansive definition of carnivalesque which takes into account its violent, intoxicating and antagonistic class conflicts is essential for understanding recent Iranian football riots. As Bristol (1983: 645) has shown in a different context, ‘Festive abuse, competitive events such as footraces, and mock combats in the form of anarchic football matches between whole villages are all part of the general vocabulary of carnivalesque manifestations’. Proletarian force directed at Authority and the Church exposes the enemies’ fallibility and its pretensions of perpetuity. As Bakhtin puts it, ‘[The representatives of old authority and truth] are gloomily serious. They cannot and do not wish to laugh; they strut majestically… and threaten their [foes] with eternal punishment. They do not see themselves in the mirror of time …’ (Bakhtin quoted in Morris, 1994: 225).

[End of Part 1]


[1] Emma Goldman did not actually say these words, although she probably wished she had! See

[2] What Stallybrass and White (1986: 14) write about carnivals is relevant to Norouz, ‘for long periods [carnival/Norouz] may be a stable and cyclical ritual with no noticeable politically transformative effects but that, given the presence of sharpened political antagonism, it may often act as catalyst and site of actual and symbolic struggle’.

[3] Ashura is the annual re-enactment of the defeat and murder of the Shi'a Hussein by his Sunni political rivals at Karbala in 690 AD. Hussein was the prophet's grandson and the conflict represents an intra-classist rivalry within the Islamic ruling elite. Although the event is marked by all Muslims, it has a special significance for the Shi’a branch of the faith who glory in victimhood. Shi’a mythology falsely represents Ashura as a battle between Good and Evil.

[4] The fact that a great chunk of the Iranian left sheepishly complied with this counter-revolutionary stratagem speaks volumes for their anti-working class agenda.

[5] It is, of course, quite legitimate to argue that the sanitisation of the more violent and malicious dimensions of carnival began with Bakhtin himself. Bernstein (1986: 117) is of the opinion that, ‘Bakhtin’s love for Rabelais and for what he sees as the redemptive energy of the Saturnalia, at times blinds him to the fact that it is only because Rabelais’ novels are manifestly nonmimetic that he is able to assimilate them to anthropological and folkloristic records of actual carnivals, many of which, as recent studies have shown, ended in a violence that proved devastating both to the innocent victims and to the community as a whole’.

[6] Whilst amongst exiled Iranians, Norouz has become formalised and domesticated, it has regained some of its radical elements for those using it within Iran as an ideological bulwark against Islam. In other words, the same ritual could display spectacularised or carnivalesque tendencies depending on circumstances.

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