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  • Mastaneh Shah-Shuja مستانه شاه-شجاع

Zones of Proletarian Development, Chapter 3, Part 4.

[The following is an excerpt from chapter 3, pp. 154-170 of, Zones of Proletarian Development, Mastaneh Shah-Shuja, OpenMute, 2008. Here Shah-Shuja discusses various aspects of working class rioting from a Bakhtinian perspective. She argues that a fully-fledged revolution is not merely political and economic but also cultural.]


Based on the preceding newspaper material and the Bakhtinian concepts introduced in section 3.1, I will now attempt a theoretical analysis of the riots. I have chosen to organise this Bakhtinian discussion into five categories for the sake of clarity. In section 3.3.1 (Communication and Rioting), I will demonstrate how carnivalesque rioting enrich proletarian inter-communication. I will then look at moments of cultural transgression in the riots and its implications for future struggles (3.3.2 Cultural Transgressions and Rioting). In section 3.3.3, I concentrate on some of the salient forms of psychic and physical violence associated with the case-study. I will try to show how they may catalyse or, under certain circumstances, impede the class struggle (Psychic and/or Physical Aggression and Rioting). In section 3.3.4, carnivalesque is posited against the spectacle (Spectacle and Rioting). The final part foregrounds some of the ways in which the carnival is resurfacing in contemporary Iran, noting both similarities and differences with the classic Bakhtinian model (3.3.5 Resurgence of Carnival and Rioting).

3.3.1 Communication and Rioting

Genuine proletarian carnivalesque turns the capitalist world and its values upside down. It does so by creating a zone where the ‘purview’ of an individual (i.e., the necessarily limited literal and figurative consciousness of an individual under capitalism) becomes momentarily as expansive as the individual’s ‘environment’ (i.e., the entire situation of a person, including the previously inaccessible elements that are now offered up as gift).

One factor that secures the zone is the commonality of the interlocutors’ apperceptive mass (quoted in Cheyne and Tarulli, 1999: 6). Rioters have common presuppositions (e.g., the need and availability of a ‘better world’) and mutual knowledge (e.g., the enemies’ vulnerabilities). As Vygotsky very rightly pointed out, ‘when the thoughts and consciousness of the interlocutors are one, the role of speech in the achievement of flawless understanding is reduced to a minimum’ (quoted in Cheyne and Tarulli, 1999: 7). What Bakhtin corrected in this fetishized vision was the false assumption that shared apperceptive mass must be the be all and end all of communication (Min, 2001: 3). Bakhtin argued instead that it is precisely the ‘otherness’ of the other, which enables productive dialogue. He emphasised that productivity in dialogue does not necessarily mean consensus. His vision is closer in this regard to a genuine proletarian riot, with all its ‘impurity’ and complexity than Vygotsky’s rather anaemic model.

The Iranian riots involved different factions of the proletariat (including at times petty bourgeois and 'lumpenproletarian' elements) who shared an apperceptive mass but employed diverse tactics. Some began with the regenerative aspects of the carnivalesque (e.g., dancing, music and reclaiming the street)[15], others with its destructive dimension (e.g., burning , looting and trashing). It was the merging of these differing tactics that made communication productive and created the ‘oceanic feeling’ that is a condition of carnivalesque (Roth, 1997: 4). The ‘oceanic feeling’ is not, as some have suggested, the negation of individuality but the long-awaited expression of (suppressed) individuality through a collective framework.

What Iranian rioters were communicating to each other and the ‘outside’ world was a sense of what Bloch calls ‘concrete utopia’ (quoted in Wall and Thomson, 1993: 54). ‘Concrete’ precisely because it is an essential moment of a communist social movement which self-reflexively propels itself towards a class-less community and not the abstract, far-off, ‘scientific’ utopia that idealists and non-revolutionaries are fond of positing. ‘Concrete’ also in the sense that it is polyphonic, a profusion of voices, signs and languages (Irving and Moffatt, 2002: 4). The rioters consisted of many ‘ethnicities’ including Persians, Arabs, Turks, Kurds and Afghanis. Urban and country, male and female, heterosexual and homosexual, old and young took part and created a multiplicity of desires and languages which Foucault calls ‘heterotopia’ (Foucault quoted in Irving and Moffatt, 2002: 4). Heterotopia is a site where incongruity becomes productive. Heterotopia, in conjunction with a shared apperceptive mass and oceanic feeling are the preconditions of carnivalesque.

Genuine proletarian carnivals create their own ‘carnivalesque time’ in opposition to ‘official time’. The former is ‘aware of timelessness and crisis in the version of history which it represents’ (Willis, 1989: 131). The latter presents a linear and hierarchical teleology of events, which frowns upon change. Official time relegates change and crisis to the past. ‘Popular festive forms’, on the other hand, ‘harness the timelessness of past events in order to project a utopian time’ (Willis, 1989: 133). As Bakhtin makes clear (1973: 238), the festive atmosphere of games and sporting events underline chance and randomness. In the Iranian context, this element of chance and randomness undermines the ‘gloomy eschatological time’ of the mullah-bourgeoisie with its emphasis on the ‘Day of Judgment’ and the return of the ‘Hidden Imam’. There are numerous politico-social factors that determine whether riots erupt or not. However, once we are in a riot situation there are also what Bakhtin calls a ‘veritable downpour of suddenlys’ and ‘at just that moment’, which shape the outcome (Bakhtin, 1994: 95). ‘Gloomy eschatological time’ is understandably suspicious of chance and randomness.

The battle between ‘biological time’ and ‘dead time’ is expressed in the dichotomy between dialogue and monologue. In fact, Bakhtin ‘frequently invokes dialogue as a synonym for life and its repression as an allegory of death’ (Sandywell, 1998: 197). Iranian riots put under erasure the Koranic command, a command that likes to present itself without a human author, standing above society, unchallenged and unvanquished. As Morson (1986: 127) has explained,

… the language of God is absolute and unconditional in the sense that, unlike any utterance of a man, it is not a function of the circumstances that evoked it, and its meaning is not qualified by an audience whose potential reactions have had to be taken into account. A biblical command can be disobeyed, but it cannot be answered. Divine speech does not defend itself or allow itself to be limited by particular historical circumstances.

In so far as ‘fundamentalist’ discourse does not retreat under pressure but stands firm and steadfast, it is vulnerable to total proletarian rejection. This is more true of Islam and Judaism which attempt to regulate all facets of everyday proletarian activities through petty riles and restrictions than Christianity or Zoroastrianism. Under oppressive circumstances, rejection of religiosity may be slow in coming, but when it finally arrives, it moves fearlessly and with utter disregard for divine iconography.

In the course of these upheavals, since God in his haughtiness was not prepared to budge an inch, the rioters took a mile. The anti-religious impulse of rioters was a novel phenomenon, which will both enrich the social movement in the Middle East and, given favourable circumstances, may even act as a shot in the arm for ‘western atheism’ – a defeated atheism that has been languishing in unwarranted complacency for more than a century.

The discourse of the mullah-bourgeoisie, just like wills and suicide notes, are ‘usually closed to dialogue’ (Morson, 1986: 137). There is no sense in a Salman Rushdie, for example, trying to wiggle his way out of a fatwa, since a fatwa is a closed pronouncement. The inflexibility of the monologic fatwa is further strengthened due to the fact that the one person who may be able to rescind it, that is the author, Ayatollah Khomeini, has been dead for some time. The Iranian proletariat may be on the cusp of a seminal historical achievement. Having rejected God’s commands and having seen through the diatribes of the ayatollahs, it is now beginning to understand that ‘martyrs and sufferers, with rare exceptions, are despots and tyrants’ (Maxim Gorky, quoted in Morson, 1986: 142). The pleas of the regime to respect the memory of martyrs, which in the past had prevented strikes, demonstrations and riots, can no longer hold back proletarian anger.

The riots represent the first 21st century call ‘for an end to the judgment of God’ (Artaud, 1947). The rioters were echoing and with their bodily movements re-enacting Artaud’s jibe,

Is God a being? If he is one, he is shit. If he is not one he does not exist.

But he does not exist, except as the void that approaches with all its forms whose most perfect image is the advance of an incalculable group of crab lice.

Terry Eagleton (1989: 185) explains it succinctly, ‘a political order in which everything is oppressively meaningful buckles under its own weight’. Islam by providing the believer with every conceivable interpretation and injunction creates a suffocating and excessive meaningfulness that collapses back onto itself, levelling meaning in the process. Carnival then ‘releases us from the terrorism of excessive significance’ (Eagleton, 1989: 185). It is hardly surprising that the monotony and greyness of official ceremonies in Iran, find a counterpoint in Kitsch architecture and shopping malls. In Eagleton’s memorable words, ‘Kitsch is all smiles and cheers, relentlessly beaming and euphoric like an aerobics class, marching merrily onward to the future shouting ‘long live life!’ (Eagleton, 1989: 186).

The mindless shoppers of the Islamic Republic, every bit as addicted to their daily dose of shopping mall voyeurism as ‘westerners’, are the perfect bourgeois mirror image of the self-flagellating zealots marching in unison during Ashura. What the carnivalesque does is to throw both these modes of non-communication into crisis. Secular kitsch and Islamic taste are conquered through Bakhtinian celebration. Taking Bakhtin’s formulation perhaps even more literally than he intended, Iranian proletarians insist that ‘to be means to communicate’ (Bakhtin, 1984b: 287).

3.3.2 Cultural Transgressions and Rioting

Bakhtin writes, ‘… Seriousness burdens us with hopeless situations, but laughter lifts us above them and delivers us from them. Laughter does not encumber man [sic], it liberates him’ (Bakhtin, 1986: 134). During the riots, proletarians had the chance to play with God’s terror and laugh at it. In Morris’s words (1994: 209) ‘the awesome becomes a comic monster’. The laughter of the proletariat is what makes ‘organic atheism’ (i.e., a living, fighting atheism which emerges from everyday life and punctures theocracy) so much more radical than the dry, ideological atheism of reactionaries (i.e., the mechanical atheism of the likes of Lenin and Emma Goldman, which can only serve to modernise religion rather than undermine it). ‘Organic atheism’ refuses to meet religion on the enemy’s terrain. Instead it creates its own battlefield and takes on simultaneously both the public and private spheres of divine demagogy. Organic atheism asks, why perpetuate the illusion of the separation of church from state when one has a chance to do away with both?

In the course of the riots, physical attacks on clerics and mosques were augmented by a philosophical and verbal assault on God. The provocative slogan ‘Death to God’, far more challenging than the tepid Nietzschean pronouncement, ‘God is dead’, was raised by Iranians both during the riots and on the streets of London during anti-war demonstrations in 2002. ‘Death to God’, unlike its Nietzschean precursor, acknowledges that there is still work to be done before God can be pensioned off as a museum piece. Slogans such as ‘Death to God’, ‘Death to Islam’ and ‘Death to the mullahs’ may seem one-dimensional if looked at in isolation, but when contextualised within the general festive and celebratory mood of the 7 days that shook Iran, they represent what Bakhtin calls the ‘laughing truth, expressed in curses and abusive words, [that degrade] power’ (Bakhtin, 1984a, quoted in Solomon, 1979: 297).

It is quite clear that profanities are being employed by proletarians in a conscious bid to undermine Islamic ‘taste’ and ‘decorum’. In his wonderful article about the reaccentuating of the symbolism of the Tyburn tree in Hyde Park, Roberts (2004: 896) shows how the key utterance for the ‘patrician’ class gradually became one of ‘politeness’, which was taken as a sign of virtuosity and freedom. He also demonstrates how proletarians,

… gained a populist public voice that was neither ‘refined’ nor ‘polite’. Instead, dialogue was frequently fuelled by anger and resentment at a new form of legal regulation that, in the eyes of the Tyburn crowd, constructed innocent customary practices as being illegal (Roberts, 2004: 897).

If anything, the undermining of ‘politeness’ and ‘decorum’ by contemporary Iranians seems to be a more conscious project than the description above. By swearing at the referee, the opposing team and the regime during football matches, an anti-hegemonic autonomous zone is created that occasionally finds a continued expression in post-match riots. Profanities should be viewed as part of the struggle between classes over public space. They undermine taste and in so doing weaken hierarchy. Through curses, chants, slogans and music the proletariat lays claim to areas hitherto beyond its control.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that authoritarian regimes oppose ‘erotic’ dancing and joyful music. In Trinidad during enslavement dance bands were used by revellers as a cover for attacking the rulers. Enslaved Africans would hold parodies of the Christmas sacrament. Naturally the authorities did everything in their power to ban and when that failed limit carnivals (Liverpool, 1993: 46). Under Nazi rule, Joseph Goebbels ‘banned jazz, along with foxtrots and the tango’ (Zwerin, 2000: 6). Fights with the Hitler Youth over the ‘right’ to play music and dance are being repeated in Iran, with the Basiji Youth playing the role of the villain. Nazis referred to those forms of music they disapproved of as Entartete Musik (meaning, ‘decadent music’). Iranian Muslim clerics call it Museeghi-ye Mobtazal (meaning, ‘banal and immoral music’).

In an article dealing with the connection between music, rhythm and class struggle, Mahabir observes,

… rhythm in black music is ideological … its very deployment in the public sphere illustrates how seriously its listeners consider its ideological function … for instance the overamplified sound system that emerged in the slums of West Kingston and spread … the music trucks seen in every Caribbean parade, the maxi-taxis that blast music daily for their passengers … show that the urban and rural working classes use music as part of a soundscape of resistance … participating in … an ‘indirect, ad hoc war of position’ … (Mahabir, 2002: 13).

Significantly, Mahabir goes on to explain, ‘the Calypso alerts us that to the fact that while the soca [a popular and inter-racial musical form in the 1970s] helps the people cope with their dismal socio-economic conditions, it quickly becomes the cause of riots as the State tries to stop its expression’ (Mahabir, 2002: 23).

Although low-level and individualised musical warfare has always been part of the urban ‘soundscape’ of Iran under the mullah-bourgeoisie, only recently has it been used consciously to provoke the regime. Learning from the more accessible Kurdish and Turkish cultures of musical resistance, as well as the more distant ‘western’ genres Iranian proletarians are beginning to show signs of appreciating the subversive potential of music and rhythm. Banned Persian music, western rave music and classical music, which were all considered underground entertainment until recently, have begun to resist Islam’s colonising impulse within public space. Riots have become spaces for younger generation of proletarians, especially female proletarians, to express themselves sexually. It has been suggested, in a different context, that the very act of moving between a traditional local identity and a cosmopolitan one enhances a sense of personal autonomy (Hannerz, 1992 quoted in Farrer, 1999: 150). Recent reports as well as anecdotal evidence suggest a similar sense of empowerment in young Iranian proletarians. The riot zone seems to provide participants with ‘an enlarged repertoire of sexual strategies and styles’ (Farrer, 1999: 157). And, finally, in an unofficial inter-classist alliance between proletarians and the secular-nationalist bourgeoisie, even classical Persian ‘verse-capping’ (dialogue through poetry) has been recruited to the cause of undermining Islamic monologism.[16]

It is crucial to underline that profanities are part of proletarian culture and in certain contexts, a mode of resistance. This may seem an obvious banality to ‘western’ readers but one cannot overstate the deleterious effects of suppressing proletarian culture by left wing petty-bourgeois Iranian intellectuals in the past. Having romanticised the proletariat as eternally ‘good’, ‘decent’, ‘clean’, ‘muscular’ and ‘angelic’ these intellectuals have a hard time matching their construct to reality. Since reality cannot be suppressed or denied indefinitely, the historical solution has been to blame everything ‘impure’ on the perennial scapegoat- the ‘lumpenproletariat’. Iranian leftist discourse is replete with attacks on ‘lumpen’ elements who are blamed for contaminating the ‘upright’ proles. Consequently, there have been few attempts to build an alliance between proletarian and ‘lumpenproletarian’ elements of the social movement. This cold-shouldering has resulted in ‘lumpen’ elements feeling alienated from their ‘natural allies’ and siding with oppression at crucial moments of historical change.

In a sense a great deal of the fault lies with Marx and Engels, especially the latter. In the preface to the second edition of The Peasant War in Germany (1850), Engels describes the lumpenproletariat in these unflattering terms,

The lumpenproletariat, this scum of depraved elements from all classes, with headquarters in the big cities, is the worst of all possible allies. This rabble is absolutely venal and absolutely brazen … Every leader of the workers who uses these scoundrels as guards or relies on them for support proves himself by this action alone a traitor to the movement (Engels quoted in Stallybrass, 1990: 88-89).

Even Marx has a tendency to ‘abstract the lumpenproletariat from any specifiable historical relation and to treat them (as most bourgeois commentators did) as a distinct race’ (Stallybrass, 1990: 84). Most of the fear and loathing previously reserved by bourgeois thinkers for the proletariat was now turned upon the lumpenproletariat. Both Marxist and anarchist thinkers are to blame for the present state of affairs, the former for dismissing the lumpenproletariat and the latter for romanticising it. A reassessment of the relationship between proletarian and ‘lumpenproletarian’ members of society will entail acknowledging their similar cultural heritage. The intermingling of parody, irony, sarcasm, insults and curses from these two groups during the Iranian riots enriched both traditions and rebuilt bridges long damaged by reactionary intellectuals.

Some of the most rebellious elements in Iranian society express their defiance through sexual recoding. Since most leftists are of bourgeois or petty-bourgeois background and still carry a great deal of religious ethical presumptions, sexuality has been marginalised in political discourse. It took the regimentalisation of every facet of sexuality by puritanical Islamic bigots to force the issue. Now that heterosexual and homosexual boys and girls defiantly and brazenly break sexual taboos during riots through drinking, smoking, dancing, consorting or even voyeuristically desiring each other, both the mullah-bourgeoisie and their so-called opponents are lost for words. The transgressions of boundaries by Iranian proletarians (with some help from lumpen and petty-bourgeois elements), coupled to a successful social movement, may even be able to supersede the gains made by ‘western’ proletarians in the realm of sexuality and provide both western ‘feminism’ and the ‘gay movement’ invaluable support during these counter-revolutionary times.

3.3.3 Psychic and/or Physical Aggression and Rioting

Observers have described how Iranian youngsters block the roads either in cars or on foot and simply scream their disgust at the regime. I have already mentioned how this kind of dissent does not involve demands or negotiation. The scream is unadulterated anger which seeks no mediation and puts forward no demands.[17] Class passivity, is often associated with lack or suppression of emotions such as anger. Harrington and Flint (1997: 19) have shown the centrality of anger in the mobilisation of energy to overcome a problem. If a belief in the possibility of change is to be attained, one ‘must know, one must feel, and one must be aware of the relationship between the two’ (Harrington and Flint, 1997: 19). Cheryl Hercus (1999: 40) shows how important anger is in mediating collective action. Moreover, ‘a sense of lost opportunity, defined in the light of feminist discourse, is also behind the anger expressed by [subjects] concerning childhood experiences’.

Iranian proletarians, especially the youth, are acutely aware of the lost opportunities that have frustrated their ‘progress’ for decades. The imposed emotional self-restraint people feel in their everyday life (and sometime practice ‘voluntarily’ to avoid conflict) is burst asunder and replaced by emotional self-assertion (Hercus, 1999: 44-46) in the course of riots. Since emotional self-restraint requires a great deal of energy and leads to emotional exhaustion, guilt and self-estrangement (Hercus, 1999: 46), a riotous carnival is experienced as empowering.

Anger taken to extremes may seem ‘hysterical’. Here again there is a relationship between emotions and carnival. Carnival, it will be remembered, involves celebrating the grotesque body and ‘lower bodily stratum’ such as sexual promiscuity, alcohol consumption, fattening food and uncontrollable bodily movements. This type of ‘hysterical’ dissent allows the raising of ‘the threshold of shame and embarrassment’ (Norbert Elias, quoted in Stallybrass and White, 1986: 188). Stephen Greenblatt’s description of how the gradual expulsion of aspects of bodily function, its secretions and fluids, have managed to create ‘disgust’ in Europeans is equally relevant to Islam,

In this separation, the ‘lower bodily stratum’ steadily loses any connection with anything other than the increasingly disreputable dreams of alchemists and cranks. Eventually, all the body’s products, except tears, become simply unmentionable in decent society (Greenblatt, quoted in Stallybrass and White, 1986: 188).

Nothing could convey Islam’s fear of ‘dirt’ and ‘sexuality’, fluids and secretions more accurately than the above quote. Tears (and blood) are the only ‘clean’ secretion that Islam actively encourages; the rest must be shunned, denied or disciplined. Even tears and blood must be secreted in accordance to Islamic protocols. Islam ensures submission by lowering the ‘threshold of shame and embarrassment’ and by expanding the realm of ‘disgust’. Shame in one’s ‘grotesque’ body. Disgust toward the Jew, the homosexual and the foreigner. However, the Islamic veil, especially the all-embracing black chador, far from covering the body, constantly foregrounds its ‘blemishes’. By contrast, carnivalesque provides participants with images ‘through which [they] may recognise [themselves] without disgust’ (Stallybrass and White, 1986: 187).The removal of the veil, semi-naked dancing, kissing, eating fatty food, drinking alcohol and swearing during riots are part of a repertoire of tactics designed to remove shame and disgust. ‘The body’, as Hitchcock (1998: 85) makes clear, ‘constantly contradicts the pretensions and ideologies of perfection in its defecation, sneezing, farting, belching, and bleeding … it wants nothing of discipline and regularity’. Scandals destroy the epic wholeness of the world and ‘free human behaviour from the norms and motivations that predetermine it’ (Bakhtin, 1963, quoted in Morris, 1941: 191).

There are parallels here with prisons, especially women prisons. In analysing the disruptive behaviour of convict women in 19th century Hobart (Australia), Joy Damousi (1997: 2) shows how,

Singing and dancing in the wards at night was an effective means of challenging authority. The women’s songs were loud and strong, explicitly violating those measures in place which aimed to restrain their pressures and amusements … These women were indulging in acts deemed vulgar, as their exuberance was deemed ‘unfeminine’. To laugh loudly and vociferously in a prison which aimed to regulate and order the very being of its inmates, was an act of impetuousness.

Following a similar trajectory, Islamic morality that aimed to police the private-public split is failing. Proletarian laughter, which may have begun as a response to Islamic dread, gained confidence during the riots and became exuberant, regenerative. The consensual aspect of hegemony, which based itself on ‘moral correctitude’ and ‘sacrifice’, has had its comeuppance. This leaves the mullah-bourgeoisie with only one weapon, that of coercion, hence the increasingly militarisation of society under Ahmadi-Nezhad. But coercive tactics, which may work against traditional weapons such as strikes and rallies, are ineffectual against screams or what Bakhtin calls ‘festive madness’. The newspaper articles following the riots were reminiscent of puritanical attacks on English alehouses in the 18th century. One such lackey (Clarke, A Dissertation upon Drunkenness, 1727) describes what he considers the disgusting environment of the alehouse in the following terms,

The vile obscene talk, noise, nonsense and ribaldry discourses together with the fumes of tobacco, belchings and other foul breaking winds, that are generally found in an ale-room … are enough to make any rational creature amongst them almost ashamed of his being. But all this the rude rabble esteem the highest degree of happiness and run themselves into the greatest straits imaginable to attain it (Clarke, quoted in Stallybrass and White, 1986: 94).

Having been denied the alehouse, Iranian crowds bring the tavern to the streets and in so doing they also negate the liberal coffee-house. By demanding ‘laziness’ and ‘idleness’, the rioters undermine the Islamic-fascist work ethic and the moral discipline of the (liberal) coffee-house. The street-parties facilitate the manifestation of the grotesque body. Precisely because ‘eastern’ capitalism disowns and conceals grotesquerie, it becomes ‘vulnerable to the shock of its continued presence or to its unexpected rediscovery’ (cf. Stallybrass and White, 1986: 108). Grotesquerie and excess violently oppose the pathos and patient suffering of official Islamic culture. It is hardly surprising that bourgeois merchants and militia forces mobilise to oppose carnivalesque. Likewise, it is of no surprise that we find history replete with similar examples. In discussing the peasant dashi festivals of the Edo period (1600-1868) in Japan, Sean McPherson (1998: 8) explains how the festival’s ‘enormous expenditure of resources and interruptions of productive work flew in the face of the neo-Confucian tenets of thrift and industry espoused by the authorities’. This led to the forging of an alliance against the festival,

As elite merchant concerns with social unrest began to parallel those of the central government, they joined the samurai in looking askance at the status inversion and carnivalesque atmosphere of dashi festivals (McPherson, 1998: 8).

These dashi festivals were part of the wider ‘ee ja nai ka’ peasant movements (translated roughly as ‘what the hell’, or ‘anything goes’) which proclaimed ‘the end of existing world and the coming of a new world of free association among social equals’ (McPherson, 1998: 9). The carnivalesque riots of 21-27 October 2001 in Iran were also part of a wider social movement towards the negation of private property, the state and religion. Laughter and revelry were therefore the appropriate accompaniment of the stones, bricks, stun grenades, molotov cocktails and bullets that the rioters used against the authorities.

3.3.4 Spectacle and Rioting

Carnivalesque is in constant opposition to the spectacle. One such version of the spectacle manifests itself during the official ritual of Ashura (enactment of the death of the Shi’a Imam Hussein at the hands of his Sunni rival). Official rituals do ‘not lead people out of the existing world order and [create] no second life … the official feast [looks] back at the past and [uses] the past to consecrate the present’ (Morris, 1994: 199). Moreover, it does so by using the mediation of images that have been doctored to misrepresent the actual state of affair. The spectacle is a hierarchical and capitalist set of social relations mediated by performative images in the sense described by Guy Debord (Debord, 1987). It is also the ‘material reconstruction of the religious illusion’ (Debord, 1987, Chapter 1: thesis 20). He puts it rather well in the twelfth thesis of the first chapter of his book,

The spectacle presents itself as something enormously positive, indisputable and inaccessible. It says nothing more than ‘that which appears is good, and that which is good appears’. The attitude that it demands in principle is passive acceptance which in fact it already obtained by its manner of appearing without reply, by its monopoly of appearance (Debord, 1987, Chapter 1: thesis 12).

In a similar vein, Ashura reinforce the unstated fear of spectacularised death. The self-flagellation dimension of Ashura is a case in point. The ritual of Ashura is also a regulatory mechanism for maintaining what Hochschild (1983) calls ‘feeling rules’,

which are social norms that dictate how we should feel in a given situation. Hochschild points out that these norms benefit the privileged and reinforce the subordinate positioning of the disadvantaged (Hochschild in Summers-Effler, 2002, 46).

Feeling rules were systematically broken during these riots. Group dancing and singing, the consumption of alcohol and sexual liaisons were the most explicit examples of resistance. The riots expose the bankruptcy of Islamic theocracy and its cult of death and sacrifice. They do so by taking what is best in other non-religious festivities, such as May Day and Norouz (the Iranian New Year’s Day) celebrations and radicalise them further still using the spirit of carnivalesque.

Football ‘hooliganism’ works best when it is carried through as a serious joke. This is creative play free of ritual. The ‘actors’ and the history conjured up through rioting do not disappear after a week of conflict but become embedded in proletarian collective memory. This text is an additional attempt to preserve the lessons of such struggles. Proletarians are aided in this process of remembering thanks to official media’s mishandling of the situation. The attacks on ‘hooligans’ and ‘thugs’ launched against the rioters after the events failed to make an impact. When Rafsanjani, Khatami and Khamene’i laid into the rioters as ‘traitors’ and ‘fifth columnists’ they were following in the footsteps of reactionaries such as Pope, Hogarth and Fielding who invoked the masquerade as negative (Castle, 1983-1984: 157). The Bishop of London denounced masquerading in 1724 as encouraging ‘Licentiousness and Effeminacy’, which echoes Rafsanjani’s jibe about the rioters as ‘susul’ (literally, ‘effeminate’ or 'sissy').[18] Spectacularised Islamic rituals routinely make a connection between ‘masculinity and rule, femininity and impurity’ (Kelly and Kaplan, 1990: 128).

Bakhtin notes we remember through ‘reciting by heart’ or ‘retelling it in [our] own words’ (Bakhtin, 1981: 95). ‘In reciting’, Parrington (1997: 142) contends,

the language of others is authoritative and there can be no play with the framing context. One cannot even entertain the possibility of doubting it- therefore one cannot enter into a dialogue with it … In retelling however, one arrives at internally persuasive discourse. Voices that are incorporated in this way will be more critically assessed but once accepted, they will retain much more lasting influence in shaping consciousness.

Renate Lachmann believes ‘memory is at the centre of carnival because even when carnival is over, we still remember what it was able to do’ (Lachmann, 1988-1989 quoted in Wall and Thomson, 1993: 58). Remembering is not passive. It is an act perpetrated against the past. As Wall and Thomson (1993: 62) make clear,

… when we combine memory and carnival - that is, when we see memory as a sort of carnivalesque event- we learn to stress the importance of an indelible social space inscribed in the very process. Memory becomes a complex space where new communities and relationships can be forged through such inscription. It seems entirely appropriate to recall Walter Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History, as summarized by Jürgen Habermas: ‘there exists a solidarity of those born later with those who preceded them, with all those whose bodily or personal integrity has been violated at the hands of other human beings; and that this solidarity can only be engendered and made effective by remembering’ … Even the most private of memories have a communal power, again because of the carnivalesque aspect. This aspect consists foremost in the erasure of boundaries.

Remembering is one of the most powerful forms of fighting the separation that the spectacle engenders. By abolishing the separation between inside and outside or between performer and spectator carnivalesque remembering constantly reshapes consciousness in preparation for the next bout of struggle.

3.3.5 Resurgence of Carnival and Rioting

Bakhtin has been immeasurably useful for the evolution of this investigation. However, it is patently obvious that we need to go beyond him on a number of fronts if the radicalism inherent in proletarian rioting is to be fully comprehended. Bernstein (1986: 113) has argued,

Bakhtin’s typology of laughter, for all its richly textured local insights, is haunted, from its inception, by a wistfully nostalgic longing for a realm of pure and ahistorical spontaneity, a rite of universal participation whose essentially affirmative character is guaranteed by its very universality.

In so far as this has been a Bakhtinian reading of rioting, I must accept its limitations in relation to the historic and socio-economic context of the riots. Not only do I find Bakhtin’s analysis of carnivalesque ahistorical in places, I also detect certain attempts at sanitisation, which tends to conceal the violence perpetrated during carnivals. Bernstein (1986: 117) again,

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 violence that proved devastating both to the innocent victims and to the community as a whole.

The present study should be viewed as part of this project of historical recovery. The violent features of carnival have been thoroughly investigated with the proviso that in our study proletarian violence has proved devastating mostly to capital, religion and the state. But again I concede that traditionally many instances of carnivals have proved reactionary in nature.[19] Violence is not the only entity missing from Bakhtin’s account of the carnivalesque. Mary Roth (1997: 6) explains,

For Bakhtin and other 20th century commentators on carnival and the carnivalesque, drinking and intoxication have passed from the scene. Only Katerina Clarke and Michael Holquist casually mention that the drunken aspect was in fact suppressed by Bakhtin, who desired to ‘concentrate primarily on the eating and elide the drinking because of his originary thesis that carnival is a descendant of the aftermath of the hunt’.

Bakhtin has also been charged with robbing carnival of its dark potency. Emerson and Morson, for instance, conclude ‘in Carnival he sees only the joy of parody, not the danger of irresponsibility and violence’ (quoted in Roth, 1997: 8). It has also been argued that the consumptive and scatological logic of carnival, promoted as transgressive by such theorists as Foucault, Bataille and Bakhtin must be approached with caution in an epoch when rampant consumption is actively encouraged by certain sections of capital (Larsen, 2001: 80).

Bakhtin has recently been challenged from a feminist perspective. One charge has accused Bakhtin of not paying nearly enough attention to women’s dialects and how it differs from men’s discourse (Booth, 1986: 154). Bakhtin excuses Rabelais’ sexism too glibly,

The truth is nowhere in Rabelais does one find any hint of an effort to imagine any woman’s point of view or to incorporate women into a dialogue. And nowhere in Bakhtin does one discover any suggestion that he sees the importance of this kind of monologue, not even when he discusses Rabelais’ attitude towards women (Booth, 1986: 165-166).

Equally absent from Rabelais is a class oriented analysis. Similarly, Bakhtin’s liberal and social democratic political ideology in his early years and mystical leanings in later years were oblivious to the importance of a rigorous class analysis. All these shortcomings, I have attempted to overcome by foregrounding the struggles of proletarians on and off the pitch.

Despite these reservations, I feel justified in my choice of a Bakhtinian perspective to demonstrate the significance of seven days of football rioting that shook Iran during October 2001. By opposing the spectacularised aspects of religious performances such as Ashura to carnivalesque riot time, I have shown their inherent antagonism. Although it is true that every social struggle is pregnant with a mixture of spectacle and carnivalesque, there are genuine moments of liberation when social relationships based on the spectacle are overwhelmed by subversive carnivalesque.

In summary: whilst analysing the response of Scottish proletarians to state sponsored urban ‘regeneration’ projects at Ferguslie Park in Paisley, Chik Collins (1999: 14) refers to activists who ‘seemed not so much to speak as to spit’ the words at their class enemies, ‘almost as if all of the evaluative connotations which expressed their grievance were distilled and conveyed in the intonation’ of their curses.

The 7 days that shook Iran between 21 and 27 October 2001 was a proletarian gob spat at the mullah-bourgeoisie. It was a historical turning point, noticed by many, understood in its entirety, by few. It raged and fumed, clarified and concretised, parodied and humbled, brought joy and laughter, and finally, made the tyrants shake in their sandals. With the demise of Iranian theocracy, Islam, and hopefully religion in general, will take a battering throughout the world. The class struggle, long derailed and suppressed, will re-emerge like the ‘Many-Headed Hydra’, thirsting for revenge as well as regeneration.

[End of chapter 3. We are negotiating with the author to bring you one more chapter from this wonderful book. So far, our offer of chocolate and a bottle of Johnny Walker has been rejected. But we have our best consigliere on the job. We remain hopeful.]


[15] For some collective and visible dancing can induce ‘oceanic feeling’. As Leslie Gotfrit (1991: 176, quoted in Brabazon, 2002: 22) observes, ‘Dancing precipitates an incredible longing. To recover the pleasure - in the imagining and remembering, the connecting again with my limbs, my breath, my body - is to ignite desire. These are rare moments of realising my body and mind as not distinct, and of feeling the power of creativity when embodied’.

[16] Alongside musical transgressions, slogans and chants should in addition be studied as external manifestations of what Vygotsky calls ‘private speech’. It is significant how the number of slogans would rise and their political content enriched during situations that became emotionally or intellectually complicated. Proletarians were using slogan at these seminal points to complete thoughts and gauge the mood of their fellow rioters, as well as the more obvious expressions of solidarity.

[17] Alongside musical transgressions, slogans and chants should in addition be studied as external manifestations of what Vygotsky calls ‘private speech’. It is significant how the number of slogans would rise and their political content enriched during situations that became emotionally or intellectually complicated. Proletarians were using slogan at these seminal points to complete thoughts and gauge the mood of their fellow rioters, as well as the more obvious expressions of solidarity.

[18] Rafsanjani (an ex-President of the Islamic Republic of Iran who continues to wield considerable power) needs to prove his masculine credentials more than most. In a patriarchal culture where a masculine identity is deemed a prerequisite for success, Rafsanjani has always been a butt of jokes for not being able to grow a beard. The unintentional irony of him accusing the rioters of being ‘sissy’ and ‘effeminate’ is lost on no one other than Rafsanjani himself. The Ahmadi-Nezhad campaign took full advantage of Rafsanjani’s lack of masculine credentials with the masses in the 2005 presidential elections.

[19] It may be the case that the trend in the ‘west’ is towards the ever-increasing commodification and spectacularisation of carnivals. A telling example would be the San Fermin fiesta in Pamplona, Spain. Ravenscroft and Matteucci (2003: 3) have shown that the week-long celebrations of this famous carnival have become an occasion for people to ‘let off steam’. They also show how the preparation for the carnival reflects routine work-production. They even argue the carnival may disempower the local people by turning them into ‘service providers’ (Ravenscroft and Matteucci, 2003: 4). All this may very well be true, although I feel the authors overstate their case somewhat. However, I have been at pains to show the ‘western’ domestication of the carnival does not apply to my case study.


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