From Bowie to Hashemi: the epistemic shift to come

Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former Iranian president of two terms, died today. Those more familiar with history and politics will remember him as the man who ‘technically’ appointed the current supreme leader of Iran, more or less introduced and institutionalized the neoliberal breed of IRI economy and politics, engineered the terror of many key opposition figures living outside Iran in the aftermath of the 1979 revolution, and more importantly, over the recent years, by shifting his allegiances and alliances to the side of the revisionists and reformists, constituted a significant political front (within the regime) opposed to the policies of the hardliners, with achievements such the recent nuclear deal with the US indirectly attributable to his maneuvers and negotiations behind the scenes (though the deal itself is by no means reducible to his work or sum of his political relations). The experts and pundits will surely crunch the real political import of his death and so I discuss it only to briefly situate another context, the epistemic shift that seems to traverse the cultural and political map all the over the world. Perhaps an everyday example will introduce the thought process in here. If it is impossible these days to not notice the frustration of some with the cults of mourning forming after the deaths of celebrities and intellectuals – with some hysterically asking: celebrities have been dying for years, why the uproar all of the sudden? – then the impatient wait for ‘2016’ to end must have resonated with many. Why the mass need for this arbitrary marker of ‘death’? I suggest that this anxiety is related to the impeding shifting political and cultural of the world, particularly the ‘Western’ side of it, because from David Bowie’s death to Hashemi’s, it is becoming more and more apparent that the cultural and political ‘old guard’ – and with them their values, influences and networks – is perishing and withering away, and with that a new state of affairs is in the process of formation and concretization, a process requiring the participation of the living and one whose contours and lines of flight are yet virtual and invisible. But these vacancies, it appears, are not easily filled by the ‘new,’ the reasons for which requires another piece (whatever the significance of this personal episode may be, after Leonard Cohen’s recent death I found myself surprised by a new urgency to find his ‘equals’ on the contemporary scene of lyric poetry). It suffices to quote Antonio Gramsci’s statement on crisis formation to situate this crisis of meaning and death, in that ‘the crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.’ The need for 2016 to end then perhaps is the placeholder of a phantasy of ‘things staying comfortably the same,’ a shifting unreality whose reality is made more concrete everyday.

The vague contours of this ‘shift’ first became apparent in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, when it was evident that certain long held opinions and strategies pertaining to the functions of culture and politics (of the state, liberal democracy, human rights, etc.) were undergoing a radical change (whose truer figurations continues to escape me). But I had already glimpsed signs of this shift in the shifting attitude of the Middle Easterns toward the same concepts. It seems to me that the non-Western ‘demos,’ from Iran to Philippines, no longer buy into Western modernities’ master-signifiers, the reasons for which are many: from the careful theoretical and educational work carried out in these countries on undoing and ‘naturalizing’ the cultural heritage of the said terms (by way of introducing and institutionalizing certain post-colonial and post-critical readings of history), to the obvious failure of these key terms to hold their capitalisitc counterparts accountable to any standards throughout the old and new colonialist, expansionist and imperialist projects of West. I could also think of the success of the Chinese model of state capitalism, which is proven capable of offering the benefits of neoliberalism without necessarily contesting foundations of the old in developing countries (e.g. patriarchy), and thus providing a workable model for the elite in these countries to introduce neoliberal economic ‘reforms’ but without the cultural backlash (good example of which are the UAE, or very soon, Iran). This is also perhaps the foremost reason that nowadays many authoritarian regimes in developing countries enjoy popular support in their political and military projects (e.g. the strong support for the Iranian presence in Syria, or the popular mandate of Erdogan government’s shift to autocracy), with many citizens of these regimes openly expressing contempt for ‘human rights’ or ‘democracy’ (blamed as foils for war-projects of the West).  Of course, the election of Donald Trump only brought this shifting landscape to focus for the Western world, where a similar disdain for such value is readily apparent in his main support base.

It is in this shifting context that Hashemi’s (and the likes of him, many of which is to come) death (and the lack of his straddling presence) finds its utmost significant – a time when the Trump administration’s attitude toward the Iranian regime (and its potential nuclear arsenal) still remains to be defined (though my prediction is that it will be relatively favourable), when the Syrian war is pivoting to a new direction and with it the geopolitics (and dromopolitics) of the Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and North Africa regions is entering an even more unstable era, and when the future of the Western institutions and values of liberal democracy (and more importantly, the resistance capacities of its citizens and civil societies) is to be put to the test of the likes of Trump, Le Pen and May. Of course, the anxiety provoking aspect of this so-called shift is not only in that the old is dying, but that new is capable of being radically otherwise, for better or worse. It is hard to believe that 2017 has already started.


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