Spectator as spectacle

Tavakoli-Targhi uses “Persianate Europology” in reference to writings about Europe by Persian chroniclers. I’m beginning to see the utility of Persianate as it refers to cultural production in and outside geographical borders of Iran (whose territorial lines are still unclear to me) by those who use Persian as their language of production, lingua franca, (even if, like many Indians in the 16th-19th centuries, Persian is not their mother tongue, and they are not Persian by ethnicity).

Notables from Refashioning Iran, chapter 3. Bold emphasis is mine:

Seeing oneself being seen, that is, the consciousness of oneself as at once spectator and spectacle, grounded all eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Oriental and Occidental voy(ag)eurs‘ narrative emplotment of alterity. The traveling spectators appeared to the natives as traveling spectacles; voy(ag)eurs seeking to discover exotic lands were looked upon by the locals as exotic aliens. The anxiety and the desire to represent and narrate alterity were reciprocal amongst Asians and Europeans. The formation of modern European discourses on the Orient were contemporaneous with Persianate explorations of Europe (Farang/Farangistan). Asians gazed and returned the gaze and, in the process of “cultural looking,” they, like their European counterparts, exoticized and eroticized the Other. p 36

There were recurrent European attempts to label as “uncivilized” those who did not see things “with the same eyes.” Yet Persianate travelers narrated the spectacle of Europe and European onlookers reported the spectacle of the “exotic” Persians in their midst. The field of vision and the making of meaning were perspectival, contestatory, and theatrical. p 36

This conjunction of knowing subjects from different cultures, who gazed simultaneously at the Other and exhibited the Self, foregrounded the transformation of modern national identities. In these ambivalent encounters, the narrator-spectacles often fetishized the spectators and reduced them to visible signs of otherness. p36

As divergent strategies of identification and disidentification, mimicry and mockery were anchored in contesting local, regional and global networks of power and knowledge… Mimesis (taqlid) did not signify only mindless imitation but was rather a strategy for the creative reconstruction of Iranian history and identity. p 37

And the question arises, what were the functions of European mimicry and mockery of their Others? This reminds me of Monique Mojica’s developing theatre project that focuses on the representation of Indigenous peoples in circuses and freak shows in the US. Clearly, in the context of genocidal policies and practices toward the Indigenous peoples in the US, mockery and mimicry justified, reenforced and solidified the military-political discourse. How did these cultural forms functioned in relation to Asians?

It’s interesting that both mimicry and mockery are also embodiment practices, hence the cultural encounter is from the beginning consciously theatrical, as is indeed the self-consciousness that the gaze produces. This is a rich ground to explore, and supports the rather theatrical approach I described in the Summerworks proposal.

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  1. […] am now changing my mind about the utility of the term Persianate. At the same time as it points to the diversity of Persian speaking people, it also covers up the […]