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Aesthetic Politics: Iranian Performance and the Challenge of Modernity

[Image from Amir Baradaran, [Image from Amir Baradaran, "Marry Me to the End of Love." Image via the author.]

Amir Baradaran, Marry Me to the End of Love. Cite internationale des Artes, Paris, France, 23-30 June 2012. Curated by Feri Daftari.


Not often is a performance as variegated in its political significance or as generous to critical exposition as Amir Baradaran's recent interactive piece, Marry Me to the End of Love. Inserting itself into current debates surrounding the politics of marriage and Islam in relation to Western modernity, as well as the origin and viability of aesthetic politics, the performance allows us to consider art not merely in its capacity to engage political debate, but also in its capacity to reconfigure the very terms on which such debate is premised.

Queering Marriage

At the Cite interntionale des Arts in Paris in June, Baradaran performed multiple short-term marriages with as many willing participants as possible, doing so according to the Shi'a notion of Mut’ah, or marriage for pleasure. Mut’ah, unlike traditional marriage, is both terminal and premised exclusively on the derivation of pleasure. At the outset, Baradaran's proposal to publicly perform Mut’ah intensifies those elements of Mut’ah that oppose traditional marriage. As he enters multiple short-term relationships under the sign of "marriage," he divorces the expression from its restrictive content, which commands non-terminal heterosexual monogamy and collapses or excludes desires that do not readily fit its accepted teleology. As a result, the expression "marriage" loses its prescriptive force, ceasing to command anything in particular. As such, Baradaran challenges not only marriage understood as an institution for heterosexuals, but also so-called progressive movements calling for "gay marriage."

Those movements, Baradaran and others argue, only work within the terms of heteronormativity in offering recognition to homosexual desire, leaving unchallenged the imbrications of monogamy and non-terminality with a specifically heterosexual history. President Obama's endorsement of gay marriage earlier this year is a telling example. His endorsement was articulated to the particularly heteronormative attributes of those homosexuals around him, explaining his decision by citing “members of my own staff who are in incredibly committed monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together.” As such, Obama indicates that difference in sexual orientation is endorsable only when collapsed into the terms of heteronomartive marriage, delegitimizing other existing or potential forms of coupling by denying them the possibility of legal recognition.

Thus, propelled by questions similar in tone to those that first animated queer theory, Baradaran's performance asks: What new forms of attachment, belonging, and kinship can we conceive, and consequently make legible socially and legally, that reside outside of marriage and its particular history? How does such conceptualization extend social and legal recognition to those who are not accommodated by, or those who suffer at the expense of, traditional marriage configurations? 

Resistance in the Multiplication of Pleasure

Baradaran proposes another challenge to normative forms of coupling, applying less to marriage in particular than to dominant distributions of pleasure across the body. In his performance, the multiple short-term marriages codify "pleasure" differently each time, focusing on sites of the body from which pleasure is not usually derived or understood as derivable; in some marriages, for instance, he simply touches elbows with a partner. While largely symbolic, rendering those acts as "pleasurable" according to Mut’ah destabilizes the centrality of genitalia to normative taxonomies of what counts and does not count as pleasurable.

More specifically, such destabilization entirely elides the reproductive capacity attributed to the act that monopolizes legitimate pleasure in the modern regime of sexuality (and to which conservatives take recourse in arguing for the "sanctity" of marriage): heterosexual coitus. Such elision reveals the potential for the non-genital zones of the body to serve as sites from which pleasure may be derived in ways that accommodate those for whom normative taxonomies, as well as their effects on social and legal recognition, are injurious. Following Michel Foucault's project in The History of Sexuality, parts of which trace means of cultivating new bodily pleasures that resist normative taxonomies in favor of singular and local ones, Baradaran does not pre-determine what forms of pleasure are to be derived from each marriage, allowing each marriage to produce its own forms. In so doing, he not only subsumes the zones of the body otherwise rendered only partially sexual, such as the lips—what Freud termed erotogenic zones—but also comes to symbolically include the potential for any bodily zone to serve as a site for pleasure. Furthermore, extending the same Foucauldian gesture to the realm of his participants, Baradaran does not pre-determine with whom a marriage is possible, entering marriages "with participants of all genders, ages, and orientations."

Creative Destruction

The multiplication of pleasure takes an additional political significance when understood as positioned within the structures of neoliberalism that work towards reducing pleasure to a correlative exchange value. In symbolically proposing the non-genital and, in some cases, non-erotogenic zones of the body as sites of pleasure, Baradaran unsubscribes from certain models of consumption premised on the derivation of pleasure exclusively from those genital and erotogenic zones on which capitalist forces are dependent for profit, thereby suspending the function of those models within the locale of his performance.

Historically, however, the political significance of such unsubscription is temporally confined; as unsubscribing produces new pleasures that resist market assimilation, it may also be understood as paving the way for capitalist forces to extract value from those new pleasures in the future, thereby opening up more for capitalism to territorialize. An example is the burgeoning of a "niche" pornography industry catered towards statistically marginal pleasures. It would remain inconclusive how and to what degree each newly produced pleasure is territorializable, assimilable, or reducible to an exchange value. Perhaps it is from such uncertainty that we may derive an anti-capitalist ethic, if we understand that, as each newly produced pleasure momentarily suspends the flow of capital, it jeopardizes capital’s ability to overcome its suspension.

As the conservative political scientist Joseph Schumpeter argued in influential works from the 1940s such as Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, capitalist economic development is premised on the devaluing and destruction of any presently operative economic order, which allows for the creation of a new order better suited for exponentially higher profit gain. While each successful cycle of “creative destruction” has historically enlarged the spatial boundaries and compressed the temporal turnover durations on which capitalism is dependent for expansion, Schumpeter cautioned that each cycle also has the potential to indefinitely replace capitalist structures with alternative ones in the vulnerable moment when capitalist structures are being destroyed. (Indeed, despite the argument's tension with his political commitments, Schumpeter argued that creative destruction would have social democracy replace capitalism before the end of the twentieth century.)

Following Schumpeter, we may re-articulate the term “creative” to conceptualize and create structures that resist, rather than aid, the structures of capitalism when the latter are most vulnerable. In the case of Baradaran’s performance, the multiplication of singular, presently inassimilable pleasures as it momentarily suspends the flow of capital also multiplies the amount and variety of the raw material that may work towards the creation of alternative structures that undertake such resistance. This is a strategy of "re-articulation" that social theorists like David Harvey and artists like Matthew Buckingham have begun thinking about in light of the recent financial crisis.

The Others of Empire

Bodily pleasure, as it partakes in the economic facet of power, also links the politics of sexuality to the makeup of the modern nation-state. In light of Baradaran's racial background, such links are amplified. The institution of marriage, with its premise in a particular regime of sexuality, figures historically in the consolidation of the modern nation-state. President Obama's endorsement of gay marriage, again, is telling. In addition to citing heteronormative couples as a reason for his endorsement, Obama cites and promotes the patriotism of “those [homosexual] soldiers or airmen or marines or sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf.” Significantly, those wars being fought by patriotic homosexuals on Obama’s behalf have led to the economic, social, and political ruin of Afghanistan and Iraq, where civilian casualties number in the millions.

As Jasbir Puar has argued in Terrorist Assemblages, the incorporation of homosexuals into the modern nation-state as patriots renders them no longer queer, where queerness is originally understood as that which challenges the stability of Western self-identity, and, as a result, another queer is produced. Throughout the twentieth century, the non-reproductive homosexual was perceived as challenging the stability of heterosexuality and the nuclear family, both of which consolidated the modern nation-state. This was especially true during the deadly AIDS epidemic, when homosexuality was further perceived as challenging life itself, or the life of the (st)able consuming citizen integral to sustaining, among the other facets of Western self-identity, the flow of capital. At the close of the century, as homosexuals called for social and legal rights according to heteronormative terms, including the right to marriage, and received some of those rights, as well as roles to consolidate the modern nation-state (the most recent example of which is the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell”), they ceased to be queer in the original sense of the term. (To be sure, however, there remain homosexuals in the Western world who are not assimilable in heteronormative terms, often because of their racial and/or gender queerness.)

As homosexuals became part of, rather than a threat to, Western self-identity, another queer was produced based on the new perceived threat to Western self-identity: the terrorist body. This resulted, more specifically, in the queering of Middle Eastern and South Asian bodies, which became perceived as terroristic; as sexually, psychologically, and corporeally perverse; and as deserving of death. As a result, those Middle Eastern and South Asian bodies became susceptible to otherwise irrational, unjustified, and excessive forms of discrimination, violence, and killing. This is in addition, as Judith Butler has demonstrated, to an astronomically lower standard for determining whether their lives are grievable. Furthermore, once the category of homosexual was incorporated into the modern nation-state, homosexuality, as the specifically Western codification of same-sex practices and relations, became a marker of modernity. The link between modernity and Western homosexuality thus produced, and indeed continues to produce, entire non-Western populations as homophobic and pre-modern—populations in which same-sex practices and relations are codified differently. Those populations, often constituted by the queered Middle Eastern and South Asian bodies, also became susceptible to Western military intervention, occupation, and violence—all under the guises of "modernization" and "democratization," which justify, as Puar has shown, American imperialism and exceptionalism, or, in the case of Israel, settler-colonialism.

In relation to this history, Baradaran's body is rendered impossible. Originally from Iran, Baradaran is racially queer, resembling the queered terrorist body against which the West has declared war. Yet Baradaran is also sexually queer, as someone whose sexual practices and relations are codified, at least in New York where he is based, in terms of homosexuality. Falling into both the categories of old queer and new queer, his body reveals the hypocrisy, if not the impossibility, of the Western project that seeks to simultaneously include the homosexual into folds of life and exclude the terrorist body. It asks, as the homonationalism it confronts trembles: What happens when a body is to be both included and excluded, saved and destroyed? When staged as an aesthetic event in a Western capital, Baradaran's body only intensifies the trembling, finally erupting the terms by which it is otherwise rendered impossible, as it erects new terms and possibilities.

(Non-)Imperial Critique

The imperial division by Western powers of Middle Eastern and South Asian territories into nation-states, as well as the neo-imperial imposition of the Western nuclear family in those nation-states, extends the reach of Baradaran's critique to those contexts. Yet, in addition to being critiqued for their unwitting imbrication with a modern regime of sexuality, those contexts, especially Shi'a majority countries such as Iran, have another relation to the performance. After all, Mut’ah marriage is derived from Shi'ism. While mostly prohibited today by Sunni Muslims and controversial in some Shi'a communities, it was legally promoted several times throughout the past twenty years in predominantly Shi'a countries such as Iran. Indeed, some Iranian officials, including former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, have accepted it as a solution to social problems resulting from so-called excessive sexual desire.  

Such promotions resonate with one of the founding reasons for Mut’ah in Islam before the division between Sunnism and Shi'ism, when many of the Prophet's companions (whose example is revered by Sunni Muslims today) practiced such marriages: it was argued that, in certain circumstances, traditional marriage of the non-terminal, monogamous type does not fully accommodate the consummation of sexual desires, and thus rather than have unaccommodated desires consummated through prohibited pre- or extra-marital sexual relations, those desires were given social and legal recognition when Mut’ah was allowed by the Prophet, and later inscribed into the structure of Shi’a law. As such, Baradaran's performance critiques contemporary social and legal orders (including those dealing with marriage) in Shi'a majority Iran, as it derives its critique from within Shi'ism.

While much so-called critique of Sunni or Shi'a Islam, as it originates from the West, is racist, Islamophobic, and/or premised on the furthering of camouflaged economic and political interests, Baradaran's performance seeks to bring into public consciousness Muslim practices that have been forgotten, bracketed or repressed—in some cases, precisely because of (the internalization of) Western modernity and critique. In doing so, he not only accentuates the presence of those practices (which are often rendered "pre-modern" by the West), thus resisting the imperial effects of forgetting, bracketing, and repressing, but also finds in those practices a certain value, one that allows, on the basis of a more accommodating ethic, for the reconfiguration of presently operative social and legal orders.

Aesthetic Politics

Rather than simply conceptualizing reconfiguration, Baradaran's performance partakes in reconfiguration itself. To borrow from Jacques Ranciere’s lexicon, it joins an aesthetic regime of art interested in altering rather than representing social and legal orders. It thus opposes the representative regime of art that has dominated art history. That regime, with its premise in Aristotelian mimesis, represents, without changing, presently operative and often inegalitarian social and legal orders, taking recourse to spectator passivity and rigid genre conventions. Understood as part of the aesthetic regime, Baradaran’s performance, as it breaks the spectator/actor boundary and the genres of art it consolidates, reconfigures the content of marriage, the possibilities of pleasure it allows, and the relationship between Islam and Muslim practice. Unlike performances within the representative regime that attempt to access a metaphysical artistic realm in order to represent some truth, Baradaran's performance resembles political action properly understood: in eliding the representative divide, it engages not some metaphysical artistic realm, but the very world of which it is a part.


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