Minoo Moallem, Persian Carpets: The Nation as a Transnational Commodity. United Kingdom: Routledge, 2018.
While hand-made Persian carpets remain a luxury item for many, machine-made rugs with Persian carpet designs are advertised for a relatively affordable price on websites that make this commodity easily available to those who desire this object for its nostalgic value, its Orientalized meaning, or its aesthetic potential to cultivate feelings of worldliness in a transnational world. In Persian Carpets: The Nation as a Transnational Commodity (2018), Moallem deploys a Foucauldian genealogical approach to trace the cultural, political, and affective meanings of the Persian carpet from its emergence in the mid 19th century—when it functioned as a civilizational and imperial commodity—to its present form as a national and transnational commodity and diasporic symbol of affective attachment. Moallem argues that a visual economy that emerged around the Persian carpet and labor, invested value in this commodity and gave rise to affective consumption—"a communitarian act based on consuming less by conscious knowing but influenced by forces of encounters between various actants (subjects, objects, discourses, institutions, etc.)” (11).
The book’s most significant contribution to feminist cultural studies and anthropology is its attention to the relationship between the spectacle of the commodity and the spectacle of labor. Whereas in her previous book, Between Warrior Brother and Veiled Sister (2005), Moallem’s focus was on regimes of visibility and gendered citizenship, in this book she links the regimes of visibility to political economy through a concept that she calls “scopic economy.” By bringing together feminist transnational cultural studies and political economy, Moallem links vision and value, thus offering an analysis that links labor, capital, consumption, representation, and affect. Moallem expands the Marxian notion of commodity fetishism beyond both the concealment of labor and the “modernist separation of the image from matter, the subject from the object, and the mediatic from the materialist” (5-6). Rather than the anthropomorphic configuration, Moallem destabilizes the binary of object/subject and argues that the Persian carpet as commodity not only conceals labor (as Marx would argue), but also stands for the primitive other in the context of colonial modernity, and specifically in the context of the semi-colonized Iran in mid to late 19th century. This is a creative methodological move, as the ethnographic work does not fetishize the suffering of women weavers, but focuses on the object and its transformations in relation to labor and embodiment. By emphasizing the links between the politics of representation, labor, consumption, fantasy, leisure, and desire, Moallem also draws our attention to immaterial labor and cultural meanings that are dismissed in materialist feminist approaches that only focus on political economy. In other words, for Moallem, the concept of scopic economy works through the spectacle of labor and production of difference vis-à-vis the figure of the feminine other.
Moallem analyzes the Persian carpet as a civilizational commodity (and not just an object) through a study of connoisseur literature, films, photography, and advertisements that encouraged consumption of orientalia. She argues that a visual economy attached symbolic value to Persian carpets in discourses of colonial modernity, thus producing a particular knowledge that later leads to the mobilization of national identity and diasporic ethnicity. Through examining books, travelogues, and museum and trade catalogues, Moallem shows how the production of knowledge through the masculinist connoisseur literature mediated and mediatized carpet through the regimes of curiosity and the spatial and temporal optic of the empire as a commodity detached from labor and cultural meanings. Moallem argues that the concealment of labor in commodity fetishism is not only owed to the spectacle of commodity, but to what she calls the spectacle of labor: the discursive construction of the oriental other as primitive, exploited, and unskilled through a particular display of labor. The orientalist discourses of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries elided the embodied experience of weaving and collaborations in the process of production by reducing weaving to technical knowledge. This knowledge— appreciated and owned by Euro-American men as consumers— produced the abject figure of the feminized Other in the naturalized imagery of the exploitation of women and children’s labor by “Eastern” patriarchy. In other words, practices of representation and consumption of a desired and exotic commodity constituted cultural difference and civilizational hierarchies. At the same time, Persian carpet as orientalia was attached to sentimental value through collection, possession, and exchange of a domesticated Orient. Persian carpet became a civilizational commodity that served both as the symbol of the primitiveness of the Orient, and a material object separating the boundaries of the “East” and the “west.” Here, Moallem connects the representational economy and consumption to labor by arguing that the Orientalization of carpets coincided with the transnationalization of exploitative labor. The shift in the oriental carpet from a luxury item to a mass-produced commodity also coincided with the emergence of the middle class in the West and the consumptive production of the carpet. The mass production and industrialization of the Persian carpet was concealed by the spectacle of labor as a rural feminized other. Meanwhile, the upper and middle-class European women were depicted as consumers of carpets, and at times as carpets themselves. The emergence of a home culture in Europe wherein home became a site of heteronormative domesticity, leisure, consumption, and haptic intimacy (all of which traveled to Iran through the discourse of modernization), stood in sharp contrast to the primitive other.
Moallem’s genealogical account of the relationship between political economy and scopic economy in relationship to domesticity, orientalism, civilizational missions, feminized labor, and humanitarian fetishism is fascinating. She argues that the European labor revolts ended the attempt to replace hand-knotted carpets with mass-produced machine-made Persian carpets in Britain. As a result, exploitative labor was transferred to Britain’s colonized and semi-colonized peripheries. The increase in European imports that replaced Iranian silk and cotton changed the nature of carpet production in Iran, subordinating local production to European consumption, or what Moallem calls the shift from productive consumption to consumptive production. This shift from luxury objects and crafts to mass-produced commodities gave rise to a group of dealers who mediated between local labor and foreign companies. The shift to mass-produced commodities also changed the design to duller colors to fit the European and American taste and replaced natural dyes with imported toxic chemical dyes, thus making Iranian labor dependent on imports. The curtailment of creativity turned weavers into weaving machines, while keeping the spectacle of the exotic tribal weaver. The aesthetic value of helplessness of Iranian women and children weavers, along with the emphasis on motherhood and the representation of family as a site of reproduction and consumption (rather than production) in developmental discourses, construct Iranian women as bad mothers, thus normalizing the bourgeois family and disciplinary practices of modernization that are predicated on binaries of East/West, primitive/civilized, female/male, rural/urban, and nature/culture. Moallem argues that concerns over the humanity of weavers by connoisseurs, missionaries, and some feminists have been detached from the transformations of the carpet industry and political economy. By reproducing the hierarchy between subjects of empathy and its objects and through individualizing feelings of sympathy rather than challenging social inequalities, these humanitarian concerns make political action impossible. Rather than buying into guilt and do-good consumerism through ethnography of suffering, Moallem brings short accounts of women weavers in an Iranian village in order to focus on collaborations and complex relationships that challenge narratives of victimization and humanist sympathy. Pointing out that rural women weavers produce hand-woven carpets at home and sell them in the market, while buying affordable Chinese-made carpets that mimic Persian designs in the same market, Moallem shows the way that scopic economy erases use value and non-value (women’s other forms of labor), while turning carpet producers into consumer-citizens who participate in the myth of the household as a site of consumption and not production. Challenging what she calls the “politics of sisterhood in victimization,” Moallem argues that the humanist interest in social subjects turns the body of the weavers into a spectacle of labor, which in turn is used to sell carpets.
Moallem connects the transnational circulation of meanings and value to the nation by tracing the transformation of the Persian carpet to a national commodity from the Qajar period to the Pahlavi dynasty and the post-revolutionary Iran. By analyzing post-revolutionary films, Moallem shows the transformation of the carpet from its commodity state to an art realm, a signifier for the cohabitation of tradition and modernity, a site of national identity and reification of eternal and timeless authentic national culture, as well as resistance to U.S. embargo. Moallem characterizes Iran’s transformation from a carpet nation to nation as carpet, where the Persian carpet as mnemonic commodity comes to stand for the nation as primordial and timeless. Consuming carpets becomes an affective act that connects the imagined community of the nation, which in turn regulates individuals through relations of affective solidarity. The haptic and sensory aspect of consuming carpets along with its potential for mobility and networking, Moallem argues, make affective consumption of carpets a mode of producing national and diasporic identity and cohesion in the context of neoliberal consumer culture. With mass migrations and the weakening of territorial nationalism, attachment to the homeland is not just expressed through linkage to place, but via affective attachments to commodities such as the Persian carpet that adorns the diasporic home as the “immigrant’s private museum of symbolic meanings and resemblance"(135).
Moallem ends her analysis of the Persian carpet by connecting the net and the work, the loom and the labor to networks and computer technologies. She argues that the masculinist and militaristic scientific inventions of the Industrial Revolution along with the development of fast looms separated the loom from the weavers, thus privileging male technological inventions to the collaborative and artistic technical knowledge of rural and tribal female weavers. Moallem argues that the discursive production of the Persian carpet as belonging to the realm of magic, tradition, as well as characterizing it as an authentic object that represents the timeless essence of the nation, elided the genealogy of the production, circulation, and consumption of the carpet as a modern commodity. Challenging the temporal designation of weaving and the rural weaver as premodern, Moallem situates the body of the weaver and the loom as an assemblage where the digits and the digital are interconnected through the networks of memory and technical knowledge. Moallem’s book encourages us to unlearn our definition of the machine and the commodity as separate from the weaver’s knowledge, collaborations, and networks and draws our attention to embodiment. In the end, Moallem highlights the link between consumer capitalism and militarism through technologies of production—wherein the spectacle of labor enables surveillance and where militarized tools are used for faster production— and the militarized gaze of consumer culture—epitomized in the “war carpets” and the use of militarized language such as carpet bombing.
Moallem’s interdisciplinary approach is refreshing and thought-provoking. She brings together transnational feminist cultural studies, anthropology, and political economy to tackle a range of subjects that include nation, diaspora, labor, consumer culture, aesthetics, commodity, militarism, affect, orientalism, and empire. The brevity of the book, however, leaves the reader wishing for more. A more detailed analysis of Iranian films that focus on the carpet, for example, could provide the readers, especially those unfamiliar with Iranian cinema, a better grasp of Moallem’s project in the book. The length of the book, however, seems to be intentional, as it is categorized under the “short books on the Anthropology of Stuff”—a part of the Routledge Series for Creative Teaching and Learning in Anthropology. Moallem’s astute analysis and the fascinating range of material with which she engages is indeed a creative and effective way to familiarize students with theoretical and methodological concepts in anthropology, cultural studies, political economy, and transnational feminist theory.