Auto-Empathy: Cultures of Pragmatism and Collective Action in Revolutionary Iran

By Arash Davari
Submitted to Session P4939 (Representations of Struggle and Horizons of Freedom, 2017 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
This paper amends scholarly accounts that describe activism in Iran’s revolutionary uprising in terms of pragmatism. These accounts argue that, between the Fall of 1977 and the late Summer of 1978, the language of activism and the actual experience of revolutionary mobilization in Iran were at odds with one another (Kurzman 2005). On these terms, we may rightly dispel causal explanations that attribute the revolt to cultural determinism. Yet these accounts go too far in positing a pragmatic sensibility devoid of cultural specificity. How did the constructed repertoires of resistance in revolutionary Iran -- or rather, the cultural practices produced in efforts to disrupt social and political order -- unintentionally allow for a pragmatic disposition on the part of the revolution’s non-activist mass? What can this observation teach us about social movements in our contemporary moment in general? I answer these question by reexamining the archive of activist efforts to incite revolt, from leftists in the late 1960s and early 1970s to liberals and Islamists in the year before the revolt became mass-based. I focus in particular on the history of mourning ceremonies or chihilum (fortieth-day mourning rites) as techniques of protest in contemporary Iran. Between 1968 and 1978, the language surrounding these events produced an unexpected basis of solidarity predicated on the convergence between conceptions of shah?dat and discourses of individual human rights. I call this form of solidarity auto-empathy. On these terms, the paper provides a cultural frame of reference that coheres with the indeterminate and open-ended pragmatism of actors on the ground prioritized in “anti-explanations.”