Intellectual history

Intersession course examines Iranian intellectual history

Omid Mehrgan, a second-year graduate student in the Krieger School's Humanities Center, stands before his students and asks them a question that seems like a lot to unpack during a four-week intersession class: "Why did the West prosper and why did Iran stay behind?" The students, about a dozen, search for a clue by flipping through the day's reading. Mehrgan smiles in the silence. "This is a particularly Iranian question for the past century," he says. A native Iranian, Mehrgan has started to wrestle with that question himself.

"Each new generation tries to come to terms with their experience," Mehrgan says during an interview a few days after the class. He feels his generation, which came of age in the mid-1990s following the election of reformist Mohammad Khatami as Iran's president, is coming to terms with their experiences of the past decade. Under Khatami they experienced a degree of intellectual openness—ideas could be discussed and debated freely in popular newspapers and journals. "Political creativity and thinking matters a lot in Iran," Mehrgan says, adding that "there was a scholar long ago who called Iran the Germany of the Middle East because people are so interested in abstract ideas and philosophies." Why? "Maybe because actual political reality is difficult to change."

Mehrgan discovered just how hard it is to discuss political reality while working as an activist-minded writer in Tehran's independent intellectual circles for the past decade. He wrote for reformist dailies, worked with journals, and translated into Farsi texts by 20th-century thinkers such as Theodor Adorno, Giorgio Agamben, Walter Benjamin, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. In Iran's 2009 presidential election incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad defeated three challengers, including the progressive independent Mir-Hossein Mousavi, and public dissatisfaction with the results led to the Green Movement that challenged the election's legitimacy. Mehrgan co-authored an essay with Morad Farhadpour titled "The People Reloaded" that considered the protests in relation to Iran's 1979 Revolution and the 1997 reform movement.

"In a sense we [Mehrgan and his peers] are products of this very last decade, when many things changed politically, intellectually, culturally" in Iran, Mehrgan says. "And I think I'd like to write the history of this decade."

To do that, he first had to get a handle on how Iran's intellectual history has already been documented. Hence his 2014 intersession class, The Politics of Intellectual Life in Iran, a short survey of Iranian intellectual history. Class texts include Michel Foucault's controversial "What Are the Iranians Dreaming About?" essay from 1978, excerpts of Jalal Al-e-Ahmad's critique of Western ideas explored in Occidentosis: A Plague from the West, and director Asghar Farhadi's acclaimed 2011 film A Separation.

The class provided Mehrgan with the opportunity to digest how Iran's intellectual life was being portrayed by academics, many of whom are Iranian expatriates in Western academia. Mehrgan had not read a good deal of this Western scholarship because it was never published in Iran, especially those papers that focused on the past two decades that he had lived through himself. He knew how the Iranians had written about ideas from Khatami through Ahmadinejad and the present, but not how the era was discussed in the West. For Mehrgan, reading these essays in English was almost disorienting—being told about pivotal moments of your country's recent past from perspectives you never knew existed. "I wanted to have this alienated experience of Iran's intellectual history," Mehrgan says, which for him often manifested as simplistic political assumptions. He notes that some thinking about Iran continues longstanding, presumed oppositions. On one side is the West, a package deal of continental philosophies, market economies, and democracy. On the other side is a religious government that stands in absolute opposition to everything the West represents.

Mehrgan's experience of the past decade's debates didn't include such reductive arguments. "I would say that a new voice is being raised [by my generation] and this voice is avoiding the dichotomy of religious opposition to everything that's Western," he says. "I think the main idea for this generation is to figure out a way to reconcile democracy with some idea of economic justice, to break the idea that democracy comes with liberalism."

At the moment, Mehrgan isn't sure how that plays out. But he and his peers are working on it. He mentions how Jacques Derrida's visit to Johns Hopkins in 1966 produced a change in ideas that rippled through the American academy for years. He doesn't know who in his generation might be its Derrida, but he brings it up to point out how intellectual shifts spread out slowly. "New ideas are coming up and it takes time to articulate a truly new language of discourse," he says. "We are in our 20s or 30s now. We're in the process of figuring it out."