Many of you heard Raficq Abdulla deliver our second – quite rousing - lecture on the poetics of modernity. It is tempting to believe that going from the flights of Jalaluddin Rumi and Adonis to the ‘every day modern’ is rather a come down, a crash landing into the ordinary and the routine that make modernity seem so mechanical and mundane.
Yet, the everyday and the ordinary are the substance of the same reality that poets and their audiences occupy, and which Adonis and Sa‘adi, Youssef and T.S. Eliot turn into extraordinary verse.
The trap of thinking that only ‘high’ culture matters, that civilisation is only about what the elites do and think, was already the subject of attack by the Enlightenment critique of Johannes Herder (1744-1803) in Prussia. Herder insisted on speaking of a plurality of cultures within a society to take into account social and economic diversity - and he offered a fierce defence of ‘folk culture’ against that of the political and social establishment.
More than a century later, Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) offered one of the most influential advances on Herder’s critique. In The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912), Durkheim saw culture as the result of a society’s ‘collective representations’ – everyday acts and practices that gave meaning to the lives of people at large.
Even the idea of the sacred was part and parcel of this search for and making of meaning – not simply a mass illusion, as some of the zealots of Western modernity insisted. Weddings, births, funerals, rules about who inherits property, how you get a job, where you park your car: all these practices come together to shape the moral map that we have as communities and societies finding our way in the world. The everyday can be routine and mundane, but it is also the place where modernity is encountered and made sense of. There is even high poetry in the everyday. Further, it is here that the idea of multiple or plural modernities acquires force.
Everyday Modernity in China (Univ of Washington, 2006), for example, edited by Madeleine Yue Dong & Joshua Goldstein, looks at what makes the experience of the modern in Shanghai and elsewhere peculiarly local and Chinese. Similar explorations are beginning to look at this popular or folk – indeed democratic expression – of indigenous modernity.
Just last week I was in Iran – specifically in Tehran and Mashhad. Some of the most crowded public spaces that I witnessed were the Contemporary Arts Museum near the University of Tehran campus, and the shrine of Imam Reza, which remains open the entire day and night to pilgrims. Then there was central Tehran’s notorious 24-hour traffic, and the teeming airports that never sleep. Now the notion that you would not look at these spaces and places for a reading on Iranian modernity, but instead at ‘high’ politics or ideology, is clearly absurd. One can hardly judge British culture simply through royal palaces, cathedrals and the pages of The Times of London, even if we think of these as markers of ‘Britishness’.
The question is not whether everyday culture matters, but in what ways and with what results. For answers - as well as more provocative questions - we are in excellent hands today.
Born and raised in Tehran, Mohamad Tavakoli-Targhi was an Iran Heritage Foundation Fellow at the University of Oxford in 2005, and before that the recipient of the prestigious Iranian Fellowship at St. Antony’s College Oxford. Earlier still, he was Visiting Scholar at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. Since 2002, he has served as Editor-in-Chief of Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East. His books include Refashioning Iran: Orientalism, Occidentalism and Nationalist Historiography (2001) and in Farsi, Vernacular Modernity (2003).
Tavakoli is presently Professor of History and Near & Middle Eastern Civilizations at the University of Toronto. This after earning an award as Outstanding University Teacher at Illinois State University in 2001.