The distinctive feature of Prof. Tavakoli’s presentation was that it drew entirely on the lived history of ordinary Iranians. In particular, the changing social attitude towards health from the mid-nineteenth century - notably in matters of public sanitation, hygiene and infection – were cast as driving forces in the practical making of the modern. Two features of this change were the increasing involvement of the State in matters of health and the transformation of medical knowledge from a politico-juridical understanding to a modern scientific view. While developments in Europe were influential, the ‘making’ was very much a local phenomenon by and for Iranians.
Prof. Tavakoli brought out the grappling between new and old attitudes toward public authority through the lens of a ‘medicalised’ discourse. Contagion and other ills required men of science, and also a rationalist theology for the masses. When the fruits of modernity filled twentieth century public spaces, new medicine was required. Social ills associated with western lifestyles – including public drunkenness and brawling, prostitution, and so on – became the focus of those who lamented the decline of tradition. The cures now needed were not scientific but spiritual. This set in motion, according to Prof. Tavakoli, the course of events that ultimately resulted in the Revolution of 1979.
While early modernity saw the rise of a secular public sphere, with religious authority being pushed into the private domain, the Revolution clearly reversed the trend. However, given that Iranian society was already inter-connected with global technological, communication and cultural processes, the making of modernity continued in both public and private spaces. Further, the immense focus on education - religious and secular – after the Revolution gave rise to a generation that was confident about its own capacity to make judgments about various assertions of authority. The result today is a society that is refashioning itself from within in a manner that can only be understood on its own terms - and by revising our views of modernity as a single, European project that was implemented in other parts of the world.