Welcome to the ‘What is the Contemporary?’ blog. You are invited to submit posts of up to 300 words on contemporary cultural phenomena. We aren’t looking for mini research articles; we’re after short reviews, ideas which might be developed, useful links, or just insightful observations. Submit your posts to email@example.com.
During my last trip to Iran, my eight-year-old son who was overwhelmed with the new images that he saw around him began to say and do things that made me more conscious of the internal contradictions of the term contemporary. After the hustle and bustle of the long two tier trip, passport control and baggage reclaim, we finally sat in the airport taxi at 4am and set off for Tehran. The city is about an hour’s journey from the airport on a highway that passes the enormous shrine built to commemorate Rouhollah Khomeini, the late religious leader of the 1979 Iranian revolution, whom some people, including Abbas Milani, describe as ‘the greatest enemy of modernity in twentieth century Iran’. Does this mean he was postmodern? No, it rather means he was a traditionalist. Yet, the revolution that he was the leader for initiated a margin to centre fluidity that pushed Iran towards the production of numerous parallel forms of traditionalism, modernism and postmodernism.
Rouhollah Khomeini’s Shrine of near Tehran International Airport
Anyway, seeing the shrine and the huge images of Khomeini and his successor Ali Khamenei, my son asked his Mom who they were and why their images, particularly those of the present leader Khamenei were everywhere. Hearing his mother’s explanations, he seemed to understand the case, but was still surprised at the number and the sizes of the pictures.
The pay toll of Khalij-e Fars Highway on the way from the Airport to Tehran
So from the following day, his references to these religious leaders became like a running joke in the family, particularly because he knows how to make us laugh. Each time he saw their pictures in the streets or on TV, which would be at least fifteen to thirty times a day, he said in his inimitable tone in Cambridge English: ‘Oh, Not that man, again’, with a bit of variation and some amusing remarks and made bets about how many times he was going to see them that day. What was interesting to me apart from his gestures and our laughter was that the pictures never stopped surprising him during our five week visit. Of course, these and other religious symbols and images of martyrs that occupy the walls of the city and its highways, were not the only things that attracted his attention: he was equally engrossed by the number of cars, the hasty competitive driving which makes every journey in Tehran like a grand Monte Carlo rally and also with the billboards and murals with fancy paintings, photos and pictures, as well as the intertwined bridges and tunnels, and high rise buildings that make Tehran such a combination of medieval and postmodern global architectural wonders.
Modarres Highway, Tehran
Tehran at Night
The surprise, of course, is a normal reaction when you go to Tehran even for those who grew up there and are used to the rapid changes that may take place in its cityscape within two or three years. As Homa Katouziyan notes, one of the major features of Iranian contemporary culture is that any building which is more than twenty years old is bought or sold with the awareness that it is ‘a pickaxe building’, which means it needs to be demolished and replaced with a high rise ‘UP-TO-DATE’ building.
A Fancy Mural with the Theme of Happiness
These rapid changes become more interesting when one notices the same range of Iranian semi-local nativist or universalized identities with their special range of habits and practices are reinforced and multiplied in their variations by their daily exposure to the tools and modalities of modernity and the mad race for the use of technology characterizing any Iranian above the lower middle class in terms of income.
A Commercial for Toothpastes
Every time, one visits Iran, therefore, one notices that any attempt to theorize the present leads to a dead-end. In fact, the attempt once and again results in the discovery that with the intensity of changes and the mushrooming multiplicity of co-existing forms of contemporariness, time is increasingly less and less important in defining the people’s identities, for the plurality of the layers of palimpsestic identities is so drastic that even the link and the meaning of the past and future has become a matter of space rather than time. People live with extremely different senses of the contemporary and even see, hear, feel, and voice the present in ways that are extremely different from one another.
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The contemporary. Three appropriately fragmented and possibly unrelated observations or quotations:
1) The very contemporary Arabic fiction I have read in the last couple of months (all published since 2013, so the literal or popular definition of ‘contemporary’) is invariably a mixture of reportage/documentary involving real events and even real characters, or fictional characters based closely on real people, juxtaposed sometimes clumsily with way-out fantasy and cartoonish humour. Does this characteristic feature in contemporary novels from other countries? In the context of Arab countries, is it to entertain and lighten the mood, or just a way of confronting the awful or inexplicable? (- for example the two faces of the Arab contemporary: archaeologist Prof Khaled al-As’ad who understood the contemporaneity of the Palmyra artefacts better than most, killed by Islamic State, who don’t or don’t want to)
2) ‘Salomon saith, There is no new thing upon the earth. So that as Plato had an imagination, that all knowledge was but remembrance; so Salomon giveth his sentence, that all novelty is but oblivion.’ (Frances Bacon: Essays, LVIII; quoted at the start of Jorge Luis Borges, ‘The Immortal’.)
3) A poem by Charles Bukowski, ‘I Cannot Stand Tears’; incidentally, Bukowski is apparently an inspiration for the contemporary Russian poet, Kirill Medvedev:
there were several hundred fools
around the goose who broke his leg
trying to decide
what to do
when the guard walked up
and pulled out his cannon
and the issue was finished
except for a woman
who ran out of a hut
claiming he’d killed her pet
but the guard rubbed his straps
and told her
kiss my ass,
take it to the president;
the bird was crying
and I cannot stand tears.
I folded my canvas
and went further down the road:
the bastards had ruined
In Annie Ernaux’s literary-sociological portrait of French society from the 40s to the present, Les Années (‘The Years’, 2009), an anonymous any-family sits around the Sunday lunch table and pictures life in the year 2000: what they imagine are familiar sci-fi visions of meals replaced with a single pill, domestic labour performed by robots and houses on the moon. They soon lose interest, however; who cares how people will be living in 40 years’ time when you’re busy living now?
Growing up in the 1980s, the 21st Century didn’t seem any nearer or more important to me than it did to Ernaux’s generation, though if anyone had asked I would probably have produced similar accounts of self-driving cars and hoverboards like all the 2015 kids had in Back to the Future 2. The future would – obviously – be all about technology. It would also look futuristic, all chrome and plastic and flashing lights.
What was missing from futuristic visions of progress, though, was how much we’d value things and images from the past. Not the distant past, old enough to be venerated as ‘antique’, but the contemporary past, what was an under-appreciated ‘now’ at the time of imagining. All the technologies we imagined now exist, or nearly: domestic robots can do most housework; commercial space travel is under development; manufacturers of meal-replacement shakes predict the end of food. Google’s first self-driving cars were tested on California roads this June and – most excitingly – a prototype hoverboard was produced last year.
But whatever ‘the future’ is, it often looks pretty much like a pastiche of the past. These now-realised visions of the future exist alongside ‘retro’ fashion and a repopularisation of traditional crafts, in often unexpectedly complementary ways. In a world of mechanised mass-production, a new generation of artisans is finding specialised markets for handmade goods via the web, while amateur enthusiasts swap knitting patterns on dedicated social networks.
Is this contemporary enthusiasm for ‘vintage’, ‘retro’ and ‘handmade’ products just consumerist nostalgia? Or is the co-existence of past and present really what’s ‘contemporary’ about the 21st Century western experience?
When the crew of an interstellar prisoner transport vessel in Alastair Reynolds’ Slow Bullets (2015) learn that the ship’s memory store of precious data about life on earth is gradually being overwritten, their solution is to etch what material they can — from poetry to details of medical procedures to the very book we are reading — into the metal of the ship’s hull. As further back-up the ‘slow bullets’ — data storage devices injected into many crew members’ bodies – are wiped of their military-biographical data to be replaced by material selected from the ship’s ever-diminishing memory. The cultural legacy of the human race is preserved at the cost of each individual’s biographical past.
‘S—’, the amnesiac protagonist of J. J. Abrams’ and Doug Dorst’s S (2013) – or more precisely, of V. M. Straka’s Ship of Theseus (1949) – has already lost his past when the book opens. By the close of Chapter 1 he is a prisoner aboard an archaic looking sailing vessel. Later, when he tries to inscribe his story on his cabin bulkhead with a nail, he discovers that what he intends to write changes at the very moment of inscription. His personal story remains inaccessible as he commits to defeating global arms-dealer Vévoda. Meanwhile, in the spatio-temporal reality of Straka but some decades later, two students, Eric and Jen, use the margins of a library copy of The Ship of Theseus to inscribe their own material exchanges:
Although with different inflections, each text foregrounds the role of the material support in the archiving act: metal hull, wooden bulkhead, the yellowing pages of a library book. In each case the importance of the individual and his/her personal story is implicitly compared to that of a greater civic cause: a warning shot across the bows, perhaps, in the apolitical age of the selfie?