Mancini-Lander on Manoukian, 'City of Knowledge in Twentieth-Century Iran: Shiraz, History and Poetry'

Setrag Manoukian
Derek Mancini-Lander

Setrag Manoukian. City of Knowledge in Twentieth-Century Iran: Shiraz, History and Poetry. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2012. xi + 259 pp. $140.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-415-78328-6; $48.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-138-78944-9.

Reviewed by Derek Mancini-Lander (School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London) Published on H-Levant (April, 2015) Commissioned by Laila Parsons

Setrag Manoukian’s City of Knowledge is a conceptually sophisticated and imaginative piece of scholarship that examines the dynamic and various ways in which Iranians have produced the concept of knowledge itself since the late Qajar period, but most particularly in the years surrounding the 1979 revolution. Primarily concerned with the modern culture and history of the city of Shiraz, the book also makes an important contribution to the study of modern Iranian thought in general. This is not a straightforward work of epistemology per se; Manoukian’s overall objective is to trace the development of the kinds of knowledge and attendant practices of self-fashioning that have produced heterogeneous expressions of national belonging in Iran. Engaging the work of Michel Foucault, Manoukian is clear that categories such as “Iran” and even “knowledge” have been fluid, contested, and developing over time in relation to other, similarly unstable, politically charged epistemic categories. His mission is to “disrupt” the hegemonic narratives, produced through “techniques of power” at the political center, which have monopolized the discourse around concepts such as “Iran” and rendered them inert, “self-contained,” and “self-explanatory” (p. 2). In order to revivify these concepts, the author sets out to “uncouple” the practice of knowledge production from the hegemonic “subjects” who produced it, a mission that he accomplishes by constructing his study of knowledge production around certain “domains of knowledge” that he identifies as constituting the core modes of knowledge production in Iran, namely poetry and history. He asserts that it is through a highly conscious engagement with these two interrelated modes of discourse that Iranians have fashioned their knowledge of, articulated their relationship to, and resisted their absorption into various iterations of any homogenous national program.

Manoukian’s principle act of “uncoupling” is geographic. He “dislocates” the production of knowledge about Iran away from the political capital of the nation, Tehran, and instead, using what he terms a “provincial viewpoint” (pp. 3-4), chooses to view his object of study from the political periphery of the country, that is, from the city of Shiraz. Despite its location at the political margins, Manoukian reminds his readers that Iranians have long recognized Shiraz as the cultural center of the country. Here, by invoking “culture” (farhang) the author introduces another key concept, directly related to the domains of history and poetry, which is equally fluid and equally in play. Indeed, Iranians attribute Shiraz’s long-standing epithet, “Abode of Knowledge,” to the fact that it was the cradle of ancient Iranian historical legacy (at Persepolis), and, as it was the home of the great poets Saʿdi and Hafez, the seat of Persian poetic tradition. The book is not a history of Shiraz, as one might assume from the title, but rather a study of Iran from Shiraz, or, even more precisely, a study of Iran in Shiraz.  Moreover, despite the fact that the book is very much about the category of history as a mode of knowledge production and deals frequently with key moments of history, it is not at all a work of history. The author describes his book as “an anthropological inquiry” (p. 2), with an emphasis on ethnography, and he explicitly disavows any attempt to write “a comprehensive history of Shiraz” (p. 9).

Chapter 1 lays the foundation for the book’s broader inquiry into the domains of history and poetry by examining a series of works related to the city of Shiraz from successive eras. Manoukian’s objective here is to map the physical territory of Shiraz in relation to Iran as a whole through a comparative study of local works on history. Here he sets out to understand the transformations that have characterized particularly Shirazi conceptualizations of history and historical methodology as they have evolved since the late Qajar period up to 1979. Two central investigations will suffice to illustrate the work of this chapter. First, he begins with a close and sensitive reading of Fursat Shirazi’s Asar-i ʿAjam, published in 1896The work continues a very old tradition of local history-writing about Shiraz and the region of Fars. He demonstrates that Asar-i ʿAjam, published as a lithograph, was a hybrid form in which the author retooled this old genre of local history-writing for a new readership with new expectations. Among a number of other features of scholarship borrowed from European tradition, the book featured a concern with the philological study of ancient Iranian languages, which was novel for regional histories in Persian. On the other hand, Manoukian demonstrates that Fursat Shirazi positions his history squarely in the field of ethics, in continuity with medieval Persian historiographical tradition. Most interesting for Manoukian are the novel ways in which Fursat Shirazi’s history constructs a new kind of ethical knowledge. Like his predecessors, for Fursat Shirazi, the territory of Fars was inseparable from the pious and knowledgeable people who inhabited it. By means of their knowledge, these people made the region an ethical utopia. However, in Asar-i ʿAjam, Fursat Shirazi demonstrates that the modern sciences such as philology and archaeology that had made possible the study of ancient ruins and languages of Shiraz were equally important forms of knowledge that were necessary for producing an ethical nation, with Shiraz as the seat of this ethical culture. The relationship between variant approaches to knowledge and ethics in Shiraz as presented in Fursat Shirazi’s work stands in opposition to the later Pahlavi-sponsored articulations of Shiraz’s relationship to knowledge and ethics. These formulations exalted the city as the seat of an authentic, civilized, Iranian past but did so in explicit contrast to the corrupt, backwards, Islamic culture of the Arabs, which they claimed had replaced such a glorious civilization. According to Manoukian, Fursat Shirazi’s presentation of the city’s ancient history was “exploratory” (p. 15), and not at all characterized by the fundamentally racialized bifurcation that would be a central component of the Pahlavi nationalist mythology later on.

Second, Manoukian looks at a later reformulation of historical knowledge in 1950s Shiraz. He carefully examines an edited volume of articles written by various respected Shirazi scholars and published in 1954 by the Kanun-i Danish-i Pars organization. Like Fursat Shirazi’s history, the volume is deeply concerned with the role of knowledge in the formulation of an Iranian national ethics and, in particular, historical Shiraz’s role in the production of that knowledge. Manoukian skillfully demonstrates the degree to which, in Shiraz, these authors negotiated and contested the racialized and bifurcated understanding of Iranian culture and history generated by the Pahlavi propaganda from Tehran. The authors of these articles each dealt with Iran’s Islamic heritage in varied but equally sophisticated ways. Manoukian argues that even the frontispiece of the volume, which combines hadith with Achaemenid iconography, illustrates a complex hybridization of Islamic and Iranian national legacy, closer to Fursat Shirazi’s “exploratory approach” to ancient history than to the Pahlavi-sponsored nationalist one.

Chapter 2 moves away from these close readings of texts. Manoukian’s chief purpose here is to establish a series of key conceptual oppositions which he will use to structure his analysis in the remaining chapters. The chapter centers on the effects of the 1979 revolution and seeks to understand the ways in which Shirazis have inscribed memories of history onto the spaces of the city. To accomplish this, Manoukian introduces the concept of “reversal,” which he explains is both a political and a mental process by which older cultural symbols were systematically inverted during the revolution, acquiring new significance and meant to advance the ideological position of the new order, distinct from prerevolutionary ones. One common form of reversal was the renaming of public streets and plazas to reflect the ideology of the new Islamic Republic. But then Manoukian outlines the rather complex modes through which Shirazis have actually engaged with these local reversals. He explains that people have layered them with various meanings in a process of negotiation and orientation that corresponds with broader techniques by which Shirazi subjects oriented themselves in the new political and cultural space and time of the revolution. This is a fascinating and extremely important observation, but the actual evidence presented is somewhat thin. Short of a few anecdotal examples, demonstrating how people use different names for these urban spaces at different times, the discussion is abstract, with no systematic study of particular spaces. Instead, the author elaborates on a framing conceit, which he relies on to do this analytical work. The chapter opens and closes with a discourse on two outstanding architectural features of Shiraz’s cityscape, which stand in opposition to one another. These are the steel skeletons of partially completed buildings (iskilits), which he says symbolize the modern present and point toward the perpetually incomplete future, and the columns (sutun), a reccurring architectural motif in Shiraz’s built forms, which reference the region’s connection with its ancient past. These built forms, he claims, encapsulate the sometimes schizophrenic relationship with the past that forms part of Shirazis’ own discourse, which had been emerging since late Qajar times but which reached its full maturation after 1979. It is an elegant frame for this and subsequent chapters, but it does not do much to help flesh out the particular techniques of negotiation and self-fashioning that he wishes to explore here. This is in part because he does not show precisely how Shirazis have loaded these structures with the meanings he attributes to them or, more importantly, how Shirazis actually engage with these chronotopic features of the cityscape as a means of self-fashioning. These objects are left to speak for themselves, and we have to take the author’s word for it that these forms are indeed constitutive of Shirazis’ experiences. I am inclined to believe Manoukian that these skeletons and columns really do perform the load-bearing role in Shirazi discourse he claims, but more concrete examples are required to make the case.

The third chapter is one of the most exciting and, in this reader’s opinion, the most successful chapter of the book. Here, Manoukian introduces another key process in the production of knowledge, which he terms “editing.” In its most basic sense the author defines editing as “a modality of intervening on images, objects, and texts in order to make them appropriate for public display” (p. 64). As he describes the processes by which the early revolutionaries edited the Pahlavi regime out of the public record, the reader is tempted to wonder, at first, if “censoring” would have been a more apt term. But as he goes on to explore the ways in which this editing has occurred in Shiraz, it becomes clear that although it occasionally involves censorship, the term refers to a multilayered, nonsystematic, heuristic process of public manipulation of all manner of artifacts from the past. Most importantly, these interventions are rarely performed in accordance with state-generated ideology, or even by state agents, and they almost always result in an explicit synthesis—though not a resolution—of apparently irreconcilable valuations of historical realities. Manoukian presents a series of case studies that illustrate the complex ways in which these editing processes unfold around key objects of Shirazi culture. The opening example concerns the restoration of a Pahlavi columnar monument in Maydan-i Vali-ʿAsr, but he then moves on to look at the editing projects of culturally oriented organizations in Shiraz, which were only loosely affiliated with the state. Each of these organizations involves itself with projects of urban planning, cultural/intellectual conferences and exhibitions, poetry readings, and journal and book publications. The author finds that in the many projects studied here, the problematic vestiges of the past sometimes get completely erased, but more frequently they get recontextualized and reordered in explicitly new formats. The process of editing sometimes involves the physical cutting-and-pasting of images in photographs or lines of text in books. In other contexts, editing sometimes operates at a higher level of abstraction, concerning itself with the selection of attendees at conferences or with the selection of buildings in urban renovation programs. Manoukian’s argument explicitly challenges oft-cited assumptions about the innate schizophrenia in Iranian culture, which is understood to be driven by an authoritarian and duplicitous state that structures Iranians’ lives around a tension between what is public and what is private, what is overt and what is veiled, what is facade and what is underlying truth. Manoukian points instead toward heterogeneous processes by which diverse constituencies in Shiraz, with varying investment in the revolutionary project, publicly engage with Iran’s past in ways that are complex and always locally contingent. Most importantly, local actors edit the past in ways that often make explicit the craft of their intervention, calling attention to the fact that editing has been done rather than obscuring it: “As visible intervention, the surface points to the constructed character of the edited matter, a fabrication for public display” (p. 104). The effect of editing is not to hide truth behind a simple facade, but rather to publicly perform a heuristic process of meaning-making and synthesis in relation to a past that cannot be reconciled with present.

Chapters 4 and 5 shift the perspective away from the editing processes that occur at the institutional level and explore the ways in which such an editing process emerges at the level of an individual subject as she or he experiences and participates in the city. Toward this end Manoukian chooses a single subject with tremendous local knowledge of the city, a Shirazi intellectual whom he refers to simply as “the teacher.” The immediate task was to trace this subject’s process of imagining a neighborhood in relation to the city as a whole, and by extension, to the world outside it. Manoukian is careful to recognize the effect of his own subjectivity on the experiment; he is aware that the unfolding subjectivity he is depicting was actually being composed in the context of conversations between himself and the teacher. As a result, the two chapters comprise a sort of record of the dialogic process that was unfolding between Manoukian and his object/subject of study. The objective was not to discover a neighborhood as it existed in brick and mortar, or even a neighborhood as perceived by one knowledgeable individual. Rather, the mission was to observe the process through which a neighborhood could be constructed—actually emplotted—by two subjects (the teacher and the author) over time. Together, the two delineate a particular swath of territory, which the teacher decided was sufficiently representative of the whole. Because the entire section of the work is dedicated to understanding a subjective process of editing the city, Manoukian is particularly interested here in the artifice of selection and exclusion through which the teacher constructed (and guided Manoukian to construct) the history and culture of the city, starting with the very territory he had selected to represent the whole. Rehearsing a very old formal custom in local history-writing tradition, the two chose to structure their study of the neighborhood around key buildings and key personages, that is, around local geography and local prosopography. Chapter 4 deals with a madrassa, two imamzadahs, a khanqah, and the bazaar, and chapter 5 focuses on the biographies of three famous men, Baha al-Din Mahallati, Sayyid Nur al-Din, and Sayyid ʿAbd al-Husayn Dastghayb. By design these two chapters are ultimately concerned with the process of editing, rather than with any particular composition. These buildings and personages trigger, almost by free association, a range of discussions that sometimes replicate and sometimes add context to the teacher’s subjective process of orienting in space or events from the past. The structure of the chapters is disorientating and reads like a collage, consisting of snippets of dialogue and anecdotes that are accompanied by commentaries (sometimes drawn from the teacher’s discourse and sometimes consisting of Manoukian’s postmortem analysis of these conversations). These are pasted in clusters around sections dedicated to the key sites and famous people listed above.

Overall, the author’s point about subjective processes is compelling, and the scattered fragments of history and flashes of social networks that come out incidentally are illustrative. However, historians and other social scientists looking for positive knowledge about the neighborhood may find the analysis in this section of the book enthralling but preliminary. Manoukian’s purpose here is to emphasize the para-text or meta-text of his conversation with his interlocutor over any systematic engagement with texts themselves, be they oral, literary, architectural, cartographic, photographic, or iconic texts. As a result, the chapter presents more of the author’s reflections on his interaction than the interaction itself. This is not a problem in its own right, but the actual content of the discussions themselves is largely deferred or presented in a fragmentary and mediated way. The author does not give the reader enough chance to witness the teacher’s process of editing Shiraz in action. We read that it occurs, but rarely see it happen before our eyes. Ultimately, one finds it difficult to get a sense of the dialogic process that the author wishes to convey in these chapters.

Chapter 6, the final chapter, returns to a discussion of books, which the author began in the first chapter. The works examined here are local histories of Shiraz and collections of political poetry, composed by Shirazis mostly in the period just before and after the 1953 coup. Manoukian demonstrates that people writing in these two media strove to represent this extraordinary period of political dynamism in new sorts of negotiations with inherited historiographical and poetic traditions. The real focus of the chapter, however, is on the circulation, reception, and reconceptualization of these works of history and poetry among Shirazis in the late 1990s, as Shirazis attempted to understand and orient themselves in relation to the era of the 1950s. Here the author explores the dialectic through which Shirazis conceived of and utilized history and poetry differently in order to organize their relationship to that critical moment in their city’s past. Toward this end, Manoukian focuses his attention on conversations about these earlier works that he witnessed among a community of intellectually inclined members of the bazaari class. He locates these discussions in certain spaces of the city where these kinds of books circulated, most especially in bookstores. In the course of these conversations, he discovers that these two genres “articulate two different regimes of signification” (p. 171) and are therefore employed to reference different kinds of knowledge about the city, its past, and its relation to the rest of Iran. History, he says, was supposed to impart “things as they really were” (p. 201), whereas poetry was inherently hermeneutic; it contained implicit meaning and consequently triggered a process of interpretation and engagement. Ultimately, he finds that because poetry manifested this particular quality of “indeterminacy,” Shirazis valued it as more accurately conveying “a token of the climate of those days and is considered to better represent the spirit of the epoch” than historiography (p. 201). History is inherently incomplete because the “present always forced certain silences on the historical narrative and deferred the writing of a complete history to a future in which it would eventually be possible to compose a ‘true’ history” (p. 201).

Manoukian’s focus on this Shirazi community’s interpretive practices and strategic redeployments of these earlier texts is ingenious and the conclusions about the variant modalities of historiography and poetry seem absolutely plausible. However, Manoukian actually shows his readers precious little of these conversations. He regularly invokes and makes reference to the text of these conversations, but hardly presents or discusses any specific dialogue. It is readily apparent that he has witnessed and recorded extensive discussions, but instead of systematically contextualizing these conversations or pointing to particular lines of transcribed texts, he sums up these events in abstract, analytical passages, where he tends to elide multiple conversations, presenting them in tidy encapsulations of what the reader must accept on faith was apparently said on a number of occasions by a variety of individuals. He presents statements in passive voice, rarely attributing them to any particular person or without situating them in any particular context. This strikes the reader not as a deliberate attempt to prevent the reader from accessing the text directly but rather as an economical move, by which the author has chosen to roll the presentation of the text of what was said into his own analysis of what it means. But the result is that the reader is forced to engage with a highly mediated version of the text, where analysis has already been done, in private and out of sight. When one encounters statements such as, “poetry is perceived as a discourse that requires interpretation” (p. 201), one cannot tell if this is Manoukian’s own observation or if it is an idea that his interlocutors explicitly related about how poetry operates. The reader suspects it is the latter, but cannot know for sure without a more transparent reference to particular encounters. Perhaps even more importantly, with so little presented dialogue, it is difficult to get a feel for the particular cast of characters, the flavor of their voices, and the rhythm of their daily interactions, which have been subsumed in the author’s authoritative voice. The reader feels distant from the Shirazi communities whose processes of commemoration Manoukian has tried to bring to life.

As a whole, the book reflects a tremendous amount of research and an incredibly deep knowledge of the subject at hand. The author brings years of ethnographic fieldwork and experiential knowledge of the city of Shiraz into dialogue with a corpus of local literature on history and poetry on the one hand, and on the other hand, an enormous body of theory culled from anthropological studies. There are a few works on the phenomenology and sociology of space, and especially of urban space, which are conspicuously absent: Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space (1974), Kevin Lynch’s The Image of the City (1960), and Yu-Fu Tuan’s Topophilia (1990). These might have helped the author develop a language for discussing the subjective experience of urban spaces themselves. This having been said, there is an incredible variety of material here, and accordingly, Manoukian has needed to develop a rather unorthodox and imaginative format for presenting it all in a coherent and compelling manner. Overall, the book is fascinating and much of it is powerfully illustrated. In such a massive work of scholarship, which attempts to bring together a host of methodologies from different disciplines, there are bound to be areas that some readers will find deficient. As mentioned above, there are stretches where meta-discussions about the author’s own process of observation obfuscate the reader’s clear view of the city and, more importantly, of his interlocutors’ own views of the city. Similarly, there are places in which the author seems too quick to fold accounts of his informants’ particular readings of texts, images, or spaces into his own summary interpretations of what these interpretations mean in the aggregate. The author has deliberately and productively placed his own subjectivity on display, presenting himself as a participant in Shiraz’s process of knowledge production, whose process of subject formation is intertwined with those of Shiraz’s inhabitants. While this is a commendable move in theory, in doing so Manoukian may have obscured the very indigenous subjectivities that he wishes to present alongside his own. Nevertheless, in spite of these issues, City of Knowledge is an extraordinarily rich piece of scholarship that breaks new ground in the field of urban studies in general and in the study of modern Iranian cities in particular. It should appear in the bibliographies of any piece of scholarship related to these fields. Moreover, the book would provide an excellent opportunity for sophisticated discussion in graduate student seminars on the history or culture of modern Iran, anthropology of Islam, or cultural studies.






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Citation: Derek Mancini-Lander. Review of Manoukian, Setrag, City of Knowledge in Twentieth-Century Iran: Shiraz, History and Poetry. H-Levant, H-Net Reviews. April, 2015. URL:

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