My dissertation is titled
“‘A Robin Redbreast’ in an ‘Iron Cage’: Revisiting the Intellectual Movement of Dissent in Iran between the 1953 Coup and the 1979 Islamic Revolution.”
In the wake of the 1953 CIA-backed coup d’état in Iran and the toppling of the democratically elected government of Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh, a cultural-political movement that opposed the Shah’s policy of rapid, authoritarian modernization emerged in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. This study proposes the concept of Bazgasht be Khish [A Return to Self] as an umbrella term that describes the various anti-colonial and critical counter-Enlightenment strains that eventually converged and formed a revolutionary force in 1979. The concept of A Return to Self was not monolithic and was defined differently by competing ideological movements. This project focuses on Ali Shariati’s consequential question, “A return to which self?” and defines it not as a regressive form of self (ethnic, racial, Islamist, etc.) but as a progressive one that is critical of hegemonic universalism, traditionalism, nativism, and fundamentalism and offers a “third way” based on a dialectical interlocution between modernity and tradition, or between East and West.
The conventional literature concerning the post-coup period has often dismissed the movement of A Return to Self as nativist and, therefore, of little intellectual merit. This study takes a different perspective and proposes that it is possible to recast and theorize the post-coup intellectual movement in Iran as an attempt at a “third way,” which sought to transcend the tradition / modernity binary and offer a way out of the impasse the Iranian society was facing. Theorizing the post-coup movement of A Return to Self provides a conceptual framework within which the artistic and literary works produced during this period can be re-interpreted. Textual analysis of those works will provide a deeper insight into the social and cultural factors that led to the 1979 revolution; this methodology also demonstrates the persistence of a positivist approach that has contributed to the emergence of a brand of neoliberalism that exists in symbiosis with the oppressive clerical oligarchy in post-revolutionary Iran.
This dissertation claims that the label “nativist” not only fails to capture the multifariousness of the post-coup movement, but also leads some scholars to shun serious scrutiny of the literature and art of that period. Such a methodology also allows an investigation into the traumatic impact of fast-paced, imported, and authoritarian modernity on the Iranian psyche and the function of fiction, poetry, and film of the time as resistance against the alienating effects of modernization. The most notable figures discussed in this study include Jalāl Āl-e Ahmad, Ali Shariati, Dariush Shayegan, Gholāmhosein Saedi, Shahrnush Parsipur, Bahram Sādeghi, Ebrahim Golestan, Naser Taghvaee, Forough Farrokhzad, and Sohrab Sepehri.
Contrary to widespread claims in the conventional literature, the movement of A Return to Self was diverse and not necessarily regressive, Islamist, traditionalist, or nativist; it was, in fact, a progressive movement that foresaw the consequences of blind adherence to unbridled modernization in sociocultural, political, and economic terms. The post-coup movement contains several points of convergence with the critical counter-Enlightenment philosophical movement that emerged in Europe in the 20th century, particularly Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s magnum opus, Dialectic of Enlightenment. Those points of convergence can lead to new insights into and remedies for the neoliberal takeover of Iranian politics and economy in the 21st century and reorienting Iran’s path, and that of the Global South in general, towards social justice.