In Shahla Talebi’s Ghosts of Revolution: Rekindled Memories of Imprisonment of Iran, an associate professor at the Religious Studies Faculty at Arizona State University provides a first-hand account of her experiences as a political prisoner in Iran in the post-Islamic revolution period. Talebi’s narrative is, on the one hand, an analysis of the phenomenology of imprisonment, whereby her subjective perspectives of the cruelty of the prison system are detailed, and, on the other hand, a larger critical piece, which can be read from a political perspective as a critique of the Iranian system post-Islamic revolution in particular. Nevertheless, both of these adapted means of analysis render the book problematic.
From the perspective of a historian, whereas first hand accounts of events are obviously crucial, they nevertheless raise methodological questions, in so far as a radical subjectivity must be treated with caution according to the demands of historiography. Furthermore, the book also must be considered from within the social and historical context in which it emerges: Talebi is now a Western intellectual, living and working in the United States, and her discourse of the traumas of the Iranian political system fit seamlessly with the dominant political narratives about the U.S. with regard to Iran. In other words, an alternative question to the historical narrative of Talebi could be the following: if Talebi would have written a book for an American Anglophone audience in favor of Iran, would it have been published by a particular publishing house such as Stanford University Press? It is important, in other words, from a historiographical perspective to take into account the ideological context in which this book itself emerged, so as to properly evaluate its methodology.
Talebi’s intent is to provide precisely such a critique of the Iranian government and its ideology, more specifically, the Islamic regime, she is essentially providing her own form of ideology critique through the form of a phenomenological narrative or first-person perspective: the reasons why she has suffered in prison, as clearly stated in the book, is because of the ideological shift in Iran, which led to the political imprisonment or migration of some of those who opposed this new system.
However, the error in approaching this work is that, although Talebi clearly describes the precise ideological views of the Iranian revolution, which led to her imprisonment, this does not necessarily entail that she herself is writing from a position that is not uncontaminated by any type of ideology. However, it is precisely this point that Talebi is attempting to stress in her work. For example, she writes, in the context of a discussion with her brother-in-law, that “How could I explain to him that my resistance was not so much about an ideology as such as about the kind of subjectivity in which one is forced to bargain against that very subjectivity?” (107) This statement recapitulates arguably the basic philosophical insight of Talebi’s work, that in the scenario of imprisonment which she experienced, was a complicated expression not of ideology, but of different subjectivities existing together, one in a position of submission and the other in a position of power, thus forcing the latter to the hegemony of the former.
Basically, in this situation one exists as a defined individual one who is imprisoned, but at the same time, imprisonment completely denies this same subjectivity by restricting the human being to the space of the prison. Yet such an approach undermines the very narrative of Talebi’s work: she has placed value on her own experiences as a prisoner, enough to record them, and this means that she wants to communicate something about the very specifics of Iranian social and political life that transformed her into a subject as prisoner. For example, in his review of Talebi’s book, Shariati emphasizes that the book ultimately is about “political prisoners.” In this regard, Talebi’s approach seems to be fundamentally contradictory: on the one hand, she is saying that her situation is entirely free of ideology, but nevertheless maintains the focus on political prisoners.
Now, it certainly can also be argued that Talebi’s work is not entirely motivated by ideology to the extent that her own biography speaks to her imprisonment not only in the Iranian Islamic Republic, but also in the pre-Islamic Republic period of the Shah. This would stake a claim to objectivity, and therefore, the narrative then becomes one about a traditional oppression of political prisoners in Iranian history. But once again, this appears to fit within its own ideological context, and that is the traditional geopolitical conflict between the United States and Iran: this can essentially be considered a case of “Othering”, where the author presents Iran as a barbaric Other, irrespective of contemporary ideology, and therefore, contributing to what Grassian terms the “demonization of Iran.” Hence, although Talebi herself is Iranian, she in this regard fails to see the negative effect of her work, living as an author in the West, with its own political ideology and geopolitical agenda, and also writing for an Anglophone audience. In this manner, she can be viewed as merely supporting some of the negative discourses against Iran that exist in Western culture.
Accordingly, the danger of Talebi’s work from a historiographical perspective, that is from a method of historical writing, is that it attempts to present itself as explicitly non-ideological in character, whereas this is not evident from the book itself. As the theory of ideology explicitly states, ideologies work best when we think that we are not part of ideology, as Slavoj Žižek writes: “The tragedy of our predicament, when we are within ideology, is that when we think we escape it, at that point we are within ideology.” From this perspective, although Talebi’s work is a valuable contribution to first-person narratives of imprisonment, the denial of the influence of ideology on her work is the author’s own failure to properly understand the context of these experiences.