Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Desi Land: Teen Culture, Class, and Success in Silicon Valley
By Shalini Shankar. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, November 2008. Cloth: ISBN 978-0-8223-4300-4, $79.95; paper: ISBN 978-0-8223-4315-8, $22.95. 264 pages.
Review by Rupa Pillai, University of Oregon, Eugene
From pop stars chanting Sanskrit to individuals practicing yoga, the American public has had a fascination with South Asian culture since the Sixties. However, the exotic cachet of the subcontinent does not translate into public understanding of the growing South Asian community residing stateside. In some ways, this fascination spurs the stereotypes that simplify a diverse group of individuals. Images of engineers, doctors, and over-achieving children conjured by the label “South Asian” feed the myth of the model minority, thus silencing portions that do not adhere. And while the increasingly visibility of brown faces in the public sphere, such as Gov. Bobby Jindal and Kal Penn, are shattering these myopic perceptions, more scholarship is needed to examine the cultural, historical, and political baggage that affects the South Asian diaspora in America.
In her ethnography Desi Land: Teen Culture, Class, and Success in Silicon Valley, Shalini Shankar unpacks this baggage in connection to the South Asian teen experience. Growing up in America, South Asian teens negotiate the polarized spaces of home and school to form an identity that is informed by their heritage and the white, hegemonic reality they reside in.
Over eight chapters, Shankar dissects the hyphenated identities of these teens in pre-9/11, dot.com America. She explores how race, gender, and class affect these experiences and how language, culture, and immigration history influence one’s identity and community. With her playful use of slang, Desi Land is an insightful addition to the growing diaspora scholarship that grants the reader access to the exclusive networks inherent to all high school environments.
Inspired by the promise of the Silicon Valley, Desi Land denotes the imagined space “[which] is inflected both with a spirit of wonder and enthusiasm as well as immense obstacles of class and race for those who are not well positioned to realize their dreams” (2). Utilizing her own experience as a Desi (another term for the South Asian diaspora), Shankar navigates between the different cliques that compose the South Asian student population of three local high schools. The Desi teens in this study come from different economic backgrounds, practice different religions, aspire to different futures, but share similar experiences as members of the diaspora.
Each chapter begins with a brief profile of a Desi teen that introduces the focus of the chapter and provides a window into the student’s life. Chapter 1 briefly introduces the history of Desis in the Silicon Valley, including an account of the struggle for citizenship and the ambiguous definition of “Asian.” The author quickly dispels the stereotypes of the South Asian diaspora by discussing the waves of immigration. Shankar also discusses the transition “from being undesirable, racially non-White immigrants to sought after residents whose ambiguous racial status skews closer to White” (26). Chapter 2 describes Desi youth culture. While these youths are aware of the wider, social definition of Desi, they develop their own social categories to define themselves and their peers in high school that are influenced by race and class. Chapter 3 explores how consumption and material culture define success and the emergent practice akin to “Keeping up with the Jones,” which could be described as “Keeping up with the Patels.” Chapter 4 and 5 explore language use and the relationship between Desi youths and other racial groups in high school. Chapter 6 and 7 consider how the family and community affect the Desi teens’ actions and ability to succeed.
A key strength of this text is Shankar’s use of the inventive slang that composes the everyday lingo of the Desi teen. Instead of simply considering whether these teens speak another language, she provides informative examples of how language is used and how terms are re-appropriated. Borrowing from African-American culture and re-imagining Hindi words, these teens’ ability to code-switch and create their unique slang mirrors their hyphenated existence. For example, the acronym “FOB” meaning “fresh off the boat” is reworked to mean both cool, “FOBulous,” and its original meaning, “FOBby.” By integrating this slang into her writing, the teens’ voices reverberate off the text.
Though she addresses a spectrum of issues from community gossip to views on dating and arranged marriage, Shankar’s efforts are weakened by its silence on how non-South Asian students perceive Desis. Certain episodes provide the reader a glimpse of other racial groups’ frustrations in this context and demonstrate how this perspective could have improved Shankar’s analysis. In particular, the discussion of “Cultural Days” held in the schools to promote multiculturalism introduces the reader to the racial dynamics of the high school. The failure of these events to include and represent the student body reflects the failed concept of multiculturalism, but also alludes to underlying animosities between racial groups. Additionally, the appropriation of African-American and Latino culture poses questions for further inquiry. In particularly, how does the use of “Brown” in the Desi community challenge Latino political identity? Do Desis actually claim “Brownness,” or is this term confined to her analysis? This superb text would have been strengthened further if she explored such issues, but it does present Shankar future avenues for research.
Shankar concludes her book by briefly recounting her recent visits to the Silicon Valley. Not only providing updates of the whereabouts of participating teens, the final chapter and post-script introduces how conceptions of race, gender, and class have changed in post-9/11 America. Revisiting the teens again in this less optimistic time where economic security is fleeting and xenophobia is on the rise, Shankar is met with new issues for future investigation. This bleak conclusion serves as a call for further inquiry, which the reader, now well informed of the history and context, will be well positioned to pursue. With Desi Land, Shankar has succeeded in presenting a well-researched, well-executed ethnography that captures an American experience that will benefit Asian American Studies and beyond.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The 9 Emotions of Indian Cinema Hoardings
By V. Geetha, Sirish Rao, and M.P. Dhakshna. Chennai: Tara Publishing, February 2009. Hardcover: ISBN 978-8186211274, $35. 96 pages.
Review by Rupa Pillai, University of Oregon
According to the Natyashastra, the authoritative text on Indian performance and aesthetics, a successful performance arouses an emotional response in the audience. Utilizing conventions discussed in this ancient text, most Indian art, from theater and dance to music and literature, has focused on eliciting this emotional response, known as rasa. The theory of rasa identifies nine key emotions or Navarasa that art may evoke in the audience. These emotions, which are universal and accessible to any culture, enable every individual to decipher and appreciate the aesthetics of an unfamiliar performance. Influenced by this theory, V. Geetha and Sirish Rao attempt their own performance in their new book The 9 Emotions of Indian Cinema Hoardings. Guided by the nine emotions, they use this theory as a conceptual framework to explore the art, development and correlating socio-political context of Indian cinema billboards, known as hoardings. This disappearing tradition is a complex art “where representation has as much to do with pleasure as with context and meaning” (77). In collaboration with a team of hoarding artists led by M.P. Dhakshna, the authors aspire to introduce this art form to a larger audience while honoring a tradition that is threatened by the emergence of new technology. The subsequent book comprised of two parts, visual depictions of the emotions and a collection of short essays, is a visually-striking endeavor that captures the essence of the art form while inspiring further investigation.
Hoarding art, which has existed in the cityscapes of South India since the 1940s, “is an expression of a public aesthetic that is deployed, both to advertise and persuade a sale as well as to provoke and sustain visual attention and pleasure” (86). Confined by the space of a billboard, artists rely on the nine emotions to engage the public. Without the aid of text, the public responds to the images and colors of these hoardings to construe the plot and tone of a film. In the first section of this book, the authors emulate this experience. Without a detailed introduction to hand-painted hoardings, the reader must work through a series of paintings that evoke each of the nine emotions. With just an excerpt from the Natyashastra that defines the emotion and select lyrics from film songs to enhance the rasa response, readers are transformed into individuals who might stumble upon the hoarding on the streets of Chennai. Readers are able to familiarize themselves with the art form and the system of symbols that represent the emotions. With this section, the authors move beyond the confines of the text to create a performance that demonstrates the tenets put forth by the Natyashastra and its validity to hoardings.
Following this exposure to the vivid images and brilliant colors that characterize the art form, readers enter the second section, which formally introduces the practice of hoarding through a series of four essays. In the first essay the authors continues to explore the nine emotions by briefly discussing each emotion’s “characteristic visual resonance and identifiable genealogy” (76) that creates a public language through which the artist and audience communicate. Additional, the theory of rasa is further explained by clarifying the difference between real world emotions and aesthetic rasa that is conveyed through art. The transformation of the emotion to rasa is a process consisting of “conventions and tropes, traditions of rendering and performance, as well as historical and contingent influences which frame and direct the process” (74). The second essay discusses the process of creating a hand-painted hoarding and issues of public engagement; it also provides a short chronicle of the art form’s evolution in connection to the development of Tamil cinema. The creation of a hoarding relies on the talent of a team of artists and carpenters. Aided by little more than a few film stills and a summary of the plot, these artists create paintings to capture the public’s imagination and “to bring [them] to the movies” (82). The reader will immediately respect the ingenious methods these artists use to create these enormous paintings. Additionally, this admiration will grow with the inclusion of quotes from hoarding artists that introduce the artists’ perspective on the process and the decline of the art form. The third essay examines the composition and additional elements that characterize hoarding art, and describes earlier types of art that influenced this unique style. The final essay introduces the socio-cultural elements affecting the audience’s gaze of the hoarding, particularly the changing conception of sexuality and the idea of darshan.
While the authors have succeeded in creating a book that engages the reader in an unconventional and memorable manner, the major criticism of this text is the dissipating importance of the nine emotions to this project. The nine emotions that the title suggests will drive the analysis of this subject dissipate in the final essays. Additionally, in an effort to simplify the theory of rasa, the authors present a convoluted account that may confuse the target audience, namely, readers unacquainted with Indian aesthetics. Further, the text lacks a formal conclusion that could have possibly resolved these issues. However, the book is still a sound piece of scholarship that accomplishes its task of introducing Indian aesthetic theory and Tamil hoardings. I did find myself craving to learn more about the artists’ perspective and how new technology is rapidly altering and endangering the art form, but I believe this book has succeeded in its ultimate goal: inspiring the reader to further inquiry.

Breaking the Ashes: The Culture of Illicit Liquor in Sri Lanka
By Michele Ruth Gamburd. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, November 2009. Cloth: ISBN 978-0-8014-4660-3, $65; paper: ISBN 978-0-8014-7432-3, $22.95. 266 pages.
Review by Rupa Pillai, University of Oregon, Eugene
In her latest publication, Breaking The Ashes: the Culture of Illicit Liquor in Sri Lanka, Michele Ruth Gamburd presents a holistic examination of alcohol use in a Sri Lankan village. Considering family dynamics, societal norms, and economic implications, Gamburd navigates the reader through the complexities of the illegal drinking that plagues this village. To direct her analysis, Gamburd employs the following themes: the relationship between consumption and identity, the political economy of alcohol, and how problem drinking is defined and handled. In tackling this project, she immediately situates herself as a non-drinker who remains committed to delivering an objective study that avoids passing judgment or proselytizing teetotalism. She confesses the personal nature of this endeavor spurred through observing and experiencing the effects of overindulgent drinking during her years of fieldwork, but confines this narrative to the introduction and conclusion, thus allowing the bulk of her research to be unprejudiced. The resulting text is an illuminating and enjoyable ethnography of alcohol consumption in Sri Lanka that empowers the reader to arrive at his or her own conclusions.
Over the course of nine chapters, the reader is introduced to the village of Naeaegama where Gamburd has conducted her research for years. In this Sinhala-Buddhist village, the proclivity towards drinking is attributed to the nation’s colonial past. In an attempt to mimic the colonizers and local elites, individuals began to drink in excess to elevate their status. The resulting colonial hangover led to a myriad of social issues, from domestic violence to the reworking of gender roles. The increase of alcohol use and abuse in recent years is largely understudied because of its illicit nature. While alcohol is legally permissible in Sri Lanka, much of the society cannot afford legal forms of alcohol because taxation drives up the cost. Kasippu, the drink of choice of the working class, is the illegal and cheap alternative. By writing this ethnography, the author hopes to provide a more accurate portrayal of alcohol use that NGOs and governmental organizations have failed to capture in their studies.
Utilizing her unique position as an anthropologist, the author accomplishes her goal by demonstrating how ethnographies can be a useful tool to study an illegal aspect of society. Without fear of punishment, informants spoke candidly about alcohol habits. Gamburd deftly weaves these conversations together to illustrate how drinking is altering Naeaegama’s community. Alcohol occupies an ambiguous position in the village. It builds and strengthens relationships as well as alienates and isolates individuals. As a symbol of masculinity, men shared drinking stories about how drinks are purchased among friends, eluding the police, and drunken misbehavior. Women discussed how alcohol abuse affected the family by limiting household funds and prompting many women to become the breadwinner. These changing gender roles correspond to the relaxing attitudes towards drinking and the increase of alcohol abuse during the past years.
An additional strength of this text is Gamburd’s employment of current scholarship on alcohol use to inform her analysis. Including cross-cultural comparisons, the author demonstrates how the use of alcohol exists in many cultures, but the motivation, methods, and perception of drinking varies. Of considerable interest are the varying views of alcoholism. In Western societies, alcoholism is conceived of as a disease. However, in Sri Lanka, the disease conception is rejected; “villagers therefore view alcohol-dependent individuals as morally weak” (183). This rejection of alcoholism as a disease complicates how individuals address alcohol abuse. Villagers seek out various approaches such as medical treatment and religious rituals to combat this problem. The inclusion of Kali rituals as a deterrent is particularly fascinating. Kali worship, considered socially unacceptable in certain segments of society, occasionally requires alcohol to invoke and converse with the goddess. To pledge sobriety to her is ironic and leads to questions about religious and ethnic identity in the village.
This insightful ethnography has a few drawbacks. While the author identifies the conception of the problem, she fails to suggest a possible approach or solution. Additionally, the text suffers from its limited examination of the issue of Sri Lankan identity and its civil war. Besides a few cursory mentions of the war, the author assumes the reader is acquainted and understands the struggle for a unified Sri Lankan identity. This raises questions regarding whether and how the dispute of the national identity is played out in drinking. While this text cannot address every angle of drinking in depth, the reader should remain aware that this ethnography examines effects in a Sinhala-Buddhist village; otherwise, the reader is liable to view Naeaegama as representative of all Sri Lanka, which may not be accurate. Moreover, the reader would have benefited from a deeper analysis of the religious dimension of alcohol consumption in connection to ethnic identity. Gamburd does include stories of how Buddhist text has been used to condemn and condone alcohol, but what are the implications of seeking sobriety through a Hindu goddess?
Regardless of these minor criticisms, this well-written book will appeal to an audience beyond the anthropological. The project may have been motivated by personal reasons, but the author successfully produced an objective book that will be an excellent text to teach. Her use of theory is productive and graspable. It also provides an excellent entry into Sri Lankan culture and society in addition to an introduction to the pertinent literature and debates concerning drinking behavior and habits. Gamburd has achieved a text that demonstrates the value of ethnography beyond the discipline where “[its] findings can prove useful in crafting treatment and public health initiatives” (6).

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Chinese Street Opera in Singapore
By Tong Soon Lee. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, January 2009. Cloth:
ISBN 978-0252032462, $40. 232 pages.
Review by Justin Patch, University of Texas, Austin
The small city-state of Singapore is both politically and culturally unique in South Asia. It has a history as the trade gateway between South East and East Asia before and throughout its colonial period, and as such has long been a cosmopolitan site. Following its independence from colonial power Great Britain, Singapore was briefly part of Malaysia before seceding and becoming autonomous. This then began an ongoing nation-building process which has been heavily influenced by the drive to be a modern nation by Western definition and affective ex-patriot ties to China. This situation is unique among recent post-colonial movements because it combines separation from a colonizing nation with explicit affective and cultural ties to a kind of “parent nation.” Singapore’s continuing transformation bears the marks of its racial makeup of an ethnically Chinese majority (75% in 2005), followed by Indian, Malay, and European minorities, and includes struggles over language, political power, public culture, and artistic expression.
Tong Soon Lee takes up the pivotal role of Chinese Street Opera, a performance practice that has existed in Singapore since at least the mid-19th century, in the complex development of Singaporean modernity. His monograph, Chinese Street Opera in Singapore, focuses on two different, competing performance traditions: that of professionals and that of amateur groups or clubs. These two practices vary greatly in performance practice, context, and social discourse. In Singapore’s post-colonial modernizing process, professional opera has progressively withered, with the exception of specifically patronized temple performances around religious holidays, while amateur opera proliferated and has become a signifier of Singapore-ness as well as a state-sponsored cultural and tourist activity. Much of this owes to the social position of performers of both traditions – professionals being poorly educated and of a low class, and amateurs being middle- to upper-class and well educated – and to Confucian aesthetics, which place value on arts performed for personal development and communal edification. These aesthetics dovetail with the Singaporean government’s ideal of citizenship – well-educated, altruistic, cultured, and with a sense of history. In this case, Chinese opera -- even when modified to accommodate modern Singaporean populations, like stories from the Ramayana and English recitative, as is sometimes the case with modern performances -- is representative of high and profound artistic tradition. This resonance has resulted in government-funded opportunities for amateur troops to perform for their communities and tourists and provided them with state recognition. It has effectively sidelined professional performers, reinforced their low status, and closed off important venues for transcending their low social class.
The book begins with a brief history of Singapore and Chinese emigration, as well as an overview of Chinese operatic style and development, with particular attention paid to Fujian and Chouzhou, the two dominant styles in Singapore. It then moves on to describe the histories of both professional opera and amateur performances through the myriad social transformations that Singapore has gone through over the past century and a half. Lee also includes brief ethnographic sections, an in-depth analysis of the impact of Confucian aesthetics on Singaporean Opera performance discourse, and the most social theory-laden chapter in the book, which is the conclusion. Organized into six short chapters and written in narrative style, Street Opera presents both a good thumbnail overview of the music culture of opera as well as in-depth looks at recent developments in the two genres and changing performance practice and discourse.
This particular book’s most important contribution to the field of study is the excellent chapter on the impact of Confucian aesthetics. Lee lucidly summarizes Confucian teachings on self-improvement, the value of altruistic and avocational artistic pursuits, and the links between the social organization of Chinese clan associations and their modern incarnation as amateur opera groups. The growth of these clubs also coincides with the massive economic growth experienced by Singapore in the decades after independence. With increased prosperity, patronage of amateur troops in the form of subscriptions and donations grew, enabling the staging of elaborate and ornate shows. Even though the talent of the hobbyists could not rival that of professional troupes, may of whom have trained full-time since late childhood for operatic performance (this is the primary reason for their poor education), these productions have gained a privileged place in social life because of their appeal to Confucian aesthetics, which were adopted by the state. By these aesthetics, art and artistic involvement is best done as a serious hobby, art for contemplation and its altruistic display for the greater public good. Art and performance that is aimed at the open market and done for profit is deemed less worthy, as are its practitioners who must compromise artistic pursuit for popular appeal. As a result, these groups are seen to embody the ideal Singaporean.
While the book is an enjoyable read and historically well-researched, there are a few holes that leave relevant considerations untouched. Lee leaves the public hegemony of ex-patriot Chinese culture unquestioned in regard to minority populations. Although he gives ample reason as to why amateur opera and its Confucian ideals appeal to the state, he does not interrogate the blanketing of Singaporean citizenship in what are essentially imported values that are openly associated with China or the appropriations of Western notions of citizenship. He also does not provide detailed description of the types of amalgamations that occur and the cultural politics of these hybrid forms and appropriations, especially in relation to the incorporation of Hindu lore into Chinese opera, the thought of which is extremely interesting. The structure of the book is also unexpected, as the theory chapter is saved for last. While this does leave room for the reader to process the given information first before encountering Lee’s conclusions, it leaves the frame of the book, especially the relevance of tourism in the creation of national identity, vague. However, for a student of the de- and re-territorialization of Chinese culture, both in performance and philosophically, and of Singaporean nationalism, this book is extremely relevant and accessible to non-musicians.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Modern Noise, Fluid Genres: Popular Music in Indonesia, 1997-2001. By Jeremy Wallach. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, October 2008. Cloth: ISBN 978-0-299-22900-9, $50.00; paper: ISBN 978-0-299-22904-7, $24.95. 320 pages. CD included.

Review by Matthew J. Forss, Goddard College, Vermont

In Modern Noise, Fluid Genres, Jeremy Wallach provides an ethnographic and historical study of music and its cultural and social significance in Jakarta, Indonesia from 1997-2001. Drawing upon nearly 250 different reference sources, Wallach “aims to examine the processes of production, dissemination, replication, and interpretation of popular musics in Indonesia by tracing how these processes implicate and connect producers, performers, and listeners – all of whom play an active, creative role in the ongoing circulation of musical culture” (4). Essentially, this book’s approach to musical ethnography examines the “lives and concerns of actual people involved in the various stages of those cultural processes” (5). In contrast, previous studies have mainly examined cultural music from a “macro-level” or “transglobal” perspective. Of course, Wallach’s study is not meant to be an authority on global music discourse, but rather a specialized examination of local musical identity and culture, which provides a framework to study the “Indonesian-ness” of the music and its people.
After a short twenty-five-page introduction on the impact of political and social regimes on the music of the 1960’s through 1990’s, Wallach covers several different types of music genres in chapter one. The genres of pop barat (Western pop music), pop Indonesia (Western-influenced pop music), dangdut (Arabic/Indian/Malaysian pop music), musik daerah (regional music), and musik underground (metal/grunge/gothic) are described, as are several sub-genres. Importantly, these musical genres are explored in the modern post-Soeharto era, after years of oppressive sensibilities toward anything loosely defined as “non-Indonesian music.” Wallach does not investigate the more familiar, at least for Western audiences, genre of gamelan or court music.
Chapter two delves deeper into the inner workings of Jakartanese living. Wallach more than adequately describes the sights, sounds, and social developments throughout the city – paying close attention to examples of modernity, gender roles, and Internet cafes. Wallach does a fine job of pointing out the benefit in conducting an ethnographic study of musical culture that considers the continual flow of social experiences into living conditions and musical performance. In other words, musical investigation should be, and here is, carried out in an open system of ever-changing social, political, and religious constructs.
One of the highlights of this book includes a well-researched section in chapter three on cassette retail outlets. Such outlets include cassette stalls, mall stores, “large” music stores, reverse outfits of underground music, and mobile music vendors. This is a rather understudied arena, but nonetheless important area for any study of musical cultures and consumer culture. Wallach explores the retail business of music where a plethora of information on socioeconomics, consumer behavior, musical genres, and “metaculture” (culture about culture) can be obtained. Two pages are also devoted to cassette piracy and its impact on the commercial and underground music industry.
Chapter four covers sound production as part of the studio recording experience. Examples of recording techniques, problems, and organization of the musical recording experience are discussed, with special attention given to instruments, language, technologies, and cosmopolitanism. Chapter five examines the role of music videos as a form of musical expression and national identity. One highlight is Wallach’s study of a music video shoot that ended up with his being in the video for “Cahaya Bulan” (“Moonlight”), by the group Netral. Here, the reader is given a diary of sorts explaining the tiresome and somewhat dangerous act of filming a music video. However, Wallach always incorporates the larger picture of musical culture by noting social views on violence, cultural expression, ethics, sociality, and iconography.
Chapter six draws attention to the music constructed and performed in less structured environments in informal contexts. In essence, Wallach investigates the ethnography of “hanging out” and the social expression of playing music for fun. The primary reason for performing music in this context is that it creates a sense of commonality between individuals and a spirit of camaraderie. In a similar manner, Wallach spends a good deal of chapter seven on live musical expression from the streets of Jakarta to large stadium rock concerts. The performance style of dangdut music encapsulates the content of chapter eight. Dangdut incorporates a “gendang, suling, two electric guitars, electric bass guitar, two electronic keyboards, tambourine, trap drum…in some cases, electrified mandolin…or a brass section” (190). Other styles, such as rock and pop, are covered in chapter nine. This chapter explores other live venues and arenas of musical culture. For example, cafes and student-organized events, and the role of women and performance are also explained. The lesser-known style, at least for Westerners, may be Indonesia’s underground music scene. Chapter ten looks at this music and associated aesthetics of musical performance, including moshing, dancing, lifestyles, and issues associated with inclusionary expression. In summary, Wallach concludes, “[I]t is more appropriate to view Indonesian popular musics from dangdut to underground, as soundtracks for hanging out with others than as facilitators of private, contemplative listening” (251). In other words, “musical encounters are usually social affairs, and they derive their meanings and emotional resonance from intersubjective experiences” (251).
Overall, Wallach provides the reader with an in-depth, ethnographical study of musical cultures of Jakarta. For good or bad, Wallach also incorporates a lot of Indonesian words throughout the book, which may be distracting to some. However, every word is defined to prevent confusion. Appendix A and C provide additional notes on language usage, while Appendix B focuses on other Indonesian music genres. A helpful glossary is included with notes to each chapter. A CD is included and features six popular music tracks representing dangdut, pop alternatif, and underground music styles. Unfortunately, the lyrics to the songs are not included, but could have been beneficial for the reader. That being said, this is a highly recommended text for undergraduate and graduate students in Southeast Asian music, or anyone interested in Indonesian popular music in particular.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Confronting Iran: The Failure of American Foreign Policy and the Next Great Conflict in the Middle East. By Ali M. Ansari. New York: Basic Books, June 2006. Cloth: ISBN 0-465-00350-8, $28.00. 280 pages.
Review by Babak Rahimi, University of California, San Diego

The timely publication of Confronting Iran by Ali Ansari fills the longstanding need for a fair and balanced study of Iran’s complex relations with the US. With the aim of challenging both common perceptions on Iranian foreign policy and offering important solutions to the brewing crisis that is unfolding before our eyes, Ansari has arguably written the best political analysis yet on the subject. In this engaging and erudite work, Ansari lays out the whole story of Iran-US relations in the context of an ambiguous history of friendship and antagonism, a history entangled with the legacy of European imperialists who competed for control over the country in the last hundred years.Ansari’s argument develops over seven chapters and starts with a lucid and lively introduction. Chapter one begins by placing America’s original encounter with Iran in the context of a complicated historical setting of the nineteenth century, with British and Russian imperialists as major forces that competed for control over Iran’s domestic politics under the Qajars. Chapter two is another lively and lucid depiction of Iranian attitudes toward the West, mainly in terms of the US-led coup that toppled Mossadeq’s democratically-elected government in 1953. Chapter three focuses on Iran-US relations in the 1960s and 1970s, during which the Pahlavi authoritarian modernization and American support for Shah’s military ambitions played a major role in the eruption of the Iranian revolution in 1979.Chapter four carries the arguments made in the previous chapters by describing the development of American-Iranian relations from the seizure of the US embassy in 1979 to the ratification of the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA) by the Congress under Clinton’s administration in the latter half of the 1990s. Chapter five presents perhaps the best analysis in the book, as Ansari offers a detailed and well-written account of the post-Rafsanjai era that saw the rise of the Reformist movement led by Mohammad Khatami after the presidential election of 1997 and its impact on the evolution of Iran-US relations. Chapter six, “Iran-US relations in the Shadow of 9/11,” underlines the consequences of the policy of disengagement in the late Khatami era, as the Bush administration continued to show similar signs of animosity and suspicion toward Iran after the tragedy of September 11, 2001.In the following chapter, “Nuclear Politics,” Ansari provides another articulate account of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and the consequences of the 2004 parliamentary and the 2005 presidential elections that introduced a new era of hardliner politics to post-revolutionary Iran. The conclusion, likewise, offers valuable insights in overcoming a shared culture of mistrust built around the ethos of confrontation that has so far defined Iran-US relations. One significant suggestion that Ansari offers for this problem is the restructuring of the foreign policy establishment and its bureaucratic apparatus, which tend to allocate important positions to generalists and those who have no specialized training in a particular region.There is really only one major objection to be made to this otherwise outstanding work. Ansari’s depiction of the relationship between religion and secularism in contemporary Iranian society is superficial and even contradictory. At times, he seems to accept the (unsubstantiated) argument that Iranian society is now in the gradual process of secularization. The evidence provided for secularization is tenuous; Ansari fails to show how Iranian society has indeed attained a more secular sphere of life, despite the assertion that many Iranians express less an “interest in organized religion” (228). In reality, the absence of “interest” in established religion does not necessarily signal secularization, a major point that is missed by Ansari. Yet at the same time, in another section (235), Ansari seems to also accept the notion that Iranian society maintains a fundamental “religious purpose” in a way that Americans can also appreciate, since they also share this cultural trait. With this claim, it seems as though Ansari is trying to appease two different Western audiences at once: secular Europeans and religious Americans. However, without a sound conceptual and empirical analysis of secularization in post-revolutionary Iran, Ansari is unable to provide a truly cohesive description of religion in its diverse public and private forms, and its significance in transforming state, society, and Iran-Western relations.What this book most convincingly demonstrates is the need for a political cultural milieu of understanding and rational communication rather than ideological antagonism based on emotions and mythical understanding of self and other. Support for confrontation through either sanction or military force, however, remains strong. In academia alone, a number of scholars, especially hawkish leftist scholars such as Azar Nafisi and Abbas Millani, continue to defend the policy of disengagement, suggesting that to question this approach would qualify one as a supporter of the Islamic Republic. In stark contrast, Ansari’s book offers a powerful reply to such confrontational ideology and its insular solution to the current standoff. Such ideology unfortunately appears to impact the American public sphere much in the way Iraqi exile groups did in the years prior to the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Ansari’s basic message is simple but profound: in order to avoid conflict one must disengage from a narrow-minded mentality of disengagement.What Ansari achieves in this book is a sober, critical narrative that transcends the discursive limitations of ideological thinking and the blind fixture of partisan politics, and he is to be congratulated for such an exemplary effort. The more we genuinely seek to reach a less antagonist approach, the more works like Confronting Iran can help us find ways to tackle the challenge of diplomacy over confrontation.