Personal media as a political tool. The case of Iran.


Book review on ¨Blogistan: The Internet and Politics in Iran¨

During the past few decades the Internet has been hailed as a major force behind social movements. Whether it is the Zapatistas, the Arab Spring or Occupy Wall Street, techno-utopians worldwide have seen the Internet as a civilizatory tool that will democratize political power and spread progress globally. It is within this context that the 2009 uprisings against Ahmadinejad were hailed as the first Internet Revolution. The book “Blogistan: the Internet and Politics in Iran” seeks to contextualize these claim,  in order to reveal the everyday political atmosphere that lay behind such a massive uprising.

According to the authors, while the Internet did create an extension of the Iranian public sphere, the changes that it brought did not take place in a void. As highly located practices, Internet surveillance remained deeply affected by the nature of the Islamic Republic’s censorship policies.

In order to understand the so-called “Green Revolution” we must locate the Internet in the sphere of Iran’s ongoing political process. By doing so we also understand the important role that women’ blogs had as spaces for contestations. As a response to Iran’s sexual apartheid, the blogs were opaque ways to question the regime’s values. The telling of personal stories and the sharing of seemingly apolitical content helps these women reclaim agency for themselves in the midst of policies that seeks to deny their status as citizens.

According to the book, the Internet has been severely condition within the  Islamic Republic. The Republic has enforced a form of “cultural revolution” that involves high levels of moral policing. The government has tried to control means of communication through different types of policies–existent broadcast organizations, for example, have been heavily centralized by the state. As in other totalitarian regimes, media outlets function as the voices for the official authority—in Iran, the media is used to spread what the regime thinks are “Islamic values”.

As communication scholars have noted, usage of the Internet within Iran ranks amongst the highest in the Middle Eastu. The connection however, is severely strained by large problems of infrastructural development. Like the rest of the world, the price for a connection is regulated by market prices–but the problem is that Iran’s condition of a peripheral country does not allow the prices of connection to go down. Even if the prices were to go down the Iranian’s state is heavy–although fragmentary– involved in controlling the Internet. The author’s provide a wide array of examples of these forms of mechanisms, be it the heavy paperwork needed to run an Internet cafe or the shutting down of websites and subsequent jailing of bloggers.

The authors turn to Gramsci’s idea of the organic intellectual to explain the role of blogging in Iran. According to Gramsci, everyone in society can perform the role of an intellectual. In order to do so, however, they must be deeply engaged in intellectual labor–this means critiquing and providing perspectives on important issues of the public sphere.

In Iran, bloggers are these forms of intellectuals but their level of political involvement can be opaque: “in a context where the boundaries of public taste and morality are so heavily and literally policed, refusal to accept those definitions can take on political meanings”  (p. 47). In certain situations, talking about personal manners can be a highly political act. Thus, a medium does not have to be explicitly political to perform as a political medium.

Given the political environment of Iran, it is not surprising that women’s blogs who have been so active.  The politics of sexual apartheid have sought to remove women from any sort of public discussion. Through the telling of personal stories, women have been able to express ownership of their identities. By expressing intimate desires they have come to reinstate their sense of agency.

This study expands our knowledge of media in social practice in many ways. Firstly it allows us to locate the public sphere between state and market dynamics. As we have seen, the particular mixture of such forces affects the content of what is actually being talked about. Secondly, there is the idea that, in moments of extreme policing, the most personal forms of self-expression can turn political. Last, but not least, is the concept of intellectual labor, which allows us o understand the critical importance of civic forms of self-expression.

 Iran is experiencing a growing tension between what is seen as the civic, democratizing aspects of Internet and the state’s concern of maintaining a hegemonic Islamic public sphere.  By exploring the Iranian blogosphere, these authors are able to give us a view of a cosmopolitan, intellectual and modern nation that is engaged in an internal war.

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