Performing the Iranian 2009 Show-Trials in the Theatre of History
Setareh Shohadaei
University of Ottawa

In the beginning, there was protest and then theatre. No -- there was theatre and then protest. Yes: in the beginning, there was the word. Though I'm not sure whether it was a word of protest or poetry, which then turned to theatre. Anyway, for our purposes, the beginning will begin from the place where I decide to delineate time as history, before which nothing mattered and after which only that which I delineate matters. So in 2009 there was protest; the theatre followed, albeit the theatricality of the protest itself. There was a slight twist: this piece of theatre convinced no audience and thus played no obvious function. L'art pour l'art? Not exactly. Politics for the sake of politics? As if the first set of politics would not take hostage, host, and hostilify time and space for the second. As if this hostage crisis would not be yet another performative act changing the nature of that which it performs. As if we're not still in Iran. For our purposes, Iran will be defined as the stage of politics proper, where we push the violence backstage in order to perform a coherent time in a coherent space. Ladies, gentlemen, and the in-betweens, I welcome you to Iran. Haha!

Once upon a time in Iran, in a city called Moscow and a year called 1936, in a play called terror, an actor enacted the word, the word from the script of history. Some years later some Iranian philosopher named Merleau-Ponty recognized the script and named it terror. "History is terror," he wrote, because by the laws of progress it forecloses the many possibilities of a future-to-come [1]. He thus recognized the confessions of our actor, Mr. Nicolai Bukharin, not as false but as sincere in their acceptance of guilt in the court of history -- as coherently scripted.

Some years later, still in Iran, the Iranian revolutionary court staged the same play, in the court of history, for history as audience, with historical actors. A "theatre of cruelty"? Not exactly... perhaps one of coherence. The theatrical translation between Moscow and Tehran is interesting here. Time as teleological, eschatological, and progressive was doubly mirrored between the earth and the sky: historical materialism in the bottom, Shii Mahdism on top, ideology in the horizon. What the theatre dreams is the favour of history as justice, justice as law, law as force, force as victory. Regardless of all living incoherence, the future not-to-come must be coherently performed in the present for the present will not be written beyond history. We are in Iran after all.

But time is still out of joint, said Derrida once reading Shakespeare. The spectacle, though, is a familiar one, not only because of Hamlet, not just from Moscow, but also because of the commodity on stage, that other ruling automatic automaton on display, performing for history. Yes: in the beginning, there was theatre, theatre as coup, a coup-de-théâtre that put the spectre under the spotlight. But the experts are still in dispute as to whether the apparition of the spectre was due to the spotlight or to the "enhanced interrogation techniques" of the philosopher. Regardless, the spectre stands on stage; it speaks to, relates to, the other not just bound by time, but by penetrating the time of the other, that other self, into the time of the present, a time out of joint. Quid pro quo: a theatrical term signalling the mistaken substitution of actors, characters, dialogues, things; "repetition upon the perverse intervention of a prompter," Derrida writes [2]. It has to do with "the abnormal play of mirrors." The court itself is a mirror and so is the confessor-commodity in its form, but "since all of a sudden it no longer plays its role, since it does not reflect back the expected image, those who are looking for themselves can no longer find themselves in it," neither the confessors nor the audience [3]. For how does one recognize a ghost? Derrida answers: "by the fact that it does not recognize itself in a mirror." The mirrors are inversed, reversed, cancelled, to create the simulacrum in the simulacra of sovereignty without end. This phantomalization, this apparition of the absurd, is a realization: it is the truth, the truth of violence. "It shows by hiding" [4].

As truth, the historic phantasmagoria carries out its function to the fullest. It instils fear, terrorizes, and haunts, not only the audience, but also the actors of the play -- provided that we accept the distinction between the two. But the spectral object of the confession also haunts its "possessors" and its "guardians," the guardians of the revolutionary promise, indeed the Revolutionary Guards. For what are the show-trials but a hauntology of history itself: the "becoming-ghost... of a man who became frightened of his own ghost, a constitutive fear of the concept that he formed of himself and thus of his whole history as a man" [5]? It is this hauntology of history and its victor, and thus its subject, that dislocates it from linear time, from its messianism, teleology, progress, and end, ironically within the very theatre of historical production itself. If the trial performs the haunting of history, for history exceeds itself at any time through the spectre, then it has no limit: "the limits of phatasmagorization can no longer be controlled or fixed by simple opposition of presence and absence" [6]. This delimitation of history through the apparition of the absurd, this very offstage violence of the time that coheres, enforced by law precisely for history, for its judgement, is a moment, not an originary moment, but a time that re-opens the field for justice and a democracy-to-come, both "conceptually and really," for it is within the horizon [7].

No: In the beginning, there was -- there is -- coherence.


[1] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Humanism and Terror: An Essay on the Communist Problem, trans. John ONeill, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969), 94.

[2] Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International, trans. Peggy Kamuf (New York and London: Routledge, 1994), 242.

[3] Ibid, 195.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid. 159.

[6] Ibid, 204.

[7] Ibid, 205.

Works Cited

Derrida, Jacques. 1994. Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International. Translated by Peggy Kamuf. New York and London: Routledge.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 1969. Humanism and Terror: An Essay on the Communist Problem. Translated by John ONeill. Boston: Beacon Press.


Setareh Shohadaei is a doctoral student in Political Theory at the University of Ottawa currently researching the theatricality of the political.

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