Wednesday Lunch on “The Iranian Metaphysicals” by Alireza Doostdar


[INTERPOSING VOICES] PRESENTER: Hello, everybody! Welcome to today’s Wednesday
lunch, Harvard Divinity School. Thank you all for coming. I hope to see this many of you
at every lunch in the future. I’m Athena, Goddess of War. I work [INAUDIBLE]. If you haven’t paid
me my tribute today, you can see me later. Otherwise, some
unfortunate circumstances may befall you later. Before we started, I want to
thank our crew who are students here as well as
our head chef Dalia right there, who’s prepared
all this food [INAUDIBLE].. [APPLAUSE] So we do ask that you clean up
after yourselves on your way out. We’re composting now. It’s that white bucket. Just put any compostable
things in there. And then put your silverware
in our yellow soapy vats and the rest of your
stuff in the garbage. That really helps us
out to get cleaned up. If you could also just
turn your cell phone ringers off before we
get started with teaching [? a class. ?] And I also
want to let you quickly know about next week’s
Wednesday launch, which is going to have–
we’re going to have two of our associate
professors here. They’re going to be speaking
about their new [INAUDIBLE] project on– I’m just going to say one
word [INAUDIBLE] magic. So yeah, so those are
Professors [INAUDIBLE] and Charles [INAUDIBLE]. Please see our website or see
me or see a poster or something if you don’t know
about this lunch so you can sign up
for that as well. But today’s lunch is one
of our dean’s forums. We have the [INAUDIBLE]. I’m just going to
introduce our speakers, and then I’m going to
turn it over to our dean because [INAUDIBLE] forum. Our speakers for today, we
have three faculty members who are going to address you– Dan Arnold, Associate Professor
of Philosophy of Religions. He’s a scholar of Indian
Buddhist philosophy, [INAUDIBLE] constructive
and comparative way– Sara Hammerschlag, who is
Associate Professor of Religion and Literature,
Philosophy of Religion, and History of Judaism. She works at the crossroads
of all of those disciplines. And of course, Alireza Doostdar,
who is the author of the book we’re going to be discussing. He’s assistant professor
of Islamic studies and the Anthropology
of Religion. You guys maybe want to
[INAUDIBLE] your chairs. But first, let me also introduce
our dean, David Nirenberg, Dean of the Divinity School
and Executive Vice Provost of the University
and the Deborah R. and Edgar D. Jannotta
Distinguished Service Professor of Medieval
History and Social Thought. So please just join me
in welcoming [INAUDIBLE].. DAVID NIRENBERG: Don’t
forget your shield. PRESENTER: I shall not. DAVID NIRENBERG: Thanks
very much for coming. It’s wonderful to see so many
of you at a dean’s forum. A dean’s forum is our antidote
to the curse of the humanist. The curse of the humanist
is melancholy, solitude, and hyper-specialization. So it’s a triple-barreled curse. And in the dean’s form,
as in so many things we do at the Divinity School,
we overcome that curse by bringing together
diversity of intellects. Now, we should have done it– we should do it actually while
the books are in progress, not just wait until the end. But we also do
that in other fora. And so today, we’re going to
have a very heterogeneous group unified only by a
common brilliance and by membership in
the divinity school to talk about Alireza’s
wonderful book, which is also– it’s not about magic, but
it’s about an associated set of phenomena. So first will be Sara and
then Dan and then Alireza. And I’m going to shut
up and sit right there in that [INAUDIBLE]. SARA HAMMERSCHLAG:
Thanks, David. It was a real pleasure
to get this assignment. I’m going to mostly
give you guys something like a synopsis of
the book and then ask some questions of Alireza. So Alireza Doostdar’s book,
Iranian Metaphysicals– Exploitation in Science,
Islam, and the Uncanny, is rare among academic
monographs in that it does more than it purports to do. That is to say, this examination
of the rationalization processes that have accompanied
occult, metaphysical practices in contemporary Iran
not only elucidates a rich and multifaceted topic– it raises crucial questions
about the limits of empiricism, the vertiginous processes
of [INAUDIBLE] endemic to modern existence, the
psychological complexity of something as seemingly
simple as seeing, and the deep [? embarkation ?]
of the personal and the political in
our most basic choices. And if I had another
hour, I would examine each of these
separately and how they worked [INAUDIBLE] the book. But I actually– it was
really hard to limit what I wanted to
say about this book because there’s so
much good on it. All this while providing a
lucid and elucidating portrait of the moderate Iranian Shia
landscape and its dialectically fraught relation
with the rationality of Western science– it’s also, I’ve
got to say, really, really fun to me, which, again,
rare among academic books. I come to this book neither
as an anthropologist nor as a scholar of Islam. And To be honest,
I often expect, when reading books
far out of my field, to feel that I’m
in another country. And I felt that
way here as well, both because Doostdar’s
research was conducted primarily in contemporary Tehran, but more
so because of the experiences that are narrated in the book–
exorcism, sorcery, seances. And they feel to me like the
stuff of fiction and film– phenomena that I’m used to
relegating not only to history, but most often to
fictionalized history. But as we venture into
the occult with Doostdar, such easy dismissals become
harder and harder to justify. Not only is it clear
that such phenomena are not the stuff of
the mythical past– in fact, in the cultural
spheres Doostdar explores in Iranian
Metaphysicals, they are produced by the various
forces of modernization, supported by the
tools of science, and justified through
our commitment to forms of empiricism. As Doostdar establishes
throughout the world, what we often tacitly
referred to in the singular as reason is not only multiple– it also refers to
historically contingent forms of reflexivity– and
that’s a quote of Alireza [INAUDIBLE] which can be put
to use from multiple, often contrarian, purposes. The encounter with the
uncanny [INAUDIBLE] is important here not
as a sphere thus outside of [INAUDIBLE]
purview but as a means to elucidate its multiplicity. Phenomena– just quickly
go through the book’s three sections. It also has a lot of chapters
for an academic book. Many first books often
have five chapters because many distributions
have five chapters. And this book has, what, 20? 27? ALIREZA DOOSTDAR: [INAUDIBLE] SARA HAMMERSCHLAG:
I’d [? even divide ?] into sections of three– three sections. So in each of the
three sections, we encounter a different sphere
of the uncanny and with it different uses to which its
justification and instrumental have been claimed. The first section
focuses on the figure of the occult
specialist, the rammal, long understood to be a shady
character but only relatively recently the object
of intense state and social control in Iran. The rammals claimed to be
able to contact and manipulate djinn, spirits
acknowledged by the Quran, represent a threat
to the authority of clerical leadership. And thus, the policing
of this power functions to distinguish between state
sanctioned religious authority and that which by being
deemed outside that sphere can be relegated to the
status of superstition. As the chapters in this
session illustrate, however, it is
exactly the attention paid to these cult practitioners
by the law that intensifies the threat of their power. Even those who dismiss
the occult specialists as charlatans are
haunted by their claims. In one chapter, we hear
about [INAUDIBLE] police officer legally bound to enforce
the legislation criminalizing the occult professions who has,
in fact, consulted a rammal to solve a difficult crime. In another, we need a
well-educated young woman of science, Mersedeh, a
master’s student of psychology, whose interest in the occult
had come from a consultation with a rammal who
cured her of eczema by freeing her from a
bewitchment of which she’d previously been unaware. But in cultivating her own
interest in the occult, she fashions herself
a practitioner of the metaphysical,
but a scientific one in contradistinction to the
rammal who deals in, quote, “superstition.” Interestingly, this
[INAUDIBLE] her experiences with the metaphysical serve
as a means to set herself up as a moderate free thinker,
skeptical of the authority of the Quran. The second section deals
most explicitly with the role of modern science as
a means to validate occult practices or
verifiable practices and sometimes to debunk them. As Doostdar shows
in the chapters on the history of
Iranian spiritualism, the practice of
communing with the dead initiate a complex
interaction between traditional Islam reason,
modern empiricism, and metaphysical
experimentation. Depending on who was
doing the investigating, these systems sometimes
supported each other and sometimes competed. As the Ayatollah
Khomeini, for example, reports of hypnotism
and seances– the Ayatollah
Khomeini, for example, reports of hypnotism
and stances help scientifically verify truths
already revealed by revelation. But for others, they either
provide a path to free thinking or need to be debunked for
their dangerous [INAUDIBLE].. In each case, Doostdar shows how
the attraction of these three discourses illuminates
their social function. While knowledge and truth
are purportedly the goal, Doostdar suggests
in these chapters that this aim is, in fact,
often instrumental, subordinate to the goal of moral
formation, therapeutic ends, and social control. The reason, Doostdar
suggests, gives way to the process of
rationalization, and Doostdar’s text
sometimes seems to want to erase any clear
distinction between the two. In the third section,
Doostdar turns his attention to holy men, or friends
of God– figures whose great feats of
asceticism and demonstrations of personal power make
them objects of emulation but which became in the period
following the Iran-Iraq War means by which the
state cultivated an image of acceptable
Shia spirituality. These figures partly
represent a stable source for moral guidance,
however, as they bring to light the
[? vertiginous ?] process of moral discernments
and the real desire for certainty unmediated
by human intervention. While such concerns are
endemic to the quest for piety, they have been exacerbated,
Doostdar suggests, by the multiple
socioeconomic forces animating the post-revolutionary
Iranian society. As a reader of the
book, I sympathized with the seekers looking for
the consolation of authority. For Doostdar, the
masterful guide to the world of the
occult in modern Iran, insists on illuminating
conflicts and complex interplay of systems and meaning
in the world he describes rather than providing a
monolithic interpretation. Of course, this is to
his scholarly credit, but it has left me
with a few questions. So the first is about– I’m going to address
these to you [INAUDIBLE].. The first is about your
position as anthropologist in this world. In the introduction,
you describe your stance as something like
cautious distance or even anthropological atheism. And yet the accounts themselves
seem far more agnostic insofar as they foreground the
self understanding of the– can you hear me? Insofar as they foreground
the self understanding of the practitioners themselves
and situate you most often in the position of
receptive audience. And yet, there is this
one moment in chapter 17 where you out yourself to
[INAUDIBLE] and in fact describe yourself as offering
arguments against the existence of inorganic beings. Why is this the
[INAUDIBLE],, and how are we to understand this intervention
in light of your self positioning
[INAUDIBLE] accounts? Moreover, how does
your purported capacity to judge in this
case impact how we are to adjudicate between
rationalization and reason? You describe rationality
as historically contextualized and contingent. And yet, the
underlying skepticism you resort to now
and again implies some underlying
standard of adjudication that you hold at
least for yourself. Can you talk a
bit more about how you were able to separate your
own argument of rationality from your particular stance? I’m also interested in
your use of the terms edgy and avant garde
throughout the text. These terms, I think– and I’m happy to be
contested about this. But I think they imply an
underlying progressive logic that suggests that the
expansion of reason isn’t advanced,
especially [INAUDIBLE] the avant garde You make
clear that this is not an intellectual framework
that you accept. So how do these
concepts function for us in the new [INAUDIBLE] paradigm? My last question is
about chapter eight. So I found this
chapter intriguing because of my own
work because it explores a playful in aesthetic
approach to the metaphysical and describes wonder as
one consequence of such an approach. One does not have to be
credulous to be entertained. I happened to be teaching
[INAUDIBLE] last week and noted the way
in which [INAUDIBLE] such a playful
approach by definition marks the boundary
between what is and isn’t a religious stance. Do you mark that
boundary as well? Chapter one seems to suggest
that the borders are actually harder to discern. Is this a boundary too that you
would want to learn boundaries? So I’ll hand it over to Dan. DAN ARNOLD: I am
grateful to Sara for having given a
summary of the book because I don’t have
any mind to do so. So the fact that she did
so is extremely helpful. What I have in mind
to do is especially to maybe develop an angle on
the first kind of question she put to Alireza
in concluding. This is the second
time I read this book. I read it in manuscript
a couple of years ago, and it’s really a pleasure
to read, as Sara said. And she’s quite right. It’s an eminently readable
book, quite unusually so for an academic book. And it’s hard not
to be captivated by all the keenly observed
and beautifully written anthropological case studies. And it really is fascinating
to read of a world in which even some of your
[INAUDIBLE] intellectuals who figure in history of
Iran’s Islamist revolution traveled to Europe in the late
19th and early 20th century to study mesmerism, spiritism,
theosophy, and the like and also to study empirical
sciences, and fascinating as well to read that this
was a combination of intra [INAUDIBLE] that thinkers
of this [INAUDIBLE] would not necessarily have found
in tension with one another. This is not
coincidentally perhaps the same period, the late
19th century, [INAUDIBLE],, when the discipline
of psychology first emerges as an
academic discipline. And that’s a discipline
whose emergence is arguably characterized by a real anxiety
to show that it is scientific and that psychology
makes the cut, and some of these
other traditions that [INAUDIBLE] don’t, is
itself an interesting fact. But for all that
Alireza’s book affords such fascinating glimpses of the
various kinds of contestation that have given rise
to and been comprised by the modern Iranian
state, the category most relevant to characterizing the
many orientations exhibited by his Iranian subjects,
the category most central here is rationality. In fact, I would say there
is an extent to which more than anything, this is really
a book about rationality, a book to that
extent that may find its place in the
kind of literature typified by a 1982 book called
Rationality and Relativism by Steven Hollis
and Martin Lukes, which, it comes out of a seminar
involving anthropologists and philosophers
trying to reconcile their different angles on
the question of rationality. And our own Jonathan
C. Smith is one of the interesting
contributors to the discourse I have in mind. And I’m thinking especially
of his essay “I Am a Parrot, Red,” which is
a study of scholarship and the history
of the discussion of primitive mentality. Centered on an 1894 report
from a Brazilian expedition by a certain Karl
von den Steinen, who wrote that the
Bororos of Brazil boast of themselves that
they are red parrots. And von den Steinen argue that,
no, they really think that. And Smith’s essay is concerned
with the thorny methodological question raised
by that reporting by the subsequent discussion
of [INAUDIBLE] that has much preoccupied anthropologists. Regarding
methodological question as Jonathan C.
Smith, writes, is, “how should the
historian of religion interpret a religious
statement which is apparently contrary to fact? The Bororo is not a parrot. As one psychiatrist
noted, presumably applying the ultimate test
of speciation, he does not try to mate
with other parakeets.” And any interpretation of
von den Steinen’s report must begin with
his primary fact. That is, [INAUDIBLE]
that sentence makes it tempting to ask whether
the primary factor with which you must begin is that
he is not a parrot or that he doesn’t try
to mate with parrots. At the end of Smith’s essay,
though, he doesn’t really settle the issue. [INAUDIBLE] if the point of
Jonathan C. Smith’s essay is mostly to raise the question. So he writes in concluding– this is Smith again– “the history of the exegesis
of the Bororo statement has driven us to raise the
question of truth, from which, as historians of religion,
we have largely abstained. When confronted with experiences
which appear contrary to fact, we have most usually bracketed
the question of veracity, prompting acidulous criticisms
from our more historically minded colleagues, while at
the very same time making grandiose, metaphysical
queries such as myth is true, which have irritated
our philosophical colleagues.” And I will attest
to the [INAUDIBLE].. [LAUGHTER] So [INAUDIBLE] Iranian
Metaphysicals quite squarely confronts such questions. Alireza’s book is perhaps
most concerned to resist the elite detractors of
occult experimentation who all share a crucial
assumption– the assumption, he writes, “that metaphysical
engagements they condemned were fundamentally unlike
their own pursuits.” This book, he writes,
argues the exact opposite– that metaphysical iniquities
of occult experimentalists, [? if you’re ?] [? quoting, ?]
and spiritual explorers are best understood in terms
of attempts to rationalize the unseen. [INAUDIBLE] intensive
rationalizing things involving [INAUDIBLE]
explicit reference to conceptions of reason,
intellect, and science. And to Alireza’s point,
to develop the idea that what these ideas mean– reason, intellect, and science– is itself something about
which there is [? often ?] reasoned disagreements. And he’s, I think by
principle, regarding his subjects as having
valid perspectives on that. So apropos, for
example, of one kind of anthropological approach
that has been tested in the past, an approach
that Alireza [INAUDIBLE] approach has two prima
facie irrational beliefs, [INAUDIBLE],, is one that
Alireza characterizes as the ontological turn,
which I would characterize as a pretty flat-footed sort
of relativism, an approach that allows that prima facie
irrational beliefs are to be understood as having
been placed in fundamentally different ontologies
to the extent that the people for whom
these things make sense live in different worlds. And Alireza quite aptly writes
that his interlocutors, and I quote, “would have
found it bewildering if I had suggested to him
that we somehow inhabited different realities.” I think in this regard of
my own finding [INAUDIBLE] successfully
overcoming relativism. I was once a dyed in the wool
anthropological relativist. And [INAUDIBLE] convinced that
the ethical motives behind that [INAUDIBLE],, the ethical
moves that involve, again, acknowledging the
rationality of other people, are really best served by
taking seriously their claims and disagreeing with them
where they seem problematic. So I think in this regard of the
[INAUDIBLE] Indian Buddhists I studied [INAUDIBLE]
respectful way and to engage them is to
understand [INAUDIBLE] making claims that they
think are really true. And the relativism was saying,
well, those are true for you, but they’re not true
for me [INAUDIBLE] with bafflement on their part. How I would characterize
Alireza’s [INAUDIBLE] of rationality is in terms is
as a historicist and [INAUDIBLE] understanding of justification. So I would invoke
justification as a category that’s important in Alireza’s
theorization of rationality. And justification
is a fact about us. Justification refers to facts
about believers, about what we are in a position
to know, what we are entitled to think or believe. But what I wonder is
what about the question Johnathan C. Smith raised? And I quote Smith
again, “the question of truth from which, as
historians of religion, we have [? largely ?]
abstained.” As I would put it, ideas like
rationality and justification both presuppose
the idea of truth. So to be justified
is to be entitled to think that your
belief is really true. Where truth, unlike
justification, is an objective sense. Whether something is true
is quite independent of how or whether any particular
person happens to believe it. So I just want to propose for
you all as among the questions we’re thinking about,
and I’ll put it partly as a question to Alireza– the [INAUDIBLE] version
of the question would be, do you think is really true
what these people believe? But a more [? peaceful ?]
version of the question is, what might this
theorization of rationality look like if it’s acknowledged
that the idea that the presupposition
of truth, even if this was a
[INAUDIBLE] ideal, is necessarily part
of the picture? And would it be
objectionable, would it run against Alireza’s
theorization of rationality, to conclude that for all
that there are clearly tons of rationality at
work in these experiments, some of the claims that
come from these inquiries are not true? ALIREZA DOOSTDAR:
Thank you very much for that wonderful engagement. I have to say this is one
of the best kind of treats and no tricks that a
scholar can hope for to have your work really engaged
in a substantive and generous and challenging way,
which is, I think, what everyone
[INAUDIBLE] what we spent a decade on
this [INAUDIBLE] were [? planning ?]
if you go that route. The amount of time that it
takes to actually finish a book like this. So I was really
dive in as soon as I can to answering some of
these wonderful questions, starting with Sara. [INAUDIBLE] you
rightfully highlight that I adopt a sort of an
anthropologically atheistic position but that
this only comes to the fore in one setting. And the same is where I was
talking with a psychologist. She had a master’s
degree in psychology, and she was a participant in
this mystical therapeutic group known as cosmic mysticism,
which I spend several chapters describing in the book. And I had lunch with
her at some point, and I was asking her
sort of how she squared what she was witnessing,
which were exorcisms, and the attempt to expunge
with this group called inorganic viruses
from people that under a psychiatric description
might have been either delusional or perhaps
diagnosed with various kinds of mental illness,
schizophrenia, so on and so forth. So I was just trying
to figure that out. And really, in that
context, for me, it became a way of
respecting or wanting to respect the position that
she was defending herself, which was that she came from
a scientific background. She can’t [INAUDIBLE]
things easily, right? I came to a very different
kind of conclusion at the end– that in fact, when
she put this to me that perhaps what I
believe is not true, it actually quite works, right? And that kind of gets to the
question that Dan was asking. I think [INAUDIBLE] would have
agreed with Dan and with me that inorganic viruses
perhaps do much truly exist. But who cares? And this itself, by
the way I describe it, is a kind of rational argument
because what it ultimately is looking for is a
fictitiousness in therapy, in spiritual therapy. And the question of whether
or not something exists can be [INAUDIBLE]. Now that’s just not an easy
position, I think, to sustain, and you know, [? one ?]
[? could ?] ask other questions about this and hopefully
I’ll get to this in a moment. But even though– so
in a way, right, I put myself in a
secular position with this particular individual. Overall, though, I can’t
say that my position was a uniform one
from beginning to end. I went in as a skeptic and
I went out as a skeptic. I actually started out with
much more of a fluid position, and I had a [INAUDIBLE]
introduction where I described the
terrifying name that I had at the very early
stages of my research when I was still in
Cambridge, Massachusetts and writing my dissertation
proposal and so on. So I had this
really bad nightmare after watching a [INAUDIBLE]
set of “Sweeney Todd,” the demon barber of Fleet
Street, on YouTube. I had a phobia of
throat slitting scenes. So why would I do it? No, I was there. But anyways, so I watched this. And I had a really
bad nightmare which, in the course of the
nightmare, had me questioning whether I was myself, right? So there was this moment of
uncanniness that I experienced. And in the morning, I said
to myself, look, if I– because I had been warned
beforehand that if I get into this kind of research–
various people had warned me, including scholars at Harvard– that if I get into
this research, it was very dangerous. I was flirting with madness
and other kinds of dangers, and I had to be really
careful and perhaps even rethink my project. So after this nightmare,
I thought to myself, what if that’s actually true? What if I’m being flippant,
and if I get into this, it’s going to be very dangerous? And my decision was made with– the outcome of that
thinking was to decide that I was going to actively
deny that any of this stuff existed as a defensive measure. So I can’t say that
I went in with a kind of a well-argued,
rational defense of a skeptical position,
right, but that in fact, it was very much because of
my subjective entanglement with the research that I
had to make that decision. I’ve actually been
thinking of perhaps writing about the various ways in which,
drawing on my own research, I could think of my
skepticism being reinvigorated by particular instances
of emotional entanglement, whether it was a
sense of betrayal or it was a sense of anger or
it was outrage at [INAUDIBLE].. The question of the edgy
and the avant garde, I get this from Alex Owen in her
book, The Place of Enchantment on occultism in 20th– so turn of the 19th
and 20th century England where she describes
theosophists and [INAUDIBLE] occultists in England. And she situates that as a
very modern pursuit in tune with other kinds of what
she calls avant garde forces of the time,
including philosophy, including various strands
of feminist thought– so women’s suffrage,
also vegetarianism, anti-vivisectionism, and various
kinds of sexual exploration. So for her, I think the
way I took her to be, what I took her
to be arguing, was that the avant garde there was
the edge of cultural change as opposed to some kind
of throwback to the past in a way that was
conservative or was nostalgic about something [INAUDIBLE]. I didn’t take her to be making
a progressivist argument, and so I’m not trying to make a
progressivist argument either. It’s just that too often,
there is a kind of a nostalgia or some sort of survivalist
understanding of the occult, right? Survivalism [INAUDIBLE]
sort of– you have a sense of survival
of certain things that kind of [? linger ?] on. And I wanted to get
past that and say, look, there is a way in which
these things look forward, and they’re harbingers
of change in various ways whether scientifically,
intellectually, religiously, and so on. So that’s [INAUDIBLE] artistic. So that’s what I was trying
to capture with that. You asked blurring the
boundary between a thing and another thing,
which I did note. SARA HAMMERSCHLAG: I was asking
whether you were blurring the boundary between
aesthetic pleasure and religious engagement. ALIREZA DOOSTDAR:
Yes, yes, absolutely. So two of the
chapters of the book deal with metaphysical
enjoyment and wonder. And what I was
trying to do there is to say that there
were people for whom the thrill of metaphysical
experimentation was extremely important. But I did not want to be
saying that you could clearly distinguish these
people from those who were credulously invested,
[? sort of, ?] in the occult, right. And I do this by going back
to the Greek definition of knowledge from Socrates
onward, beginning with wonder, right? So philosophy beginning
at a place of wonder and thinking of wonder as
an emotional state that doesn’t end necessarily in
perplexity or in, what’s it called, complacency, but can be
the starting point for inquiry. And so wonder can
be the beginning of scientific inquiry, but it
can also lead to other things. And in a way, there are places
in which the hesitation to come down on one or another argument
in favor of whether something is true or not can generate
thrill and kind of sustain itself. But it can also open up
various possibilities for future inquiry. So I did very much want to
blur those [? boundaries. ?] As far as Dan’s
questions, very well-put. The question of truth– so in order for something to be
justified, it has to be true. I’ll begin with the
justification question, and I think this gets
at also, to some extent, to Sara’s question
about whether I’m blurring the boundary between
reason and rationalization. So there’s [INAUDIBLE]
two ways in which we can understand rationalization. One is to think of it in
terms of the justification of the position already
held or justification of a belief that one
already subscribes to. I call that post
hoc rationalization, and it’s not the
position that I want to take on rationalization. What I’m describing as
rationalization in the book is largely a
sociological description of certain kinds of social
transformation, right? So in a simple way, you could
[INAUDIBLE] sense, right? So rationalization meaning
increasing intellectualization or rationalization
meaning bureaucratization or the increasing dominance
of an instrumentalist logic– so that’s how I’m thinking
of rationalization. That’s related to reason and
to rationality to the extent that I want to think of both of
those as reflexive processes. So whether we are arguing
for the truth of a doctrine or whether we are engaging
in a rational inquiry or whether there is some
kind of social transformation through which social
form is changing, in what I’m describing,
there is a commitment to ensuring that
those things are [? accorded ?] with
[INAUDIBLE],, right, however that is defined from within
a particular historical tradition. So that’s how I’m
looking at those things. So justification, while
extremely important, takes somewhat of a
backseat in this project in favor of a question
of inquiry, right? So I’m more interested in the
open ended dimension of thought rather than– so I”m more
interested in the questions rather than the conclusions. And there is a tradition in
the history of philosophy of science that is
interested more in questions than in answers, right? So I am much more interested in
how people find it reasonable and find it possible to
ask certain questions than it is for them to reach
certain conclusions, right? And that’s how, to get at the
question of my own rationality, it’s possible for me I
think as people myself and my interlocutors as
occupy the same world, right? We are all of us
asking questions. We don’t all necessarily begin
with the same assumptions, right? So that assumption may be
where a question of truth might come in. But it’s largely
unexamined, I think, where the assumptions are. But the important thing
for me is asking, you know, how is it that a
certain kind of question becomes possible to
ask in the first place. DAVID NIRENBERG: Which is why
you’re wearing that shirt. ALIREZA DOOSTDAR:
Which is exactly why. That [INAUDIBLE]. Well, one reason. I’m also the unknown
middle easterner. You know that the Honduran
caravan [INAUDIBLE] the terrifying creature
[INAUDIBLE] unknown middle easterners. And you know, here, what
the starting point for me is a claim that Ian Hacking
makes about questions– so truth statements other than
the most boring source only making sense within
certain styles of reason or styles of thinking. So it is the style
of thinking that I’m interested in more than
the particular kind of justification, right? And when we think of
style of reasoning, then that’s where something
like empiricism comes in. And it’s where very particular
modes of empiricism, right? So there’s not one
kind of empiricism. And one of the things
that I’m trying to do here is to get beyond that kind of
an Empiricism with a capital E and to think of all kinds of
small e empiricisms, which may or may not accord
with big E Empiricism. But I think it’s
true in the end. You know, I think the
easy way out of that is to say there are so
many things here that I don’t know what the it is. It’s hard to say what the it is. There’s a section where
I talk about seances with the souls of the dead which
begin with the [? spiritus ?] in France. As far as the Iranian
practice is concerned, it begins with French spiritism,
and then it comes to Iran through elite circles. And then it kind of dies out
among the elite, at least, around the 1940s and 50s,
gives way to psychoanalysis and various other pursuits. But then there’s a
parapsychological interest that certain Marxists
among others pursue. And that also has
kind of died out. But I’m not sure know–
if someone were to ask me, does the soul exists as
an entity on its own, I would say I’m skeptical
based on the state of research that I know of and based on
where these projects wound up. But at the same time,
I can’t necessarily rule out the attempt to discover
the answer to that question. So again, the questioning
for me that matters most is– just a few years ago, there
was a project, a funded medical project,
where the doctors were replacing photographs
facing towards the ceiling in an emergency– certain medical care units
where patients were known to– I mean, most patients
were going to die. [INAUDIBLE] like end of life
care or something [INAUDIBLE].. And the presumption was that– sorry, it was in
operation rooms. And so they were
putting these pictures facing up and asking if any
of the people who came back from a near-death
experience could identify what those pictures were. So the question is
still legible, right, and in this case in a completely
positivistic and empiricist way. And I’m not sure what my kind
of denial of that does, right? I mean, I can challenge
certain presumptions. I can challenge certain matters. But the conclusion, I think,
might be wise [INAUDIBLE].. I think that’s
all I have to say. PRESENTER: I think we have
a couple minutes for Q&A, but I know Professor
[INAUDIBLE] wants more. AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] PRESENTER: [INAUDIBLE] DAVID NIRENBERG: Andrew? AUDIENCE: So I’m interested
in the way [INAUDIBLE]—- I’m interested in the way you
see yourself participating in the kind of rationalization
you were interested in. So you brought up
[INAUDIBLE] rationalization, which is, of course,
in David’s writing also a process of disenchantment,
science as vocation. And you’re not interested
in disenchantment so much, talking about wonder as
a starting point and occultism as a harbinger for
things to come. So I wonder how you see
the role of this, the book, participating in the
kind of rationalization in contemporary Iran, the
kind of rationalization you’re interested in
because, of course– so what [INAUDIBLE]
work has done for us is blur the lines
between representation and participation. And so this book is sort of
a form of mass publicity. But it’s not just representing
what these people have done. And of course, the
people that you work with are very sensitive about the
way they’re written about. So first, how do you
understand your participation, and then how do they understand? What reception have you
gotten from the people you write about? Do they feel insulted? Do they feel justified? Do they feel
vindicated, proven– you know, there’s the sort
of array of assumptions. ALIREZA DOOSTDAR: Yeah, yeah,
that was a great question. It’s a bit early,
I think to say. I haven’t gotten that
many reactions yet, but there was an early stage– so after my
dissertation came out [INAUDIBLE] publicly available. So there were people
from the positive mystics I described in the book based
in LA who I did not know. So there’s a 30-strong
contingent– surprise, surprise– Iranian positive
mystics in Los Angeles. And they reached
out to me asking if I’d be interested
in joint research. What that suggested– I said I wasn’t. What it suggested to
me also– surprise, surprise, anybody who’s
published anything– is you don’t control
how your work is taken. Your might be taken
any number of ways. I mean, the guy who
wrote to me and thought I was valorizing this group. And you know, if that means I
get less criticism from them, then yay. I tried to be
respectful, you know? But I am also citing
skeptical responses to them, including the
website that’s kind of like the Iranian
version of Snopes, which says that all mumbo jumbo
and pseudo-science and so on. So that’s one kind. I think what I’m
hoping for more broadly is to complicate a
little bit an overly progressivist,
rationalist perspective that rules out any
kind of engagement with the metaphysical
as automatically irrational, right? And that can be secular. It could be Islamist
in various ways. And it could also come
from alternative kind of religious perspectives. You know, too often in the
public discourse in Iran, anybody who engages
with djinn or anybody who engages with an
occult specialist or whatever is
mythologized, right? I want to kind of overcome
that mythologization to ask, well, if
we look closely, there’s actually some really
interesting things going on. Now what form that
conversation might take, the form that
response might take, is difficult to say
in part because I wrote this book for an
English speaking audience. I didn’t write it for a
Persian speaking audience. And I’ve grappled with the
question of translation. I tried– I started translating
the introduction and I stopped. Because I’m not sure
if translating exactly this book makes a lot of sense. The questions don’t
translate very well and the arguments
don’t always translate very well because
we’ll start from very different assumptions. But if people read it and they
have things to say, you know, I want to engage. AUDIENCE: This question
comes from my reading of a very early bit
of Ogden’s new book on the history of
mesmerism in the US. I really like the intro. And then also a
distinction you made between people who
participate in these practices for the thrill of it and then
people who are prejudiced– so I was wondering– ALIREZA DOOSTDAR: That’s not
my distinction, by the way. AUDIENCE: That’s not– ALIREZA DOOSTDAR: I want to
get away from that distinction. AUDIENCE: Oh, you– OK. ALIREZA DOOSTDAR: Yeah. AUDIENCE: So perhaps my question
doesn’t make very much sense, but I’ll ask it anyway. In your research, did
you come across people who performed this
kind of practice for people who themselves
thought it was false or mumbo jumbo but were taking
advantage of credulous people? DAVID NIRENBERG: [INAUDIBLE] AUDIENCE: Yeah, and forgive
me if you talk about this– ALIREZA DOOSTDAR: Yeah. AUDIENCE: –in the book. I just haven’t read it. ALIREZA DOOSTDAR:
So, I mean, there are places where something
close to that happens. But it’s really hard to come
down and say this person does not believe, right? So the [INAUDIBLE]
that Sara referred to, she was also a
psychology graduate. She practiced
clinical psychology, and she did counseling. And she was also a prayer writer
and did tarot card readings and wrote spells and so on. And she told me– I mean, I met her several
times, and she told me about some of the ways in
which she tricked people. So she said, for example– this is not [INAUDIBLE]. She talked about how
a football player who once called her or called
one of our associates and asked for a spell
to close off his goal. So this is European football. And– soccer. And she said, there’s
no such spell. But just take his money and
we’ll write it anyway, right? But then she was also– so, OK. You know, is she a charlatan? Maybe. But at the same time, she
was also in other contexts telling me that spells work when
people believe it works, right? The best kind of spell and the
most efficacious kind of spell requires some kind of belief. And there were actually
people who came to her and would say, either for
themselves or for someone else, would ask her to say
something positive, to give a positive
divination, right? And sometimes, this was to
trick someone else, right? So for example, she would
have a mother coming to her and say, look, we have a
suitor for our daughter who we really like. She’s [INAUDIBLE],,
she’s skeptical. Would you– if we
bring her to you, would you give a good
reading and tell her that this is a good opportunity? So you know, I mean, there
were things like this. And with her also, it was– there’s always the
problem of do people believe what they’re saying. I mean, what is it that
people actually believe? And all you have is peoples’
speech and people’s practice, right? And belief is often
something that is performed. And when it [? is ?]
performed, then you have to look at the
context within which it’s being performed. You have to look
at the audience. You know, who is
it being said to? And so I ask, you know, why am
I the one who’s hearing this and why is someone else
not hearing the same thing? So it’s a really
tricky question, which is why I don’t ever kind
of say this person is a liar, let’s say, or does
not actually believe. AUDIENCE: What’s
the paycheck like? ALIREZA DOOSTDAR: Depends. Some people get– some people
can make a pretty lucrative life out of it. But it’s also risky
because there is no– you can’t get a license to
operate a business that has an occult specialist, right? So it’s not like all the palm
readings you see around here– tarot cards and so on. So yes, it can be tricky. Yes. AUDIENCE: I’m thinking about
your description of the person getting cured of eczema
supposedly because of the organic viruses, was it? ALIREZA DOOSTDAR: It
was an unbewitching. So she was bewitched. AUDIENCE: Same
person [INAUDIBLE].. ALIREZA DOOSTDAR: Same
person– same person who I just described, yeah. AUDIENCE: OK. And I think your
question following that was, like, who cares if
it’s true because it works? And I’ve been
thinking, like, well, what about all those other
people who have eczema? They would care if it’s true
or if it works because they want to be cured of eczema too. So I’ve been wondering
about replicability. Like, is it fair to
say that something works if it’s not replicable? Or is the question
of replicability not really at play here
because you could never replicate what happened
to a particular person at a particular moment with
a particular therapist? ALIREZA DOOSTDAR: Right, right. That’s a really generative
question [INAUDIBLE] lots to say about that. But one is the
particular perspective that this person is
taking, and you’re actually merging two different
people in the book. So there’s a person– which is fine. You know, the person who’s
saying that it works, so I believe in it, she also
had [INAUDIBLE] wrist pain and she was depressed after
her friend died and there were a bunch of other things. What her stance highlighted to
me or the kind of comparison that I make is this religious
intellectual position in Iran, which is fairly new–
it’s about 20 years old– which argues that spirituality,
true spirituality, is not a spirituality
that you justify on metaphysical grounds. But it’s one that is
successful in bringing you joy, tranquility,
hope, and so on, right? So it’s a functionalist and
it’s a psychologistic argument, right? For the people who subscribe to
that– right, so for this lady who is telling you
who cares, [INAUDIBLE] I believe it because it works. For her, it doesn’t
matter if it’s replicable. It works in her case. That’s all that matters. The question of replicability,
that’s an interesting question. There’s a problem of
replicability in science, in sort of so-called
mainstream science, witch, it’s not easy to draw a
boundary and this kind of equity is replicable, this
kind of inquiry is not replicable, right? One of the things that I
was actually interested in was not a research
on replicability but a research on people’s
paths towards some kind of mental health cure
[INAUDIBLE] psychiatrist had performed in Iran. And what they had
found was– so they had done surveys of sort
of mental health patients who had come to a psychiatrist. They’d asked them,
where were you before you came here, right? So list all the people
you consulted before you consulted a psychiatrist. And they found that
about 15% of people had consulted some kind
of traditional healer or exorcist or something, right? And this was a scandal. It’s like, oh my god,
you know, there’s millions of people
who are consulting these guys before they
come to a psychiatrist. And the research was
done so that they could limit those instances, right? So that people who went
to the psychiatrist sooner than all of those. What they didn’t
study was where people went after the psychiatrist. The people who I worked with
among the positive mystics, many of them had gone
to psychiatrists, were not happy with
the results, right? And there’s all kinds
of reasons for that. But mainly what
[INAUDIBLE] was we’re not feeling better or in fact, we’re
feeling worse because the drugs that we’re taking
is making me fat or, you know, I’m sleeping
in bed all day or whatever. And there were other
kinds of things too, like I think the it’s sort
of authority structure of the psychiatric
establishment is extremely different from the
authority structure that you found in something
like positive mysticism. He had a kind of a social
collective healing, a non-judgemental attitude
towards affliction. You had a kind of moralizing
of pain and of affliction whereas with the psychiatrist,
it was biomedicalized. It was very explicitly
hierarchical. The patient had
almost no say in how they were being cured, right? And I think that has something
to do with what people judged efficacious in one
context or another or whether it was efficacious
in one context or [INAUDIBLE].. So to get back to the truth
question, I mean, I think– I didn’t do a
statistical survey, but I could say that
at the very least, there were people who told me,
I went to the psychiatrist. It did not work. I went to the positive mystics. Now I’m fine, right? So what does that
suggest about truth? Does it say that
schizophrenia does not exist and, you know, inorganic
viruses do exist? I don’t think it
answers that question. But it does make us
question, I think, our automatic presumptions
about the relationship between that kind of
truth and efficaciousness. AUDIENCE: I need to go back
to the question of translating [INAUDIBLE] to the
question of truth. You said that you
tried translating, but it’s something
that you gave up because you didn’t think
it would be possible. Do you think that’s actually
a project worthwhile? I mean, what would a
dialogue look like? What would a
translation look like? And [INAUDIBLE] the spirit
of engagement rather than just sort of understanding
[INAUDIBLE] assumptions and talking about them
in this [INAUDIBLE] completely different
[INAUDIBLE]?? So reading that gap
through an [INAUDIBLE] is something that–
like, that possibly is something that [INAUDIBLE]
should be undertaken, or is it something [INAUDIBLE]? I’m not sure
[INAUDIBLE] it would be [? useful ?] in some ways. ALIREZA DOOSTDAR: I mean, I
don’t think it’s impossible. I don’t think necessarily
that translating this book would be worthless, fortunately. I mean, in some ways, I’m
hoping that somebody will just translate it and I’ll
get caught off guard because that
happens all the time and [INAUDIBLE] just publish
it without the original author even knowing. And I’m sort of hoping against
my better rational judgment [INAUDIBLE] because I kind of
want these ideas to get out of there. But I just don’t want to spend
a lot of time translating it myself. But I mean, in terms of
what is a normal, worthwhile engagement, I think that it’s
more of a situational issue. So writing this came out of a
dissertation that was completed at an American university
and [INAUDIBLE] given papers and talks in all
kinds of places, and I’ve engaged with scholars
in the American Academy. And graduates come
to this, right? And I think some
similar process has to be there or some similar
[INAUDIBLE] like something analogous to come
out of [INAUDIBLE].. I’ve done some of it. I’ve given talks and so on. But it hasn’t been
enough to make a book. DAVID NIRENBERG: First, a hand. [APPLAUSE] [INAUDIBLE] worried about
how extraordinary what– why I’m so happy you’re here. And I hope you also think
this is extraordinary. We live in a world,
academic world, in which we spend a huge
amount of our lives writing beautiful– and this
is a beautiful book– and not having them discussed
or read in any profound way. I think we all know this. And what we’ve witnessed
today is actually a very profound
discussion by people who have brought their
attention to bear on a very different book. And that’s something
to be celebrated. Now this book has generated
such engagement also in print. Alireza didn’t mention
it, but for example, if you want to see an
exemplary review that is a review that really tries
to explain why a book is doing significant work
and how that work is significant to the present,
the LA Review of Books did a very long
review of this book. And it’s, I think,
actually a great example of what an attentive reviewer
does and how they do it. Next week, I beg
you to come again. So [INAUDIBLE] they do
work on magic and precisely on how ancient magical handbooks
and how an [? altered ?] magic was transmitted. But if this is further
incentive they also have another Neubauer project– and I urge you to
bear this in mind– on curses. So if you don’t come– [LAUGHTER] –ask yourself
what might happen. Thanks again to
[? Dahlia, ?] to the team, and to all of you
for your presence. [APPLAUSE]

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