Tuesday, 23 June 2009

The Death of Neda Agha Soltan

The young Iranian woman had got out of her car for air and was being no trouble to anyone. Then she was shot by someone - a soldier or a plain-clothes policeman, so they say - and she died. She is shown dying here.

Look if you want. You probably already have. I have, uneasily, uncertainly, but I have. I offer the link but I don't want to show it for various reasons, or so I argue with myself:

1. I don't need this particular piece of proof to know that the Iranian regime is violent, repressive and ruthless. I knew that already;

2. I don't need this piece of emotional stimulus to make me feel more strongly than I already do;

3. I suspect that to look at someone dying while being uninvolved is an act of voyeurism. I know we are fascinated by death and the sight of blood, but that is deeply confused here with a proper sense of moral outrage that one should be able to feel without the voyeurism;

4. I am uneasy about the replayability, disposability, mass reproduction of the event as image. It is troubling as a process. The death is troubling as an event;

5. I understand the necessity of the image, because of the importance of martyrdom in Islam and (so I read) in Iran particularly. In other words I recognize the possible effectiveness of the image as a weapon in a battle I would like to see won, but the death of the individual young woman is not simply a tool. It is the personal, private passing of a human being;

6. Such deaths are not peculiar to this particular moment in Iran. Such deaths are daily, everywhere, in murders, in accidents, in executions, in bad places, in ambivalent places, and in good places alike. This image alone does not condemn a regime. It illustrates one of the reasons why such a regime is to be condemned.

These are moral quibbles, I know. Death is death and it is like this, and this isn't an entirely private death, but a public one, taking place in a public context, recorded for public showing.

And still I look at it, and think she looks OK at first, then comes the trickle of blood from her mouth, then the nose, then the head, and I know, we know, she is gone and we hear the cries around her as others - those really there - realise it too. And looking on it I remember there are people here who defend the regime and dismiss its opponents as 'gilded youth', as tools of imperialism. Very well, I think, then sup on this. Here is some gilded youth.

So it is ambivalent and troubling, and maybe it is inevitable that it should be. Maybe that was its destiny as an image the moment someone started filming. So now the image has entered on its career, like the shooting of John Kennedy or Martin Luther King and the killing of Bobby Kennedy, it is just that the young woman was not a prominent figure, not accustomed to occupying the arena where death becomes symbol. Her symbolic death was not courted by fame. It has fallen into fame.

And we want to catch her before she does so, or maybe we half feel we should, at least if we have any tenderness in us. But already we are too late.


Ario said...

Thank you for articulating this sense of unease, which I have felt with the video (and the ubiquitously published screengrabs) but was unable to put into words. It does seem an infringement on the private person of Neda Agha Soltan. I've been weighing up the counterargument that perhaps the publicity of her senseless death might enable her bereaved family to derive some meaning from it.

I'm not sure. It seems a crude rationalisation to make from this distance.

Matthew Gregory said...

Unease, nausea, something wretched that is like grief, but a poor relation to grief, for her, her dad, those screaming hysterical women...
Very rarely does an image break through the mist of saturation. That one does.
There's an article - anonymous - at the New Yorker. 'Letter from Tehran'. One of the more detailed 'escapees' from under the wiretappers' noses. Link is here:
One of the complaints I have with this, is mostly with myself. And the clumsy, badly-informed incapacity that a Western viewer feels watching distant feeds. 'Viewer' might be the best word, because 'voyeur' is perhaps too forceful a term for an age when videos and images creep up on us, insiduous things that flit around until they catch, and get trapped somewhere under our eyes.

George S said...

Can't get to the New Yorker page, Matthew. Gives me an 'error' message. However, I think you're spot on. Maybe 'voyeurism' is not quite the accurate term though I personally do experience it as a kind of voyeurism in myself. I don't even think voyeurism in this sense is much of a vice. All animals like to observe without being seen, and we are curious about death, blood, sex and everything else. I'm no different, it's just that there are times when everyone rushes to agree about some 'right' attitude or action, and then my own nervous system goes into alert mode. I suspect hypocrisy is a far greater danger and sin than voyeurism.

One of the most useful pieces of advice - moral and aesthetic - I found is in Simone Weil (via Seamus Heaney). Obedience to the force of gravity: the greatest sin.

That's to say when everything blows one way it's good to lean the other, just to test the wind if nothing else. I don't mean to become an on-principle absolute contrarian, to pretend to be morally superior to everyone else, or to cultivate habitual self-conscious 'rebel' self - that seems a little too easy - simply a certain uneasy stiffening of the back and nerves.

Underneath it lies a personal fear of mob rule, of herd instinct, and of the abdication of personal moral responsibility that prevents two people looking into each other's eyes and seeing something substantial and complex there.