What Does “Persepolis” Help us Understand About #Jan25?

Satrapi's beautiful graphic memoir in its complete form

In a moment when the world’s eyes are fixed on Egypt, what does a book about Iran have to teach us about politics, media, and representation of revolution?

Marjane Satrapi’s celebrated graphic memoir Persepolis tells the story of the author’s childhood and early-adulthood in Iran during the Cultural Revolution and its immediate aftermath.  News outlets have been comparing the historic protests across Egypt to the period between 1978 and 1980 when the Shah was overthrown.  The conversation in news media outlets this week has often centered on whether the Obama Administration is making the same mistakes dealing with Egypt that Carter made during the Iranian crisis.

Yet Satrapi’s book does not exactly provide us with a clear perspective on how to view America’s role in the political and cultural turmoil in Iran.  The book portrays historical events, but that’s not why it is essential reading.  I don’t even know if it’s helpful to compare the Egyptian protests to Iran (and Persepolis did help me get a basic understanding of some of the crucial differences between Arab and Persian contexts). Rather, Satrapi interweaves the personal with the political, giving us a picture of how ordinary life adapts to and works through moments of national and cultural trauma.  Moreover, it conveys this narrative in what is probably the most appropriate form to the task of portraying revolution: graphic narrative.

As Hillary Chute puts it in her excellent reading of Persepolis in Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics,

Persepolis shows trauma as ordinary, both in the text’s form, the understated, spacial correspondences Persepolis employs to narrative effect through comics panelization, and in style, the understated quality of Satrapi’s line that rejects the visually laborious in order to departicularize the singular witnessing of the author as well as open out the text to readers.

In other words, throughout the narrative, Satrapi places panels of everyday experiences next to panels that portray political protests and the subsequent violence of the regime’s retribution.  This seems to correct–or perhaps helpfully caption/contextualize–our experience of political phenomena like the Green protests in Iran 2008, and this month’s events in Tunisia and Iran.  The way we consume media privileges iconic imagery, like the photo of Neda’s gunshot wound in 2008 (graphic) or The Atlantic‘s photo of an Egyptian woman kissing a police officer.  But in reality, revolution and protest are phenomena with families in the background–with children who are confused during the action, and who are told to keep down, stay safe, remain calm, listen to their parents.

When we are told and shown in images that an entire country is protesting, we should remember that the fracture of ordinary life occurs in everyone’s homes, behind closed doors.  Satrapi presents us with a set of images that juxtaposes the ordinary with the extraordinary or spectacularity of a national order in crisis.

It matters too that this medium is comics, a form that has long been on the margins of literary production, but one whose accelerating popularity and critical attention makes it pertinent in a discussion about the role of new media in the broadcast of political news around the world.  I’m thinking here about the genres of images, text, video, and sounds that are available to us in the historical moment of Twitter, Facebook, and all other forms of social media, that make it possible for individuals to broadcast dispatches from scenes of political protest and violence around the world.

Remember that Chute claims the stripped down style of Satrapi “departicularizes” the process of witnessing and opens it up to the experience of readers.  It strikes me that this is the same affective phenomenon that occurs when CNN or Al Jazeera or whomever broadcasts pixellated video footage from individuals holding cellphone cameras at protests.  We get a personal perspective, but faces and bodies are washed out, similarly departicularizing the experience.  A related phenomenon seems to be operating when we read articles that record Facebook status updates or track the functionality of Twitter.  These convey unique voices, but in their sheer volume, smooth the jagged nature of individual communication–and harmonize voices with #hashtags.

In both its form and content, Persepolis is extremely pertinent to an understanding of the way we consume media during moments of national protest and change.

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