Payam Hassanzadeh: Solidarity and Guilt

A Tribute to the Unacknowledged Legislators of the World

This letter and accompanying material must be read in the context of two related letters published here (11/18/22) and here (1/20/23). After the second letter was published Behnaz Amani was released from prison; our letter was used in support of this life-saving action. The participants have asked that I publish this new material. Our previous letters were written poets to poets, as is this one. Listen please to Behnaz Amani’s voice here and in the previous post. We are not talking about multitudes: we address the precarious situation of this one person, who cannot be conflated with anyone else and who is, above all, indispensable. ––Ch.B. 


Thou art my poem,
That same poem that I erase,

And all my verses
A prelude to
The sun that never rises.
(To Behnaz her and her solitude)

Dear Mr. Bernstein,

I write this letter as originating from our correspondence with and as a tribute to you, dear Mr. Charles Bernstein. Since through all the months and days we – my dearest friend Behnaz and I – experienced by after the start of revolutionary uprisings, known as “Woman, Life, Freedom” in Iran, and after Behnaz’s arbitrary state detention and the ongoing persecutions afterwards, at times, we thought of the solidarity messages that were announced in different ways mostly by the Western intellectuals, philosophers, and poets, etc. Most specifically we contemplated the statemen, “the ‘almost’ in ‘almost powerless’ is where we meet, it’s the place of our solidarity,”which I quote from your solidarity petition, and that of other respected signatories, which you published to support Behnaz’s rescue, and “the unconditioned” which prevails in that “almost,” which is the meeting place of our solidarity.

Last Monday (May 15, 2023), on Behnaz and my regular visit with Dr. Seyyed Mahmoud Alizadeh-Tabatabaie, Behnaz's trustworthy lawyer, he once again expressed his deep concerns about Behnaz’s ever-increasingly precarious state. He asked her to let him explain her case more in detail in a new letter: perhaps his giving an open testimony to what is happening to her might be of some avail. I requested Behnaz’s assent to let me share her lawyer’s attestation to those who are kind enough to confide in – surely, they are not more than barely few besides you. The letter is attached here.

In dejection, recalling those lines of a poem of mine, which I have cited in the opening, and considering also Behnaz’s reflections on the relation of intellectuals to power and also on the matter of “responsibility and guilt,” I felt the words for what had always been hovering in my mind ­­–– on why and how we must invent what we call conscience anew, conscience not as a torturous inner disciplinary guard to subjugate a “self” to a positioning, but as an emancipatory radical praxis, or according to Simon Critchley’s statement, and also the title of on his books, as mastering “how to stop living and start worrying.”

Moments before writing these lines, Behnaz and I had a nice and tight discussion on what is “the banal” in the “banality of evil,” which is so fearsome to Hannah Arendt. According to Behnaz’s explanation, Arendt does not mean how evil becomes a mundane day to day reality to the majority, she surely does not. The hidden mystery is to what extent one is ready to justify one’s guilt: “wash [ing one’s] hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person” (Matthew 27:24 – 26). To interpret it: it is, at times, the extent to which one is frightened that itself becomes fearsome, rather than the object of fear in itself. Or more precisely, as Behnaz rightly extended it a step further: “it is the extent to which one is ready to justify one’s guilt under the pretext of being scared that becomes fearsome.” Yes, indeed, the banality resides there, they are actually rendering the precarious lives as banal and dispensable. In a way, I dare argue this readiness to rationally justify one’s guilt is the main reason that “the economic and legal/political dispensability of human lives” (Walter Mignolo) has long become the domineering plague in our modern/colonial time’s agenda.

Nonetheless – with recourse to Foucault’s problematization of parrhesia as living the courage of truth even at the cost of risking one’s life to not only frankly say the truth (logos) but even more also to practice the truth (ergos) –– as the age-old clash between the true philosopher and the sophist theoretician – it becomes very indeed a bleak insight to figure out that the lives, whom the banality/rationality of their evil makes dispensable, have almost always been the lives of the most beautiful souls, whether named or unnamed. It is, perhaps once again, our foremost duty to philosophize what guilt is, similar to what Karl Jaspers once did, in The Question of German Guilt (1947), to both make it possible to assign or imagine a proper tribunal to the guilts vis-à-vis the responsibility each individual and each collective bears, and to also radicalize “conscience” so as to prevent the elite bourgeois sophist intellectuals “the use of some form of semantic gymnastics to disguise an evil action by labeling it with some euphemism” (xii), similar to those Behnaz and I encountered once and once again, as when I was advised that “friends, Behnaz alike, are replaceable,” that is, actually, a  euphemistic way of insinuating “you are lives unworthy of living.” This is a sanitized violence, consciously or not, some few by virtue of a privilege are authorized to practice day in and day out, through the justification that the numbers are so many, thus, let them to the mercy of the state (in its both meanings) inside the country to resolve the issue. Nevertheless, if

There exists solidarity among men as human beings that makes each co-responsible for every wrong and every injustice in the world, especially for crimes committed in his presence or with his knowledge. If I fail to do whatever I can to prevent them, I too am guilty. If I was present at the murder of others without risking my life to prevent it, I feel guilty in a way not adequately conceivable either legally, politically or morally. That I live after such a thing has happened weighs upon me as indelible guilt…. we must choose: either to risk our lives unconditionally, without chance of success and therefore to no purpose – or to prefer staying alive, because success is impossible. That somewhere among men the unconditioned prevails – the capacity to live only together or not at all… therein lies the guilt of us all. (Jaspers, tr. E. B. Ashton, 26)

The final words from this quotation from Karl Jaspers reminds me of your breathtakingly epic phrase both in one of our early correspondences and in the petition you ran, by virtue of that statement I owe you a dynamic hope for the rest of my life, namely, “the ‘almost’ in ‘almost powerless’ is where we meet.” This shows me although Jasper’s radicalization and problematization of guilt is not something poetic or pertaining to the realm of ideals and sophistry – since if one frees her/himself from such understanding of solidarity and shared guilt, as (in Behnaz’s own emphasis) the nice and charming intellectual bourgeoisie do, they would be angels exempt of any responsibility – understanding this radical responsibility requires poetic sensibility that others might lack.

In order to explain why poesy is required to radicalize conscience, I have to start with our experience with PEN America. However much I knew it was to no avail, I sent to PEN the second letter of Bahnaz’s lawyer, Dr. Seyyed Mahmoud Alizadeh-Tabatabaei. Dr. Tabatabaie is the most renowned and the most recognized non-profit lawyer inside Iran, defending citizens against arbitrary state political and security accusations. In his letter, he clearly and vividly warns that if no emergency measures are taken to come at Behnaz’s rescue, her life will be exposed to complete ruin. I sent this second letter to PEN America’s Director of Free Expression at Risk Programs, Ms. Karin Karlekar. After I had sent Dr. Tabatabaie’s first letter, Ms. Karlekar had again started another round of promises –– to be, yet again, not to be fulfilled; and she had then once again vanished away, while each and every time prior to her disappearances she sadistically tells, “next week we speak on the other options.” And by now it is more than three weeks after that next-week’s arrival. Even prior to this, Behnaz, facing the repeated behavioral pattern by an official representative of PEN, told me, “I feel my life has once again become a tourist’s playground of white torturing tricks, just similar to those of the government’s”.

Pondering on where these manners are rooted, Behnaz and I came to this point that this one-sidedness in determining who decides when and to whom to listen and to reply, and this, we guess, racial arrogance which dares to consume the plight of the subalterns in the so-called underdeveloped periphery, and chews it as gum, and suddenly spits it out when it has lost its taste in its mouth, has not been an unfamiliar and unprecedented phenomenon through all these months after the start of the revolutionary upheavals in Iran. It is in operation even in the most well-intended solidarity messages that respectfully say, “We in the West have to learn from Iran” (Slavoj Žižek Sends a Message of Solidarity to the Iranians Protesting Mahsa Amini’s Murder – Zamaneh Media).

The problem is that these messages do not really contemplate what makes a message become a message, namely, when people make their solidarity messages –– “who are they are talking to and for?”; or it is just a moment of “fascination” that their imagination desires of a revolution in an “underdeveloped” country, even when they say (similar to what Slavoj Žižek clearly expressed) that they should not see Iran as an underdeveloped nation trying to fill the gap with them (the West). Moreover, for a message to be a message it is also not enough to just make the object or subject of discourse visible, that is, to make them visible as an anatomical presence, yet leave them, in effect, inaudible and inarticulate. Thus, in a solidarity message you ought to suppose who you are your addressing. And by this, I do not mean you have to pigeonhole them in your prior definable categories. But you ought to be actively hospitable to the arrivals of the unimagined others and even be able to accommodate the unprecedented – and try to hear and listen to the cauldron of voices of those you, in your imagination, are addressing, or to rephrase it into Behnaz’s poetic discourse, you have to have listened to, and have attempted to “hear,” their “gaze” back at you. In other words, the question is whether the writers of these messages ethically and politically make themselves responsible as “participants” in a communal event of the message being uttered, otherwise it is a gesture out of a fascination, to know and domesticate the other within a definition, and not a pledge that is always renewed. Finally, what makes the difference is if those messages are recorded by an ordinary Afghan or Sudanese man, rather than a few numbers of Western intellectual “figureheads,” while many of those who really make the differences, differences visible or otherwise, are the “almost powerless.” In other words, what is at stake that makes Michael Hardt and Alain Badiou more attractive as interlocutors to the Iranian intellectual elites, giving them the mission and the potential to speak the revolution and depriving, say, Walter Mignolo of that interlocutory potential? There is an institutional factor at work, the same institution that has given the West, and the Western-budgeted media the power and the will to translate “Woman, Life, Freedom’s” radicality into a neoliberal individualism, having it supplemented with the reactionary nationalistic monarchist slogan “Man, Soil, Prosperity,” investing on the coloniality of Iranian national imagination. This colonial logic also gives the Western intellectuals their institutional authority of being the point of reference.

To analyze where the problem rests, I refer again to the three of the most notable individual solidarity messages. In the first one, delivered by Slavoj Zizek, both in a video recording and in a written correspondence with Navid Gorgin, with all its positive insights and correct admonition for the Western institutional figures that “It is not enough just to express sympathy or solidarity with Iranian protesters” and  “the crucial thing is to keep the movement alive,” the totality of his discourse is yet again not that of a participant. Although in his video recording, Zizek expresses sorrow for not being able to fight along with the protestors in the streets of Iran’s cities, this is not what I mean by being a participant. His discourse still suffers from a Kantian educational or, better to say, pedagogical discourse. Here, the pedagogue has just become so benevolent that he is now the subject who learns lessons from his hypothetical addressees, but still, it is he who tells them, the non-Western ones, what is in their protests that is worthy of learning. The Western philosopher still has not learned to unlearn the educational paradigm and become a participant subject to see himself in a trans-geographical locality. What is at stake for him is the element which can be “fascinating” to “us” (the West) as something to learn from “them” (the non-Westerns). In other words, they (the protesting subjects in Iran) are actually more a medium to respond to a “lack” that the West can appropriate.

In the second solidarity message, though the discourse is appreciatingly trying to introduce a decentralized (de-Westernized) way of understanding the protests, Michael Hardt appears as the usual familiar Western “cartographer” of history, in terms of geo-graphy and bio-graphy of the truths, and not as a participant subject. He borrows from the Haitian revolutionaries’ example as both a witness and a parallel to the Iranian struggle, first, to tell us how the struggles travel and through the course of their journey are translated to give birth to other unprecedented struggles and also to implicitly decentralize the Western interpretive gaze and will to knowledge by supplementing both the 19th-century Haitian struggle and the Iranian struggle in the early twenty-first century to the French late 18th and early 19th centuries “bourgeois revolution”. Nevertheless, he brings both the Haitian and the Iranian struggles to the play of supplementarity in a non-supplementary way, because the Western intellectual observer’s history and geography still remain both at the originary point of the journey and also, by the same virtue, outside the play as the self-same identity. One has to ask why should the French Revolution be always seen as the architextual context, as the origin-point of translation, as if the Haitians could have never thought of or imagined freedom and egality/equality, or they could have never had any word for them, before having been encountered with the French words and their slogan; Liberté, égalité, fraternité. He never problematizes the very logic of this narrative, that perhaps the Haitians had already dreamt of freedom in their own way and that they were trying to translate into the French words and into the Western imagination in general what the French remained blind to and it seems the West has still remained the same toward, that is, amongst many other possible interpretations, “you are not the origin but you can be the co-participants to a trans-originary will and cause for freedom and egality.” This is still the case with Michael Hardt’s educational discourse when he later in a discussion “Lab” says; “‘we’ can learn from ‘them’, but ‘we’ can’t do much for ‘them’”(Social Movements Lab #8: Woman, Life and Freedom in Iran - YouTube). In his educational discourse, he cannot imagine any possible meeting place between ‘we’ and ‘them.’ It is also evident through the whole structure of the “Lab” that he is mostly seeking for a cartography and an anatomical dissection for his lab through the questions mostly of statistical nature to give him a clear-cut geo-graphy and bio-graphy of the struggle. Finally, we have Alain Badiou’s solidarity message, he starts as the arbiter of legitimacy to tell ‘us’ our struggle is legitimate, hence, to be able to remind us as a teacher, to be successful we have to be able to define new forms of egality. I dare say, these Western intellectual figureheads are reproducing the colonial fascination with what they lack for their “labs.” Otherwise, they would have known they are uttering these messages from their institutional status; therefore, they have to atone their own share of guilt by reinventing the already existing Human Rights institutions in the West to “put them at the service of the precarious lives rather than them having the precarious lives of those similar to Behnaz at the service of their own very existence.”

Let me quote Behnaz’s words for you: “To tell you the truth, Payam and I have always had to fight and try to prove ourselves as worthy human beings, as ones who just exist. We never have been loved, cared, or supported by anyone before. Therefore, you should know what your loves and support mean to us.”. I refer back to the opening of my letter where I compared the sophist with the true philosopher, now I venture to compare the figure of the poet, as you yourself and Behnaz herself, with that of the philosopher. In your announcement to your petition, you appoint that “the “almost” in “almost powerless” is where we meet, it’s the place of our solidarity.”Poets [as] the unacknowledged legislators of the world” imagine a meeting place, rather than philosophers who fall into prey of making an object of fascination and knowledge-production the plight of the subalterns. Let us try to practice a poetry which responsibly imagines a meeting place as a tribunal to the guilt we all share in. Because, to quote Behnaz, she “believes together we are weaving a new spell, creating a new magic, something which is so powerful, so beautiful, so effective that will last forever. And for that, she is the most fortunate person on this wretched earth”. 

pdf of this letter: here