This article originally appeared in the 2015 edition of Tirgan Magazine, as part of its special segment on “keywords”. This is the official magazine of the biannual Tirgan festival (Toronto) that celebrates Iranian art and culture from within Iran and across the global Iranian diaspora. It is the largest of its kind outside of Iran. Other entries from Tirgan Magazine are available here.
“Keywords” are a glimpse into cultural complexity. Their regular appearance in everyday conversation or popular media speaks to various kinds of work we rely on them to do, and the social contexts in which they both circulate and help hold together.
Like that awkward guest at your party, you’re never sure enough about “culture” to leave it alone. It lingers in your peripheral vision. Every so often it will require your attention. And so you remain ready to give reasons for it: “don’t be offended, in my culture this isn’t a big deal”. And just like that guest it turns up everywhere, makes demands, and is easily offended. You certainly can’t just ask it to leave or give it the silent treatment (you can try but it’ll get messy). So there you are: obliged toward “culture”, but unsure about the limits and criteria of this obligation. Just what is it about this mercurial concept that makes for such awkward intimacy?
Some of the answer lies in the uncanny range of things that “culture” can do and be. It spans great distances as it permeates the geography of nation-states (“Canadian culture”, “Iranian culture”), yet also represents the continuity of their history through the centuries when bits of ornament are unearthed from a few feet underground. It is invoked as something commonly shared by the peoples of these geographies (like a language), yet it’s also used to distinguish some of them from others (“he’s not very cultured, you can tell by his accent”). It’s often described as an intangible essence (a “mentality”, “feeling” or “ethos”), yet it’s equally understood in very tangible terms as the object of preservation (“cultural heritage”), a vehicle for domination (“cultural imperialism”), the stuff of development (“Canada Cultural Investment Fund”), and even the subject of increasingly elaborate copyright laws (“cultural property”).
During the 1980s—coinciding with the increasing affordability of travel, advances in communication technologies, and the increase in circular migration as migrants remained connected to their “homelands”—this uncanny nature of “culture” emerged as the focus of much debate in the social sciences. The consensus today is that “culture” is not a coherent and timeless thing that is always bound to a certain place. It is contested, and though it can materialize in things and actions it always exceeds them as well. Academics today prefer to focus on the politics of “culture”: the claims that it is invoked to make, and by whom.
“Culture” is key to our sense of national identity, for example, and regularly features in the everyday conversations that articulate it. Wait for it the next time you discuss whether television programming requires homegrown content, if Black Friday will eventually overshadow Boxing Day, or hear someone rant about the service at that “ethnic” restaurant. But references to “culture” don’t just describe the nation. Rather, it is actually this shared concern and talk about “culture” itself—the description of its contents, celebration of its diversity, speculation about its future, etc.—that keeps within view a larger collective like “Canada” or “Iran”. Talk about “culture” is ubiquitous because this word functions like the conceptual glue holding these larger-than-life collectives intact in our imagination, making them available for us (this author and his readers) to feel beholden to, alienated from, work to salvage, reform, reject, and so on.
The adventure of this concept in recent Iranian history is a case in point. It’s been called upon to help assemble various iterations of Iran. But while visions of the Iranian nation and the values of its governments radically changed, the conceptual grammar remained the same: “culture”. A (very) brief overview will suffice.
During the Pahlavi dynasty (the monarchical government prior to the revolution), the concept of “culture” was officially deployed toward the twin ends of modernization and the legitimization of monarchy. In the 1930s the Iranian Language Academy adopted a Persian equivalent for the English “culture” (farhang), and the Center for Iranian Anthropology was established in order to study it in Iran. In the 1960s and 1970s, this study of “culture” was further prioritized. It usually focused on either folklore and archeology, or the task of providing sociological data on rural populations for development projects and on nomadic tribes for programs to permanently settle them. The former reinforced a pre-Islamic cultural heritage and furnished establishment historians with materials to trace the continuity of the nation, while the latter reinforced the work of technocrats aiming to transform this nation.
Following the revolution (1978-1979), the Islamic Republic initially disregarded this academic study of “culture” for being so closely associated with the ideology and objectives of the previous government. The revolution was propagated as morally rehabilitating the nation in the face of “Westernization”, and requiring religion rather than ancient history to this end. The field of anthropology was marginalized. But the notion of “culture” was retained. When this “rehabilitation” involved purging universities—they were closed down between 1981-1983—it was officially as part of a “cultural revolution” and coordinated by a newly minted Committee for Cultural Revolution; in 1984 this committee gave way to the enduring Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution. In the early 1990s the notion of “cultural invasion” was officially adopted in governmental discourse to emphasize this vision of Iranian society as morally besieged by Western “culture”. Later in the 1990s the Islamic Republic began to revise its position on Iran’s pre-Islamic history and adopted a more nationalistic cultural policy. The academic study of culture was once again expanded (e.g.: 465 books focusing on folklore were published between 1979 and 2002).
This cursory sketch is enough to remind us that “culture” is intimately implicated in national politics; it provides the common language in which competing visions of ‘the nation’ confront one another.
There are other ways of probing the uses and politics of “culture” as a keyword. Canadian readers will be familiar with “multiculturalism” and the talk about reconciling a coherent national identity while accommodating a cultural “mosaic”, and whether building a giant statute of a mother figure is the most appropriate way to remember fallen soldiers. Iranian readers will be familiar with the irony of arresting a group of youth for uploading their version of Pharrell Williams’ Happy, while officially allowing an Iranian duplication of Modern Family. Then there’s also the matter of how different generations of Iranians in the diaspora jostle with each other over what it means to be a “hyphenated” Iranian. The list goes on.
My point here has been to highlight the resiliency of this concept—warts and all—in framing our sense of who we are in relation to others, and the larger-than-life collectives that are assembled and reassembled in our name.
That awkward guest, in turns out, lingers in the peripheral vision of everyone else at the party too: binding us even as we take turns engaging and avoiding him or her.
 Setrag Manoukian, City of Knowledge in Twentieth Century Iran: Shiraz, History and Poetry (New York: Routledge, 2012), 24.
 See the collection of essays in Conceptualizing Iranian Anthropology: Past and Present Perspectives, ed. by Shahnaz Nadjmabadi (London: Berghahn Books, 2009).
 Nematollah Fazeli, Politics of Culture in Iran: Anthropology, Politics And Society In The Twentieth Century (London: Routledge, 2006), 196.