Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

A young philosopher of note

I have had the privilege of becoming acquainted with the work of a young Iranian-American philosopher, Farhang Erfani, along various avenues, and what a pleasure it has been. In addition to papers published by him in philosophical journals, he recently published a book, “Aesthetics of Autonomy – Ricoeur and Sartre on Emancipation, Authenticity, and Selfhood” (Lexington Books, 2011), and there are at least two more in the pipeline (on one of which I had the privilege of writing a reader’s report for a publisher). In this book he embarks on a welcome re-reading, together, of two thinkers that seem to me to be often somewhat neglected in universities, perhaps because they belong to a philosophical tradition that appears to have been superseded by more recent developments in philosophy, for example varieties of poststructuralist thought.

While the latter is undoubtedly important – poststructuralists are very innovative in tackling age-old philosophical questions – Erfani’s book has reminded me of the reasons why both Sartre and Ricoeur are regarded as two of the most important thinkers of the 20th century. It is no accident that Sartre was France’s leading intellectual during World War II, as well as embodying the country’s “existentialist” conscience during the Nazi occupation. His dictum, that we are “condemned to be free” should be understood in this context, and is a trenchant reminder that no one has any excuse for committing morally compromising acts: when you do, you are inescapably RESPONSIBLE for your choice.

In the case of Ricoeur, in addition to being, like Sartre, anti-essentialist, he is known for what I would call his philosophical approach of “reconciliation”, but perhaps better for what Erfani refers to as his “narrative ethics” and his “hermeneutics of narratives”. Ricoeur had a penchant for understanding human action, or human life, in terms of what one associates, first and foremost, with literature or art.

Erfani concentrates on those aspects of Sartre’s and Ricoeur’s intellectual legacy which enable him to argue that their work succeeds in creatively rescuing a sense of autonomy and selfhood, notably in aesthetic terms – in effect, he sees them, in different but complementary ways, as charting an aesthetic path to an autonomous self. At a time when processes of globalization at various levels, but perhaps most obviously at the economic and ecological levels, are reminding people how “fragile” the human subject can be in such an increasingly complex world, we can take heart in light of these thinkers’ conceptions of imagination and creativity in relation to human identity. Both of them, Erfani argues, displayed a sensitivity for the constitutive role of narrative for individual subjects, to the point where one can legitimately speak of the subject’s “narrative identity”.

This has important consequences in a globalized world, where, as Erfani points out, it is even more difficult to conceive of an individual as being self-sufficient than it was in ancient Athens. The lesson of Sartre and Ricoeur is that the aesthetic means available to us – in the form of imagination, for instance – are indispensable to help us “figure out” what it is to be a “self” today. Moreover, it is also indispensable in re-configuring our conception of politics in a world light-years removed from the ancient Greek polis. In short, Erfani’s book, by engaging with the very relevant work of Ricoeur and Sartre, highlights the potential for autonomy that continues to exist in (often underestimated) aesthetic form, at a time when heteronomy appears to be increasingly the rule for most human subjects in a world dominated by corporate power.

In another (forthcoming) book, “Shooting truth: Philosophy and Iranian Cinema”, Erfani combines his impressive knowledge of philosophy and an equally thorough knowledge of Iranian film and Iranian film scholarship. The title of the book, with its striking, ambiguous metaphor, is telling: it alludes to what is at stake when, in a theocratic, authoritarian state, filmmakers risk their careers, if not their freedom of movement (or worse), to make (shoot) films which have increasingly constituted the space within which the regime can be criticised and the consequences of the Iranian revolution be thought through with regard to its “truth”. Iranian state censorship is such that directors such as Majidi or Kiarostami have to be very circumspect and/or clever at the art of cinematic disguise, to be able to preclude the state from “shooting” the “truth” “shot” in and through their films.

An important thing to notice from the outset is that this is not a book that errs where so many other philosophical writings on cinema go astray, namely, to “use” film(s) in order to illustrate, demonstrate or explain someone’s philosophy, or an aspect of philosophical thinking, thus showing a blind spot for what it is that makes film singular among the arts. In contrast to such approaches, Erfani brings Iranian film(s) and philosophy into a fruitful mutual rapprochement, encouraging each discipline (for film-making is a “discipline” no less than philosophy) to illuminate and supplement the other in their distinctive ways.

This involves philosophical perspectives on the part of some of (mainly) the outstanding Continental philosophers, whose thought is selected with its relevance for (or resonance with) Iranian film as a site of struggle in mind, but the distinctiveness of both philosophy and film is never in any doubt. It is important to recognize this in Erfani’s work, given the tendency, on the part of some philosophers and other human scientists, to reduce film (and the other visual arts) to the status of just another linguistic-conceptual enterprise, overlooking what makes film singular among the visual arts (where I disagree with Noel Carroll’s denial of such “singularity”) – something that Erfani is never guilty of.

It is impossible to do justice to the sheer breadth of vision of this book, or to the subtlety and incisiveness of Erfani’s highly original interpretations of the Iranian (and one Kurdish) films. I found it hard to decide which of his philosophical interpretations of these films is my favourite – the Heideggerian interpretation of Kiarostami’s “Taste of Cherry”, and the Lacanian interpretation of female director Meshkini’s ”The day I Became a Woman” would probably vie for supremacy in the end.

Erfani approaches the latter film along the interpretive Lacanian axis of jouissance (extreme, virtually unbearable pleasure), and shows, brilliantly, I believe, that there is a reason for the fragmented structure of this film. It knits together the stories of three different women, all marginalized as women, and all in the position to discover, if not their particular jouissance, then its transgressive effects in their lives.

If the audience should experience the disruptive functioning of jouissance in relation to the film’s (narrative’s) symbolic order, but also to the women’s lives, one should regard the director’s voice as the fourth in the film, Erfani suggests, because of the way she brings the other three together as representative of the marginalization of women and of their struggles. Here, again, Erfani recognizes the singularity of cinema as art, in so far as it is shown as transcending the limitations of the symbolic.

This is but a smattering of the philosophical work on the part of this young thinker and teacher (he teaches at American University in Washington, DC), but it whets one’s appetite for more. I fully expect him to produce something special in political philosophy (his abiding interest) sooner or later, but until then, I shall relish whatever philosophical surprises he comes up with.

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