Pamela Karimi, Domesticity and Consumer Culture in Iran: Interior Revolutions of the Modern Era (New York: Routledge, 2013).
A really good social analysis can take a seemingly minor issue and use it as a lens through which to examine multiple aspects of a complex system. Pamela Karimi has done exactly that in her impressively researched study of Domesticity and Consumer Culture in Iran. This book is not just about the role of things in private homes. Rather, Karimi tracks how the changing material culture of Iranian households reflected changing social experiences, norms and expectations at every level of experience, from the most intimate matters of personal hygiene to the Cold War agendas of international policy. She examines the social construction of domestic spaces and the spatial organization of social life, progressing along a loose chronological path from late nineteenth-century Qajar Iran to the early twenty-first-century Islamic Republic. But the structural organization of the book is really conceptual: Each chapter addresses a different aspect of the changing human geography of social and spatial relations, and as a whole, the book very successfully challenges any lingering assumptions that spaces can be readily segregated into public or private realms. Drawing on a wide variety of sources, including architectural and urban planning resources as well as missionary archives, educational curricula and religious treatises, Karimi documents how Iranian households became “modern” by making the home the locus of consumption (of both goods and behaviors), and how modernity became more widely accessible as domestic spaces and consumer items increasingly became local versions of a broader global “middle-class” experience.
Karimi opens the book by discussing that ubiquitous modern appliance, the air conditioning unit or “kooler.” As a “montage” product initially produced by an Iranian-American joint venture, the Iranian kooler became a middle-class consumer necessity, an avant-garde art subject and eventually a target of Islamic nationalist political ire. Her brief overview of the varied history of this simple household commodity provides a witty introduction to her larger project of examining Iranians’ construction of modern identities and spaces. Each chapter revolves around an aspect of domestic life, the focus of the discussion continually expanding in order to pull in a wider set of integrated issues. The chapter on late nineteenth-century domestic design begins with a sensitive discussion of the pastiche of Qajar interior decoration, and the quite public role of the newly constructed Tehran private palaces (Gulistan in the central city royal compound, and the suburban summer pavilions Shams al’Imarah and Khabgah). Karimi demonstrates that these apparently traditional spaces of gender segregation actually highlight the question of women’s presence, whether visible (as a Western image inset and lacquered to the mirror and plaster wall work of a formal reception room), or implied (in the published and circulated images of the shah’s newly built family quarters). Under the Pahlavi monarchy, domestic architecture becomes more firmly connected to urban planning and industrial development, and the exemplary modern domestic space is increasingly intended for the appropriately modern nuclear family. The availability of concrete enabled the building of multi-story apartment buildings, and new models of industrial organization led to planned communities in company towns, segregated by class and occupation rather than gender. The modern worker, the modern home, the modern family and the modernizing monarchy were all intended to complement each other. But authorities, whether political or religious, did not leave the social organization of these new spaces to chance. In two fascinating and complementary chapters, Karimi explores the development of a local home economics curriculum as a core subject in girls’ education (often taught by foreign missionaries and supported by the US Department of Education as part of American Cold War strategy), and Islamist experts’ pre- and post-revolutionary creation of modern handbooks of proper behavior (that both accommodated new consumer items and images and vilified their material lure). While experts of various kinds exhorted them to practice appropriate modernity and proper domesticity, ordinary Iranians observed and adapted changes in their political, moral and material regimes.
The last few chapters of the book are perhaps less tightly organized and the discussion becomes more fragmented. This is partly an understandable problem of historical periodization: Writing about changes to domestic architecture and private life under the Islamic Republic is inevitably more challenging, since the politicization of these issues is more immediate. This lack of historical and political distance seems to push Karimi to connect topics that do not quite cohere; I found the linked discussion of the role of skyscrapers as a pre- and post-revolutionary housing unit, and the ambivalent pre- and post-revolutionary government targeting of women as guardians of domestic propriety, to be a bit confusing. But since new skyscraper apartment buildings continue to be built, and to dominate the contemporary Iranian imaginary for both satisfactory urban skylines and desirable domestic space, their influence on the changing spatial and social organizations of Iranian experience may provide Karimi with some very fruitful possibilities for further research.
In sum, this is a fascinating and wide-ranging study, exemplary in the breadth and depth of scholarship Karimi has brought to bear. It will be enormously valuable to anyone interested in issues of urbanization, gender roles, experiences of modernity and modernization, consumer culture and aesthetics, and Iranian social and material history. Karimi is one of the first scholars to consider the role of consumer culture in making the Iranian experience of modernity (she correctly identifies Camron Amin as one of the only others to do so), but this book will not only be of interest to scholars of Iran. Routledge obviously recognized the unusual value of Karimi’s project, and was willing to support it by publishing an extensively illustrated volume. The illustrations—ranging from archival architectural and decorative images, to floor plans, to magazine advertisements, to snapshots of informal social gatherings in domestic spaces under varying versions of modernity—are invaluable and beautifully expand the text. Unfortunately, in some volumes of an early print run the illustrations (and some of the text itself) are barely legible. Routledge has fixed the problem, but readers should take care that their copy is decently printed, or risk being extremely frustrated trying to decipher tantalizingly poor-quality images.
Despite this glitch in its initial production (reminding us not to take for granted the seamless provision of modern consumer goods!), this is a rich and rewarding example of new urban scholarship, combining original analysis of spatial and social issues with an awareness of economic and political development, social policies and material culture. Karimi persuasively demonstrates that “domesticity” is a complex space of social and material relations, and that no account of Iranian “modernity” can continue to ignore its fundamental contributions.