Writing Prozāk Diaries in Tehran: Generational Anomie and Psychiatric Subjectivities

An Erratum to this article was published on 05 April 2015

Abstract

I explore the historical and cultural shifts that underlie the normalization of the term dépréshen and the emergence of public psychiatric discourses in 1990s Iran. I do this by investigating the cultural sensibilities of a particular generation, the self-identified 1980s generation, and the ways they situate what is perceived as dépréshen in social anomie and the memories of the Iran–Iraq war. I argue that psychiatrization of psychological distress in Iran was not simply a de-politicizing hegemonic biomedical discourse, but that the contemporary Iranian discourses of psychological pathology and social loss evolved in public, hand-in-hand, through the medicalization of post-war loss. Psychiatric subjectivity describes conditions where individuals internalize psychiatry as a mode of thinking, and performatively articulate not only their desires, hopes, and anxieties, but also historical losses as embodied in individual and collective brains. I underscore my interlocutors’ simultaneous historicization and medicalization of their dépréshen, arguing that psychiatrically medicalized individuals are performative actors in the discursive formation of both biomedical and social truth. Dépréshen, in the larger sense of the word, has become one way to navigate ruptured pasts, slippery presents, and uncertain futures.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Epidemiological data in Iranian medical publications are often the source of these reports; some report anxiety disorders (8.35 %) and depressive mood disorders (4.29 %) as Iran’s most common psychiatric conditions (Mohammadi et al. 2005). Similarly, for suicide, lifetime prevalence rates are reported 14 % for suicide ideation and 4.1 % for attempts (Shooshtary et al. 2008). Western, war-torn Iran has the highest rate of female self-immolation.

  2. 2.

    In her Psychoanalytical Politics, Turkle tells the story of social change in the post-1968 French society through the lens of shifting orientations in psychoanalysis (Turkle 1978). Her approach has inspired my analysis of the marriage of politics and psychology in disillusioned post-revolution Iran.

  3. 3.

    All translations in this article [of interviews and cultural material] from Persian to English are the author’s.

  4. 4.

    This discourse is situated in what Schayegh has aptly called “scientific modernization” in early 20th century Iran (2009).

  5. 5.

    At a practical level, doctors explain that medication is usually Iran’s first line of intervention for a number of reasons: the lack of a well-funded mental healthcare infrastructure, arbitrary distribution of patients among specialties, ornamental role of social workers and psychiatric nurses, lack of patients’ compliance to psychotherapy, a culture of “quick fixes,” transitions from “tradition to modernity,” and urgency of symptoms at the time of psychiatric visits.

  6. 6.

    Blog entries are anonymized and remain on file with the author.

  7. 7.

    In Japan, for instance, Kitanaka shows that the psychiatrization of depression is not immediately associated with biological reductionism the way it is in North America, evoking instead references to social ailment (Kitanaka 2012).

  8. 8.

    I use the term rupture instead of trauma to allow Persian usages of the word to emerge. The term rupture also offers conceptual capacities for diffusion, complexity, and flow of loss and emotions across times, unlike trauma’s implication of singularity and event-based temporality. Ruptured subjective experiences are not easily mapped or translated to psychological trauma or to political histories.

  9. 9.

    Psychiatric subjectivity materialized in conversation with works including Fischer (2003); Turkle (1985, 1995); Rabinow (1999); Nguyen (2010); Petryna (2002), and Rose (2003, 2006). For more on biomedical subjectivities (see Kleinman 1988; Lock 1993, 2002; Martin 1994; Rapp 1999).

  10. 10.

    Despite heated discussion by scholars and social critics around the politics of each new edition of the DSM, these debates have found little purchase in Iran.

  11. 11.

    Despite the limitations of Freud’s work on mourning (Clewell 2004; Ramazani 1994), it holds that without mourning, defined in Freud’s earlier work [1966a (1917)] as a kind of hyper-remembering, melancholia follows. In his other works, On Transience [1966b (1915)] and Thoughts for the Times on War and Death (1966c), mourning is a means of healing, to “build up again all that the war has destroyed, and perhaps on firmer ground and more lastingly than before.”

  12. 12.

    Feeling stuck and placeless (āvāreh) was the fate of exiled intellectual figures like Sāedi, but also of many ordinary émigrés (Fischer and Abedi 1990).

  13. 13.

    The group podcasted six programs between January and May 2009: http://stillnessradio.blogspot.com/. Each opens with wartime sirens.

  14. 14.

    See Shorish (1988) on the construction of an ideological selfhood in Iranian school textbooks during the first post-revolutionary years. Also, see Moghadam (1999) on the re-formulation of gender roles in school teachings after revolution, and Afary (2009) on sexual politics in contemporary Iran. For a periodized map of the struggles of and inconsistencies in the processes of textbook reformation, see Malekzadeh (2012). For a close reading and content analysis of the post-revolutionary transformation of school textbooks in Iran, see Paivandi (2005).

  15. 15.

    For more on aspirations of and clashes between different classes of youth in Tehran, see Khosravi (2008).

  16. 16.

    Nāderi was the intellectuals’ “Cafe Maxime of Tehran” in the 1960s.

  17. 17.

    This paper is not a survey of clinical depression in Iran; rather, its point is the conceptual and linguistic emergence of dépréshen as a catchall term for a spectrum of mood-related experiences, offering indications for overmedication and mis-medication.

  18. 18.

    Full lyrics available from author.

  19. 19.

    I take a cue from Freud and from Benjamin’s dialectical images (Buck-Morss 1991), designating to the spectacle of psychiatry [its biomedical images, language, concepts, and other representations of knowledge] the power of awakening a utopian dream/phantasy of health. I regard psychoanalytical phantasy as both prospective (Freud’s wishful thinking) and retrospective (Lacan’s defense against past anxiety).

  20. 20.

    Many blame their dépréshen on either the Islamic order or Sufi valorization of melancholic gravitas as a distinctive taproot of Persian culture. For this paper, religion is relevant insofar as it relates to the ways in which young people perceive their childhood as shaped by age-old Shiite cultural tropes of mourning and martyrdom that repressed music and color, expanding the Karbala Paradigm as an all-encompassing stoicism under a regime that was embattled and claimed to fight for justice in a corrupt world (Fischer 1980, 1990, 2004; Aghaie 2004).

  21. 21.

    A relevant discussion of gender is beyond the scope of this paper. Suffice to say that beyond prevailing trends in exoticizing and reducing Iranian youth culture to resistance, gender needs to be understood in terms of the politicization of gender roles in the aftermath of the revolution and the Iran–Iraq war. At issue is to ask how violations inscribed on the body influence discursive formation of gender and subjects, psychiatric or not.

  22. 22.

    See Rose (1996, 2006) on individualistic biopolitics and neoliberal discourses of “responsibilization” in “psy” disciplines. On the Foucauldian trope of “care of the self,” see Faubion (2011), and Davis (2012).

  23. 23.

    Sāzemān-e Ettelā’āt va Amniyat-e Keshvar (“Intelligence and Security Organization of the Country”), the secret police under the Shah.

  24. 24.

    Khosravi calls it a “generation-wise structured change of life style” (2008).

  25. 25.

    Persian blogs are alternately listed as constituting the third or fourth largest blogosphere. See the report by Berkman Centre for Internet and Society at Harvard University, which despite its conceptual limitations, offers a visual map of the Persian Blogosphere: http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/publications/2008/Mapping_Irans_Online_Public.

  26. 26.

    An important character in Persian poetic tradition who flouts moralistic taboos and celebrates life (Bateson 1979).

  27. 27.

    Lyrics to “Jang [Fight],” by 127, available online. An underground band founded in 2001 by a group of Tehrani art students, 127 identifies itself as located “at the center of progressive cultural change in Iran.” Their music melds Iranian melodies and jazz with an alternative sound, and they say their lyrics tell of the “frustrations and joys of life.” Now residing and performing outside of Iran, they have attracted an international audience and were featured in a 2005 UK Channel 4 documentary titled “127, An Iranian Band.”

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Acknowledgements

I am grateful to my interlocutors and collaborators who trusted me with their stories, and to Iman Tavassoly for his ethnographic assistance. I am thankful to Michael MJ Fischer, Sarah E. Parkinson, Zuzanna Olszewska, Julie Kleinman, and Carlo Caduff for their astute comments. I am also grateful to the 2008 and 2009 cohort of Dissertation Proposal Development Fellowship (DPDF) and International Dissertation Research Fellowship (IDRF) fellows at the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) for broader conversations that improved this article. I remain grateful to Social Science Research Council, The Wenner-Gren Foundation, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the European Neuroscience and Society Network (ENSN) for funding this research.

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Behrouzan, O. Writing Prozāk Diaries in Tehran: Generational Anomie and Psychiatric Subjectivities. Cult Med Psychiatry 39, 399–426 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11013-014-9425-4

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Keywords

  • Medicalization
  • Depression
  • Iran–Iraq war
  • Iran
  • Psychiatry
  • Memory