Feel the Power, Experience the Pleasure: Contemporary Tehran and its Visual Culture

By Vahid Valizadeh


Feel the power, experience the pleasure. Raised over the congested Hemmat highway in Tehran, god-like, two gigantic billboards call the commuters to their heaven, with these words alongside a picture of a BMW. Probably the representatives of BMW think of improving the sales of their product, but I think of the teeth of bourgeois ideology.

We think we are spoken to. Today’s god hails me. ‘I’ am invited to feel power, to experience pleasure. Obviously this god knows that his slaves are without power, without pleasure. But what does the duo of power and pleasure contain in its hidden layers?

In the first (the layer of intention) the representative of BMW has targeted potential buyers: the bourgeoisie. One must have a huge amount of money to buy such a car. This twofold slogan hails two distinct parts of the Iranian bourgeoisie, that which has power but no experience of pleasure; and those drenched in pleasure but with no power. The first group is a new social category in Iran. In their youth, they were ascetic and austere but now, in their middle age, they occupy the most important positions, in state-owned factories, major energy companies, powerful networks within the system.

Only recently have they become bourgeois. They are more powerful than their recent associates. They are lords of Iran. But they are newcomers in the pleasure sphere - a non-religious one. The age-old bourgeois has lived in this sphere for decades, but these newcomers have only recently discovered it. They are alien to it. Above all, their youth is gone. This new atmosphere is full of regrets. They have bypassed pleasure for many years. To compensate, they must speed up, must rush to experience the pleasure. BMW is its embodiment.

The second type of bourgeois has been experiencing pleasure for some time, even in the heart of 1980s Tehran. Good music, good wine, good partner, good party… but being powerless has always been their ‘class pain’. They are powerless in the public sphere. A 14-year-old basiji (member of an organised fascist-Islamic movement under the guidance of the regime) can humiliate them in the streets. They have no authority. They can only express themselves in private spaces and in their own community. They need power need an authoritative presence in the public sphere. They need a firm shell in which to feel the power. BMW is its embodiment.

Advertising contains, of course, the essence of capitalist ideology. Bourgeois ideology says that power and pleasure lies in the purchase of commodities. This ideology says that power lies in owning a BMW rather than finding your favorite job. Power lies not in participating in the organisation of society. Power means the possession of a BMW or, rather, your mediation with BMW, i.e. money. To be powerful is to have money, not solidarity.

It says that pleasure means the possession of a BMW, not reciting a poem, or a chat with a friend, not with reading an interesting novel or enjoying a long walk at night on a lone road. It is possible to enjoy love, but only when you drive a BMW; only when you drive money.

Ideology conveys the illusion that you are its sole audience. You and only you, someone selected for a dialogue. You are invited to buy a car. You are invited to seize the power. You will experience the pleasure. The individuality, that in this society has no worth, is not noticed, scurries among millions of other human-machines, disappears among smoke, iron, and concrete; the individuality that is invisible against wealth, status, and power; is suddenly hailed. You will experience the pleasure. No wonder there is such mass ecstasy in answering this call. Someone hails you. And you, who has been abandoned, answers him / her. Keenly.

But no one is calling, and neither is anyone called upon. There are only words inscribed on a huge billboard raised over a bridge to sell the products of a gigantic company. Anyone may pass along Hemmat highway and read these words. The particular you is not important to BMW. To them, you are indistinguishable from others. Capitalism does not deal with your personality or individuality. It deals with your money. BMW wants your money and Iranian capitalism needs your greed.

Ideology is always exposed by its contradictions. The BMW advertisement is located in the most congested spot of the Hemmat highway to catch the most attention. But meanwhile it also exposes its illusory being. The advert says that, in buying BMW, you can feel the power, experience the pleasure, just when you are desperately locked in a seemingly eternal traffic jam. You are stuck among thousands of other cars and, even if you deal with the most important business in the world, there is nothing you can do. You are distressed and powerless, frustrated and miserable. The brand of your car is irrelevant. You suffer the same fate as others, whether you are driving a BMW or a Peykan. In the network of paths designed by capitalism, you will not FEEL THE POWER, you will not EXPERIENCE THE PLEASURE.

Vahid Valizadeh was born in 1977 in Iran. He has an MA in Cultural Studies and is a poet, writer and researcher. He is currently in exile in Turkey.