This dissertation contributes to the geographical literature on migration, aesthetics, and psychoanalysis by examining the social and psychical spaces of Iranian-American artists, migrants, and cultural producers in Los Angeles, California. Attending to the dynamic formations of the unconscious during fieldwork, data analysis, and the writing phase of the research, the dissertation explores the emergence of a distinctive Iranian aesthetic in Los Angeles, which since the 1979 Islamic Revolution has become home to the largest Iranian population outside of Iran. I conceptualize such an aesthetic using the psychoanalytic works by (and associated with) Jacques Lacan, especially his concept of “the Real,” which defines how people’s senses of reality are threatened by the inconsistencies of language, blind spots in the field of vision, antagonisms that permeate social bonds, and intense affects such as anxiety and shame that threaten a coherent sense of the self. The study asks what are the main symptoms that accompany the experiences of Iranian-American migrants and artists? How do art and aesthetic experiences produce and inform encounters with the traumatic dimensions of migration? What role do images play in the discourses of cultural organizations, film festivals, and other art events? To answer these questions, I conduct ethnographic research consisting of empirical observations of Iranian-American artists, art institutions, art and film festivals, and members of my own immediate and extended family in Los Angeles through participant observation, psychoanalytic listening, semi-structured interviews, and autobiographic insights. I argue that much of Los Angeles’ Iranian aesthetic can be understood as an attempt to creatively respond to the painful and unspeakable aspects of migration. Crucial here are the life trajectory disruptions and displacements that comprise the Real of migrant experiences in their new home city: a fraught yet productive conflict that emerges out of the potentialities of the past (what could have been but never happened) and the immediacies of the present (life as it is currently lived). My study reveals that while some actors and communities seek to harness the artistic energies of the Real, others attempt to avoid it altogether.
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Thesis advisor: Kingsbury, Paul
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