|This is a fascinating interactive essay that richly benefits from the interactive form. It is dense, deeply interconnected, and provocative.|
The first thing that strikes me about this project is the interface, whose twanging threads one can satisfyingly pull up onto pins that are also idea-nodes, distributed randomly on the image surface. This troubled me. I understood that the structural role of the pins in carpet weaving was to hold the warp threads taut and horizontal, so that the weft could be woven between them. Now here are these pins all over the place, allowing me to stretch the threads in many different directions -- I can only imagine the resulting carpet would be a crazily undulating multi-directional surface! Correct me if I'm wrong and this interface in fact mimics some weaving process I am not aware of. It is innovative but also deeply disturbing, as it seems to undo the basic structure of the carpet. The interface certainly draws attention to the non-linear form of this and other Vectors essays. It questions the need for a basic unchanging knowledge matrix, and in this liberty it is able to spin new connections. "Nation on the Move" is about carpets, but it is structured more like a spider web or a crazy quilt. This is wonderfully shown in the Index, where specific concepts like "the body" show their shifting relation to contents and themes in a dynamic web-like interface.
The nonlinear and deeply interconnected form is well-suited to the subject of Nation on the Move. As Moallem shows, Persian carpets circulate in many registers, including markets and the flow of commodities; nationalism; Orientalism; connoisseurship; the gendered division of labor. The constellation format allows many concepts and phenomena to come in without being subordinated to the whole. For example, we come across the relationships between carpets and computers in at least two ways: in an observation on the structural similarity of weaving and programming, and, far away on the site, an observation on the online marketing of carpets. The non-hierarchical interface places side by side concepts, events, and phenomena from different geographic sites and historical periods, requiring the viewer to make the mental connections. For example, the page "Orientalism: old and new" juxtaposes disgustingly racist 19th C attitudes with the sleek positions of contemporary neo-imperialist economy.
These registers have different degrees of discursiveness and of materiality, and the non-hierarchical structure allows these to abut in surprising ways. The least accessible of these registers is the most material: the private life of the village weavers, who know these textiles most intimately. Yet it too is glimpsed in Moallem's photographs and in film clips, in the page "Eye and Hand," a clip from Maryam Shahriar's Daughters of the Sun also indicates the manual knowledge of the weavers. I appreciate the difference between the sophisticated interface, which presents "Nation on the Move" as a constellation of abstractions, and the author's photographs and other images and sounds, which present quite specific places, people, and experiences. There is a strong and almost mournful sense that what is most precious about these carpets and the lives that produced them is also must fragile and least translatable, as when Moallem writes, "Neither the connoisseur's books nor the media advertisements makes any allusion to the carpet's expressivity, meaning the ways in which the carpet displays notions of memory, difference, community, and solidarity."
The written component of "Nation on the Move" is quite dense and discursively heavy. This may be the result of dividing the "saying" and "showing" elements of the work: the photographs and the interface carry much of the argument visually, while the text is left to do the discursive heavy lifting. As a scholar who has recently begun to try to understand the history of Persian carpets, I am wary of the discourses that are imposed upon them. Moallem captures this tension between seeable and sayable well. To some degree, by using this innovative structure, she allows the weavers and the carpets themselves to speak back to the ponderous discourses of nationalism, economy, Orientalism, and art history. This is a lively and effective strategy. But sometimes the scholarship is reactive, choosing to critique a problematic concept rather than support a fruitful one. For example, why bother to cite and then bash W.J.T. Mitchell's concept of the "imagetext" as a way to think about carpets, when it is obviously inappropriate?
Given the discursive minefields that Moallem's work so boldly traipses, I do wish that the site offered more places to look upon the carpets themselves. The pictures are fairly illustrative, functioning almost textually for documentary or critical effect. It is her descriptions that indicate the carpets' power, as in her stunning observation that the carpet weaver draws the virtual into the actual, to "bring the corporeal together with what will live forever."
- Laura U. Marks, Simon Fraser University, 09.25.2007