New Affiliated Faculty Spotlight: Sara Mameni

Sara Mameni, Assistant Professor in the Department of Ethnic Studies

Sara Mameni is an art historian specializing in contemporary transnational art and visual culture in the Arab/Muslim world with an interdisciplinary research on racial discourse, transnational gender politics, militarism, oil cultures and extractive economies in West Asia.

Critical Theory: Could you tell us how, personally and professionally, you became interested in the work of Critical Theory more generally?

Mameni: I think of my development into critical thought to be the result of my very diverse and varied educational background. I was born in post-revolutionary Iran and received my primary education in the context of a culture that was undergoing a significant ideological upheaval. I was a part of the first generation of children to receive a post-revolutionary curriculum, witnessing the immense effort it took to redefine even the most quotidian cultural and intellectual practices. So, from an early age, I learned to be a critical reader since what I was learning at school (as well as the post-revolutionary media culture at large), did not match the belief system I was receiving from my parents at home, from my neighbors, friends and others in my immediate surrounding. There seemed to be an immense rift between words and actions and a great deal of interpretive possibility. This was all in the context of top-down orders against critical texts, which had led to widespread prohibition and confiscation of books as well as imprisonment of people I knew. I was 11 years old when the publication of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses brought international attention to Iran’s then Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against what was deemed to be a critical text.

I remember the international reception of Rushdie’s text quite well because it coincided with my migration to Cyprus, where I witnessed a dramatically different understanding of what counts as “critical.” Living on an ethnically divided island between Greek and Turkish peoples, I became initiated into the British colonial education system, which has historically been the main site of critique for Critical Theory. While Cyprus became independent in 1960, there remained a significant British presence despite contestations over ethnic belonging and changing migration patterns. I would argue that historically Critical Theory has concerned itself with the effects of colonial industrial and administrative systems, which gave rise to urban manufacturing and class conflicts that early Marxist theorist attempted to tackle. My early education in anti-imperial struggles, in both Iran and Cyprus, prepared me to receive Critical Theory as a socio-political language during my university education in Canada and the United States. Certainly, the centrality of Eurocentric masculinist perspectives in the canonical texts were starkly apparent to me, motivating me not only to seek out feminist Indigenous, post-colonial and queer theorizing but to look for, and invent, new expressive languages for critique.

Critical Theory: Can you tell us about a current project that you’re working on? 

Mameni: I am currently completing my first book project tentatively titled, “Crude: The Art of Living in the Terracene.” This is a book that tackles the intersection of war, ecology and aesthetics in West Asia. In the book, I consider the emergence of the scientific concept of the Anthropocene (a term which describes the ecological impact of humans on the planet) in relation to the political emergence of the “Global War on Terror.” While these two concepts seem to have very little in common, they are both terms that emerged in the early 2000s as a way of describing a new planet. My task in the book is to understand this new eco-political planet through the work of artists who have brought specific attention to ecological impacts of militarism and its settler colonial and imperial legacies. There are of course a diversity of excellent artistic practices that center these issues and one of my most difficult challenges has been to narrow down the number of art practices I include in the book. Early in the process, I decided to sharpen my focus on oil, petro-cultures and extractive economies that have long been sites of imperial infrastructures, military intervention, labor movements and political resistance. This allowed me to curate works that are materially, sonically, cinematically and politically engaged with carbon and fossil fuel extraction economies. My chapters predominantly travel through Iran, Iraq, Kuwait and Palestine while drawing theoretical links to global petro-aesthetics.

Critical Theory: Is there anything in particular that most excites you about joining the Critical Theory community as an affiliated faculty member?

Mameni: I am very drawn to interdisciplinary spaces and this is what most excites me about the Critical Theory program, which is composed of faculty and graduate students from across campus. Prior to my arrival at Berkeley, I was faculty at California Institute of the Arts where I directed the Aesthetics and Politics MA program within the School of Critical Studies. While I am an art historian by training, I found Critical Studies to be a place of experimentation with a variety of methods, media and political forms. I understand disciplinary formations such as Critical Studies to be inheritors of student organizing and political movements that demanded Feminist Studies, Queer/Trans* Studies, Critical Race and Ethnic Studies as spaces that broke with Eurocentric, heteronormative, patriarchal and white supremacist disciplinary formations. These are what I see as the significant commitments of critical theorizing today.

Critical Theory: When you’re not working, how do you enjoy spending your time? Any particular pastimes, hobbies, etc. that you would like to share?

Mameni: I have worked for many years to narrow the gap between work and pleasure, art and non-art. While this might sound like an unbalanced perspective on work, I mean it as an emphasis on the non-boundedness of art. I love to draw and I have seen my attempts at putting work aside to draw not only open up new avenues for thought but for drawing as well. I had an art practice prior to pursuing a PhD in art history and over the years I have attempted to keep pace with writing and drawing as two very different modes of creative expression. Interdisciplinary work is challenging and highly demanding and I am in the process of understanding how writing and drawing can come together in the context of my academic work.