Sometime ago, Ms. Patton introduced the theory of dialectical materialism as an underlying theme of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. My natural aversion to all things deeply philosophical swiftly stomped out any desire to further think about dialectical materialism—no less devote an entire post on it—but since watching a dozen YouTube videos on the subject I’ve experienced a change of heart. If there is one thing I now understand about dialectal materialism from the ridiculously absurd Illuminati world-domination conspiracy theories videos to the ridiculously convoluted lectures of dialectical materialism, is that no one else seems to understand it either.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines dialectical materialism as:
The Marxist theory that maintains the material basis of a reality constantly changing in a dialectical process and the priority of matter over mind.
Needless to say the brevity of Merriam-Webster’s definition doesn’t give the satisfaction I was searching for. Instead I flipped back to the few notes I jotted down in class for a far more gratifying explanation.
Dialectical materialism, as explained to us, is the theory of advancement through struggle. It emphasizes the human reaction to the material world, the world around us, over the intangible abstract world. The reaction to the world around us creates what is known as a thesis. Opposition to this thesis creates what is known as an antithesis. The solution to the dichotomy of the thesis and antithesis is a synthesis. The synthesis turns into the new thesis and the cycle repeats itself. Simply put, dialectical materialism can be stated as:
problem -> reaction -> unsatisfying solution
The theory of dialectical materialism is pertinent to better understand the themes not only of Persepolis and “Saboteur”, but also the rising Islamophobic tide we are seeing in the U.S.
The theory of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis can be seen on many levels within Persepolis from the history of Iran leading up the to Islamic Revolution to the internal conflicts Marji experiences while finding direction in her own life.
Marji’s father explains that the Islamic Revolution as the antithesis to the “2500 years of tyranny and submission”. In this context, the regime of the Shah can be seen as the synthesis, which creates a new thesis and opposing antithesis.
Marji also goes through several dialectical materialism cycles in Persepolis. Starting with her thesis at age 6 by declaring to become a prophet, she converts into the antithesis with a conviction to become a revolutionary. When Marji learns that the Islamic Revolution did not bring the promises she and her family hoped for, Marji develops a new synthesis to reject the changes brought by the Islamic Revolution. However Marji stops attending demonstrations against the Shah’s regme after they become violent and adopts her own way of resisting the Shah through disobedience. And so the cycle revolves as Marji struggles to find direction in her life and continues into Persepolis 2.
Dialectical materialism is not limited to only Persepolis: “Saboteur” eloquently uses undertones of dialectical materialism to enhance it’s themes as well. The setting of “Saboteur” itself is a distinct phase of dialectical materialism. The Chinese Cultural Revolution can be seen as an antithesis reaction to the problems plaguing China from The Great Leap Forward. The Great Leap Forward itself was an antithesis reaction to the agrarian economy prevalent at the time in China. From this perspective, the cyclic nature of China’s history during this era can be evenly aligned to the theory of dialectical materliasm.
The protagonist of “Saboteur”, Mr. Chiu, also experiences a dialectical materialism cycle. At the time of his arrest he believes a thesis of intellectual confidence in the idea that “all citizens were equal before the law” (Jin 6). By the end of his incarceration, “he would have razed the entire police station and eliminated all their families” (15). Mr. Chiu has become the antithesis of his earlier intellectual confidence in equality; he has transformed into a vehicle of primal revenge unto all those who wronged him by unleashing a hepatitis epidemic in the city, Muji.
Likewise, the Islamophobia metastasizing throughout America follows the theory dialectical materialism. After 9/11, fear of anything Muslim proliferated on our airwaves by the media, government officials, and religious leaders has made the many Americans feel threatened by Islam. Islamophobia can be seen as an antithesis reaction to 9/11 catalyzed by the fearmongers dominating our airwaves.
Where does this leave us?
If history is indeed cyclic, a synthesis will eventually emerge as a unsatisfying solution to Islamophobia. Dissenters will have yet another reason to create an antithesis, and the cycle will start again. While some may find this forecast bleak, it is important to keep in mind that the struggles between a thesis and antithesis are how we, as a civilization, grow. If we proceed with our existence absent of obstacles we will remain stagnant, crippled by our own inability to progress and evolve.