25 February 2009

Photo as palimpsest: recent work by Sergei Larenkov

An extraordinary series of collages by the St Petersburg photographer Sergei Larenkov, in which the past of the brutal Leningrad blokada intrudes on images of the present (or rather vice versa?), can be found here.

09 February 2009

Inside Turkey's memory boom

An article by Ziya Meral published as "Secularism, and Inventing History, Is Just a Convenient Tool in Turkish Politics" in Turkish Daily News, 19 May 2007. Re-Published in French by Collectif Van as Le laïcisme et l'invention de l'histoire, sont juste un outil commode dans la politique turque

Politics has always been a mundane human exercise that has needed a little bit of imaginative help to get it going. The quest for sovereignty and its legitimization that once could have easily been done by sheer muscular power had to evolve into sophisticated tools that used cosmic frameworks or higher values. Gods, in their various mono or poly forms, have proven to be great transcendental aids that made sure a certain leader had an unquestionable power. Thus what was at stake, or what was being rebelled against, was not just the finite moment and its actors, but eternity.

Myth making in modern times:

The 19th and 20th centuries may have done a good job in providing different explanations of the universe, yet their aspirations too had supra-contextual appeals, at times almost religious, albeit without a god. Utopias, in their raw Enlightenment kinds, or Socialist, Communist and various other ‘ist' kinds were helpful to fill in the gap left by the death of God, by providing grand interpretations and end goals. Similarly, the Cold War was able to bring in clear meaning to an era that was characterized by bureaucracy, effective and mechanic solutions, and unpoetic scientificism. It presented a cosmic picture, a Manichean battle between dark and light, depending on from which side of the fence you looked. And once the wall collapsed, what emerged on the other side was the mundane politics of power and money again. It appears that the seduction of the neat worldwide separations is now finding an increasing appeal in the language of ‘civilizations'. Alas, we, the 21st century folks too do not have to face the fear of being bored to death while watching politicians sweating from their pulpits!

Nationalism and religion in competition:

In full contradiction to what social scientists (primarily European and north American) have forecasted during the last century, religion and nationalism are still the main actors of ‘re-enchantment' in the Middle East today. Not so surprisingly, re-vitalization of religion and nationalism are intrinsically linked to each other. The failures of secular Arab and Persian nationalisms and socialisms have fertilized the ground in which various Islamisms flourished. Since then, Islamism proved to be much more successful in providing imaginative readings of the imminent painful reality as well as millenarian promises to the masses burdened under the secular elite, who have not been able to give them a stronger hope. Each group's appeal and the commitment of their followers are continually strengthened by the presence and sharpness of the other. However, there is now a new twist to the old story: a memory boom we are witnessing globally. It is often noted that 95 percent of existing museums today have been opened after World War II. Today, more people visit exhibitions and enroll in civil societies that seek to preserve the past more than ever before. We now have memory tourists who travel to the places where their ancestors were from or where they fought. More movies are produced about past eras, and, books with a historical flavor, fictional or non-fictional, dominate the best sellers lists.

The past is the best playground:

Turkey too is not spared from this memory boom. Any visit to a bookshop, a quick online check of the best sellers, or a quick glimpse of soap operas on the TV or movies that are produced should give you enough evidence. In short, we are now witnessing an increasing popular interest in the past that is different from official controls of the past for nation building. On one hand, we observe the continuing difficulty nations and individuals face in promoting monolithic, homogenized narratives and thus identities, which are challenged by the localized experience of globalization. On the other hand, the same breakdown of the comfort of a clear imagination of who we are brings with itself a stronger desire to locate ourselves within smaller groups that form the larger society, or extra-territorial global groups defined on ethnic, religious, political or sexual grounds. When the fast speed of change in information, materials, living spaces and postal address are added to this breakdown, together with the sour taste the future oriented utopias of the modern era left in our mouths, the need for an anchoring becomes much more significant for individuals than the macro projects of the 19th or 20th centuries were. The past is always the best playground for anyone seeking to find a ‘golden age' to hold on to in the contemporary cacophony for a relatively clear sense of who ‘we' are.

De-politicized post 1970s Turkish generations, to which I belong, by and large do not have the same political zeal and thought-through ideals that our abis and ablas (older brothers and sisters) had. We are immune to a lot of the discourses that got their attention. But unlike their future looking ideologies, our eyes are on the constant lookout for a way of understanding the extremely complex present tense. In the world-risk society and instant consumption age in which we live, the future looks dim and far away if not irrelevant. The only relatively stable reference point left for us is the past, which has been nicely trimmed and beautified by the growing history industry. As we feel trapped in the dynamics of East versus West, as our image and identity is continually challenged by the criteria and critical eyes of the European Union, growing calls to accept the Armenian deaths as genocide, challenge our moral standing and self understanding and as economic uncertainty and global competition no longer allows the same expectation to “make it” that our parents had, we are truly vulnerable of being seduced and manipulated by historical languages for a momentary ecstasy.

Çanakkale and Ankara:

Thus, it is really no surprise that Deniz Baykal, head of the opposition party CHP, the old wolf of Turkish politics who is probably entering his final round for a chance to take the much-coveted seat, has been using a historical rhetoric against AKP in addition to the discourses of keeping the legacy of the secular republic that Atatürk established. Before the presidential elections, he declared that ‘Çanakkale cannot be crossed! Ankara too should not be crossed!' Çanakkale is the strait that connects the Aegean Sea with the Bosporus, where the Anzac troops suffered a heavy loss under Turkish resistance during World War I. The battle, which has given a sense of ‘nation' for Australians and New Zealanders, has also been a symbol of heroic Turkish resistance to invading forces. In Mr. Baykal's declaration Ankara clearly refers to the contemporary tensions of the AKP's Islamic roots and possibility of having a president of the republic from their ranks. In a sweeping sentence, two different contexts are melted into one. Its poetics may be catchy, but its actuality is far from charming. The battle in Çanakkale was against foreign nations trying to invade Anatolia, not against ‘Islamists' and its descriptions in Turkey have always been full of Islamic imagery and language. The civil cooperation, which the post WW I setting demanded against invading armies, is not the civil cooperation we need today in 2007 partaking in the elections or showing democratic discontent with the AKP government. With the highly emotive appeal to ‘saving our country against the enemy', Mr. Baykal, of course, is not asking for an armed conflict, but rather votes for his party to come into office. When the glamorous dress falls what is shown once again is good old politics.

‘Occupation and Resistance':

Mr. Baykal's rhetoric is not without its ‘intellectual' and sophisticated supporters. The book, Occupation and Resistance: 1919 and Today by Hulki Cevizoğlu, a popular writer and TV producer now boasts a third print run of 101,000 copies. Its concluding chapter, as well as the emotive sentences on the back cover of the book lead the reader to the intellectual and volitional response that was demanded by the people of the past who were committed to saving their country and who took up arms against the ‘invasion.' No doubt, the book is working well both for the financial and social standing of Mr. Cevizoglu in the eyes of certain segments of society. Yet, its long term cost to our country, which cannot be quantified, is much more than any positive contribution the book can ever make. With the wise help of hindsight, it does not take too long to realize that history is full of preventable conflicts that seemed inescapable at the time. The danger with the productions of historical similes, metaphors and poetries for contemporary problems is that the emotional response they create, which is the primary reason they are used in the first place, leads to their internalization by individuals for whom they become the non-negotiable lenses through which they interpret the world. And, since we have never managed to adopt a more pragmatic sense of time and past events, say unlike Americans, resurgence of historical discourses run the risk of awakening long dead animosities against enemies who do not exist anymore! As the history of racial and ethnic violence shows, when such feelings are awakened carelessly, sooner or later a substitute enemy will be found, who probably has nothing to do with the perceived danger. ……

Trauma of a long-lost empire: How does the legacy of the Ottoman Empire affect modern Turkey?

" We need to mourn the loss of the Ottoman Empire"; an article by Ziya Meral published in Turkish Daily News, 13 August 2007

It may sound funny to suggest that we the Turks have to mourn for a past loss, when there is so much going on that demands our attention in the age of BlackBerrys, on- the-go cappuccinos and frequent flyer programs. Yet, the sages tell us that certain problems, which keep repeating themselves in contemporary events, are often symptoms of things that remain unresolved.

Turkey has mastered being ‘modern' in line with the modes of thinking which were available in the ‘modern' era. However, the complexities of the 21st century demand a completely different set of skills and strategies. It is a given that Turkey needs to upgrade a lot of its modes of thinking on a wide range of issues from minorities to religion and from politics to diplomacy, but before we can even begin to entertain any thoughts of a new direction, we need to process a past trauma that is diluting our perception of ourselves, of the world and of the others, thus inhibiting us from a new future. As the ethnic, political, religious and social turmoil we witnessed during 2006 and 2007 points out, we are at a conjunction stuck between our past and future. The angel of history has travelled a long way with the storms of progress since the days of Benjamin when he had to face a decision between facing the past debris or the future. Now that his wings are strong enough for him to stand still in the midst of storm, he can and has to “awaken the dead and make whole what has been smashed.”

The link between the Ottoman Empire and Turkish Republic:

The modern nation-state with its Western calendar, bureaucracy, legal structures, alphabet and vocabulary is indeed a sharp break from the multi-ethnic Empire in many ways. Yet, as sociologist Paul Connerton reminds, every radical break is linked to the memories of the past in a paradoxical way; the more radical the break the more dependence on the old. We depend on the memory of the Empire more than we like to admit, but our relationship to it remains inconsistent and full of tension. Turkish nationalists regularly utilize the past golden age within their narratives, but where the golden age ceases to be sparkling and recalls rather darker episodes, the memory of the Empire is shelved. The Republic often represents the ‘modern' and the superior, but sometimes the Empire is spoken of as ‘superior' in terms of political power and the myths of respect for minorities, which is represented as an ‘advanced' solution for today's dilemmas.

The fall and its aftermath:

One can argue that since the fall of the Empire, we have not had a chance to lower our guard and process our history. The fall was followed by an immense effort to save our motherland. A certain narrative and language had to be created and maintained with an iron fist in order to form a ‘nation' out of the debris of a multi-ethnic empire. The momentum, the survival instinct, defence mechanism or whatever you name it, which has brought us thus far, no longer serves its purposes. Some 90 years have passed since the actual events, but they still remain afresh in our culture and memories. Once ‘we' ruled and then found ourselves called ‘the sick man of Europe'. The people, who had conquered the known world, were forced to watch as their lands were invaded by their previous subjects. The loss was traumatic; from the people of a mighty empire to a people vulnerable to colonisation, from wide borders ranging from the Balkans to North Africa, to the Near East, to shrinking borders close to the Aegean shores of the motherland.

From a historical trauma to common sense:

Contemporary generations who have no direct experiences of a life under the glorious Empire and its fall are only socialized into this trauma. They are given a specific narrative from youth. The cities in which they live present themselves as palimpsests which give a concrete form to what is being whispered in textbooks and collected (not collective) memories of the past. From commemorations they partake to the names of the streets on which they walk, everyday they confront this narrative as a reality. Thus the text of the trauma evolves into being an internalized truth evoking certain emotional and intellectual responses in the forms of ‘common sense'.

The traces of the trauma can be seen in the contemporary references to the 1929 Treaty of Sevres and the graffiti that graces many bus stops and walls nowadays; “Dünya Türk Olsun!” (Let the World become Turks). Both of these are symptoms of an unhealthy fear and anxiety felt in the face of 21st century realities, which confront everyone in the world, not just the Turks. The memory of Sevres is recollected as a template to make sense of what is happening now. Foreign nations are making plans behind closed doors to divide, invade, loot or colonise our country. This, we have seen before and it just confirms what we have always known; Turks have no friends other than Turks. It's a “fact”. Just like everyone knows that non-Muslim minorities either work with ‘Zionists' for the glory of Israel or with ‘Crusaders' for the colonial West. We are being stripped of our power and glory just like before. It should not be the Turks who bow down as victims in front of globalization, the EU, the US or whoever is trying to tame or manipulate us. It should be us who hold the leash again. Let us rule the world and let them follow our demands or in European terminology; ‘our way of life'.

Excessive mistrust and melancholy:

In addition to the beautiful architecture, artwork and mementos that shape us spatially and aesthetically, two legacies of the Empire continue to form the mental template, which we use to interpret the world, construct a narrative and respond to domestic or foreign events.

The first one is excessive mistrust. The loss of the Empire left us with a deep scar. We see the world and our country through the lenses of a victim who has been betrayed, hurt and abused. Behind all of our angry outbursts and over confident nationalistic declarations lie a deep fear of an imminent loss of everything we hold dear. Just like anyone who has been hurt, we have developed defence mechanisms to protect our vulnerability. And just like them, we have to decide on whether or not such defence is necessary now and whether it is, in fact, hindering us from healing and forming new and meaningful relationships. Turkey is no longer in the fragile position she was after WWI and does not face the same enemies or dangers. The memory of trauma is not only causing us to interpret the contemporary problems through the wrong lenses but also pushes us to create self-fulfilled prophecies. Our attitudes towards ethnic and religious minorities and towards the EU and the US are all shaped by it.

The second one is melancholy, a sense of loss not tied to a specific object but rather a narcissistic obsession. On one hand we are convinced of our greatness over anyone else in the world, on the other hand we despise the fact that we are not in the place we deserve. On one hand it is the outsiders who are guilty of us not leaping forward, but on the other hand our mouths are full of criticisms of our own governments, state and people, as expressed in the fatalistic sentiments of “bizden adam olmaz” (nothing good will become of us). Yet, our self-degradation is paradoxically linked to a shame and honour based worldview, which makes us hyper sensitive to anyone “insulting Turkishness”. The more fragile and fearful an identity is, the more it will seek to assert itself aggressively and defensively. It seems that we are fixed on the reflection we see on the water to the point of being not able to move.

We need to “work through” our past! :

Our perception of a global conspiracy to destroy Turkey at the first possible opportunity using a wide range of tactics from Human Rights to EU negotiations may make sense in the cyclical referencing of conspiracy theories that dominate the best seller lists, but it suffers from serious exaggeration and non-corresponding truths. This only weakens our nation intellectually and politically and hinders Turkey from maximizing her potential to be a key player in the 21st century. It also puts our people in an extremely vulnerable position to be exploited by anyone who wishes to capitalize our fears into raw power, votes or book sales. We need to process our past for our own sake, not because the international community is increasingly reminding us of various dark episodes of our history.

We can, of course, choose to ignore the past and continue to run along the path we know too well. Sadly, the unresolved past will pop up here and there in the forms of leakage or repetition. May it be in pointless murders of the members of ethnic and religious minorities or steps away from a mature democracy that cherishes freedom of speech, opinion and belief, sooner or later, the effects of an unresolved past will show themselves again.