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New Texts Out Now: Nergis Ertürk, Grammatology and Literary Modernity in Turkey

[Cover of Nergis Erturk, [Cover of Nergis Erturk, "Grammatology and Literary Modernity in Turkey."]

Nergis Ertürk, Grammatology and Literary Modernity in Turkey. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Nergis Ertürk (NE): One of my motives was to try to deepen our understanding of the phoneticizing Turkish alphabet reform of 1928, which replaced a Perso-Arabic script with a Latin alphabet, as well the language reforms of the 1930s, which replaced many Arabic and Persian loanwords with Turkish neologisms. Of the effects of these reforms, the Romance philologist Erich Auerbach observed in a letter to Walter Benjamin dated 3 January 1937 that “no one under twenty-five can any longer understand any sort of religious, literary, or philosophical text more than ten years old.” While it would be inaccurate to describe these reforms as a complete success, they did ensure that the next generation of Turkish-speaking citizens of Turkey would, for example, be unable to read even the inscriptions on buildings and monuments that they pass every day, let alone written and printed materials. And of course citizens of Turkey today are even further alienated from that written past. So the book was, you might say, an attempt to “make sense of” that profound linguistic rupture, if such a thing is possible, and to witness that rupture in the work of Turkish writers, who mourned what it destroyed even as they sometimes welcomed it for other reasons.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does it address?

NE: The book begins by situating these reforms within a longer history of Ottoman Turkish linguistic modernization going back to the mid-nineteenth century. That history perhaps represents not simple progress as we conventionally understand it, with its sense of inevitability, so much as it is structured by epistemic shifts in conceptions of language and writing. I understand such shifts as the very conditions of possibility of the reforms. And one of my other goals in the book is to offer a close reading of works of modern Turkish literature that record those conditions of possibility as their own. We have very valuable histories of these reforms by Agâh Sırrı Levend, Geoffrey Lewis, and İlker Aytürk, among others, and I have made extensive use of them in my work in this book. My own contribution is to trace that history in these works of literature, which provide us with their own accounts of historical conditions even as they are they determined by them.

A conventional and still common historiographic approach to written documents is to treat them as produced for the neutral purpose of communication, by language understood narrowly as a kind of instrument. But what one finds in the early writings of someone like Ahmed Midhat, for example, is a much more complex notion of linguistic communication, something that goes beyond just the transmission of meaning. Works of literature of this period, a time of accelerated growth in print culture and translation activity, tend to imagine the Turkish language as a force producing unpredictable effects, more than as an instrument with a narrowly defined purpose. This is perhaps a variation on what one finds in so-called “religious communication,” except that rather than metaphysical, language’s power to make connections is now also strongly topographic and geographic, linking its users to unseen and unheard-of foreign places, both within and beyond Europe.

Some of those unpredictable effects include the breakdown of social, political, and linguistic institutions and their hierarchies of authority. Many writers found that process fascinating, even titillating, but also profoundly frightening. For what we might say was uncovered by these linguistic upheavals of the mid-nineteenth century was the fundamental arbitrariness of language and of the identity founded on it. In a historical context combining the encroachment of an imperial “Europe” with the ascendance of other kinds of linguistic nationalism, this unbearable discovery would produce very violent effects. My argument is that the release, so to speak, of a “Turkic” element from within a composite Ottoman Turkish language, and the recoding of that element as “native” national language, is one of those effects—and that we cannot understand the language reforms and accompanying suppression of non-Turkish languages in Turkey outside of this history of communication and its psychodynamic of fear. It is not a simplistic and reductive narrative of Westernization that we are talking about here, but rather an attempt to control the Turkish language and to suppress released “open” communicability for the sake of a united nation.

So, I wanted both to provide a literary interpretation of the language reforms, the one offered us by literary works themselves, and also to situate the institution of modern Turkish literature itself in this linguistic history. In the end, modern Turkish literature does not simply “represent” this profound and violent change as much as it records it as a shift in the conditions of its own possibility, in the conditions of possibility of a written literature. This asks us to read such works against the grain of certain disciplinary intellectual prejudices—against, for example, the idea that the history of literature is the history of genres or of “movements” composed of individual writers and groups of writers who influence one another. Because such prejudices actually encourage us to ignore language itself as the medium of literature, attempting to look “through” it to a history we believe it transparently represents, they keep us from grasping something more basic and obvious, if not necessarily easier to understand. But that’s not to say that we are talking in some way about language in and of itself; rather, as I demonstrate in the book, literature’s constitution by the uncanniness of language makes it positively revolutionary in relation to the modern identitarian concept of the nation. In other words, literature creates its own historical effects. This is something I wanted to make clear.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

NE: Of course, I hope the book will be read by specialists in modern Turkish literature, as well as by anyone with a general interest in modern Turkish literature. There is something in the book also for readers who have followed debates of the last decade or so, around the nature and grounding concept of comparison in comparative and world literature. One dangerous temptation within comparative literature as a discipline, today, is to incorporate extra-European literatures into an expanded “global” canon without paying any real attention to the particularities of linguistic history that produced them. This is something I very much oppose.

As the title of the book itself suggests, there is something in it for readers interested in the intellectual legacy of a certain group of philosophers and “theorists” including Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Maurice Blanchot, and Paul de Man—in what kind of continuing life their thought might have outside the mostly European context that generated it. But at a more fundamental level, I would say that the book is an attempt to bridge the gap between area studies, as dominated by cultural anthropology and historiography, and literary studies as dominated by the study of language and specifically linguistic artifacts. With the exception of some of the work of Benedict Anderson, I would say that literary studies has really failed to engage the work of cultural anthropologists and historians who are deeply attentive to literary and linguistic questions of genre, vernacularization, and translation, and to simultaneously philosophical and sociolinguistic concepts like logocentrism and phonocentrism. Working in different contexts (Yemen, Egypt, the Philippines, and Indonesia), thinkers like Brinkley Messick, Timothy Mitchell, Vicente Rafael, and James T. Siegel have all produced vital and important work in this vein. My book is an attempt to bring literary studies into conversation with these interlocutors in particular.

Beyond an academic context, I hope my book will add to a conversation about language rights both within Turkey and outside it. In the end, the history of the Turkish language reforms teaches us that it is impossible ever to fully control a so-called mother tongue and to keep it pure. We need to keep learning this lesson, if we are to learn to accept and to affirm the inherent difference and impurity in language, and work toward the the possibility of an alternative, non-identitarian, non-possessive relation to the so-called mother tongue, toward opening oneself to other languages of a plurilingual common. One might say this is the real challenge confronting English speakers in the United States, German speakers in Germany, and Turkish speakers in Turkey, today, confronting their Spanish-speaking, Turkish-speaking, and Kurdish-speaking compatriots. What is necessary, I argue in the book’s conclusion, is to break the identitarian bond to the so-called mother tongue and embrace the other languages of a plurilingual common as if they were one’s own.

J: In the book, you argue for "rethink[ing] the history of modern Turkish literature . . . against the critical conceit through which modern Turkish literature is tutored by European genres" through a move towards focusing on "the transformation of Turkish writing by the rise of new print and translational technologies." What led you towards this argument, and how has it been received?

NE: Thank you for this question. I believe I have partly addressed it above, but let me add this. It was works of literature themselves that led me to this argument. I was struck, for example, by the way in which Ahmed Midhat uses the word roman (novel) not literally, as a designator of a particular form, but figuratively, as an image of mediation: that is to say of language itself, understood as something that brings news (or gossip) in its travels. At some level, this simply obviates some of the routine procedures of literary scholarship, by which I mean methods and categories like genre or “movement” applied largely without asking oneself why one is applying them, or questioning their usefulness for a particular task. It requires us to think literary history as a history not so much of objects created by writing as of the history of writing itself, including epistemic shifts in its practice, such as changes in script or alphabet and radical lexical regulation. And if that is the case, we simply cannot take for granted the extensibility of European literary-historiographic concepts of genre and movement, for example, to Turkish literature. In some ways, those concepts only make sense after the introduction of what in the book I call a phonocentric conception of writing. And so in a way this demands that we push our thinking of the stakes of literature beyond what is offered by traditional literary scholarship.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

NE: I’m working on a book to be entitled Modernity, Translation, and the Literatures of Revolution, which will explore literary exchange between Ottoman Turkish and Turkic-speaking Russian Muslim intellectuals and writers during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Despite its both geopolitical and literary significance, west Asia is still an understudied area in postcolonial studies and comparative literature, and I hope to change that.  

Excerpt from Grammatology and Literary Modernity in Turkey

From the Introduction: “اول, Be or Die: The Stakes of Phonocentrism”

In The Turkish Language Reform: A Catastrophic Success, Geoffrey Lewis refers to what he calls a “shrewd” observation made by the British diplomat Sir Charles Eliot (1862–1931), author (under the pseudonym Odysseus) of the political history Turkey in Europe, regarding the difficulties posed for Ottoman Turkish speakers by the Perso-Arabic script in which the language was written. Eliot observed that because the script’s vowels were insufficient for rendering Turkish pronunciation, the Turkish word اوﻠﺩﻯ written in what Eliot called the Arabic alphabet, could be read in two blatantly and mutually contradictory ways: as either oldu (he became), or öldü (he died). In Eliot’s view, Arabic script, naturally “adapted to the Arabic language, which has a multiplicity of strange consonants and a peculiar grammatical system which renders it unnecessary to write the vowels fully,” was the “least fitted” of all possibilities for writing Turkish, with its “few consonants and many vowels.” 

In its devotion to the exemplary, I will suggest in this book, such commentary is staked on a broader discourse shaping the fundamentals of Turkish linguistic modernization through its various stages. What entices the contemporary Orientalist, approaching his subject as (in this case) something of a source of entertainment for the reader less than familiar with the history of the Turkish language, is the seemingly quintessential and definitive dimension of the given example. Still, we might observe that there is something in the particular example chosen by Eliot (and reanimated by Lewis, here), that places intense pressure on the concept and the comparative logic of exemplariness, itself. The literally invisible contrast, in written Ottoman Turkish, between the developmental or progressive assertion “he became” and the decadent assertion “he died” suggests not a positive linguistic-historical fact, readily appropriable for critical-historiographic illustration, but rather something of a twilight world, the world of life and writing in a language itself dead and alive, at the same time. In returning our attention to the annihilating power of death, in a modernity that strenuously seeks to fix writing’s ability to record and guarantee the stable “life” of knowledge or truth, Eliot’s example invokes an uneasiness that is not easy to shake off.

Indeed, the astonished laughter intended to be evoked, by Lewis’s highly scripted management of this exoticized anecdote, might be compared with that described by Foucault in The Order of Things, where it is occasioned by a passage from Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins” regarding a “certain Chinese encyclopedia” constructed with arbitrary categories of classification. Such laughter has its uncomfortable source, Foucault writes, in

the suspicion that there is a worse kind of disorder than that of the incongruous, the linking together of things that are inappropriate; I mean the disorder . . . of the heteroclite . . .: in such a state, things are “laid,” “placed,” “arranged” in sites so very different from one another that it is impossible to find a place of residence for them, to define a common locus beneath them all.

For Foucault, such “shattering,” “disturbing,” and “threatening” uneasiness is profoundly related to the “distress of those whose language has been destroyed,” in their “loss of what is ‘common’ to place and name. Atopia. Aphasia.”

Read against the grain, Lewis’s juxtaposition (through Eliot) of life with death, in the non-place of a “heteroclitic” modern writing, suggests that the real energies of Turkish linguistic modernization were never directed solely at writing in the narrowest technical sense of the term. Above and beyond such positive objects and goals, the Turkish language reforms disclosed a kind of mad fantasy, which is in no way unique to the Turkish context—though the foundation of the Turkish Republic does give us a specific form or model of its intensity. That fantasy is modern man’s fantasy of immobilizing the threat of that constitutive (and fatal) indeterminacy that is always immanent in writing, and of creating, through writing’s reform, an ontology freed of death. Without a doubt, in the same way that this irreducible alterity is externalized, for Borges and for Foucault, in the figure of “a certain Chinese encyclopedia,” and for Eliot and Lewis in the exotic life/death confusion of Arabic writing, Turkish linguistic modernization, I will suggest, necessarily touches the discomfiting question of ethnocentrism. For we might say that the fear of illegible writing, in the world of discourse, is always a symptom of the fear of the “illegible” social other(s) within the social body itself. That is also a question that bears on the special particularities of what we call literature, and its study in what are always and unavoidably universalizing critical modes. Despite and against the attempt to disavow literature, in the challenge it poses to those modes, in a very much active and ongoing contemporary strife of the faculties, I will suggest that the “strange institution called literature” comprises a unique archive of the violent effects of this mad modern fantasy.

[Excerpted from Nergis Ertürk, Grammatology and Literary Modernity in Turkey, 3-5, 182-84. © 2011 by Oxford University Press, Inc. Excerpted by permission of the author. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]

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