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Turkish Fragments

[Covers of Orhan Pamuk, [Covers of Orhan Pamuk, "The Museum of Innocence," and Nurdan Gürbilek, "The New Cultural Climate in Turkey"]

Orhan Pamuk, The Museum of Innocence. Translated by Maureen Freely. New York: Knopf, 2009.

Nurdan Gürbilek, The New Cultural Climate in Turkey: Living in a Shop Window. Translated by Victoria Holbrook. London: Zed Books, 2011.

The year 2009 brought us an English translation of the Turkish Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence; the year 2011, a translation of Nurdan Gürbilek’s The New Cultural Climate in Turkey: Living in a Shop Window. Gürbilek is an equally prominent figure in Turkey, the recipient of awards including the 2010 Erdal Öz and 2011 Cevdet Kudret Literature Awards in literary and cultural criticism and a former editor of the journal Defter (Notebook), published quarterly from 1987 to 2002 and widely acclaimed for its intellectual vanguardism during a period of systematically brutal suppression of all modes of critical thought in Turkey. The New Cultural Climate in Turkey: Living in a Shop Window collects revised versions of ten essays selected from Vitrinde Yaşamak: 1980'lerin Kültürel İklimi (Living in a Shop Window: The Cultural Climate of the 1980s, published in 1992) and Kötü Çocuk Türk (Bad Boy Turk, published in 2001). (Composed between the 1980s and the early 2000s, early versions of these essays first appeared in Defter.) The coincidence in translational history is a fortunate one, as read alongside one another, these two works have something important to tell us about the cultural history of Turkey during the last quarter of the twentieth century.

The military coup of 1960 produced a constitution ensuring the reorganized armed forces an active role in political governance while providing for new civil liberties, including the right to strike and to form political parties on a broader range of the ideological spectrum. With successive coalition and Adalet Partisi (Justice Party) governments both accelerating and protecting industrialization, the 1960s was a vibrant decade of mass politicization, with left movements expanding rapidly among a growing Turkish and Kurdish urban proletariat, students, and intellectuals. Violent conflict between militant left and right groups led to “anarchy” and another coup in 1971, which saw harsh repression of the left and new restrictions placed on organized labor. The world economic crisis of the 1970s, economic and political problems produced by the 1974 invasion of Cyprus, and enduring political violence set the stage for a third coup in 1980, far more brutal than its predecessors, which saw 650,000 people detained, more than a million and a half placed under surveillance, and fifty executed by 1988. 

With the left in disarray, many government posts would come to be occupied by neo-conservative Turkist-Islamist cadres, while the coup subdued workers’ opposition to an economic reform package approved seven months previously, courting support from the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. More so than those preceding it, the 1980 coup radically transformed the social, political, and cultural fabric of Turkey, opening the door to IMF-directed economic plunder through privatization, wage cuts, and the imposition of free trade, while the constitution ratified in 1982 extended the powers of the executive and further curbed civil liberties, especially with respect to expressions of Kurdish identity.[1]

Unlike Pamuk's 1983 novel Sessiz Ev (Silent House, 1983), set on the eve of the 1980 coup and populated by figures of the youth movements of both left and right, The Museum of Innocence avoids any direct engagement with recent Turkish political history. Set in Istanbul between 1975 and 2007, the bulk of its six hundred pages follows Kemal, the thirty year-old US-educated manager of a prosperous family-owned distribution and export firm. Kemal makes repeated visits to a distant cousin twelve years his junior, with whom he is in love and who lives in the lower middle-class Çukurcuma district of Istanbul with her mother, a seamstress, her father, a retired schoolteacher, and her husband, an aspiring film scenarist. Unable to “obtain” Füsun (“elde edemedeğim”),[2] Kemal obsessively collects objects during these visits: matchboxes, Füsun's cigarette stubs, salt shakers, coffee cups, pins, hair pins, ashtrays, china dogs, slippers (MM, 418). The 1980 coup serves merely as a comic backdrop to one such “pilgrimage” and collecting expedition when, stopped and searched while returning from Çukurcuma, Kemal is temporarily detained on account of a quince grater he has “stolen” from Füsun's house.

But there is no reason to rebuke Pamuk for not writing a more “political” novel in The Museum of Innocence. True, in meticulously reconstructing this historical period, Pamuk actually de-realizes it, transmuting the signs of politics into abstract registers of elite alienation. As the fictional counterpart of Pamuk's 2003 memoir Istanbul: Memories and the City (work on which temporarily interrupted the writing of The Museum of Innocence), the novel completes the memoir’s hüzünlü street setting by bringing it into a lower middle-class home, imagined as a more authentic match than the Pamuk family apartment houses in the Nişantaşı and Cihangir districts described in Istanbul. Purchasing the Çukurcuma house after Füsun's death in 1984, Kemal plans in the novel’s final segment to convert it into a museum, placing the interior on display along with his collection of transitional objects. Kemal is a mouthpiece for the argument that it is impossible to overcome the distance separating the alienated Westernized Turkish elite from the lower classes embodied in Füsun, a distance the museum is to exhibit. In many ways, it is this theatricalization of the discontent of an alienated elite, fetishizing a Turkish “interior,” that shows us Pamuk at his best. Indeed, Pamuk is heir to a tradition of such reflection running from Ahmed Midhat to Recaizade Ekrem, Yakup Kadri Karaosmanoğlu, and Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar (a tradition on which Gürbilek has memorably commented).

That project has its limits, marked by the concurrent idealization of otherness (as something transcendent) and refusal to permit it any escape: thus the only option it leaves to Füsun, by the novel's end, is an implied (if also unexplained) suicide. When distance itself, the space of relation to alterity, becomes a fixation, it serves to foreclose on any real possibility of such relation. To the extent that it is nourished exclusively by the consumption of others, the melancholy of the alienated elite lacks any outside.[3] The Museum of Innocence has been compared with Lolita, though a more ethically daring comparison might juxtapose Pamuk’s novel with Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians (1980) or Disgrace (1999). Coetzee, too, is a master constructor of figures of imperious or pathetic masculine narcissism, but one who always finds a way to place that narcissism under erasure. The playful postmodernist irony that the narrator, “Orhan,” deploys against Kemal, in the final chapter of The Museum of Innocence, is just that and little more, no real obstacle to Kemal’s redemption and rehabilitation. “With my museum,” Kemal tells us, “I want to teach not only the Turkish nation but also all nations in the world to be proud of [gururlanmayı] the lives we live. While Westerners live in pride, a majority of the world lives in shame [utanç]. When things that shame us are exhibited in a museum, they become things of pride” (MM, 571-572). It is hardly so easy, of course. Abruptly distancing the “West” that to that moment was the very bulwark of elite self-understanding, the museum is now to show us the unified interior of a nation. Exit one of the most divisive and traumatic periods of modern Turkish history with peace of mind.[4]

Gürbilek's Living in a Shop Window, too, offers a catalog of the symbolic settings, artifacts, and imaginaries of a recent cultural past: the “cold, functionless guestrooms” or salons of middle-class homes reserved for guests, on the one hand, and Turkey’s first shopping mall, The Galleria in Istanbul, on the other;[5] a newspaper photograph of the body of the 1970s porn star Feri Cansel “stuffed in a morgue drawer” (LISW, 119); the 1980s political metaphor of the “squeezed lemon,” used to describe the poor; a poster depicting a weeping child on the rear windows of intercity buses. Where such cultural fragments are locked as fetishes in the alienated melancholy of Pamuk’s museum, Living in a Shop Window archives them as “social hieroglyphs” and subjects them to demystification. Near the conclusion of “Living in a Shop Window,” the first essay here, Gürbilek makes reference to Marx’s characterization of the commodity as a “social hieroglyph,” marking the extension of the critique of the fetishism of commodities, in the Lukácsian tradition, into the cultural domain. It is a project that has produced some of the most sophisticated and insightful readings to date of the “great transformation” in Turkey after 1980.

These are “works of mourning,” as Gürbilek admits in her introduction, composed in the effort to comprehend the submergence of the oppositional left of the 1970s “and to digest that reality” (LISW, 16). Taken as a whole, the essays engage the 1980s as a “fracturing point” in modern Turkish history, productive of the socio-political assemblages of religion and capital, conservatism and liberalism that puzzle and fascinate outsiders to this day. For Gürbilek, what distinguishes the repression of the 1980s from those of the decades preceding it is not its intensity, not even the intensity of state violence marked by arrests, detentions, and deaths under torture, but the interlacing of state repression with economic liberalization and a permissive consumerism. Shopping malls offering new foreign and luxury goods and expanding media conglomerates deploying consumer advertising were, Gürbilek argues, integral to a “more liberal, more comprehensive, more inclusive strategy of power, aiming to encircle by speech rather than silence, to transform rather than prohibit, internalize rather than destroy, tame rather than suppress” (LISW, 6). One consequence was a return of the repressed in an “explosion of speech” on previously submerged topics such as sexuality, “private life,” and rural identity, as women, gay people, Islamists, and Kurds found means of expression outside the domain of the state.

“Living in a Shop Window,” then, describes the transformation of Istanbul into what Gürbilek calls a “society of spectacle.” In the three essays that follow, Gürbilek turns her attention to the limits of this explosion of speech mediated by a culture industry. In “To Be Named,” she follows the emergence of a new discourse focused on sex as the body’s secret, reminding us of the weekly popular magazines featuring questionnaires focused on sexual fantasies and the Turkish state channel TRT (Turkish Radio and Television Corporation) program Kronik Bunalım (Chronic Depression), which hosted confessions by eşcinseller (rendered here as “homosexuals”). But sexuality was not the only locus of the new incitement to speak, at a time marked by the appearance of the phrase “private life” (özel hayat), which came to displace the Arabic loanword mahrem (LISW, 58). And unlike its Western counterpart, the new discourse on “private life,” including sexuality, did not become an object of medical and psychiatric study in Turkey. “What put its stamp on the process,” Gürbilek observes, “was less an institutional authority which insisted upon knowing than the readiness of voluntary narrators to describe frankly their sexual fantasies, seeing in their confessions a potential for liberation, and respond hungrily to the questionnaires of a press culture seeking to create new arenas for journalism” (LISW, 42). The grammar of the sayable, here, was determined in advance by a media industry that named and formed “public opinion” as a condition of the publicity of confession itself.

In “Privation,” the essay that follows, Gürbilek emphasizes the ironies of a “private life” constituted by “the most public of discourses—the language of newspapers and news magazines, television and advertising” (LISW, 69), in a process accompanied by the privatization of the public language of media and politics, as a chatty new public idiom displaced the idea of public space as a space of encounter with anonymous strangers. In turn, “The Return of the Repressed” reminds us that it was the Turkey of the 1980s that first offered wealth and distinction to those whom a nationalist-secularist Kemalist elite had marginalized as “backward” and “non-modern,” a development that enticed members of that elite to rediscover and affirm their own roots in a “rural” periphery. The possibility inherent in this cultural opening would be quickly absorbed, and to some extent destroyed, by the market and the new culture industry. In this context Gürbilek views the recent return of religion, “locked into its target with the energy of victimhood, empowered to the extent it is able to set in motion the energy of resentment, and joined to capitalism thanks to that,” as a mark of closure (LISW, 87).

All in all, readers will find in these first four early essays an indispensably rigorous and suggestive critical account of the Turkish 1980s. Tapping areas of material that still await further exploration in sociological and anthropological research on contemporary Turkey, Gürbilek's essays point to the need for a more comprehensive genealogy of sexuality and privacy in Turkey from the nineteenth century onward. Gürbilek's mode of cultural criticism presents us with an ethical antidote to the presentist forms of media studies that have temporarily recovered their appeal to a cowed and opportunistic US academic intellectual culture. The somber, sometimes defeated mood here notwithstanding (it is strongest in “The Return of the Repressed”), Gürbilek makes it clear that the new regime of signs under analysis is and can never be complete. We are reminded, by what we might call the specters of externality that haunt these essays, of the subaltern struggle ongoing in “the other Turkey [which] begins where the images end” (LISW, 52): of Hanım Sönmez, who, in protest of the repression that led her imprisoned son to a hunger strike, attempted to set herself on fire in Istanbul in November 1988 (LISW, 29); of the million and half public and private sector workers who shaved their heads and worked barefoot through 1989, demanding fair wages and other rights (LISW, 32); of all those many silenced by being locked away in prisons (LISW, 52).

The essays that follow were composed during the 1990s and early 2000s and collected in Turkish in Kötü Çocuk Türk (Bad Boy Turk) in 2001. In some ways they take a wider stance, looking back at the “great transformation” of the 1980s from within what Gürbilek, drawing on the work of Martin Jay, calls “the uncanny 1990s.” It was an era in which, as she puts it, “unfulfilled promises aroused rancour, not desire, and once again, the city street was etched into consciousness as a site of crime while the struggle over the city's resources was carried out in a much more tense environment, under much harsher conditions” (LISW, 13-14). The 1990s was marked by the European Union accession negotiations, an intensification of the war in the southeast, the rise of political Islam, and serial economic crises, including the currency crisis of 1994 and the crash of 2001. Here Gürbilek suggests that we imagine kötülük or “evil” (to which one is tempted to add shamelessness) as a dominant new social structure of feeling. Where for Pamuk, Turkey’s fallen condition is a temporal condition, a belated modernity marking an innate Turkish innocence, Gürbilek subjects such “urban legends” to critical scrutiny as products of the myth of neoliberal globalization promising justice, equality, and an end of history.

“Me Too,” the volume’s fifth essay, offers a comparative analysis of the trade in desire in popular arabesk hits by the “Arabesk King” of the 1970s, Orhan Gencebay, and “The Emperor” of the 1980s, the Kurdish construction worker İbrahim Tatlıses.[6] Rooted in the pain of betrayed love and wallowing in its wretched dignity, Gencebay's proudly melancholic, renunciatory songs would go out of fashion in a mass culture becoming accustomed to instant gratification. For Gürbilek, Tatlıses’s song “Ben de İsterem” (“Me Too”), describing the open pursuit of the “cherry lips” and “rose-like breasts” of female bounty, is an emblem of the shift. In “Death of the Stranger,” drawing on Phillippe Ariès's Essais sur l’histoire de la mort en Occident du Moyen à nos jours (Western Attitudes towards Death, 1975), Gürbilek notes a changing relation to death in Turkey that mirrored that change in the world at large, as graphic images of the victims of domestic violence, road accidents, terrorist bombings, and the civil war were disseminated in the mass media. Gürbilek suggests that this new “pornography” of what she calls “unnatural death” (LISW, 114) represents death as monstrous, effectively effacing its social and political determination and banishing it to the shanty town or the province outside the middle-class home (or further abroad: Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan), “transform[in]g the social violence we can escape into an event so routine we can afford to be indifferent to it” (LISW, 115).

Another exemplary essay in Turkish cultural studies, the volume's sixth essay, entitled “Child of Agony,” is focused on the image of the innocent child popularized by the Yeşilçam film industry during the late 1960s and 1970s. Named for their child hero and heroine, the “Ömercik” and “Ayşecik” films featured victimized children who fought back without comprising their innocence, promising their adult audiences, locked in struggle with an uneven modernity, what Gürbilek calls “a national, local, Eastern pride” (LISW, 125). Gürbilek reminds us that this “urban legend” of the righteous child effectively disappeared as an element of the Turkish social imaginary during the 1990s, as real disenfranchised and displaced orphan children, mostly of Kurdish origin, appeared in large numbers in Turkey’s big cities, becoming emblems of poverty and criminality. The cultural hero that would take its place was the “new young man type who has no need to see himself as innocent, the strong Turk full of rage, ready to commit crimes in order to rid society of its new objects of fear, ready to do anything to protect the city from filth and anarchy” (LISW, 136). In time, this transformation would give us Ogün Samast, the seventeen-year-old from Trabzon who on 19 January 2007 assassinated the prominent Turkish Armenian journalist Hrant Dink outside the Istanbul office of his newspaper Agos.

The volume's final three essays are focused on the Turkish novel, offering a literary genealogy of the concept of evil (kötülük) and seeking new ways of thinking through the questions of authenticity and belatedness that have absorbed modern Turkish literature and its criticism since the nineteenth century. “Bad Boy Turk (1),” on Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar's 1949 novel Huzur (translated into English as A Mind at Peace) and the character of the nihilist Suad whom critics have long deemed the novel's least successful artifice, suggests that in the early postwar period evil, in stark contrast with the generalized institutional evil of today, stood for a revolutionary critical desire to destroy the very foundations of normative morality. Where the construction of Suad as “bad boy” is weak to the extent that it represents a weak translation of elements from Dostoevsky, that, Gürbilek argues, marks Tanpınar as a believer in civilizational synthesis, refusing to “face up to his inevitable derivativeness” (LISW, 156). (A companion essay, “Bad Boy Turk (2),” extends the analysis of literary evil into the uncanny 1990s.)

In the final essay, “The Original Turkish Spirit,” Gürbilek deconstructs the antipodes of nationalism and cosmopolitanism, cultural originality and derivation, and nativity and dandyism (the latter of which Holbrook represents with the Turkish-English portmanteau “züppery”) that ground and organize rival formations of Turkish literary criticism. Reminding us that belatedness is a constitutive feature of the western European novel itself, born of a modernity that is fundamentally mediated and inauthentic, Gürbilek suggests that redress for the “problem” of Turkish belatedness lies not in some impossible Turkish authenticity but in the acceptance of züppery as “a foundational element of 'the orijinal Turkish spirit’” (LISW, 194).

Gürbilek’s is a criticism spanning the divide between the academy and a larger educated and curious reading public, and Living in a Shop Window will be read with profit not only by those interested in Turkish society, media culture, and literature, but by anyone with an interest in the contemporary history of neoliberal globalization and world media. The Turkey one encounters here is neither the Turkey of exotic negation, nor the Turkey of auratic redemption of the West, but a real locale that reflects the real, ongoing violence of that history.

Let me conclude with a word on Gürbilek's prose, which locates these essays in a cultural essayistic tradition marked by the signature of Tanpınar but also of thinkers like Georg Simmel, Walter Benjamin, and Siegfried Kracauer. The voice of the essayist, which Victoria Holbrook's translation skillfully reproduces in English, is at once intimate and remote, fluid in its affective engagement with a “glocal” world held in common while revealing little of the critical self or persona as such. It is a potent combination, insofar as more than merely “describing” critically the privatized public life of the 1980s, these essays actively imagine, even come to create, something like a new common of strangers to take its place. As Gürbilek notes, in her introduction:

In “On the Nature and Form of the Essay,” the introductory piece [of Soul and Form], [Lukács] likened the essayist to a precursor awaiting the coming of someone else….That other. For a generation that discovered intellectuality not on its own but through others, and believed it could be sustained only through others, this was important, I think. And for that reason I too wish these essays to be read as writings biding their time while waiting for an other. (LISW, 17)

It is as custodians of such an other, and of its promise, that Gürbilek's essays may now come to be read in the English language.


[1] On the history of the postwar period, see Feroz Ahmad, The Making of Modern Turkey (New York: Routledge, 1993), and Erik J. Zürcher, Turkey: A Modern History, third edition (London: I. B. Tauris, 2005). 

[2] Orhan Pamuk, Masumiyet Müzesi (Istanbul: İletişim), 416; hereafter cited parenthetically as MM. All translations from Turkish into English are my own.

[3] A more detailed analysis would, of course, have to account for the rituals of Kemal's “visitations” during dinner time.

[4] On the final pages of The Museum of Innocence, “Pamuk” (via Kemal) actively distances himself from Orhan Pamuk’s 2002 novel Kar (Snow). But as I have argued elsewhere, the approach Pamuk has taken to questions of shame and innocence in that novel is a highly nuanced and deeply valuable one. See my “Those Outside the Scene: Snow in the World Republic of Letters,” New Literary History 41.3 (Summer 2010): 633-651.

[5] Nurdan Gürbilek, The New Cultural Climate in Turkey: Living in a Shop Window, trans. Victoria Holbrook (London: Zed Books, 2011), 32; hereafter cited parenthetically as LISW.

[6] Popular from the late 1960s through the late 1990s in Turkey, arabesk combined elements of Turkish classical and folk music and Egyptian and Lebanese popular music, its songwriting articulating the urban griefs and grievances of migrants from the Turkish provinces. See Martin Stokes, The Arabesk Debate: Music and Musicians in Modern Turkey (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).

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