[This article is the first in a series comprising a review roundtable on Aslı Iğsız's book, Humanism in Ruins: Entangled Legacies of the Greek-Turkish Population Exchange. Click here to read Sadia Abbas' review and Elektra Kostopoulou's review.]
In the opening pages of Humanism in Ruins: Entangled Legacies of the Greek-Turkish Population Exchange, while introducing the book’s central topic, Aslı Iğsız notes: “More than ninety years ago, the same route that the Syrian refugees are taking today from Turkey’s Aegean seashores to Greece was the site of yet another human displacement en masse: the religious minority exchange between Greece and Turkey.”
This looks, at first glance, like the drawing of the sort of historical parallel with which we are all familiar. If so, it would be a powerful one, reminding us, beyond the usual marshaling of statistics under the now-common phrase “the largest refugee crisis since World War II,” of the ways in which the ghosts of the past haunt all of the routes traveled by displaced persons today.
But what makes Humanism in Ruins such an original and necessary work is that Iğsız is not merely drawing a parallel here. Instead, she finds in the Greek-Turkish population exchange of 1923 a means for writing a history of the present, one in which the never-ending rhetoric of “the worldwide refugee crisis” belies the fact that we have accustomed ourselves to various and horrific forms of forced migration as the daily norm.
Today’s forced migrations generally do not follow the official protocols that sanctioned the Greek-Turkish population exchange (via the Lausanne Treaty, overseen by the League of Nations). But if you follow Iğsız’s argument to its logical conclusion, we are forced to admit that our own collective relationship to forced migration today is not that dissimilar to the view voiced in the pages of Humanism in Ruins by Lord Curzon, a key architect of the Lausanne Treaty, who considered the Greek-Turkish population exchange “a thoroughly bad and vicious solution for which the world will pay a heavy price for a hundred years to come”—but, nevertheless, also the least-bad imaginable solution, and therefore the necessary one. That logic remains with us today; if anything, Curzon probably underestimated the expiration date on the price to be paid.
At the center of Iğsız’s virtuoso argument here is the suggestion that the liberal humanism that has established the global order of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is built upon a ruinous foundation: “the policies of biopolitics,” such as compulsory population transfers as a way of segregating different groups in the name of protecting “minorities”—what Curzon called the process of “unmixing peoples” (this theme of “unmixing,” and Curzon’s role more generally, is taken up in much greater detail by Sadia Abbas in her contribution to this review roundtable). For Iğsız, understanding our present predicament means doing the intellectual archaeology necessary to reveal liberal humanism’s taken-for-granted underpinnings, as well as the ghosts of the past that accompany us on our present routes. At the end of the book’s introduction, she asks, “What are the broader implications of liberal humanism towering upon ruins, without having necessarily addressed the biopolitics—the tenets of which are reinforced by the paradigms of historical humanism—in the making of those very ruins?” She then goes on to trace the contours of the answer her book will provide:
The problem here is not liberal humanism or multiculturalism . . . on their own, per se, but that they are built upon the policies of biopolitics, which are left unaddressed. It is because such a matrix of power tends to obscure the fact that liberal cultural politics and segregative biopolitics are two sides of the same coin in the regulation of alterity, and because unraveling this entanglement might help us reconsider the historical and political implications of a lesser-evil scenario, that I sought to write this book.
Humanism in Ruins is, as this quote suggests, a deeply ambitious book. Like all ambitious books, it is likely to be misunderstood in many quarters, at a moment when most academic books are content to scratch out their marks upon a small patch of territory. The very structure of Iğsız’s book—consisting of three parts, each containing two long essays, under the section titles “Humanism and Its Discontents: Biopolitics, the Politics of Expertise, and the Human Family”; “Of Origins and ‘Men’: Family History, Genealogy, and Historicist Humanism Revisited’;” and “Unity in Diversity: Culture, Social Cohesion, and Liberal Multiculturalism”—reveals it to be dissatisfied with working on such a small scale.
It is also an exemplary interdisciplinary text, drawing eruditely upon methods drawn from history, philosophy, political theory, anthropology, literary and cultural studies, gender studies, and critical race theory. This, sadly, is another direction from which the book might be initially misunderstood by those tied to parochial versions of more traditional disciplinary approaches.
Another way to say all this is to simply say that in Humanism in Ruins, Iğsız—who teaches in the Department of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University—is doing the sort of work that area studies could and should do, but almost never does. In this sense too it is exemplary.
Given the book’s significance, ambition, and intellectual authority, Jadaliyya has decided to dedicate a roundtable of reviews to address Humanism in Ruins. By drawing on the views of scholars from a variety of disciplines with a range of expertise, we hope to do justice to the work being undertaken by Iğsız here. My own piece will serve as an introduction, and the roundtable will conclude with a response by the author.
As Elektra Kostopoulou notes in her contribution to this roundtable, Humanism in Ruins does not follow a traditional narrative structure, nor does it aim to be yet another authoritative and exhaustive overview of the population exchange. Instead, in Kostopoulou’s fine phrase, the book “creates a defiant colloquy of questions.” Iğsız works by way of what she calls palimpsests, which in her analysis constitute ways of considering “the relationality between different discourses, practices, and policies.”
This means that the six essays that make up the book’s argument proceed not in a straightforward manner but by overlapping with each other, doubling back and allowing for the drawing of connections that might not otherwise become apparent. It also allows Iğsız a way out of the sorts of too-easy dichotomies that often come with this sort of large-scale work. For example, rather than simply arguing that processes of “unmixing,” as well as the policies of liberal multiculturalism that followed, are in some simple way determined by racism, she does the hard work of engaging the unmixing inherent in population transfers as “relational to racialized thinking,” which allows for a much more subtle—and, ultimately, much more convincing—argument than in some simple way trying to equate unmixing with eugenics. In this sense, Sadia Abbas’ ongoing work on the colonial and postcolonial entanglements and legacies of population transfers (especially regarding Partition), which she draws on in her review here, proves that Iğsız’s thinking in Humanism in Ruins is part of a larger and very important strand of analysis in colonial and postcolonial studies today.
This relational approach pays off most richly in her discussion of liberal humanism. “Humanism” is a perfect example of a theoretical concept that has generally forced the critic to take a side: for or against. Foucault once described what he called “the blackmail of the Enlightenment,” the seeming need to declare oneself once and for all “for” or “against” it, which inevitably leads to “a simplistic and authoritarian alternative: you either accept the Enlightenment and remain within the tradition of its rationalism . . . or else you criticize the Enlightenment and then try to escape from its principles of rationality.” Humanism can be seen as working through a similar form of blackmail, by forcing us to orient ourselves around it, whether we praise or condemn it. The choice presented by being “for or against humanism,” whatever our response, maintains humanism at the center of our thinking.
Iğsız comes at this problem by way of a careful but unsparing historicizing—although, as she also notes, historicizing in and of itself is not enough, since “on its own, it does not necessarily call power into question.” She accordingly coins the term historicist humanism to describe a form of human categorization, closely connected to and complicit in forms of biopolitics and emerging most strongly in nineteenth-century Europe, that presents itself as functioning in the name of “the family of man.” “Historicist humanism” is an appealingly paradoxical term, since humanism in its strongest form claims to represent that which transcends the merely historical, as the universal that stands above all particularities.
For Iğsız, historicist humanism has since at least the nineteenth century been closely bound up with more recognizably taxonomic—not to say racist—fields such as scientific racialism, physical anthropology, and eugenics. As she defines it, the term refers to “a prominent historicist approach to human categorization—unambiguously connecting ancient peoples, their literary traditions, cultures, and arts to today.” Through its various manifestations, historicist humanism has “offered a cultural framework for biological arguments on racialized origins and genealogies,” by drawing on the fields of anthropology, literary history, philology, art, and architectural history, among others. Here is another reason for the interdisciplinarity of Iğsız’s book: racism has long been an interdisciplinary endeavor, and so the intellectual and political response to it must also marshal various forms of disciplinary knowledge.
Thus, Iğsız’s argument regarding humanism does not follow the familiar route of posing historical or cultural particularism against the false universalism of humanism. Instead, she shows that historicist humanism, in fact, has been precisely a project of particularizing, in the sense of identifying, categorizing, and ultimately hierarchizing what it variously defines as cultures, civilizations, and races. In this sense, historicist humanism is deeply and directly implicated in the most horrifying processes of cultural “unmixing” of the past century, from population transfers to genocides.
But Iğsız’s frequent references to those engaged in struggles against racism and colonization—particularly Frantz Fanon, who is a recurring figure throughout the book—also reveals Humanism in Ruins to be, like Fanon’s work, not merely an indictment of humanism but also a struggle within and over its legacy. This is in turn linked to her incisive and original analysis of the role played by culture, and cultural analysis, in the dehumanizing processes of cultural “unmixing.”
In the book’s conclusion, she links Fanon’s call for a new (decolonized) humanism with Walter Benjamin’s famous statement that every “cultural treasure” must also be understood as “a document of barbarism.” Iğsız’s point is not to thereby condemn cultural analysis out of hand, of course. Instead, this link between Benjamin and Fanon leads us to better understand the necessity of Iğsız’s palimpsestic approach:
According to Benjamin, a document of culture, which signifies a glorious moment in so-called civilization, simultaneously attests to the ruins of violence and exploitation of peoples over which its humanist value system looms. When that second segment is dismissed or ignored, it becomes easier for such an object to be appropriated by state officials or others to promote their agenda or maintain the status quo. Or when what is appropriated is culture itself, it is in the form of museumization—a modern tool of objectification and display.
As Kostopoulou notes in her review, the stringency of Iğsız’s challenge here can be unsettling, since it does not spare those essentialist uses of culture that are deployed precisely in the name of giving voice to the victims and speaking back to the victors. Indeed, Iğsız begins Part Two of the book with a visit to a home museum on the Turkish isle of Cunda. Fuat, the elderly man who set up the museum in his home, was born in Crete but left the island with his family as part of the 1923 Greek-Turkish population exchange. It is undeniably moving, knowing the psychic price of forced displacement, to read the description of Fuat’s loving display of objects related to his family: clothes, a tea set, pictures and documents. But Iğsız goes on to remind us of the way that the Turkish state, since the 1980 military coup, has been particularly adept at marshaling precisely this sort of reclaiming of “family heritage” as part of its construction and imposition of a form of Turkishness “heavily informed by an interpretation of Sunni Islam as a unifying national ideology: the Turkish-Islamic synthesis.” The toll taken by such a policy is all too clear in contemporary Turkey.
This, in fact, is the final aspect of Iğsız’s book that breaks the rules and may well prove an affront to some timid readers: rather than leaving her analysis in the comfortable realm of the abstract, or in the disavowable space of the past, she uses it to provide an unsparing analysis of contemporary Turkish politics. Put simply, she is not content to simply reveal to us the framework that has led to today’s authoritarianism: she names names. In this sense, Humanism in Ruins is closely connected to Iğsız’s previous work on what she has called “Brand Turkey” and the rise of a form of neoliberal authoritarianism under the rule of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP).
More specifically, Iğsız’s analysis of the uses for which culture can be deployed in the name of authoritarianism rhymes closely with the points made recently by Sinem Adar and Halil Ibrahim Yenigün regarding what they call the “soft power” strategies deployed by Erdoğan’s regime. This includes particular forms of cultural appropriation, including pseudo-historical television shows that have proved hugely popular with a non-Turkish Muslim audience. It also includes a political and cultural outreach program aimed at members of the Turkish diaspora—which interestingly, given Iğsız’s argument, functions under the aegis of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. Most striking of all, and most resonant with Iğsız’s unsparing argument, is the fact that a number of these cultural efforts that are functioning to support Erdoğan’s authoritarian regime are going forward precisely in the name of fighting Islamophobia and imperialism—sometimes with the support of Western leftists.
It is thus not surprising that Aslı Iğsız has found herself, for years, under relentless attack from the Turkish state and its right-wing supporters in the media. She and her family have been subjected to death threats and media slander. As one of the signatories of the petition “We will not be a party to this crime!” published by the group Academics for Peace in 2016, she, together with many of the other signatories, currently faces the indictment of a Turkish court for the absurd charges of spreading “terrorist propaganda.”
All this leads me to assign one further adjective to Humanism in Ruins: it is intellectually, politically, and in every other sense, a truly courageous book. Like all brave books, it will strike fear into some who would prefer that certain arguments remain unarticulated. It remains to be seen which readers will, in turn, be courageous enough to take up its challenge.
Jadaliyya is pleased to present the following roundtable on Humanism in Ruins. Links to the other articles in this roundtable can be found below.
 Michel Foucault, “What Is Enlightenment?” in The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: Pantheon, 1984), 47. It is worth noting that later in his essay, Foucault takes pains to avoid what he sees as the “facile confusion between humanism and Enlightenment.” So, I hasten to add that my point is meant only to draw a parallel between the ways these concepts exert their power upon the analyst, not to equate them with each other.
 For more on this point, regarding the work of Fanon and others, see my “Humanism and Its Others,” Jadaliyya (March 9, 2016).
 Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations (New York: Schocken, 2007), 256.
 See for example her two-part article “Brand Turkey and the Gezi Protests: Authoritarianism, Law, and Neoliberalism,” in Jadaliyya (July 12-13, 2013). A revised version of this piece can be found in "Resistance Everywhere": The Gezi Protests and Dissident Visions of Turkey, a special issue of JadMag, ed. Anthony Alessandrini, Nazan Üstündağ, and Emrah Yildiz (2013).
 See Sinem Adar and Halil Ibrahim Yenigün, “A Muslim Counter-Hegemony?: Turkey’s Soft Power Strategies and Islamophobia,” in Jadaliyya (May 6, 2019).
Elektra Kostopoulou, “Humanism in Ruins and Possible Rebirth(s): A Bold Reconceptualization of the Compulsory 1923 Greco-Turkish Exchange of Populations”
Sadia Abbas, “Perpetual Aftermath: Colonial Histories, Partitions, and the Displacement of Populations”