Harry Harootunian, The Unspoken as Heritage: The Armenian Genocide and Its Unaccounted Lives (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019).
In the past decade or so, a new cohort of authors has produced books about Armenians at the end of the Ottoman Empire that offer something beyond tired narratives of timeless divides. These have included Selim Deringil, Bedross Der Matossian, Houri Berberian, Richard Antaramian, Y. Tolga Cora, Dzovinar Derderian, and Ali Sipahi. Meanwhile, books by Lerna Ekmekçioğlu, Sato Moughalian, Sylvia Alajaji, and Heghnar Zeitlian Watenpaugh have brought to light the lives and afterlives of displaced Armenian communities, artisans, and artworks. Harry Harootunian’s The Unspoken as Heritage has just one foot in this fast-growing field. The author is at once an insider and an outsider. A preeminent historian of Japan noted for bringing Marxist perspectives to the study of that country, he is a specialist in neither Ottoman nor Armenian history and has “no ambition” to become one (13). The result is a genre-bending piece, sitting somewhere between memoir and history. The subject is historical, but the stuff of the book is personal. It takes us into Harootunian’s childhood home and memories, as well as the recollections of his parents, Ohannes and Vehanush, as he speculates on their affective states at the life-or-death moments that they survived during and after the Armenian Genocide. When a grim Ottoman twilight offered little more than a gruesome end, they fled, married, and resettled in Detroit. There, they raised three children, and, by Harootunian’s telling, they left unspoken many of the details of their lives during the death throes of the Sublime State.
Chief among the claims in The Unspoken as Heritage is that the history of mass violence exposes the limits of histories that cling to official archives. The book suggests that the Armenian and other genocides “exceed” a kind of history that demands official documentation (36). Here, Harootunian echoes a point Marc Nichanian makes in The Historiographic Perversion (2009), that an act of mass violence devours not only life but also the evidence of its own violence. Even when such violence, by some twist, leaves a voluminous paper trail—“an archivist’s and, perhaps, a social historian’s fantasy”—that sea of evidence mires scholars in endless debates and calls to find yet more evidence (32). For Harootunian, this gives rise to a “strange and even troubling” result, that history becomes “an exclusive graveyard whose borders require proper credentials of identification.” Those who lack “documents to offer to confirm their historical importance . . . fail to win entry” (32). Outsized attention to state archives, he suggests, can reify and even police a boundary between history and memory. These are most welcome reflections for Ottoman history, where the cult of the archive is strong, thanks to tens of millions of Ottoman documents awaiting researchers in Turkey. Still, one cannot help but ask whether the book’s indictment goes too far. Certainly not all histories that draw on official archives are destined to parrot the governments that furnished the sources. Many historians, including those pursuing forms of subaltern studies, social history, women’s history, and the histories of enslaved peoples, have in fact developed creative methods for navigating fraught archival terrain. The book’s claims about history would benefit from further engagement with these works and their methods.
Harootunian, for his part, suggests a remedy for these archival problems in “the everyday.” It is a concept as slippery as what it describes: repositories of memory, individual experiences, and emotions. “Located in history’s shadows,” the everyday is “the domain of subjective experience and memory, neither reliably datable nor empirically certifiable” (25). We can glean an example of the everyday in his third chapter, “Traces of a Vanished Everyday.” In it, Harootunian meditates on the everyday lives of his parents, Ohannes and Vehanush, who were forced to leave behind their Ottoman lives during the Armenian Genocide. They lost family, friends, and ways of life, but they seldom spoke about these pasts. Harootunian, therefore, is left to speculate about his parents’ losses and how they may have affected the ways they raised him and his sisters: “None of us benefited from the wisdom and love of that vanished world, and I believe that while our parents did what they could, there was always that missing piece in our upbringing” (77). The chapter is evocative. It foregrounds how the everyday can salvage some richness from traces and absences. The fifth chapter, “House of Strangers/Diminished Lives,” offers a more concrete example of retelling the past through the everyday, since it draws more on Harootunian’s own recollections. It deals with his childhood and upbringing in the United States, providing a rich commentary on class, race, and alterity. His parents and other émigrés, he suggests, led “diminished lives” as they struggled to make ends meet in foreign lands. And even after the family’s finances stabilized with the passing of the Great Depression, cultural assimilation remained elusive. Harootunian recalls growing up as part of a community with “different skin tones and unpronounceable names” (115). In response, he strove to fit in, a “futile exercise of trying to become the American I observed in school and the movies” (119). Describing the everyday pressures of American capitalism and racial assimilation, the chapter blends memoir and history to underscore links between material and cultural domains. “Just as capitalism has effectively ‘forgotten’ the horrors of a process of primitive accumulation that has accounted for its origins and subsequent success, so nations remove the embarrassing stigmas of their more immediate origins for a new narrative that projects the idea that the nation has always existed, since time immemorial” (133). This is the book at its best, a flowing if somber commentary connecting the forms of difference and forgetfulness that prop up capitalism, nationalism, and cultural assimilation.
The topics of capitalism and nationalism also take center stage in the fourth chapter, “History’s Interruption: Dispossession and Genocide.” In it, Harootunian breaks with his disavowal of history to argue for a materialist reading of the Armenian Genocide. He suggests that the mass dispossession that accompanied and perhaps even motivated the genocide also functioned to extract the start-up capital for the Turkish Republic. Here, he elaborates on the Marxist concept of “primitive accumulation,” the violence and dispossession that gather “precapitalist wealth to underwrite the formation of capitalism” (87). Through “the intimate and interactive relation between the nation-state and capital accumulation” (94), Harootunian identifies how forces of capital and class drove the violent formations of nation-states like Turkey. The chapter’s motioning toward this parallel between the nation-state’s foundational violence and capitalism’s primitive accumulation is most welcome, though Harootunian suggests that it is a move that “too many historical narratives overlook” (94). Not all historians have overlooked it, however. In the past decade, Ottoman historians like Ümit Kurt, Ümit Uğur Üngör, and Mehmet Polatel have provided compelling if disturbing pictures of the dispossession that accompanied the violence of 1915. Incorporating their research into this chapter would have supported its theoretical claims with specific historical examples, drawn from Ottoman, Armenian, and other sources. Those examples could have enriched and even altered the outlines of the argument.
The major challenge of reading The Unspoken as Heritage is remembering that it is a memoir, not a monograph. It is easy to lose sight of this fact, because despite the book’s disavowal of history, it critiques history and offers narratives of the past. At times, however, the book oversteps and makes sweeping claims about history, telling us more about the author’s positionality than about Ottoman history: that Armenians constituted “a colonized minority under Ottoman hegemony for more than five hundred years” or that the “constant interaction of the different ethnicities was always explosive and conflict producing” (38–39). The work of historians like Dzovinar Derderian and Richard Antaramian casts doubt on such statements, showing instead how many communities hardly resembled “self-enclosed enclaves, centered on the church” (11). While some may have been isolated, many others were part of mixed communities, where communal difference was neither static, nor legible, nor even relevant to their everyday lives. In fact, in many parts of Anatolia, Armenians and their Muslim neighbors conducted business together, schemed against Istanbul authorities together, and even chanted funeral rites in the Zaza language together. In the mountain fastness of Dersim, Armenians and Alevis shared sacred spaces, religious rites, and even languages. Examples like these defy depictions of “permanent hunting seasons against minorities” (62). “Explosive” communal boundaries were no constant. Historical actors had to continually exert themselves to forge, uphold, and remake those boundaries. They still have to, today.
The Unspoken as Heritage makes a strong case for historians to embrace the repositories of memory, individual experiences, and emotions that Harootunian calls “the everyday.” Indeed, historians should not shrink from embracing nontraditional sources and methods, especially in the face of archives pruned to serve official interests. Still, the everyday is not up to the task of narrating the past on its own. Without moorings in the historian’s craft, the everyday risks straying into the murky waters of sweeping claims, like those about timeless divides between Christians and Muslims or Armenians, Kurds, and Turks. Those ideas are grounded more in present politics than in realities of the past. What is more, the idea of irreconcilable difference is an especially dangerous one. In 1915, that idea combined with the pathological paranoia of a few despicably misguided men to unleash unspeakable horrors. The Armenian Genocide killed many hundreds of thousands, and forced many more to leave their homes, their families, and their everyday lives for dead. Today, however, we should resist the urge to leave for dead the hope of thinking ourselves outside of these supposedly timeless divides. And to do that, we will need both history and the everyday.