October 21, 2007

Adopting a father from afar

A picture from the Sunday New York Times: an Istanbul cafe. Deep red-colored cloth on tables and dark wood chairs against the soothing yellow light. In the background, on the left, a picture suspended. In the foreground, to the right, as if sharing status in the image, a man smoking, head back in committed inhalation. The man is anonymous, the picture is of Ataturk. But at first glance it looks like someone else. The posture in the portrait, the angle of his position, a stray lock of hair on a wide brow, the eyes that seem to retreat from being seen while staring out in heavy-lidded suspicion and a back hunched into a heavy cloak lend the appearance of another iconic figure: Nadar's Baudelaire.

It is impossible to turn away from the fantasy that follows from the mis-recognition. A poet leaves France, and poetry; not Rimbaud, but instead, Baudelaire. He criss-crosses the Bosporus as if leaping from one world to the other. The destination of exile not Africa, but that corner of the nascent Ottoman Empire. Wandering the small alleyways looking for the living traces of what he had seen in the background of the watercolors scarred by pen and ink by Constantin Guys, waiting for the inevitable encounter with that which had lodged itself in his memory. One imagines he would have moved through the masses absorbing the quivering lines of dress and habits, the overflowing Orientalist's lust which was stoked in Paris, ebbing under the reality of the world encountered. The result might have been a sensibility like that of "a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness, responding to each one of its movements and reproducing the multiplicity of life and the flickering grace of all the elements of life." This would produce "an 'I' with an insatiable appetite of for the 'non-I'" (The Painter of Modern Life).

Impossible to build to a nation on flickering grace. But in the fantasy of Baudelaire as Turkey's father, the refugees who streamed in during the Crimean and Russo-Ottoman Wars find not a voice that sanctifies the losses and explains the need for revenge and cold realism both, but an environment slack with the weakest form of imperial value; an ethos in love with "martial nonchalance."

Armies adopt a pose lavish in form only. The hierarchies are aesthetic and pertain to fashion. The nation develops as an anti-nation: devoted to the contingent, ephemeral, and momentary, with no time for myth nor nationalism born of wound, trauma, and despair. The potency of forgetting all but the "memory of the present," which offers salvation not in the rage of a broken empire, but instead the infinite "privileges offered by circumstance." No look to the past, which is bound to author the play of old pain and massacres.

"Almost all our originality," Baudelaire wrote, eye cocked to the coming of the night and the play of the city, "comes from the deal which Time imprints on our sensations" (The Painter of Modern Life).

October 18, 2007

Forces on the Borders

With the current U.S. administration seeking to soothe Turkey's sensitivity over a proposed congressional resolution on its history, and Turkey threatening an incursion into the Kurdish region of Iraq, and the EU more closely considering the possibility of Turkey's inclusion within "Europe," past, present, and future seem to be set in a dramatic constellation.

The mass of Turkey's troops on the border, and the diplomatic efforts at restraining a Turkish assault, by both the U.S. and the EU, are the problems of here and now. A congressional resolution affirming the Armenian genocidewhich in the wake of the Holocaust has begun to taken on the aura of the original extermination, redraws the image a long-instantiated sensibility, bolstered by Turkish law, that there be no responsibility for what happens in the fog of war.

This logic is, of course, at work in the U.S. occupation of Iraq where the dreams of counter-insurgency and the chaos of an umbrella conflict leave the true measure of ethnic cleansing uncertain, even while a protracted U.S. presence was, for a time, bolstered by the argument that to leave would be to countenance a coming genocide.

Those who have long fought Turkish denials of the crimes committed between 1915-20, and the government’s concomitant and continuing human rights abuses, see the European Union as an ally in the struggle for the ideals of global, transitional justice: “truth,” “recognition,” and “reconciliation.” The U.S. congressional resolution risks the latter for the sake of the former by heeding the Armenian call for recognition.

In the context of the EU negotiations, the argument is this: the more Turkey moves toward accepting a process of working through its traumatic past the further it will be drawn into a European sphere. This model promises that Turkey can escape the darkness of denial and dwell in the light of democracy. To come to terms is to accept a new language of truth and enlightenment.

This suggests there is a threshold Turkey can cross by reconciling itself to its past, and by virtue of this act, find harmony with European ideals. If there is ever to be a dialogue about the divide between the Turkish dis-memory of 1915-20 and the Armenian legacy, the EU seems poised to accelerate that process. As the exiled historian Taner Akcam writes, "The European Union might be the ideal interlocutor as it is already involved in monitoring Turkish compliance with [European] norms—including those involving human and minority rights." The European attempts to bring Turkey in line with such "norms" have, however, thus far floundered on institutionalized Turkish resistance, not to mention echoes of western imperialism and Turkish nationalism; moreover, it is surely the case that the "norms" themselves are troubled enough.

There are parallels between the impulse of a few to deny the Holocaust in Europe and Turkey's long-held and deliberate strategy of avoiding Armenian claims, but the idea that there are "norms" which have sustained a European openness to its past crimes are easily clouded by France and its "Vichy syndrome" or Germany's troubled incorporation of Holocaust memory: whether in the form of a Historikersreit, the more recent Wehrmacht exhibition controversy, or the ambivalent response to the Berlin memorial designed by the American Jewish architect, Peter Eisenman. Such complex responses to unremarkable expressions of historical truth suggest the impossibility of marking the point at which the past can be safely viewed. At its worst there is there is sublime sensation of vulnerability, a dizzying rush of stimuli finally checked by reason's insistence: that was then.

In the present instability of Iraq's slow simmering collapse and Kurdish agitation, Turkey certainly sees symbolic resolutions as a very real threat to the perception of sovereignty -- the monopoly on violence that signifies the state finds a kindred insistence in the declared sovereignty over historical memory. Kurdish agitation and Armenian demands bleed together into a new form of an old Turkish question.

As for Europe and the U.S. Congress, asking Turkey to face its ghosts means each should rightly face the respective demands of reckoning past crimes and present countenance.