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Home » Uncategorized » Public and Private Erasure of History and Memory: Ottoman Past, Turkish Present, and Collective Violence against the Armenians 1789–2009

Public and Private Erasure of History and Memory: Ottoman Past, Turkish Present, and Collective Violence against the Armenians 1789–2009

Date: Monday 19 May 2014
Venue: SOAS, University of London
Speaker: Prof Fatma Müge Göçek (University of Michigan)
Chair: Ms Helin Anahit (Middlesex University)

The memory of violence is a half-seen face, a blurring at the edges of modern Turkish society. After an introduction by Helin Anahit, Fatma Müge Göçek, Professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan, opened her lecture to a room full of scholars and members of the public: Turks, Armenians, and others alike. Outlining the chain of events that led her to write her forthcoming book (Denial of Violence: Ottoman Past, Turkish Present, and Collective Violence against the Armenians, 1789-2009, OUP), Göçek described how her initial chosen area of study, the rise of Islamism and the role of the Turkish military, had led her to ask how it was that violence had become so normalised in Turkish society. Such a society, she said, must have been built on a foundation of violence which has gone unaccounted for, and Göçek’s search for this foundation naturally led her to the Armenian Genocide. Of course, the Armenians did not suffer alone, and the speaker announced that it was her intention to address the Kurdish issue next.

Göçek then paused briefly to make a personal apology for ‘the violence that was brought upon the Armenians in the past up to the present’. She apologised not because she was guilty of this violence, but because, as a participant in a society that did not acknowledge it, she was responsible. The speaker also established that she had not come to argue about whether the Genocide took place or not ― what she was interested in was why the Turkish state denied it.

Göçek took us through the way that the Turkey’s narrative of the Genocide had developed over time into a multi-layered denial, emerging from the Agambenian condition of the extreme polarisation of society in combination with systematic modernity. Presenting the audience with a condensed history of violent episodes against Armenians and their triggers ― such as the Ottoman Bank Takeover and the 1912-13 Balkan Wars ― the speaker showed us why it was that the Armenians seem ‘stuck’ in 1915: an untreated wound doesn’t heal, and the Turkish state has no desire to examine the patient. The speaker concluded with the following remark: nationalism always emerges as a reason with which to justify violence. Turkey must reflect critically on its violent history in order to become a truly democratic society.

As Dr Göçek sat down, the chair took the first question, which turned out to be the first of many provocative questions and statements that went on for as long as the lecture that preceded them. The first question, clearly a prize piece rolled out all similar occasions, was why only the Armenians and the Jews should have their causes represented ― surely we should be working to recognise all genocides and end them all for ever?

Another contribution from the audience came in the form of an anecdote about a Turkish student abroad meeting a fellow student from the Middle East and being invited over for a cup of tea. Upon seeing in the other student’s room a jar containing a pair of strange objects floating in liquid, the protagonist asked about it, only to be told that they were a Turkish woman’s breasts, pickled for good luck.  Eventually we were allowed to hear the question that this story had been leading to ― how selective should one be when choosing sources? Göçek, having researched the topic of her book for twelve years and read tens of thousands of pages of material, rightly dismissed this question, inviting the asker to first be as comprehensive as she had been, and then to talk about subjectivity.

Although there were some relevant questions, nevertheless the room temperature inexorably climbed and the Q&A session began to descend into a shouting match until the chair took control and brought proceedings to a close, at which many people moved across the room and carried on their arguments standing up. Dr Göçek handled the questions professionally, but not without fighting back a little against her hecklers, particularly when things got more heated. In her articulate and dry fashion, she made it clear that she was fed up of receiving the same response wherever she went from people with half-baked ideas and unqualified opinions. As we approach 2015, we see indeed that the memories of the past century’s violence, however distorted they may be, do not lurk far beneath the surface.

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