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Afterlives of Violence: Archival Traces, Survivor Objects, and Affective Experiences in Turkey and Syria

Session VIII-06, sponsored by Ottoman and Turkish Studies Association and the Society for Armenian Studies, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, December 3 at 11:00 am

Panel Description
Recent scholarship opened lines of inquiry into the long-term repercussions of genocide, violence and displacement in the late Ottoman Empire and the Republic of Turkey. The contributors to this panel represent the disciplines of History, Art and Architectural History, Anthropology, and Comparative Literature. They draw upon the intersections of archival history, ethnography, architecture, memory and heritage studies to tackle this multidimensional and difficult subject. Recent critique examines how archives are constituted and produce meaning. The first paper redefines the boundaries of archival evidence by finding and analyzing the not merely incomplete, but fragmentary and almost ghostly status of the records of the post genocide Istanbul tribunals that tried perpetrators of crimes committed against the Armenians. The second paper utilizes the methods of architectural history to constitute traces on the landscape as another fragmented archive, to be supplemented with oral history, fieldwork, memoirs, state archives and even plant samples. Decaying construction materials and the vegetation that emerges in the ruins of vernacular architecture give new evidence on forced displacement and dispossession. The third paper combines architectural history with ethnographic fieldwork. Here the researcher gathers their own archive through an affective data base of ethnographic participation supplemented by memoirs, oral histories, poetry, home videos and artistic film made by diasporic Armenians who travel to present-day Turkey in search of their ancestral houses. This results in new typologies of affective performances including the use of survivor objects, such as photographs, as votos and ex-votos. This allows these self-described pilgrims to participate in the arc of their past and take agency in bridging their separation from it by redefining the meaning of homeland. A fourth paper picks up the thread of pilgrimage by focusing on the “dark tourism” of pilgrimages by Armenians to sites of mass atrocities in Turkey and Syria. This paper uses the methods of history to excavate a forgotten oral and textual archive to investigate the afterlives of the Armenian genocide. Unmarked killing fields, and the fragmentary human bones that routinely surface within them, are experienced as haunted sites of the uncanny. Pilgrims devise methods of release through rituals and memory performances. The final paper uses anthropology and the language of photography in order to investigate absences in present-day southern Turkey, resulting in a “negative ethnography” that records and reflects on the absent, the suppressed, and the silenced, and theorizes ways in which absence and silence become deafening.
Architecture & Urban Planning
  • This paper examines the legacies of military tribunals that took place in Istanbul in the aftermath of the Armenian genocide. After the Allied powers occupied the Ottoman capital, Istanbul, in 1918, military tribunals were organized under Ottoman law to try perpetrators of crimes committed against the Armenian population. While these trials (which lasted until 1920) established an early archive of genocide, the incomplete and fragmentary status of the evidentiary archive remains to be examined as a means of redefining “archive” as an affective and mnemonic source that carries historiographic significance in the present. By rereading legal fragments from the 1918-20 tribunals, this paper uncovers a post-Ottoman imaginary in which ethnic cleansing and genocide are centrally located.
  • The rupture of 1915 in the Ottoman and post-Ottoman world has been an object of study for an interdisciplinary audience within a broader human rights discussion. The ‘evidence’ has constituted one of the most important discussions in weaving a history where the absence -of people, archive, and common sense- has been more dominant than what is present. In this context, my research on the architectural manifestation of forced displacement and dispossession brings the material and environmental fragments to the foreground. Through findings from oral history, fieldwork, plant samples, memoirs, and state archives, I focus on the three connected villages in the eastern border of Divriği (today in Sivas - Turkey) and Erzincan (Turkey) in Eastern Anatolia. In the absence of their local Armenian residents, I narrate the architectural and environmental history of Kürtdallı (now Çobandurağı) and Gasma (now Kesme) and Pingan (now Adatepe) through decaying construction materials and the vegetation that emerges in the ruins of vernacular architecture. Keeping Anna Tsing’s question “what emerges in damaged landscapes” at the center of this research, I replace the material ruins, endemic plants, and geographic maps with the unfulfilled expectation of an archival document. The damaged landscape, in my research, is not harmed by industrial or natural disasters, but by a series of forced displacements that took place roughly in twenty years during and after WWI. These three formerly Armenian majority villages of Divriği provide a lens through which I theorize the intertwined relation between vernacular civic architecture and modernity, through displacement and dispossession. While for this study I look at the rural peripheries of Divriği and architectures that are generally referred to as the “vernacular,” this work is part of a broader attempt at historicizing the displacement, migration, and dispossession as an inherent episode of architectural history in Turkey.
  • Like other descendants of exiles who have been denied a return to their homeland, Diasporic Armenians whose families escaped the genocide of 1915 have intense emotional attachments to a homeland that they have never seen. Burdened with narratives of trauma, and evoking deep antipathies, their homeland (now in eastern Turkey) may be, or feel to be, far too dangerous to body and spirit to visit. However, many have made “returns.” I accompanied over a dozen groups of these travelers whose geographic goals were very specific: the home-town or village from which their own parents or grandparents were exiled 75 to 100 years earlier. They especially hoped to find the actual family house, which they perceive as their homeland’s beating heart. Arriving as the first generation to “return home” after the genocide, these self-described pilgrims found themselves called upon to create ways to engage with it and, somehow, to make it their own. Many pilgrims responded by creating rituals that employ “survivor objects” to make their connection to the homeland personal and permanent. Pilgrims had already brought many of these objects along: property deeds, passports, insurance claims, items of clothing, and especially photographs of their own ancestors brought from the home-towns they search for. In this paper, I analyze three instances when individual pilgrims hid family photographs in places that stood for their lost family house, as it is rarely found. Thick ethnographic research allows me to reveal how the meaning of these seemingly similar acts can only be understood in the context of each pilgrim’s embedded history and memories, adding distinctive layers to homeland’s new meaning. For these photographs are far more than historical documents or discourse [dependent on their narrative value], rather, the histories embedded in them seem to compel their bodily deployment as performative objects such that they emerge as votives or ex-votives, able to give materiality to a generation’s ineffable or unrecognized spiritual needs. While providing agency for defining homeland as the pilgrims' own, these rituals also endow the homeland with a mosaic of new collective meanings, often restorative ones. Future work may show how these new meanings stand at a pivotal moment in the historicization of Armenian meanings of homeland, that is, at a moment between its many iterations as a lived experience and its future as a living memory.
  • The affective horror of the Armenian Genocide has left traces upon the living. This paper gathers an affective archive of written accounts, images, and oral histories of visitors to these sites of mass atrocity in contemporary Syria and Turkey. Within this history of emotions, pilgrims past and present experience profound sense of sadness and tears of mourning, but also describe experiences of feeling the uncanny and even physical ailment during their visits. I attempt to historicize these affective experiences by considering the historical spaces within which they occur. I suggest that some who visit spaces where Armenian Genocide atrocities were committed a century ago may be unsettled temporally, geographically, and bodily because they are visitors to haunted spaces, haunted because they remain unmarked by monuments and ceremonial time. Roma Sendayka has called such spaces “non-sites of memory.” How do communal memories of horrific bodily violence sometimes result in embodied hauntings? How have visitors historically enacted rituals and memory performances—including collecting bones of martyrs— in an attempt to vacate the affective necrogeography of ghosts by naming the unnamed dead?
  • In photography, a negative is an inversion of an image where the light areas are foregrounded in dark, and the dark matter is pushed to the background by being rendered light. In this paper, I ethnographically engage a site in south Turkey in the aftermath of the Armenian genocide as one would read the negative of a photograph, highlighting that which has been actively absented. Reading Antakya from the vantage point of its Armenian and other absentees, I magnify the mundane silences that shape the ordinary in this town. The ‘negative ethnography’ of Antakya that I draw, attempts to re-inscribe its absentees into a narrative of the city. Against the grain of a positivist anthropology that would frame its object of analysis around that which is evident, present, uttered, and said, here I stay and sit with the negative, foregrounding that which has been absented as a result of genocide and co-related atrocities. In engagement with philosophies of negativitiy, as well as histories and ethnographies of erasure, this paper reads Turkey’s contemporary through a ‘negative methodology.’