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The Armenian Diaspora and Stateless Power: Collective Identity in the Transnational 20th Century

RoundTable XI-1, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Sunday, November 5 at 8:30 am

RoundTable Description
Over the course of the twentieth century, it became impossible to imagine the Armenian experience outside of the framework of dispersion and genocide. Often hailing from geographically disparate towns, survivors found themselves in a new proximity with fellow Armenians. The diversity within these newly instituted exilic communities, compounded by inter community exchange facilitated by private correspondence and the burgeoning network of Armenian language periodicals, gave rise to a new form of transnational consciousness for Armenians. This roundtable brings together scholars who work on how the Armenian diaspora’s statelessness is not only evidence of its power, but also how this “stateless power” acts as both an alternative and complement to the nation-state. Roundtable participants reflect MESA’s commitment to career stage diversity, as well as to representation from a diverse array of universities: US and foreign, public, and private. The purpose of this roundtable is to highlight recent developments in the archival base of historical research and innovations in literary studies, ethnographies, and sociological studies on the Armenian Diaspora, with specific attention to the emergence of new interpretations of diasporic transnationalism. Thus, the primary goal of the roundtable is to identify new contributions that refuse to choose between Armenians as either local or global actors and are committed to examine their agency as historical actors and transnational? political agents. A secondary goal is to draw on the research of roundtable participants to discuss the ways in which such examinations challenge and transform the various bodies of literature that make up the field of Armenian and Middle Eastern Studies. Fluid in their definitions of homeland and host state, the participants center the diaspora experience to explore the richness and magnitude of the Armenian experience through the 20th century, from genocide, forced displacement, and dispersion to the gradual establishment of sedentary and rooted global communities.
Political Science
Religious Studies/Theology
  • Dr. Tsolin Nalbantian -- Organizer
  • Dr. Talar Chahinian -- Presenter
  • Dr. Lilit Keshishyan -- Presenter
  • Dr. Sossie Kasbarian -- Presenter, Chair
  • Sylvia Alajaji -- Presenter
  • Hrag Papazian -- Presenter
  • Prof. Khachig Tololyan -- Presenter
  • Dr. Talar Chahinian
    I will discuss the making of Armenian diasporic centers following the genocide by looking at the consolidation of literary production in post-WWI Paris and post-WWII Beirut comparatively. In positing the Paris intellectuals’ (especially those affiliated with the literary group Menk) de-centered, multi-local model of transnational literary orientation against the Beirut intellectuals’ (especially those affiliated with the Western Armenian Writers’ Association- WASL) attempts to “center” the exiled communities through processes of nationalizing language, education, and literature, I will discuss the constructive as well as prohibitive limits of stateless power.
  • Hrag Papazian
    In recent decades, discussions about the diversity of what we call the “Armenian diaspora” have gained momentum. Many have rightfully argued for a more nuanced treatment of the globally dispersed Armenian communities, pointing at intra-diasporic heterogeneity in terms of a variety of factors, including political orientation, degree of organization/institutionalization/mobilization, level of hostland integration, date, causes and specific origin of migration, and the like. In my presentation, I aim to shed light on yet another dimension of the multiplicity of Armenian dispersion, focusing on a variable that is often taken for granted yet is fundamental to notions of diaspora and diasporicity: homeland orientation. First, do various diasporic Armenians, across different geographies and/or political inclinations, have an identical homeland orientation? Do they all turn and re-turn toward the same “Armenian homeland”? Whereas the pro-Soviet diasporic Armenian current saw the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic (1920-1991) as a homeland with which to connect and to which to “return” through waves of “Repatriation”, the anti-Soviet faction was usually less enthusiastic toward the Armenian SSR and constructed, instead, a myth of return toward Western Armenia from where Armenians were exiled during the genocide. In contemporary Istanbul, as my research reveals, whereas recent immigrants from post-Soviet Armenia are in a process of diasporization toward their Republic back home, many local Armenians reject any homeland-association with contemporary Armenia. But the latter are also divided internally; some see the homeland as lying in the eastern parts of Turkey from where they originate, referring to it as Anatolia or Historical Armenia, while others reject to be categorized as “diasporic” as they have a more fluid conception of homeland that also incorporates Istanbul and other western regions of now-Turkish/once-Ottoman lands where “Armenians have been living since Byzantine times.” Second, what about the temporal variability of homeland in diasporic consciousness? Post-genocide diaspora’s gradual shift of focus from Western/Historical Armenia to newly-independent Armenia and, more recently, Istanbul Armenians’ newly forging ties (of even citizenship) with the Republic of Armenia shed light on this dimension of flexibility and change in diaspora-homeland relationships. Finally, if the homeland is not identical across space and not stable in time, then it can also be forgotten, lost, or inexistent. What becomes, in that case, of (Armenian) diasporicity? How can this realization guide our understanding of and discourse on Armenian dispersion and diaspora, in ways that go beyond strictly territorial “outside-the-homeland” reductive definitions and conceptualizations of diaspora and diasporicity?
  • Dr. Sossie Kasbarian
    A Diaspora of Longue Durée The Armenian diaspora has over centuries developed its own culture and traditions that are distinct from those of the modern state. It is therefore not dependent on the state as a source of validation or guidance. This situation makes for a complicated relationship with Armenia as homeland, despite the state’s political projects, overtures and policies. The status of a homeland in established diasporas inevitably changes. In the Armenian case, the shift from ‘exilic transnationalism’ to ‘diaspora transnationalism’ has resulted in the homeland becoming ‘one of several nodes of interest and loyalty’ rather than occupying an elevated position. In this conceptualisation, the Republic of Armenia is one of many sites that the diaspora network extends to and is connected to. In this framework, we are moving away from the traditional triadic diaspora caught between homeland and host state and proposing a multi-noded diaspora. As a diaspora of longue durée, the Armenian diaspora involves a practice of ‘diaspora transnationalism’ is both rooted in locality and routed to global networks and connections. My contribution to this roundtable will be to discuss this radical shift in thinking about diaspora, one that enables a more expansive and fluid vision of living in diaspora. Here, the diaspora space is the terrain in which the homeland, the community and other communities are located. It inverts the triad in which homeland and host state are the defining influences on a diaspora often seen as their subsidiary. In doing so, it repositions and centralises the diaspora experience.
  • Sylvia Alajaji
    There is perhaps no name more ubiquitous or discursively powerful in Armenian musical culture than Komitas (1869-1935). Monuments have been erected in his honor all over the world. He has inspired a genealogy of his own, with biographies of composers, scholars, and performers listing their degrees of separation from the person the beloved poet Yeghishé Charents characterized as “the song of the homeland.” Indeed, Komitas, in many ways, embodies Armenia—rather, the possibility of Armenia. He has become synonymous with and emblematic not of the homeland bounded by the confines of the nation state, but a symbolic, imagined homeland—the one that asks “what if.” As Marc Nichanian writes, Komitas is “doubtless the only personage of any importance claimed by both Eastern and Western Armenians as one of their own.” In Komitas, there is a possibility of a wholeness denied by geography and by history—a possibility clung to by the diaspora. How easy it would be to end there. But what would happen if one were to poke at the borders of the sonic world that has come to be associated with Komitas and interrogate the sonic alignments these borders facilitate? To do so would be to interrogate the very home that has made wholeness possible—to see it for its possibilities and impossibilities, its inclusions and exclusions. For although, through Komitas, the diaspora may be able to see itself as an “us,” after all, there can be no “us” without “them.” In this sonically boundaried home, who belongs? Who does not? This contribution to the roundtable will serve as a meditation on the notion of home as it functions for those in diaspora, as “sounded” through the legacy of and discourse surrounding Komitas. Through an analysis of the musical imaginary of the Armenian diaspora, home functions not as a fixed unit of analysis, but as something that emerges and is sustained through complex relationships and negotiations with sociopolitical forces both within and outside the diasporic community and simultaneously articulates diasporic subjectivity. It is both constructed and constructing—a node of orientation around which the diaspora comes to know itself and its others.
  • Prof. Khachig Tololyan
    Beyond Westphalia and after Foucault: Stateless Power in the Armenian Diaspora In the century after the Lausanne Treaty of 1923, new Armenian diasporic communities emerged in the Arab world, France, the US, and Argentina. Like the already existing Iranian-Armenian diaspora, each evolved separately and locally. But over time, transnational contact between clergy, community leaders, intellectuals, philanthropic organizations and political groups led to the emergence of an elite discourse and practice, first of exilic nationalism and then diasporic transnationalism, evinced collective actions. This talk will explore the emergence of first Middle Eastern and then other Armenian diasporic communities as polities in which the advent of individual agency among survivors and refugees was later marshalled by elite discourse and practices into heterogeneous forms of collective power. Ultimately, these forms achieved critical mass and produced “stateless power” that operates within the interstices of sovereign state power. Crucially, diasporic stateless power does not suicidally challenge the sovereign state’s power and authority; the prohibitive, punitive, and coercive power of the State abides. Nevertheless, in all but the most totalitarian contexts, diasporic Armenian communities learned to self-organize and self-administer and began to elicit, regulate and direct certain commitments, practices and behaviors from their members, developing new discourses and practices of politics and wielding real if bounded powers. This talk will chart the emergence of the overlapping practices of diasporic stateless power. We note that depending on diasporic place and time, this kind of power is compatible with some and quite different from other categories and definitions of power as elaborated by Weber, Dahl, Polsby, Foucault, Gaventa, Lukes and others.
  • Dr. Lilit Keshishyan
    In a select group of Armenian-language literary texts written and published in the U.S., we see critiques of diaspora institutions, nationalist narratives, and traditional markers of diasporic identity; however, even when being challenged, the weight of “stateless power” informs and binds the writers’ cultural output. The authors, and often their central characters, are conscious of how strongly institutions, language, and cultural narratives script experiences. They repeatedly contemplate the powers and limitations of placing diasporic narratives at the center of identity and belonging, especially amidst more dominant, pluralistic spaces. Nevertheless, diasporic institutions–cultural, social, and political– not only inform the characters’ sense of place both within the communities in question and outside of them, but also enable the authors’ cultural production–the Armenian literary text. My contribution to this roundtable will explore how diasporic communities and stateless power can reframe how we examine host spaces and their own narratives and histories. Stateless power produces lived experiences and cultural production that shape diasporic identities. These experiences and cultural products become fundamental, yet often overlooked, pieces of “host” space narratives. In the literary texts, the transnational experiences that the characters (and authors) have gone through inform their experiences in the local spaces lived in and discussed, disrupting traditional notions of the local by positing the local as the transnational.