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Resur(e)recting a Spectacular Hero: Diriliş Ertuğrul, Necropolitics, and Popular Culture in Turkey

  • Josh Carney (a1)

Abstract

The hugely popular proto-Ottoman television serial Resurrection Ertuğrul (Diriliş Ertuğrul, 2014–) is the culmination of a series of attempts by Turkish government broadcaster TRT to produce a historical drama in line with the values of the governing AKP. Far from being confined to the television screen, Resurrection is called upon by the government for multiple extra-textual engagements with the public. This essay traces some of the ways in which the serial has been used instrumentally by the AKP, blurring traditional distinctions between entertainment and official (state sanctioned) history, and intervening in political discourse. It first introduces the notion of prescriptive activation to describe the extra-textual use of media texts by those in power for political ends. Next, it examines the trappings of death that surround Resurrection, suggesting that the serial partakes in a representational necropolitics that fetishizes death for the nation. Finally, it explores the stakes of such representation, turning to a case in which text-inspired and literal necropolitics converge.

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1 A version containing my translation of the voiceover and quotations is available here: https://youtu.be/2WNswwLWqMg. The original versions could be found as of February 2018 at the following links: http://www.ahaber.com.tr/webtv/gundem/gelecege-curet-edin; https://youtu.be/WKPagHTN_VU.

2 Kafadar, Cemal, Between Two Worlds: The Construction of the Ottoman State (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995); Paul Lindner, Rudi, Nomads and Ottomans in Medieval Anatolia, Vol. 144 (Bloomington: Indiana University, Research Institute for Inner Asian Studies, 1983).

3 Carney, Josh, “Re-Creating History and Recreating Publics: The Success and Failure of Recent Ottoman Costume Dramas in Turkish Media,” European Journal of Turkish Studies 19 (2014): 121.

4 Boym, Svetlana, The Future of Nostalgia (New York: Basic Books, 2001).

5 This argument is detailed in brief in Josh Carney, “A Dizi-Ying Past: Magnificent Century (Muhteşem Yüzyıl) and the Motivated Uses of History in Contemporary Turkey” (PhD diss., Indiana University, 2015).

6 Rating figures are available on the following Web site: www.acunn.com.

7 “Ecdat Gün Yüzü Gördü [Ancestor Sees Light of Day],” Bianet, 15 January 2015. Video of this greeting was available as of February 2018 at the following link: https://youtu.be/twKLoRwWGkU.

8 Kahraman Şakul, “Kadim Türklerden Duşakabinoğullarına [From Ancient Turks to Sons of the Shower],” Tarih (2015): 88–93, provides useful background and commentary regarding this dubious use of historical claims.

9 Video of this appearance was available as of February 2018 at the following link: https://youtu.be/is6E4hEIqQY.

10 Edward Said, Orientalism, (New York: Vintage, 1978). It is worth noting, however, that Said critiqued a practice of orientalism applied by the so-called west onto the so-called east, whereas what we see in this use of Resurrection might be described as a self-imposed orientalism, and one which goes very much against the political grain of more traditional forms. In the Resurrection text, for example, the Christian Knights Templar are flat villains, a direct answer to the simplistic portrayal of Islamic jihadists critiqued by the likes of Said and Shaheen, Jack, Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People (Ithaca: Olive Branch Press, 2001). Despite this reversal of polarity—what some have called occidentalism—the AKP and its supporters frequently make ahistorical assumptions about the continuity of practices and institutions during the Ottoman era.

11 Debord, Guy, Comments on the Society of Spectacle, trans. Imrie, Malcolm (London: Verso, 1990); Debord, Guy, Society of the Spectacle, trans. Knabb, Ken (London: Rebel Press, 2004).

12 Debord, Comments on the Society of Spectacle, vi.

13 Huyssen, Andreas, Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003).

14 Crary, Jonathan, “Spectacle, Attention, Counter-Memory,” October 50 (1989): 97107.

15 Foucault, Michel, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Sheridan Smith, A. M. (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), 217.

16 Crary, “Spectacle, Attention, Counter-Memory,” 105.

17 Bennett, Tony, “Texts, Readers, Reading Formations,” The Bulletin of the Midwest Modern Language Association 16, no. 1 (1983): 317.

18 I draw here on the concept of publics offered by Warner, Michael, Publics and Counterpublics (New York: Zone Books, 2002), which I gloss as a self-organized, text-based social space created by the reflexive and temporal circulation of discourse among strangers and engaging in poetic world-making. The notion of prescription activation clearly calls into question the degree to which Resurrection’s public is self-organized, and in a related essay, “Reflecting ‘New Turkey’ Deflecting the Coup: Squares, Screens, and Publics at Turkey's ‘Democracy Watches’” (currently under review), I examine the publics constructed via media screens at the post-coup “democracy watches” and offer the notion of a “screened public” for circumstances in which media have reduced the element of self-organization.

19 The sign does double semantic work: at first glance, it closely resembles the modern Turkish word “iyi” (good), though this takes place in a diegetic world in which most of the characters are illiterate and the Latin alphabet is not used for Turkish words. At the symbolic level, it represents a bow and three arrows, referring to the rich heritage of archery in Turkic tradition. Given the AKP government's role in popularizing this symbol, it is somewhat ironic that a variation on it has been adopted by an AKP rival, the “İYİ Partisi” (Good Party), which was formed in October of 2017. Though the “İYİ” logo differs from the “IYI” flag in that it bears dots over the capital “i” letters, the resemblance is unmistakable.

20 Williams, Raymond, Marxism and Literature (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), 133.

21 Of note in the Turkish context, the term does not bear the same religious overtones that it has in the Christian world. Although there is a notion of resurrection in Islam, this is reserved for end times; no saviors have been or will be resurrected before that point in Islamic tradition. This having been said, many in Turkey have a general awareness of Christian tradition, including the idea of Christ's resurrection.

22 Burak Özçetin, whose fascinating work on Resurrection and audiences is forthcoming, made reference to this Erdoğan/Ertuğrul association in a Fall 2017 presentation that I attended. Though we arrived at this observation independently, his presentation was the first time I heard the pithy phrase “Erdoğan is Ertuğrul” mentioned in an academic context.

23 Aydın Albayrak, “Ak Party Deputy Faces Barrage of Criticism after Calling Republic ‘Commercial Break’,” Today's Zaman, 16 January 2015.

24 It is interesting to note, in this regard, that Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the CHP (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi/Republican People's Party), the chief opposition party, began using precisely this slogan (rebirth/yeniden doğuş) in the summer of 2017, after a spectacular (in Debord's sense) “walk for justice” that took over three weeks to wind its way from Ankara to Istanbul, garnering ample public support along the way.

25 I see this as a broad phenomenon. In a related project, I discuss a 2014 AKP political ad that seemed to prefigure the 2016 coup attempt, including Erdoğan's call of citizens to the streets (and, for some, to their deaths), and suggest that the figure of the zombie has become the ideal citizen in the AKP's Turkey. In another project, I discuss the relationship between popular culture and the burial places of key Ottoman figures in Turkey, noting both the longstanding traditions of reverence for the dead and the unique forms this reverence has taken in the AKP era. My present concern relates more particularly to the necropolitics surrounding Resurrection, where both tombs and the coup are, once again, central.

26 Mbembé, Achille, “Necropolitics,” trans. Meintjes, Libby, Public Culture 15, no. 1 (2003): 1140.

27 Ibid., 14.

28 Williams, Raymond, The Long Revolution (Middlesex, England: Pelican Books, 1961), 64.

29 Braidotti, Rosi, “Biomacht Und Nekro-Politik. Uberlegungen Zu Einer Ethik Der Nachhaltigkeit [Bio-Power and Necro-Politics: Reflections on an Ethics of Sustainability],” Springerin, Hefte fur Gegenwartskunst 13, no. 2 (2007): 1823.

30 Dillon, Mike, “‘Patriotism and Valor Are in Your Blood’: Necropolitical Subjectivities in The Terrorist (1999),” Studies in South Asian Film and Media 1, no. 2 (2009): 209–26.

31 Taha Akyol, “Who Was Süleyman Shah?” Hürriyet Daily News, 13 March 2015; David Graham, “The Surreal Saga of Suleyman Shah,” The Atlantic, 24 February 2015.

32 Franco-Turkish Agreement signed at Angora on 20 October 1921.

33 HDN Staff, “Ankara Warns against Attack on Tomb,” Hürriyet Daily News, 7 August 2012.

34 One version of the leaked audio transcripts could be found at this link as of February 2018:

https://youtu.be/X-4VWADux4Y. An English translation of that version remained on Reddit as of the same date: https://redd.it/21i6pe. While the veracity of the recordings seems to be attested to by the Turkish government's charges of treason for the leak, it is striking that the most egregious statements only occur in the transcripts, rather than in the audio.

35 This is also the movement that is largely held responsible for the July 2016 coup attempt. For further discussion of the Gülen Movement and its relationship with the AKP see Dexter Filkins, “Turkey's Thirty-Year Coup,” The New Yorker, 17 October 2016; Hendrick, Joshua D, Gülen: The Ambiguous Politics of Market Islam in Turkey and the World (New York: New York University Press, 2013); Nocera, Lea, ed., The Gülen Media Empire (Rome: Arab Media Report, 2015); and Yavuz, Hakan, Islamic Political Identity in Turkey (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).

36 It must be noted, however, that this division between two former allies left many in Turkey in support of neither side, as both presented relatively conservative, authoritarian, and increasingly Islamist approaches to politics. This was also the first of five elections (as of February 2018) in which the overt use of government media to favor the AKP was coupled with widespread charges of pro-AKP election fraud. The others were the presidential election of August 2014, the parliamentary election of June 2015, the parliamentary election of November 2015, and the constitutional referendum of April 2017.

37 Diken Staff, “‘Havuz Medyası’ ‘Şah'a Kalktı, Manşetler Hollywood Filmlerini Aratmadı [‘Pool Media’ Rise to Shah, Headlines Don't Fall Short of Hollywood],” Diken, 23 February 2015.

38 Prior to this HDP and previous Kurdish party candidates had been able to enter parliament, but only by running as independents. This greatly reduced their ultimate representation in parliament.

39 “Engin Altan: Vatana Inancımı Hiç Kaybetmedim! [Engin Altan: I Never Lost My Belief in the Homeland!],” Milliyet, 26 July 2016; “Nöbete Devam [The Watch Continues],” Takvim, 26 July 2016.

40 Links to these speeches were available as of February 2018 at the following. First speech: https://youtu.be/r_rGWdfIo6I. Second speech (two links because audio is rough on both of them): https://youtu.be/V4MWgX1O9aQ; https://youtu.be/e60te4stfSw.

41 An image of the original can be found in Nurcan Baysal, “Cizre'deki Evlerin Içinden: ‘Kızlar Biz Geldik Siz Yoktunuz’ Yazıları, Yerlerde Sergilenen Kadın Çamaşırları! [Inside Houses in Cizre: ‘Girls We Came but You Weren't Here’ Graffiti, Women's Underwear Spread across the Floors!],” T24, 7 March 2016. My translation of the note is as follows: Date: 08 February 2016 hour 11.01 / We are the holy warriors of the TURKISH REPUBLIC'S army of Mohammed's soldiers. / On the road to the perpetuation of the state and nation in the struggle given on behalf of God, our guide is always the word of God the Qurʾan. / In compensation for the use of your house as part of the requirement of our work I humbly place this payment. / Our beautiful purpose is to defend the promised earth against the infidels BLESSED BE THE HOMELAND. / Sungur Tekin

42 Haydar Darıcı, “Of Kurdish Youth and Ditches,” Theory & Event 19, no. 1 (2016).

43 Michael Ferguson, “Under Fire: Translating the Growing Crisis in the Kurdish Cities of Turkey's Southeast,” Jadaliyya, 20 January 2016, provides a compelling analysis detailing why the term “curfew” was a severely understated misnomer.

44 Human Rights Watch, “Turkey: State Blocks Probes of Southeast Killings,” 2016; UNHCHR, “Report on the Human Rights Situation in South-East Turkey, July 2015 to December 2016,” Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, 2017.

45 Agamben, Giorgio, States of Exception, trans. Attell, Kevin (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).

46 Robert Mackey, “Turkey to Investigate Images of Dead Kurdish Man Being Dragged,” New York Times, 5 October 2015.

47 “Erdogan Says Kurdish Militants Will Be ‘Annihilated’,” Al-Monitor, 20 December 2015.

48 Human Rights Watch, “Turkey: State Blocks Probes of Southeast Killings,” 2016.

50 UNHCHR, “Report on the Human Rights Situation in South-East Turkey, July 2015 to December 2016,” 2017. TOKİ’s role in urban development across Turkey is hotly contested, as its unique public–private partnership gives it unprecedented powers not only for expropriation, but also for assigning construction bids to political allies, and accessing a market of buyers who are granted government subsidized housing loans to purchase specifically from TOKİ. For discussion of TOKİ’s role in the “urban renewal” of Istanbul, see Kuyucu, Tuna and Ünsal, Özlem, “‘Urban Transformation’ as State-Led Property Transfer: An Analysis of Two Cases of Urban Renewal in Istanbul,” Urban Studies 47, no. 7 (June 2010): 1479–99. For discussion of the ties between the siege in the southeast, expropriations, and government plans for urban transformation, see Mahmut Bozarslan, “How Turkey Seeks to Kill Two Birds with One Stone in Diyarbakir,” Al-Monitor, 5 April 2016; Mahmut Bozarslan, “More Kurds Forced out of Ancient Sur in Southeast Turkey,” Al-Monitor, 3 May 2017.

51 UNHCHR, “Report on the Human Rights Situation in South-East Turkey, July 2015 to December 2016,” 2017.

52 TİHV, “TİHV Dokümantasyon Merkezi Verilenine Göre 16 Ağustos 2015-16 Ağustos 2016 Tarihleri Arasında Sokağa Çıkma Yasakları Ve Yaşamını Yitiren Siviller [Street Curfews and Civilian Deaths between 16 August 2015 and 16 August 2016 according to Documentation Given to the Turkish Human Rights Foundation],” Türkiye İnsan Hakları Vakfı, 2016.

53 Mbembé, “Necropolitics,” 16.

54 Mbembé, “Necropolitics,” 30.

55 The message appeared at the following link, though it was no longer loading as of February 2018: https://www.yenisafak.com/video-galeri/haber/dirilisin-bamsisindan-joh-ve-pohe-duali-mesaj-2091938. At that time it was, however, still available via this link: https://youtu.be/ZE5-_iFCTrk.

56 Debord, Comments on the Society of Spectacle, ix.

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