On the Joy and Melancholy of Politics

On May 31, 2013, the boat approaching the Kabataş pier on the European side of Istanbul was packed with fellow-travelers who were nervously fiddling with their surgical-cum-gas masks and swimming goggles. Comradeship, I thought to myself trying really hard to hold back my tears, is made not in smoke-filled party rooms but on battlefields. Six days earlier, I had returned to Istanbul from my fieldwork in Yusufeli, Artvin, where I initially hoped to study activism against ongoing dam construction in northeast Turkey but instead ended up observing resignation and ruination day after day. An hour later, on Istiklal Street, the acrid smell of tear gas quickly expunged the final traces of sand and dust that I had copiously inhaled during my stay in the town. The melancholy of those two months too dissolved in the sight of courage and solidarity and the joy of collectivity that evening and in the following two weeks. But then, something reminiscent of that somberness (or of its tonality at least) kept returning again and again to occasionally disrupt the new intensities of the Gezi resistance.

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Photo by Emrah Gokdemir.

From its beginning, the May–June days of Turkey were likened to countless revolutionary events of a recent or distant past belonging to another geography. The dates of 1848, 1871, and 1968 were hastily added to the list comprising the Springs and Occupies to make sense of the uprising against the loss and commercialization of a public commons that led to the single most powerful spectacle of anti-authoritarianism in the history of Turkey. Even if not entirely unjustified, these comparisons nevertheless have the effect of obscuring the local precedents and sources of the activist energy targeting dispossession and environmental degradation in Taksim.[1] Especially, the second half of the 2000s has witnessed the mobilization of rural populations in hundreds of towns and villages against the construction of dams and run-of-the-river type hydro-electrical power plants across Turkey. Resorting to political, legal, or bodily means to stop the turning of their land and water into commodities, these movements foreshadowed the outcry in Taksim against capital’s appropriation of nature.

Many struggles are still going on. However, insulated from one another to a large degree, the most they could have achieved so far is no more than an order by a sympathizing judge for the temporary halt of local energy projects, which is destined to be quashed by a pro-government one. Many other fights by local inhabitants, such as the one against the construction of the Yusufeli dam, gradually fizzled out to give way to what Lauren Berlant (2011) calls “cruel optimism,” this time built on the hopes for compensation, employment, and capital accumulation.[2] There is certainly a grim irony in the fact that the vast area around Yusufeli to be flooded at the expense of the displacement of twenty-thousand people and the loss of all agricultural land extinguishes politics whereas a tiny green space in Istanbul continues to electrify, in an unprecedented manner, various attachments to, and desires for, alternative and radical worlds. Commons, it seems, is not some neutral matter that awaits our action, but a relation always already entangled with social imaginaries and psychic investments, harboring its own hierarchies, exclusions, and abandonments.[3]

Yet again, what is needed is not so much a comparison as an urgent recognition that the shift from potentiality to eventfulness to social projects that Elizabeth Povinelli (2011) explores in her latest book may always go in the other direction, or rather that social projects may crumble down to potentialities.[4] The Gezi movement, to be sure, has also already shown its own signs of cruel optimism, especially after the counter-publics that it created took the form of neighborhood assemblies following the violent evacuation of the square and the park by the police. From the beginning, there were radical efforts to establish barter markets and open kitchens and plans to conceive gift economies and boycotts against malls and corporations in different parts of the country. However, they are also met with, if not opposed by, the calls for emulating the example of the Five Star Movement in Italy or forming electoral alliances against the ruling Justice and Progress Party (AKP), excluding in principle any possibility of collaboration with Kurds.

“There will be no future, I’m saying finally,” T. J. Clark (2013)—perhaps the sole originator of my intellectual woes here—has recently written, “because there will be no future; only a present in which the left . . . struggles to assemble ‘the material for a society’ Nietzsche had thought vanished from the earth.” “What is it that keeps you getting mobilized despite defeats? It’s your thoughts, your emotions,” Zeycan, an activist who almost singlehandedly built the movement in Yusufeli, recently told me during a six-hour conversation. Acknowledging that the collective resistance against the dam project in Yusufeli is over, she nevertheless argued that the spilling over of the “Gezi spirit” into other locations in Turkey is what will come next. Instead of resorting to the linear temporality assumed in Clark’s political imaginary, maybe one should, like Zeycan, persevere to recognize the power of affects’ and desires’ circularity. Let this circularity be our antidote against left melancholy.

Notes

[1] For an early article that eloquently makes this point, see Erensü (2013).

[2] Berlant uses the term “cruel optimism” to describe those intersubjective relations whereby the desires that one attaches to something hinder his or her flourishing. Space does not allow me to reflect at length on the implications of her book for my discussion here, but it is important to state that her thinking has a lot to offer to those of us who seek to understand why political struggles, and not only those by LGBTQ activists, often times get exhausted, coopted, or simply evaporate.

[3] For a critique of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s understanding of the commons from a psychoanalytical point of view, see Madra and Özselçuk (2010).

[4] It should be noted that what Povinelli means by social projects are “attempt(s) to capacitate an alternative set of human and posthuman worlds” (2011, 7).

References

Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism, Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2011.

T. J. Clark, “For a Left with No Future,” New Left Review 74, March–April 2012.

Sinan Erensü, 2013, “Gezi Parkı Direnişinin İlhamını Yerelde Aramak,” Bianet.

Yahya Madra and Ceren Özselçuk, 2010, “Jouissance and Antagonism in the Forms of the Commune: A Critique of Biopolitical Subjectivity,” Rethinking Marxism 22, no. 3 (2010): 481–97.

Elizabeth Povinelli, Economies of Abandonment: Social Belonging and Endurance in Late Liberalism, Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2011.