Mein Flügel ist zum Schwung bereit,
ich kehrte gern zurück,
denn blìeb' ich auch Iebendige Zeit,
ich hätte wenig Glück.
-Gerhard Schalem, Gruß vom Angelus
3- The banality of evil transmutes into the banality of sentimentality. The world is nothing but a problem to be solved by enthusiasm.
5- The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege. - -Teju Cole (@tejucole) March 8, 2012
A year ago, I stumbled upon a seven-part Twitter response posted by the novelist and art historian Teju Cole. He was dismantling the White Savior Industrial Complex1 (WSIC1) in Kony 2012, a viral video posted on YouTube. The third part of his post drew a pedigree from Hannah Arendt's the banality of evil regarding the 1961 Eichmann trials in Israel to the present-day façade of WSIC1 being banally sentimental (Arendt 2006). Suddenly I saw the sparkles: the reason why I always felt a cringe facing any monument representing ethnic violence in Cyprus, and how this relates to my feelings about the current academic and artistic work oriented towards glorifying identity politics.
Being both a child of a massacre-survivor and part of the generation who seeks peace in Cyprus, these forms of memorials never spoke to me. I was well aware of the experiences that cultivated fear and trauma for my mother and others from her generation, which even I experienced in a remote and alienated way. All made by male artists, these objects failed to represent the suffering Cypriots had been through in the 60s, under the Greek right-wing Junta and, until and after 1974, the Turkish occupation of the North half of the island.
Teju's posts sent me digging into The Generation of Postmemory (2012). The warnings from Marianne Hirsch about the sentimentality of the post-memorial artworks clarified my feelings. She explains that the sentimental approach only helps the audience to lessen the intensity of the themes and eases their intake of historical violence. It also results in feeling absolution for some, disabling personal responsibility to reflect on historical memories with a critical faculty. Such elimination of historical context also manifests a gratifying assumption that evil deeds are always performed by monsters, not by humans. In Hirsch's book, an example of a sentimental method is the infantilization of victims, which is often the case for the memorials in (North) Cyprus. Inferred by the emotional responses of the audience, the contrast demonizes the activities of the perpetrator and prevents one from seeing the larger perspective (Hirsch 2012, 140-144). Overall, as Hirsch also points out, I believe this artisanal kitsch technique, targeting the flow of tears to create (bias) empathy is not so different from the simplicity of the (conventional and normative) pornographic language targeting sexual arousal.
The post-memory describes the memories of the second-generation survivors, a trans-generational maneuver of traumatic knowledge, a phantasmal recurrence to the generation at a distance (Hirsch 2012, 1-5). In her book Beloved (1987), Toni Morrison used a similar term, re-memory to name this Oedipal transmission of time. In a demand for saving the next generation from the burden of her memories of slavery, the protagonist Sethe wants to kill her children. Years later, haunting her and everyone living in her house, the eldest daughter Beloved comes back from her death. Re-memory is the recollection of others, like our family members, and the persons of history preserved in our bodies (Morrison 2019). The battle between remembering and forgetting that became useful for the narrative of Morrison reminds me of a painting I have never realized, for it was too dramatic to my humorist taste: A scene depicting my desire to die at the hands of my mother.
Not long ago, just as with the memorials in Cyprus, I developed another disconnection that cut me off from the academic and artistic work for/of marginalized persons, including mine, which is obsessed with repetitive revisits of the past. The iterative dwellings in the content of my practice, on historical and contemporary power structures, have empowered my socio-political consciousness at the expense of my peacefulness. Such an aesthetic repetition incapacitated me, the more I researched, the more I became furious. Standing hesitant between remembering and forgetting, I was not sure about my feelings around the paintings I made and the genre I felt I belonged to: Was this what I wanted to paint? Or was I conditioned to do so? Was that my relationship to memories which I mistrusted, or was it the current context that changed the meaning of the memories, how they affect the personal and the communal?
A memorial is an object which works as a reminder of something lost. It can take any appearance, (in-)organic to digital, and most commonly in the form of art, probably a sculpture. A monument, on the other hand, is still a type of memorial, but more of an institutional one. While it serves to remind us of something, it is more grandiose and invasive in its size, shape, and concept. It is under the control of ideologies that want to represent and sustain power. My current artistic and academic body of work is the means for conceptualizing my mistrust of these two vehicles of memory. The first is the memorials symbolizing identity politics, the social manifestation of various critical theories that are looking towards the dominant history and currents, addressing social injustices to emancipate the marginalized people. Second, monuments or being monumentalized signifies the gradually growing institutional fetishistic instrumentalization process of the former. In this way, I can express my puzzling feelings about how something supposedly personally and communally beneficial turns into something, at least for me, unwittingly quite harmful.
Away with the monuments! Nietzsche yelled at the historicism of his time. He expressed this chrono-normative re-contextualization of history, which he believed oppresses the living, as monumental history (Nietzsche 1985, 14-17). A monument disposes of the public memory rather than preserves it by substituting the responsibility of remembrance with its figuration. The iconographical display of historical information distances the subject by bringing it into the realm of the mythic and phantasmagoric. James Young writes about this property of monuments in his essay Memory and Counter-Memory (1999) addressing the concerns of some artists and intellectuals about the conventional monuments carrying out dominate the practice of remembrance, which otherwise would be done by the public. I understood it was not the memorialization of the memories and history that disturbed me, but the desire for monumentalization of those that entail forgetting them. Thereby, I conclude my argument that the current institutional tokenism for marginalized artists and academics creates a similar effect of monumentalization boosted by the White Savior Institutional Complex (WSIC2). This conclusion inspired the following cheesy poem, by envisioning a restricted zone, which is spatially limited, inhabitable out of its borders, and for the dear of life, where eventually stepping on each other is inevitable:
He Lo re before l! the world, er ! ects bodies in pa - in as a monumen - t. Beside it, there i - s an architect wh - o is proud of this cu - ltural wonderment. - He poses with a grin on his face, together - with a few on the top of this conglomerate. -
I have strong feelings about the symbolic efforts to liberate selected underrepresented persons to give an impression of inclusion and diversity resulting in glorifying the pain for the marginalized artist-aura. It seems like it is the halo of monumentalization that sets the currency through which our works mostly gain recognition today. An inherently asymmetric relation leads to asymmetric moral duties in a marathon of being wounded. Such overt institutional control of cultural practices bureaucratizes those duties, which affirms the very discrimination that critical theories claim to destroy. It worries me that bureaucratization is a way to control and to avoid any possible radicalization of these practices in the mind of the artist or the scholar. Hannah Arendt writes in a letter to Gershom Scholem at 370 Riverside Drive New York, 25, on July 20, 1963:
You are completely right that I have changed my mind and I now no longer speak of radical evil...The fact is that today I think that evil in every instance is only extreme, never radical: it has no depth, and therefore has nothing demonic about it. Evil can lay to waste the entire world, like a fungus growing rampant on the surface. Only the good is always deep and radical (Arendt 2017, 209).2
Writing Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963) was highly personal for Hannah Arendt, in a sense to release her from the burden of her past. When the trials started and she for the first time saw a Nazi butcher, she was dramatically puzzled by the appearance of the accused. The unsatisfying mediocrity did not end with his looks but further deepened into his flesh, into his mind. An expectation, maybe even a craving, to find a psychopath ruined when all she found was a bureaucrat ambitious to climb the ranks and further his career. His incapability to think hindered him from being aware of what he had done in the name of success in a totalitarian regime.
The banality in the book invoked by Arendt is a condition for someone (carrying out evil deeds) with an unexplainable thoughtlessness derived from following the rules. For her, Eichmann was not pathological nor overtly wicked, an analysis that drew condemnation at the time. I do not know why she did not write more deeply about this condition nor give us any clear example of the banality of evil to which she was pointing. Nevertheless, it is interesting to take her tenet, turn it upside down and extend it to the current marginalized academic and artistic works, to their supposedly Good-doings, which may exemplify her doctrine of thoughtlessness that comes from the banality or vice versa.
The Monumentalizing effect of the current institutional tokenism fuelled by WSIC2 or, what I like to call, Netflix Good, turns the beneficial intentions of well-meaning persons to irradical shallowness. Though highly bureaucratized, memorials do something good, just like how Netflix is making my mother less-homophobic. Nonetheless, their radical properties get neutralized by the power monumentalizing them. Hypothetically, an assumption of being angelically heroic paralyzes the critical faculties on the personal level as well. Like quantum mechanics show, sub-atomic objects can be in multiple states simultaneously until the moment of calculation. I think banality has such uncertainty in an ethical sense. It has a dormancy to any moral-binary conclusion relative to the spacetime in which the measurements are conducted. Therefore, it seems in the present-day institutional context, the good-doings of memorials unfortunately are destined to be assimilated into power, making nothing angelic about them. And when ingested, they are nothing, left only as a manifestation of pure thoughtlessness. I can not help but think of the moment I saw 14,000 refugee life jackets, which Ai Wei Wei gathered and installed on the pillars and the windows of the Berlin Konzerthaus in 2016. I admit it was very monumental and very touching at first! But, isn't this the result of the ambitions for personal advancement through following the short-cuts of the cultural industry's bureaucratic banal rules to glamorous success? Or am I wrong?
Every well-meaning person requires self-validation through their efforts in research or art-making. It is nothing new, surprising, nor is anything wrong about it. However, when the way to such self-gratitude declares autonomy upon a binary state of the virtuousness of being Good, then there is also nothing wrong to challenge this mindset by emphasizing its thoughtless banality as ethically uncertain. My interest here is not to reformulate the well-known contradiction of asymmetrical power relations between researchers and research subjectsor thequestion of agency as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak asks: Can the Subaltern Speak? (2010) I am only interested in pointing out the very nature of this power relation, of this speech, which is seemingly very distinctive in binary, as being highly assimilated in conventional morality. We can and should develop different strategies of criticality in such contexts today. For Eve Tuck, an example as to a new way is to celebrate our survivance, rather than grieve our brokenness, which for me has become only a fetish monument, which is overall beneficial no more. Gerald Vizenor (1998) writes:
Survivance is not just survival but also resistance, not heroic or tragic, but the tease of tradition, and my sense of survivance outwits dominance and victimry.
In limbo between white supremacist structures and the narratives of the woundedness, the suggestion of Tuck in focusing on survivance has significance in helping me formulate my confusion, ease my anger, and allocate myself in the research-based art-practice in a self-critical way. In her Suspending Damage: A Letter to Communities (2009), Tuck names this sophisticatedly monumentalized work, which I struggled to express, as the damage-centered research. Referencing various marginalized groups, especially her indigenous community, she calls on researchers to take into account of long-term effects of damage-centered research. She warns accumulating documentation of pain, trauma, and brokenness helps hold those in power accountable while still assigning the task of dehumanization in the core of our communities like a self-sufficient engine. Tuck urges suspension or a moratorium on damage-centered research, which is by now in competition with itself to come up with even better and more clever explanations, further advanced analysis of being depleted and ruined than ever before. She identifies a persistent increase of researchers lined up at the doors of institutions hoping to research these communities they propose as "broken." Tuck does not dismiss the fact that once it was a necessity to expose the inhumane conditions people lived or still living in. She conveys her appreciation for the ones who came before us, who paved the way to the rights and a portion of the emancipation we have today, which enabled her to articulate the necessity for such contemporary critique. New critical positions would only be possible because of the lessons have learned by prior generations of researchers. She accepts the fact that there was a time and place for damage-centered research, as also many from those generations agree, while believing they are no longer sufficient. With this letter, she welcomes us to join her in reimagining artistic or academic study while considering the long-term side effects of thinking of ourselves as broken in the light of an already documented history of oppression.
I think survivance is a word that balances the history and present to connect us with the future. It is not overly obsessed with the past nor try to govern the future. Famously Walter Benjamin writes about Paul Klee's Angelus Novus as the angel of history:
His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress (Benjamin 1969, 257).
From today's perspective, and as evidenced by its influence on many intellectuals, Benjamin's conceptualization of history became our intimate methodology not only in the manner of cultural production but also how we define ourselves as individuals. Unlike some feminist thinkers, such as Sara Ahmed who insists on the need to give space to stories that "kill our joy" (Ahmed 2010), I personally come to believe that in the journey of overcoming the dehumanization of countless -isms, in desiring to restore our humanness, we have tended to take this exhausting more-than-human angelic role for a long time without predicting its long term effects. Yes, history is a bitch! Especially when I look at the research that has already been done. I am quite shocked and still getting shocked unearthing astonishing scholars and artists I have never heard of: the humongous amount of brilliant work and yet hearing people yelling Black Lives Matter or Peace for Turkey. We can not do a better job than those who have already done in articulating the power and our woundedness in centillion ways that are still waiting for us to discover. Isn't it best to show our fidelity and kinship to those who have cleared the way for us today and have never had the chance to be heroes, by celebrating our vitality, rather than imitating what they have done and be angelic heroes instead of them?
My wings is ready for flight,I would like to turn back.If I stayed aimless time,I would have little luck.
Although I have been talking to myself throughout this text, I am quite sure about something. It is the time to remove those wings, slow down, turn to the front with the knowledge of what behind us, or we are not going to be part of the future. Personal nor communal!
1 A Combination of both white savior complex and military-industrial complex, theterm used in U.S to address the economic interdependence of the state apparatus to the defense industry: https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/03/the-white-savior-industrial-complex/254843/
2 Vizenor, Gerald. (1998.) Fugitive Poses: Native American Indian Scenes of Absence and Presence. 93, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Ahmed, Sara. 2010. The Promise of Happiness. Durham: Duke University Press.
Arendt, Hannah. 2006. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on Banality of Evil. New York:Penguin Books.
Arendt, Hannah. 2017. The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Gershom Scholem. Marie Luise Knott (Ed.), Anthony David (Trans.), 209. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.
Benjamin, Walter. 1969. Illuminations. Hannah Arendt (Ed.). New York: Schocken Books.
Friedrich Nietzsche. 1985 The Use and Abuse of History.New York: Macmillan.
Hirsch, Marianne. 2012. The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture After the Holocaust. New York: Columbia University Press.
Morrison, Toni. 2019. Beloved. New York:Penguin Books.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. 2010. Can the Subaltern Speak?: Reflections on the History of an Idea. Rosalind Morris (Ed.). New York: Columbia University Press.
Vizenor, Gerald. (1998.) Fugitive Poses: Native American Indian Scenes of Absence and Presence. 93, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Young, James. 1999. "Memory and Counter-Memory," In Constructions of Memory: On Monuments Old and New No. 9. Harvard Design Magazine. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard Graduate School of Design, University in Cambridge.
Tuck, Eve. 2009. "Suspending Damage: A Letter to Communities" in Harvard Educational Review Vol. 79 No. 3, 409-428. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard Education Publishing Group.