A Bold Reconceptualization of the Compulsory 1923 Greco-Turkish Exchange of Populations

Elektra Kostopoulou.

Humanism in Ruins: Entangled Legacies of the Greek-Turkish Population Exchange. by Aslı Iğsız. Stanford University Press 2018.

At the start of 2019, almost eighty million people were displaced by war or violent conflict. It is virtually certain that mass population movements will continue, and it is clear that there is a pressing need to change the terms of the international debate and policy regarding the issue.

This reality deems Aslı Iğsız’s insightful book, Humanism in Ruins, to be not only timely but also an essential read.

The book uses as its main case-study the compulsory 1923 Greco-Turkish exchange of populations. Humanism in Ruins, however, does not aspire to be yet another exhaustive study of the exchange. Rather, the author undertakes the bold task of contextualizing, as well as re-conceptualizing, the “demographic management of alterity,” via a thought-provoking, kaleidoscopic discussion that pushes the boundaries of geography, politics, and methodology.

Traditionally, Turkey and Greece—the two rival nations-states de facto reborn out of the exchange—have treated the issue of the population exchange along the lines of two mutually exclusive narratives. That said, in the past two decades or so, there has been a turn towards comparative perspectives. This development has agreed perfectly with the process of Greco-Turkish reconciliation promoted by the international community and regional actors in the context of neoliberal globalization. Without diminishing the important achievements of this latter literature, one needs to recognize that it has also created its own limited and thereby limiting methodological canons. This reviewer herself has most certainly produced work shaped by the above-implied comparative stereotypes, in an effort to undermine the monopolization of history by rival nationalisms.

Humanism in Ruins, however, does not conform to this trend. It challenges liberal fallacies by revealing the multifaceted, complicated, and at times unsettling operation of top-down international liberalism in the “un-mixing” of peoples. As such, the book moves well beyond political and methodological comfort zones. It makes significant contributions to original research, but does not exhaust itself in it. The analysis is not rudimentary. This is a book that demands of readers an active role.

Aslı Iğsız invites readers to think about the politics of regulated displacement without the essentialist safety net of nostalgia, shared trauma, and uncritical reconciliation.

In a word, Aslı Iğsız invites readers to think about the politics of regulated displacement without the essentialist safety net of nostalgia, shared trauma, and uncritical reconciliation. Her decision to take such an approach is a bold one and tests the boundaries of the author herself. This becomes particularly evident in her discussion of cultural management. The author approaches the notion of original essence in cultural policy and liberal humanism through critical lenses. But aside from established hierarchy, her analysis risks also challenging the sincere need of victims themselves to seek comfort in humanism’s siren calls. This becomes particularly evident, for instance, in her analysis of the population exchange museum, as I note in my comments on Part Three of the book below.

Occasionally, in other words, the book seems to deprive its very protagonists (the exchanged ones) of cultural protection: of the luxury to reclaim shared memories, collections, oral histories, artifacts, and sounds that have been brutally oppressed. And I find this to be a most complicated, but also a worthy goal. When confronting, for instance, the canon of popular cultural discourse endorsed by UNESCO post-World War II, Humanism in Ruins risks undermining the given tools of empowerment that come with it. Yet Iğsız’s approach aims to strengthen rather than undercut equity, proposing that all victims of displacement deserve and should demand more than the essentialist management of culture within regulated contexts of conflict and reconciliation. 

The book is organized in three long parts. Part One approaches the legacies of liberal humanism critically. Moving back and forth from the population exchange and the mid-war period to post-World War II developments, the author situates Turkey in the international context and reveals the complicated durability of racialized thinking within the same organizations tasked with refugee advocacy. Among other things, her analysis casts the emblematic foundation of UNESCO under the motto “unity in diversity” in a radically new light. Other than revealing the undoubtedly Eurocentric and, thereby, selective nature of international policy, the book proposes that the racialized character of said diversity, particularly in the 1950s, confounded agency with visibility. Hence, it promoted only versions of unity that agreed with certain criteria under the patronage of international elites.

Part Two moves to the more recent issue of genealogy and origins, connecting the resurfacing of family histories in post-1990s Turkey to what the author describes as “historicist humanism.” Despite accepting that the racialized thinking of the 1950s has faded away in later decades, Iğsız problematizes the subsequent identification of identity with origins or/and with strictly defined notions of civilization. She argues that this connection has bounded past memory and present existence to the ruins of eugenics. When Lord Curzon used “unmixing” to refer to the population exchange, argues the author, the term revealed an understanding of population management deeply informed by biology. Un-mixing aimed at improving/altering the “wrongful” reality of religious coexistence. Similarly, historicist humanism would continue to encapsulate eugenics well into the 1990s, categorizing different groups of humans according to their alleged—mutually exclusive—linear histories: a mentality that connected history directly to biology, racialized origins, and genealogies.

Part Three fleshes out the above-mentioned arguments even further, focusing on the practices and rhetoric of liberal multiculturalism in contemporary Turkey. As an example, the author chooses to focus on the first museum commemorating the 1923 Greco-Turkish population exchange, founded in Istanbul in 2010. Again, similar to the discussion of family histories in Part Two, Part Three reveals that the author does not shy away from wrestling with an endeavor celebrated by many as an expression of the suppressed voice of the exchanged. Uneasy with the superficiality of similar appearances, Iğsız problematizes the museumization of culture and suggests that monopolized alterity limits rather than promotes agency. 

Methodologically speaking, the book does not follow a narrative structure. Instead, it creates a defiant colloquy of questions. The author situates Humanism in Ruins “at the intersections of anthropology, history, political critique, cultural and literary studies,” bridging past dynamics with present challenges. Although each section of the book is self-standing, it is easier to appreciate Humanism in Ruins as a profound addition to specialized as well as multi-disciplinary debates. Among other things, the book offers a quite original interpretation of biopolitics, or what the author calls “segregative biopolitics,” which is understood as the regulation of categorized human bodies by reference to numbers and space: a process that, in the case of the population exchange, relies heavily on genealogies of bloodline and origins.

Given that the book concentrates on Turkey, Iğsız wrestles with the superficial narrative of Greek-Turkish brotherhood, which followed the exchange. She juxtaposes it both with the violent realities of deportation and with the culmination of the conflict between the two countries and discrimination against minorities for most of the twentieth century. In the same vein, Iğsız questions the present resurgence of Greek-Turkish brotherhood in its neo-liberal guise. Wary about the alleged policy of reconciliation that has reached its climax in the past decade or so, she complicates the assumption that the curation of cultural memory is a process of mutual healing. In this sense, Iğsız’s reading of the present is as bold as is her analysis of the past. Humanism in Ruins implies that easy-to-digest notions of cultural brotherhood are equally easy to collapse. Current developments in the Eastern Mediterranean prove the author to be tragically accurate.

To sum up, Humanism in Ruins is an unsettling work. It forces the reader to abandon convenient assumptions without offering plausible intellectual solutions. Yet, according to this reviewer at least, this type of vigorous intellectual courage not only does justice to the past, but also produces scholarly space for future hope.

Aslı Iğsız is Assistant Professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University.

Posted on Jadaliyya September 2019.

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