Suspending the Limits of the Sayable . . .

“The only means left to us is the ‘word.’ They covet that as well.” —Arat Dink, 2010

Much has been made of the creativeness displayed during the Gezi protests, especially the slogans and stencils that multiplied along with the protesters from May 28, 2013, onwards. Combining longstanding political critiques, references to popular culture, and commentaries on the inner dynamics of the protests (images 1 and 2), these visuals did not simply express the diversity of those taking part, but together suspended the limits of what had been deemed legitimately sayable.

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Image 1. “This gas is marvelous, my friend,” referring to the extensive use of various kinds of tear gas that were simultaneously employed as projectiles by the police.[1]
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Image 2. Drawing on the serial Game of Thrones, this slogan exemplifies but one of the frequently deployed pop culture references.

Explicitly political expressions were followed by those aiming to boost morale in the face of police violence. Revolutionary battle cries stood next to iconography of Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) and its inversions. “We are Mustafa Keser’s soldiers,” took the figure of a popular Arabesque singer to counter the nationalist slogan “We are Mustafa Kemal’s soldiers.” Critiques of rising costs of living and of homophobia shared the same walls (image 3). Contrary to the usual rules of graffiti, in which competing groups write over those of others (often referred to as “crossing out”), only writings that entailed sexist expressions were modified during an initiative led by the Socialist Feminist Collective.

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Image 3. “How can tea be 2.5 Lira, mate?” “Of course, we will bring down the homophobic state.”

“Now there’s an agenda for you . . . ”

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s third term has been marked by his government’s ability to determine both the political agenda and public discourse. With the exception of the Kurdish and feminist movements, oppositional mobilization in Turkey has been mainly reactive. Rather than pro-actively developing new political visions, Turkey’s political left has shared the predicament of its global counterparts under conditions of neoliberal capitalism (Harvey 2005). This reactiveness has been underwritten by the way in which freedom of expression has been governed under the Justice and Development Party (AKP). In contrast to direct bans of certain artistic, journalistic, or scholarly works that marked the post-1980 coup era, the state and its proxies have concentrated on delegitimizing oppositional expressions and turning their producers into targets of harassment, and sometimes outright violence. Coupled with the broad enactment of anti-terror laws, these policies have led to Turkey surpassing China and Iran in terms of the numbers of political prisoners, including a large number of journalists (Ençol 2012). 

As such, “Gezi” engendered a moment when government discourses were not merely met with a resounding “no,” but quickly appropriated and inverted. This playfulness stood along with expressions addressing un-faced aspects of Turkey’s past and present. Every delegitimization attempt by the government—although surely successful in some parts of the public—was “flipped” immediately.[2] Oppositional voices were not dimmed, but able to set their own agendas (images 4 and 5) by speaking outside the boundaries of the hegemonic frames that have increasingly reduced rights struggles to culturalized (and ultimately depoliticized) forms (Shore 2006).

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Image 4. “Now there’s an agenda for you.”
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Image 5. “Talk, Tayyip, talk. It’s exciting.”

For everyone to see . . . ?

Next to a section of the Gümüşsuyu barricade, two-hundred meters from Taksim Square, reading “The drama of the TOMA” (the anti-riot water canon vehicle rumored to be unable to surpass even the lowest obstacles) and on top of the word love (most probably put there by the LGBT block who fought at the frontlines—a shorthand for all love is equal)—a graffiti proclaimed: “THIS IS SPARTA” (image 6). Taking the signature line from the Hollywood blockbuster 300, this nod to popular culture projected, with all its irony, undefeated-ness at a location where police violence had been especially vicious. Facing it, another barricade was inscribed, “Everywhere is Kerbela, everyday is Asura” (image 7). This slogan refers not just to the historical foundations of Alevism and the geographical site of Kerbela. It also cites the festival of Asura, commemorating this plight, as a prism through which Alevi oppression (in the past and the present) as well as their struggle for recognition is frequently voiced (Sökefeld 2008, 130).[3]

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Image 6. “This is Sparta.” Photo by Banu Karaca.
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Image 7. “Everywhere is Kerbela, Every Day is Asura.” Photo by Banu Karaca.

This density of explicitly political and pop-cultural expressions did not just articulate, but actually produced, a suspension of the limits of the sayable, a moment that pushed actively against the delegitimization and circumscription of the state. While such moments have an undeniable attractiveness, political change is contingent upon their sustainability, upon adding moments onto a moment, to allow for alternative discourses—and politics—to develop. In the streets of Beyoğlu, the gray paint covering up these slogans is slowly filling up again and new Gezi-related graphics circulate online every day. If they will be able to make the connections between different rights-struggles outside of the avenues accorded to them (images 8 and 9; see Schafers & Ilengiz) or revert to exclusionary fault lines, remains to be seen.

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Image 8. “Gravity in the East,” refers to Medeni Yildirim, who was killed while protesting the construction of a military post in Lice, June 28, 2013. Although eyewitnesses testified that protestors had been directly targeted, officials maintain that Yildirim was hit by a ricochet warning-shot that was fired in the air. After his death. the slogan “In the East [i.e. Kurdistan] the bullets are not plastic,” appeared, emphasizing the continued structural and physical violence that Kurds in Turkey have been subjected to. The image anonymously circulated on Twitter (accessed June 29, 2013).

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Image 9. Stencil commemorating the victims of the Gezi protests in Cihangir/Istanbul. Photo by Ebru Karaca.

Notes

[1] During the Gezi protests a large number of images where posted and reposted online anonymously on Twitter and Facebook, and on sites such as http://occupygezipics.tumblr.com and http://duvardageziparki.tumblr.com, from which images 1–5 were taken between May 31 and June 30, 2013.

[2] Here the term flipping refers to the practice of “flipping the script,” a rhetorical strategy by which hegemonic narratives are either broken or discourses that are used against oneself are turned around and appropriated.

[3] All five victims of the Gezi protests were Alevis, as was Mustafa Sari, a policeman most probably suffering from exhaustion, who fell to his death in pursuit of a protestor in Adana.

References

Rana Ençol, “En Çok Siyasi Tutuklu Türkiye'de,” Bianet, July 2, 2012.

Cris Shore, “‘In uno plures’ (?) EU Cultural Policy and the Governance of Europe.” Cultural Analysis 5, no. 6 (2006): 7–26.

Martin Sökefeld, Struggling for Recognition: The Alevi Movement in Germany and in Transnational Space, Oxford: Berghahn, 2008.