Much contemporary political geography is focused on the interpretation of territory and its governmentalization. Building on the legacies of Henri Lefebvre and Michel Foucault, the geographer Stuart Elden (2013) has been studying territory as the space where the state exercises its sovereignty, including the micromanagement of everyday socio-spatial relations. Elden’s work charts the power of states to transform the land that they acquire, along with the populations who inhabit it, in engendering national territory. In reading this work, one might be left with the impression that the transformative power of the state is all-engulfing, suffocating everything and anyone who doesn’t conform to the nationalist project. Against the grain of this geographical concept of territory, or as complementary to it, I propose the notion of remnants.
Remnants refers to the residues of territory, to that which was unassimilable to nationalizing processes, and to that which remained and survived in spite of all efforts to eliminate, bury, curb, and control (see also Navaro 2017). Remnants are shards accidentally left behind in the aftermath of cataclysmic violence, discarded as rubbish, serendipitously found and valued as a memory object or incorporated in the new material order of things by being reconfigured, transfigured, or amalgamated. Remnants are three-dimensional in their presence and potency. Their volume inevitably gets effaced in straight narratives of nationalization, as remnants interrupt horizontality and disturb flat ontologies. Remnants may be material, such as a broken piece of carved stone from an Armenian church in Turkey, left behind after the genocide of 1915 and used to build a new house or recycled in a mosque. They may be supernatural, as in the divine light said to have descended from the sky by members of a community deemed heterodox or heretic, which they take to represent a venerated saint. Remnants may be natural and appear in the form of weeds, sprouts, or creepers that re-emerge against efforts to kill or control them. They could also be subjective, retained subconsciously by survivors of state violence as a trace that is harbored in spite of bombastic measures to deny the atrocities that have taken place (e.g., Napolitano 2015). Remnants in human form may include dreams, including those with manifestations of spiritual beings in them (e.g., Mittermaier 2012). They may come in the shape of a minor language (or the knowledge of it) that has been retained despite the imposition of a national language over a territory. Or they may be Proustian traces of food, intimacy, or conviviality that get serendipitously revived, bursting like a ravine through the cracks and crevices of a dam that has been built upon a river. As fact as well as metaphor, remnants capture that which is left over from state violence and reterritorialization; what could not be contained on one or the other side of a border marking sovereignty; things discarded, buried on purpose, cast away, or forgotten, but which insistently survive and come back to life.
Before highlighting remnants as an analytical concept, though, its historicity must be expressly noted. In my current work, remnants is a historically specific notion that includes violence and, specifically, the Armenian genocide in its connotations and references. In the aftermath of the genocide, Armenians (particularly women and children) who survived after their families were killed were called “remnants of the sword” (kılıç artıkları) by the Ottomans (Ritter and Sivaslian 2012). Other renderings of remnants from the Turkish artık are “leftovers” or “remains.” This refers to the Armenians in the post-1915 Ottoman Empire and Turkey, indexing them as lives that were meant for extermination yet were somehow spared. The direct historical reference to violence contained in this term, in its idiomatic perversity, must be underscored. In some instances, Armenian women were forcibly married to Turkish or Kurdish men, while orphans were placed into the custody of the state. In the historiography of the Armenian genocide, survivors who remained in Turkey are studied as “Islamized Armenians,” because most who were forced to live with Turkish and/or Kurdish families (who may themselves have been culpable in the genocide) were also converted to Islam (Ekmekcioglu 2013; Özgül 2014).
This history of genocide and mass violence informs remnants as an anthropological concept. No concept is neutral; its genealogy must be remembered when employed for analysis. Here, though, I suggest that the collection of remnants may also function as an ethnographic methodology for the study of the aftermath of violence inflicted by states. From a term such as “remnants of the sword” that was used to marginalize Armenians, I take remnants and turn it into a framework for the documentation of that which survived the violence. In this way, remnants as a concept evokes that which exceeds violence, that which remains against the grain, in spite of it.
This essay builds upon my European Research Council project “Living with Remnants: Politics, Materiality and Subjectivity in the Aftermath of Past Atrocities in Turkey.”
Ekmekcioglu, Lerna. 2013. “A Climate for Abduction, A Climate for Redemption: The Politics of Inclusion during and after the Armenian Genocide.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 55, no. 3: 522–53.
Elden, Stuart. 2013. The Birth of Territory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Mittermaier, Amira. 2012. “Dreams from Elsewhere: Muslim Subjectivities Beyond the Trope of Self‐Cultivation.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 18, no. 2: 247–65.
Napolitano, Valentina. 2015. “Anthropology and Traces.” Anthropological Theory 15, no. 1: 47–67.
Navaro, Yael. 2017. “Diversifying Affect.” Cultural Anthropology 32, no. 2: 209–214.
Özgül, Ceren. 2014. “Legally Armenian: Tolerance, Conversion, and Name Change in Turkish Courts.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 56, no. 3: 622–49.
Ritter, Laurence, and Max Sivaslian. 2012. Les restes de l’epée: les Arméniens cachés et islamisés de Turquie. Condé-sur-Noireau: Editions Thaddée.