Addressing the Present: An Interview with Kabir Tambar

The February 2016 issue of Cultural Anthropology included the research article “Brotherhood in Dispossession: State Violence and the Ethics of Expectation in Turkey,” by Kabir Tambar, who is an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at Stanford University. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of an interview that graduate student Helena Zeweri conducted with Tambar about the article and the intersections between their respective research projects.

Helena Zeweri: Through the lens of Selahattin Demirtaș’s address on the protests in Gezi Park in Istanbul, your article offers a different angle on how to understand the mobilization of historical narrative. Rather than examine historical narratives as they are constructed, you point us to how a particular mode of narrativization intervenes into an imagined future. You frame these speech acts as provocations that force the majority to recognize the roots of its own political identity, rather than as calls upon the state as a channel of political recognition. In developing this analytical framework, along what lines do you distinguish between an ethical act and a political one? When does politics become ethics, and does the speech act still have a pedagogical force when it is being used to evoke self-reflection?

Kabir Tambar: The problem of whether and how to draw a line between politics and ethics is, of course, an old one, locatable within multiple philosophical traditions. In my work, I am not attempting to resolve these issues as philosophy, but rather I am interested in how they arise ethnographically. The question for me is less, when does politics become ethics, and more, how are political identifications structured by relationships of obligation and responsibility? These relationships imply that any such political identification can only be expressed or manifested in its claim upon someone else. If there is an ethical moment here, it arises not for an individual or a single collectivity alone but in a series of historical interrelationships between groups. In this sense, I tend to think that politics always entails ethics.

We can understand this interrelationship in a number of ways. In certain strands of critical political theory it has become common to argue that any positive identity is itself a product of a more primary act of negatively defining an outside (an enemy, a foreigner, a terrorist, and so on). That sort of account helpfully denaturalizes claims to positive identification, but I think we can go further in thinking about the range of possible relationships that simultaneously bind and distinguish self from other. These relationships are often tacitly stipulated, orienting practices of public speech in ways that manifest hierarchies between constituencies. In my article, I focus on moments when communities of actors, who have long been in positions of political subordination, are laboring on—attempting to remake—the ethical presuppositions of political identification. Alongside the narrative content of their speeches, I am trying to understand the implications of the fact that these groups are finding, in the conjunctural moment of the Gezi protests, the footing on which to make a demand on the Turkish majority. This demand, articulated in acts of public address, is itself a reworking of the ethical presuppositions of politics.

HZ: While reading your article, I could not help but think of the work of philosopher Jacques Rancière. Recently, Rancière (2010, 143) has pointed out that “there is no straight path from the viewing of a spectacle to an understanding of the state of the world, and none from intellectual awareness to political action.” It seems like something resonant is happening in the move by different groups to make ethical claims on the Turkish majority and to create spaces in which the majority could serve as interlocutors of a different kind. When political minorities engage in speech acts that create an alternative discursive repertoire through which the majority’s self-scrutiny can occur, do you think that this is also a move to reapprehend the world in a less definitive and more ambiguous way? Is it a move to foster a different kind of intellectual awareness about the past and its bearing on the future?

KT: The short answer is, yes, if by reapprehension you mean not only a new awareness of historical violence but, alongside that awareness (or perhaps prior to it), a capacity to become the kind of interlocutor that would be receptive to the claims that the Mothers and Demirtaş are making upon them. In order to become aware of those histories, one has first to be willing to hear and to learn from those who have been in positions of subordination—to submit, we might say, to the pedagogical authority of those who have been denied institutional authority. That said, I don’t think that the groups that I discuss in the essay are simply trying to foster a sense of ambiguity among those identifying with the majority. The histories they are narrating are precise. They name the individuals whom they hold responsible for violence. The comparisons they are making between different events of state violence are perhaps contestable, but they are not indefinite.

If there is an element of ambiguity, it pertains to the future that might be imagined in the wake of their critiques. In saying this, I don’t mean that they are unclear about what they are asking for—the kind of solidarity they want to encourage or the governmental policies that they want to see instituted. I mean, rather, something more pragmatic, concerning the temporality of the act of public address in which they are engaged. They are issuing demands as if they already have the audience that they are, simultaneously, trying to cultivate. The world they are trying to produce is presupposed by their practices of address, even as that world largely lacks institutional grounding in the present.

HZ: A key interlocutor in this piece is Reinhart Koselleck, whose distinction between the space of experience and the horizon of expectation is key to understanding your point that “expectation is the future made present, directed to the not-yet, to that which is to be revealed.” This reminded me of how the future-perfect tense (de la Cruz 2011) comes to animate the relationship between experience and anticipation in the present—the idea that “you will have done x by tomorrow” can be efficacious for the present. Do you see the future-perfect tense playing a role in contemporary movements like the Saturday Mothers?

KT: The future-perfect, as you describe it, nicely expresses the idea that the present is not simply opening onto a future, but that some imagining of the future is already making a demand on the present. In that sense, however, the future-perfect is not only at work with the Mothers but also and, more authoritatively, with state-sponsored accounts of political identity. If we are going to think politics in terms of grammatical tense, I think we need also to consider the practical conditions of address. Who is in a position to issue the command “you will have done x by tomorrow”? In the article, I am interested in how efforts to narrate the past become contentious because of the way they are attempting to refigure the practical conditions of public interlocution. The political future they are evoking is one in which the practice of address is untethered from the statist rubrics of majority-minority and the hierarchies they inscribe.

HZ: You write that the Saturday Mothers’ practice of historical analogy evokes the question of what encounters with the Turkish state’s security regime the majority would have to experience in order for them to see the struggle of the Mothers as part of its own political experience. While you do not explicitly use this term in the article, is empathy an operative analytic here? Your argument allows me to think more deeply about what a critical politics of empathy—one that acknowledges the uneven distribution of violence—would look like in moves to foster the majority’s self-scrutiny. Is creating a space for the majority to scrutinize itself also a demand for the majority to empathize with the minority?

KT: I do not use the term empathy, in part because the groups I am studying are not articulating their concerns through that concept. They are not calling for the majority to empathize in the sense of sharing their feelings or their experience of suffering. I do not think that empathy captures the kind of political relationality that is at work here, and I worry that efforts to conceptualize this relationality as one of empathy might too quickly collapse the social and political distance that exists between the groups in question. The ethico-political work that I am analyzing centers precisely on the gaps between these interlocutors and on making these gaps visible through the medium of address itself. Moreover, the affective range of these discourses exceeds that of empathy. To me, at least, the notion of empathy does not capture their confrontational nature.

HZ: You point out that the Kurdish minority’s reluctance to align itself with the Gezi protests made an ethical demand on the Turkish majority to recognize that the violence they were just starting to confront had been happening to Kurds for a very long time. Can you say a bit more about the temporal politics of this stance? Demirtaș’ appeal to the majority, similarly, traces state violence to the creation of the Turkish republic itself, and you point out that had he begun with the Armenian genocide, perhaps the imagined futures that came out of the protests would have been different. In your ethnographic work, does renarrating history tend to manifest itself through situating a phenomenon, in this case state violence, deeper into the past? Is part of the discursive move here opening up the question of to whom these deep pasts belong?

KT: When the Gezi protests were unfolding and also in the months that followed, I was struck by the considerable amount of commentary that centered on historicizing them: why did the protests happen, what political events led up to them, what made the issue of this public park so explosive, and so on. These were commentaries offered by academics, but also by journalists and protesters themselves. In a sense, the historicizing work was an element of the protests themselves and not simply an external description of them. Much of the commentary centered on the ruling political party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP): its increasing intolerance of lifestyle choices they opposed or of forms of political dissent; the neoliberal political-economic policies the party had furthered; and the forms of corruption and cronyism that increasingly characterized its rule.

In this context, I was struck by the fact that many Kurdish or largely Kurdish groups pointed to different historical reference points as a way of making sense of Gezi: to enforced disappearances in the 1990s that mostly took place in Kurdish-majority provinces; to organized sectarian violence against Alevis in central and eastern Anatolian provinces; and to the forced deportations and massacres of Armenians in 1915 and 1916. The Mothers and Kurdish politicians joined the chorus of criticisms directed against the AKP, but rarely were these points of historical reference geared at isolating the AKP as the party responsible for state violence. They seemed to be suggesting that the AKP was inheriting structures of statecraft that had defined Turkish republican politics as such. The critique that they were developing was not limited to the AKP, and in that very important respect it refused to locate itself within the Kemalist-Islamist binary that has framed mainstream political discourse for the past thirty years. Their critique implicated both sides of the seemingly opposed poles of that binary, and so it also put pressure upon at least some participants in the protests themselves.

You’re right, I think, that one of the issues here is about who belongs to these histories, but the matter is not exhausted with the problem of belonging. It is also about who is responsible for the violences of the past and those that continue into the present. An issue that I have been tracking in my ongoing research, but which is outside the scope of the article we are discussing, is how different Kurdish groups have themselves begun to claim responsibility for certain forms of historical violence: for instance, apologizing for the role that Kurdish groups played in the killing of Armenians in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In those cases, as in the ones that I discuss in this article, discourse about the past is meant to critically intervene into the framework of political identification in the present.

HZ: The article gestures towards brotherhood as a way to understand solidarity politics, specifically how the minority is remobilizing its past in spurring the would-be majority to rethink its political future and the foundations upon which its position rests. Could you comment on how brotherhood operates as an analytic, which gets us to think about shared vulnerability and new axes along which political community is being thought about?

KT: Let me start by saying that the term brotherhood is itself invoked in Turkey quite a lot, across the political spectrum. Among leftists and Kurds specifically, one frequently hears the phrase “brotherhood of the peoples.” So, as a term of solidarity, it has political potency in this context. It has, of course, also been critiqued, especially by feminists (both Turkish and Kurdish) for its masculine connotations and its evocation of notions of the family that have long been mobilized by the state. My own gesture to the concept of brotherhood—specifically, a brotherhood in dispossession—is meant to capture the kind of dialectical movement I see at work in the movements that I discuss in the article. That is, I am interested in the way that the ethnic and gendered politics of the state are invoked, but in ways that unsettle and even at times reverse its valences (for instance, the way that the Saturday Mothers invoke motherhood, but do so as a way of critiquing the forms of militarism that have shaped the dominant imagining of motherhood in Turkey).

The political imaginaries of these groups—the futures they are enacting in their practices of address—are not purified of nationalism and its exclusions. They are not adopting a position that claims to simply transcend such exclusions. To the contrary, they find their footing within the existing forms of social identification and recognition enabled by the nation-state, but they do so in ways that provoke us to question the violence that underpins those structures. When I invoke the concept of brotherhood in the essay, it is not for the sake of establishing a stable or natural ground for politics, but for pointing to the kind of antagonistic work being performed through the concept itself.

HZ: I found your article quite resonant with my own research, which explores how the Australian state is confronting the limits of its own sovereignty as it addresses gender-based violence through the language of border control. This is seen most explicitly in the state’s ongoing campaign to eradicate and criminalize forced marriage, as it simultaneously implements increasingly stringent immigration policies. Your article gets me to think about what it means for the state to, on the one hand, invest in what it sees as the ethical self-transformation of an aspiring citizenry, while, on the other, limiting the channels through which this citizenry can achieve full political citizenship. In this vein, do you see any paradoxical qualities in emergent calls to engage in greater ethical self-reflection? What are the avenues for political reform that are opened and closed through this call? Alternatively, does part of the call involve rethinking what constitutes a shared political system in the first place and for whom it is a shared system?

KT: The forms of ethical demand that I describe in the paper are by no means the only means that these actors employ to pursue political reform. They are also not even the most prominent or visible ones, as compared with parliamentary legislation, street protests, hunger strikes, and so on. What I am trying to isolate is a kind of critique that takes the framework of political intelligibility itself as its object. Part of this involves asking questions about who is included in the system and who shares in its imagined future. But, crucially, what I try to hone in on is the fact that the act of asking the question is itself a provocation, especially when it is put forward as a demand upon those who have historically been defined as the people, empowered and embodied by the state.


de la Cruz, Deirdre. 2011. “The Past and Present of the Future Perfect in Anthropology and History.” In Anthrohistory: Unsettling Knowledge, Questioning Discipline, edited by William Cohen David, Fernando Coronil, Julie Skurski, Chandra Bhimull, Edward L. Murphy, and Monica Patterson, 110–20. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Rancière, Jacques. 2010. Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics. Translated by Steven Corcoran. London: Bloomsbury.