“Ghosts” of a Situationist Protest, Deadly Edges of Kemalism

From the Series: An Impromptu Uprising: Ethnographic Reflections on the Gezi Park Protests in Turkey

Photo by Mstyslav Chernov, licensed under CC BY SA.

Ali İsmail Korkmaz was one of the six protestors killed during the Gezi park events. A group of young people recited a text about Korkmaz’s death, written in his voice, as a protest performed in the public buses, tea gardens, and cafes of Eskişehir.1 The text reads,

My name is Ali İsmail Korkmaz. I am 19 years old. Some civilian-looking men attacked me with sticks and hit me on my head and body. I went to the hospital. They told me to go to the police station and testify first. Twenty hours after the incident, when I got worse, I was hospitalized. I was having a brain hemorrhage. I could not survive. The recordings of the attack were handed to the police. However, the moments when I was attacked were erased by some people.
My name is Ali İsmail Korkmaz. I was attacked on June 2nd. My heart stopped on July 10th.
My murderers are walking around you! My name is Ali İsmail Korkmaz.

Calibration of the Gap

This Situationist (Debord 2000) protest recites a realist text in an epic gesture within the transitory places and ephemeral interludes of mundane life. The protest, that draws on and blends the formal and pragmatic capacities of the realist and epic genres, “calibrates the gap” (Bauman 2001, 59) between the two forms. The realist text that reads like a police or court report communicates the loss of the evidence, loss of life, and loss of judicial accountability in the present. The epic gesture, the perfect replica of the war of independence epic recitations that is part of the embodied knowledge of each citizen with a formal education in Turkey, alludes to a heroic, idealized, and irretrievable past that is superior to the present (Bakhtin 1981). The Situationist frame of the protest approximates the radically divergent generic conventions of the performance. Accordingly, Korkmaz deserves the status of a national hero and the Gezi insurgence qualifies as “part of the war of independence,” whereas the sacral ethos of the national epic becomes profaned by its performance in the transitory places and moments of the everyday.

The First-Person Singular Voice of the Dead

This protest mobilizes the shocking yet familiar effect of a particular “national sublime”: Kemal Ataturk’s voice. The official founder and first president of the Turkish Republic has been the only person who could address the public in the first-person singular after death. The breath and idiosyncrasy of this peculiar sacralizing and profaning gesture puts the “generic recognizability” (Irvine 1996, 148) of the voice under risk without weakening its shocking effect. Addressing the public in the voice of a dead person is disrupting enough.

“Ali İsmails are immortal!” would have been a typical utterance should the loss of Korkmaz have been claimed by a leftist Kurdish or Turkish nationalist community in the funeral-protests which have been prominent in Turkish political space. It would consign the “gift” of death to the greater cause of the community while assigning responsibility to its surviving members. This Situationist protest, however, intervenes in the usual symbolizations of the dead or even in the very act of symbolizing death. Speaking from the first-person singular voice of the dead, the performers do not only detach themselves from the common expressions of the communal ownership of the dead and its related gift economy, but also from common declarations of a community with a legible linguistic marker. There is not a grammatical cue to detect the identity of the protestor community. Who is speaking then?

Null Subject

Kemalist secular publics have been trying hard to relinquish neither their claim nor their privilege of being the foundational and unmarked inheritors of the country and nation, despite their gradual loss of political power. They have difficulty in perceiving themselves as an identity among the others. Therefore, the performatively-present but grammatically-absent null subject is Kemalism, one of the “ghosts” of the protest. It bears the stamp of frailty in calibrating the gap between its own limits and desire to be the country’s unmarked foundational and privileged subject.

The protest illustrates how Kemalism is not totally dead but is as lively and effective as a ghost. The hiatus between genres of the performance is, in a sense, the manifestation of the gap between the novel aesthetic and political concerns of the protestors and the limits of existing cultural and political forms of Kemalism. How these novel aesthetic and political sensibilities will calibrate this gap or what novel forms of attachments the very act of calibration will potentiate, is yet to be seen.


1. My special thanks to Yaşar Dicle Erkenci for bringing this protest to my attention. For a video of one protest on a public bus, see “Eskişehir Ali İsmail Korkmaz'ı Unutmadı” (below).


Mikhail M. Bakhtin, “The Epic and the Novel: Towards a Methodology for the Study in the Novel,” in The Dialogic Imagination, edited by Michael Holquist, 3–40, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981.

Richard Bauman, “The Ethnography of Genre in a Mexican Market: Form, Function, Variation,” in Style and Sociolinguistic Variation, edited by Penelope Eckert and John R. Rickford, 57–77, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Guy E. Debord, Society of the Spectacle, translated by Ken Knabb, Detroit: Black & Red, 2000. First published in 1967.

Judith Irvine, “Shadow Conversations: Indeterminacy of Participant Roles,” in Natural Histories of Discourse, edited by Michael Silverstein and Greg Urban, 131–59, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.