In this paper I would like to draw attention to the period of early Turkish republic in the light of what Chatterjee suggests regarding anticolonial nationalisms. I will be emphasizing a complicated and a somewhat paradoxical relation between what Chatterjee puts forth as “spiritual domain” of anticolonial nationalisms and the applications of that spiritual domain within the context of Turkish nationalism during the early republican period.
In describing the advance of anticolonial nationalisms, Chatterjee distinguishes the “material domain”, from the “spiritual domain” at which anticolonial nationalisms declare their sovereignty. On the contrary, the material domain is occupied with the Western ideals of economy, statecraft, science and technology; the spaces where “the West had proved its superiority and the East had succumbed.” As opposed to the material domain dominated by those Western ideals, Chatterjee argues that anticolonial nationalisms reserve room for the “spiritual” in order to maintain its own domain of sovereignty. For Chatterjee, the spiritual is “an ‘inner’ domain bearing the “essential” marks of cultural identity.” What he further proposes as the fundamental feature of anticolonial nationalisms in Asia and Africa is that; “the greater one’s success in imitating Western skills in the material domain, therefore, the greater the need to preserve the distinctness of one’s spiritual culture.” In this respect, she illustrates the ways in which the spiritual domain is constituted and maintained by means of three main areas; language, school and family.
I suggest that the will to preserve the “spiritual domain” as opposed to the “material domain” which is dominated by the Western or the colonizer is a familiar phenomenon in Turkish politics and academia from 19th century Ottoman thinker Ahmet Mithat and 20th century sociologist Ziya Gökalp to Prime Minister Erdoğan who in 2008 said that “Batı’nın ilmini değil, ahlaksızlığını aldık.” Erdoğan’s words reveal that the “spiritual domain” in Chatterjee’s understanding was contaminated by the Western mode of amorality. For the intentions of this paper and for my further investigations in general, in the light of Chatterjee what I wonder is, has there ever been a “spiritual domain” that the early republican Turkish state propounded in course of propagating the nationalist cause? In thinking about this, I constantly remind myself the definition Chatterjee brings about in defining the “spiritual”, that is, “‘an ‘inner’ domain bearing the “essential” marks of cultural identity.” What were the ways in which Kemalist-nationalism was interested in bringing the “essential” marks of cultural identity in the agenda?
Chatterjee highlights the area of “language” on which the spiritual domain that nationalism progresses, when she argues in reference to the Bengali case:
“… the bilingual intelligentsia came to think of its own language as belonging to that inner domain of cultural identity, from which the colonial intruder had to be kept out; language therefore became a zone over which the nation first had to declare its sovereignty and then had to transform in order to make it adequate for the modern world.”
In that regard, one can easily draw parallels with the Turkish case referring to the Kemalist language reform during 30’s. Language reform in Turkey aimed at “purifying” Turkish language, concurrently switching the alphabet to Latin, for the ambition of being “original” for the former and being “modernized” as the West for the letter. In this regard, Jale Parla stresses:
“… adherence to purified Turkish as opposed to Ottoman Turkish came to be regarded as a sign of being for Kemalism, thus for cultural nationalist homogeneity, territorial unity and autonomy, progress, modernity and contemporaneity.”
Parla further claims that “language had become linchpin to preserve and perpetuate the collective self-representation of the nation.” Yet language reform created a radical rupture with the cultural and the social past of the community which is, by means of the reform, supposed to be reconstituted as a national whole. In relation to the case of language and literature, Parla gives the examples of Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar and Oğuz Atay as the novelists reacting against the purification of the language who were marginalized by the state officials whose intention was to purify the Turkish language. Besides, it is important to remark that Tanpınar and Atay are known as the first “modernist” novelists of Turkish literature, to which I will refer through the end of this essay since it foregrounds an ambiguity in Kemalist-nationalists’ anticolonial investments.
It is right at this point where Kemalist-nationalism bears a paradox. On the one hand it claims the “originality” and the “distinctness” of the language, which constitutes the “spiritual domain” that Chatterjee suggests. It actualizes this in order to claim its “difference” from the West, as Chatterjee aptly reminds: “The most powerful as well as the most creative results of the nationalist imagination in Asia and Africa are posited … on a difference with the “modular” forms of the national society propagated by the modern West.” Yet on the other hand, the very language reform aims at modernization and to put it more specifically, Westernization; the reform invests a “material domain” as well as a “spiritual domain” when it transforms the alphabet into Latin in order to “catch the train of Western modernization”. The transformation of the alphabet and the destruction and the censor of Ottoman-Turkish alphabet causes a radical rupture with the past which is the very source that the Turkish nationalists could claim their distinctness and originality within the “spiritual” domains that they would constitute in course of maintaining the nationalist propaganda. Now let us investigate the ways in which language was instrumentalized in course of constituting a “material domain” during the process of anticolonial nationalism.
Ragıp Hulusi, one of the reformists of the Turkish language, wrote an article named “Türk Dili Tetkik Cemiyeti” for the foundation of the association at 1933 in which he presented the ambitions of language reform as follows:
“Türk Dili Tetkik Cemiyeti’nin maksadı ne olabileceği kendiliğinden anlaşılmış oluyor. Bu maksat bugünkü cihan medeniyetini temsil eden garp aleminin daha bundan dört asır evel dinlik ve dünyalık bütün kültür dilini milli dilden geliştirmek suretiyle kazandığı medeni erginliğe Türk Milletini de biran evvel eriştirmek; onların aşmış ve geçmiş oldukları türlü inkılap dağlarını, derelerini en kestirme yoldan aşmak ve geçmek; böylece onlara bir an evvel yetişip katışarak onlarla medeniyetin engine sahalarında boy ölçmek ve bunun için de “Türk Dilini” müsait olduğu en yüksek Kemal derecesine vardırmaktır.”
Hulusi’s explanation once more illustrates the “catching the train of Western modernization” phenomenon which still exists today in Erdoğan’s words. This time, Kemalist-nationalists intend to catch the train as fast as possible by means of language reform. In this respect, Hulusi further underscores their ambitions as follows:
“Bu umumi ve nazari vazifesi yanında bu kolun daha ehemmiyetli ve ameli bir vazifesi vardır: Yeni Türkçenin şekliyatını boyunduruğundan kurtarmak istediğimiz şark (arap ve acem), ve örneğini yaratmak istediğimiz garp (Fransızca, Almanca, vs.) dilleri şekliyatı ile mukayese etmek, bu suretle lügat ve ıstılah yapma işinde göz önünde bulundurulabilecek imkanları belli eden umumi esasları ortaya koyabilmektir.”
In these two passages, Hulusi’s ideas pertain to a position which signifies that language reform is a movement of not only modernization but specifically of Westernization. Following the vocabulary that Chatterjee proposes, one might conclude that the debates around the Turkish language throughout the anticolonial nationalist movement constitute a “material domain” in which Western power and dominance is present.
I mentioned that after the transition to the Latin alphabet, the radical break with the cultural past occurred and the chances to reconstitute a “spiritual domain” eventually diminished. Yet Kemalist-nationalists of the early Turkish republic actually intended to constitute a spiritual domain in their thesis of “Güneş-Dil Teorisi” which basically proposed that Turkish was the “primal” language. With the Sun-Language theory, nationalists aimed at investing the superiority of Turkishness over the West and claiming their distinctness and originality as well. However, it is hard for one to say that the nationalists was successful in constituting a spiritual domain by means of this theory; since as Chatterjee suggested, what is crucial in the spiritual domain is the extent to which the domain consists of “the essential marks of cultural identity”. The Sun-Language theory wasn’t a reflection of an essential collectivity; it was simply fictitious and mythical and rather it aimed at reshaping the ways in which the members of the nation perceive their essential cultural identity, instead of merely being a reflection of that identity on theoretical level. It aimed at embodying a spiritual domain which had actually never existed and whose components such as language have to be artificially produced and propagated in order to promote the nation.
In this short essay, I took Chatterjee’s formulation of anticolonial nationalisms progressing in two distinct domains: material and spiritual. I used his concepts to make sense of the Turkish context in relation to language which, for Chatterjee, is one of the essential areas by the help of which the spiritual domain is constructed. We saw that in Turkish context, the language served as the means for the constitution of the “material domain” rather than the spiritual one due to the radical rupture with the past which is supposed to function as the reservoir of the “essential marks of cultural identity.” Although the Turkish nationalists considered language reform as the way to the Westernized style of modernization process, they excluded the modernist writers of 20th century Turkish literature, Tanpınar and Atay, two novelists whose works bear the traces of the “essential marks of the cultural identity” which the Turkish nationalists consciously dismissed. These aspects altogether point out the paradox of Turkish modernization process undertaken by Kemalist-nationalists.
The question dealing with the reasons why the Turkish nationalists have maintained such kind of an ambiguous approach can be discussed in a lengthy paper. What I finally would like to say regarding this context is that Chatterjee’s conceptualization of anticolonial nationalisms provide us with the opportunity to engage to a critical discussion of the modernization and the Westernization process of the early Turkish republic since it unravels the paradoxes and the ambiguities during that process. Besides, the Turkish case also adds further point to and complicates Chatterjee’s formulation; since it points out that language might be an area of material domain as well as of spiritual domain during anticolonial nationalist movement. In that regard, Turkish nationalism during 30’s can be considered as an exceptional case in terms of this duality of material vs. spiritual domains underscored by Chatterjee. As a final remark, I would like to share a commentary made by Erich Auerbach about Turkish modernization. The following quote pertains to a position similar to this paper does in terms of manifesting the ambiguous character of Turkish nationalism:
“Rejection of all existing Mohammedan cultural heritage, the establishment of a fantastic relation to a primal Turkish identity, technological modernization in the European sense, in order to triumph against a hated yet admired Europe with its own weapons: hence the preference for European-educated emigrants as teachers, from whom one can learn without the threat of foreign propaganda. Result: nationalism in the extreme accompanied by the simultaneous destruction of the historical national character.”
Partha Chatterjee, “The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories” Princeton University Press, Princeton New Jersey.
Emily Apter, “Global Translatio: The ‘Invention’ of Comparative Literature, Istanbul, 1933” (41-64) in The Translation Zone: A New Comparative Literature, Princeton: Princeton U. P., 2006
Ragıp Hulusi, “Türk Dili Tetkik Cemiyeti”, in “Ülkü”, February 1933, (33-42)
Jale Parla, “The Wounded Tongue: Turkey’s Language Reform and the Canonicity of the Novel,” PMLA, Vol. 123 (1), January 2008, pp. 27-40.
Picture retrieved from: http://samurai-pet.deviantart.com/art/Sign-Language-78838083