Monsters That Remember: Tracing the Story of the Workers’ Monument in Tophane, İstanbul – Part II

Meltem Ahıska

Monsters, monuments, and power

Georges Canguilheim has argued that “what is contrary to life is not death but monstrosity” (cited in Ancet, 2010: 18); monstrosity is the inability to recognize a living being as living. Similarly, the French philosopher Pierre Ancet has claimed that, although it is a liminal concept like death, monstrosity is different from death. Death imposes a necessary external limit, while the monster threatens from the inside. Thus, Ancet has defined monstrosity as a problematic field of humanity, rather than simply being the form of the Other (2010: 21). It cannot be simply defined as an “alterity” that is projected away from the self; instead, monsters evoke a painful interrogation about both the Other and the Self (Ancet, 2010: 2).

The meaning of the monster in popular usage is not independent from its disturbing connotations. Ancet has cited Isidore Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire who as a zoologist in the nineteenth century specialized in the classification of anomalies and deviances from the “normal” structure in living beings. He created the concept of “teratology” (the science of monsters) and claimed that, “for the people, the monster is something whose appearance always leads to astonishment and that always disturbs” (cited in Ancet, 2010: 24). Ancet has furthermore argued that the mentioned disturbance implies that the subject who looks and classifies the anomaly is rather central to the definition of the monster: the monster does not exist apart from the very judgment of difference. In Braidotti’s words, “the monstrous other is both liminal and structurally central to our perception of normal human subjectivity” (1996: 144, emphasis mine).

The critical discourse on monsters emphasizes the normativity that weighs on the labeling of a living being as a monster, as a way of refusing to recognize another form of being, which seems alien yet threateningly familiar. The monsters have an excess that makes them both too visible, yet at the same time invisible: “Just as too much light creates a blind spot at the center of the field of vision, the excess that characterizes monstrosity could lead to an invisibility behind the visible” (Ancet, 2010: 31) Therefore, has argued Ancet, the monster does not refer to a particular object, but to a highly subjective experience. It tells us more about the subject than about the object. Similarly, Margrit Shildrick has noted that “the monsters that engage us most, that command intricate explanation, are those which are closest to us, those which display some aspect of our own form, and speak both literally and metaphorically, a human language” (1999: 81).

Until now we have referred to organic “monsters” that are born from a human being, but cannot be accepted as human. In fact, the first denigrating utterance of the word ucube by the Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan was back in 2008, in order to characterize the Roma neighborhood in Sulukule, İstanbul, as a monster, before he used the same word again for the Humanity Monument in Kars in 2011. The Prime Minister was then reported to say: “We will get rid of the monster,” pointing to the existing conditions of life of the Roma people in the Sulukule district. These words are significant in that they reveal how racist discrimination turns the local people who have been living in Sulukule for about a millennium into monstrous objects that should be discarded during the “contemporary” transformation of the city.[22] But what happens when the term “monster” is used for a monument, an artifact-that is, not for a living being? It is noteworthy that the boundaries between the living and the non-living are blurred here. This is exactly how Ancet has utilized the concept of the “fantastic” in relation to organic monsters. He has argued that in the perception of a monster there is confusion with regard to categorization in terms of differentiating “human art” from the “natural.” The natural is mostly likened to an artifact, as if it was artificially created by human art. The monster as a living being, such as the Roma people in the above example, is turned into an object and not regarded as human. Ancet has named it a “natural-artifice” (2010: 97). However, in the case of monuments, I contend that it must be just the opposite. The same failure of categorization holds, but this time the monument is treated as a living being, and not as a product of human art. Could we call this artificial-natural?

In a short story about the Workers’ Monument in Tophane, probably written in the late 1970s,[23] the author Refik Yoksulabakan has narrated the destruction of the monument in such a way as to evoke the artificial-natural. The story constructs a fantasy of revenge, in which first the broken hands (holding the sledgehammer) of the Workers’ Monument and then the entire destroyed body walk away from its place to haunt the “monument-breakers” (anıtkıranlar), as the author calls them, and claim the workers’ rights back in a nightmarish setting. The blood dripping from the monument as it walks away implies that this is not just a work of art, but also a living body. And is it not this conception of the artificial-natural that has played a role in the destruction of monuments, as we have witnessed in many parts of the world, especially during the collapse of the former “communist” regimes?[24] The surviving monuments now live as monsters in the memory parks of many cities.[25] Svetlena Boym has noted that

the violence against monuments at the end of the Soviet Union paradoxically revealed that the art of monumental propaganda, dreamed up by Lenin in the first years of the revolution, clearly had succeeded in one thing: blurring the relationship between actual agents of power and their monumental incarnations. If the perpetrators of the crimes were never punished, at least their monuments would be (2001: 89, emphasis mine).

Boym has regarded that the monuments were symbols of power and as such became scapegoats onto which anxieties and anger were projected:

Symbolic violence gives instant gratification-the intoxication of revenge; yet there was more to that monumental catharsis. This was the only collective attempt on the part of the Soviet citizens to change the official public sphere without intervention from above, by using direct action, not private irony, jokes or doublespeak (2001: 89).

Boym is right to point to the symbolic incarnations of power in monuments and interpreting their destruction by the people as a way of re-claiming the public sphere. Yet, there is another crucial dimension about power here. I would say, in the light of the above reflection on the concept of the monster, that monuments are not just symbols of power. Although their meanings are produced within a regime of representation, they also function beyond and above representation. They commemorate the memorable and embody the myths of beginnings, as Arthur Danto has said.[26] They are there to immortalize a mythical memory that constructs an imagined community through an intricate play with life and death, and by blurring this boundary. Monuments deny death by giving life to the dead, but they also deny life since they are nothing but stones. Monuments petrify life in a way that buries the living, according to Nietzsche’s disdainful remarks against the monumental.[27] In that sense, they are the artificial-natural or, in other words, always already non-organic monsters.

Reflecting on the always already monstrous character of monuments, I do not suggest discarding the question of monuments altogether. On the contrary, the ongoing political debates in different parts of the world regarding how monuments should be built reveal a lot about the relationship between power and memory. I would say what is at stake in these debates, such as in the controversial cases of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC,[28] the Berlin Holocaust Memorial,[29] the Parque de la Memoria in Buenos Aires,[30] or regarding the various examples of counter-monuments in Germany,[31] is exactly about how the monument relates to the dead and the living. All these controversial cases have raised debates about how the commemoration of the dead should find life in the present. Will the monument replicate the general patriarchal canons embodied in the state and reproduce the memory as an eternal dead body, or will it open a space for expressing the differences and various temporalities of lived experiences? Will the monument fix the present as it is and create complacency, or will it convey a sense of elsewhere (Lefebvre, 2003: 22)? These are critical political questions that lie at the heart of how to remember.

I would argue that the concept of artificial-natural may be illuminating for understanding how the modern state commands or attempts to command memory. Here it is not so much the ideology of the state or the representation of the state that I am dwelling on, but the performative command of the state that is legitimated by and gives legitimacy to disregarding and even destroying the forms of living for the sake of a closure of a dead body of norms-in other words, to petrify the living memory so as to keep the state, as a non-living body, alive. The power embodied by the modern state turns life into a political question of government, as is well known from Foucault’s analysis of governmentality and bio-power (1990; 1991; 2003). The government of life is intricately related to the critical question of dividing people into who must live and who must die, which Foucault explicates with regard to state racism (2003).[32] However, Michel-Rolph Trouillot has reminded that the state cannot be reduced to government:

…though linked to a number of apparatuses not all of which may be governmental, the state is not an apparatus but a set of processes… its materiality resides much less in institutions than in the reworking of processes and relations of power so as to create new spaces for the deployment of power (2001: 127).

Then, as Navaro-Yashin has shown in her study of the faces of the state in Turkey (2002), the state is not solely an empirical category;[33] it cannot be recognized as such, but only through its effects on society.[34] I would furthermore claim that these effects, while on the one hand giving a class-based order to life in the capitalist society by deploying material resources as well as language, knowledge and affects in a particular way, also feed on death. In other words, the state also enacts the capacity (and delegates the capacity) to destroy particular forms of life through social processes either before or beyond the law, thus transforming death into a mystical and mysterious source of life for the continuity of power.[35] Therefore, it is not only the ordinariness of the state that we must take notice of (Navaro-Yashin, 2002: 135), but also its mysterious spell. It must be this spell of death that the state constructs and propagates through various means, including monuments, to which Foucault has referred when mentioning fascism in connection to monumental seduction: loving power and desiring “the very thing that dominates and exploits us” (1983: xiii). When one embraces the logic of the performative command of the state, paradoxically death, even one’s own, can become desirable.

Simonetta Falasca Zamponi has analyzed the master narratives of history/memory in Fascist Italy by emphasizing the mythical appropriation of the past as a “sacred” tradition nourished by violence. Mussolini had said: “We must act, move, fight, and if it is necessary die… It is blood that moves history’s wheel.” Zamponi has commented on these words by arguing that “violence was sacred, and sacred were those who promoted it” (2003: 53). In Zamponi’s words, “fascism imposed an artificial, auratic tradition that, through recourse to aesthetic politics, and by appealing to history as its cultural legitimator, crushed the modern individual and presented Mussolini’s regime as the authentic and true expression of the Italian ‘community'” (2003: 68). Although one needs to differentiate between totalitarian and so-called democratic regimes, and even between different cases of fascist rule in modern history, the power of nationalist modern states share some common characteristics in the way in which they appropriate the past in order to create an artificial “aura” of the state which feeds on violence and death to nourish a particular community.[36]

Continue to part III

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[22] In the opening ceremony of the Akaretler Sıraevleri in Beşiktaş, İstanbul, a series of historical buildings which constitutes one of the first examples of community housing in the Ottoman Empire and which have been recently renovated to be turned into luxury shops and hotels, Prime Minister Erdoğan gave a speech about the importance of the ongoing transformation in the city. During his speech he also mentioned Sulukule, characterizing its present condition as a monster and emphasizing the need for its transformation by getting rid of that monster., 20 March 2008. The Sulukule project was implemented in the following years, by demolishing the area’s historical buildings that were in bad condition and aiming to build new apartment buildings, as well as the first six-star hotel of İstanbul in their place. In this process of so-called renovation, not only the archeologically very rich and historical district of Sulukule near the ancient city walls is being destroyed, but also the Roma people, who have been living there for about a millennium and who, with their distinct culture and music, are forced to leave.

[23] I found the story on the web; its publication date is not mentioned, but the story seems to belong to the 1970s in terms of its symbolism of the worker. Refik Yoksulabakan, “İşçinin Elleri,”

[24] Among the stories of destruction of monuments in the world, the blasting of two ancient Buddha statues in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, by the Taliban in March of 2001, with the aim of erasing the remains of non-Muslim culture, was a case that attracted great attention in Turkey.

[25] Svetlena Boym has written about the statue park in Moscow (2001). I personally visited the statue park in Budapest, which brings together statues and monuments from different eras of the country’s past; what unites them in the same space seems to be that they are no longer wanted in the city center.

[26] Arthur C. Danto, “The Vietnam Veterans Memorial,” The Nation, 31 August 1985, p. 152.

[27] Foucault has embraced Nietzsche’s concept of genealogy to criticize the power discourse of monumental history and to evoke a different conception of historical knowledge and counter-memory (1977).

[28] The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC, designed by the young Chinese-American artist Maya Ying Lin, stirred a great debate right after its completion in 1982. The black color and the V-shaped, horizontal design of the memorial were heavily criticized, and the artist was accused of not really understanding the conventions of patriotic commemoration due to her marginal position as Chinese-American woman. According to Maria Sturken, this memorial “functions in opposition to the codes of remembrance evidenced on the Washington Mall. Virtually all the national memorials and monuments in Washington are made of white stone and constructed to be seen from a distance. In contrast, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial cuts into the sloping earth: it is not visible until one is almost upon it; if approached from behind, it seems to disappear into the landscape. Although the polished black granite wall of the memorial reflect the Washington Monument and face the Lincoln Memorial, they are not visible from the base of either structure. The black stone creates a reflective surface, one that echoes the reflecting pool of the Lincoln Memorial, and allows the viewers to participate in the memorial; seeing their own image reflected in the names, they are implicated in the listing of the dead. The etched surface of the memorial has a tactile quality, and viewers are compelled to touch the names and make rubbings of them” (1998: 164).

[29] The Berlin Holocaust Memorial was designed by the US architect Peter Eisenman and opened to the public in 2005. It consists of 2,711 massive rectangular stones on a sloping stretch of land (19,000 m2) between East and West Berlin. There are no plaques or inscriptions, or religious symbols at this memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe. Each stone is unique in its size and resembles a tombstone or a coffin. The designer aimed to re-create the sense of loss and disorientation that the Jews felt during the Holocaust, as one walks in a labyrinth of pathways between the massive stones. Although the meaning of the memorial is produced interactively with the visitors, the stones are coated by a special solution that protects them against graffiti. The memorial was controversial from the start, and the controversy continued after the opening. There have been many critics who found the memorial too abstract and criticized it for not providing historical information about the Holocaust.

[30] The Parque de la Memoria is Argentina’s first state-funded monument dedicated to the estimated 30,000 desaparecidos (“disappeared”) who were victims of state terrorism in Argentina between 1976 and 1983. The park’s web site describes the memorial as “a gash, an open wound in a grassy hill.” The park covers about 14 ha and is located along the Rio de la Plata, a river into which hundreds of victims of the military junta were thrown from planes. The decision to construct a memory park was made in 1998, and new artworks are being added to the park to this day. There are different sculptures and monuments within the park, including the Monument to the Victims of State Terror, which bears walls on which the name plaques of the disappeared are continuously added as the documentation of the state terror expands. Huyssen has said that the project of the memory park has become contentious even among the opponents of the regime who worry that the park project may become just “another figure for forgetting” and that “it may take away from the active political struggle still being waged by the Mothers and Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo” (2003: 100). Yet, Huyssen has emphasized the creativity of the project in the way in which it references other legacies in the world: “We are remembering students and workers, women and men, ordinary people who had a social vision at odds with that of the ruling elites, the church, and the military, a vision shared by many young people across the globe at that time, but that led to imprisonment, torture, rape, and death only in a few countries of the world. Thus the memory park in Buenos Aires is more than a national monument. It is also part of the global legacy of 1968, together with the mass shooting of students in Mexico City and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, perhaps its darkest and most tragic part” (2003: 104-5).

[31] James Young has discussed very interesting artworks designed by German artists and sculptors such as Jochen and Esther Gerz, Norbert Radermacher, and Horst Hoheisel, which deal with the memories of the Holocaust in a way very different from conventional memorials and monuments. Young has pointed to these as counter-monuments because these artists, “instead of searing memory into public consciousness, they fear, conventional memorials seal memory off from awareness altogether. For these artists, such an evasion would be the ultimate abuse of art, whose primary function to their minds is to jar viewers from complacency, to challenge and denaturalize the viewers’ assumptions.” Among other examples, I find Jochen and Esther Gerz’s work especially challenging. They designed what they call the Gegen-Denkmal (counter-monument) in Harburg, “a somewhat dingy suburb of Hamburg,” populated by a mix of “Turkish guest-workers and blue-collar German families.” “Unveiled in 1986, this twelve-meter-high, one-meter-square pillar is made of hollow aluminum, plated with a thin layer of soft, dark lead. A temporary inscription near its base reads-and thereby creates constituencies in-German, French, English, Russian, Hebrew, Arabic, and Turkish: ‘We invite the citizens of Harburg, and visitors to the town, to add their names here to ours. In doing so, we commit ourselves to remain vigilant. As more and more names cover this 12 meter tall lead column, it will gradually be lowered into the ground. One day it will have disappeared completely, and the site of the Harburg monument against fascism will be empty. In the end, it is only we ourselves who can rise up against injustice'” (Young, 1993: 30).

[32] Achille Mbembe has criticized Foucault for merely focusing on Europe and offered the concept of necropolitics to point to the limits of bio-power particularly in the colony where the state of exception reigns. Necropolitics is a term to “account for the various ways in which, in our contemporary world, weapons are deployed in the interest of maximum destruction of persons and the creation of death-worlds, new and unique forms of social existence in which vast populations are subjected to conditions of life conferring upon them the status of living dead” (2003: 40).

[33] Navaro-Yashin has said that “instead of looking for the state in tangible social institutions or stately persona, the sites of everyday life, where people attempt to produce meaning for themselves appropriating the political, ought to be studied as a central domain for the production and reproduction of the state” (2002: 135).

[34] Timothy Mitchell, writing on state effects, has argued that “mundane material practices take on the appearance of an abstract, non-material form” (1999: 77). Trouillot has formulated four distinct, yet related state effects: an isolation effect, an identification effect, a legibility effect and a spatialization effect (2001: 126). On the other hand, Fernando Coronil’s analysis of the Venezuelan state as “magical” has shown that state effects are always historically constructed, mainly in connection with the regulation of economy and class structure, thus pointing to the necessity of a historical ethnography of power (1997). In this vein, the Marxist critique of capital as the dominance of dead labor over living labor can be related to the dead body of the state.

[35] Svetlena Boym has cited Dostoevsky’s thought-provoking phrase: “mystery and authority” should be seen as clues to power (2001: 99).

[36] The monopoly of violence that the modern state holds in Weberian terms can also be thought of in this respect. The state uses violence not for reasonable ends, but to assert its opaque truth. As Jean-Luc Nancy has argued, “Violence does not serve a truth: it wants instead to be itself the truth. In place of the established order, about which it wants to know nothing, violence substitutes not another order, but itself (and its own pure disorder). Violence-that is, its blows-is or makes truth” (2005: 17)