Grammatology and Literary Modernity in Turkey by Nergis Erturk

Ozen Nergis Dolcerocca

Erturk, Nergis. Grammatology and Literary Modernity in Turkey. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. 216 pp.


Ever since Orhan Pamuk received the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature, there has been a growing interest in modern Turkish literature in the transnational literary market, while the scholarship available to the North American Anglophone readers remains highly limited. Nergis Erturk’s book makes a valuable contribution to scholarship based upon Turkish literature available in English and, more importantly, provides an extensive resource for Turkish literary studies as well as for Modernist studies. Grammatology and Literary Modernity in Turkey does not attempt to give a complete picture of Turkish literary modernity; rather, it is a study of the discourse shaping Turkish linguistic modernization through its various stages.


The language reforms of the Turkish Republic were part of the larger reformation project that started in the mid-nineteenth century Ottoman Empire. The state’s modernization program and the consequent transformation of the Ottoman cultural and political sphere created certain tensions and ambiguities, particularly with respect to language. “The change of civilizations [from East to West], manifests itself undoubtedly as a real crisis in language,” Erturk says, quoting Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar (1901-1962), the most important writer of the Republican period (6). Erturk traces the origins of this crisis in earlier classical forms of logocentrism and the emergence of ‘phonocentrism,’ the privileging of speech and oral language in the mid-nineteenth century, when the Ottoman Empire was integrated into the geopolitical network of global capitalist modernity.


Taking as her point of departure Foucault’s idea of “the distress of those whose language has been destroyed,” in their “loss of what is ‘common’ to place and name” (4), Erturk regards Turkish linguistic modernization as a new disciplinary mechanism of power that fears the “illegibilities of the revolutionary liberation of writing” (12). This is where the significance for the wider discipline of Erturk’s engagement with modernism and its linguistic dimension originates. She explains the Turkish language reforms as part of modern man’s fantasy to prevent the threat of indeterminacy that is always present in writing and literature. The fear of illegible writing in the world of discourse, she claims, is always a symptom of the fear of the “illegible” social other(s) within the social body itself (5). Erturk approaches literature as a ‘unique archive’ of the violent effects of this modern fantasy, which is in no way unique to Turkey. She locates the ambiguities and tensions created by the language reform in literature, which challenges the immobilizing practices of linguistic modernization.


The title of the book Grammatology and Literary Modernity in Turkey clearly refers to Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology, acknowledging his influence on Erturk’s reading of writing and literature. Erturk draws upon Derrida’s notion of logocentrism to analyze the pre-nineteenth century Ottoman Turkish writing. Erturk makes a significant historical observation by arguing that modern phonocentrism and its fear of writing was already existent in classical writing in the form of logocentrism. Before modernization attempts on language started in the nineteenth century following the idea that the Arabic-Persian script was insufficient for Turkish, classical writing of Ottoman Turkish privileged speech over writing. The importance of oral recitation in Islamic tradition was also part of educational and literary praxis. Erturk argues that, with the intensification of translational and print practices in the mid-nineteenth century, a “phonetically biased discourse” emerged about Ottoman Turkish (10). Debates about the insufficiency of Arabic writing to represent Turkish occurred and a new phonocentric conception of writing was established, which was taken up by the republican reforms, and which eventually gave Turkish writing its ‘phonetic’ shape today.


Chapter 1, titled “Words Set Free”, concentrates on the historical developments of the Tanzimat period through a close reading of two Ottoman Turkish novels, Observations (1891) by Ahmet Midhat Efendi and The Carriage Affair (1896) by Recaizade Mahmud Ekrem, one of the most important and influential works of the period. Both of these works thematize “the communications revolution,” which Erturk describes as the generalization of writing in the Ottoman Empire with the intensification of print and translational activity (34). Before going into a close reading of the novels, Erturk explores these practices in detail, giving examples from the printing press and from the regulatory measures of the Ottoman state, claiming that it is during this period of intensified communicability and translatability that a new discourse of phonocentrism emerged. In light of the process vernacularization and phoneticization of Ottoman Turkish, which she aptly discusses in the first half of the chapter, Erturk moves to a close reading of the two literary works. What is arguably the most significant aspect of Erturk’s reading is the argument that conventional critical models of literary influence, which focus on the idea of dissemination of European genres, such as the novel, or European literary currents, such as realism, Romanticism, and modernism, are incapable of explaining the emergence of new Ottoman Turkish literary forms, which are primarily contingent on the transformation of writing practices accompanying their development (13).


Erturk locates the challenge to the modernization practices in Ekrem’s Carriage Affair, arguing that, in his search for a radical revolutionary writing, Ekrem refused to turn to the emerging nationalism. In contrast to Ekrem’s incomprehensible language that resists the nationalist representations within a ‘translative language’, the next chapter explores the nationalist turn and its profound “hatred for literature” during the early twentieth century (69). In Chapter 2, titled “The Grammatology of Nationalism”, Erturk argues that vernacularization and phoneticization are never merely acts of transcription of authentic national speech. Rather, they are disciplinary tools that promote the generalization of one form of vernacular as a standard to nationalize an otherwise heterogeneous, multilingual population. With a comparative gesture, Erturk is careful to point out that the epistemic violence of nationalist and secularist project of the Kemalist revolution is not unique to Turkey, but must be understood as a hyperbolization of modernity’s key dynamic, which Foucault terms 'will in transgression'. In the first half of the Chapter, Erturk draws on the literary journalistic writings of Ömer Seyfeddin, arguing that Seyfeddin’s treatment of the non-national, non-Turkish in the form of death shows us the way in which literature can be “colonized, instrumentalized, and incorporated into a regressive identitarianism” (106). In the second half of the chapter, Erturk focuses on the history of the language reforms and gives a detailed account of the historical stages of the state-run reforms from the late Ottoman Empire to the Turkish Republic.


Part II of the book examines exceptions to the nationalist dynamic in three chapters, each focusing on a prominent writer of twentieth-century Turkish literature. In the writings of Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar, Peyami Safa (1899 – 1961) and Nâzım Hikmet (1901 – 1963), Erturk traces “self-reflexive literary stagings” that emerge despite and against the extremity of measures for nationalization (17). Chapter 3 focuses on Tanpınar’s 1954 novel The Time Regulation Institute, which, according to Erturk, provides a critique of the idea that we dictate our own language at will. The novel is constructed as the autobiography of a man surviving the transition from empire to republic. The significance of this novel, Erturk suggests, lies in the way it both examines and resists the cultural effects of the reforms with the story of a man who is unable to recognize himself as the source of his own words. Erturk’s analysis of the novel is undoubtedly one of the most significant works written on Tanpınar so far.


In Chapter 4, Erturk examines another exemplary novel, Mademoiselle Noralia’s Armchair (1949), by the journalist, novelist and critic Peyami Safa. Erturk notes that the linguistic texture of the novel is that of “fragmented and mechanized Turkish,” packed with French medical and psychoanalytic terminology, Arabic prayer words, archaic Ottoman Turkish and Kurdish borrowings (139). Erturk’s reading of Safa’s novel “emphasizes the collapse of this assimilating authorial agenda, but affirms it, at the same time, as a mark of the ineradicable internal heterogeneity of the Turkish language” (17). The book concludes with an analysis of language politics in the work of Nâzım Hikmet, who differs from both Safa and Tanpınar in his embrace of vernacularization. However, notes Erturk, this embrace should not be taken as an endorsement of official state nationalism. Where nationalist phonocentrism sought to control writing for the production of a pure national essence, Erturk argues, Nâzım’s vernacular writing aimed to expand and augment the revolutionary power of communication without any compensation in or by cultural essentialism. “Nazim did genuinely love the Turkish vernacular,” Erturk says, “but only in its continuous foreignization as such, in its opening onto a boundless translation” (180).


Erturk, in her book, invites us to rethink the history of modern Turkish literature, from the late nineteenth-century through to the mid-twentieth, which has long been conceived as a third-world literature tutored by European genres and literary movements. In place of such a center-periphery oriented criticism or ‘received wisdom,’ she proposes to shift our focus to the transformation of Turkish writing with print practices, translational technologies and the historical shifts in the practice of writing. Pointing out the ‘absent presence’ of Turkish literature in recent comparative-critical histories, Erturk takes a fresh perspective on modern Turkish literary history and opens a new space for discussion in the discipline of Comparative Literature.




Ozen Nergis Dolcerocca is currently a PhD Candidate in Comparative Literature at New York University (NYU). Her dissertation titled “Time Regulation Institutes: On Modernist Temporality”, seeks to be the first comparative study on the question of time and temporality in European and Turkish modernism in the first half of the twentieth century. She is the author of Self and Desire in the Modern Turkish Novel (2012) and organized the lecture series “"Comparative Approaches to Middle Eastern Literatures", the international conference “National Poets-Universal Poetics: Mahmoud Darwish and Nazim Hikmet” and the graduate conference “Waiting Time” at NYU.



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