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Writing of Death: Ethics and Politics of the Death Fast in Turkey

By Ozge Serin

Abstract

This dissertation is an ethnographic study of the seven-year-long mass hunger strike undertaken by prisoners affiliated with outlawed Marxist-Leninist organizations in Turkey to protest their transfer from traditional ward-type facilities to new cellular institutions modeled after maximum security prisons, and it scrutinizes as well as radicalizes the ontological and political structure of hunger striking to construe otherwise the contestatory relationship between the individual right to death and political sovereignty by insisting on the irreducible excess of death over the totalizing closure of the performative acts of political institution. Anchored in participant observation and in-depth interviews with surviving hunger strikers, ex-political prisoners, their families, medical and forensic doctors, and enriched by the textual and visual analysis prison memoirs, diaries, correspondence, testaments, last speeches, and photographs, the dissertation focuses on the ambiguity of the very right to die--an ambiguity that has been ignored by performance theories of sovereignty--by figuring death at one and the same time as both radical possibility and impossibility. Accounting for the extraordinarily long duration of the prison movement (7 years) and self-starvation period before death (up to 558 days) by examining its temporal and organizational logics, the dissertation argues that hunger striking draws an enormous political power from keeping the possibility of death in suspense unlike the power of negation which dissipates itself irreversibly in a paroxysmal moment of actual death. In distinguishing the anticipatory relation to death on the hunger strike from its counterparts in suicide attacks and self-immolations, the dissertation seeks to reveal an inescapable anachrony between two deaths--the passage of time that separates and draws together death as possibility from death as an anonymous event which comes either too early or late. It claims that it is precisely in this interim state between two deaths that death withdraws from the realm of possibility only to fold in on life, creating a reserve in both senses of the term, one where state power and political organizations vie with each other for hegemony over the ideological representations of life and death. The dissertation narrates how the hyper-rationalized political instrumentation of the suspended state between life and death produces its own everyday socialities by organizing the affective relations of hunger strikers to the futurity of death, to their individual bodies, and others on the hunger strike in a destructive rivalry with the contradictory discourses and practices of state officials, families, doctors and mass media. It argues that "death" thereby yields itself to a movement of self-differentiation and proliferation, oscillating uncontrollably between sacrificial sublation and waste, and the result is a growing division within the prison movement which propels it towards its eventual dissolution, leaving in its ruins a crippled political subject without futurity. The dissertation figures the surviving fasters afflicted with the Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, a severe type of amnesia characterized by the inability to retain memories after an indefinite lapse of time, as an allegory for the ruination of the power to die in the performance of death itself. As such, it seeks to bring about a transformation in the very language of sacrificial politics by interrupting the economy of appropriation which functions in view of a future community founded upon the continuity of deaths towards an ever-receding presence

Topics: Cultural anthropology
Year: 2013
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