Aesthetics and Fantasy of Kemalist Nationalism in New Media

by Can Sungu & Ivo Furman

Paper from the Conference “Current Issues in European Cultural Studies”, organised by the Advanced Cultural Studies Institute of Sweden (ACSIS) in Norrköping 15-17 June 2011. Conference Proceedings published by Linköping University Electronic Press


Turkey as a developing country has been experiencing profound change in the past 30 years; it is becoming increasingly wealthy and unequal. The rise of a Islamic middle class and the electoral victories of the Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP) have destabilized the social hegemony of the secular middle and upper classes, leading to a situation that can perhaps be best characterised by the term Kulturkampf. Our argument here is that the emergence of a conservative and entrepreneurial Islamic middle-class rivalling the economic and political power of the secular classes has caused social antagonism to be displaced onto the cultural sphere. The new public spaces (private television, radio and the internet) created by the processes of neo-liberalization have become the virtual battlegrounds for the ongoing culture wars between the two groups.  

As part of this paper, we intend to analyse what we have labelled as ‘Pop-Kemalism’ and can be described as the proliferation of commercial nationalist symbols in public space. What is remarkable about this phenomena is that the explosion in the amount of nationalist symbols is an entirely civilian based initiative. While nationalist symbolism until the early 1990s was exclusively regulated by the state, what characterises the present is the decline in official nationalist iconography and proliferation of commercial nationalist iconography. Drawing from the work of Appadurai (1996,2006), Bauman (2001) andHage (1998,2003), we want to argue that the re-emergence of nationalist imagery can be seen as a reaction to the effects of globalization or what has been termed as ‘liquid modernity’. Adding to this, the return of the nationalist symbol within the modality of the civilian Mustafa Kemal Atatürk can be understood as a dialectical reply to the cultural politics of the veil. Contrary to popular opinion, what we hope to demonstrate using the work of Žižek is that (re)popularisation of nationalist symbols, rather than constituting a legitimate basis of resistance is actually symptomatic of a post-political situation that helps sustain and replicate the effects of neo-liberalisation. 

The second part of the paper will be devoted to two primary themes. Firstly we will analyse how cultural production acts as a virtual ‘screen’ for the reproduction of particular subjectivities. To demonstrate this point we will be using a sketch from the Turkish secular comedy series ‘Olacak O Kadar”, to demonstrate how cultural productions act as phantasmic screens for the reproduction of particular subjectivities. In other words we will be discussing the aesthetics of Kemalist nationalism. Secondly, following the work of Jodi Dean on this topic (2009,2010) we will be discussing how the subjectivity sustained by the politics of Pop-Kemalism is co-opted into the profit-making mechanisms of new media. Here, we will be discussing how the structural architecture of new media spaces intensify subjective insecurities and re-format user activity into corporate profit. 

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