The Fragility (End?) of Language at the Limits of Situated Knowledges

November 1, 2020

On October 16 a group of prominent scholars, writers, and public intellectuals published a statement in these pages, calling for a ceasefire in the war that Azerbaijan, with the support of Turkey, started against Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh, a de facto independent Armenian-populated Republic, on September 27 of this year. Since then the signatories of this call for peace have been receiving emails from Azerbaijani feminists criticizing the statement for one-sidedness. In this brief piece I do not intend to protect the signatories of the call. I am quite certain they can respond to their critics. Instead, as a feminist, I would like to reflect on the fragility of language, particularly feminist (thought-)language. What are the ideological conditions within which feminisms, in arguing for justice for all, in fact imagine it as “for some”? Can a thinking be feminist if it aligns with the official rhetoric of a violent dictator? How can we stay as connected to our feminist political commitments in our own lives as we are when we stand with our comrades, feminist and otherwise? How can we interweave feminist discourse with a political orientation in which all life is truly precious? Do we need to create one anew?


Here, I reflect on the language in a Collective Statement of Azerbaijani Intersectional Feminists in Iran and in Exile on “Call for Lasting Peace in Nagorno-Karabakh” and the below excerpt in particular:


[K]nowledge can be used as a tool to suppress the voices of the underprivileged, while concomitantly cementing unequal relations and the hegemony of the regional powers and the world economy in the unsteady geography of the Caucasus and the Middle East… The reductionist approach of the recent statement combined with its implicit role in inducing Turcophobic sentiments, in fact, are questioning the basis of the knowledge, through which we aspire to change the situation in the world… The recent statement without reference to UN resolutions of 822, 853, 874, and 884 in 1993 on Nagorno-Karabakh, and ignoring the bombing of non-militant areas a few days ago in the city Ganja causing the death of dozens of Azerbaijani civilians, including women and children, are not only signs of the death of humanity, it paves the way for the reproduction of the discourse of violence. It is a reaffirmation […] that in the academic community of the West, and even among its postcolonial and feminist scholars, “the subaltern can still not speak.” […] We, a group of Azerbaijani intersectional feminists, express our deepest regret and sorrow at this statement, and our opposition to any occupation, violence, militarization, and internal tyranny. We also emphasize the need for a democratic system based on human rights, guaranteeing the rights of all minority groups in the territory of Azerbaijan. We condemn the war and call for the implementation of UN resolutions by the Armenian government and an end to the occupation.


Perhaps readers, seeing my last name at the top of this text, would assume that I speak on the war in Nagorno-Karabakh from a perspective that benefits Armenians. Perhaps you would start reading this text with no specific orientation, even if you knew about the war, but as soon as you got to the part where I mention how the war started, you would locate me as an Armenian feminist who holds to the Armenian version of events. Had a feminist oriented toward Azerbaijan’s governmental rhetoric written this piece, they would likely have described the start of the war differently. The aggressor would have been reversed.


Indeed, I write this from a particularly situated place, an Armenianly feminist place where I have spent over a decade critiquing the heteropatriarchal nationalism of the Armenian state to now be surprised that my feminist colleagues can side with a dictatorial regime. But where do we meet to have a humanizing dialogue? We could meet in our academic discussions or political rallies for Palestine or any number of places that we hold dear. Is it possible to have one on Nagorno-Karabakh, if we are all indeed committed to life-affirming relations?


Perhaps you have no familiarity with the war on Nagorno-Karabakh (this might be a good place to start) and you have no idea in what direction I am taking you, dear reader, besides noting that I, as a feminist, will be reflecting on a call–response by a group of Azerbaijani feminists. From wherever you read this text, I invite you to read it with an awareness of your own political orientations, with your own situated partiality. I myself write from a disillusioned place, in which I hope to see something else becoming possible — disillusioned because I have become bitterly and viscerally aware of how fragile and easily manipulable words can be, important words, feminist words, when we make audible all our political commitments. I have become aware of how, as intellectuals, we are prone to offering single-faceted, flattening analyses that we would easily critique in other situations. But I am hopeful, because I have come to know with Sara Ahmed that under a certain amount of pressure (which is hard to notice), we might “snap” in reaction to this pressure. This snap can be “an accumulated history […] a rage not only toward something or somebody in the present, but toward the past, all those past experiences of putting up with it. To snap is to say no to that history, to its perpetual reenactment.” Feminist snap would look different depending on the site of orientation. This is my snap, and it meets other snaps. Notice where you snap in relation to mine. I would like it to be the start of something, of a possibility to think together.


With my feminist ear I hear my feminist colleagues’ words — “knowledge as a tool to suppress the voices of the underprivileged” — as a desire to center those whose knowledge has not been centered, but if I read on, I hear “Turcophobic” [sic] as a way of gaslighting what people in Nagorno-Karabakh have been experiencing in this war, but also throughout the history of the Soviet Union, and an echo of the denial or qualification of the genocide of Armenians at the hands of Ottoman Turkey for over a century. Then I hear the numbers of the UN resolutions I have read (you can start here) and the oft-repeated insistence on the “territorial integrity” of Azerbaijan. And I wonder, with whom we, as feminists, know, when we do not reflect on who drew the borders of the states whose sovereignty and the “inviolability of international borders” the UN reaffirms. Whose sovereignty or right to self-determination is (not) reaffirmed? I wonder too, when do we, as feminists, take for granted the UN, an organization established by imperial powers (the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and China) — an organization that has repeatedly failed the peoples whose rights to life do not coincide with the plans of empires? Perhaps, I misspoke; the UN has succeeded in upholding the power inequity in the world. But since when did we, as feminists, stop questioning the imperial powers that still run it? Did the UN stop its founders from their expansionist adventures in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Syria? We could ask about the UN and its “reaffirmation of territorial integrity” of Somalians, Bosnians, Rwandans, Haitians, and Palestinians to find out.


I hear my Azerbaijani feminist colleagues’ sorrow for the people who died in the bombing of Ganja, which I share, as it is important not to hierarchize suffering. But I do have to read both calls together — the one they critique and the one they wrote — in order to hold space for those who perished in Sumgait and Baku in the late 1980s and early 1990s, along with those in Stepanakert, Hadrut, and other places, including soldiers (now in the thousands on the Armenian side and unknown on the Azerbaijani side, because the numbers have not been released) and men recruited by Turkey as mercenaries to serve as cannon fodder for Azerbaijan in this war. Their lives, too, are precious, and their need to turn into mercenaries an indication of other wars (and their devastation), in which the Turkish government had a hand.


As feminists we have learnt that when we orient toward something, we are, at the same time, orienting away from something else — that our acts of attention are also acts of inattention. A feminist politics, Ahmed tells me, “might insist on renaming actions as reactions.” And I wonder, how can a political orientation, like intersectional feminism, however my colleagues define it, help us to hold all these lives dear and at the same time resist embracing a dictatorial regime’s rhetoric? Must we not acknowledge that Ilham Aliyev’s regime benefits from starting this war in the name of returning the homes of displaced Azerbaijanis, even at the risk of Ganja being bombed? How does acknowledging that refocus us?


Armenians and Azerbaijanis know that having an Armenian last name (or an Armenian sounding name) endangers your safety and thus precludes your entry into Azerbaijan, no matter what citizenship you hold. Armenians and Azerbaijanis know that at a NATO–sponsored Partnership for Peace English-language training in Eastern Europe an Azerbaijani officer axed a fellow Armenian officer while the latter was asleep, then came home to Azerbaijan to receive a promotion. This knowing does not foster hopes for a “democratic system based on human rights, guaranteeing the rights of all minority groups in the territory of Azerbaijan,” the need for which my feminist colleagues articulate. While I do not see a possibility for ethnic Armenians’ right to life within the authoritarian Azerbaijani regime, perhaps I could come to know such a possibility with my Azerbaijani feminist colleagues. How can we disrupt our “ingrained habits of attention” so that we are able to know and imagine a world of genuinely shared commitments?


How can, then, one become feministly oriented and connected to one’s home whether in country or in exile, as some of the critic-signatories? Can feminist thinking earnestly hold the contradictory alignments of being against “any occupation, violence, militarization, and internal tyranny,” while speaking the same language as Aliyev’s regime, flattening any power differentials, not the least of which is the existential threat to the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh, 90,000 of whom are currently displaced due to this war? What are we willing to acknowledge, denounce, or oppose when not holding a dictator accountable while he’s hiding behind displaced people? What do we expect from scholars whose thinking usually helps us question the power networks supporting these kinds of dictators?


Now, when the existence of Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenian population is under threat, with whom can they align? Who aligns with them? With whom do the Azerbaijani people align? Importantly, how to talk about the “subalterns” that does not reinforce its efficiency for a dictator’s plan because from where I am sitting, calling the October 16 statement a “discourse of violence” sure reminds me of the reversal/mirroring that the Aliyev-Erdogan alliance has been discursively purporting since the start of the war on September 27th. Who are the “subalterns” my colleagues refer to? If they are the people in Ganja, then holding the Azerbaijani government accountable seems especially important. What the feminist–identifying signatories of the call–response criticize they seem to do themselves: they omit significant power asymmetries, reaffirming a dictatorial regime’s rhetoric of “territorial integrity” at the expense of the people’s right to life. Why let the voice of the dictator drown out and distort your feminist voices? Has postcolonial feminist thought utterly failed us? Is this a manifestation of Lauren Berlant’s “cruel optimism,” a relationship we hold onto that is a hinderance to our thriving? I sincerely hope not.


I realize most things I say in this text have their potential mirror image (a reversal), of the sort we have seen on various social media. This is only a snap, a necessary break, and my hope is that it will start a meeting-language, in which we can speak in something other than binary oppositions, in a language we cultivate together to co-describe the world. I want to see my feminist-identifying colleagues’ response as that point of breaking or snapping (I would not know the details, as I have long not lived in an authoritarian regime nor been in exile from it). How can we, in the words of Denise Ferreira da Silva, work together toward a horizon “where knowing demands affection, intention, and attention,” to know in ways “that begin and end with relationality”? How can we know together? How can we recognize and tell counter–stories through our variously situated snaps, not those of nation states or dictators? Our peoples have lived together for hundreds of years. It is essential that we cultivate a humanizing dialogue in which we can speak about Azerbaijanis returning to their homes in Karabakh, but not by means of ethnically cleansing the region of Armenians. The politics of death-making has nothing to do with feminism.


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Photograph of the “We Are Our Mountains” monument by Marcin Konsek.


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Nelli Sargsyan is an associate professor of anthropology ay Emerson College, Boston, MA. her work has appeared in academic journals such as Feminist Formations, History and Anthropology, and Feminist Anthropology, as well as on online platforms such as ARTMargins, Public Seminar, and Socioscope.