An Interpretation of Istanbul’s Gezi Park Protests: Four Modern Social Theorists

What I have posted here is a paper for my modern theory course. I definitely see some areas where the paper is lacking and could be expanded, but there are some points that are beginning to flesh out there. I figure since this is currently going on I would post the un-revised version in order to continue the thought and consideration regarding the current state of Turkey. As always, comments, corrections, and intelligent conversation is welcomed. 

An Interpretation of Istanbul’s Gezi Park Protests: Four Modern Social Theorists 

After a year of living in Istanbul the most that I can offer regarding the current civil unrest is an external perspective. For the past week social media has been filled with pictures and videos of downtown Istanbul and the current protests taking place there. During the days the protests at Taksim square take on the feeling of a festival, with music, dance, joyful encounters, and excited youth sharing discourse. Thousands of people cover Gezi Park, where the protests started on May 28, 2013. The protests, which began against the deconstruction of the park to re-build a military barracks which would ultimately be used as private housing and either a mall or museum, have grown so large in both numbers and geography that a single objective can no longer be neatly given to them. The protests have spread through Istanbul and to other major cities in Turkey, and have grown into general political unrest. I cannot make any claims of intimate knowledge of these activities, but I can draw some conclusions that require physical observation, and hopefully offer some perspectives as to the progression of these protests. This paper utilizes the work of four prominent modern social theorists: Antonio Gramsci, Michel Foucault, Giorgio Agamben, and Walter Benjamin, in order to explore the Gezi Park protests more in depth and begin to offer social discourse regarding the movement which has become known as, “Occupy Gezi.”

Gezi and Gramsci
Antonio Gramsci’s theory concentrates on the production of power through consent rather than force, and the ways in which superstructure is maintained in civil society through the production of hegemony.  Gramsci claims that with modern hegemony revolutions based on violence and force, such as the October Revolution of 1917, will no longer be successful. Because of this view Gramsci theory can best be applied to three areas of the Gezi Protests. First, the way in which the government responds to the protests can be argued as potentially blurring the line between rule by force and rule through consent, which demands closer examination about the production of hegemony and level of consent of Turkish citizens. Secondly, Gramsci would be concerned about whether the protests are based on force, or have an adequate foundation of counter-hegemony to effect social change. Lastly, and related to the establishment of counter-hegemony, Gramsci would examine the traces of consciousness, and how they can be found both at the protest site, and through social media.
The concept of hegemony involves the basis of power being created through consent, wherein the dominate group defines the world for the oppressed group so much so that they can no longer even recognize their own will. Their will is dominated through cultural indoctrination and they willingly, or at least without struggle, give their consent to the rulers. In a decadent hegemony, which includes both Turkey and the global hegemony of capitalism, this consent is centered around allocation of resources. On May 28 the protests regarding Gezi Park mostly concerned the allocation of a well-known public space. People feared that the public space, which was slated to become a reconstruction of the Taksim military barracks, would ultimately be turned into a shopping mall. This takes a resource which is precious in a city as crowded as Istanbul, space, and allocates it to the private, capitalist sphere, away from public use. Gezi park, which is iconic to Istanbul, was an allocation that could be said to be beyond the umbrella of the dominant hegemony. When the protests began the government responded with force, removing protesters through the use of pepper-gas. At the same time the Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, tried to maintain that his political position was achieved through consent, and that the reallocation of the park would continue despite the protests. This creates a dissonance between the experience of the protestors, and the government’s claims to legitimacy. In this case the use of force served to escalate the protests, drawing in a wider group of support, and potentially creating a platform to examine and deconstruct the dominant hegemony. However, the deconstruction of the dominant hegemony is impossible to imagine unless it is accompanied by the construction of a counter-hegemony.   
Although the use of police force is important to understanding the depth of the attack on the Turkish government, the use of force on the part of the protesters is important to understanding the potential for achieving social change. Gramsci advocates against a war of manoeuvre, which seeks to physically remove the people in power, and instead insists that a war of position, and the establishment of a counter-hegemony, is the only way to bring about change. Although the protests started as a challenge to the allocation of resources, they have since grown in numbers so quickly that their complexity, and various reasons for participation, is indisputable. This creates a critical point, when a counter-hegemony can be constructed, and needs to be constructed in order for the protests to turn into a social movement. The establishment of counter-hegemony has been attempted through various university professors, and NGOs hosting discussion groups at the protest site. However, whether these attempts will be successful depend on the motivation of the protestors, and whether they are prepared to engage in constructive discourse, or simply continue to protest in force as an unorganized display of general frustration. The success of establishing a counter-hegemony also depends on the methods that the budding social leaders of this resistance implement.
Gramsci believes that the production of a counter-hegemony is reliant on the materiality of subalterns, as well as traces of consciousness found in folk wisdom, song, stories and memory. Intellectuals are charged with basing counter-hegemony on the already existing fragments within society in order to create an integrated form of resistance. I would argue that the contemporary place to look for these traces of consciousness is social media. The pictures that people are posting on facebook, and the 140-character tweets being posted on twitter supply a rich source of anxiety, hopes, and desire that could be formulated into the beginnings of a counter-hegemony. However, to leave these fragments in their raw form, or even to collect them on the internet is not enough. Counter-hegemony would be formed by processing these fragments, and reflecting them on the people who have created them, using them as a point of discussion to form a construction of society with the people who are currently gathered, potentially ready to listen and create.

Gezi and Foucault
Michel Foucault was a materialist, interested in the ultimate destinations of power rather than the intention and decisions of individuals. He was not interested in the source or descent of power, nor was he interested in ideology. He was against the concept of social evolution and interested in the production of expertise, to the point that for Foucault the problem of modernity was not economics, but the ways in which truth was produced. Foucault would most likely be interested in the materiality of the Gezi protests, the production of power in the moment of resistance, and how knowledge regarding the protests is produced and spread.
The protests in Istanbul have left a strong physical mark on the city. The main shopping street, Istiklal, has been covered in graffiti, and Taksim square has been barricaded using bricks torn out of sidewalks, fences, and incinerated vehicles. These material traces show a breakdown in the discipline created by society. Foucault argues that in a state of discipline subjects are always seen, and constantly placed in a way that they may be observed. (Discipline and Punish, 187) Everyday life in Istanbul involves a certain level of discipline, created by the constant observation of fellow citizens, as well as a limited presence of official authority. However, as protesters have pushed police out of Taksim square that level of discipline has been lost. People within the borders of the barricades can be thought to be loyal to the protests, and not supportive of government rules and punishment. For this reason people feel safe to flout certain laws. This can especially be seen in the act of graffiti, an act commonly restrained due to discipline. During the protests young men can be seen tagging the streets and buildings in the middle of the day. They spray paint slogans and symbols slowly and without masks, obviously not concerned with being caught. However, the material evidence also shows that the graffiti has been covered over at least one time with a layer of plain, grey paint. This layering of paint and graffiti shows a constant struggle to maintain a state of discipline, which the government has been unable to achieve in Gezi.
If the usual standard of social discipline is not currently in effect that does not mean that no discipline exists. Power is constantly produced by people, and that includes the protesters currently in Gezi Park. Foucault highlights the notion of exercise, stating that it is a graduation of tasks that are performed by the body, used to create discipline. (Discipline and Punish, 161) The protests can be seen as a jump in physical tasks, not adhering to acceptable amounts of graduation, and completely unexpected. This has the potential to create a space that lacks discipline, but only for a moment before people begin to create new forms of exercises that will create a new regime of discipline. This can be seen in the schedules slowly beginning to develop around the protests. People protest in shifts, either at the park during the day or at night, and a schedule of speakers and workshops is beginning to emerge, slowly producing a system of power and discipline within the society of protesters.
The final area of the Gezi Protests that would concern Foucault, and perhaps the most strongly related to his theories, is the production of knowledge regarding the events. According to Foucault power and knowledge directly imply each other, and power produces knowledge. (Discipline and Punish, 27) This speaks to the reification of expertise, and how only people specifically trained within the realm of science can participate in the production of knowledge. Subjugated knowledges are those which have been disqualified as inadequate or insufficiently elaborated. (Power/Knowledge, 82) The production of knowledge regarding the Gezi protests is occurring on three fronts: the official perspective produced by the Turkish government through Turkish media, the unofficial perspective produced by protesters through social media, and the tentative perspective produced by international media without firsthand experience of the events. The Turkish media has covered very little of the protests, and the government, while not denying the protests, has downplayed their extensiveness and legitimacy. This has aggravated protesters, and countless people have posted about the protests on twitter, facebook, and on personal blogs. The majority of protester-produced content involves pictures, short videos, and tweets, and focuses on the use of police force against the protesters. The internet has made it possible for individuals to share experiences, but the question is whether those experiences are capable of being turned into knowledge. Perhaps recognizing this, protesters have made calls for assistance through various forms of social media, asking for international news to recognize the protests. This call for international recognition shows that media expertise is still valid in the production of social knowledge. Protesters fear that if the only official representation of the protests is controlled by the government and Turkish media, then the events will be both weakened and eventually forgotten. International media, and the expertise given to external, supposedly unbiased reporters trumps the expertise claimed by local reporters, having the potential to produce a knowledge that could eventually be sympathetic to the protesters. Most interesting is that the internet has created a platform that has the potential to be used in the creation of knowledge, but it is still controlled and limited by the social preconceptions of expertise and traditional forms of knowledge production.

Gezi and Agamben
Giorgio Agamben focused on the origins of bio-power, claiming that power turns life into an object and therefore creates politics. His general themes included the exploration of bare life as opposed to good life, thresholds as spaces of intersection, the creation of homo sacer and sovereignty, and legal violence. Agamben’s work may be best used to explain the use of police force in the Gezi Park protests.
In order to understand how police force against the Gezi protesters can be legitimized by the Turkish government it is important to understand Agamben’s concepts of sovereign and homo sacer. According to Agamben these two concepts are mirror images of each other. The sovereign sphere is the sphere in which it is permitted to kill without committing homicide and without celebrating sacrifice (Agamben, 83) and the homo sacer is the person who is set outside of human jurisdiction without being placed beneath the protection of divine law. (82) The sovereign acts by legally placing himself outside of the law while simultaneously declaring that nothing is outside of the law. (15) This allows the sovereign to encite bans, which does not only place someone outside of law, but leaves them exposed and threatened. (28) In contemporary society violence is considered illegal, and also socially unacceptable. However, police are given the right to use force without it being considered violence due to being imbued with power from sovereignty. Prime Minister Erdogan is able to decree that protesters are acting outside of the law, turning them into homo sacer, which justifies the use of police violence. Similarly, police are given the individual power to declare people as acting illegally and use force against them. At the same time protesters are restricted from using violence because they lack the power of the sovereign to declare their actions as legal. Agamben claims that the ban as the original political relation calls into question the theories of a contractual origin of state power based on citizens belonging to a popular, national, religious, or other identity group. (181) Because the sovereign is able to ban any action, by any person, every person is turned into a partial homo sacer and left exposed and vulnerable to violence. However, what was seen at Gezi park did not follow this model. Although Erdogan did try to declare the actions of the protesters illegal, and issue a ban on them, people refused the ban. Protesters declared their actions, and use of force legitimate, while calling international attention to the use of police force, and were able to turn the “legal force” into a state of unacceptable violence. This does not point to a dissolution of sovereign power, but instead points to the power of Erdogan no longer being recognized by Turkish people, and the formation of an international state of sovereignty.

Gezi and Benjamin
Like Foucault, Walter Benjamin was a materialist. He worked to critique social theory by an intense, close examination of everyday objects, and viewed criticism as the cutting of history in order to create space for newness to emerge. He rejected the idea that history is progressive and argued that modern history is actually a natural cycle of catastrophes, and real history cannot begin until a messianic judgment redeems society by naming things by their proper names. The location of the Gezi protests in the heart of Istanbul provides two places that would lend themselves to a Benjamin-inspired examination: Istiklal Street and Gezi Park.
Istiklal Street is a phantasmagoria which can easily be compared to the Paris Arcades in the Arcades Project by Benjamin. As the main shopping street in Istanbul Istiklal is lush with the practice of commodity fetishism. There, labor and violence are removed from public view and fetish objects, such as the latest clothing and technology, promise people anything that they desire, from happiness to freedom. During the protests Istiklal Street was covered with graffiti, from one end to the other, as high as people could reach, whereas other streets received much less physical destruction. Upon initial consideration this can be thought to show a rejection of commodity fetishism, however, when looking at the continuing festival nature of the protests the cycle of history becomes evident. Although the stores on the street are rejected it took only days for men to set up boxes of respiratory masks, swim goggles, and Guy Fawkes masks. These can be seen as replacement fetish objects, fetishizing the concepts of freedom and resistance while continuing the history of commodification.
At the end of Istiklal Street is Gezi Park, the park where these protests began. Protests began against the re-construction of a military barracks which had been torn down in the 1940s. The destruction of the park and continual updating of Istanbul can be seen as a type of deification of progress. Deconstruction is deemed to be necessary to continually modernize the city. The question of why it was important to reconstruct the military barracks brings up the concept of Benjamin’s wish image, an object that sits at the cross between an ur-past and the mythic stage, imbued with the dreams of the past which were never brought to light, while still being an object of the progressive narrative. At the same time the park, a green space, was in the process of being sanitized into something more modern and progressive. In this light the protests at Gezi park can be seen as a protest against the deification of progress and a desire to keep unsanitized, wild space.
One more concept of Benjamin’s that is applicable to the protests involves his concept of catastrophe and shock. Benjamin believes that in modernity we are unable to feel any deep sense of tragedy and to grieve. Instead all that we have are brief states of shock and a continued state of melancholy. I believe that these protests are a prime example of that. People all over the world are curious about the protests, and express shock at the police violence that has happened, but there is very little room, or time, given to actual grieving for the violence and injuries being sustained. For this reason it is very likely that these protests will be written into the myth of progression as necessary defeat (depending on the outcome), and not serve in the preparation for the day of public judgement.

The four perspectives that I have used in this paper to help begin discussion regarding the Gezi Park protests are at times complementary, and at times contradictory. One of the main conclusions which may be drawn from all four theorists is that the protests have created a possibility for action, and for creation. Whether that creation takes the form of constructing a counter-hegemony, creating new forms of power through discipline, examining a global scheme of power, or taking time to examine tragedy and feel grief, I believe that if anything lasting is to come of these protests, the possibility must be acted on soon. Currently in the protests there are various organizations and individuals leading discussions, and acting for these changes, and the coming weeks will show if any actual lasting changes are possible, and will be achieved by the people of Turkey.

Antonio Gramsci. “The art and science of politics,” and “Philosophy, common sense, language and folklore,” in David Forgas (ed.) An Antonio Gramsci Reader: Selected Writings 1916-1935. Schocken Books. (1988).
Giorgio Agamben translated by Daniel Heller-Rosen. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics). Werner Hamacher and Devid E. Wellbery (eds). Stanford University Press. (1998).
Joseph Fernia. “The Concept of Hegemony,” in Gramsci’s Political Thought. Clarendon Press. (1981).
Michel Foucault. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Vintage Books.(1990).
Michel Foucault. History of Sexuality. Vintage Books. (1990).
Michel Foucault. “Two Lectures” and “Truth and Power” in Power and Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writingsw, 1972-1977. Pantheon Books.
Michael Lowy. Fire Alarm: Reading Walter Benjamin’s “On the Concept of History”. Verso. (2006).

Susan Buck-Morss. The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project (Studies in Contemporary German Social Thought). MIT Press. (1991).

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