The View from Elsewhere Turns the World Inside Out

This is the second post in a series of posts by several guest authors The Disorder Of Things on Ali Bilgic‘s new book Turkey, Power and the West: Gendered International Relations and Foreign Policy, released in late 2016. The full series is collected hereTerrell Carver is a Professor of Political Theory at University of Bristol, UK.

Ali Bilgic’s Turkey, Power and the West contributes in highly significant ways to three literatures not normally brought together. Firstly, foreign policy studies, approached from what – for Anglophone writers and readers – is a novel, de-centred vantage point. Secondly, gender studies and feminist research, using masculinity as a highly relevant and essential analytical ‘lens’. Thirdly, postcolonial perspectives, from which the East/West binary is reimagined and pluralized (which, quite naturally, plays into the de-centred approach to foreign policy studies).

The modern history of Turkish engagements with ‘the West’, and indeed the ‘domestic’ ramifications of the post-1923 Kemalist outward-facing policies, are a novel and currently highly topical site through which to make this tripartite conjunction. Readers are likely to be acquainted with the rough outlines of the ways through which Turkey has been in the Western news in very recent years, and this book is an excellent guide to a much more detailed yet accessible understanding of the ‘on the ground’ complexities involved.

These complexities disappear in conventionally positioned strategic studies (which beg numerous questions about strategy for whom, and for what ends). And certainly one wouldn’t look to ‘Western’ policy-makers and foreign ministries for any kind of enlightenment about recent turmoil, given that their role is to be parti pris. Bilgic’s book takes the reader very carefully from the Ottomans to the Gezi Park protests. It is not much distance from there to the coup attempt of 2016 and on-going aftermath of repressions, implosions, explosions and regressions.

There are quite a number of really novel and innovative conceptualizations at work in Bilgic’s text. At the outset he takes a ‘process’ view of politics, displacing static ontological accounts of political entities (e.g. ‘Turkey’, ‘the West’) with narrative accounts of ongoing, power-constructing politics.

This dynamic assumption then allows an analysis in terms of binary logics of valorization and devalorization that are the discursive means through which power-hierarchies function. The most powerful binary through which this process operates is that of masculinization and femininization, or in other words, the gender hierarchy as a component of any given power-play.

Starting from a conception of power that works in profoundly ‘gendering’ ways in order to create or re-impose hierarchies – rather than from a descriptive usage of gender as sexual difference – effectively centres gender in political experience as a power-builder. It may take some readers a while to get used to the idea that gender is something other than peripheral (and therefore to do with women), and that ‘gendering’ is a practical and academic process to do with men, masculinities and masculinization.

Bilgic adds distinctively to the feminist/gender literatures in International Relations and to political studies generally by articulating very clearly how hypermasculinization is deployed in power-plays in order to feminize ‘others’ and thus to make ‘others’ feminized and therefore inferior. The objects of analysis are a shifting array of marginalized groups within Turkey, outside its boundaries, with and without empirical and metaphorical linkages to any number of ‘international’ issues.

While the title indicates that the gender binary, and in particular feminist ‘curiosity’ about any already-masculinized practice, is crucial to the novel methodological mix, again the strength of the book is the way that it builds on these conceptualizations in order to demonstrate just how powerful gendered processes of valorization and devalorization are.

Gender-binaries are crucial to these powerful political dynamics precisely because they are so readily understood as a hierarchy of esteem, strength and authority. Or in other words, politics as domination and subordination is really gendering, since gender is such an easy way to make the point.

And making that point politically, of course reinforces the point personally, as feminists have been keen to point out (and men generally have been more than happy to ignore or suppress). Yet it is through this process – as Bilgic shows in successive historical episodes – that man-making and nation-making are the same process.

Separating the personal from the political, the domestic from the international, the ‘East’ from the ‘West’, the ‘great powers’ from the ‘minor players’ – in short the already-parsed apparatus through which ‘world politics’ emerges academically – makes even Bilgic’s chapter titles ‘look odd’, never mind the content through which his constructive account proceeds. The all-encompassing masculinities of the ‘IR imaginary’ are thus exposed for mainstream/malestream readers.

The author’s clear strategy of linking foreign policy elites and their policy-making with the concerns and struggles of domestic politics yields important results, rather reinforcing the idea that the distinction between the two is misconceived in the first place: foreign policy is domestic policy projected outwards.

Bilgic’s historical framework shows how all domestic political ‘factors’ are moving targets – state-making within an empire, civilizing a ‘backward’ country, engaging in ‘cold war’ great power politics, capitalizing on neo-liberal globalization – but yet effects of a common process that operates through a covertly gendered logic of domination and subordination.

One of the most important conceptual moves in Bilgic’s study is the pluralization of ‘the West’ into ‘Wests’, showing how important and subtle the local constructions of ‘Europe’, ‘USA’ and other variants become in the domestic political struggles through which foreign policy emerges. And he shows how this works in reverse, as well as inversely, that is, Turkey itself has been reimagined many times in various ‘Wests’, and within the Turkish polity any number of groups and individuals have been defined politically (and in logics of domination and subordination) in relation to various ‘Wests’ as imagined within this crucial geopolitical region itself.

This process of imagining an ‘other’ to oneself, as any post-Hegelian, post-structuralist can show, cannot depend on a stable ‘self’ already known and knowable, occupying a knowable and already known geographical ‘position’. Instead politics traces a hall-of-mirrors through which imagining an ‘other’ is already imagining a ‘self’ (to which an ‘other’ is – through a recursive logic of assertion – necessarily related).

Another important dynamic at work in Bilgic’s book is a clearly articulated account of ‘security’ as ‘insecurity’. This conceptualization demonstrates that ‘security’ concerns are really ‘great power’ concerns, through which self-other imaginaries are conceived as conflictual. By contrast non-great-powers live with a set of anxieties, hence insecurities, in relation to their situation of subordination and therefore resentment.

This logic – following from the de-centred vantage point – operates throughout the book and gives the reader a genuinely useful ‘way in’ to understanding the shifting terrains through which the political complexities of race, religion, weaponry, economics and international relationships are conceptualized. Looked at this way, the fevered but often random-seeming ‘interests’ and ‘confrontations’ through which hierarchical, stratified international political relationships are constructed begin to make sense.

International Relations, security and foreign policy specialists will no doubt engage with this book as an important and synoptic account that presents an up-to-date view of Turkey in a geopolitical and strategic frame. The message of the book, however, is rather different, namely that these framings are themselves deeply implicated not just with ‘great-power’ and ‘Western’ presumptions, but with methodologies that reinforce such presumptions rather than unsettling them productively.

The major contribution that Bilgic makes is therefore methodological and transferrable, and it is important to note that this could only be done from a de-centred vantage point. And that vantage point could only be constructed historically, hence the necessary specificity of the discussion. Conversely this points up how much of conventional, ‘West’-centric study presumes – and therefore doesn’t critique – the ‘great power’, post-‘cold war’ histories that really ought to be revisited, and indeed with a ‘view from elsewhere’.

The journey for readers – which one hopes that Bilgic’s book will stimulate – will thus be one of self-exploration (and self-critique). Turkey, Power and the West is authoritatively written from within the International Relations and security studies literatures, yet turns them inside-out quite dramatically. Bilgic’s novel and analytically powerful merger of feminist critique with post-colonial perspectives is an impressive driver of this exercise.

But the personal, geographical, historical and political vantage point which drives the work is that of the author, who can make his own positioning lucidly intelligible and intellectually convincing.

However, I am left with two areas of questioning that the author might address.

One is the concept of ‘security’-making, or making ‘security’, given the insecurities that the book maps and discusses in detail, tracing ‘gendered ontological insecurity’ through Turkish political history. As tropological politics proceeds there through various dialectics of being like/unlike ‘the West’ (in some imagined way), what (imagined) ‘security’ is being promised by the dominant and dominating political actors in response to such persistent anxiety?

The other is simply to ask for a sketch of what ‘Wests’ are deployed in Turkey (and how they are deployed), since the time of writing, so we get some updating thoughts. What do we (outside Turkey and within the Anglophone imagined communities) see of ourselves when Turkish politics imagines us in such highly varied ways? One of the great features of the book is the way it lucidly enables us ‘To see oursels as ithers see us!’ (Burns, 1786)

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