Nina Katchadourian (left) and Ahmet Ogut (image via blinddatesproject.org)

Nina Katchadourian and Ahmet Ogut (image via blinddatesproject.org)

Kinships Past, Kinship’s Futures

by | June 6th, 2011 | 0 comments
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Editor’s note: Versions of this paper were presented on November 13, 2010 at the Pratt Institute in New York during a panel organized by the Blind Dates Project, and on May 29, 2010 at the Hrant Dink Memorial Workshop in Istanbul.

As we gather here this weekend in Istanbul, at the “Hrant Dink Memorial Workshop,” we find ourselves balancing perilously between two meanings of the word “memorial”: first, the remembrance of a past, in this case a past that was rich and brilliant but that ended so violently; and second, the preservation of a memory for the future, a memory that we are asked to carry on, sustain, enliven, and reanimate so that it may live in ways we are in the very process of crafting this weekend, and presumably well beyond this weekend. This remembrance of a past and this memory for the future could be of Hrant Dink the man, as well as Hrant Dink the work, which were and continue to be at once political and textual. But we know too that this remembrance of a past and this memory for the future also reach farther back than Hrant Dink the man or Hrant Dink the work, and in turn that they gesture toward a future that also exceeds what he represents and how he represented it. Indeed, the workshop organizers describe their task here in just these terms: “While not trivializing historical and contemporary experiences of conflict and violence, Hrant Dink Memorial Workshops seek to explore untold or silenced stories as well as obscured structures of empathy, interaction, and interdependence…” [1] So, as participants in this year’s Memorial Workshop, as memorialists, we find ourselves balancing perilously between the remembrance of recent and not-so-recent violence, on the one hand, and the promise of a future that we are still struggling to imagine, on the other.

I want to suggest that we might think of this balancing act as a struggle over the meaning of kinship by asking ourselves a seemingly simple question that is, of course, not so simple: what kind of kinship are we forging here? To even begin asking this question, however, we need to consider two other questions. First, how has kinship functioned to sanction and sanctify the kinds of violence against which we presumably all stand: namely, state-sponsored and vigilante violence, as well as the less visible but no less disciplinary acts of normative power exercised by nationalisms, both diasporic and statist, on a quotidian scale? And how might we imagine kinships that stand against such violence, future kinships for which there is no precise precedent? Instead of answering these questions directly, I am going to offer a reading of a recent cultural text that itself asks these questions: a collaboration between the artists Nina Katchadourian and Ahmet Ögüt, called “AH-HA,” for the Blind Dates Project, curated by Defne Ayas and Neery Melkonian. I hope to cull from this collaboration some ways of imagining the futures of our kinship.

Let me begin, then, by quoting from Ahmet’s and Nina’s description of “AH-HA“ (and I use their first names throughout this essay, in the spirit of the kinship they seek to foster):

Although we’ve only been set up on a blind date, we have decided to bind ourselves to one another for life.

Our project AH-HA is centered around the act of exchanging letters in our names. In a legalized transaction, we propose trading the two letters in our names that already overlap, namely, the “H” and the “A” in each of our names. We will trade one letter now (the A) and another letter later (the H), most likely upon the event of one of our deaths. The gesture might seem reminiscent of an organ donation or blood transfusion; only the even, reciprocal nature of the exchange creates a different dynamic: one of barter, trade, or rebalancing, rather than of donating or salvaging. The fact that one letter is exchanged now binds us into a contract with each other in the present. The fact that we must wait until some unknown point in the future for the other letter (and only at that point is our piece complete) places the piece in a kind of suspension.

Between ethnic groups or cultures that have been at odds, there is often the expectation that there will be a visible way to differentiate between them, when this is, in fact, very complicated and often untrue. The invisibility of the gesture is therefore very central to this project, and very much at the center of the concept. Nina Katchadourian would become Nina Katchadourian; Ahmet Ögüt would become Ahmet Ögüt, but embedded in our names would be these “foreign,” and ultimately assimilated, letters. We become guardians of one of each other’s letters now, but also promise to step up to this task in the future. We set this piece into motion in the present, but moving forward, by having exchanged one of the letters and then needing to wait for the other letter, the past and future will also always be “present.”

We will structure the exchange of our letter As as a contract, based on the legal concept of “consideration,” meaning “something of value given by both parties to a contract that induces them to enter into the agreement to exchange mutual performances.” When something is merely gifted to someone else, it does not take on the structure of a contract. Perhaps paradoxically, we need each other’s letter As, in this case, in order to bind ourselves to one another such that we can exchange the letter Hs later. The exchange of the letter H would be based on the structure of a will. Both documents will be drawn up legally and will bear legitimate legal weight and responsibility. [2]

Consider the first sentence of their description: “Although we’ve only been set up on a blind date, we have decided to bind ourselves to one another for life.” Although this is just one sentence, just the first sentence of their proposal, I want to suggest that there is nothing “just” about it or about the project upon which these two artists have embarked. Moreover, in the refusal of this first sentence in particular, and of the proposal in general, to be “just” in many of the most common senses of that word, we can actually find an unprecedented possibility: a future kinship that stands against violent nationalist and statist norms. I have quoted this sentence just now, and I will quote it again a number of times in what follows, because I think that it is in some way as yet unreadable by us, so felicitously unjust is it. This sentence thus calls out to be read, infinitely into the future, until that impossible moment comes when we will have lived the life it imagines.

In English, when we use the word “just” as an adverb — as in phrases like “just one sentence,” or “we’re just friends,” or “we only just met” — the word works to isolate, delimit, simplify, reduce, control, even trivialize the noun or verb it qualifies. Though extremely commonplace, this adverbial usage of the English word “just” is odd, because as a noun and an adjective the word “just” usually invokes a quite different, overwhelmingly serious and complex constellation of meanings: uprightness, truth, equity, right, righteousness, law, and justice. Perhaps the adverbial use of “just” to mean something finite and restricted reminds us of the way in which a related term like “justice,” as complex and overwhelming as it often seems, also promises to offer us something that is exact and accurate, precise and punctual, present and true. Perhaps, then, these two meanings of the English word “just” (the commonplace adverb meaning something finite and restricted, the weighty noun or adjective meaning law and right) can function to remind us that when we encounter histories of injustice, when we try to do justice to those histories (as do Ahmet and Nina), we are caught between two seemingly opposed possibilities: on the one hand, a serious, weighty, and ongoing complexity; on the other hand, an urgent exactitude as punctual as the common English expression of assent, “it is just so.”

“Although we’ve only been set up on a blind date, we have decided to bind ourselves to one another for life.”

In what senses, exactly, do I mean that this sentence is not “just”? First, because it is the beginning of a lifelong project that extends even beyond life, unto or into death, perhaps even beyond death. Ahmet and Nina write in their proposal that “We will trade one letter now (the A) and another letter later (the H), most likely upon the event of one of our deaths.” One trade will happen now between Nina and Ahmet—although notice that “now” has not yet arrived, it too is a trade that will still have to happen—and a second trade may happen even later than the first, perhaps infinitely later, an impossible trade between the dead and the living. This sentence thus does not so much describe an event that has happened or that will happen at a distinct moment in the near future, as it makes a promise to continue promising, beyond all that is justly delimitable and determinable. The very open-ended and ongoing nature of this promise and this project makes it impossible to isolate, simplify, or reduce what the sentence describes. In this sense, then, Ahmet’s and Nina’s sentence describes an in-justness or a non-justness: something that can never be restricted or made finite.

Second, this sentence is also not “just” because it imagines a bond that, as yet, has no formal precedent; it is, in some strict sense, unjustified. The utterance “we have decided to bind ourselves to one another for life” seems to invoke the most traditional of kinship bonds, that of marriage; and yet I want to argue that this performative bond in fact challenges the very idea of marriage, and thus urges us not to understand marriage as a necessary precondition for all forms of kinship. As a result, we are provoked to consider future kinships, or kinships for the future, as well as the future of kinship itself. Let me try to explain this second point.

Modern nationalism invariably invests marriage and the heteronormative reproduction of family with great symbolic and material power, making them sites of ongoing regulation and restriction, where normative forms of identity are made legible and are protected while non-normative modes of intimacy and relation are made illegible in order to be repressed or excluded. Ayşe Gül Altınay gives us a stunning example of this in her work on what she calls “Armenian survivors” in Turkey after 1915, many of whom became adopted daughters and sons of Muslim families as well as wives or husbands of Muslim men and women. She shows how the anxious silence that envelops this history—on the part of the Turkish state and society as well as the Armenian diaspora—exposes the essential role normative forms of kinship play for these apparently opposed nationalisms.[3] It is as if the very idea of such scandalous kinships must be effaced for both the Turkish imperative of denial and the Armenian diasporic narrative of Genocide to continue in their current, normative forms.

Another example of modern nationalism’s investment in normative forms of kinship follows from increasingly global struggles over the expansion of marriage rights to gays and lesbians. In the U.S., this struggle has been represented almost exclusively — for both the opponents and the supporters of gay marriage — as a question of whether or not the state should sanction marriage between two men or two women. As a result, it increasingly seems as if the only way to challenge the state’s normative investment in kinship is to insist that marriage rights be extended to gays and lesbians. I certainly do not oppose this insistence; in fact I have uttered it many times. And yet, it paradoxically gives rise to a too-often-ignored political problem: too often, both opponents and advocates of gay marriage act as if marriage is an indispensable form of kinship, as if it were the very definition of kinship, as if it were kinship’s only, most important, and most desirable expression. We sometimes forget, in turn, how difficult and necessary it is to articulate and to live other forms of kinship outside that institution, outside the bounds of legality, outside formal recognition by the state—that is, how difficult and necessary it is to live unjust kinships. This is a paradox indeed, since gay, lesbian, queer, and transgender movements have long led the way toward imagining, valorizing, and making livable just such alternative kinships.

It seems to me, then, that Nina and Ahmet propose such an unjust kinship. They preface their decision to pursue a lifelong bond with a reminder: “Although we’ve only been set up on a blind date, we have decided to bind ourselves to one another for life.” Their decision and their binding is thus not a marriage; forever marked by the sign of the “blind date,” it is at once less and more than a marriage. A “blind date” is a scene of whimsical, fleeting, often reckless, usually disappointing, possibly scandalous desire. “Blind dates” happen to you, they are set-ups, they come from somewhere else, at someone else’s initiative, and often at your expense. They are anxious and tenuous encounters with chance, encounters that can be embraced or abandoned in a flash, with nothing more than a decisively deployed “Sorry, I’m not feeling well, gotta go,” or the pretense of an emergency cell phone call from “a friend who really needs me.”

So what is this lifelong bond between Ahmet and Nina that is also forever under the sign of chance, whimsy, recklessness, scandal? Strictly speaking, it is unjust, in that no formal system of justice will recognize it, grant it rights, give it health care or hospital visitation privileges. One can imagine the responses of the bureaucrats to whom Nina and Ahmet would submit their change-of-name forms, responses that many non-bureaucrats among us might well share: how can you exchange letters, much less the same letters? Your names won’t actually change, so this is not really an exchange! This is a joke, a scandal, a whim! I want to suggest that it is precisely this whimsical, reckless, scandalous aspect of their bond that is at once unjust and the only chance we have of doing justice to the weight of responsibility we all bear to our violent pasts. For if we are to guide ourselves past the normative kinships upon which both state-sponsored and diasporically enforced nationalisms depend, we will need to open ourselves to the reckless possibility of such scandalous kinships.

It is in this light that I would have to question, in the most sympathetic of ways, Nina’s and Ahmet’s suggestion in their proposal that their exchange of letters is more of a contract than it is a gift. They write: “We will structure the exchange of our letter A’s as a contract, based on the legal concept of ‘consideration,’ … When something is merely gifted to someone else, it does not take on the structure of a contract. Perhaps paradoxically, we need each other’s letter As, in this case, in order to bind ourselves to one another such that we can exchange the letter Hs later. The exchange of the letter H would be based on the structure of a will. Both documents will be drawn up legally and will bear legitimate legal weight and responsibility.” They seem to suggest that the form of the contract or the will give weight and responsibility to their bond, a weight and responsibility that will, in turn, do justice to the histories of violence and conflict out of which we have all emerged, and to which we are still somehow tied but also refuse to be reduced. But no contract, no formal legal record or documentary proof could ever do justice to this unbearable and incalculable weight.[4] Rather, it is all the ways in which Ahmet’s and Nina’s project is un-just or in-just or not just that bear the most weight and hold the most hope. It is all the ways that their contract must fail, must be rejected by the states to which it appeals, must be entombed in filing cabinets in Helsinki, Brussels, and Washington — these are the conditions of possibility for the life they envision.

Ultimately, the only hope AH-HA gives us comes from the reckless impossibility of the legal documentation it parodically performs. Thus, it is not because of a “paradox” that they need to contract the exchange of their A’s in order to assure the lifelong willing of their H’s. Rather, it is because of the power and possibility of parody that their so-called contract and their so-called will perform the bond they envision. Their contract must fail to contract; their legal will must expose the limits of any individual’s will, for AH-HA’s utterance to expose the ruse of what J. L. Austin calls the constative (or truthfully descriptive utterance, the statement of fact) and to activate the felicitous force of the performative (or the utterance that does what it says).[5] Thus, to be for the future, their exchange must be more gift than contract; they must give a bond to each other and to us without the assurance of any legal weight or responsibility. Indeed, their utterance must carry its in-justice beyond the limits of any state or national or diasporic sanction, in the face even of a death sentence.

Hrant Dink gave us all just such a gift with his utterances, which echo beyond his own tomb in that haunting slogan iterated and reiterated on the streets of Istanbul after his murder: “We are all Armenians.” Of course, our slogan in the Armenian diaspora, and especially in the U.S., cannot be that slogan. If we aspire, as do Nina and Ahmet, to the foreignness embedded within us, we Armenians in the diaspora cannot say something we have in fact been saying all too long, with too much proscriptive force: that “we are all Armenians.” Rather, we in the U.S. diaspora might have to say something like Nina and Ahmet have said: “Although we’ve only been set up on a blind date, we have decided to bind ourselves to one another for life.”

The name of Ahmet’s and Nina’s project, AH-HA, sounds in English at once like a revelation and a laugh, as if it says “I just got it!” as well as “that’s hilarious! that’s ridiculous!” Serious and absurd at once, it makes one wonder and doubt, nod and shake one’s head. Such an experience of parody marks the performance of an absurdity that might somehow be a truth. AH-HA is also rhetorically a chiasmus, from the Greek for the letter “x” or “a diagonal arrangement,” a figure in which two terms mirror each other. Chiasmus is neither a figure for the repetition of the same nor a figure for a grand convergence or unity. It is a figure for an inversion that allows a new meaning to escape from the familiar.

Not just a kinship, but an unjust kinship. A kinship for the future, a kinship we enter without knowing where we are going, a kinship that estranges us from ourselves, a kinship that remembers the past by performatively aspiring to the foreign within. Only an un-just sentence like Nina’s and Ahmet’s could do justice to the weight of this responsibility we all bear. Only a sentence structured like theirs could guide us from kinships past to kinship’s futures. Their sentence might well be a Hrant Dink Memorial in and of itself. And so we must read and reread this wonderful sentence Ahmet and Nina have gifted us, again and again: “Although we’ve only been set up on a blind date, we have decided to bind ourselves to one another for life.”

*  *  *

Notes

1 — http://myweb.sabanciuniv.edu/hrantdink-workshop/home/
2 — http://blinddatesproject.org/2010/01/artforum-on-nina-katchadourian-and-ahmet-ogut/, October 17, 2009.
3 — See Ayşe Gül Altınay, “In Search of Silenced Grandparents: Ottoman Armenian Survivors and Their (Muslim) Grandchildren,” in Hans-Lukas Kieser and Elmar Plozza, eds., Der Völkermord an den Armeniern, die Türkei und Europa/ The Armenian Genocide, Turkey and Europe (Zürich: Chronos, 2006), 117-132; and Ebru: Reflections of Cultural Diversity in Turkey (Istanbul: Metis, 2007).
4 — Marc Nichanian has brilliantly elaborated this critique of proof. See, for example, David Kazanjian and Marc Nichanian, “Between Genocide and Catastrophe,” in Loss: The Politics of Mourning, eds. David L. Eng and David Kazanjian (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 133; Nichanian, “Catastrophic Mourning,” in Loss, 99-124; and Nichanian, The Historiographic Perversion (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009).
5 — J. L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words, second edition (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975).

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