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The South Atlantic Quarterly 102.2/3 (2003) 351-379

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The Historical Fantasy of the Modern

Meltem Ahıska

A place on the map is also a place in history.

—Adrienne Rich, "Notes toward a Politics of Location"

One who goes too far East,
Because of geography arrives in the West,
The reverse is also true.

—Ece Ayhan, Yort Savul

Europe has been an object of desire as well as a source of frustration for Turkish national identity in a long and strained history. Turkey, who has long been trying to be a member of Europe, 1 regarded 2002 as an especially critical year in its relations with the European Union (EU). Hoping to be given a date for "negotiations" for full membership at the end of the year, the Turkish government concentrated its effort to initiate legislative reforms concerning human rights. Although the political target of full membership to Europe found support in most segments of the society, the enthusiasm was nevertheless shadowed by a doubt whether Europe or "the West" would at last accept Turkey's self-consciously crafted Western identity. It turned out that the anxiety was not without reason. In December 2002, the EU leaders' meeting came [End Page 351] to the conclusion that "if the European Council in December 2004, on the basis of a report and a recommendation from the Commission, decides that Turkey fulfills the Copenhagen political criteria, the European Union will open accession negotiations with Turkey without delay." 2 The ambiguity of the "if" condition is causing further debates in Turkey as to the possible reasons of this recurring "delay." The debates take new shades given that a pro-Islamic party has been in government since November 2002. However, instead of analyzing the trajectory of the debates, I would like to focus on the year 2002 when both the hopes and the anxieties concerning membership in the EU found significant social and cultural expressions, which I find relevant to my discussion of Occidentalism in this article.

One of the striking themes that emerged in the pro-European campaigns emphasizing the urgency of accomplishing the required legislative reforms in 2002 echoes the persisting anxiety over the possibility of finally "catching the train" 3 of modern civilization. I remember seeing a comic strip in one of the popular comic magazines in Turkey years ago that brilliantly captures and mocks the train metaphor. The comic strip shows a "typically" dressed Kurdish man lazily sitting in a forlorn train station looking at a "typically" Western-style dressed young woman waiting for the train with a big suitcase. He says, "The last train has long gone, Miss. So, marry me." The message is clear: The train metaphor is functional to deploy the desire for a Western future embodied in the figure of a Western-looking woman, yet the present is the problem-stricken Turkey unable to deal with its Kurdish or other ethnic-identity problems. Instead of concentrating on the present problems and their solutions, the hegemonic imaginary looks beyond the present with the aid of an already-late and always-postponed ideal. 4 Despite the apparent emphasis on movement and speed best exemplified in the metaphor of "catching the train" before it is too late, I argue that there is a certain temporal stasis, even timelessness involved in the way the EU was perceived in public discussions in 2002. As I discuss later, "speed" is symptomatic of a much earlier condition of modernity in Turkey, which urges one to think that the emphasis on speed has nothing to do with movement, but rather is static.

My aim in this article is neither to discuss the specific case of the EU membership of Turkey in its highly contested political and economic aspects, nor to dwell on its long and frustrating history. Instead, I point at the temporal constructions of modernity appropriated in discussing the EU [End Page 352] as part of a larger historical framework in order to elaborate the conception and experiencing of modernity in Turkey in relation to "the West." The "present" cannot simply...


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pp. 351-379
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Archived 2004
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