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The South Atlantic Quarterly 102.2/3 (2003) 629-645

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Belated Modernity and Modernity As Belatedness in Tutunamayanlar

Suna Ertugrul

This essay explores the possibilities of a reading of belated modernity in Oguz Atay's The Disconnected [Tutunamayanlar]. 1 Atay, an engineer by training and a professor at Istanbul Technical University, wrote his first novel, The Disconnected, in a relatively late period in his life. Before his death, seven years after the publication of The Disconnected, he finished another novel, Tehlikeli Oyunlar [Dangerous games], a collection of short stories, Korkuyu Beklerken [Waiting for fear], and a play, Oyunlarla Yasayanlar [Living with games]. In a very short time, as if pressed by death, Atay broke the literary taboos of the 1970s cultural milieu in Turkey, shattered the narrow frames of discussion about the uses of art, and allowed the Turkish language to find the possibilities of expressing the distress of modern existence.

The Origin of Modernity and the Question of Cultural Identity

Oguz Atay's works are about the question of cultural identity in the sense that Dostoyevsky articulated at the end of the nineteenth century: Who are the Russians? What is the essence of a [End Page 629] Russian? At the turn of the century this question was also James Joyce's when he asked what it means to be Irish. Atay repeated the same gesture when he set out to write the great novel on "the spirit of the Turks." As in the works of Joyce and Dostoyevsky, the question of cultural identity and cultural difference is brought about and marked by a certain relation of belatedness vis-á-vis Western modernity and opens up the question of the limits of the modern project as such.

What happens in this experience of belatedness? What does it mean to be in a position of lack and imitation—that is, to be in a nonposition that prompts the question of identity in the first place? What happens to the self when it has lost the ground on which it interprets the world and is torn between two worlds without really belonging to either one? What happens when the traces of the old world still linger, while the new one violently takes over with its absolutely different configurations of the meaning of the human and the sacred? How does one respond to this suspension of the present, which does not offer a project of future?

However, this experience of the "loss of world" is not specifically belated modernity's problem, but belongs to the essence of modernity as such. What we call modern is essentially an experience of the loss of origin, the loss of the transcendental structure that guarantees the meaning of the human sojourn on earth. 2 The modern epoch is opened up simultaneously as the absence of origin and an attempt to ground it at the level of subjectivity. 3 In this sense modernity is always belated vis-á-vis itself. 4

What in fact gets revealed in the experience of belatedness is the "unthought" origin of the modern project. The experience of belatedness is not being late to a historically determined essence; it is the recurrence of the essential lack of ground that defines the modern project. In its most radical expression, the experience of belatedness is the infinite "repetition" of this lack/loss without being able to turn it into a project of grounding. That is, to experience belatedness as an epochal destiny. I would claim that this radical experience of belatedness is at the same time an experience of the limits of the modern project.

The End of Modernity/The Closure of Metaphysics of Presence

When we formulate the question of modernity in terms of the crisis of ground that created an epochal turn in our relation to the world and things, [End Page 630] we can safely assume that there is no outside to modernity in the sense of native and aboriginal traditions, or non-Western narratives that can open up the possibilities of an outside or alternative to Eurocentric modernity. Insofar as these discourses are...


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