Review of Sacrificial Limbs: Masculinity, Disability, and Political Violence in Turkey. Salih Can Açiksöz, Oakland: University of California Press, 2020, 272 pp.

Reviewed Book

Sacrificial Limbs: Masculinity, Disability, and Political Violence in Turkey. Salih Can Açiksöz, Oakland: University of California Press, 2020, 272 pp.

Anchored in three years of fieldwork in Istanbul with two organizations that advocate for injured Turkish veterans, Salih Can Açiksöz’s Sacrificial Limbs: Masculinity, Disability, and Political Violence in Turkey traces the emergence of fervent nationalist sentiment and action, showing how nationalism is shaped by deeply gendered national myths and practices of sovereign violence, as well as public culture. Açiksöz’s historically deep and culturally vibrant unfolding of the way vernaculars of heteropatriarchy continually rearticulate with emergent nationalisms in embodied and affectively charged ways has particularly wide relevance in our current moment, when far-right movements come to ascendency in increasingly fragile democracies around the world (including, of course, the United States, where many of us and our students live). And in the best aspirations of anthropology, these broadly applicable lessons emerge out of a carefully specified world—in this case, Turkey of the early 2000s.

The ethnography unfolds in a Turkey still emerging from a moratorium on public forms of collective political engagement that followed the military coup in 1980. This is a state undergoing rapid transformations in projects of national self-making. These, we learn, are largely dramatized through a shifting “distribution of the sensible” (Rancier 2004), that factish assemblage through which common sense is delimited, thus rendering alternative accounts unspeakable or nonsensical. For example, Açiksöz explains that while the Kurdish conflict has existed as a formative aspect of the Turkish nation state since its founding in 1923, it was literally publicly unspeakable until the official acknowledgment of the existence of Kurdish people in 1991. Such events unfurl amid the decades-long military operations against Kurdish forces in the country’s mountainous southeast, an area known by the polyvalent term “the region” and figured through gendered romantic and quasi-mystical ideals of the transformative crucible of combat.

Açiksöz artfully and accessibly (even for readers not familiar with Turkey) unfolds this political history, as well as the longer story of Turkey’s martial mythos and its related Islamic vernacular of national sacrifice, throughout the text rather than in a single historical context chapter. This allows readers to appreciate the continued relevance and reinvention of history, delicately balancing the importance of historical and political rupture and continuity to the conditions of the present. The result is a historically, politically, and socioculturally deep appreciation of the way that bodies of injured Turkish veterans, particularly amputees, are made central to emerging right-wing ultranationalist populism that marks an increasingly normative political position throughout the first decade of the 2000s in Turkey.

The book shows how a shifting military strategy, marshaling the public imaginary to its cause, works through the soldier body not only to do its bidding on the mountains, but as a cypher. As the injured soldier body becomes a political symbol in new ways, so, too, are medical infrastructures transformed to help enact its new significance. This has the effect of creating both literal and imaginative spaces within which veterans can, and do, come to understand their individual trauma as generational, collective, and political. Resonating with other work about the politicization of injuries and illnesses during war, Sacrificial Limbs thus also shows the emergence of biological citizenship as certain kinds of injuries—particularly amputations that result from mountain patrols or other operations in the Kurdish conflict—acquire new social and institutional designations and, dialectically, become the catalyst for collective identity among the injured. This biological citizenship is looped through new deployments of the term gazi, an originally Islamic honorific whose shifting significance into a term for injured soldiers doubles as an account of the Turkish–Islamic synthesis. As amputations become symbolically and politically charged in new ways, the prosthetics that supplement them become political substances. New practices of public politics emerge, anchored in the prosthetics themselves, such as when veterans doff their prosthetics in public to expose their sacrifices and demand recompense within the sacrificial economy, or when political critique takes the form of news stories about loan companies repossessing veterans’ costly prosthetic limbs. 

While analyses of an embodied sacrificial economy are standard in ethnographies of injured soldiers, Açiksöz extends such discussions by attending to the gendered specificity of the logic of sacrifice, a specificity that is also inflected by Turkish Islamic tradition. Thus, while the lightly worn theoretical armature of the book (e.g., Benjamin, Girard, Deleuze, and Guattari) is of the sort that tends to assume a universal subject, the theories of embodiment, gender, and disability that emerge from the ethnography itself escape such universalizing. Both on the question of national sacrifice and on the particularities of disability stigma, the book deftly conveys Turkish specificity without resorting to spectacles of cultural difference. This is no doubt a partial reflection of Açiksöz’s own positionality, which he addresses in the book’s preface.

Not only is Açiksöz a male Turkish citizen subject to mandatory military service requirements, but over the years between the start of his fieldwork and the writing of the book, he was charged and then acquitted of draft dodging, conscripted into basic training, and found himself implicated within the increasingly violent ultranationalist demonstrations organized by some of his fieldwork interlocutors that targeted some of his favorite journalists and intellectuals. His reflection on this positionality, both in the preface and in the later chapters of the book, addresses research ethics in contexts of political violence and takes seriously both the value of and moral and political ambiguity of fieldwork with far-right movements. An epilog focuses primarily on the breakneck speed with which the political terrain in Turkey shifted after the attempted coup in 2016. Together with the preface, which also reflects on the way that fieldwork does not always have such a clear entry and exit, especially when we research worlds that already claimed us before we began, these pieces of the book ask us to think about ethnographic temporalities—the problem of the ethnographic present, the relationship of history and the contemporary, the challenge of ethnography as a history of the present, and the inevitable process of bracketing, or cutting, that is necessarily part of the always partial accounts that we give. These are perennial questions in the field, and they take on new life framed here not so much as artifacts of colonial ways of knowing, but as part of the broader more Benjaminian dilemma of attuning oneself to a living present activated by its own historical conjuncture.     

The book is equally a work of political anthropology and medical anthropology and would easily be at home in upper-level undergraduate or graduate courses about either subject. With its careful attention to the sociocultural and political, and the embodiment of disabled masculinity, the book is also an exemplary contribution to the burgeoning field of disability anthropology, and one that clearly demonstrates how work on disability can push medical anthropology to attend to the political in new ways. 

Reference Cited

Ranciere, J. 2004. The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible. London: Continuum.