Sacrificial Limbs

Sacrificial Limbs: Masculinity, Disability and Political Violence in Turkey, by Salih Can Açıksöz (Oakland: University of California Press, 2020).

Reviewed by Çağrı Yoltar, Koc University

The honorific term gazi has a significant place in right-wing politics in Turkey as a key symbol of Turkish nationalism and Islamism. Historically a title associated with Muslim warriors and Ottoman and Turkish sovereigns, it has gained a renewed visibility in everyday life and politics since the 1990s, when the Turkish state began to bestow this title on disabled veterans returning from the counterinsurgency war in Kurdistan. As the war’s toll rose, thousands of young, lower-class men who were badly wounded during their mandatory military service ended up joining the ranks of the gazis, and their injured lives and honored status would go on to become an important point of nationalist rhetoric and action. In Sacrificial Limbs, Salih Can Açıksöz takes his readers deep into the world of Turkey’s contemporary gazis, chronicling diverse aspects of their lives – from their memories of war and traumatic experiences of injury, to their everyday struggles in the intimacy of their homes, at healthcare institutions, at work, and on the streets. Traversing disabled veterans’ social and political networks, Açıksöz lays bare a dangerously fragile masculinity and its constitutive interactions with state sovereignty, neoliberal governmentality, and ultranationalist politicization.

Although Turkish veterans’ political activism constitutes a central topic of the book, Sacrificial Limbs is not a typical story of right-wing mobilization. Açıksöz’s account is unique in that it advances a solid narrative of Turkish veterans’ lower- and working-class experiences without minimizing the role of extra-economic dynamics in their politicization, and without asserting economic determination in the last instance (the all-too common Althusserian move in studies of right-wing social movements). While loss of income distinguishes these mostly blue-collar men’s experiences of injury and its effects, and this loss intensifies their precarity and makes them dependent on welfare, this is only part of the story. Sacrificial Limbs situates the experiences of disabled veterans at the nexus where neoliberal economy interacts with heteropatriarchy and regimes of ability. The book’s elegant ethnography helps the reader understand these young men’s predicaments, experienced as, for example, dependency and demasculinization as a result of receiving welfare, losing breadwinner status or the “ability” to marry.

Injury, as the marker of veterans’ sacrifices, is another recurrent theme in the book. However, Sacrificial Limbs significantly diverges from medical or psychiatric accounts that stress the phantom effects and traumatic recurrence of injury at an individual level. Placing the analytical focus on sacrifice (instead of trauma), Açıksöz not only refrains from psychologizing veterans’ political subjectivities but also provides insight into the making and remaking of a symbolic universe and how veterans give meaning to, relate to, reli(e)ve their suffering from, or obtain power from their injuries. For instance, walking the reader through the Turkish metropolis’s gecekondu neighborhoods (slums) where many veterans live, Açıksöz brings Kurdish and leftist political slogans painted on the walls to the reader’s attention. Pointing to these neighborhoods’ ideological and ethnic diversity and the widespread presence of anti-establishment mobilization in them, Açıksöz explains how these slogans often trigger disabled veterans, evoking their memories of counterinsurgency, war and injury. Their ordinary urban experiences are haunted by a sense of uncertainty, danger, and fear. Açıksöz refrains however from establishing an immediate causal relationship between veterans’ war trauma and their ultranationalist politicization. Instead, the book directs the reader’s attention to the post-injury social lives and relations of the veterans, and Açıksöz takes care to explore the diverse social worlds the veterans participate in, including peer groups formed both within and outside military hospitals, formal and informal gazi associations and consanguineal, affinal, and fictive kinship relations. He thus unravels the entangled social processes by which veterans’ injuries take on conflicting meanings, either as lost limbs signifying an acute impairment or as sacrifices that generate power. Foregrounding this tension between the disabled veterans’ experiences of intense vulnerability and the mythicized gazi figure as a potent symbol of sacrifice, sovereignty and masculinity, Sacrificial Limbs offers a sophisticated analysis of the gendered, classed, racial and ableist aspects of contemporary far-right mobilization in Turkey.

Because Açıksöz emphasizes that rhetorics and practices of sacrifice can restore sovereign power (to the state and to individual masculine bodies), this book makes a compelling anthropological counterpoint to Georgio Agamben’s theory of sovereignty and the homo sacer as a key figure of power over life. The ethnographic example of the honored gazi and his sacrificial ties to sovereignty enables Açıksöz to demonstrate how “[t]he production of some bodies as homo sacer always depends on the sacralization of others in the name of whom the former can be rendered killable” but not sacrificable (p.10). The book, therefore, highlights the ambivalent relationship between sacrifice and sovereignty through the opposing figures of homo sacer and gazi. In light of this, one starts to wonder how the gazi would articulate with another figure introduced by Agamben in Homo Sacer, namely, the surviving devotee who “consecrates his own life to the gods of the underworld” and who, surviving his death, “is excluded from both the profane world and the sacred world” (as Agamben writes in Homo Sacer, pp. 109-110). Such articulation with a wider range of figures may contribute to the theorization of the disabled veterans’ predicament and shed further light on what Açıksöz reminds us is the “’gray zone’ where the distinction and boundaries between perpetrator and victim, sacred and profane, hero and abject get puzzlingly blurred” (p. 2-3).

Sacrificial Limbs weaves an extremely well-written and caring ethnography with important theoretical insights. It is a must-read for those interested in contemporary political dynamics in Turkey and the Middle East. The book would also appeal to scholars who are interested specifically in militarism, far-right populism, masculinity, disability, and sovereignty. It is no surprise that this elegant ethnography has won several prestigious book awards including the 2021 New Millennium Book Award by the Society of Medical Anthropology and 2020 Fatema Mernisi Award by MESA (Middle Eastern Studies Association). It is highly recommended to political anthropologists.