“The question is rather if it is possible for disciplines as institutions to carve out a place that is truly anti-authoritarian” – 5in10 with Önder Çelik
Önder Çelik received his PhD in Anthropology from Johns Hopkins University with a dissertation entitled “Life Underground: Hunting for Armenian Treasure in the Post-Genocide Landscape.” His work explores the material and temporal dimensions constituted by the practices of dispossessed young Kurdish men searching for valuable objects believed to be buried by the victims of the Armenian genocide. He is currently (2022/23) a EUME Fellow funded by the Fritz Thyssen Foundation and affiliated with the Institut für Europäische Ethnologie of Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin.
How would you explain your research to someone who is not an expert?
Objects have histories, something few people would disagree with. Take the example of a can of coke and think of the various histories of sugar addiction, aluminum mining, capitalism, marketing, and the US domination that come with it. In that vein, the object that my work centers around, that is gold believed to be buried by victims of the Armenian genocide, opens a door to explore other histories of the past and present. By this, I mean, it does not only provide us a ground to explore the denied histories of the genocide but also to take a look at what drives people to take such endeavors in present times. There are also portals that this hunt for treasure and all objects constituting it (from metal detectors to treasure maps) open towards anticipated or unexpected futures. So my research can be seen, I think, as an attempt to understand the relations between things and time in the context of the memory of the Armenian genocide in Turkish Kurdistan.
What intrigued you when you started your academic journey?
To put it generally, it was the curiosity to understand why certain phenomena come into being while certain others do not. Why do the Kurds not have a state, for instance? In that sense, I was intrigued by the genealogical method. I believe that what drives people into academic research is less about finding answers to one or a couple of specific questions that bug them but rather a general mindset towards the world. And in this critical and questioning approach towards what surrounds us, some questions become more pressing than others. Obviously, this is not independent from personal backgrounds and experiences.
What were formative encounters or challenges?
There is no way that I can do justice to all the people that made my research possible here. But I can say that the most formative encounters that I’ve had were with two particular people, namely, Veena Das and Bruce Grant. Veena Das was my dissertation advisor and I learned from her what it is to think and write anthropologically. Bruce Grant was a member of my dissertation committee but he technically mentored me as a co-advisor throughout my doctoral training. From him I learned a lot on how to conduct ethnographic fieldwork and the relationship between the factual and conceptual. As for challenges, for me, there was the challenge of learning that one is accountable of his or her words and one should use language with care and caution. This was a big challenge for me, particularly to find a voice that is neither sensationalist nor self-pitying in writing about the genocide and the Kurds.
What do you consider to be the role of the humanities and social sciences in times of upheaval, fragmented publics, and authoritarian transgressions?
This is a hard one to answer. Because the immediate answer that would come to anyone’s mind, well I hope so at least, that social sciences and humanities should take a more proactive stance and disciplines should produce scholarship in an anti-authoritarian fashion. There are definitely a lot of scholars who do so all around the world. But the question is not about individuals. The question is rather if it is possible for disciplines as institutions to carve out a place that is truly anti-authoritarian? I actually am not sure. In the end, universities, research institutes, and various other public and private institutions run on money. They have to secure funds to run projects and pay their researchers. This question of financial infrastructure displaces the anti-authority heroism of social sciences into more delicate and subtle grounds.
What book, article, film, exhibition or song would you recommend, and why?
Definitely, Animal from the Ark Brothers. It is a short film on borders, humanity/animality, and clandestine migration. It gives quite a strong picture of what one has to go through or transform into as a migrant.
Citation: “The question is rather if it is possible for disciplines as institutions to carve out a place that is truly anti-authoritarian” – 5in10 with Önder Çelik, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 24.01.2023, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/44866