“One Unique You”: Affective Attachments and DNA-Testing as Ethnotechnological Apparatus
(Accepted by Social Text)
by Deanna Cachoian-Schanz and Dr. Katia Schwerzmann
1.2 DNA-Testing: Staging the Apparatus
“Hi, we’re 23andMe. We’re all about real science, real data and genetic insights that positively impact people’s lives.” So reads the promotional material on the homepage of 23andMe, the personal genomics and biotechnology company launched in Silicon Valley in 2006. As of December 2020, the company has been valued at $2.5 billion, and is supported by a host of endogenous investors ranging from Google parent-company Alphabet Inc., the British multinational pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline, the primarily technology-investment American venture capital company Sequoia Capital, and a host of others. 23andMe is just one of several human genomics companies like Ancestry.com and Myheritage.com, which promise similar direct-to-consumer genetic information. To get it, the companies instruct the consumer to follow the simple directions of an at-home kit: spit into a tube and send your saliva back for analysis. “Your DNA reveals your unique heritage—the ethnic groups and geographic regions you originate from,” explains Myheritage.com, which then tempts to “reveal your ethnicity & ancestry.” Ancestry.com takes a sensationalist approach: “Would you dare to question who you really are?” provokes a June 2016 YouTube advertisement, followed by the solution, “Uncover your origins.” 23andMe opts for a more imperative stance, promising to provide information that will lead to a greater sense of the consumer’s self-possession: “Know your genes. Own your health. Know what makes you, you.”
Each company assumes a different marketing slant: some focus on matching customers with potential relatives while others, like 23andMe, emphasize the prediction of health-risks and personality traits based on association studies. For the round-figure of $100, coupled with the access to scientific technology and the most personalized molecular data of their customers, companies like 23andMe and Ancestry.com rhetorically situate consumers as subjects yet-to-be-decoded, who would benefit from genomics to know themselves more intimately. Ultimately, the promise of genomics companies teeters upon a foundational tension that is central to this critique. On the one hand, these companies render increasingly differentiated, hyper-individualized subjects: due to your genome, you are “one unique you,” promised to be in full knowledge and possession of that identity. At the same time, the companies also implicitly promise that the consumer will gain a sense of collective belonging to one or more “ethnicities,” tied to their respective geographies of origin. Though seemingly competing promises, their unwavering logic is based on the understanding that DNA-testing renders an individual’s identity as quantifiable, discrete and reified through ethnoracial categories. Based on the interpretation of DNA as an algorithm producing life as its output, human beings are construed as a book, written through the combination of four letters to be decoded by multi-billion dollar biotech companies. What’s more, decoding this book promises to illuminate what human beings “are” in terms of ethnoracial identities.
But why “ethnoracial,” and not just “ethnicity” or “race”? By “ethnoracial,” we signal the specific way in which private genomics companies discursively substitute the term “ethnicity” for “race,” while simultaneously relying on technologies of racialization that construe and (re)produce human differences as biological. Thus, what we are interested in presently is how these genomics companies perform—i.e. interpret, produce and thus iteratively affirm—a new version of racial science that relies on a neoliberal take on identity politics. While the language of “race” risks signaling the eugenics projects or Jim Crowe of old, “ethnicity” does not carry the same historical baggage. Indeed, the literature in social sciences and cultural anthropology generally describes the use of ethnicity as a result of moving away from categorizing people through biological markers towards characterizing them through cultural differences—be it shared tradition, history, language, or religion. However, more often than not, the term “ethnicity” is used without a consistent definition, and instead functions as a floating signifier that bridges the gap between the supposedly biological dimension of race and the cultural aspects that allow for the subdivision of a population into groups. In tracing the usage of the term, we notice an evolution in the way “ethnicity” is employed and deployed by private genomics companies towards biologization. While it is our goal to understand this evolution further, for now, let us retain that the language of “ethnicity”––tied to a sense of ancestry, cultural heritage or geographic origins—comes to substitute “race”in the imaginary promulgated by private genomics companies. However, while this “ethnic” imaginary is read and marketed in terms of culture, genomics companies purport to inscribe biology into culture (or the other way around) by tracing and reporting a customer’s cultural heritage through their biogenetic information. “Ethnicity,” then, is just another—and admittedly more innocuous—marker of “race.” This is what we designate here by “ethnoracial.”
Race, this time without scare quotes—i.e., taken outside of the false opposition between biology and culture—functions for us here as a technology. As such, race is not the signifier for either biological or cultural differences, as “[r]ace […] has never been simply biological or cultural; rather, it has been crucial to negotiating and establishing historically variable definitions of biology and culture.” For our purposes, race refers to “material-discursive” practices of difference-making that entangles institutions, laws, and science by way of technology. Taken as a technology, race is a material-discursive process that performatively produces, and constantly re-institutes and patrols the borders of bodies and geographies, in addition to these bodies’ geographic and social mobilities.
While the technology of DNA-testing is intimately tied to a long history of procedures of racialization—and in fact repeats, in new ways, the same racializing tropes—the apparatus of DNA-testing is both novel and specific in that it produces the subject of global capitalism as ethnoracial. Following this, we name the apparatus of DNA-testing as “ethnotechnological.” By “ethnotechnology,” we mean the specific case of the entanglement of rhetorical and technological procedures of ethnoracialization through genetics.
The technology that produces this new kind of racialization is complex. The results of the decoded DNA communicated to consumers are first of all constructed based on a dataset whose categories are the product of self-narration. In order to be able to categorize a large consumer base’s random saliva samples, companies rely on a group of initial testing subjects who are asked to self-identify based on what they know about their ancestors and geographic origins. What become the control groups for eventual ethnoracial categories are based on self-narration. Subjects who form control groups provide first-person accounts of their ancestry based upon a variety of factors: their ancestors’ reported geographic location, their kinships, or the sociocultural structures that are assumed to be common to certain geographic areas. Genomics companies then draw the lines around what they consider as forming a distinctive population, which presupposes excluding factors like population movements that may compromise the “purity” of the data. As if this need be reminded, geographies are discursively produced, as 23andMe admits in its documentation: “Most country-level populations overlap to some degree, though. In those cases, we experimented with different groupings of country-level populations to find combinations that we could distinguish with high confidence.”
Once the control groups that constitute a dataset are formed and named, genetic commonalities are identified in them through pattern recognition. Yet, as is obvious by even a cursory look at the following graph by 23andMe, what constitutes a population is murky, to say the least; and drawing boundaries and naming them remains at the discretion of genomics companies.
In effect, genetic commonalities construct the foundational roadmaps for algorithmic processing, as algorithms are programmed to sift individual test-samples through the database in order to trace and pinpoint the percentages of a consumer’s genetic similarities to one or more of the company’s listed ethnic categories. Accompanied by the visual of a world map, the results of the DNA-test have the potential to redraw the cartographies of a consumer’s belongings. Thus, the apparatus of DNA-testing is threefold: the material-discursive technology that processes and shapes the gathered data—and, by extension, the bodies tied to and shaped by this data; the narratives that inhabit the structure of the dataset; and finally, the visual and rhetorical staging of the results.
1.2 Two Sides of the Same Coin: Capitalizing on Affective Attachments and Datafying Ethnoracial Identity for Value Extraction
Starting with the apparatus of DNA-testing that produces ethnoracial differences and identities, this study articulates two layers of analysis: first, the capitalization on affective attachments to “cultural” structures of belonging and kinship that genomics companies biologize as they offer ethnoracial identities; and second, the datafication of this ethnoracial identity for extractive purposes. The implications of this analysis must be understood in the interdependence of these two layers.
The first layer reconstructs the production of an ethno-subject anchored in the racialization of DNA. This racialization takes place in two steps. First, “race” is naturalized and biologized anew through the technological procedure of DNA decoding and data comparison. Second, “race” is reculturalized through its rhetorical substitution with “ethnic” categories. This step is crucial, as it enables the neutralization of the politically anti-liberal connotations of the rebiologization or “molecularization” of race—to take on Nadia Abu El-Haj’s formulation.
In the description above, our aim is not to question the existence of differences in human DNA per se. In themselves, these differences do not say anything beyond stating the obvious fact of genetic heterogeneity and human migration. Historically, however, human biological differences have never been left uninterpreted by science. Thus, what we seek to draw attention to is the way these differences are coded by genomics companies, in other words, how these companies draw maps, delineate boundaries, select categories, construct ethnoracial identities, and then sell them to consumers. In associating data extraction, pattern recognition, self-narration, and diagrammatic presentation, genomics companies seek to profit from a globalized subject who is affectively attached to their geographic, cultural, and national origins often as the result of historical dispossession. In effect, genomics companies “bank” on subjects’ affective attachments to their familial and national narratives—connected to their identity and history—to substitute them with another kind of attachment: the attachment to their ethnoracial identity, qua DNA, as that which they “own” as their most proper property. Here, property must be understood in its two senses: as that which supposedly characterizes the subject proper, and as that which is owned by the subject at the exclusion of others. And, as might be imaginable, affective attachment to identity is messy: while on the one hand this attachment consists of the desire to be an irreplaceable, irreducible, non-fungible individual with an essence that cannot be dispossessed, simultaneously, it is also characterized by a longing to possess the “scientific” and thus supposedly inalienable assurance of belonging to a collective.
Layer two connects the biologization of “ethnicity” to processes of value extraction and biopolitical techniques of surveillance. The implications of these developments can be understood through the directions taken by DNA datafication both in terms of surveying and surveilling. DNA information is more often than not sold to pharmaceutical companies as anonymized data or used for medical research—what we call “surveying.” It is also made accessible to state authorities in order “to comply with a valid court order, subpoena, or search warrant for genetic or Personal Information”—what we designate as “surveilling.”
Important to note in this second layer is the question of the modulation of an individual’s access—to countries and services—enabled by their biological datafication. Access, here, relates to the question of how boundaries are drawn, who draws them, and how porous they are depending on the characteristics of an individual’s biological data. As a result, this kind of analysis allows us to theorize on the redrawing of the borders of bodies and lands for all individuals, but especially for those deemed undesirable, that is, the conceptual “Others,” whose differences are reified through DNA tests. What follows, then, is an attempt to define the contours of this new ethnoracial subject in the context of the confluence of globalized Capital and biopolitics.
Spartanly outlined for now, the layers described above constitute two sides of the same coin: the promise of genomics companies to offer an individual the ability to be in full possession and knowledge of “who they are” goes hand-in-hand with the extraction of their DNA for surveying and surveilling purposes. Without one’s affective attachment to structures of belonging and the need to tend to one’s wounded, dispossessed self, what is the reason to willfully give up one’s most personal information in the effort of “recovery” and, what is more, to pay $100 for it? The capitalist ethnotechnological apparatus of value extraction is at the same time the one offering self-possession against monetary compensation. Let us now look at the apparatus in action.
2. Ellaha’s Journey: The Rhetoric of Genomics Companies
“Ellaha’s Journey”: A young woman with long, curly brown hair and olive skin wearing a jean jacket joins two people her senior—an ostensibly “white” woman and man; the educated, corporate types—across a table. This is the beginning of a video campaign by the travel fare metasearch platform Momondo in partnership with the genomics company Ancestry.com, launched in 2016. The camera zooms in slowly from behind the two older interlocutors onto the young woman’s face. “Hello,” she smiles a bit anxiously, sitting across from them. “It’s Ellaha, is it?” asks the female interviewer in an unemotive voice with a British accent. Though the interviewers’ faces are not yet visible, the viewer can hear that the older woman is cautious to pronounce her interviewee’s unfamiliar (“ethnic”) name. A subtle brown noise fills the audioscape in lieu of the interviewers introducing themselves as the credits roll and the camera begins to pan in with a dramatic calm, ever-closer towards Ellaha’s face. Ellaha goes on to describe herself to her interviewers: she is originally from Kurdistan, but arrived in Denmark from Iran as a political refugee, along with her parents and siblings, when she was six years old. The political circumstances of her arrival are not explained; they are merely an appendage to Ellaha’s constitution as a Kurd. Another camera cut: a close-up of Ellaha, who’s now sharing a family album and the wedding photos of her parents, contextualizing for her interviewers the traditional dress they donned in what she describes as a traditional Kurdish wedding. As proof of her Kurdishness is rendered through the display of the heteropatriarchal family that produced her, the camera pans for the first time to the face of the female interviewer: a woman with straight, strawberry blonde hair, white skin beginning to wrinkle, and black, rectangular glasses that perch low on the bridge of her nose. With the unaffected gaze of the objective sociologist, the woman peers over her frames and asks Ellaha with visible skepticism, “So how much of your family background do you think is Kurdish?” Ellaha responds immediately, “Um, I hate that question!” As her interviewers look on silently with heads posed to either side, Ellaha, visibly uncomfortable, attempts to navigate the highly politicized terrain of her response: “The Kurdish people are people who’ve been…” Ellaha starts in the passive voice, yet nervously backtracks: “Oh, I have to be…” Notwithstanding the fact that her own position in the European geospace has been constituted by her status as a political refugee, Ellaha is quick to self-censure and not provide the narrative of the centuries-long political and cultural oppression of the Kurdish people which has led to many, including her own family’s, dispossession and forced relocation to the “safe-havens” of the Americas and northern Europe. Instead, exercising the values of multicultural tolerance and keeping within the bounds of political neutrality, Ellaha begins again: “We [the Kurds] don’t have a country anymore, and we haven’t had it for a long time,” she explains to her interviewers. Ellaha’s speech becomes more imperative as she looks into her interviewers’ eyes and dismisses “blood” as a measure of belonging. Instead, the grammar of collective experience and shared political history structures Ellaha’s understanding of kinship: “we are confident enough to say that we are a people of our own, even after what we have been through.”
Maintaining the position of the “objective researcher,” the female interviewer does not directly acknowledge the political landscape that has led to the oppression of the Kurdish people. Yet, with the questions that follow, she begins to indirectly give relief to the political minefield by asking Ellaha baiting questions to further instill in the viewer Ellaha’s simultaneous certainty and lack of confidence about her Kurdishness: “So your family has been through a lot, as Kurds?… And you know about that?” the researcher asks. Ellaha begins to tear. It is clear that this is a triggering question. And as Ellaha has till this point been carefully diplomatic not to implicate political oppressors on camera, the interviewer takes it upon herself, under the guise of staged ignorance, to bait Ellaha into naming, in no uncertain terms, who they might be: “Think about other countries and other nationalities in the world. Are there any that you don’t feel that you get on with well or that you wouldn’t like particularly?” Beginning to qualify her conflicting reactions as she fumbles to answer such a leading and deeply complex question without any political context provided to the viewers, Ellaha admits to her own internal conflict: though she believes in a common humanity, there is a side of her that “hates Turkish people.” Her hands rush to her face as she quickly re-qualifies, in visible shame, “Not people, but the government!”
The video cuts, and an advertisement for “Momondo, the DNA Journey,” appears in rainbow text against a black screen. After the female interviewer has staged the contours and stakes of Ellaha’s ethnoracial identification as defined by 1. heterosexual reproduction (her parents’ marriage photos), 2. “unscientific measures” of kinship like “feelings” instead of DNA, and 3. her community’s relationship to and disidentifications with its ethnic “others” (Turks), the video continues as the researchers invite Ellaha to embark on what they call a “DNA Journey.” In a neo-colonialist gesture that begins to recode Ellaha’s history in western terms, the male interviewer interjects for the first time. He proceeds to explain how the DNA test works, and asks Ellaha to spit into a tube. As if having only solicited her self-narrative in order to exhibit Ellaha’s sense of communal belonging which he will later dismantle when the test results arrive, the interviewer blankly states: “The story of you is in that tube.”
Two weeks later: Ellaha is called back into the same room. This time, there are other participants on the “DNA Journey” who are also waiting for their test results to be revealed on camera. Ellaha looks anxious. She admits that the confidence with which she originally had described her ethnic and political subjectivity and belonging—that had pivoted so much on the collective experience of her family and community—has been unsettled in the face of taking the DNA test. “I’m maybe in a bit of a conflict, somehow,” she explains. “What the heck is Kurdish? And how do I tell people that I am Kurdish?” It is painful to watch her shaken sense of self: having reflected over the course of two weeks, she has been coerced by the new terms of identification that the researchers had earlier proposed: the importance of genetics over other structures of kinship and belonging. Ellaha begins to tear, and at this moment, the male interviewer rides in on his white horse. As if dismantling his tacit reinforcement of DNA-based identity, he emptily reassures, “It doesn’t matter what that bit of paper says, you’re still Ellaha, right? You’re still you.” His rhetorical question further seeds doubt in her sense of self. “Maybe,” he adds, the test will “tell you just a little bit more about you.”
Ellaha opens her results from a sealed envelope. Her body trembles as if already intuiting that, as a stateless Kurd, “science,” like geopolitics, is also about to disavow her. Ellaha reads her results aloud: “79% from Iran and Caucasus…” She looks at the researchers: “Which was Turkish?,” she sheepishly asks as an aside, relinquishing all knowledge production to the scientists. They answer yes, despite their ignorance and gross historical inaccuracy. She reads on: “…Jewish, European Jewish,” and laughs heartily.
2.1 The Compression of Racial Taxonomies: Beyond “Race” towards Ethnicity
The connections among the ideological logics of “race” from past to present take on salient urgency in an analysis of the pluralities of the structurally covert racialized grammar distilled on DNA-testing company interfaces. Uncannily renewing the medieval idioms of what Geraldine Heng terms “religious race,” DNA-testing companies conflate, substitute and then recode a centuries-long multitude of equivocal taxonomies that come to signify “race.” Indeed, DNA-testing companies, read through Balibar, “are not mystical heredity theorists, but ‘realist’ technicians” of the social body. For instance, as of March 2021, 23andMe groups people’s DNA by taxonomies whose logics are as diverse as 1. Religion: the “Coptic Egyptian;” 2. Geographic regions: “Anatolian” or “Eastern European;” 3. Whole swaths of continents: “South America”; 4. the nation—“Italian,” “French,” “German;” or 5. Anthropology: “African hunter-gatherer.” While it is easy to lose oneself in an endless discussion of the variegated ideological parameters of each of these identity markers, what is important to note for our analysis is that while the symbolic order of the nation is used to further instantiate the unquestioned, fixed and secure cartographies of Europe—French, Italian and German—for places in which the borders of identification and ethnonational or religious belonging are actively disputed territorially and/or corporally, more broad geographic affiliations instead of national identities are reported. For example, for a region like “Eastern Turkey” (geographically identified as Anatolia), located, as 23andMe specifies, in the nation-state of Turkey, “Turkish” is nowhere given as an ethnonational qualifier. Instead, cities in the Anatolian region are named—Van, Adana, Gaziantep—without mentioning indigenous ethnic groups—primarily Armenian and Kurdish—that have (in different times) laid claims to these politically contested border-zones. Similarly, under the anachronistic and broad category of “Iranian, Caucasian & Mesopotamian,” only officially recognized national borders are listed as legitimate geographies that might constitute national identities of belonging: “Turkey (eastern provinces),” “Armenia,” “Azerbaijan,” “Georgia,” “Iran,” “Iraq,” etc., at the not-so-curious exclusion of who are today among the largest stateless nations, the Kurds.
As we begin to grasp in “Ellaha’s Journey,” this new form of racialization through DNA-testing occurs through the two steps mentioned in the introduction. First, “races” are naturalized anew by substituting self-narration with a scientific “cosmogony” or origin narrative—to borrow Sylvia Wynter’s term—based on technical procedures of DNA comparison and pattern recognition. Second, “races” are reculturalized in order to neutralize the politically unpalatable effect of a biologization that reminds us of the most problematic “advances” of racial science in the 19th and 20th-centuries. This neutralization, marked by the linguistic turn from “race” to “ethnicity,” is the fundamental strategy of the neoliberal version of racialization. Moving away from the fixed categories of “race” and their colonial and fascist legacies to the equally abstract, yet seemingly more flexible category of “ethnicity” (tied to ancestral and geographic—not state—origins but also to cultural belonging) genomics companies surreptitiously adopt the colonial technology of race to gain and colonize new markets. For instance, in a surprising and almost perverse turn of discourse and marketing, the 23andMe website declares that “Unlike your Ancestry Composition, identity isn’t based on science. Of course, there are many ways you may choose to identify with your Chinese ancestry, and this sampling of aesthetics, flavors, and traditions may inspire you.” 23andMe readily offers to “explore your ancestry through Airbnb,” enticing clients in possession of the right passports to travel to those far off places to which they are connected through genetic markers or ethnic identification.
In each instance that the rhetoric of Momondo’s video seeks to dismantle the apparent racial biases of the test-takers as they show them that their DNA results tell a story of mixed lineage and ethnicity as opposed to racial purity—implying that the test-takers would hold such a “primitive” and “uninformed” stance without the enlightening ethnotechnological apparatus of DNA tests—the results themselves instantiate racial biases through their presentation. In Ellaha’s case, the educated, white European elders of the DNA company question and then patronize the young woman regarding highly-politicized identity politics, bringing into question the validity of the very identity that has materially positioned Ellaha as a political refugee and subject of political persecution. Her “biases” against Turks—the reproduction of which Ellaha initially resists by carefully choosing her words—is a narrative explicitly solicited and then incited to narration by the interviewers themselves. In the absence of any historical context that might be provided to the promo video’s viewers to explain the reasons for tensions between Turks and Kurds against the backdrop of a decades if not centuries-long Turkish aggression against the Kurdish people for sovereignty and the constitution of a Kurdish state, Ellaha’s comments about “hating Turks” instead become situated as trivial racial bias that can just be “overcome” through the concept of tolerance and our common humanity—a commonality situated in our DNA.
Momondo’s operation as staged in this video relies on the idea of multiethnic origins, grounded in a genetic, thus renaturalized concept of “race” by means of an implicit shift from “race” towards (multi)ethnicity. What this rhetorical substitution masks, however, is that this highly political operation covertly reorients political and social loyalties towards a global mass-market of privatized tech companies that offer the individual a fixed hegemonic reading of their own identities while erasing political and historical subjectivities as they delegitimize shared narratives and collective experiences. At issue here is how these tests are rhetorically staged. Read as Western and bolstered by the authority of genetic “science,” the results are presented by the whitewashed universal subject who reveals to Ellaha the superficiality of her political “biases” that stem from her life and death conflicts, while these conflicts have no stakes for the interviewers. In so doing, the interviewers proceed to dismantle and depoliticize indigenous or non-western structures of kinship, patronizing Ellaha’s anger as they simplify it into banal racist prejudices from (by implication) “backwards” “ethnics” or “nationalists.” Momondo erases one technology of racialization—the category of the “national family”—and colonizes it through another: genetics and “hard science.”
2.2 Beyond Ellaha’s Case
Yet, can we generalize the very specific case of ethnoracialization in Ellaha’s “reveal” video to other contexts in which DNA tests are used? What about, for instance, the case of African Americans who attempt to recover their lost ancestry? Let us be clear: what is at stake for us here is not primarily the upsetting exhibition of gendered, neocolonial power dynamics that are exposed in Momondo’s promotional video. Nor is it about the complex history of the Kurdish-Turkish relationship, which in and of itself weaponizes “race” to commit political injustices, acts of dispossession and social inequities in the region. At stake in Ellaha’s video is the way the ethnotechnological apparatus of DNA-testing creates, proliferates, and capitalizes on an affective attachment to a biologized understanding of ethnicity. The main purpose of this capitalization on affective attachment is value extraction, which occurs either by selling DNA tests to consumers, surveying data by the scientific community, and in some cases, surveilling by the state. A genomics company like africanancestry.com that specifically caters to African Americans may now destroy the data it collects from testers after their CEO Rick Kittles began having second thoughts regarding their use in racial profiling and surveillance. However, the company still relies on the same ethnotechnological apparatus, which promotes and capitalizes on an affective attachment to structures of (lost) belonging to extract value, going as far as providing “certificates” of ethnoracial ancestry upon the further payment of $15.00:
Certainly, iterations of testing companies exist that are driven by the social justice aim of “self-exploration” and “reparation.” Their goal is to trace lost origins and familial roots after their rupture through dispossession, slavery, or genocide (to name a few). In some instances, close or distanced biological relatives—parents, siblings, grandparents, cousins, etc.—have been located and reunited. In The Social Life of DNA, Alondra Nelson describes the experience of African Americans using DNA-tests as a way of reconnecting with different regions in Africa or the tribe their ancestors supposedly came from prior to the Middle-Passage. Certainly, the types of affective attachments at work in these cases differ slightly from “Ellaha’s Journey.” While Ellaha already possesses a strong sense of cultural identity and belonging to the Kurdish people, which subsequently is brought into question yet to which she remains affectively attached, here, African Americans’ affective attachments are directed towards the recovery of a “tribe” long lost. To be sure, this poignant longing and search for one’s originary place of belonging is the effect of the violent dispossession induced by the Transatlantic Slave Trade and the subsequent history of racial marginalization and capitalist dispossession of Black people in the U.S.; in other words, as an attempt to repair a dispossessed self. Yet, whether the affective attachment hinges upon the desire to possess the knowledge of one’s unique genetic makeup more intimately, or to re-construct the knowledge of ruptured genealogies, what remains constant and profitable for genomics companies is the pliable and strategic use of a diverse range of affective attachments to identity, however construed. Thus, even though mobilized by noble aims, social justice-oriented projects equally instantiate and legitimize a biologized imaginary of ethnoracial identity and belonging. In her research on the use of racialized DNA in medical sciences, Duana Fullwiley makes a similar claim, pointing toward what one could call the pharmakon character of genomics: while its declared purpose is often to reduce or eliminate disparities and, in our case, prejudices between “races,” its effect is in fact an essentialization of race and the reiteration of racialized thinking that lead to these disparities. As a result, it becomes necessary to pose what we will leave here as an open question: in what ways, exactly, or to what extent, specifically, might social justice or “reparation” be achieved through a process that re-essentializes and re-produces racial categories that were the foundational source of dispossession? What other possibilities of repair or justice might the fixation with racialized, pseudoscientific ancestry testing foreclose?
However noble their purposes claim to be, genomics companies capitalize on and legitimize the biologization of “race” under the guise of science, while advantageously silencing the (self-)narration or discursive construction necessary to the constitution of categories structuring the dataset. What’s more, this legitimation works so well that members of populations historically victimized by the biological understanding of “races” are now positioned to buy certificates of DNA supposedly attesting to their belonging to an ethnicity, thus recursively reinforcing the essentialization of “races.”
2.3 Affective Attachments and Global Fungibility
So far, we have described two paradigms of identification in our analysis of Ellaha’s journey. The first paradigm consists of the affective attachment to kinship understood in terms of a shared culture, history, and common political destiny. It characterizes Ellaha before she starts her DNA “journey.” The second paradigm is the one offered by Momondo/Ancestry.com. It consists of the uncovering of a pluralist ethnic origin via genetic markers in the DNA. What we witness in Momondo’s video is the way in which genomics companies substitute the attachment to kinship narratives with the attachment to singularized, biologized identity. The ethnotechnological apparatus of DNA-testing operates in this case by unraveling structures of kinship and political alliances and replacing them with the ideological embrace of liberal uniqueness and, at the same time, (multi)ethnic belonging grounded in biology. This phenomenon begs the question: how can it be explained that people willingly allow genomics companies to rewrite their stories as they relinquish their most personal genetic information and family stories to them, effectively consenting to be dispossessed of both? In our estimation, this process works because of the efficacy of the longing for the singularized and “scientifically” legitimized identity and origin genomics companies promise to offer. Further, this longing exists as human beings become increasingly fungible through global Capital and the systematic dispossession of structures of belonging resulting from (neo)colonialism and diasporization. But how and why does Capital work to make individuals fungible, or replaceable?
Firstly, Capital requires en masse superfluous humans who—deprived of labor or of their ability to bargain through labor refusal because of job precarity—are matter without value, substanceless beings, waiting to be purposed. Yet, what Marx called the “surplus population”—commonly associated with the lower classes or the rejected “races” or “ethnic” minorities of society—is no longer the case. Today, fungibility is no longer solely limited to this demographic. Its boundaries continue to expand, and with the automation of labor, will continue to do so. In the global order, everyone can potentially become part of the surplus population. As Achille Mbembe explains, “Today, those who are black to their core are black without necessarily having black skin. They correspond to a kind of subaltern humanity that Capital doesn’t need and that seems to be doomed to zoning or expulsion.” Gesturing away from neoliberal identity politics and the reification of “race” as a category, Mbembe here is interested in analyzing blackness not as only skin deep, but as an objectification similar to commodity: “Movable objects, extended matter, [these human beings] have the status of that which circulates, can be invested in and expanded upon.” This objectification, while characteristic of the Black experience of slavery and colonialism, is not limited anymore to people with black skins. Blackness is the structural opposite of humanness and tends toward a universal condition. In attempting to escape the state of dispossession or in the hope to survive global fungibility and being replaced in an economy of scarcity, the individual needs to claim an irreducible identity that may set themselves apart and make them invaluable, allowing them to symbolically escape the equation of value. This is precisely what genomics companies seem to offer: an escape from global fungibility and, at the same time, a sense of ethnic belonging. They propose something that seems to be inalienable: one’s biologically based (multi)ethnic identity grounded in one’s DNA as one’s most proper property. This is of course an illusion as DNA does not belong, and has never belonged, to the sole individual: it contains the traces of all other humans and other-than-humans that came before, all now in the hands of genomics companies.
Secondly, DNA-tests instill a sense of self-ownership by offering self-knowledge and the production of hyper-individualized identities, while identification to structures of kinship—the first paradigm discussed above—has, over time, been imperiled due to generations of human migration, colonialism, deterritorialization or dispossession. As such, the desire for self-ownership through self-knowledge is highly operative, especially for people who, throughout history, have been systematically dispossessed. The dispossession of bodily sovereignty (like in the case of African Americans through enslavement and severed ties to place and families), of land sovereignty (in the case of Native Americans), or of forced emigration (like in the case of the Armenian diaspora) leads to a wounded attachment to lost origin stories. Genomics companies then promise to repair this wounded attachment with a product that in their claim can allow people to reconstruct these broken links. However, while promising a reclamation and reattachment to the self, one’s genetic history and place of belonging, this product dispossesses people of their bodies yet again when their data is now legally owned by the DNA-testing companies, is then sold to big pharma companies, or when access to them is granted to law enforcement agencies. In short, the wounded attachment caused by colonial and capitalist dispossession consequently fumbles into both a desire for an irreducible, singular self as well as a desire for structures of belonging.
Here, the “neocolonial gesture” of this apparatus is the precise moment in which global capitalism extracts value thanks to the affective attachments precipitated by a succession of colonial dispossessions. While the use of affective attachments to the production of new biologized identities and belonging is integral to consumers’ willingly offering up their genetic material to testing companies, these affects themselves do not produce value. Rather, they are a highly effective means through which value is extracted.
Through the ethnotechnological apparatus of DNA-testing, a neocolonial narrative emerges—one that combines the biopolitical governance strategies of colonial empires targeting entire populations with the capitalist logic of value extraction through datafication of the singular individual. An increasing part of humanity has become fungible, replaceable, superfluous. At the same time, one witnesses the infinite differentiation and specification of human beings who follow the line of their “molecularized” and datafied identity—an act that makes them susceptible to new groupings qua “race” and “ethnicity.” And, as would be apt of biopolitical governance strategies, it should come as no surprise that the molecularization of human life opens the possibility of targeted surveillance by the state and the private sector. This double dimension of surveying and surveilling constitutes the flipside of the capitalization on the longing of dispossessed subjects to self-possession and structures of belonging—in the present case through DNA tests. While an extensive discussion of surveying and surveilling is beyond the scope of this paper, it is essential to point towards them to avoid the impression that what is at stake in the ethnotechnological apparatus of DNA-testing is solely the way people deal with issues around personal and group identities via self-discovery, self-knowledge, and self-possession. Surveying and surveillance, indeed, are key to value extraction.
3. Surveying Bodies, Surveilling Borders
Through genetic datafication, the individual body is once again center stage in procedures of power, which marks a shift from Foucault’s analysis of biopower from the 19th century on, whose target was the management of entire populations. As Rabinow and Rose show, re-entering the domain of biological truth, “race, together with health, and in variable relations with it, has been one of the central poles in the genealogy of biopower.” However, they go on to argue that it would be “unhelpful and misleading to regard this configuration as a replay of the past, or to submerge it within some imagined global logic of biopower,” suggesting that instead it would be more generative “to identify the points where critical judgement, diagnosing new possibilities and dangers, might play a part in the direction it takes.” We wholeheartedly disagree; or, at the very least, find the reification of racial typologies in and of themselves as grounds already for disqualifying any consideration of their potential “positive” uses. In addition, the biopolitical constellation of genomics companies has perhaps changed since the time Rabinow and Rose wrote these lines in 2006. Today, the global logic of biopower and its functioning is far from an illusion. In taking a more decisively political and less descriptive stance, it is our hypothesis that the convergence of biopolitical governance and global Capital on the level of the molecularized body is characterized precisely by the confluence of private surveying in the medical, scientific and technological spheres (allowing the extraction of value out of this vast amount of gathered data) and surveilling by the state.
Surveillance, however, is not reactive anymore; it has become preemptive. It consists in excluding in advance the condition of possibility for something deemed undesirable to happen. The preemptive temporality of surveillance is insured through two strategies: first, by preventing access based on the localized or hyper-specific ethnoracial and economic position under which an individual is categorized; and second, by making this individually-specified in/accessibility invisible to the individual surveilled. Our analysis of these two strategies, while in part speculative, is informed by events unfolding at this very moment.
The first strategy of this new kind of surveillance is characterized by the individualized management and modulation of access to services (like insurance, bank credit, medical treatment) or to countries (like the management of travel and migration). This strategy relies on technologies of border-drawing. Thanks to hyper-specific ethnoracial categorizations, different borders and levels of porosity are determined for each individual. For instance, the specific health services to which an individual is granted access is today already determined by their identification to a race. Thus, it is not a stretch of the imagination to speculate that in the near future, the ethnoracial genetic make-up of an individual may determine their access to medical procedures. And, in light of former US President Trump’s collecting and archiving of the DNA of South American migrants to the United States, can we not speculate that the same may be the case for access to countries and border surveillance? States are not only managing the general migrant population trying to cross borders. Their goal—reflected by Trump’s DNA extraction project—is to surveille each and every singular migrant body, including the bodies of children who cannot legally be held responsible for illegally crossing a border, thus stressing again the inherently preemptive character of such a measure.
It is also significant that one’s genetic information is never just uniquely one’s own, as illustrated by the genomics project initiated by the Chinese state. While DNA testing companies market identifying the uniqueness of every individual genome, at the same time, an individual is also closely related to their genetic kin. While the Chinese Genomics Project has extracted the DNA of only a fraction of the male population (70 million), the information retrieved gives the state access to the DNA make-up of the entire male population (700 million). A person whose DNA has been datafied and archived also makes the genetic information of their close kin accessible and identifiable. Thus, even without their consent, the genetic information of consumers’ close relatives is shared with testing companies, as well as potentially subjected to state surveillance. A single set of DNA, then, never has just one singular implication, but instead extends to a larger set of individuals whose genetic data also contributes to the ever-growing archive of data owned by the private sector, which is accessible by the state. This is already the case in the U.S. where the police have been able to solve cold cases by comparing DNA with the databases of genomics companies. However, as opposed to China which uses DNA-testing on a state level, private tech companies spearhead genetics testing in the United States. As a result, it is the private sector that, functioning as a privatized state, begins to define the new terms of categorization for the borders of bodies and lands which are then utilized by the state. In this instance, global Capital defines the terms of states’ biopolitics in Western democracies, and has begun to infringe upon state politics in the rest of the globe. This marks a significant shift in governance from the state to the governance of global Capital, which creates the ethnotechnological tools that the state then appropriates. In the words of Tristan Harris of the Center for Humane Technology interviewed by the comedian and television host Trevor Noah, big tech is the new “for profit government.”
Making individually-specified in/accessibility invisible to the individual surveilled constitutes the second strategy of this preemptive form of surveillance. Each individual, in their hyperspecificity, is uniquely made in/accessible to certain types of information or services, based on their geographic location, ethnoracial status, or economic class. Because this in/accessibility is unique to each individual, without the possibility of comparison, it is impossible to know to what one is being foreclosed. Consider, for example, the differing representations of the contested border between Armenia and Azerbaijan presented by Google Maps, Yandex Maps and OpenStreetMap in the aftermath of the Fall 2020 44-day Turkish-backed war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Armenian-controlled self-proclaimed Republic of Nagorno Karabakh/Artsakh. In a territory already riddled since the Soviet era by cartographic productions and imprecisions that imperfectly and incompletely delineated the Armenian-Azerbaijani border, in the digital realm governed by large tech companies like Google, the disputed borders are represented differently based on a user’s IP address and the consumer mapping application they use. That is, the representation of the contested Armenian-Azerbaijani border changes based on the location of the app user, such that a user in Armenia and a user in Azerbaijan are not guaranteed to be “seeing the same map.” Put simply, these digital incommensurabilities risk life and death consequences for those who live along this hotly contentious border.
We bring these contemporary examples together to demonstrate the particularity of this new kind of surveillance, which works on the level of the hyperspecified individual who is surveyed (through their ethnoracial identity and their geographic position) in order to preemptively surveille what it is they ultimately come to know and have access to. What these strategies of surveying and surveilling index is that drawing the borders of and between human bodies qua datafication goes hand-in-hand with drawing the boundaries of lands and who is allowed to pass through them. To what extent one has access to either services or lands, then, ultimately depends not solely on the state, but increasingly on the private sector which has overtaken the role of governance in western countries.
“How would you feel about going on a journey based on your own DNA?,” asks the female interviewer to Ellaha; as if this DNA sample could be anything other than Ellaha’s own. Here, the curious repetition indicates a double entendre that links identity to ownership––one’s own DNA, to own. “Yeah that would be exciting,” Ellaha responds with a smile that quickly waivers to uncertainty, “Aaaand, scary in a good way.” The male interviewer intervenes, seemingly to give Ellaha some agency in this process right before she gives the Momondo interviewers her DNA sample: “What are you hoping to find?” “This sounds so, like a big cliché,” Ellaha says, self-consciously, “but maybe like, that we are all equal? That there’s not a big difference between you and me—” As Ellaha herself narrates, what motivates her to trace her DNA is not a desire directed towards her self-knowing, or the need or expectation to re-instantiate her Kurdishness; instead, it is a desire for equality, a justification for the breakdown of borders. She seeks relationality. Yet, we already know how the story ends. Two weeks later, Ellaha’s results are in. She is summoned back down to sit at the researchers’ table. Her sense of “Kurdishness” is shuttered. She is “79% from Iran and Caucuses” and “Jewish, European Jewish.” She laughs. She “knew that it wouldn’t say that, you’re Kurdish… and it makes me sad, too,” she wells up, “because I can’t tell people that I’m Kurdish.”
Through affective attachments, genomics companies like Momondo substitute an identification based on kinship for a singularized identity based on (multi)ethnicity. In so doing, genomics companies naturalize structures of belonging and kinship making it a question of biology while concealing that they are the ones choosing the parameters of ethnicity and of the geographical borders of belonging, and construe ethnicity in a neocolonial fashion as (self-)ownership; an ownership over one’s own specific biologized identity. After Ellaha again reminds the researchers that it’s the Turkish government she doesn’t like, no one states the depoliticizing objective of the DNA-testing companies better than the male researcher: “The politics is not the people.” Indeed, big tech and genomics companies have begun to shift the parameters of politics away from democratic decision processes and justice regarding the commons and instead towards a global understanding of property, where DNA becomes a resource for knowledge, multicultural tolerance in liberal societies, value extraction (surveying), and biopolitical control (surveilling).
And, whether in authoritarian or liberal societies, surveillance, as we have indicated, becomes the modulation of in/accessibility at the most specific level of the molecularized body. This kind of surveillance moves away from population biopolitics operated by the state, towards a kind of biopolitics in the hands of global Capital. Increasingly, (bio)tech companies come to codetermine the parameters of (bio)politics in terms that fully serve global Capital.
While western democracies use the language of identity politics to celebrate multiculturalism and diversity among their populaces, inequalities continue to grow with the ever-increasing influence of big tech and the billionaires who own them. As a technology that associates biopolitical means of surveying and surveilling with global Capital, the ethnotechnological apparatus of DNA-testing profits from and reenacts colonial dispossession. Through datafication, the promise to repair wounded attachments is not the end-goal: it is a powerful means of value extraction.
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 https://www.cnbc.com/2020/01/23/23andme-lays-off-100-people-ceo-anne-wojcicki-explains-why.html. January 23, 2020. Last accessed October 6, 2021. See also: https://www.cnbc.com/2019/05/14/23andme-2019-disruptor-50.html, June 9, 2020. Last accessed October 6, 2021. Anna Wojcicki, one of the co-founders of 23andMe, is the sister of Susan Wojcicki, the CEO of YouTube.
 Interview with Dr. Muzaffer Arıkan (Regenerative and Restorative Medicine Research Center, Istanbul Medipol University), February 1, 2020. Re: Genome Wide Association Studies (GWAS), which are associative studies based on variants to make “light” predictions about health-risks, etc. These associative studies are considered the “lighter” part of the “hard” science behind studies in genetics.
 Gregory Chaitin, Meta Math! The Quest for Omega (New York: Vintage Books, 2005).
 Thanks to Dr. Muzaffer Arıkan for his metaphor of human beings as books to be decoded and read through the mapping of the human genome.
 Jacques Derrida, Limited Inc (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1988).
 The neoliberal take on identity politics has smothered its origins in black feminist radical thought and disregards the radical stance of black feminists at its origins. Their goal was the “destruction of all the systems of oppression” through a socialist agenda that encouraged people who share similar life experiences and identities to rally around a common political agenda to achieve equality. See: The Combahee River Collective, “The Combahee River Collective Statement (1977),” in How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective, ed. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017). Later, black feminist lawyer and scholar Kimberle Crenshaw made an important case arguing for an “intersectional” approach to identity politics, which took into account the overlapping racial, sexual/gendered, political, historical and socioeconomic positionalities that constitute one’s identity, making the important point that, while “life chances and life situations of people” differ greatly and lead to their particular oppressions, they should nonetheless “be cared about without regard to the source of their difficulties” (Kimberle Crenshaw, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” University of Chicago Legal Forum 1989, no. 1 (1989), 166). Crenshaw takes the black woman as constituted by the overlapping positions of race and sex as her example of intersectionality. Instead, in its neoliberal iteration, the radical impulse of black feminist identity politics has been neutralized through its reduction to questions of recognition and representation of identities—interpreting identity as a property in need to be claimed and recognized; the exact direction about which Crenshaw warned.
 For an overview of the approach to the concept of ethnicity in the social sciences and cultural anthropology, see Antweiler, Christoph. “Ethnicity from an Anthropological Perspective.” In Ethnicity as a Political Resource: Conceptualizations Across Disciplines, Regions, and Periods, Transcript: Bielefeld, 2011.
 See for instance Alondra Nelson’s book where ethnicity sometimes functions as a biologized subdivision of a race, while sometimes it refers to cultural phenomenon (Alondra Nelson, The Social Life of DNA (Beacon Press, 2016)).
 For a genealogy of the concept of “race” in relation to genetics, see in particular Nadia Abu El-Haj, “The Genetic Reinscription of Race,” Annual Review of Anthropology 36, no. 1 (2007). Abu El-Haj’s work is particularly generative for discussing how “race emerges within [a] world of biovalue as a potentially profitable commodity” (293) in terms of medical science and practice, and pharmacogenomics. Here, she uses the phrase the “molecularization of race,” similar to Rabinow and Rose when they discuss the “new molecular deployment of race” as emerging out of “genomic thinking” (Paul Rabinow, and Nikolas Rose, “Biopower Today,” BioSocieties 1, no. 2 (2006), 206.). While we share many of the same analyses, Abu El-Haj’s ultimate investment is different from ours, as here we attempt to explain how the commercial product speaks to people’s affective attachments to identity and communal belonging in order to commodify and extract value from them. While Abu El-Haj discusses how “race” is a commercial product, being used now in the biomedical field regarding race-based drugs, our investment is to explain what the dynamics of power are that both bring us back to reinstantiate “race” in all these instances, keep us desiring the dynamics of identification and belonging, and finally, how we end up exchanging our affective desires of belonging for our own financial ($100 a test) and biopolitical exploitation as we are biometrically controlled and further individuated in society.
 Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, “Introduction: Race and/as Technology; or, How to Do Things to Race,” Camera Obscura: Feminism, Culture, and Media Studies 24, no. 1 (2009), 8. See also: Beth Coleman, “Race as Technology,” Camera Obscura: Feminism, Culture, and Media Studies 24, no. 1 (2009).
 Here, we want to insist on the de facto entanglement of technology and discourse to emphasize the idea that science and the phenomena it deals with cannot be reduced to a discursive construction. Rather, in line with recent new materialist theories, materiality is co-constitutive of any construction, co-shaping the order of possibilities of any constitution. The concepts of media and technology are used here to describe the co-shaping of materiality and discourse. They imply the inextricability of the human and the non-human. See: Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (Durham/London: Duke University Press, 2007).
 https://www.23andme.com/ancestry-composition-guide-pre-v5/ Last accessed October 06, 2021.
 Ibid.: “Most of the reference individuals are 23andMe customers who have consented to participate in research. When a 23andMe research participant tells us that they have four grandparents all born in the same country — and the population of that country didn’t experience massive migration in the last few hundred years, as happened throughout the Americas and in Australia, for example — that person becomes a candidate for inclusion in the reference data. We filter out all but one of any set of closely related people, since including closely related relatives can distort the results. And we remove outliers, people whose genetic ancestry doesn’t seem to match up with their survey answers. To ensure a 1§ dataset, we filter aggressively — nearly ten percent of reference dataset candidates don’t make the cut.”
 The term “attachment” echoes Wendy Brown’s 1995 essay “Wounded Attachments.” Wendy Brown, “Wounded Attachments,” in States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995). Exploring the ways in which certain aspects of the specific genealogy of politicized identity are carried in the structure of its political articulation and demands, Wendy Brown would call these affective attachments “wounded.” Brown makes the astute critique that the “potency and poignancy of the[…] political claims” mobilized by identity politics is only made possible against the backdrop of the white (masculine) middle-class subject—a depoliticized, universal, normative category into which each marginalized “identity” strives for incorporation (and for legal rights and recognition) in the capitalist order. However, while for Brown the liberal dream of incorporation in 1995 implied a desire to assimilate or belong to the middle class—an action that foregrounds passing and recognition through the rights that status grants thereof/in—in 2021 assimilation does not ensure protection against fungibility. Quite the contrary.
 Abu El-Haj, “The Genetic Reinscription of Race,” 287.
 See Duana Fullwiley, “The “Contemporary Synthesis”: When Politically Inclusive Genomic Science Relies on Biological Notions of Race,” Isis 105, no. 4 (2014). for a discussion of bio-geographical ancestry and the concept of admixture.
 The association of subjectivity with self-ownership is inherited from the 17th century. McPherson explores it in his book Crawford B. McPherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism. Hobbes to Locke (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1990). For one of the most formative discussions on identity as property in the context of United States legal and cultural discourse, see legal scholar Cheryl I. Harris, “Whiteness as Property,” Harvard Law Review 106, no. 8 (1993). In this seminal essay, Harris describes how the concept of property in the United States has always been deeply interrelated with and co-constitutive of the construction of racial identity (Harris, “Whiteness as Property,” 1709). Harris demonstrates how being white or “to have the property of being white” was crucial in order to possess the unalienable “characteristic, the attribute, the property of free human beings” (Harris, “Whiteness as Property,” 1721).
 https://www.23andme.com/about/privacy/. Last accessed, March 26, 2021.
 Sylvia Wynter, ““No Humans Involved:” an Open Letter to My Colleagues,” Forum N.H.I., Knowledge for the 21st Century 1, no. 1 (1994).
 Momondo—The DNA Journey feat. Ellaha: https://youtu.be/7mqWYuKvbXY. Published August 16, 2016. Last accessed March 23, 2021.
 See: https://www.momondo.com/discover/momondo-the-dna-journey-how-it-was-made. Published June 10, 2016. Last accessed March 25, 2021.
 Note the configuration of the phrase “The story of you is in that tube” instead of “your story.” Clearly, this rhetorical market strategy marks an ideological position of knowing and possessing oneself, making the genitive—as related to your genes—much clearer.
 “Ellaha’s Journey” was published on YouTube on August 16, 2016. As of October 8, 2021, the video has received 3,378 comments, all as recent as in the past 24 hours. The level of affective engagement with this video is astounding, and oftentimes aggressive. Viewers accuse Ellaha of being easily shaken in her own history, of being influenced by the western world, that she is “overreacting” (a35), that she “needs to see a therapist” (see 157), people ask to “Look how hard she’s playing the victim 😂” or she is accused of being stupid in not knowing that Kurds are in fact Iranians, or Turks, or that Kurds don’t exist at all: “Why she crying is she Stupid biggest lie Kaukasus is not Turkish Central Asia is Turkish.” Instead of launching critiques at the DNA company, the entity that has structured the terms of the debate, a gendered, psychological assault is carried out on the level of the individual. Ellaha is held personally responsible for her answers, which are in fact highly dependent on the types of questions her interviewers ask.
 Kim TallBear, Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science (Minneapolis/London: University of Minnesota Press, 2013).
 23andMe, for instance, does not account for territories or people without political sovereignty. For example, in addition to the Kurds, the Uyghurs and the Tibetans.
 There are gross inaccuracies in the interviewers’ response. They make tacit slippages between terms like “Turks” and “Ottomans,” and disavow major and minor ethnic groups that have either occupied, still occupy, or have held sovereignty in the regions of the Caucasus, Iran and Turkey for centuries despite Seljuk, Ottoman, Persian, Russian and Turkish rule.
 Heng refers to religious race as the predominant racialized logics of the premodern era in Europe, which named Jews or “Moors,” or even, “blackamoors”—the religious racial category based on somatic qualities to refer to black Muslims—as religiously-based ethnoracial categories to be excluded/othered from the forming bodies and borders of Christian Europe (an identity). See Geraldine Heng, “Reinventing Race, Colonization, and Globalisms Across Deep Time: Lessons From the “Longue Durée”,” PMLA 130, no. 2 (2015). For further reading on religious constructions of race in the U.S., see Moustafa Bayoumi, “Racing Religion,” CR: The New Centennial Review 6, no. 2 (2006).
 Balibar, and Wallerstein, Race, Nation, Class, 23.
 See 23andMe website for this taxonomy as of March 25, 2021.
 Sylvia Wynter, On Being Human as Praxis (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015), 35.
 Immanuel Wallerstein takes up the categories of “race,” “nation” and “ethnicity” in “The Construction of Peoplehood: Racism, Nationalism and Ethnicity” (Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities (London: Verso, 1991 ): 71-85), in order to functionally distinguish among their often amorphous uses, which is always in relation to the basic structural features of the capitalist world-economy. Like Wallerstein, we are invested not in the positivist construction of “race” as a category, but in understanding the structural and historical processes that have produced it. That is, why do we need such categories, and how do they function? That they are social products and not biological phenomena is an a priori assumption. For Wallerstein, “race” is produced through the division of labor in the world-economy, “nation” is the political superstructure of that historical system, and the concept of “ethnic groups” describes the amorphous cultural realm that is outside the official parameters of the state. These three categories are mutually dependent. However, while Wallerstein connects the category of “ethnicity” to the nation as a description of the national minority in terms of culture and the ethnicization of the workforce, we notice a different function and orientation of “ethnicity” employed and deployed by genomics companies. Our use of “ethnoracial” is informed by Wallerstein’s usage, which implicitly connects the categories of Capital and class to “race.” However, in using “ethnoracial,” that is, keeping the “racial” in the “ethnic,” we aim to visualize the tacit trace of the biological construction of “race” and racism within and as the basis for ethnicity. What we mean to mark here is that the distinction between “race” and “ethnicity” is a false one, and that the racial is always imbricated in the ethnic. In the context of DNA-tests, then, “ethnoracial” marks the discursive rebiologization of the cultural. Second, biometrics companies deploy the word “ethnic” to produce a new kind of ethnicity different from the one Wallerstein describes as naming the hierarchy of the national minority and “ethnic” class that guaranteed a workforce. Here, what is new and unique is that companies based out of Silicon Valley go beyond the national or state framework presented by Wallerstein in the 1990s. Today, the language of “ethnic” origins markets to a global subject in order to imbricate and subject them under a system of privatized surveillance. While for Wallerstein the “ethnic” subject guaranteed a low-wage workforce within the confines of a nation-state, today, DNA-testing companies trace and plot the “biological” geographies of a subject’s overlapping ethnicities, which leads to a new kind of border-making.
 23andMe’s “Chinese Population Report” consulted March 16, 2021.
 Indeed, in a multiculturalist, whitewashing gesture, the opening quote of Momondo’s promotional video announces, “To celebrate diversity in the world, we set out to find it in our DNA.” The video follows the rules of what David Kazanjian calls the “colonizing trick,” where racial and national formations rearticulate, not contradict, universalist egalitarianism. See David Kazanjian, The Colonizing Trick: National Culture and Imperial Citizenship in Early America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003).
 Even a scientist like Rick Kittles expressed second thoughts about the way the data of African American clients qua test-subjects were used: “The African-American geneticist Rick Kittles stopped sharing DNA with scientists who were developing ancestry informative marker technology for the forensic tool of molecular photoﬁtting. As he told me, ‘I don’t want to help them put more black people in jail’.” Quoted in Duana Fullwiley, “Race, genes, power,” The British Journal of Sociology 66, no. 1 (2015), 43.
 Nelson, The Social Life of DNA.
 Fullwiley, “Race, genes, power,” 37.
 Wynter, ““No Humans Involved:” an Open Letter to My Colleagues,” 65.
 Achille Mbembe, “Afrofuturisme et devenir-nègre du monde,” Politique africaine 4 (2014), 121. Our translation. See also Achille Mbembe, Critique of Black Reason (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017), and Stefano Harney and Fred Moten. The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (Wivenhoe: Minor Compositions, 2013)
 Ibid., 128. Our translation.
 Ibid., 130.
 See: Denise Ferreira da Silva. “1 (Life)÷ 0 (Blackness)=∞−∞ or∞/∞: On Matter Beyond the Equation of Value.” e-flux journal 79 (2017).
 See https://shop.africanancestry.com with their slogan: “Remember Who You Are” and further “Knowledge
Is Power. Discover the missing part of YOUR story.” The company Afroroots DNA launched in 2020. https://afrorootsdna.com/whychooseus “Discover your Tribe”. Last accessed March 15, 2021. One of their reviewers writes on the About Us page, “I am so happy a company like AfroRoots DNA exists. Finally, Black people of the Diaspora have a chance to know which African ethnic groups make up their DNA! A company for the people, by the people. I will be recommending you!” Last accessed March 15, 2021.
 See TallBear, Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science, 32.
 See Armenian Genome Project http://armeniangenome.am/; Armenian DNA Project https://armenianweekly.com/2013/01/31/a-link-to-the-past-the-armenian-dna-project/; “Branching Out” in Silk Road 2020: History Stands to Repeat Itself as Armenia Renews Ties to Asia AGBU News Magazine, August 2020,http://online.fliphtml5.com/fqpe/fssq/#p=1. Last accessed October 6, 2021.
 See Fullwiley, “Race, genes, power.”
 Couldry, Nick, and Ulises A. Mejias. “Data Colonialism: Rethinking Big Data’s Relation to the Contemporary Subject.” Television & New Media 20, no. 4 (2019).
 Michel Foucault. “Society Must be Defended”: Lectures at the Collège De France, 1975–1976. (New York: Picador, 2003).
 Rabinow, and Rose, “Biopower Today,” 205.
 Ibid., 208.
 Randy Martin, “From the Race War to the War on Terror,” in Beyond Biopolitics: Essays on the Governance of Life and Death, ed. Patricia Clough Ticineto, and Craig Willse Duke University Press, 2011).
 Darshali A. Vyas, Leo G. Eisenstein, and Davis S. Jones, “Hidden in Plain Sight—Reconsidering the Use of Race Correction in Clinical Algorithms,” The New England Journal of Medicine 383, no. 9 (2020), 875: “The calculators include race and ethnicity because of observed differences in surgical outcomes among racial and ethnic groups; the authors acknowledge that the mechanism underlying these differences is not known. […] When used preoperatively to assess risk, these calculations could steer minority patients, deemed to be at higher risk, away from surgery.”
 https://www.texastribune.org/2020/01/31/trump-plans-collect-dna-nearly-million-immigrants/, last accessed October 6, 2021: “Trump administration officials said the proposed rule would better comply with the spirit of the 2005 law and aid in crime fighting. The department argues that the DNA collection is justified because even if immigrant detainees haven’t been charged or prosecuted, most committed a crime by crossing the border illegally.”
 https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-01984-4, last accessed October 6, 2021.
 The Daily Show with Trevor Noah: Tristan Harris—Facebook and Rethinking Big Tech: https://youtu.be/YruYAnzirxw, last accessed October 6, 2021.
 See McGlynn, Evangeline. “Perspectives: On the Armenia-Azerbaijan border, the map is not the territory,” https://eurasianet.org/perspectives-on-the-armenia-azerbaijan-border-the-map-is-not-the-territory, last accessed October 6, 2021. Here, McGlynn describes the cartographic complications of the Fall 2020 post-war Armenian-Azerbaijani border by digital mapping apps, including their real-life implications.
Graffiti and photograph by Cinzia D’Emidio
“One Unique You”: DNA Testing
29 April 2021
“One Unique You”: Passing and DNA-Testing as Ethnotechnological Apparatus
Deanna Cachoian-Schanz & Katia Schwerzmann. Talk at ACLA 2021, “Mistaken Identities: Passing and the (In)Human,” organized by Takeo Rivera and Joshua Williams, Virtual Meeting.
We understand passing in the double meaning of passing for someone or something else, but also passing through a border. The presupposition of this presentation is that the condition of possibility for passing and being mistaken or misrecognized relies on a conception of “identity” that functions as a property in the double meaning of what properly defines a subject and what belongs to this subject at the exclusion of someone else. We read this in the philosophical discourse of enlightenment where subjectivity is understood as sovereignty over the self, as self-possession; but also in the analysis of the slave codes by Cheryl Harris. Passing cannot exist without presupposing firm identities against the background of which someone or something does or does not pass. While identity categories tend to be essentializing, since they are grounded on the idea of property as a possession, we witness a trend to overcome this concept of identity for instance in intersectional discourse but also in the posthumanist discourse. What a human is in comparison to an animal or a machine has become increasingly contested. However, we will show that with genomic technology, among other kinds of identifying technologies—indeed, what technology does not serve the purposes of identification and targeting nowadays?—with genomic technologies, it becomes increasingly difficult to pass, to stay hidden, or to mask one’s identity. Especially for human beings targeted as undesirable—minorities, refugees, the unemployed—it becomes almost impossible to move beyond the borders of what comes to define an individual. All the newly-created technologies go in the direction of forbidding any kind of passing for or passing through. While new technologies are based on the principle of the identification of individuals, machines may slowly become the only beings able to pass for something else then what they are. Indeed, machines are allowed to pass for human like in the case of widely used chatbots replacing the workforce, but humans have to constantly prove that they are not machines like in the case of captcha identification procedures.
Digital and Free-hand Illustrations by Cinzia D’Emidio
DNA-Test as Ethnotechnological Apparatus
Now, we will explain the workings and rhetorics of DNA-testing companies to give a clearer idea of how the logics of identity are appropriated for the purposes of surveillance and biopolitical control. While the technology of DNA-testing is intimately tied to a long history of procedures of racialization—and in fact repeats, in new ways, the same racializing tropes—the specific apparatus of DNA-testing is both novel and specific in that it produces the subject of neoliberal global capitalism as ethnoracial. Following this, we name the apparatus of DNA-testing as “ethnotechnological.” By “ethnotechnology,” we mean the specific case of the entanglement of rhetorical and technological procedures of racialization—in this case through genetics.
The promotional material on the homepage of 23andMe, the personal genomics and biotechnology company launched in Silicon Valley in 2006, advertises the following: “We’re all about real science, real data and genetic insights that positively impact people’s lives.” As of December 2020, the company has been valued at $2.5 billion, and is supported by a host of endogenous investors like the Google parent-company Alphabet Inc., amongst a host of others. 23andMe is just one of several human genomics companies like Ancestry.com and Myheritage.com, which promise similar direct-to-consumer genetic information. To get it, the companies instruct the consumer to follow the simple directions of an at-home kit: spit into a tube and send your saliva back for analysis. “Your DNA reveals your unique heritage—the ethnic groups and geographic regions you originate from,” explains Myheritage.com, which then tempts to “reveal your ethnicity & ancestry.” Ancestry.com takes a sensationalist approach: “Would you dare to question who you really are?” provokes a June 2016 YouTube advertisement, followed by the solution, “Uncover your origins.” 23andMe opts for a more imperative stance, promising to provide information that will lead to a greater sense of the consumer’s self-possession: “Know your genes. Own your health. Know what makes you, you.”
Each genomics company assumes a different marketing slant: some focus on matching customers with potential relatives while others, like 23andMe, emphasize the prediction of health-risks and personality traits based on association studies. For the round-figure of $100 dollars, coupled with the access to scientific technology and the most personalized molecular data of their customers, these companies rhetorically situate consumers as subjects yet-to-be-decoded, who would benefit from the knowledge of genetics to know themselves more intimately. Ultimately, the project renders increasingly differentiated, hyper-individualized subjects: due to your genome, you are “one unique you,” promised to be in full knowledge and possession of that identity.
Based on the interpretation of DNA as an algorithm producing life as its output, a human being can be construed as a book, written through the combination of four letters to be decoded by multi-billion dollar biotech companies. This book promises to illuminate what human beings “are” in terms of ethnoracial identities. By ethnoracial, we mean the way in which genomics companies substitute race for (multi)ethnicity, performing a new kind of racialization we are seeking to unravel. Genomics companies produce a new version of racial science using a neoliberal take on identity politics that has smothered its origins in black feminist radical thought. While the language of “race” in relation to science risks signaling the eugenics projects or Jim Crowe of old, “ethnicity” does not carry the same linguistic baggage. With the false distinction that cultural categories are more innocuous than the dangerous biological distinctions among humans, the language of “ethnicity”—tied more to a sense of ancestry, cultural heritage or geographic origins—comes to substitute “race.”
Understood as a technology of racialization, “race,” here, is not the signifier for either biological or cultural differences; as Wendy Chun explains, “[r]ace […] has never been simply biological or cultural; rather, it has been crucial to negotiating and establishing historically variable definitions of biology and culture.” For our purposes, race refers to “material-discursive” practices of difference-making that entangles institutions, laws, and science by way of technology. Taken as a technology, race is a material-discursive process that performatively produces and constantly re-institutes and patrols the borders of bodies and geographies, in addition to people’s geographic and social mobility. By taking race as a material-discursive process instead of a naturalized identity category, we question the defining logics of race-making, gender-making or hierarchy-production itself for that matter, because it is this making that necessitates the framework of recognition. That is, from the moment one produces differences that are placed in a normative hierarchy—white over brown over black, male over female, rich over poor—questions of recognition begin to form—as the one who is considered or treated as less-human, or less recognized, begins to desire equity through recognition within the normative hierarchical structure.
In discussing the apparatus of DNA-testing that produces and reifies ethnoracial differences and identities, we are articulating two layers of analysis: 1) the instrumentalization of the affective attachment to structures of belonging and kinship with which genomics companies substitute ethnoracial biologized identities on the one hand; and 2) the biopolitical use of this new kind of racialization on the other. The larger implications of this analysis are to be understood in the articulation between these two layers.
1. The first layer of analysis we mentioned above regards the neoliberal and neocolonial construction of an ethno-subject anchored in the racialization of DNA. This racialization consists of two steps: First, race is naturalized and biologized anew through the technological procedure of DNA decoding and data comparison. Second, race is reculturalized through its substitution with “ethnicity.”This step enables the neutralization of the politically anti-liberal connotations of the rebiologization of race. For instance, as of March 2021, 23andMe groups people’s DNA following taxonomies whose logics are as diverse as 1. Religion: the “Coptic Egyptian;” 2. Geographic regions: “Anatolian” or “Eastern European;” 3. Whole continents: “South America”; 4. the nation—“Italian,” “French,” “German;” or 5. Anthropology: “African hunter-gatherer.” In associating data extraction, pattern recognition, self-narration, and diagrammatic presentation, genomics companies seek to profit from a globalized subject who is affectively attached to their geographic, cultural, and national origins, read as “ethnic.” Thus, genomics companies bank on subjects’ affective attachments to their familial and national narratives—connected to their identity and history—to substitute it with another kind of attachment: the attachment to their biologized ethnoracial identity, or DNA, as that which they “own” as their most proper property.
2. The second layer of our analysis connects this rebiologization of race to neocolonial processes of value extraction and biopolitical techniques of surveillance. We can see the implications of these developments in the directions taken by DNA datafication both in terms of surveying and surveilling. At center stage is the question of the modulation of the individual’s access—to countries and services—enabled by their datafication. Thus, the question of access is the question of how boundaries are drawn, who draws them, and how porous they are depending on the characteristics of the individual’s biological data. This is closely connected to who gets to pass through where, when, and to what.
These two layers constitute two sides of the same coin: the promise of genomics companies to offer to the individual the ability to be in full possession and knowledge of “who they are” goes hand-in-hand with the extraction and dispossession of the individual’s DNA which is then sold to pharmaceutical companies as anonymized data, used for medical research, and made accessible to state authorities in order “to comply with a valid court order, subpoena, or search warrant for genetic or Personal Information.”
While the first layer of analysis attends to the promise of knowing one’s (multi)ethnic origins, the second layer indicates that datafication is less a question of knowledge production as it is a question of access modulation. Signs of this tendency are already visible everywhere, and their analysis allows us to speculate on the redrawing of the borders of bodies and lands for all individuals, but especially for those deemed undesirable, that is, the conceptual “Others,” whose difference is reified through DNA tests. So, what we try to parse out here is the method of how this new ethnoracial subject functions in the context of the confluence of globalized Capital and biopolitics.
Surveying and Surveillance, or the Impossibility to Pass
Through genetic datafication, the individual body is once again center stage in procedures of power, which marks a shift from Foucault’s analysis of biopower from the 19th century on, whose target was the management of entire populations. The convergence of biopower and global Capital on the level of the individual body is characterized by the confluence of surveying and surveilling. Surveillance is not about what an individual could make happen. It is now about what will never be able to happen, because the condition of possibility for the potentiality of something to happen is preemptively excluded. The preemptive temporality of surveillance is insured through two strategies: first, by preventing access based on the localized and/or hyper-specific ethnoracial and economic position under which an individual is categorized; and second, by making this individually-specified in/accessibility invisible to the individual surveilled. Our analysis of these two strategies, while in part speculative, is informed by events unfolding at this very moment.
The first strategy of this new kind of surveillance is characterized by the individualized management and modulation of access to services (like insurance, bank credit, medical treatment) or to countries (like the management of travel and migration). This strategy relies on technologies of border-drawing. Thanks to hyper-specific ethnoracial categorization, different borders and levels of porosity are determined for each individual. For instance, in the US the specific health services to which an individual is granted access is today already determined by their identification to a race. Thus, it would not be a stretch of the imagination to speculate that in the near future, the ethnoracial genetic make-up of an individual will determine their access to medical procedures. And, in light of former US President Trump’s collecting and archiving of the DNA of South American migrants to the United States, we can speculate that the same will be the case for access to countries and border surveillance. States are not only managing the general migrant population trying to cross borders. Their goal—reflected by Trump’s DNA extraction project—is to surveil each and every singular migrant body including the body of children.
Making individually-specified in/accessibility invisible to the individual surveilled constitutes the second strategy of this preemptive form of surveillance. Each individual, in their hyperspecificity, is uniquely made in/accessible to certain types of information or services, based on their geographic location, ethnoracial status, or economic class. Because this in/accessibility is unique to each individual, without the possibility of comparison, it is impossible to know to what one is being foreclosed. For example, following the recent territorial war in the South Caucasues, Google Maps and other online mapping platforms draw the Armenian-Azerbiajiani border differently depending on a user’s IP address.
We mention these examples to demonstrate the particularity of this new kind of surveillance, which works on the level of the hyperspecified individual who is surveyed in order to preemptively surveille what it is they ultimately come to know and have access to. What these strategies of surveying and surveilling index is that drawing the borders of and between human bodies qua datafication goes hand-in-hand with drawing the boundaries of lands and who is allowed to pass through them. To what extent one has access to either services or lands, ultimately depends, then, not solely on the state, but increasingly on the private sector which has overtaken the role of governance.
Returning, then, to the question of passing, we must reflect upon how this paradigm presupposes identity as property—where “knowledge” of and over oneself is equated to the possibility of possessing oneself more fully. This is, at least, the promise of genomics companies: as 23andMe states on their test-kit box, “Welcome to you.” Yet, identity as property is at the same time the fundamental framework upon which identifying technologies—genetic, biometric, but also algorithmic evaluation of the financial health of a person etc—are founded, defining who an individual is in terms of what they have access to. These technologies are organizing individuals into specific, normative and legible ethnoracial and/or class categories. “Passing” is often an act of survival and sometimes an act of subversion. But can this category undo the identity-as-property and thus the surveillance paradigm we’ve discussed here? In taking the material consequences of identification technologies seriously, it becomes clear that these technologies tend to make passing—the passing of borders, or the passing as someone and something else—an impossibility. While DNA-tests promise that, with further knowledge of your ethnoracial belonging you will be in greater possession of yourself, it is in fact you, through the harvesting of your most intimate molecular data, who become possessed by big tech.
Confronting anti-blackness in Armenian Feminist Texts
7 April 2018
Feminist Interventions in Armenian Studies, Armenian Interventions in Feminist Studies: Translators’ Panel
McMillan Stewart Workshop: Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MİT), Cambridge, MA, USA
Confronting Racism in Early 20th Century Armenian Feminists Texts: Thoughts and Methods
In a response to the question posed by Hayganoush Marc’s feminist journal Hay Gin about who is more preferable from the perspective of the national revival, the old or the new woman, Vartouhie Calantar tersely concludes, “Revolutions only snap dried branches and trim old trees. Whatever has life and is beneficent exists and will remain, and if it too dies, it will regenerate. Today always has a claim over yesterday and tomorrow always on today” (Vartouhie Calantar, Armenian Woman [Hay Gin], 1 September 1921). While hopeful for change, Calantar neither celebrates nor claims that the new woman is the woman of her today. Instead, the “new” woman belongs to tomorrow. She will never have been fully accomplished, she is always becoming, always to come.
Calantar’s comment is not an unfulfillable promise but an ongoing provocation: question how yesterday exists in our today, and how the events of past-present-future are ever-relational. How might attending to this constant dynamism—this assemblage—better inform the feminist praxis, politics, interactions and translations of today, knowing that we too, have always yet to arrive?
As we continue to trace and translate a genealogy of Armenian feminisms to encourage their emergence from censored historical and literary canons, how do we also: 1) responsibly read and critique them—that is, not just blindly recover and praise them? 2) question the nationalism that privileges an “Armenian” subject, asking what its exclusionary boundaries have been throughout various geohistorical contexts. That is, who is “in” and who is “out” of the Armenian community, or of the civilized community, at any given time and place? Ergo, what is a feminist versus an “Armenian feminist”? 3) how do we apprehend gendered, racist and ageist structural oppressions?
My translator colleagues Jennifer and Shushan have laid out some of the technical challenges and political choices a feminist praxis of translation opens. Now, I would like to anecdotally take you along into that practice’s intimate space, and suggest how it may raise some broader ethical questions. I would like to consider how that literal movement between languages allows us to think more profoundly about difference and its possibility.
The translator’s relationship to the work and its production is not just subjective, it is tenuous. As translators, we lure the original outside of its linguistic territory across borders and into a foreign tongue. Then, we attempt to bridge the gap between them—an already impossible feat—knowing that that bridge is always built imperfectly over shaky ground. The text absorbs us so that we can embody its passions, frustrations, disgust; feel these feelings as our own yet fully on its terms, then act as objective mediators between the words, expressions, tone, timbre, and emotions of the original and translate that into a text that inescapably uses our own words. Jennifer has shown us already how these subjective interpretations re-configure and re-animate the original. Our readers experience the text in its future arrival, Benjamin’s famous afterlife. The text is again thought anew in this moment. As the agent of this reterritorialization, the translator also and equally speaks the text she translates. But are all texts worthy of being re-spoken?
For Feminism in Armenian,* I translated the works of four authors—Yevpime Avetisian (Anayis), Zaruhi Bahri, Vartouhie Calantar, and Hayganoush Mark—over the course of one year as they accompanied me on my circular returns. In Istanbul, I translated Anayis and imagined her boat arriving from Büyükada as I sat carelessly sipping tea in Kadıköy, her port of entry. I imagined what the smoke of the steam boat she was sailing on with Mr. Papazian must have looked like over the Bosphorus that day when flocks of frightened Armenians crowded the docks to leave the city, anticipating massacres during the constitutional reform. What might their clustered footsteps have sounded like over the cobblestones now covered by the pavement I sat over? Could they have imagined it would be possible again for an Armenian to sit freely here in this city? Am I “free”? Through sheer physical proximity, could I re-summon the pangs of guilt Zahuri Bahri must have felt just meters from my walk home in Şişli as she cared for some of the Armenian women who wanted so desperately to abort their babies because they were reminders of their rapes, yet were sedated and forced to give birth by the hospital staff? The Armenian nation couldn’t bear to lose more citizens. All were welcome. I guess being half-Turkish, or half-anything didn’t so much matter then. Why is it then that halfie status has often tempered the degrees to which others have measured my “Armenianness”? Not a full-fledged Armenian surely, with those blue eyes, blonde hair, that acquired Armenian. Curious how belongings and exclusions change over time.
The luxury Four Seasons Hotel in Sultanahmet: the former central prison of Constantinople. Yesterday’s prisoners of the empire. Today’s neo-liberal global tourists. If I stood by the walls of this ex-prison-turned-hotel, could I still hear the echoes of the women coming from the room of the Lepers, their hands beating the wooden floors of their cells like drums, then cupped over their mouths as they circled, eyes wild, making rumbling cries with devilish laughter as they shouted yallah, yallah! into the air? I’m encircled too by their eyes lined with heavy black eye-liner, as they dance their circle dance to celebrate the arrival of the political prisoner Vartouhie Calantar and her mother. I’m the silent phantom from the future who will speak them into the present. Can these tourists feel, as I bring back to life through Calantar’s prison diaries, the ghost of Fatma the Arab, who right there where they sit each morning eating their simit and unfolding street maps of the city, cast her magic love spell over Ibrahim the prison guard? Fatma stood just there, 97 years ago to the day, naked beside the blazing fire, “her lead-colored body halfway lit in the midnight darkness, her curly hair lost in the smoke as she called out ‘bismillah’ seven times” (Calantar, “The Room of the Lepers” in Prison Diaries, 16 April 1920) casting grains of pepper seven-by-seven into the c[r]ackling flames, then “extending her arms out towards the door from whence, as if by a miracle, [Ibrahim] her love would come forth” (Calantar, “Fatma the Arab” in Prison Diaries, 1 November 1920).
And how I felt filled with excitement, pride, strength, that Hayganoush Mark laid bare her idea of the Women’s Cause in Constantinople in the first issues of Hay Gin as early as 1922! In utter exasperation—and I share this very same gripe!—she writes, “the word feminist is still completely misunderstood… thus, it’s not in vain that we [again] explain its meaning: ‘Feminism is a cry for justice, which extends to the rights and duties of men and women‘” (Marc, “What is the Women’s Cause” in Hay Gin). Justice, yes…. I pause.
And then my fingers, my voice, my emotions, give life in English to the following words in Anayis’ 1921 sociological retrospective entitled The Condition of Women in Society:
All the Christian branches of the white race (ցեղ) can be found where there is civilized society… The argument put forth by this study is that the white race… was discovered to have lived thousands of years ago in savage conditions… Our civilized society has already passed through all the phases which still exist today among the savage and half-civilized races.-Anayis, “Women in Civilized Societies”
How to make these words my own, imbibe them objectively to relay them with conviction to my reader, and without letting on to my own disgust! Do these words deserve to be re-written? Re-read? A far cry from affective embodiment. Translation became regurgitation. How to live by what I believe to be the force of feminism—that ongoing cry for justice—and question the naturalness of racism, heteroreproductivity, essentialist assumptions, and thus question any kind of argument or identity built upon violent appropriation or subordination (Kafer, Feminist, Queer, Crip, 14)? How to build strategies of resistance through translation praxis or the sharing of feminist texts when the texts themselves rest upon racist assumptions, are embedded in structures of oppression and are invested in preserving the nationalized, Armenian subject as a white subject of privilege—a privilege that has been passed down to me? How to resist the oft-repeated exoneration “Deanna, she is a product of her time…”? The problem is, to respond like this is to naturalize bigotry and be willfully ignorant of the violence those words still inflict today; it is to excuse the premises of slavery, colonialism or genocide in any time period. That dismissal speaks from a position of unthreatened power and privilege because it does not see how those legacies still oppress, or how—as they oft remind—Armenians have suffered at the sword of similar logics. If we are to theorize from practice, then how to situate the translator as she re-produces these colonial models of naturalized, eugenicist claims for white, Christian Euro-American superiority?
My immediate instinct to my own participation in this violent repetition was to ease my tensions by turning to language. I first drafted: “the black-skinned peoples of Africa,” “the peoples of Oceania”; much more politically correct than “black-skinned races,” no? Jennifer is correct to point out that had we been translating a century ago, mart would have taken on the universal gender: “men,” and a feminist translation can remediate this. I too use this practice. However, is it always appropriate? Here, I was sanitizing…erasing and forgetting…and the words themselves kept insisting: civilized, uncivilized, primitive, half-civilized, white, black-skinned, yellow races, red, brown, they eat their women, those races, tsegh, tsegh, tsegh… not peoples…
Yet if I didn’t sanitize, wouldn’t I be exposing Anayis as a racist? Betraying her? Yes, and that is the goal of my praxis. I parsed this relationship out during the nights and days I sat before that text swallowing words that have structured my privilege, that violate my politics yet still have unavoidably inscribed my position:
Among the women [of the non-Christian white races residing in Asia], there is no veritable ambition to progress”. / “The races that make up half-civilized societies are the following (aside from the Japanese who are quite likeminded to Europeans): the brown-skinned races of India, the non-Christian races of Asia, the brown-skinned races that live in the northern parts of Africa, and lest we forget, the Peruvian Incas of America and the Aztecs of Mexico”. / Unlike in Oceania “it is rare that the black-skinned races of Africa are inclined to eat their women. Instead, they give women the most burdensome jobs.Anayis, “Women in Half-Civilized Societies” & “Women in Primitive Societies,” Conditions of Women in Society
Where is our cry for justice in this essentialist, racial hierarchy that privileges the emerging liberal democratic, rights-granting, disciplining European nation-state as the ideal model of progress and civilization? We cannot write away (sanitize) or explain away (excuse) these systemic issues whose branches extend into the politics and power dynamics today. Anayis’ text illustrates an inherent ambiguity: she doesn’t question the authority of the sociological accounts by white European males. Instead, she unquestioningly bases her study upon their racialized hierarchies to buttress her progress narrative for gender equality. Equality is relative, not universal. How does that racism latently and overtly persist through the pejorative comments we have all heard at least one Armenian say to another: [in a whisper] “the sev [black] girl,” “sevamol” [derogatory term for blackness] “what percent Armenian are you?”, “odar e” [s/he’s a foreigner/other]. Perhaps we have even caught ourselves doing it. It is said knowingly and oft times to further instantiate a sense of Armenianness, or a sense of kinship and ethnic, moral superiority between the exceptional “us” and the “them.” In their book Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, Deleuze and Guattari argue that even “the most individual enunciation is a particular case of collective enunciation… The [subject/the artist] and the virtual community—both of them real—are the components of a collective assemblage” (83-4). If these structural oppressions have informed Armenian feminisms then how do we work on them and how do they work upon us?
For me, feminist praxis means that, as much as we empower egalitarianism and alliance, we must also be aware of another, sometimes hidden reflex to sanitize narratives of oppression and supremacy. Then, we must hold ourselves collectively accountable by actively confronting them. In the case of translating Anayis, for me it has meant to make sure her politics are visible, and that they screech our ears today, so that we are forced to contend with how structures of racism, belonging and ethnic legitimacy have developed in transnational Armenian discourse through time. The translator plays an important role in re-vitalizing that matter.
Just as Calantar suggests that the present is oriented towards both past and future, translation functions in the same way. Translation is a porous process of dialogue that necessitates a conversation between original and target languages. And the translator negotiates between the two to assemble something new. Creating something new means dismantling the hierarchy, or what I’ve called elsewhere in my translation of Shushan’s book Girq-Anvernagir, a praxis of de- domestication: the original must give up its privileged status as being a “significant substance” of authority, and the translator/tion must break away from being subjectified to the hierarchal authority of what came before. Only in this way can translation occur. Also, only in this way can it offer itself up for new interpretations, for difference. Translation is not of the original any longer, yet neither is it of the foreign tongue. It is a rebel text, it is a radical text because of its simultaneity. We can learn something too from this radical practice.
Taking the metaphor of a tree to describe the West’s obsession with roots, origins and hierarchies in their famous essay “Rhizomes,” Deleuze and Guattari warn that we shouldn’t confuse a re-tracing of the past, or a genealogy, as a radical act. To lose ourselves in the unsilencing of the past is not enough. The patriarchy is not brought down by simply bringing these voices to the fore. This move still functions within the binary system of silence-unsilence; or in a hierarchy that privileges the authority of the past. That same hierarchy gives authority to voice over silence; men over women; white over black; editors over translators, west over east, fact over fiction. Our present has not “uncovered” and progressed… it still is determined by binaries of forgetting/remembering, racism/inclusion, and patriarchy. Unsilencing and recovery, giving voice, are only the first steps. Unlike Deleuze and Guattari, I sit with Foucault in maintaining the importance of genealogical practice. But after mapping the tree, how to start the revolution? How “to snap old branches, trim old trees”? (15) How to radicalize the roots? To take the past and understand it as actively and simultaneously reforming the present: that our ghosts still haunt us. That racism among Armenians persists. And to see how the “trans-” prefix “calls attention to the operations of normitivity… and the structuration of power” (Stryker, “Transgender History, Homonormativity, and Disciplinarity,” 149). There is no beginning or end to this task, no original or copy in this practice. There is alliance, and it has always to be reworked.
I have been brought in a time capsule to the Constantinople of 100 years ago and back. And bringing these pieces into their afterlife re-invigorates me to continue asking the same questions: how have models of belonging, nationalism and feminism buttressed their legitimacy upon the exclusion of others—the Turk, the primitive savage, the non-Armenian—and imperialist, liberal models of progress, capitalist modes of ownership, and East/West hierarchies? In what ways might these texts, and our collaboration, go beyond those exclusions and not? How does our group of Armenian-identified feminist women working on these heritage texts also hold this tension? To what extent is our group, to borrow from Jasbir Puar, “trapped within the logic of identity” (Puar, Terrorist Assemblages, 60) when I strive, through feminist and queer praxis in my own work, to destabilize identities by decentering the narrative that follows, “I am…”? Who is this “we”? Who are “women”? What has at any given time determined the condition under which people claim Armenian identity—where they lived, what they ate, what religion they practiced? What are the conditions—historical, geographical, linguistic, cultural, gendered, sexual—under which some are excluded from that category? If we think of “we” as already having arrived instead of a constant becoming, then we will have already fixed, stagnated and closed off belonging. That border constantly needs to be critically challenged, that belonging always needs to expand if it is to make a coalitional, and livable life. I do not claim to have transcended or answered these questions, but merely wish to point to another line of inquiry I think feminist praxis can accomplish and to which it must attend as we continue to write a genealogy of Armenian feminist literature and imagine our coalitional politics.
Knowing how they harm, should these words be re-spoken: “The black races” and not, “the African peoples”? It was painful to translate Anayis’ text. I felt a traitor because as a translator in this project of feminist collaborators, I sensed the unspoken, time-honored, self-inflicted pressure of being the loyal daughter introducing her foremothers to the English-speaking world. This is the invisible tension between latent nationalist pride and queer-feminist praxis. Choosing the latter, I hope this unsanitized translation recovers a mode of discourse to be challenged through critical historiography. This praxis offers more insight into history and the production of knowledge. That ear-screeching racism should stop us in our tracks—it should scream out to us: “resist!”
“Today always has a claim over yesterday and tomorrow always on today.” I read Calantar’s vision of the new woman as the woman always to come—influencing the past but also influenced by the future—as a prescient, possible iteration of this revolution… If we are radical enough to try to arrive.
*This essay was written as a presentation for the Translator’s Panel in regards to a forthcoming anthology on Armenian feminism. The prose translations for the book have since changed hands. I wish the editors a successful publication.
Home and Belonging for Queer Armenian-American Women
13 May 2017
Home and Belonging for Queer Armenian-American Women in Everyday Life and Memoir
Deanna Cachoian-Schanz & Nelli Sargsyan. Talk for “QUEER TIME-SPACES: INVAGINATING TEMPORALITY THROUGH TRANSNATIONAL CROSSINGS,” a panel organized by Tamar Shirinian at the conference Queer Places, Practices, and Lives III — The Ohio State University.
A co-presentation by the authors about our intersticed work, read not necessarily by the texts’ relevant authors — #feministcollaborations
Deanna— In the Armenian transnational narrative, heteronormativity functions as the ethnonationalist ideology par excellence. Employing heteropatriachal homogenization as a discursive tool for unity, stability, and hence, its progeny, the Armenian nation-state and its diaspora write themselves as stable sites of home-centered identity (pivoting around the “stable” homeland) while writing out gender identities and desires that threaten their pre-requisites of belonging: the heterosexual reproduction of the nation, one’s possibility to inherit belonging to it, and to preserve its fixity through time and translational space. Yet, contrary to its various postulations as homogenous and fixed, the concept of Diaspora itself bespeaks its own ontological status of migrational/transnational movement, un-fixity and plurality; a site of “ongoing negotiation” (Shirinian 5). It is important to note that Nelli and I approach the concept of diaspora from different angles, which allows us to give different insights into the queer diasporic experiences of our interlocutors. Nelli’s research participants, whether migrants to the US or US-born, consider the diaspora their home (or at least one of their many homes), where they expect to experience difference. I, on the other hand, approach diaspora with Dina Georgis, who suggests that “The space of diaspora is not the space of home but the space of loss of home… from which our “illness of love” and the terror of belonging and not belonging are re-imagined” (6).
With the mutual intent to decenter the single heteronormative narrative of being Armenian in the diaspora, our presentation weaves Nelli’s field-interviews with queer immigrant and US diaspora-born lesbian Armenian identified women living in New York, and my literary analysis of two US diaspora-born queer Armenian-identified women’s memoirs. We use the concept of diaspora as a site of movement and INCOMMENSURABILITY of ethnicity and queer desire. Elizabeth Povinelli defines incommensurability as a state of affairs where “an undistorted translation cannot be produced” between two systems of thought, language, or culture” (2001:320). The choice of our subject matter is informed by our respective research projects which have drawn particular attention to what Gopinath (2005) has called “the elision of queer female subjectivity in the diaspora” due to the hegemonic male-centered heteronormative and homosocial Armenian (trans)national and diasporic discourse/identity construction. As one of Nelli’s queer interviewees describes in rejecting the reproduction of masculinity in homonormative contexts, even gay Armenian men act “like the ‘favorite sons of their families” (Sargsyan). Consequently, rejecting either hetero- or homo-patriarchal dominance, taking up Gopinath’s charge to “mak[e] female subjectivity central to a queer diasporic project” enables us to “conceptualize diaspora in ways that do not invariably replicate heteronormative and patriarchal structures of kinship and community” (Gopinath 2005: 6), opening up to new forms of kinship and identity-making.
How might queerness, then, already align with notions of diaspora and exile, inscribing flux instead of stability as characteristic of the Armenian diasporic home? How do queer Armenian women present a particular challenge to the heteropatriarchal Armenian inheritance? What does a queer diasporic archive or queer temporality look like in the Armenian diaspora? These are the key questions that guide us.
I. (Mis)Gendering Home: Queer Women in the Stable, Heteropatriachal ‘Home’ Sites of the Nation and Diaspora
What it means to be an Armenian woman is not what it means to be a lesbian in the way that the culture presents [it]… So much of being an Armenian woman in my own experience… was… understanding the importance of how to make a cup of coffee for… your husband [or] when you would have people over for dinner…. all the women are working in the kitchen and all the men are sitting and doing nothing… Being a lesbian didn’t seem to fit into that picture at all.— Nina, one of my interlocutors offered.
Armenian identity in the diaspora has been reproduced institutionally with contested ideas of homeland (Tololyan 2007, Panossian 1998). The discourse of the production of Armenianness involves routinizable features, in Gumperz’s terms (Collins 2006) such as the uniqueness of the temporality of religion (Armenians as the first to adopt Christianity as state religion), origins, language, and culture in the Armenian transnation. This routinization of features, as Bourdieu points out (1991), allows a retrieval of social information and reproduces habitus, which is strategically employed to serve the nationalist and transnational purposes of the diasporic elites and their alignment toward each other and the perceived homeland(s). Queer Armenians inhabit multiple spaces shaped by and emanating from historical patriarchy, its morality, and heterosexism in a variety of ways, sometimes imploding the hetero-patriarchal spaces from within, at other times creating alternative collectivities elsewhere.
Nina’s anecdote above speaks to McClintock’s (1995) argument regarding the historical institutionalization of gender difference, wherein the dominant discourses of Armenianness privilege and impose particular kinds of gendered Armenianness at the expense of disenfranchising others (Butler 1993, Rosaldo 1980, Scott 1986, Ridgeway and Correll 2004). Albeit changing, certain historical hetero-patriarchal features of Armenianness — as Nina points out, women in the kitchen, men sitting around doing nothing — are persistently reproduced over time in Armenian diasporic communities through the conscious performance of identity work.
For Nina, being an Armenian woman is predicated on her participation in the binary heterosocial/sexual exchange between women’s subservience and men’s dominance. Yet, she expresses that her lesbian subjectivity further complicates the traditional ethnic gender roles of what it means to be an Armenian “woman.” As she specifies, it is her ethnically-produced gender role that is not concomitant with her desire: “being an Armenian woman is not what it means to be a lesbian,” as if lesbianism precludes being a part of both ethnic and gendered categories of identification. Given the above brief description, within the hetero-reproductive ethnic identity producing discourses, then, a non-hetero woman appears as if in limbo, a strange non-place of a potential non(hetero)-wife and a non(hetero)-mother — two identities that are foreclosed as viable performances of Armenian women’s world-making.
Deanna— In queer first and second-generation Armenian-American women’s memoir, the articulations of non-belonging as feminist and queer subjects ethnic Armenians are also expressed in terms of codified gender performances, as well as the incommensurablities with their ethnosexual subjectity as non-white diasporic subjects. In her 1992 bildungsroman memoir Lion Woman’s Legacy, Arlene Avakian writes heteronormative/patriarchal dissent as exclusions from Armenian belonging, depicting the Armenian home as a highly heteropatriarchal space. As she describes, in 1950s New York City, the measure of a “true” Armenian man in her family was primarily based on his biological, heteroreproductive inheritance (an Avakian did not have to prove his Avakianness) while the measures of “true” Armenianness for women in her house were qualitative and contingent, based on Armenian language fluency, her general silence, especially in political discussions; and remaining “homebound,” without the threatening American tendencies of going downtown unattended. In addition to these stringent or, as Nelli’s interviewee Nina remarks, “traditional” tendencies, as a child, Arlene is angered by her family’s gendered preference for her younger brother, their little “pasha” — a sentiment which some queer folks involved in Nelli’s research also expressed. Yet, the protagonist’s narrative (un)belonging to her Armenian home is not only predicated on a dissatisfaction with the ‘old-world’ gender roles of Turkey and Persia; she is also resentful of the reasons for which those gendered-roles are performed outside of their cultural context in the US. Remembering the horror she feels when her grandmother tells Arlene her escape story from Turkey in 1915 (of rape, murder and displacement), Arlene vows to escape her Armenianness by adopting the normative gender codes of white American women that her conservative Armenian family forbids:
My anger began to erupt—at my mother for her strict controls over me… at the Turks for having done what they did to my family, and at my grandmother for having lived through such horror and for telling it to me. I vowed to be like my friends. I would tweeze my eyebrows. I would wear lipstick. I would go out with boys. And, most of all, I would get away from my family as soon as I could.Arlene Avakian, Lion Woman’s Legacy
Escaping one rigid ethnic-identity opens the pathway for Arlene to adopt what she describes as the white, gendered convention of the US.
“Tired of pushing for words that might never be spoken” (142) in her 2006 memoir, Nancy Agabian also paints the conflicts between her sexual consciousness, and the dissonances between her identities as an ethnic Armenian and as a woman. First and foremost a wordsmith, Nancy’s memoir reiterates her need for words and language, conceptualizing them either as reflecting loss–“But I wanted words” (132) she insists—or by bridging incommensurability—similar to Maral, one of Nelli’s interlocutors, who expresses her need for voice through language, about which we will hear shortly. Though Nancy’s immediate family does not speak Armenian as first/second-generation Diasporans, the language permeates her consciousness as it is used for euphemisms for topics “too embarrassing to say in English: vardeek for underpants, voor for butt, and betkaran for bathroom” (25).
Nancy’s queer desire is expressed through the added lens of desiring the ethnic other of her Armenian family. When her uncle learns about Emine, her childhood Turkish friend and secret crush, he rhetorically asks, “You know what the Turks did to us, right?” Reminding Nancy of the “Romeo and Juliet situation [they] were in,” Nancy later recalls this doubly-queer desire: “Emine lay on her side, facing me, and I noticed the curve of her hip… I thought about how messed up and gay I would be if I wanted to kiss her. Then I tried really hard… to wipe it out of my mind” (Agabian). Textually and thematically, the memoir equates queer desire as an anti-reproductive discourse parallel to the threat of ethnic extermination.
As a distortion which conflicts with her image of “a nice Armenian girl,” Nancy confesses that her “insides just never felt feminine; they felt neutral, without gender. My body lived in the real world, and I lived in my head,” she writes. This discomfort is also associated with another danger:
my feminine appearance dwelled outside the realm of my mind’s control, and it could lead to something dangerous, like a scary man wandering around, just waiting to strike. This guy had been with me almost as long as I could remember, lurking at the edge of my consciousness. He shook Grammy and haunted her from the walls… He was not just a regular guy to whom you gave over your tender insides, but a monster to protect yourself from with dear life.Nancy Agabian, Me as her again
The image of the anonymous man-monster haunts both Nancy and her grandmother, a fear which she also writes about in a poem entitled “Reality.” The opening lines read: “Are you a lesbian? he asked/ No, I said, I’m bisexual but I’m afraid of men/ What exactly do you fear? He asked./ Their penises, I said.” Interestingly, while Nancy writes both her sexual paranoias and queer desires as incommensurable with her Armenian Diasporic identity, the memoir later ascribes the passing down of her grandmother’s genocide story and the implicit sexual violence she experienced as an ethnic Armenian woman in Turkey in 1915 as the intergenerational cause not just for Nancy’s in-between status as an Armenian-American, but also for her sexual identity dysphoria.
Fittingly then, through language play in its very title, Me as her again provokes a clever syllabic and phonetic play on Mi-a-ser-agan, the word for “homosexual” in Armenian. A cultural production of the Queer Diasporic Archive, Me as her again, the new ‘me’ to which one returns through family story, now incorporates queer identity back into the homespace: I am her, again, as I always was, as a product of my Armenian home.
Nelli— As Deanna’s examples above illustrate and asBlommaert (2005) argues, identity anchorages are tied into spatial trajectories. “[P]eople speak from a place” and shift places when they thematically switch codes – employ certain languages – thus shifting identities, also evoking variously scaled allegiances (223). Here I am engaging with Silverstein’s (2003) proposed scheduling of ethnolinguistic identity performance: the wheres, the whens, and the hows. I put him in a dialogue with Povinelli (2001) and her proposed incommensurability. In the Armenian diasporic circles there are different ways of negotiating the incommensurability (Povinelli 2001) of ethnodiasporic subjectivities and queer desire, as the example of Agabian’s memoir title [Me as her again] demonstrates. While I am careful in my usage of analogies so as not to colonize all difference and erase life-experiences in my examination and analysis of gendered ethnosexual diasporic subjectivity and queer desire, many of my research participants often used the analogy of ethnic difference and queerness. Queer Armenians collapsed the term queer and ethnic difference in an attempt to explain it in more relatable terms. Maral summarizes similar comments of fellow queer Armenians in her below comments.
I am queer because I am Armenian… If anything I am happy that I’ve come to this, that I can, you know, bash Armenians and be like, Yo, you need to realize that.Maral
For most of my hetero (and one gay) identified first, second, and third generation Armenian American research participants, Armenian Americans’ being white was taken for granted. In a way, this pointed to the particular migratory trajectories their families have had at particular times in the 20th century and the way Armenian American racial history has become part of the US racial politics. Most of my queer, lesbian, and gay identified research participants (and one hetero identified woman), however, think of themselves as non-white. This is a thematic trope also present in Deanna’s memoirists’ lives, Nancy describing herself, for example, as an olive-skinned mustachioed young girl with an obscure last name. Of my research participants who identify as non-white, perhaps Maral most passionately articulates these sentiments:
I met a lot of Armenians who just take the privilege of what it means to be Armenian in this country [in the US], because in this country being Armenian means that you’re white, especially if you don’t have an accent, especially if you can pass… But for me, [as a white-passing US citizen] you have to recognize the history of that… I don’t identify as white, but I always know that I have white privilege, you know… Not everywhere in the United States. And not everywhere in the world… And I don’t identify as a person of color, either. So, it’s like, I don’t fit anywhere… A lot of people don’t understand that actually in another place I am considered Black, you know…Maral
Here Maral articulates her discontent with US racial politics. I focus on Maral’s understanding of a racialized and gendered other, the incommensurability of whom is unsuccessfully dubbed (Boellstorff 2003) into legible and intelligible US history and politics of race of Black and White, and whiteability, much like in the Jewish experience (Brettschneider 2006:22). Maral also echoes Namjoshi’s proposition of multifaceted in-betweenness that it is because of her own experiences with racism and homophobia within her own family, wider ethnodiasporic community, much wider US mainstream society, then newly found alternative yet homonormative spaces where she locates herself “not within any one community but in the spaces between these different communities” (Mann 1997:101-102).
II. Queer Temporalities and the Queer Diasporic Archive
Nelli— Within this rendering of non-productive, non-hetero queer desire as incommensurable with ethnodiasporic subjectivities some of my queer Armenian research participants, who are artists, writers, and performers articulate collectivities that, on the one hand, challenge various nationalist absolutimsms, whether ethnic or religious, and resist Western homonormativity, on the other (Gopinath 2005:20). Through their writing, photography, video art, and architecture, queer, bisexual, and gay identified Armenian Americans create what Gopinath (2005) calls a “queer diasporic archive,” which documents the deliberate erasure of the queer agents, making it possible to imagine different potentialities of life-experiences, not forgetting historic violences (Dipesh Chakravarty qtd. in Gopinath 2005:21). Consider Maral’s below spoken word poetry, for example:
“…Listen to me. I am an intersection of identities. I am a boundless mystery.
Listen to me. I am many. I am an old root. I am an obstacle. I am a godless glory. I am unruly.
Listen to me. I am possible. I am who I was and will be. I am present.
Listen to me. I will represent myself.”excerpt from Maral’s spoken word video poetry
Maral and other research participants elsewhere, while collapsing ethnic difference and queer desire, point out how one experience of difference is predicated on the other. Throughout her interview, Maral spoke of various spaces of possibility that come with layered subjectivities, still allowing for yet another layer of difference (Foucault qtd. in Jakobsen 2003).
Deanna— Seeing Maral’s effort to collapse ethnic difference and queer desire at work, Avakian’s and Agabian’s memoirs are literary emblems of the making of that “queer diasporic archive,” their publications themselves well exemplifying a space in which the identities of queer, woman and Armenian/the Armenian diasporic experience might live concomitantly, even though dissonantly, between the pages of a memoir. Stylistically this collapse is rendered by the authors’ re-telling and intersticing of their grandmothers’ genocide stories alongside their own bildungsroman narratives, orienting themselves “within and between” stories, and thus “mapping identity onto the very spaces they (dis)inhabit” (Brostoff); a layered polyphony thats metadiscursively as a dialogue between grandmother and granddaughter. For Avakian, hearing and retelling her grandmother’s genocide survival story demonstrates that “even within a strict patriarchy, women were not rendered helpless,” a concept which ultimately encourages her to take strength in defying her own family’s heteropatriarchal customs, and her refusal to participate in them. For Agabian, the merging of her grandmother’s story catalyzes her to accept her queer identity as an Armenian-American. In her stage performance The Crochet Penis, she reads:
My grandmother was different. She saw her mother die, she saw her sister die, she saw her brother and father get dragged away to die and after a long death walk through the desert in circles she survived disease, death camps, orphanage and rape. After all that and a family she created to replace the real brothers and sisters she was more like a sibling than a mother to them my grandfather said, and she didn’t wanna be touched. My father saw this and he wed a woman, my mother and she didn’t wanna be touched, and I saw this and I didn’t wanna be touched. I am different now.Nancy Agabian, Me as her again
By literally deterritorializing the crochet penis from the patriarchal realm, Nancy’s performance piece also de-centers patrilineal inheritance, culture and tradition from nation, kin and their formation vis-a-vis heteropatriarchal inheritance that our other examples also express.
I conceptualize the stylistic and thematic merging and inheritance of grandmother and granddaughters narratives that “go beyond limiting frames of geography or time” (Edwards) vis-a-vis Brent Edwards’ conception of diaspora as a décalage—an ineffable “difference within unity” that opens a space to consider what is articulated in that which “resists translation.” Thus, I read the negotiation of ethnosexual incommensurability in these two memoirs as disarticulations of the heteronormative Armenian Diasporic experience they resist, which, through their very articulation, engender Halberstam’s notion of queer space as one in which “the notion of a body-centered identity gives way to a model that locates sexual subjectivities within and between embodiment, place, and practice.” If we read the authors’ return to their grandmothers’ stories as not only acts of queer mourning with Dina Georgis and David Kazanjian, but also as a queer reorientation or homecoming as does Anne-Marie Fortier, it would “suggestively unhinge [the] idea of an originary home(land)” (2001: 420) while also showing, by “movement towards an endlessly deferred space” (420), that homing desire also “emerges within the very spaces of inhabitance called home” (420).
As Georgis (2006) suggests, mourning “is a creative process generated from loss; and [that] loss… is an emotional resource for cultural production”(6). Perhaps then we might understand a part of the Queer Diasporic Archival repertoire of Armenian cultural productions as articulating the very un-fixed conditions that precede loss, diasporic and queer incommensurability, which lead to new spaces and possibilities of belonging.
Nelli— Employing a queer theoretical reading and destabilizing the institutional production of Armenianness through focusing on queer Armenian women’s production of Armenianness, and engaging with their own diasporicness through disidentification (Munoz 1999), we’ve attempted to provide a queered view of the production of diasporic Armenianness that in key diasporic Armenian public spheres (Werbner 1998) is heteronormatively produced with silent and erased queer habitation. The erasure of the Armenian experience of difference is often marked by its gendered conformity to the US politics of whiteable racial politics, inhabiting the gendered space of women as nurturers, upholders of the heteronormative family. In the Armenian diasporic experience that includes difference, factors such as migration, language, racialization, and class intersect and complicate the salience of queer desire non-linearly.
On the margins of the Armenian diasporic public spheres are alternative diasporic spheres: queer Armenian diasporic spheres. And while some are gendered and separate, others, like Avakian’s and Agabian’s memoirs, make room for a queer diasporic archive, which document the deliberate erasure of the queer agents, making it possible to imagine different potentialities of life-experiences, not forgetting historic violences (Dipesh Chakravarty qtd. in Gopinath 2005:21).
For our interlocutors, queer experience is like the Armenian experience in the diaspora. In other words, it is an experience of difference. They come from different chronotopic spaces and yet they speak of transgenerational connection between grandmothers and granddaughters through which they implode the hetero-reproductive home and create queer diasporic archive at the same time. They also speak of difference: differently experienced, lived, and discursively produced.
For the article version of Nelli Sargsyan’s research on this topic, see: “‘I Am Queer Because I Am Armenian’: On the Queerness of Racially Ambiguous Diasporic Belonging” in Transforming Anthropology, 29 April 2021.
Thank you to Nelli Sargsyan for her permission to publish this presentation.
Finding Place in Exile
1 October 2015
Workshop on Armenian-Turkish Scholarship (WATS), Istanbul, Turkey
Queer Armenian Voices Speak
“The great basis of virtue… is for the practiced mind to learn, bit by bit, first to change about in visible and transitory things, so that afterwards it may be able to leave them behind altogether. He who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his homeland is yet stronger; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is a place of exile.”Hugo of St. Victor (Didascalicon III, 20)
There have been calls by several scholars (some of whom are in this room today) who have urgently pointed out the need to delve deeper into the intersections between gender, sexuality, genocide, nationalist discourse and constructions of ethnic identity. How does each normative construct function in the exclusion of its semiotic opposition, posing, in the words of Roland Barthes, the naturalized Other as “a scandal which threatens” (Barthes: Mythologies, 1972) the majority’s existence as a deviant from the normal; a threat to the security of the home? The compilation Nationalisms and Sexualities shows us how discourses on the nation-state, gender and sexuality “circulate in the interest of a unified, coherent, and normative national identity,” (Kassabian and Kazanjian: “You Have to Want to Be Armenian,” 1998, 21) and work by Cynthia Enloe, Nikhat Sirman and Dicle Koğacioğlu and Ayşe Gül Altınay, among others, has lead us to consider how masculinity works in tandem with these discourses, writing women into the roles of tradition bearers (Koğacioğlu: “The Tradition Effect,” 2004, 2), authenticators and protectors of nationalist culture (Sirman: “Gender Construction and Nationalist Discourse,” 2000, 164). Yet, what kind of home-spaces do these women create, and what do their stories have to tell us? In analyzing the Armenian genocide as gendered, Arlene Avakian has urged us to explore the psychological effects of gendered genocide on subsequent generations and their institutions, and how trauma has participated in continued constructions and practices of masculinity, femininity, and sexuality, in post-genocide generations (Avakian: “A Different Future?” 2010, 207).
My critical literary intervention is one with an activist message, exploring the consequences of such oppositional constructs, and the genocide, by presenting two bildungsroman memoirs written by queer Armenian-American authors who strive to find place in Exile. Arlene Avakian’s Lion Woman’s Legacy: An Armenian-American Memoir and Nancy Agabian’s Me as Her Again: True Stories of an Armenian Daughter, are subversive additions to the canon of Armenian literature because they (re)present queer identity and Armenian-American experience as inextricably bound. What is revolutionary about these texts—aside from their dissident content—is the “queer” form their memoirs take in this process. Both works integrate the authors’ own stories with the Oral History transcripts of their grandmothers’ genocide survival stories, which the narratives use to reconcile their feminist and sexual identity formation. As a result, the memoirs operate as metadiscursive: a dialogue between grandmother and granddaughter, where the books themselves represent the in-between space of two first-person narratives, a space created through the Act of Writing. As Nancy Agabian describes, this space is one blended between “fiction and non-fiction”, memory and interpretation; “a true story,” (Agabian: Me as her again, 3) where both authors Find Place in Exile.
Avakian and Agabian depict exile in several narrative permutations: a “polarity of existence” (34), as Agabian explains, as typical to the “cross-cultural American experience… a feeling of never fully being yourself, in both the predominantly white world and in the traditional ethnic community of your family” (Avakian: Lion Woman’s Legacy, 16). They are also exiles from both communities due to their feminist politics and queer identities. Because each of the narratives’ iterations of exile deserves a paper in itself, I will only focus here first, on the interweaving of exile and belonging as the authors link their feminist/queer bildungsroman with their Armenian-American family/experience. I will then suggest that the Writing/Recording process for both authors becomes the metaphysical dual-space of Home and Exile, their actual place, as they integrate their grandmothers’ stories into the Memoirs. Finally, I will conclude with the reasons we may consider these works “queer” texts beyond their content, expressing the particular urgency for attention to be paid to these voices 100 years after the Armenian Genocide.
I. Queer Feminist Identities: The Experience of Exile
Arlene Avakian’s Lion Woman’s Legacy describes her coming to an anti-racist feminist consciousness and later discovering her lesbianism. On this journey, Avakian finds herself a stranger to most of her friends, her husband, her “maternal instincts”, the anti-feminist academic institution and her Armenian family. Throughout the memoir, Arlene makes her family’s participation in the formation of her exiled gender role clear. Her first pangs of feminist consciousness and Exile are directly catalyzed by her mother and grandmother’s special, gendered treatment of Arlene’s brother, their little “paşa.” Arriving home the hospital after he is born, Arlene recalls that “Sitting next to [my mother, grandmother and brother] I felt for the first time a circle of intimacy from which I was excluded” (16).
Arlene’s reaction from her family exclusion is expressed in gendered terms. After hearing her grandmother’s story of survival for the first time as a child, Arlene is angry. Rejecting this story, she vows to escape her Armenianness by adopting the normative gender codes of American women that her conservative Armenian family forbids:
“My anger began to erupt—at my mother for her strict controls over me…at the Turks for having done what they did to my family, and at my grandmother for having lived through such horror and for telling it to me. I vowed to be like my friends. I would tweeze my eyebrows. I would wear lipstick. I would go out with boys. And, most of all, I would get away from my family as soon as I could.”Avakian, Lion Woman’s Legacy, 34
Arlene’s attempt to escape one rigid identity opens the pathway for her adopting gendered conventions in an American context—one that first regulates her life and then creates serious conflict as she struggles to liberate herself from the patriarchal and heteronormative constructs of both Armenian and American communities.
When Arlene finds herself falling in love with a woman named Martha, she describes their relationship through the image of building a scattered, patchwork garden, “one that broke all the traditional rules for gardens” (234). It is through this building of a garden (perhaps a queer Eden), that Arlene feels free for the first time. It is also because of Martha’s encouragement that Arlene returns to her family’s Armenian story after a long hiatus after several vehement fights in which Arlene’s sense of racial injustice and the victimization of women seems almost hyperbolic. It is this relationship with a woman, one that sets Arlene outside the image of “a good Armenian woman” (284) that catalyzes Arlene’s return home.
Nancy Agabian’s memoir focuses more explicitly on the relationship between her sexual consciousness and its conflicts with her Armenian identity. Through language play in its very title, Me as her again, Agabian provokes a clever syllabic and phonetic play on Mi-a-ser-agan, the word for “gay” in Armenian. Me as her again, the new “me” to which one returns through family story, now incorporates also a queer identity. Fittingly, as Agabian plays with language, she identifies Language as the sight of the first conflicts between Sex and Armenian in her family in what she calls her “Armenian-challenged household.” Though her immediate family does not speak Armenian, the language permeates her consciousness as it functions as a language of euphemisms for topics “too embarrassing to say in English: vardeek for underpants, vor for butt, and betkaran for bathroom” (36). Thus, beginning with language, Agabian, relates her relationship to Armenianness with her sexual bildungsroman as centered around the question one of her later audience members asks after one of Nancy’s provocative performances (The Crochet Penis): “What is it about Armenians that make them so uptight about sex?” (177).
Throughout her childhood, Nancy and her older brother constantly use the term “gay” and “fag” to make fun of anyone acting outside of their socially expected gender roles. She even imagines her teachers “Diggin Arlene” and “Diggin Carol” in racy lesbian romance in an act of rebellion against being tortured as she’s assigned to re- learn declensions in Armenian school. Although a game as a child, as Nancy approaches adolescents, she becomes terrified not just by what might be the signs of her queer sexuality, but by her attraction to her only friend in middle school, a Turkish girl named Emine; an attraction which threatens to doubly transgress her “Armenian” identity. Learning about her Turkish friend, her uncle lectures to her and asks, “You know what the Turks did to us, right?” This reminds Nancy of the “Romeo and Juliet situation [they] were in” (72). In the next scene, Nancy recalls her doubly-queer desire: “Emine lay on her side, facing me, and I noticed the curve of her hip… I thought about how messed up and gay I would be if I wanted to kiss her. Then I tried really hard… to wipe it out of my mind” (72).
Nancy later confesses that her “insides just never felt feminine; they felt neutral, without gender. My body lived in the real world, and I lived in my head” (154), a distortion which conflicts with her image of “a nice Armenian girl” (73). Further, the discomfort with her body becomes associated with another danger: “my feminine appearance dwelled outside the realm of my mind’s control, and it could lead to something dangerous, like a scary man wandering around, just waiting to strike. This guy had been with me almost as long as I could remember, lurking at the edge of my consciousness. He shook Grammy and haunted her from the walls…He was not just a regular guy to whom you gave over your tender insides, but a monster to protect yourself from with dear life” (155).
The image of the anonymous man-monster haunts both Nancy and her grandmother. This fear of men is also expressed in one of Nancy’s poems published after the memoir, entitled “Reality.” The opening lines read: “Are you a lesbian? he asked/ No, I said, I’m bisexual but I’m afraid of men/ What exactly do you fear? He asked./ Their penises, I said” (Agabian, “The Experiment,” 2007, 16p). Later, as Nancy hears the Oral History tapes of her grandmother, the reader links Nancy’s sexual paranoia to her grandmother’s story of survival. For Nancy, as we’ll later see, this interweaving of these stories also helps her to come to terms with her own fear of being bisexual.
Prior to listening to the tapes, this fear, she reasons, is also one of the sources of her chronic panic attacks, which she admits (after learning her appendix needed to be removed) had always thought had “been the result of stress, a psychosomatic symptom, an intensity of being Armenian” (Me as Her Again, 179). Yet, on her way to a pilgrimage trip to Turkey, she begins to piece together the “crazy and controlling” behavior of Armenians, and the categories of exclusion as a survival mechanism which echo analyses of nationalism and its role in the policing of gender and sexuality construction:
“If we didn’t cling together as a group, we would get clobbered individually until extinction. It would explain why I still needed by mother’s approval to embark on anything risky… it would also explain the tendency I sensed in the Armenian community towards conformity; since it seemed there were so few of us, any divergence from the traditions of family and church (such as marrying a non-Armenian or being gay) was seen as disunity threatening the survival of the entire culture.”Agabian, Me as her again, 185
Yet, to what resources do our marginalized authors turn when it is they who threaten that disunity? As Julia Kristeva and other feminists of the l’ecriture feminine movement would argue, it is through writing—a semiotic (and in this case literal!) return to the womb—that the authors interweave their bildungsroman with their grandmothers’ stories, combating against the “regularit[y] of conventional language” (Jones: “Writing the Body,” 1981, 247-263) that they are able to reach both semiotic and emotional liberation from phal(logo)centric historical narrative and ethnic identity.
II. Linking Stories: The Power of Writing Queer
“Queer is a continuing moment, movement, motive— recurrent, eddying, troublant… Keenly, it is relational, and strange.” .Eve Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet
In her essay ‘Writing’, Barbara Johnson reminds us of Barthes’ challenge to look beyond the content of what is written to read the message embedded in how it is written to decode it. We thus must examine the intersection between content and form in Avakian’s and Agabian’s texts in order to arrive at the liminal “true story,” and how the actual Act of Writing, the need to tell a story, strongly drives these narratives. What are the formal literary effects as the authors merge their own gender/sexual identity with their grandmothers’ stories, and how might this amalgamation favor a queer reading? Due to the fact that both memoirists interweave actual Oral History transcripts into their works, they inevitably render a meta-memoir with three major characters: their Grandmother’s Oral History as character, the Granddaughter as Narrator, and the Author who creates a meta-discursive mixing of the two. Both memoirs publish selections from their grandmothers’ transcribed Oral History tapes, ultimately engendering queer space via the very act of Writing it.
J. Halberstam defines queer space as one in which “the notion of a body- centered identity gives way to a model that locates sexual subjectivities within and between embodiment, place, and practice” (Halberstam: In a Queer Time and Place, 2005). Both Avakian and Agabian’s memoirs do so because 1) they breach the taboo topic of divergent sexual identities by superimposing them onto a heteronormative patriarchal Armenian-American context, thus acting as politically subversive texts; and 2) Writing as LGBTQ Armenians, they offer us an alternative textual space that reminds us that Armenian identity is hybrid, constantly in- flux, and continually adapting—lending itself naturally to the analytical framework of “queer” itself.
This further problematizes how the story of the Armenian people, both pre- and post-1915, may or may not engender queer space—ever changing, as Jane Garrity expounds in English Language Notes’ special issue, in “nonnormative locales that are physical, social, and constituted by and through social relations” (Garrity: “Introduction: Mapping Queer Space,” 1997). This definition does not seem very far from the experience of a Diaspora and the in-between space of Armenia/ns geographically, politically and socially.
As both narratives progress, it becomes clear that Avakian’s sensitivity to the racial and gender injustice that surround her, and Agabian’s sensitivity to her sexuality and distanced feelings of Armenianness, is highly informed by the stories of their grandmothers that they were told as children. In order to orient themselves “within and between” these stories, the authors “map identity onto the very spaces they (dis)inhabit” (Brostoff: unpublished paper, 2015). By interweaving their stories through Writing, creating this Queer Space of the third meta-memoir, the authors give their grandmothers’ stories agency in the creation of their own dissident subjectivities. This Revolutionary, Queer Space allows both authors to transgress phal(logo)centric nationalist discourse which denies the construct of “gay” as oppositional to that of “Armenian.” In addition, by challenging other vitriolic assertions like one Agabian recounts in her memoir: “Gay Armenians don’t exist!… You’re nothing but a bunch of Turks!” (245) the memoirs doubly challenge synonymous constructs that ‘threaten’ the Armenian home.
While reading these subversive texts, we must heed to Barthes’ challenge to read “textuality” and the “disruptive force of signification and erasure that transgresses all closure” (Johnson: “Writing,” 1990, 229). In these texts, not to mention that it may be a queer thing to think about one’s sexual politics at the same time as they imagine their grandmothers, the process of Writing and Interweaving queer identity with their grandmothers’ stories is, as Barbara Johnson suggests, the act of subversion against the master, the “open[ing] up [of] a stance of domination, a space of exile… the pathway to freedom” (ibid).
Transforming the reality of oppositional sexual and ethnic identities to possibilities, these texts participate in the type of meta-language Barthes describes in Mythologies as “Revolutionary language”—the only type of language production FREE from Myth. I thus align Barthes’ Revolutionary Language with the writing of “Queer Space” which, as contemporary artist Jean-Ulrick Désert contends, “is in large part the function of wishful thinking or desires that become solidified” (in Garrity: 1997).
But Queer Writing and Storytelling doesn’t just act metadiscursively: Arlene’s grandmother comes to life when she is telling her story of survival to her granddaughter; and Nancy returns to Graduate School for an MFA in writing, “In a sense…to make her [grandmother] live again” (199), demonstrating that Writing is not only iconoclastic and politically subversive, but also an empowering act.
It is through the Transcription/Writing process of her Grandmother’s Oral History that Arlene, for the first time, “felt connected to her [grandmother’s] pain, to the pain of [her] mother, aunt, and uncle, and, by extension, the Armenian people” (281). Not only does this process, catalyzed by her lesbian relationship, emotively reintegrate her with a feeling of solidarity with the Armenian people and her own history, but through her grandmother’s resistance, Arlene realizes that “even within a strict patriarchy, women were not rendered helpless” (282). This story helps Arlene to realize her own openness to the women’s movement and her dissatisfactions with it, along with the irony that: “The same woman who taught me to defer to men, whom I had grown to dislike after the birth of my brother because she so obviously favored him, was also the woman who taught me, through her story, that women were strong” (282). In effect, writing is also an act of catharsis.
Understanding “some of the origins of [her] politics” (283) after her grandmother’s story, she admits that “My grandmother would never know what her story had meant for me” (281) Arlene understands that this story stands as a lesson for the next generation of women to fight for identity and survival—as anti-racists, as feminists, as queers—in the face of hegemonic power structures that seek to silence these marginal identities, even if those structures are in the home. While her grandmother’s story exemplifies that fight for her granddaughter, Avakian’s narrative exemplifies her own fight for us, as readers. This is the most revolutionary and Powerful aspect of Avakian’s memoir: the paradox that the very legacy of resistance and anti-victimization she inherits from her grandmother is the very thing that gives her the strength to not accept the limiting terms of participating in the Armenian community, even after her new-found solidarity with it: “I could never live in an Armenian community where my politics, values, and lifestyle would not be accepted… being an Armenian was important to me, but I had no intention of giving up any other part of my life” (287). As a result, the Legacy of the Resistance of Armenian Women is what sets Arlene free from limiting categories of identity that seek to deny her existence as a queer Armenian feminist.
For Nancy Agabian, it is not as much the legacy of resistance but a story of intergenerational psychological legacy of gendered violence which leads her to the acceptance of her difference, and healing. Perhaps the most powerful scene in Agabian’s narrative that demonstrates her structure of interweaving is in a scene in which she recollects one of her first sexual experiences with men. When she tries to open up and relax during intercourse, her partner suddenly stops and says, “You squeezed me out” (153). Analyzing the situation, terrified of what this experience might mean about her identity, she immediately parallels her grandmother’s fear of being touched by a man to her own psycho-sexual identity crisis: “Wasn’t it pretty obvious I was a big lesbian in denial if I was going around repelling penises from my vagina? It was like I was wearing some kind of an invisible girdle, an iron chastity belt inherited from my grandmother” (153). Spliced throughout the memoir is the piecing together of her Grandmother Zanik’s resistance to men and, as a result of her socially constructed role as a respectable Armenian woman, the decorum she possessed over her own body, even in the most extreme of circumstances (148). To Agabian’s surprise, she learns from “the aunts” that her grandmother wore a girdle all her life: “She said that because of men, even she, an old lady, had to wear one, all the time.” Curious about why her grandmother wore a girdle to “look good for men,” her sister Valerie clarifies: “No, she wore it to protect herself from them” (148). Reflecting on her grandmother’s death, Agabian explains that her end became immanent to the aunts the moment that “Grammy took off her pantyhose” (148). Hours later, she took her last breaths. Thus, Agabian paints a strong metaphorical image of her grandmother’s self-liberation, or the death of her gender victimization, though able to occur only in the hours before physical death.
In a later performance piece she shares in the memoir about this topic, Agabian speaks directly to her grandmother’s experience of genocide and her own sexual psychosis in a performance piece called The Crochet Penis:
My grandmother was different. She saw her mother die, she saw her sister die, she saw her brother and father get dragged away to die and after a long death walk through the desert in circles she survived disease, death camps, orphanage and rape. After all that and a family she created to replace the real brothers and sisters she was more like a sibling than a mother to them my grandfather said, and she didn’t wanna be touched. My father saw this and he wed a woman, my mother and she didn’t wanna be touched, and I saw this and I didn’t wanna be touched. I am different now.Agabian, Me as her again, 160
And, as Nancy is different with the merging of these stories, the hope is that we too, as readers, as listeners, will also be different.
100 years after the Armenian Genocide, we find ourselves as Armenians yet again in a moment of exclusionary, nationalist discourse based on identity politics that is a matter of life and death. This time, it is not along lines of ethnic or nationalist identification like in 1915. The all-too familiar Blacklist of 1915 has morphed in 2014 into the blacklist of “The Country’s and Nation’s Enemies,” published by the newspaper Iravunk—the “Right”—calling for the public shunning of those who support the LGBTQ cause in Armenia, being called not only the nation’s enemies, but also paralleled to Enemy of the State #1: “The Turk”.
So, to approach these texts as creating Queer Space is not just an aesthetic endeavor—it is also HIGHLY political. The existence of these queer memoirs, which through their Revolutionary language fight to destabilize the Myth that queer and Armenian identities are irreconcilable, stand as Proof in Writing that, as the first LGBTQ organization in Turkey KAOS GL proclaimed in their recent speech for their acceptance of the Hrant Dink Award this year, “We are here, we’re not going anywhere, better get used to us!” (KAOS GL’s speech at Hrant Dink Award Ceremony, 2015). We must make direct links to these texts and the Political Urgency to the cause of LGBTQ Armenians and their supporters in Armenia who are RIGHT NOW facing social ostracization, job loss, and state- and self-imposed geographic exile. Literature empowers us to identify with and embrace diversity. Both Avakian and Agabian’s memoirs show us that we do not have to deny the past. In fact, we must return to it to learn from the injustices of exclusion and the strengths of the subaltern that have overcome them. Only in this way, and in gatherings like this that provide forums for making links to the continuity and urgency of the present, can we productively move forward while honoring the past.
- Krikor Zohrab
- Komitas Vartabed
- Adom Yerdjanian (Siamanto)
- Daniel Varoujan
- Zabel Yesayan …and 253 others
- Mamikon ——yan
- Simon ——yan
- Arevik ———ian
- Vahe ——yan
- Nvard ——yan …and 55 others
List One: April 24, 1915. Turkey.
List Two: May 17, 2014. Armenia.
When will we stop?