Accepted paper:

Cracks in Enlightenment certainties: dealing with seismic forces of ruination in Van (Turkey)


Marlene Schäfers (University of Cambridge)

Paper short abstract:

This paper argues that earthquakes, through their forces of ruination, can cause (literal) cracks in enlightenment certainties about the passivity of material objects, and investigates how residents may seek to reestablish an attitude of modernist superiority over the materialities surrounding them.

Paper long abstract:

On 23 October 2011 the city of Van (Turkey) was hit by a devastating earthquake, which not only killed over 600 people and left thousands injured but also destroyed large parts of the city's material fabric. In a matter of seconds, the city was turned from a dusty, booming border town into a depopulated, ruined settlement. Cracks came to mark the walls of nearly every building, rubble to pile the streets. This paper argues that Van's sudden ruination by seismic forces literally shook modernist certainties about the passive quality of material objects and forcefully reminded inhabitants of the active potentialities inherent in seemingly inert matter. Based on ethnographic material I seek to show how this blow to enlightenment certainties made Van's residents develop an outright suspicious attitude towards the built environment and how notions of the uncanny came to dominate their relations with ruined buildings. The paper moreover argues that this ethnographic situation can be taken to mirror recent trends in anthropological theory in their similar "suspicion" towards enlightenment notions of human superiority over non-human objects (e.g. Gell, Ingold, Latour, Miller). By focusing on the ways in which Van's inhabitants sought to cover up the cracks and repair damaged certainties during the post-earthquake period, however, this paper proposes that what easily goes missing in such anthropological attempts at restoring agency to objects is an account of how our interlocutors might well seek to maintain and reestablish an attitude of modernist superiority over the materialities that surround them.

panel P55
Ruined bodies and aging buildings: architecture, oblivion, decay