The limits of Westernization
‘The Limits of Westernization: A Cultural History of America in Turkey’ by Perin E. Gürel (Columbia University Press, 273 pages, $49)
One of the most significant Ottoman novels of the 19th century, Ahmet Rifki’s “Felatun Bey and Rakim Efendi,” appeared in a new English edition in 2016. First published in 1875, the story centers on two stereotypical characters in Istanbul, dramatizing the question of modernization and Westernization. Felatun Bey is a spendthrift, feckless, effete Istanbul dandy who passively mimicks Western mores. Rakim Efendi is hard-working, grounded and disciplined, familiar with European culture but respectful of local Ottoman heritage – carefully balancing innovation and tradition.
The genre of the novel itself was long seen in Turkey as a symbol of Westernization. As a European product of bourgeois society, the novel appealed to generations of reformers in the 19th century for its apparent realism, empiricism and didactic potential. European prose forms were often contrasted as worldly, rational counterpoints to the traditionalism and lofty spiritualism of Ottoman classical poetry.
The thematic concerns of various novels – including “Felatun Bey and Rakim Efendi” - are among the examples probed in “The Limits of Westernization” by Perin Gürel, an assistant professor at the University of Notre Dame. The book is a potpourri of loosely affiliated sections, examining fiction, language trends and shifting discourse among LGBT activists to consider reflections of Westernization – specifically Americanization - in disparate cultural realms, particularly focusing on the 20th century. The result is no more than the sum of its parts and it makes few grand overarching claims. But it certainly makes some interesting digressions along the way.
A recurring theme in Turkey since the 19th century has been the issue of “managed Westernization.” Elites of various ideological persuasions have pushed the idea of selectively “taking the good aspects” of the West and “leaving the bad.” But as Gürel suggests, such an approach is naively idealistic. “Cultural changes unleashed by increasing transnational contact often prove volatile,” she writes. “No power elite can fully direct the trajectory of sociocultural change in even the smallest and most homogenous nation.”
The book meanders around this theme. The Western cultural hegemon shifted from France in the 19th century to the U.S. in the 20th century, but Turkish anxiety about cultural domination remained consistent. The current nationalist-Islamist Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) rhetorical emphasis on “local and national” production – from vehicles to cultural products, from the defense sector to universities - is a recent reflection of this anxiety. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan last week claimed that Bosphorus University, Turkey’s most prestigious university and a liberal bastion, was unable to succeed because it is alienated from authentic “local and national values.”
Gürel shows that government policy can only ever have a limited influence on social developments. Even in the most authoritarian countries, societies tend to have their own dynamics. “Even the most resolute nationalist rulers,” Gürel writes, “can have no say over how (or even whether) their reforms will take root and hybridize with local cultural formations.” If she is right, Turkey’s current nationalist anxiety about foreign cultural encroachment may be little more than sound and fury, signifying much but changing little.