Mediterraneanism, Realism and Hypergender (Draft)
1. 'Honour and Shamelessness'
Is it still possible to talk about gender in Mediterraneanist anthropology and ethnomusicology? Mediterranean gender studies remain closely connected with Oxford social anthropologists' efforts to wrestle with structuralism in the 1950s and 60s, a process that gender in terms of region-wide moral/cosmological binarisms, subsequently characterized as the 'honour and shame complex'. A decade later, this theoretical tradition came under sustained fire from within the British Social Anthropological tradition (structuralism 'colonized' the Mediterranean, reified problematic distinctions between 'public' and 'domestic' across an enormous area, dehistoricized, ignored the performative and material 'work' involved in creating gendered and sexual difference, and occluded women's worlds); not much can be said to be left of it. Rephrased to incorporate sexuality, but not fundamentally reconceptualized, many aspects of this binary thinking have been recycled as hegemony/counter-hegemony or power/resistance, routed through what Marshall Sahlins characterizes, in an acerbic critique, as 'the current Foucauldian-Gramscian-Nietzschean obsession with power ... the latest incarnation of anthropology's incurable functionalism' (1996: 16).
If these two critiques are brought to bear on the discussion of music, gender and sexuality, a number of familiar lines of though become hard to pursue. Arguments about the ways in which music and dance simply reproduce gendered and sexual identities are problematized, since we are confronted with a familiar tautology between representation and social fact which fails to grasp the messy and often inconclusive dynamics of lived cultural experience (c.f. Sugarman 1987). The task of discussing the ways in which musicians negotiate more or less 'honorable' social positions is also considerably complicated. Just how much explanatory significance are we to attribute to moral schemes that we recognize, at some level, as being opaque and performative rather than transparent and descriptive? Do professional entertainers, often stigmatized as moral outsiders in many parts of the Mediterranean world, actually achieve the respectability they apparently cherish, or is this little more than self-delusion, a post-facto effort to rationalize social insignificance and marginality (c.f. Van Nieuwkerk 1995)?
And transgression, once comfortably theorized as fertile counter-hegemony, is now extremely thorny territory. To take a current example, what are we to make of the choice of transsexual singer Donna International to represent Israel in this year's Eurovision song contest? Inspired propaganda? A mechanism for ensuring the smooth operation of hetero-normative gender and sexual systems? Pristine deviancy critiquing the mainstream from some prior and structurally external position? And if none of these, what is she? In addition, the choice of such spectacular figures as linchpins in an argument about gender and sexuality in the Mediterranean world exposes anthropologists and ethnomusicologists to the charge of neo-colonial exoticization and the imbuing of 'Mediterranean' gender with the taint (to sober, Protestant northern observers, at least) of artifice and theatricality. We might do best leaving gender alone.
It may be the case, though, that we are in the domain of another orthodoxy, evoking 'functionalism' (which anthropologists have been using to chastise the old guard and police the avant-garde for nearly 40 years), and expressing unease with a power/poetics models derived from 'Neitzsche-Foucault-Gramsci'. We are surely in the domain of another orthodoxy which might itself be interrogated. Why, for example, abandon anthropology's commitment to people 'othered' by reference to supposedly immutable 'physical' or genetic attributes (gender, sexuality, race)? Why abandon the efforts involved in tracing the relationship between the marginal or disenfranchised cultural worlds and social processes? Why abandon the complex interpretative investigation of 'muted' groups? Romantic post-moderns once argued that we all now have a voice (or, at least, a web page), and many continue to believe there is no 'periphery' left for the 'centre' to exclude, but few, apart from hardened cyber-propagandists, would endorse this. The information age, reaching further and deeper than any communications revolution yet, still silences as no other has. And if anthropologists and ethnomusicologists don't take the idea that some people don't always get heard seriously, who will?
The study of gender clearly remains central to a progressive anthropological and ethnomusicological project. There are certainly ways in which it can be expanded, and the Mediterranean provides some distinct opportunities. One of these relates to what one might call ethnographic scale. Traditionally this has been theorized as the addition of 'comparison' and 'historical awareness' to the traditional ethnographic enterprise (Davis 1977). History no longer need to be argued 'for', although its ethnographic modalities remain complex. 'Comparison' may more usefully be thought of as exploring systemic and structural relations across regions beyond the traditional unit of ethnographic analysis (village or tribe). In both cases the anthropology of the Mediterranean has provided test cases; the materials lie close at hand, and issues of gender and sexuality have been paramount. Ethnomusicology, dealing with that most mobile of semiotic systems, has provided some notable exercises in transregional analysis, focusing both on mobile musics (Sorce-Keller 1993 and Manuel 1989), and on the social roles of festival musicians (Lortat-Jacob 1994); a transregional gendered analysis of musicians has yet to emerge, although a very substantial literature lies at hand.
Turning to the literature on Egypt, one might consider, for example, the monumentalization of Umm Kulthum from a variety of transregional and historical perspectives. In Egypt, her momentalization rest on her status as the repository of authentic turath, heritage (her modernity notwithstanding), which renders the task of anybody following in her footsteps more or less impossible. Her success determines the failure of all who follow in her wake (Danielson 1996). The best one can hope for is the title of 'the second Umm Kulthum' (as in the case of Algerian singer, Warda). The processes which confer monumental status on some female entertainers, elite legitimacy on a few (such as Fifi Abdou - see Lorius 1996), notoriety on others, and the status of prostitutes on the large majority (Van Nieuwkerk 1995) operate outside Egypt, although often with reference to Egypt's tremendously popular singers and dancers. Religion and statist/republican ideologies also impose similar conditions on women's participation in public entertainment, although their precise regional intersections vary considerably. Statist/republican ideologies impose their own demands for political and cultural 'legibility' upon musicians; Umm Kulthum was an almost paradigmatic success in this respect. The wider context of the absorption of the Mediterranean region into the penumbra of European commercial and military power over the course of the last half millennium imposes its own conditions on women; the marketplace provides certain freedoms (access to fantasies of a 'democratic' and 'modern' West across most sections of society), but forecloses others (by commodifying culture, turning women into paid objects of male public pleasure and having to deal with the new forms of patriarchy that emerge with modern state systems). Umm Kulthum, Chika Rimitti, Rosa Askenazi and Fairuz could usefully be considered as related responses to the question of how women engage, and are engaged by, 'tradition' in the context of four quite different, and equally traumatic experiences of modernity on Europe's periphery (Nasser's revolution, the Algerian war of independence, the Greek 'Asia Minor catastrophe', and the Lebanese civil war).
Secondly, it remains important to consider the ways in which musicians and dancers conceptually frame the situation themselves, and act upon these conceptualisations. From Edwin Ardener's notion of 'muting' to the theorizations of bricolage put forward by subcultural theorists, ethnographers have useful tools at their disposal in enabling them to understand the complex ways in which subordinated groups operate with fractured and reinterpreted fragments of dominant discourse. It uses these in complex performative situations, which may not be oppositional in any simple sense, but, nonetheless, enable marginalized groups some degree of cultural space, render brutal realities meaningful in terms that people can operate with, and that others, with some effort, can understand. Notions of 'honour and shame', reconfigured as they are from aristocratic moral codes by rural populations in the early modern period, are a vital component of these kind of fractured discourses across the Mediterranean. Recent accounts stress the performative politics of honour and shame; the ability (or failure) to narrate and establish authoritative interpretations. Men, rather than women, move to the centre of these kinds of accounts, and the reproduction of honour (and the masculinity bound up with it) is rendered problematic and unstable. Considered as narration and 'performance', issues of honour and shame are still relevant to the ways musicians live and project themselves; a wide literature focusing as much on men as women, attests to its importance (Dawe 1994, Langlois 1996, Poulsen 1995, Stokes 1997)
Finally, an anthropology of music, gender and sexuality in the Mediterranean needs to address the exceptional and spectacular as well as the everyday. Any account of the phenomenal success of an Umm Kulthum or a Chika Rimitti, for example, has to engage precisely with the fact that they are, despite constant and insistently mythologized allusions to being 'one of the people', exceptional women (c.f. Danielson 1998, Virolle 1995), and that, conversely, Zeki Müren (transvestite, gay), Mohammed abd al-Wahhab (diminutive dandy) and the sickly Abd-al Halim Hafiz are exceptional men. Their dazzling spectacularity involves complex gender positionality, and equally complex politics. To what extent was Umm Kulthum the product of the causes she espoused, and to what extent did she summon them into existence? Just how did Zeki Müren attract the admiration of conservative small town housewives across Turkey, and inspire national mourning on his death in 1996 (Ellingsen 1997)? Figures such as Donna International, as mentioned above, are difficult to interpret. All would appear to have been put to political use, and lent their services in a profligate and often contradictory fashion to the ruling powers of the time and place. Their lack of political legibility becomes more complex when one reflects on their transnational popularity. Their music may infuriate local intelligensias because they cannot work out what their 'project' is, but their shamelessness seems to be readily interpretable across the most surprising borders. The dynamics of Donna International are undoubtedly different in Egypt and Israel, yet clearly aspects of the same phenomenon (Swedenburg, in press). The same would apply to Ibrahim Tatlises and Bülent Ersoy, spectacularly gendered singers, whose constituency in Turkey is primarily proletarian, whilst they have substantial support amongst the urbanized intelligentsia in Greece.
Just what does their exceptionality consist of? Is it merely a case of manufactured 'difference' enforcing gendered and sexual norms? Or do they represent a constituency of 'deviants' (to those useful but slightly implausible northern Protestants) 'traditionally' accepted in Mediterranean societies? In considering sexual and gendered exceptionality, are we simply swapping shame for shamelessness, and managing to maintain the reifying, controlling force of the old paradigm? Bearing all of this in mind I turn to two flamboyantly exceptional singers who have dominated the light classical/popular Arabesk genre in Turkey for the last 20 years, Zeki Müren and Bülent Ersoy.
Bülent Ersoy and Zeki Müren
Zeki Müren was born in the wealthy provincial city of Bursa in 1931; he died a year and half ago (24 September 1996) to national mourning, more or less a household name in Turkey as a singer, composer and film star. He was associated with the light classical ('nightclub') genre, but his career contained some noteworthy excursions into Arabesk. He received a solid classical training from teachers associated with prestigious art music conservatories and the state's media system (notably Serif Içli and Refik Fersan), enrolling at the Fine Arts academy in Istanbul after completing his higher education at Bogazici Lycee. His reputation rested on some eighteen musical films (from Beklenen Sarki in 1953 to Rüya Gibi in 1971), on his concerts in the light classical genre in the 1950s, and particularly his live performances in Istanbul's gazino nightclubs, marked by their elaborate décor and Müren's increasingly camp costumery. What little shock value Zeki Müren once possessed had entirely dissipated by the time I began to research Arabesk in the early 1980s, when Zeki Müren was living openly with his male partner in semi-retirement in the Turkish seaside town of Bodrum,
His 1979 recording, Kahir Mektubu, marked a turn to Arabesk, characterised, at least for Turkish listeners, by the explicit adoption of Arab models, large string orchestras, and an emotional vocal style. It's composer, Muzaffer Özpinar, had himself encountered Umm Kulthum's later ughniyat style through recordings whilst in Paris in the 1970s; thoroughly inspired, he set out to write his own Turkish version. Zeki Müren's moves in and out of Arabesk did not, however, attract a great deal of attention, let alone condemnation. Zeki Müren's nightclub orchestra (including such luminaries as clarinetist Sükrü Tunar) was already vast, and the explicit imitation of Umm Kulthum's later ughniyat was the latest in a long process of versionizing foreign musics that had, in fact, dominated the Turkish recording industry since at least the 1940s. Zeki Muren had by this stage already 'covered' Tango, Chanson and Ferid al-Attrache's Zennübe, and the expansive scope of Kahir Mektubu soon gave way to the three to four minute format that both the light classical genre and Arabesk had adapted to in the 1970s. Both light classical and arabesk genres had a proletarian fan base who were unconcerned by matters of genre definition, and as far as the intelligentsia at this time were concerned, both light classical and arabesk were not 'properly Turkish', and both were ideologically tainted as a consequence. The move from light classical to arabesk was, in other words, of little consequence.
Zeki Müren's high prestige rested on his voice, and this in turn (in a manner not dissimilar to Umm Kulthum) rested on the 'legible' quality of his diction. Zeki Müren's Turkish was of an elevated quality, of a kind that has no counterpart in spoken Turkish except in poetic recitation, marked by slight swells and tremors (marking heightened emotion), particular attention to consonants normally swallowed or elided in spoken Turkish, and a tendency to exaggerate the distinction between 'back' and 'front' vowels. Words can indeed be clearly heard throughout Zeki Müren's songs; when they are blurred or violated, this has a clear expressive and dramatic purpose. Many professional musicians of the period remark that Zeki Müren was the first person to understand the full expressive potential of the microphone, effecting a revolution in popular musical expression akin to Bing Crosby's crooning technique (Elligsen/Stokes interview with Cem Karaca 1996). 'Good Turkish' connotes class, status, and prestige, despite the fact that nobody would imitate the way Zeki Müren spoke in everyday life; but more importantly, 'good Turkish' connotes empathy with the goals of Atatürk's revolution. In Turkey, as elsewhere, language was the master signifier of the modernist revolution, evoking clarity, functional communicative efficiency, democracy, and, of course, ethnic homogeneity. Zeki Müren's 'good Turkish' was a, if not the, crucial component of his high prestige. It is striking that when the Turkish Radio and Television began to relax their ban on Arabesk and Arabesk associated artists in the late 1980s, Zeki Müren was one of the first to be invited to participate in New Year and other bayram special programmes, billed initially as a 'surprise artist'.
Bülent Ersoy presents more complex biographical problems, but this is precisely part of the distinction that I wish to draw between the two singers. She is also a household name, through having recorded some of the best selling cassettes of the 1980s; she is now well beyond the routine drudgery of the nightclub circuit, although she occasionally makes appearances at large civic festivals (such as the mid-summer Gülhane park festival in Istanbul) to connect with a huge audience of proletarian fans. The distinctive sound of her voice is almost an atmospheric property of the city's streets, bars, and taxi cabs, but she is a curiously absent presence. Her remote superstar status is carefully managed. The singer rarely gives interviews; she and her entourage actively discourage researchers. In some senses, therefore, there is not much to 'know' about her: she has lived mostly in Istanbul, studied at up-market music conservatories. She was mentored by Müzeyyen Senar, a well-known singer in the light classical genre, and it is not difficult to hear the similarities in their vocal style. She has also worked closely with Muzaffer Özpinar after her recruitment to the major Turkish media conglomerate Raks' elite S-Müzik division in the 1990s. Her repertoire, like that of Zeki Müren, moves fluidly, although perhaps more self-consciously, between Arabesk and the classical genre.
What people in Turkey know about Bülent Ersoy is known primarily through the tabloid press. Humour prevails, rather than scandal and outrage. Press releases document a vaguely implausible, but no doubt sincere quest for bourgeois respectability (Bülent Ersoy, wearing headscarf, renounces all musical activity for the month of Ramazan; Bülent Ersoy plans engagement, and is assembling her dowry; Bülent Ersoy, finally, gets married in Izmir). These matters never fail to raise a smile to the readers of Turkish tabloids. Bülent Ersoy is, after all, Turkey's most famous transsexual. Her insistent heteronormative fantasies are curious, even to the most casual Turkish observers, although her uncertain gendered status has been a matter of high level legal and political concern. Media coverage has by no means all been of a prurient nature; Turkey's intelligentsia continue to see the legal and political status of transsexuals as a matter of serious concern. She left the country to undergo sex-change surgery in London in 1981, after which a highly puiblicised debate took place as to whether Bülent would thereafter perform as a man or a women. Women require a special police permit to perform in public (but not men); this, in the event, was not forthcoming, although the precise grounds are unclear. Bülent, or her managers, were evidently not prepared to make the argument that she was really a man, and as a consequence, Bülent spent several years in virtual exile.
It is hard to assess the exact motivations involved: clearly life in Germany presented more opportunities for a singer during the harsh years of cultural, economic and political austerity that prevailed in Turkey after the 1980 military coup. In 1986, Turkey's new liberal leaders were already signaling the need for cultural change with reference to Bülent Ersoy, and other banned or marginalized artists (from Arabesk singers such as Orhan Gencebay to radical rock singers such as Cem Karaca). If her exile years were years of Arabesk, her return to Turkey was marked by recordings in an austerely classical style. Konseri (of. c. 1987), Alatürka 1995, and her recent Orkide series have large string orchestras, but otherwise are self-conscious in their classicism, involving long and academic taksim improvisations, and a slow and sober pace, quite removed from Arabesk's hustle and general business. The quest for legitimacy, both sexual and cultural, therefore, has clear career motivations in the context of the liberalization of the Turkish political and economic system during these years. But they cannot absolutely be reduced to this. This approach leaves unexplained the sheer sexual spectacle of Bülent Ersoy's stage and mass media appearances; the vast expanses of bare flesh and a repertoire of gestures and glances drawing explicitly on the soft-pornography of the Turkish tabloids, the incredible costumery, the witty and erotically charged banter that characterises her live stage performances.
Bülent Ersoy and Zeki Müren have much in common. Both, obviously, flout the heterosexual norms that prevail in modern Turkey. Both come from fairly comfortable, bourgeois backgrounds (unlike many Arabesk singers). Both are connected to prestigious cultural institutions and musicians. Both have been mentored by Muzaffer Özpinar, a composer and arranger with substantial establishment credentials. Both have followed the market, rather than political orthodoxy; for both, the emergence of the liberal regime of the later 1980s resolved the problem, since the market was the new political orthodoxy. They differ in key respects, which are often elided. Zeki Müren lived openly as a gay man, whilst Bülent Ersoy lives, apparently, as a heterosexual woman. Zeki Müren enjoys some support from Turkish gay commentators, whilst Bülent Ersoy is considered by many to be involved in a complex game of self-denial which does absolutely nothing to advance Turkish sexual politics. Clearly there is a generational difference to be taken into account. Zeki Müren's stage performance in the 1960s and 70s involved spectacle clearly cultivated for a certain shock effect, as Bülent Ersoy's do now; for the last 20 years of his life, Zeki Müren cultivated an image of demure respectability, his homosexuality discreet, and rendered respectable through comparison with the male-male partnerships canonized in classical Sufism (recently, he likened himself to the medieval Anatolian mystic Celaleddin Rumi and his partner to Rumi's constant companion and inspiration, Sems; Anne Ellingsen, personal communication).
Two explanatory schemes offer themselves; both seem limited. The first is inclined to equate the gendered and sexual dissidence of all Arabesk/light classical singers, and see in them an overtly oppositional statement vis-à-vis the republican tradition's modernist heteronormativity. Their 'oppositionality' did not add up to a coherent or effective politics: the mystificatory fatalism and pacificatory messages of Arabesk were evidently recognized by the Turkish military regime, who were, to say the least, attentive to cultural details. Arabesk, one can surmise, was, from the state's point of view, a kind of pressure valve, turning genuine discontent into empty sloganeering, represented (from their perspective) by deviants and dropouts. Arabesk singers were, as a consequence, easily co-opted by the subsequent liberal regimes, opposed to the Generals, as an undemocratically excluded 'other'. This, at least, was a view I pursued explicitly in The Arabesk Debate (1992). Its limitations now seem obvious: it ignored the quite different things that singers such as Bülent Ersoy and Zeki Müren represent, it failed to problematize huge numbers of eminently 'straight' musicians in this musical world (GÖkhan Güney, Ferdi Tayfur, Mustafa Keser, and many, many others), and it fails to account for the fact that Zeki Müren and Bülent Ersoy are not, and have never really been, objects of moral censure. Bülent Ersoy lies outside of any coherent logic of 'honour and shame', whilst Zeki Müren's cultural prestige was deeply rooted well before the military takeover. The problem, as Ellingsen perceptively notes, has never been to account for their 'shamelessness', but, in some respects, to account for their 'decency'. Bülent Ersoy and Zeki Müren have never really been 'outside' the system, so could never really have functioned as a conduit for these kinds of politics, either as tolerated deviants or of undemocratically excluded others.
Against the 'pressure valve' thesis of supposedly dissident sexuality, one might set an argument which surfaces more and more frequently in Turkish print media, which nostalgically constructs a world of 'traditional' homosexuality, enshrined by the Ottoman court's transvestite zenne and rural kocek dancers. Zeki Müren's references to Celaleddin Rumi and Sems can be seen as a parallel argument. This pristine homosexual tradition was, the argument goes, forcibly repressed by obsessively heteronormative republicans, for whom 'the freedom of women' was the key rallying point, and westernity was constantly imagined in terms of the 'hygienic' and 'efficient' nuclear family . The problem with this argument is that gay, lesbian and transsexual commentators are actually inclined to dismiss Bülent Ersoy and others as profiteers and upstarts, not representatives or trail blazers. It is true that a distinctly modernist distaste for male-male contact persists. Many young Turkish men I know consider hanging around with other men in cafes, for example, as a meaninglessly 'traditional' activity (how often I heard people express their frustration with the worthless 'traditions' - gelenek - of café life), for example. Cartoonists in progressive satirical journals such as Leman regularly portray 'traditional' cafe life in terms of its barely suppressed homoeroticism (c.f. Stokes 1996). Recently the Adana municipality voiced its concern over the 'traditional' male practice of kissing cheeks by way of greeting, evoking, in this somewhat farcical process, two persistent modernist tropes: hygiene, and the negative image that this evokes for western observers. But this is not widespread.
It is also the case that modernist heteronormativity can be traced back to the earliest period of Ottoman reforms in the nineteenth century (i.e., one can't simply tie it to the establishment of the modern republic some 50 years later; Atatürk, despite the mythic centrality of his 'healthy' heterosexual drive and tendency to surround himself with modern and independent women, cannot be entirely blamed for imposing this dull and unimaginative state of affairs on the Turkish people). The argument that Bülent Ersoy and Zeki Müren represent a continuous Middle Eastern 'tradition' of gender ambiguity and/or deviance is shaky, to say the least, and it rests on similar foundations to my own, earlier, starting position, that both can be unproblematically conflated, and made to represent 'a position' in Turkish cultural politics. It is precisely this view that I now want to critique. An alternative might be to investigate their differences.
3. Modernity and Hypergender
One might usefully consider Bülent Ersoy and Zeki Müren as a pair, involved in a kind of schizmogenetic relationship whereby the meanings that cluster around the one relate to the meanings which cluster around the other. Zeki Müren's legibility seems to me to be closely and systematically connected with Bülent Ersoy's opacity or 'illegibility'. These meanings have, of course, changed over time. Bülent Ersoy was a young singer whilst Zeki Müren was in his prime, and now Zeki Müren is dead, that dynamic has changed once again.
These meanings, I would argue, relate closely to the nation, and to the contradictions of national modernity. The double bind of national belonging has been remarked on with great frequency, and variously theorized; nations demand recognition of their unique cultural heritage, but construct their uniqueness in terms provided by others, under the decidedly modern circumstances of nation-state development. In Turkey this double bind has taken the form of violent, but rhythmical, and structurally connected swings from secular military-sponsored to the free-marketism of a cosmopolitan industrial elite, with Islamist pretensions. The latter has prevailed over the last decade, culminating in the emergence of the Refah Islamist party as the major electoral force in Turkish political life in the 1990s. The military have recently reasserted their control of official political life by dispersing Refah.
In relation to these violent swings, Zeki Müren's association with national experience, and Bülent Ersoy's transnational experience seems to be crucial. Zeki Müren monumentalised the Turkish language, and was himself monumentalised (as the 'Sun of Art' - 'Sanat Günesi') as a direct consequence. His dedication to the republican goal of unaffected, unadorned, clear and communicative spoken language overrode the significance of his career-long flirtation with non-Turkish genres. He could appropriately be invited to sing as a 'special guest star' by the Turkish Radio and Television, even when the Turkish state was apparently most committed to its media battle against Arabesk. National mourning was an entirely appropriate response to his death. By analogy with Umm Kulthum, one could almost say that Zeki Müren was the Turkish language. Even people who told me they intensely disliked his music would invariably add 'but I do love the way he speaks'. He instilled notions of 'correct pronunciation' in ways which few other people could. His cassettes carried 'good Turkish' into homes and hearts in ways in which Turkish primary school teachers in remote Kurdish villages, and the neologism-laden jargon of state television news broadcasts in the 1980s could never hope to do.
Bülent Ersoy's handling of the Turkish language, by contrast, amounts, in the opinion of many, to systematic violation: sighs, gasps or groans obscure or interrupt words. Indeed, for fans, the 'meaning' (mana) and 'expression' (ifade) of her performance resides precisely in this interruption of the verbal text. Her sexuality often polluted important words, a fact which emerged most notably when she filled in the sound of the call to prayer in a recording of a 1940s Munir Nurettin Selçuk number (Aziz Istanbul) with a 'real' call to prayer, which she sung herself, and attracted hostile commentary from Istanbul's Islamists. It would seem that Bülent Ersoy sets out to violate the Turkish word, just as Zeki Müren set out to monumentalise it. A different kind of national narrative can perhaps be perceived here; the messy, opaque and uncomfortable narrative of Turkish transnational experience. Some of this familiar to many Turks and Kurds, notably the precarious lives that many are obliged to live in Germany, framed by the uncomfortable prospect of 'return'. Arabesk, cassette recording technology, and labour migration to Germany all happened more or less simultaneously; all might be understood as connected and mutually constitutive facts of transnational modernity.
Bülent Ersoy's transsexuality is closely connected to this. Many transsexuals participate in transnational networks of information about destinations for sex change surgery and general medical advice. It is not only the case that Turkish transsexuals seek knowledge transnationally; they are actively sought in the pursuit of other knowledges. Turkish transsexuals have, for example, become the focus of journalistic concern in many areas of Europe and the U.S. The subject of a few fashionable documentary programmes in the early 1990s (notably an entire 'Passengers' programme framed by 'a day in the life of' a Turkish transsexual). Substantial concern continues to be generated by the constitutional and human rights issues involved (in particular, transsexuals' status as gendered citizens), and the brutal handling of transsexual communities, such as those in around Taksim square and Beyoglu in the wake of the Islamist municipalities efforts to 'clean up' Istanbul prior to the Habitat II conference in 1996. A number of transsexuals (such as Demet Demir) have become media personalities in their own right, sought after by the European and Turkish press, and skilled in dealing with this kind of international attention.
Using Bülent Ersoy and Zeki Muren to access some of the contradictory dynamics of Turkish nationalism may account for some of their significance, but not all. At this point, having zoomed in on two details, and subjected both to close scrutiny, it may be useful to zoom back, and connect both with a wider regional picture. It is the sheer spectacularity of the Mediterranean popular music worlds sexual and gender dissidents that seems to demand attention and explanation. The complex entanglement of singer and fans' mutually constitutive gazes, from poster or cassette cover to fan, from fan to star on stage, seems to lie at the heart of this system of signs. People flock to see the singers, a natural enough consequence of their mass media saturation, which generates a significant absence (that of the singer's body) which 'live performance' then fetishizes and exploits. The singers render themselves as gendered and sexual spectacle (as in Bülent Ersoy and Zeki Müren's case), or play with and subvert codes of spectacularity through understatement (as in the case of Umm Kulthum's deliberately severe and modest apparel) or excess (Turkey's hypermacho singers, such as Ibrahim Tatlises, spring to mind here).
'Excess' is a common term in local, and external critique of these musics (see Stokes 1992). Modernist rationalists, of course, deplore inefficient communication, which is precisely why they identify excess, something that could be pared down but still remain fundamentally the same. But 'exaggeration', or a certain form of knowing and theatrical 'overstatement' seems to be a crucial aspect of the popularity of many major stars. It is precisely that 'extra' quality that is significant to fans, particular the materially and politically disadvantaged. This superabundance may be conceived in a variety of ways, as, for example, refined 'decency' or sensitivity operating under strain, forced 'beyond' artistic convention, or as sophistication, as luxury and luxuriousness. The particular modalities are various, and may be imagined in different ways by, for example, men and women, young and old. But in all cases, it would seem, there is an awareness of 'excess'. Some general theoretical terminology would seem to be appropriate, although 'excess', 'exaggeration' and 'overstatement' are too loaded, to tainted by a certain kind of modernist theoretical baggage to be useful for the more sympathetic critical task I have in mind.
Baudrillard's notion of hyperreality (Baudrillard 1983) may usefully provide a means of grasping the issue as a whole. For Baudrillard, the hyperreal presented itself as exaggeration, artifice and fantasy. Its purpose, he argues in his famous analysis of Disneyland, is to shore up 'the real', a notion which becomes ever more notional as the Sausseurean sign is stretched to, and finally, beyond its breaking point. 'Reality' no longer 'is' its representation (qua McLuhan), but has replaced it. Only if it looks like what it looks like on TV can we be sure it is 'real', as he never tires of telling us. Might something similar be involved in the display of spectacularly gendered opulence, luxury and superabundance, characterized by Zeki Müren and Bülent Ersoy, but characteristic of a more widely distributed form? Might this spectacular gendered superabundance play some role in the reconfiguration of notions of gender 'realism'? Could we talk, by analogy, of 'hypergender'?
I raise Baudrillardian 'big theory' with some caution, not least because it so systematically denies its status as theory, and removes the possibility of reading 'evidence' against it. But there are grounds here, perhaps, for a creative misreading of Baudrillard, and to bring his point to bear on converging lines of thought elsewhere. Queer theory, in particular, stresses gender and sexual performativity. Gender and sexuality are their enactments, and queer theories own canon of spectacular media stars operate semiotically precisely 'by making gender so fabulously artificial... (by) showing up the artifice of gender' (Morris 1995: 583). Mediterraneanist anthropology has long focused on the agonistic, enacted quality of personhood; more recently the Mediterranean world's own forms of representational crisis have come under sustained investigation. Older ways of narrating gendered selfhood make less sense, for example, in modern Crete, where 'real men' no longer need to steal sheep to access a more powerful form of cultural capital: money. They make less sense in northern Lebanon, where men risk ridicule if they attempt to adhere to an outdated honour ethic, and struggle to cope with the exigencies and performative dynamics of new political and economic realities (in which a tractor becomes more important than a gun and urban real estate supplants agricultural land). The old is easily exposed as 'fantasy', as 'theatre' and artifice, no longer delivering on what it once promised. New forms of mediated consciousness come into existence, peripheral in Herzfeld's classic study of Cretan masculinity (1985), but central in Gilsenan's Lebanese study (1996), working at this gap between gendered performance, and what 'performance', now seen as such, fails to achieve.
One risks overgeneralising, and reproducing the old functionalist narrative (with its Marxian variants) of culture mediating unpalatable contradictions or unpleasantly coercive 'realities'; a teleology of 'filling gaps'. Bringing Baudrillard to bear on anthropological studies of gendered and sexual performativity in the Mediterranean has the advantage though of inviting speculation about the political economy of gendered meaning (which, arguably, queer theory misses). We are not talking, of course, about pure imagination, but a particular commodity form, aestheticised and gendered in key ways. It is not difficult to connect transgressively gendered commodity forms with other forms of manufactured 'difference' that circulate in a transnational cultural economy; the visceral excitement of laissez-faire capitalism and liberal 'revolutions' (masking a great deal of their brutal and traumatic consequences) is a crucial aspect of their legitimacy.
The coincidence of the forms of spectacular hypergender that interest me in this paper with the political-economic traumas of modernity (from masculinist/modernist state formation to the violence of 'structural adjustment') in many large southern and eastern Mediterranean locales is, in my view, hardly fortuitous. A common set of circumstances prevail: a quasi-colonial relationship that pertains between south and north, the systematic underdevelopment of major regions across southern Europe and the Middle East, and, consequently, unstable state structures with authoritarian political cultures. The effects of these circumstances on productive and reproductive roles within and outside the household have been extensively documented. It is their effect on masculinity that seems to be particularly important. Labour markets within and outside the Mediterranean world increasingly turn to casualised womens' labour in service sectors as the Fordist economy is dismantled across the industrialised world. The masculinist/modernist state projects which dominated the political landscape of the Eastern Mediterranean for the middle 50 years of this century (those of Atatürk, Hoja, Nasser, Tito) have run aground, often with catastrophic consequences. Hypergender, it seems to me, draws attention to these consequences; rather than attempting a magical resolution, it seems to press ever harder on the queer border and ask, ever more insistently, what can it possibly mean to be a man, or, indeed, a woman? Locked in their particular commodity form, the spectacularly gendered personae of Mediterranean popular musics are unlikely to 'achieve' much. They thrive, after all, in conditions of representational crisis in which they actively participate. But the question remains. What happens when that fundamental 'Mediterranean' certainty, 'being a man', collapses?
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