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Cultivating My Senses at ANAMED

by C. Ceyhun Arslan, ANAMED Post-Doctoral Fellow (2017–2018)

Having specialized in literary studies, I have been trained to focus on small details in texts—punctuation marks, a word with multiple and even contradictory meanings, and even the spacing between words—and use these details as points of departure for new ways of interpreting (and hence of appreciating) these texts. 

Close reading means for me the euphoria that comes from self-immersion in texts, only to come out of this immersion with a more complex, multivalent understanding of the world. It is this euphoric sensation that motivated me to study literature and eventually teach it so that my students too can get a taste of this immersion experience.

Yet, this meticulous attention to textual details also risks turning literary works into an amalgamation of words that needs to be deconstructed. My time at ANAMED helped me to develop a richer engagement with texts. I have learned to acknowledge and appreciate the affective dimensions of reading that involve reflecting on the paper quality and even guessing a book’s age based on its smell. My conversations with archaeologists, historians, and art historians during Wednesday dinners and Friday tea talks at ANAMED instilled in me their sensibilities that whetted my attention to such details. I recently attended a talk at Koç University that was given by Etienne E. Charrière, who was an ANAMED fellow in 2016–2017. He argued that novels of the Ottoman Empire should be analyzed also as material objects to have a deeper understanding of the late Ottoman period. Indeed, my experiences at ANAMED have been showing me that literary critics have so much to gain through appreciating the materiality of texts.

Many other experiences throughout my fellowship also taught me the art of looking, a skill that I did not have much chance to develop due to my academic training in the art of reading. In the beginning of our fellowship year, Cemil Bezmen, the SARAT project post-doctoral researcher, was the guide for a tour of the Beyoğlu district as he introduced its rich architectural landscape to ANAMED fellows. For people who tend to seek history only in textual archives to which few historians have access, Cemil Bezmen has demonstrated that the streets through which we pass are immersed in history. We did not visit merely famous buildings during this tour, but also paid attention to old houses and fountains that are nestled within the more modern apartments of the city. History in Beyoğlu’s streets can be savored by those who learn to stop in the midst of its frantic pace and employ the art of looking.

Finally, I have learned to reflect more on how I experience space during my ANAMED fellowship. As a non-residential fellow, I took the dolmuş (minibus), ferry, and subway to travel from my apartment to the ANAMED building. These commutes played a key role in shaping my ANAMED experience. As I was making research on migration in the late Ottoman Empire during my fellowship, I have become acquainted with the “mobilities studies,” which examines all forms of movements that range from walking to large-scale migrations and considers these movements constitutive of one’s personal and cultural identity. This research led me to ponder more about the ways in which I move within the city and how this movement has been shaping my memories and identity. Sometimes, to remember places that had a significant impact on my past, I realized that I do not necessarily have to look at photos but instead to close my eyes and imagine myself walking within these places. I have discovered that while I do not remember many visual details from places in which I lived, I vividly remember what it feels like to move in them, giving me a heightened appreciation of the commutes that I have been making from my apartment to the ANAMED building.    

The ANAMED fellowship gave me the free time that allowed me to read more works and work on my book project. At the same time, it also provided me with new sensibilities that enriched not only my scholarship, but also the sensory experiences of my everyday life as well as my memory, which is learning that these experiences would eventually become my bridges to the past.