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26.4.17

The Intellectual Crisis of the Armenian Reality։ A Critical Engagement with Seta B. Dadoyan

Varak Ketsemanian

However we try to define the term and the various dimensions of the 21st century “Armenian Reality,” one aspect remains indubitable, namely, the ongoing political, economic, cultural and social challenges that this reality is facing globally. The one critical feature that is not adequately tackled and is almost non-existent in Armenian public discourse is the “intellectual crisis” that Armenians are facing vis-à-vis the rapid changes they are witnessing both in the Diaspora and Armenia. 
Notwithstanding the lack of a healthy public discourse that accounts for the intellectual crisis, only a few serious works have emerged in recent years addressing the urgent need of revamping, analyzing, and critically engaging with the dominant epistemic categories and historical paradigms that animate this Armenian reality. Among such endeavors, Seta B. Dadoyan’s recent book, 2015: The Armenian Condition in Hindsight and Foresight: A Discourse is a timely and critical piece of scholarship that sheds light on the intellectual crisis of the 21st century Armenian reality.
Written on the centennial of the Armenian Genocide, Dadoyan’s book may best be described as a treatise in philosophy of history that assesses the “Armenian Metasystem” (a term that Dadoyan uses) opening up further space for new discourses, away from ideological stagnation and/or domination in whatever form they may appear (p. 16). Using the watershed moment of the centennial in 2015, Dadoyan’s work is an attempt to reflect on the narratives and paradigms that underlie almost every aspect of Armenian socio-political life and organization. Bringing new insights into the core of the discussion, the book tries to situate the Armenian reality within the larger context of world and regional history, challenging thereby some of the most hegemonic and ossified paradigms of Armenian history in general, and post-Genocide reality in particular.
Therefore, Dadoyan’s work is a scholarly effort that explicates the pivotal role that history has played in the formation of the Armenian collective consciousness on the one hand, and the often isolated worldviews that a peculiar understanding of Armenian history has generated on the other. Hence, first and foremost the book ought to be seen as an effort of emancipation that brings new perspectives and questions, as well as challenges some key premises of Armenian “conventional wisdom” about identity, history, culture and historiography. In this sense, it is a critical re-evaluation of the historical processes in hindsight into the past, and foresight into the future (p. 24). Although the book is divided into the three main sections, each treating a particular dimension of this “intellectual crisis,” for the purposes of this brief article, I will dwell upon and engage only with the third part called “In Hindsight and Foresight: A Phenomenological and Holistic Analysis of Western Armenian, History Writing and Identity.”
Many will find some of Dadoyan’s arguments provocative or even unacceptable, yet a closer look at the analytical concepts, and the methodology she employs will provide readers with useful and critical insights that may help them reassess some of their basic beliefs often turned into dogmas.
Unless Armenians critically re-evaluate their history, the opportunity that the Centennial provided as a bridge between the past and the future will be missed, writes Dadoyan. 
This stagnation of (Armenian) traditions, narratives, and mindset, argues Dadoyan, is what explains the crisis at hand and the intellectual work that is born in such circumstances (p.30) Unless Armenians critically re-evaluate their history, the opportunity that the centennial provided as a bridge between the past and the future will be missed. It is in this context that Dadoyan calls for a serious development of individual and collective foresight, as the 21st century is unfolding and generating new issues and challenges incompatible with the communal and national mechanisms that currently exist. It is through her calls for an urgent revival of the stagnating political and intellectual culture, that we begin our discussion of her work.
One of the primary issues the author tackles pertains to the crisis of Western Armenian in the Diaspora and particularly the United States. As we witness a gradual decline in the daily usage of Western Armenian, as a language for thought, science and creativity, Dadoyan brings our attention to this important, and yet unresolved problem. Trained as a historian, Dadoyan analyzes the role that Western Armenian has played historically, and particularly in a post-Genocide context in the making of Armenian identity. She raises important yet debatable points that provide further food for thought. Dadoyan argues that there exist new perceptions and definitions of identity, and as a consequence the legitimacy of an identity without the (national) language is established. Hence, the idea of hyphenated identities as a conceptual category that explains such new definitions in the worldwide Diasporan communities (p. 114). She puts her work in conversation with the recent emerging critical scholarship that revolve around the question, “Who is and/or can be an Armenian? And what does that entail?”
One important aspect that could have strengthened Dadoyan’s claim, as far as Western Armenian is concerned, may be complemented by observations made by experts in other disciplines. At the last Middle East Studies Association (MESA) conference in November of 2016, Shushan Karapetian, a linguist trained at UCLA said that although most Armenians argue for the absolute necessity of the language as a major component of identity, this often stays at the level of pure rhetoric. In other words, although Armenians support the idea of teaching the language to their children, in praxis, this is often neglected, and hence the gradual decline mentioned above (the question of developing Western Armenia does not exist even in centers of Armenian Studies in US universities [p.118]). 
I believe Karapetian’s point can complement Dadoyan’s argument in two ways: First, it certainly demonstrates that language is often seen as an existential problem, a feature well covered throughout the book. Second, it may give some nuance to Dadoyan’s contention about hyphenated identities. As the latter explains, Western Armenian has not kept pace with the recent linguistic innovations neither in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields, nor the humanities and social sciences for that matter. As education is often given in the indigenous language (English, French, Arabic, and Spanish) of the host country, there has been no demand for proper terms in Armenian, therefore no necessity to invent them (p.116).
Therefore, although the reality of hyphenated identities is unquestionable, eventually the non-Armenian one becomes dominant in many ways. It is in this context that we should understand Dadoyan’s calls for new and pedagogically updated history textbooks, as well as new scientific and scholarly journals in Armenian (partially resolving thereby an epistemological problem). The book itself serves the perfect example, as the text is written in both Armenian and English. Such a juxtaposition not only provides the readers with a choice of language they feel most comfortable reading in, but also enriches their linguistic-cognitive toolbox by equipping them with complex philosophical terms, vocabulary and concepts in translation (English to Armenian) that are often lacking in public discourse.
Dadoyan’s discussion of the urgent need of writing new history textbooks, long overdue, brings us to her examination of Armenian historical writing in foresight and hindsight. Offering a phenomenological analysis of Armenian historiography in this section, Dadoyan tries to push the boundaries, compelling the critical thinker to re-evaluate rather than reiterate or paraphrase concepts within the traditional framework of Armenian historical consciousness and writing. In other words, her phenomenological approach lies in her taking a “step back” and observing her object of inquiry from a distance. Among the many myths that Dadoyan discards, that of the “invisible Armenian essence or hand” is probably the most important, and yet the most provocative one. I believe she formulates this argument against a larger paradigm in Armenian historical consciousness that posits a “national essence” as the prime mover of the Armenian nation throughout history. Although, this is an important point that Dadoyan highlights, unfortunately she does not elaborate on it more. Her training as a historian should have come in handy in identifying the historical reasons behind such a conception.
One other feature that Dadoyan could have explained more pertains to the political reality of nation-states and their hegemony over historical consciousness and writing. I believe, Dadoyan’s brief analysis of the “invisible national essence” could have made more sense, had she explicated how the creation of the First Armenian Republic in 1918, as a historical landmark (among many others), became an a priori end point or purpose of Armenian history. In other words, the hegemony of the “nation-state” with its political and geographical as well as ethno-national boundaries begets a historical logic whereby Armenians see their centuries of suffering and particularly the Genocide, as merely a consequence of statelessness, explaining thus the establishment of the First Republic as the logical and the only conclusion of modern Armenian history.
This phenomenon is not unique to the Armenians and can be readily encountered in the larger Middle East and beyond. A separate, though connected scrutiny of state-nationalisms and their prominent role in shaping historical consciousness, could have well-served Dadoyan’s “attack” on another conspicuous feature of Armenian reality, namely the Genocide as the mythomoteur of the Armenian nation. Far from claiming that the Genocide was a myth, Dadoyan’s argument can be rephrased as such; the Genocide, as an important historical turning point, is ground zero or tabula-rasa on and according to which, the various historical periods of the nation are written, assessed and interpreted. This partially accounts for the intellectual crisis of the Armenian reality, as historians, public intellectuals and social scientists are striving to find new paradigms that provide alternative explanations to modern Armenian history.
Historiographical (along with political) homogeneity, often in the name of unity as Dadoyan rightfully claims (p. 124), will only lead to intellectual stagnation and often isolation from larger processes. As I had touched upon this issue in Armenia: Anatomy of a State, domination by certain religious, political or even cultural institutions in the Diaspora and the Republic, often produce monolithic discourses, closing up the space for further critical inquiries. This in turn, reinforces the traditional narratives and paradigms, inhibiting thereby the critical capabilities of the larger segments. This may account for the reasons why the conceptual transition from “Homeland”/“Fatherland” to “State” (Bedaganutyun), has been so slow and often fruitless in the Diaspora after 25 years of Armenian independence. Neither Dadoyan, nor the author of this article, are calling for revisionism for the sake of revisionism. Rather, a critical engagement with our traditions, narratives, beliefs and ideologies is the best way to self-orient, as well as keep pace with the larger transformations around us.
Many questions that we think we have the answers to, turn out to be completely alien to our thinking. A few examples in this regard would suffice: Whether a Republic-centered mindset is what is the most beneficial for a Diasporan community or not is a question perhaps only few could exhaustively answer. This in fact, relates to Dadoyan’s analysis of the issue of center vs. periphery in the Armenian reality, a problem thoroughly tackled in the first part of the book. Alongside historians and social scientists, Dadoyan sees a danger in the involvement of businessmen, travel agents, politicians, celebrities, film-makers, as shapers of national identities and historical discourse, eventually inflating or deflating (consciously or not) the traditional narratives as the roots of many problems of Armenian historical writing in the future. Whether this is really the case is a question open for further discussion, one that should definitely come up in the daily exchanges of our public discourse.
The Citizen Observer Initiative created before the Parliamentary Elections of April 2017, was a good opportunity to begin such a discourse, and generate serious intellectual exchange, yet as we all witnessed, it rapidly turned into accusations and party politics often bereft of any meaningful insights or content. As this last example came to show, that public is not here yet, but if developed it will only accept that which makes more sense by the force of its accuracy and relevance, and only then will a change in the stagnated mindset happen (p.125).
Therefore, Dadoyan rightfully concludes, it is the task of the intelligentsia to first understand this crisis, identify its main dimensions, and eventually prepare the public for the next Armenian century. In the meantime, Armenian institutions should redefine their relationships with the intelligentsia, since many of the solutions to the problems alluded to above require a more effective and critical cooperation between the two. Moreover, it requires the serious effort of raising new questions, ones that pave the way for more efficient measures, policies and practices.
Armenian historians, intellectuals and social scientists have an important role to play, as they provide foundations for identity-building and scrutinize them critically. In the aftermath of the centennial, and a quarter century of Armenian independence, an intellectual stagnation will lead to calamitous consequences, often rendering us blind to the new mechanisms and tools necessary for coping with the fast changing realities of the 21st century. Without self-reflection and the critical re-evaluation essential in this period of transition, resolutions to crises will not come about, whether those are political, social, economic or intellectual.

EVN Report (www.evnreport.com), April 26, 2017

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