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Abstract

This dissertation is an account of the first generation of Kurdish-language activists in Turkey to study or teach the Kurdish language in Turkish state institutions and their role in the formation of new Kurdish-language publics the past decade. It is based on 18-months of ethnographic research, between 2017-2019, in and around the Living Languages Institute (LLI)– the first Kurdish-language department in Turkey founded at Artuklu University in Mardin in 2010 – and with Kurdish-language activists and educators in Diyarbakir and Istanbul. This project seeks to reconsider the relationship between language activism and institutional Kurdish politics, working to contextualize the evolving character of this relationship to broader transformations in the economy, politics, and public culture of Turkey and North Kurdistan over the past two decades. It likewise examines how the Kurdish language is positioned by my interlocutors – primarily Kurdish students, educators, and media workers – as a medium of value in public life more broadly. It strives to better account for how this value is realized in distinct forms both as part of face-to-face relationships and in relation to larger institutionalized value regimes constituted by Turkish state institutions, the market, official Kurdish politics, the university, the family, as well as peer groups and emergent, mass-mediated Kurdish youth culture. It thus works to describe and analyze everyday processes of semiosis and value creation and transfer as they take place in classrooms, cafes, book stores and on television and social media, in order to demonstrate how the Kurdish language is evaluated and valorized in the context of different social relationships. This dissertation seeks to better account for the ways that Kurdish public making projects become linked to ongoing political struggles and wider social transformations, specifically around the value of the Kurdish language in public life. By ‘public making’, I mean the interrelated semiotic and material processes through which people construct social relationships and mobilize these relationships for mutually coordinated social action around larger horizons of value, i.e. as ‘publics of value.’ In developing a concept of value publics, the dissertation brings together related insights from semiotic anthropology and economic anthropology to offer a fuller account of the interaction between chains of semiosis, the movement of people and goods, and the making of social persons. As a study of Kurdish public formation this dissertation is necessarily considers the relationship between mass publicity, language, and the national public. But it avoids repositioning nationalism as the default frame through which to understand all Kurdish public making projects. Likewise, it examines the relationship between Kurdish language activism and institutional Kurdish politics in Turkey. But it does not assume that ‘official’ Kurdish discourses represent the only standard of value to which language activists must conform, or that work on language is always understood as ‘political’ as such. Rather, this dissertation argues that through their work on language, Kurdish activists enter into relations of value with a multiplicity of institutions and social persons in ways that are both socially meaningful and allow them to act in the world.

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