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Location & Connections


Central Asia Fellows 2014

Natalie Koch, Department of Geography, Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University, USA

"Synecdoche and the subject: Spectacular power and state-making in Central Asia"
(May 2014)

Natalie Koch is an assistant professor in the Department of Geography, at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. She received her PhD in Geography in 2012 from the University of Colorado, Boulder, upon completion of her doctoral dissertation, The city and the steppe: Territory, technologies of government and Kazakhstan’s new capital. Koch has published a number of peer-reviewed articles in journals including Eurasian Geography and Economics, Political Geography, Urban Geography and Environment and Planning A. Although Koch primarily positions herself as a political geographer, as well as a ‘Central Asianist,’ her work has always been highly interdisciplinary, with a focus on state-making, nationalism, geopolitics, spectacle, and authoritarianism.

In the study of highly-centralized political systems, geographers have long attended to the many manifestations of spectacle through performances and built landscapes. These studies are overwhelmingly about one case alone, and rarely situate this case as part of a broader grammar of ‘sovereign pomp.’ In my current book project, Synecdoche and the subject: Spectacular power and state-making in Central Asia, I propose that to understand the spectacular in such centralized systems, it is necessary to conceptualize it as a generalized trope – more specifically, one that operates on the basis of synecdoche.

Synecdoche – the part standing for the whole and vice versa – is a much-overlooked spatial trope that extends far beyond the realm of rhetoric. To date, there has been no systematic analysis of how it works in the geographic imagination, nor the political effects of its use. My book project takes up this task through a targeted case study of three authoritarian Central Asian states – Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan. Arguing that synecdoche is the necessary mental ‘trick’ that underlies spectacle, I illustrate how this operates within the realm of state-making and subjectivization in the post-Soviet era, as actors in these three countries reconfigure their polities. In this regard, I develop two key arguments through a wide range of examples.

First, I argue that ‘celebratory’ spectacles, which are intensely manifested in these countries’ capital cities, can only be understood together with the ‘punitive’ spectacles of the hinterlands. That is, through the use of synecdoche, the geopolitical gaze of observers (domestic and foreign alike) is strategically directed toward the ‘center.’

Second, I argue that the spectacular projects in post-Soviet Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan reflect the fact that their political systems are predominated by what Michel Foucault has termed ‘sovereign’ modes of ‘governmentality.’ I extend Foucault’s analysis of spectacle as a technology of government to explore subject-making practices within authoritarian polities. I also illustrate how spectacle, operating on the basis of the synecdochic imaginary, is bound up with what I term ‘spectator citizenship’ – a set of subjectification practices particular to sovereign power relations, in which the governor’ (i.e. the king, ruling regime, etc.) is understood as benevolent and giving, and the ‘governed’ (i.e. citizens, subjects, etc.) passive and thankful.



Academic host at the Aleksanteri Institute: Veli-Pekka Tynkkynen