Theses Doctoral

Mining Interruption: Life, labor and coal after the Soma mine disaster

Az, Elif Irem

“Mining Interruption” tackles the question of how to make sense of disaster by exploring the Soma mine disaster. On May 13, 2014, an explosion in the Eynez underground lignite coal mine caused a fire that blocked the exit, sealing in 301 mineworkers who died of carbon monoxide poisoning in the town of Soma, in the city of Manisa, in Aegean Turkey. While the European Union was becoming relatively greener next door, coal extraction had begun to increase in Turkey after the Justice and Development Party [Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi] came to power in early 2000s. The relative decline of coal in the Global North paved the way for increased amounts of internal coal extraction and consumption in the energy geographies of the Global South and other non-Western countries as well as of Indigenous lands. The shift created biopolitically, socially, and technologically renewed forms of exploitation of labor, bodies, and nature, which contextualize the Soma mine disaster.

Based on 18 months of ethnographic fieldwork and 68 open-ended interviews conducted in the Soma Coal Basin, this dissertation presents one constellation of the disaster by exploring four figures—The Accidented, the Bride, the Deserving, and the Striker—both as effects and as ongoing temporalities of the disaster. It contributes to critical disaster studies by defining and studying disaster not as a category of event, but as a concept through which multiple temporalities, lived experiences, and knowledges hang together. This loose definition of disaster is complemented by a reinterpretation of Walter Benjamin’s take on one of Bertolt Brecht’s most important dramaturgical techniques: interruption.

In the dissertation, interruption is re-conceptualized as an experiential (hence temporal) concept that captures out-of-the-ordinary moments or flashes that interrupt everyday life in a way that permits a reevaluation of historical-material conditions. Interruptions are openings through which people may or may not follow an accidental course of action in order to overcome, better deal with, or politically respond to their conditions. The multiplicity of interruptions that are integral to the ongoing Soma mine disaster intersect with labor, fossil fuel production and its toxic effects, disability/debility, gendered oppression, disaster management, and social assistance. Some of these interruptions are experienced as rupturing events while others are perceived below the threshold of the event as such—as noneventful or not-so-eventful sensibilities, intensities and material changes. Each figure in question is a constellation in itself, a web of interdependencies, ruptures and materialities formed among human beings, state actors, coal, land, tobacco and other plants, limbs, organs, and names.

In “The Accidented,” by examining mineworkers’ experiences and the terminology of becoming accidented (a direct translation of the term kazalanmak [in infinitive form]) through work accidents, the dissertation presents a critique both of existing disability assessment techniques and processes, and of understandings of disability as identity, which peripheralize labor-related and other experiences of (dis)ability and debility.

In “The Bride,” by surveying the pervasive rumors about the widows of the 301 mineworkers, and their naming by the townspeople as “the brides,” the dissertation studies the differential treatment of the families of the 301 and the rest of the mining community through the state’s twofold disaster management strategy, and the ways in which people deal with this treatment through gossip, resentment, and kinship ties. In so doing, the dissertation also explores how affinal kinship relations have been transformed in the region due to the rise of coal mining, which coincides with the heightened neoliberalization of agriculture.

In “The Deserving,” by investigating the materiality and movement of the lignite coal that is known as “Soma coal,” the dissertation articulates the ways in which the lives and desires of working-class and peasant communities have been reshaped through coercion, patronage, ideological interpellation, and the subjectivizing effects of Soma coal. It presents Soma coal as a pedagogical infrastructure that has emerged through the materiality of coal, and the regimes and networks of labor and welfare provision in contemporary Turkey.

Finally, through the figure of “The Striker,” the dissertation examines the three-year long compensation struggle and protests of Soma and Ermenek mineworkers (2019–2021) as a set of emergency strikes that interrupted various processes, technologies, social networks, and modes of life that are formally and/or really subsumed within capital. The concept of “emergency strike” is used in order to encapsulate a form of strike that emerges with whatever means available in a given context, and as a collective act of seizing perceived last chances. This discussion builds on a recent wave of theorization concerning forms of unconventional strike that aim to disarticulate mechanisms and processes of real subsumption and/or state sovereignty. The dissertation shows how mineworkers organized against the backdrop of the Soma mine disaster. In doing so, it demonstrates how mineworkers re-exceptionalized their living and working conditions under a state of exception that has become the rule in Turkey since the 2016 coup attempt while it had already become the rule in the Soma Basin after May 13, 2014.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Morris, Rosalind C.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
October 25, 2023