Mushroom Meanderings

Mushroom at the End of the World : On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. by Tsing, Anna. Princeton University Press, 2015

“I’ve read that when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, thousands of Siberians, suddenly deprived of state guarantees, ran to the woods to collect mushrooms.” (1)

Ha, ha, ha. Ok.

Well, perhaps they did, but mushroom gathering is a joy, an entertainment, and it was a source of additional nourishment in Soviet years as well. Mushrooms always were a profound supplement for those who live in the woods, Siberians no exception.

Mushroom represent the object that triggers and arouses the excitement of the hunter and the amusement of the gatherer. Is not it fun to discover in leaves, in mud, in grass, under the tree, near the stump, something valuable, solid, crisp, shiny, edible (delectable)? Mushroom found is a surprise, a discovery, a prey, a finding, and a treasure. The hunt for mushrooms is saturated with small joys of encounter, revelation, and detection. When under the dying leaves you find a sturdy little thing, tangible, emanating the wet aroma of the sweet decay of the fall, resistant to your urge to unscrew it out of its nest, you experience a surge of pleasure.

For our family, living in Moscow, mushroom hunting (or gathering) was indeed a source of additional nourishment — not that we were starving, unlike many our contemporaries, we weren’t — but what drew us to them is an appeal of entertainment.

“When Hiroshima was destroyed by an atomic bomb in 1945, it is said, the first living thing to emerge from the blasted landscape was a matsutake mushroom.” (3)

I am fascinated here with the correspondence of the imagery: the cloud of dust and debris emerging and unfolding in the air as the bomb is dropped, famously reminds humans the mushroom popping out. Thinking about rhizome, the biological concept that was philosophized by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in “Capitalism and Schizophrenia,” mushrooms have the deliberate root system which presupposes the emergence of mushroom in any given point. “Rhizome” corresponds with the unpredictability of emergence of things, as opposed to arborescent structures, which have stems, vertical as opposed to horizontal connection, and characterized by hierarchical connections as opposed to nonlinear.

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Gendered Speech

Certain ways of speaking, not only in terms of content but also prosodywise, are gendered as feminine, and, accordingly, stigmatized as degrading, condemned, castigated, censured, disapproved, publicly subjected to improvement and extermination, and reprimanded.

“Schoolgirl speech” in Japan, as Miyako uncoveres, was reconstructed as having a number of characteristics polluting the purity of educated Japanese speech: “From approximately 1887 through World War I, a surge of commentaries were written and circulated in the Japanese print media about the “strange” and “unpleasant” (mimizawarina) sounds issuing from the mouths of schoolgirls. Male intellectuals of various affiliations located the source of their dismay in utterance-endings such as teyo, noyo, and dawa which schoolgirls used. They called such speech forms “schoolgirl speech” (jogakusei kotoba). It was jarring to their ears; it sounded vulgar and low class; its prosodic features were described as “fast,” “contracting,” and “bouncing with a rising intonation”; and it was condemned as “sugary and shallow.”” (Miyako, 2006, 37).

Such telling examples do not belong solely to the pre-WW 1st Japanese past, they also mark the Western present. The discussion around “uptalk” bears remarkably misoginystic overtones. “Uptalk,” the employment of rising intonation in statements, supposedly transforming statements into questions, is intensely gendered as characteristic to women’s speech. Highly gendered public spheres of modernity intensely police feminized ways of speaking.

A brief overview of youtube videos regarding uptalk would yield to “The Weird Way Women Downplay Their Success” (https://youtu.be/fs9QhpmjWLs), a nameless video about “degradation of English language” (https://youtu.be/hjKMNyZ2oTc), and multiple videos of young women “uptalking” (for example, https://youtu.be/Tj4EIGje4dA) with comments as follows (numbers below the comment indicate “likes”):

“Tavor Runner 274 months ago
If you are contemplating suicide, this vid may very well push you over the edge.
9

echolot1 month ago
as annoying as they talk, i’d still love to be the meat in that sandwich.
1

væmpaɪər Lestat2 weeks ago
makes me wanna cut their fucking throat”

Women, on one hand, are socialized into presenting their opinions as ready to be retracted any moment, but on the other hand women are ridiculed exactly for that. Language ideologies of modernity require women to employ cadences of speech reconstructed as men’s cadences, as well as men’s manner of talking, in order to be construed and recognized as a confident, “successful” speaker.

Reference

Miyako, Inoue. Vicarious language: Gender and linguistic modernity in Japan. University of California Press. 2006

Do Robots Only Matter in the Context of Our Humanity?


In "A Cyborg Manifesto" Donna Haraway employs the notion of cyborg in order to question what it means to be human, but engages with it rather on the level of metaphor, I think. "By the late twentieth century, our time, a mythic time, we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated by hybrids of machine and organism. In short, we are cyborgs. The cyborg is our ontology; it gives us our politics." (Haraway, 2006, 118)

It is fair to claim we are cyborgs but I think the justification to this claim should be extended and developed. We transplanted a part of our mnemonic functions into machines, and extended all kinds of facilities, but in essence we remain pitifully human, which is most evident in human/nonhuman interactions. Many people think that it would not be morally right to torture the robot (Calo, 2016). What is telling is how we anthropomorphize robots and why this way and not some other. Why is it wrong, for example, to torture robot, whereas it feels no pain, and why it is not wrong to shower a robot with your affection, whereas it is an inanimate object?

The first time I became fascinated in robots, I think, was at the time when Tamagotchi became ubiquitous. You had to care about them. This electronic creature required to be loved: fed, cleaned, and played with. It could also die. Terrible tragedy. Mortal robot.

The relationship which you built with a Tamagotchi was an extension of breather/breather interactions. Breather is the term which Tim Choy proposes to employ instead of "life form," as well as instead of definitions reinforcing hierarchical structures, like "human/nonhuman," "animate/inanimate," and other possible dualities. Breather becomes a figure of life connected to other breathers through the medium of air. Now robots are in a strange realm in regard to breathers, because some of them also need air for functioning, they consume air and therefore in some sense breathe.

The relationship between a Tamagotchi and a human carer is the relationship between an imagined breather and a real breather. The robot becomes a prosthesis of our own humanity, empowering but also signifying absence, injury, wound, loss, deficiency and lack.

References

Calo, Ryan. Robots in American Law. Talk at the University of Texas in Austin, 3/22/2016

Haraway, Donna. A cyborg manifesto: Science, technology, and socialist-feminism in the late 20th century. Springer Netherlands, 2006.

Choy, Tim. Breathers Conspire! Drawing Breath Together. Talk at the University of Texas at Austin. 3/7/2016

Genre and Power

The question of genre is, I believe, extremely important.

The piece "Genre, Intertextuality, and Social Power" Bauman and Briggs begin with delineation of the history of ethnographic writing in order to arrive to understanding how genre plays out in power relations. Evoking Vladimir Propp, who discovered that the structure of fairy tail is preserved albeit the content may vary, and engaging with Boasian writing (produced by Boas and his students; for them, the genre of ethnographic writing was primarily the means of organizing gathered material), they identify the differences between approaches to genre, among which "The most significant dimension of contrast among formal perspectives on genre distinguishes those approaches that identify the formal organization of genre as an immanent, normative, structuring property of texts from those that view generic form as a conventionalized but flexible and open-ended set of expectations concerning the organization of formal means and structures in discursive practice." (144).

This division seems to not necessarily be so contrastive in nature. Genre might be a structuring property of texts and simultaneously a flexible set of expectations. The lack of clarity of the defining genre is telling, in the authors’ consideration, of the fat that it is the under-theorized problem in linguistic anthropology. (The article is written in 1991 but the clarity of the issue, I’d suggest, has only diminished, if anything, since then.) For Bakhtin, genre was an important subject of constant writing. With the shift from text to performance, the question of genre has only increased in its significance. Bringing the discussion to the discourse of intertextuality and dialogism of creative forms, the written work begins to exist on the "intersection of textual surfaces" (Kristeva), that is to say, within multiple intersecting (competing, interchanging, contesting each other and supporting each other) contexts. 

Therefore, "We would argue, similarly, that genre cannot fruitfully be characterized as a facet of the immanent properties of particular texts or performances. Like reported speech, genre is quintessentially intertextual" (147), that is to say, does not exist "objectively," as given, but depends on context.

"When viewed diachronically or vertically, the fit between a particular text and its generic model—as well as other tokens of the same genre—is never perfect; to paraphrase Sapir, we might say that all genres leak. Generic frameworks thus never provide sufficient means of producing and receiving discourse. Some elements of contextualization creep in, fashioning indexical connections to the ongoing discourse, social interaction, broader social relations, and the particular historical juncture(s) at which the discourse is produced and received. […] The process of linking particular utterances to generic models thus necessarily
produces an intertextual gap." (149)

Ultimately the question of genre is political: "Invocations of genre provide powerful strategies for building what Anderson (1991(1983]) terms "imagined communities." (150) For example, "As in the Weyewa case, the
speech genres that comprise the "talk of the elders of bygone days"
among Spanish speakers in New Mexico play a key role in this process" (150).

The question of power, therefore, is a question of powerful narratives the production of which is structured around the axis of genre. "Intertextual gaps" are widened, narrowed, erased, deepened, and downplayed depending on goals of the ruling classes.

"Naturalizing the connection between genre, gender, and emotional experience can in turn rationalize the subordinate status of particular social groups or categories of persons; Lutz’s (1990) discussion of the association between "emotionality" and the female in Western society provides a case in point." (158)


Reference

Briggs, Charles and Richard Bauman (1991) "Genre, Intertextuality, and Social Power." Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 2(2):131-172

Individual Acts of Language Creativity and Grammar

I think Voloshinov expressed the pathos of the philosophy of language in one phrase:

“We addressed ourselves to the philosophy of language, the philosophy of the word. But what is language, and what is word? We do not, of course, have in mind anything like a conclusive definition of these concepts.” (Voloshinov, 1973, 45)

He, of course, does not end here, but proceeds with outlining the four basic principles of language:

1 . Language is activity, an unceasing process of creation (energeia) realized in individual speech acts;
2. The laws of language creativity are the laws of individual psychology;
3. Creativity of language is meaningful creativity, analogous to creative art;
4. Language as a ready-made product (ergon), as astable system (lexicon, grammar, phonetics), is, so to speak, the inert crust, the hardened lava of language creativity, of which linguistics makes an abstract construct in the interests of the practical teaching of language as a ready-made instrument.” (48, cursive is the author’s here and further unless otherwise noted.)

I find the idea of Vossler, in regard to grammar, particularly appealing. In Voloshinov’s formulation, it sounds as follows:

Everything that becomes a fact of grammar had once been a fact of style.” (51)

That speaks to the notion of grammar with which Becker is occupied, in a somewhat opposing manner. If for Becker (1995) grammar precedes the utterance (which it does in any given respect), Vossler brings us to the realization that grammar categories are malleable, and the forms of expressions particularly economical, practical, and efficient, emerge and become day-to-day choices of speakers’ self-expression over other grammatical constructions. Thus the “individual creative acts of speech” all play out in the societal language production, influencing the norms and changing grammatical structures which are considered to be normative, over time.

Reference

Voloshinov, V.N. Marxism and the Philosophy of Language. Harvard University Press, 1973.

Becker, Alton. Beyond Translation. 1995

Accented Speech

Agha Asif, by analyzing the emergence of a particularly privileged way of speaking British English, so-called “Received Pronunciation,” shows the close, indivisible relationship between the way language is performed and cultural value ascribed to this performance. Not only “received pronunciation” of the speaker marks her social, economic, and educational high status, but it also shapes discursive practices in which she participates.

The variety of versions of speaking English has always been my fascination, probably because it is a personal matter of an English speaker whose speech is marked with accent. My accent defines not only the way my interactions go in the English-speaking environments, but also the very content of these interactions, for instance requiring me to unfold a variation of a personal story providing my interlocutor with information he requests from a foreigner to define the character of emerging communication and to ascertain my identity.

Despite that Agha dismisses the term “accent” as a folk concept, accent marks the belonging of the speaker to “some other group” (a remarkably precise Agha’s formula); it organizes daily experiences in a variegated assortment of unprecedented ways within a continuity of discovering foreignness, otherness, and difference.

The accent is a heavily loaded marker of a social, national, cultural identity, and it comes with a system of assigned meanings “through the use of identifying labels” (Agha, 2007, 233). I would add, that the normality, or unaccented way of speaking, is unmarked in social imaginary, and therefore is taken as default. Speakers sharing the same accent (for example, in any class of second-language learners), would not construct hierarchy based on shared characteristic. The sorting property of any quality emerges in a group who do not share it. Among those who speak differently, some pronunciation would be marked as normal and some as deviating, accented, impaired.

The case of the British “Received Pronunciation” is unusual in this respect. It still marks the identity of the speaker, but in a favorable way. It marks her as different but belonging to a privileged class. RP is understood by everyone who lives in Britain, but “the competence to speak it” (Agha, 2007, 234, the cursive is the author’s) is a prerogative of a small powerful minority. The power of PR is evident not only in the fact that it is translated through media in Great Britain, but also that it is one of the best-studied accents.

As a marker of higher status, it is inevitably under the scrutiny of purification, of which the culmination is the doubt that the Queen herself could perform it properly, expressed rather funny in the quoted by Agha article which appeared in “The Independent” newspaper on 21 December, 2000:

“Her Majesty may not be so amused to find that a team of linguists has found her guilty of no longer speaking the Queen’s English. A group of Australian researchers analysed every Christmas message made by the Queen since 1952 and discovered that she now speaks with an intonation more Chelmsford than Windsor. . .” (226)
References
Agha, Asif. The Social Life of Cultural Value in “Language and Social Relations.” Cambridge University Press, 2007

Language as a System of Clichés

Becker provides us with a powerful description of language acquisition: “One learns these texts in action, by repetitions and corrections, starting with the simplest utterances of a baby. One learns to reshape these texts to new context, by imitation and by trial and error. One learns to interact with more and more people, in a greater and greater variety of environments.” (Becker, 1995, 144).

Grammar, therefore, is a set of rules not imposed on the speaker by books, but acquired as the structures of spoken, heard, and talked language.

The language is an intricately, infinitely complex system of clichés. To be understood, one has to rely on what has been already said billion times. There is a certain space for novelty but it is a regulated space.

Reference
Becker, Alton. Beyond Translation. 1995

First Writing of the Semester, Expressive Culture (Professor Elizabeth Lewis)

The students were asked to write a mini-ethnography, engaging with the theory they were forced through, and based on their own choices of site and method.

They produced writings on:

sorority gatherings
laundromat Sunday attending
Super Smash Bros. tournament
church sermons of different kinds
Black Lives Matter event (a disruption of continuity; written by a black student)
baby shower
softball game
soccer game
wedding
gym
YMCA
library
cemetery with an occasional funeral
Student Activity Center (slumbering on the pillows, mostly)
classroom
ballroom
coffee shops of all shapes and sizes
immigrant gatherings
homeless on Guadalupe
biology laboratory
Mexican restaurant (always a great site for observations)
the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (the only instance I advised an outside writing, namely Agamben “On Security and Terror”)
UT street market
pool
comedy open mic

And so forth, some 250 pages total. In short, all the colorful kaleidoscope of Texas [mostly blissful middle-class] life, or at least written from the positionalities of people endowed with such a life.

I read it with a great interest; it was full of curious observations, and some of this writing was reflective and reflexive. I was particularly glad to read on UT street market and Guadalupe homeless gathering; had passing thoughts about writing on both. Another particular excitement is the sorority gatherings, but I could not entertain a hope of once writing about them. Now that I finished grading, the landscape of UT is somewhat more densely inhabited.

About My Research, Briefly

In 1961-62 the Bratsk Hydroelectric dam was constructed, inundating thirty-thousand square kilometers of agricultural land. My fieldwork site, the village of Anosovo, was brought to life in the process of relocation. It is situated on the shore of the Angara River in the Irkutsk province of Siberia. In my research, I draw from theories of affect, ruination, infrastructure, and new materialism, as well as literature on the consequences of dam construction and histories of Siberian development. Using ethnographic methods (participant observation and interviews), I examine the day-to-day interactions and “everyday economies” (Humphrey) in this human-made landscape. I also plan to work in the regional archive. I am a native speaker of Russian and I visited Anosovo in 2006 and in 2013; my connections there, including the contact with the local administration, have been established.

What does everydayness look like? What is the mundane and the spectacular in these settings? How does ruined infrastructure shape social practices? What is rural, and how does it relate to the urban? What is nostalgia and what is the sense of belonging to “imagined community” (Anderson)? The singularity of Anosovo tells us a very particular story, one about living and struggling, which unfolds in hundreds of places scattered throughout Siberia. The vast territories of Siberia are populated with peoples of diverse ethnicities, religions, languages and cultures, who live on the margins of urban life, in the post-Soviet edgelands. These places provide models for understanding why the persistence of Soviet histories still matter and how they are summoned as a politically powerful nationalist discourse: life there is navigated among the ruins of socialism. The actual rubble of Soviet projects defines the structures of feeling in abandoned places.

Around two thousand people were living in Anosovo at its heyday in 1970s. In 2014 the population was around six hundred. According to statistics the number of deaths outstripped births, making depopulation even more critical. During Soviet times, the state-owned timber industry employed local people, but over the course of the last twenty years, since the collapse of the USSR, there is no job security. People make do by hunting, fishing, and scavenging for rusty tractors they can sell for scrap.

Currently, the village of Anosovo has no hospital, nor police station or post office, and a big part of the year it is an isolated, inaccessible place, because there is no road through the forest, and the Angara river is not always passable, either by ice or by water.

So how do global transformations affect a rural settlement in Siberia? What practices of healing spring up in the absence of accessible regular medical institutions? What kind of religion do people practice there? How has the positionality of women changed? How do people survive? Anosovo is one of numerous places in Siberia and in Russia today, which challenge our understanding of an increasingly globalized and networked world.