Packing to Fieldwork

As I already had a chance to mention elsewhere, this summer I am going to do a preliminary fieldwork at my fieldsite, in the village of Anosovo in Siberia. I am packing, and have already collected my books. I decided to take all of the books I initially wanted, despite that “Anosovo has a library!” argument from my worrying parents. Now it is the time to collect clothes, which I delayed for as long as I could because, like all necessary actions, it is boring.

Extracting one by one things out of the depths of my wardrobe full of skeletons, and putting them side by side on a bed, I am trying to decide what to take with me and what to leave. What do they wear now in Moscow, I don’t know, but certainly not pajamas, as is Austinites’ nice habit. But that is not my concern.

What do they wear in Siberia, is more important. If I take my camouflage pants–Russian and NATO-style, for I own both varieties–would it be okay? I was wearing them alright there, but women certainly dress in beautiful skirts and pretty cardigans in Anosovo, not in NATO camouflage (I wonder why). For a woman, fieldwork experience might be different than for men, and perhaps it starts early on. In fact our gender defines us in all kinds of imperceptible ways, on which we barely reflect.

Would my clothing affect the way they would perceive me? Most likely, yes. I never thought about it before. I am going to blend in, as much as it is possible for a Muscovite, which means perhaps my uniform should be different. I imagine the anthropologist arriving to a country in Africa clad in sand-dune camouflage and wearing a pith helmet–well, probably, no anthropologist today submits easily to the colonial style of dress, do they?

This might be more important than I thought before, for in my camouflage I would certainly look like a Muscovite tourist. Not that it means I could start wearing skits all of a sudden. That would be too much of an effort: I rarely wear skirts, I simply do not like them, I guess. It is certainly fine for a man to wear camouflage pants there. Ah, anyway. I am throwing them in.

Several photographs out of the archive of my previous visit, summer 2013:

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Ded Gosha (“Grandpa” Gosha) drinking his tea. Photo on Nexus phone

 

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Lake Baikal

 

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One of my favorite pictures of that summer, also taken felicitously on Nexus. I call it “Reading”

 

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A girl in pink in the village of Atalanka, Siberia

 

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Young men sitting near the house

 

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Watermelon

(All pictures are taken on Canon 400D unless otherwise noted)

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Beauty, Youth, and Aging

I met a beautiful woman, L., on Congress Avenue in Austin, in a bright morning hour in 2014. I noticed her from afar: she was wearing a wide-brimmed hat and a billowing, long, black and white dress. We stopped on the red light crossing the street concurrently. She noticed that I look at her, and casually started a conversation. She was walking to her favorite cafe and invited me with her. I ordered a cup of coffee, she bought a latte and a doughnut, and in several phrases she told me her story.

“From the early childhood I was into makeup and fashion.” She said. “I never did heroine, that was not my time, but I drank and I did cocaine, that was my time.”

She was a model, and was never married.

“I just did not want to live with a man.”

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She was working hard.

“Girls from rich families do not have to, but we, we had to.”

This very morning she picked a number of photographs from her archive to send them to her sister, who asked her about this favor. She showed the pictures to me, extracting them one by one from a huge brown envelope. She kindly permitted me to photograph them.

“Do you like Sex in the City?” She asked. “I look like Carrie Bradshow, and you–you look like Charlotte York. Yes, you will be Charlotte. We already have Miranda and Samantha.” (She was referring to her friends.)

I was looking at her, at her photos, and I caught myself wondering back then as I think about it now: What does it mean for a woman, to age?

I am a woman myself, and over time I am gradually gaining understanding how women age. I encountered men explaining to me that I am about to lose my beauty. One moment was particularly striking. When I was in my twenties, on a plane a man going down the aisle, whom I did not know, twice my age, told me out of the blue that I was beautiful, and added: “But it will soon pass. The corners of your mouths would turn down.”

Once I took a selfie with my child’s toy: a mustache on a stick. Looking at the picture, I was struck by how young my face was looking in this momentary, fleeting, playful assumption of masculinity. In my 36, I am barely a young woman any more, but I am definitely quite a young man.

Am I beautiful? A dreadful question which defines us so profoundly at certain stages of life. The answer to this question is, always, yes of course you are, because beauty is in motion and in the movement of your mind, in thought that your eyes reflect, and in the kindness of your heart.

Am I beautiful? The irony of it, we never know just how beautiful we are, even if we are aware of our beauty, much less when we are unaware–but then we look at our own photographs and remark that we were beautiful.

Am I beautiful? What does it matter if I am not? What does it matter if I am? All too young, one is irreparably made aware that her appearance is favorable (or not, or, more often, both). And it is a highly racialized process, not to mention other complexities.

It so happens that men compliment me a lot these days, far more often than they complimented me a decade ago–although I must say I am in a very privileged position to be, there was never a lack of it. I don’t know what to connect a sudden increase of praise to though, many factors, I guess. A red lipstick is definitely one of them. But perhaps most importantly, I owe these compliments to the very fact that I am older now and paradoxically my kind interlocutors are being somewhat more generous if they tell me how good-looking I am, now that I am older.

And a lot of these compliments, too many, assess my young looks. As if being young should be my desire, and being younger-looking is a thing I need to know about myself, and cherish. As if there is an all-too-evident way of making me happier: just tell me how young I look (if I do not, just say it anyway).

And I am expected to be pleased with these assessments, for which I did not ask, and take pride in looking supposedly younger than my age. Which brings a lot of difficult questions. Is it really a good thing for a person to appear, even if this is by way of a not-fully-sincere compliment, younger than they are? Does not a phrase “you look young(er)” robs you of your experience? Does not it erase who you are, diminishes your wins and losses? Does not it attempt not to notice who you have become and are becoming by this time of your age? Does not it suggest another, better you, in which you are somehow in a competition–and to whom you would lose in a face-to-face confrontation?

I am interested in how women’s magazines address aging, for they do, from time to time. Often in light how nobly age certain beautiful women, and how badly lose their battle with time other women. As a rule, noble aging means successful plastic surgery, and ugly aging means plastic surgery gone awry. Either way, you are fighting a battle, and either way you are about to lose it–if not next year, then soon enough. But you have to be or to appear young, and if magazines are to be believed, in doing so you also have to wear clothes and make up which suit primarily young women.

To age, and to lose brightness of your eyes, to lose tightness, elasticity, and evenness of your skin; to acquire wrinkles; to have a changed, further changing face, on which a sleepless night leaves its inexorable trace; to lose the precision of your vision; to lose agility, is no fun for any gender. But it is a high demand for a woman to be not just successful, not just married, not just a mother in a certain timeline, but also to remain young and pleasing to the eye, attractive, beautiful. Beautiful but beautiful in a specific way. It is not thoughts, nor philosophical studies, nor the sharpness of her mind–which are evident in her face–that matters, but how how closely she is identifiable with a generalized image of a beautiful woman, in other words, how well she conforms to standards. The generalized images of how a beautiful woman looks, in the West are very few, and closely resemble each other. But the list of conditions you have to satisfy to be considered a beautiful woman, is long and wearisome.

For a model, the face and the body are instruments. They are her tools of earning her living, but also they are used as tools by forces greater than her. They are employed and exploited to replicate the standards of beauty by expressing them in a living being’s polished, altered, improved appearance. Women use these standards in their turn to navigate these spaces to their advantage.

The temporality is tragic. Every story of aging is tragic. Aging is a world-altering experience. Is there a way out, towards the universe where appearance in general, and younger looks in particular, do not matter that much? I don’t know.

But when I look at the photographs of my exceptional interlocutor, both in her maturity, in her ripeness, and in her blooming, her blossoming, her nascent, fledgling beauty, I see her story as a film — and a very short film at that, for I do not know many things about her. It is as if her whole lifetime was sped up in a quick video clip, reminding me of those videos which people sometimes create, putting their images of themselves, taken day by day for years, together. The film of a bold, creative exploration of temporality and ephemerality and endurance and inner and outward beauty. Of a manifest beauty piercing years. The film about the world and our brief and aggrieved, and still fascinating, act of living in it.

The United States of Summer

In my imagination, Texas is empty, big, hot, a summer whale of state. The state in the United States of Summer. I like its dusty surfaces, stained glass, closed doors, bleached flags and fields, lamps and fences, cactuses and magnolias, unmeasurable spaces. If one is to assemble a full archive of Texas, one has to have an infinite stretch of time at one’s disposal. In the absolute quiet of ideal library, piecing images together, one is to compose a detailed description of all miniscule events which were never to happen in Texas in reality unless one documents them.

 

Siberian Survivors

Siberia, a severe, beautiful land. The place of my power, the place of my weakness. Unobservable vastness, limitless territory, the universe within the universe, the world within worlds. What is to be said about it? Is it possible to say something meaningful in the face of such space, enclosing unnumbered stories: stories of life, struggle, victory, and loss? It breathes with the air of serenity.

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The rural spaces there are hardly pastoral. There their very calmness, there is a threat. One in infinitely small amid Siberian landscape, lost in space, and at the same time meets oneself. Everydayness in Siberian rurality costs efforts to which the urban citizen is not accustomed. But it is natural for those who live there. They do not dramatize their living, they do not perceive it as struggle. They are survivors who do not take pride in being survivors.

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The first photograph: a girl on the shore of the Kluych River; the second photograph: the village of Anosovo on the shore of the Angara River, the house of Ded Gosha (“Grandpa” Gosha). Summer 2013

Affect, Pervasive and Elusive

What is affect? Affect circulates through different spaces, it is multifaceted and flips easily from one ridge to another: individual and collective, private and public, owned and disavowed, approximated and distanced, embraced and avoided. Affect is visceral, olfactory, visual, tangible, palpable. It is atmospheric and pertains to luminosity, pulsation, and texture. What is affect? Notoriously hard to define, whatever it is, it does not mean anything, rather, affect provokes, arouses, triggers, disappoints, vexes, throws off balance, enamors, and disgusts. Affect is a deeply embedded feeling, the feeling worked into the body, it is the way the body is broken down to the settings in which it operates; affect is a state of soul, mind, and gesture. Gregory J. Seigworth and Melissa Gregg define affect in following categories: “Affect arises in the midst of in-between-ness: in the capacities to act and be acted upon. Affect is an impingement or extrusion of a momentary or sometimes more sustained state of relation as well as the passage (and the duration of passage) of forces or intensities. That is, affect is found in those intensities that pass body to body (human, nonhuman, part-body, and otherwise), in those resonances that circulate about, between, and sometimes stick to bodies and worlds, and in the very passages or variations between these intensities and resonances themselves.” (Seigworth, Gregg, 2010, 1). The number of “key terms” emerging in this passage – in-between-ness, passage, intensities, circulation, resonances – map out the unsteady territory of affect in public imagination. Affect is like phlogiston believed to be emerging during combustion in the 18 century: “In general, substances that burned in air were said to be rich in phlogiston.” (Conant, 1950, 14). During combustion, object dephlogisticate. It is possible to be dis-affected as well. Similar to objects rich with phlogiston, bodies are “said to be saturated with affect,” and it’s the circulation of affect that makes affect evident.

The Subject Who Refuses to Suffer

Anthropology grappling with its history as a disciplinary tool of subjugation, produces amazing insights. As the science moved away from “ultimate other” as its subject, “primitive” and otherwise “salvage” societies, it questioned itself as it where could be situated its further legitimate interests? Joel Robbins suggested, it concentrated on “suffering subject” (Robbins, 2013, 448), since trauma is something on the one hand engaging and attracting, and on the other, ridiculously commonplace, a kind of experience that we all share. Thus it was capable of maintaining the unalleviated otherness of its subject and to establish, weirdly, a kind of commonality that would reach the humanistic pathos known from the times of Franz Boas as the claim of the equal humanity of all humans, no one of whom, regardless of what civilization, race, gender, sexuality etc. she belongs, is any less human than the privileged, “Western,” in the broader sense, individual who carries on the study.

While Robbins’s argument is appealing and he is careful enough to make it explicitly clear that “sufferer” does not describe the multifaceted subject of new anthropological construction of a discipline, I wonder if there is something else that could be brought into conversation and be more precise. That is correct that we are interested in trauma, but I want to resist the extension of the “suffering subject” on multiple subjectivities in which contemporary anthropology busies itself. Not only because to be interested in “suffering subject” would mean that the anthropologist is taking a precarious position of something between “psychoanalytic actor” and “curious actor” (and it’s unclear what is worse), not only because there are plenty of “subjects” that refuse to be put into this categorization (where do you put “anthropology of perpetrators,” for example?), but also because it brings unnecessary repercussions of further victimization of the “really suffering subject,” erasing their experience of resistance, survival, revolt, coping, and overcoming. How many activists fighting inequality in different societies would call themselves “suffering subjects”? What kind of hierarchies emerge out of building of this notion in its present form? Could not there be found some other grounds for the multiplicity of anthropological queries?

The historical move of the interest from “other” to the “suffering subject” would mean anthropology is not ready to relinquish its position as an instrument of re-establishing of power. And even if we forewent hopes that we ever could produce something close to “objective knowledge,” such trajectory might mean furthering of its exploitative tendencies and inquisitivenesses.

Reference

Robbins, Joel. Beyond the Suffering Subject: Toward an Anthropology of the Good. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 19(3): 447-462. 2013