New Directions in Anthropology 2018, UT

3.31.2018 I gave the presentation “Affective Infrastructures” at the New Direction in Anthropology conference at UT-Austin. The cohort of the brilliant Cortney Morris organized the first New Directions in Anthropology, 11 years ago.

There was a lot of wonderful presentations: by Samantha Archer, Alex Kreger, Jinok Lee, Daniel Ng, Alexander Menaker, John Duncan Hurt, Lilia Loera, Robyn Morse, and Mona Mostofi (that’s who I got to hear) and others (there was a lot of interesting things I, sadly, had to miss). I am thankful to our wonderful discussants Professor James Slotta and Ph.D. Candidate José Guadalupe Villagrán, as well as to Dr. Maria Luz Garcia for her very engaging and invigorating keynote. Grateful to the organizers who tirelessly worked day and night and made it all happen.

You can listen to and/or read my presentation on my website.

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bell hooks About Love

I rarely read with pleasure for the sake of reading, for the sake of enjoyment. More often I read because I need to read in general (my soul demands) or I need to have a concrete text read. It does not mean I do not derive a pleasure from the process but it does mean that I am not enjoying it for the process’s sake. However, sometimes (rarely), I do enjoy reading in the plainest way imaginable. It is this state, familiar to the readers when you are reading and forgetting the fact that you are reading. You are somewhere else, in a kind of meditation but also existing somewhere in between the immediate reality that surrounds you and in the dreamworld of the book. Lately, Bell Hooks’ All About Love produced such an impression on me. I could not deny myself a pleasure to type some of the things that struck me in particular from the book. I present here a collection of quotes alternating with my comments.

bell hooks, All About Love. William Morrow: An Imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers. 2000.

 

Longing

“I have had a taste of true love. That experience intensifies my longing and my desire to search.”

—bell hooks, 180

~
She’s a prophetess. It’s a gospel in her mouth.

 

 

Confidence

Poignant, and, I don’t like the word but cannot think of an analogy, em-po-we-ring. Brutally empowering, almost against your will, by tapping into childhood memories when you knew you can do everything:

“When writing poetry in my girlhood, I felt the same confidence I would come to see in my adult life only in male writers.” (xxi)

Remember that?

Cynicism

“Ultimately, cynicism is the great mask of the disappointment and betrayed heart.” (xviii)

 

Risks

“So many of us long for love but lack the courage to take risks.” Bell Hooks, 11.

 

Love

“If we were constantly remembering that love is as love does, we would not use the word [love] in a manner that devalues and degrades its meaning.” Bell Hooks, 14
*

“The heart of justice is truth telling, seeing ourselves and the world the way it is rather than the way we want it to be.”

—bell hooks (33)

*

“Widespread cultural acceptance of lying is a primary reason many of us will never know love. It is impossible to nurture one’s own or another’s spiritual growth when the core of one’s being and identity is shrouded in secrecy and lies.”

—bell hooks, 46

 

My Mom

So much of the work and love given by women goes unacknowledged and unappreciated. I myself am bad at acknowledging and appreciating of love and labor that I am benefiting from tremendously and blindly. I will never be able to express how grateful I am to my mom for everything she’s done for me and continues doing without even being asked. But I will go on trying.

 

Craving

“Fixating on wants and needs, which consumerism encourages us to do, promotes a psychological state of endless craving.”

—bell hooks, 111

 

Withholding

“I have had great sex with men who were intimate terrorists, men who seduce and attract by giving you just what you feel your heart needs ten gradually or abruptly withholding it once they have gained your trust.”

—bell hooks, 176

I have a theory why this happens. The game loses its appeal once it’s won. They are simply done with you; they could no more force themselves to continue than they could fly. I had myself irreversibly lost interest in people: one day you talk, another day your mind is not there; it has turned to other matters. If you try to drag yourself through a process, continuing the conversation, you’ll lose patience and will hate the other person and yourself. This loss of interest does not vindicate you from responsibility but it explains the mechanics, I believe.

 

Effort
“Many people want love to function like a drug, giving them an immediate and sustained high. They want to do nothing, just passively receive the good feeling. In patriarchal culture men are especially inclined to see love as something they should receive without expending effort.”

—bell hooks, 114

 

Love

“When greedy consumption is the order of the day, dehumanization becomes acceptable. Then, treating people like objects is not only acceptable but is required behavior. It’s the culture of exchange, the tyranny of marketplace values. These values inform attitudes about love. Cynicism about love leads young adults to believe there is no love to be found and that relationships are needed only to the extent that they satisfy desires. How many times do we hear someone say “Well, if that person is not satisfying your needs you should get rid of them?” Relationships are treated like Dixie cups. They are the same. They are disposable.”

—bell hooks, 115-116

Hooks’ is a powerful disavowal of the consumerist world. So potent and poignant, I am thrilled. I am thinking about my Siberian rural place where love is treated differently. Trying to think what my research can really bring. Trying to locate where the thirst is. Love is a cultural concept. Love is a cultural thing.

Forgiving

“Forgiving means that I am able to see her as a member of my community still, one who has a place in my heart should she wish to claim it.”

—bell hooks, 140

 

Task

“Initially, as a young militant feminist, I was thrilled to find a man who was not into being a patriarch. And even the task of dragging him kicking and screaming into adulthood seemed worthwhile.”

—bell hooks, 150

Paradise

“When love’s promise has never been fulfilled in our lives it is perhaps the most difficult practice of love to trust that the passage through the painful abyss leads to paradise.”

—bell hooks, 160

Christian beliefs are so misleading they dim the brightest sights.

Forgiveness

My mom often repeated: “A woman can forgive anything except for a lack of love.” I don’t know if this is so, nor do I know what exactly it means, but it always sounded compelling to me, as something worth unpacking.

 

The Love We Want but are Not Prepared to Give

“To return to love, to get the love we always wanted but never had, to have the love we want but are not prepared to give, we seek romantic relationships.”

—bell hooks, 169

~

All About Love

It happens every so unoften that I am compelled to copy whole passages–and it is from Bell Hooks’ All About Love. I took this book on purpose as an antidote to a the male literature a lot of which I was reading and felt how it suffocates me with its ever-nuanced hints and unbreakable assumptions that are designed to make the reader believe that the white man is the paragon of creation and that women and people of color, women of color doubly so, are somehow inherently less human. I felt I was being poisoned and wanted to detox, but even knowing Bell Hooks’ writing already and knowing what she stands for as an author, I did not expect to find such an abundance of wisdom that addresses as if me directly.

“Our hearts connect with lots of folks in a lifetime but most of us will go to our graves with no experience of true love. This is in no way tragic, as most of us run the other way when true love comes near. Since true love sheds light on those aspects of ourselves we may wish to deny or hide, enabling us to see ourselves clearly and without shame, it is not surprising that so many individuals who say they want to know love turn away when such love beckons.” (186)

Love is a trial. It is impossible to sustain when we present what Bell Hooks calls “a false self, one we believe will be more appealing to the person we want to attract.” (184).

For the first time I think that I should write a treatise on love as opposed to the novel I have been thinking about (and even began writing).

 

Stranger to Death

“There is no one among us who is a stranger to death.”

—bell hooks, 199

 

Unworthy

“Embedded in our shame is always a sense of being unworthy. It separates. Compassion and forgiveness reconnect us.”

—bell hooks, 217

The sense of being unworthy will undermine all. It’s a serious flaw from which not only the individual but those who are around will suffer.

 

Overindulgence

“Estrangement from the realm of the senses is a direct product of overindulgence, of acquiring too much.”

—bell hooks, 218

~

Let us admit that Bell Hooks is very didactic. She is a rhetorician of the gospel.

 

Earlier version of this blog post misspelled the name of the author as “Bell Hooks.” Corrected 4/14/2018

 

In the photo: one of the Siberian little sightings

ASEEES 2018 (December, Boston) Abstracts

For the American Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies convention in 2018, I am planning to do two things:

Present the paper “Affective Infrastructures and Mobility: the Soviet Sublime, post-Soviet Concrete, and post-post-Soviet Recursion” at the panel Alexandra Simonova and I organized, Politics of Belonging for Hybrid Identities: in the Shadow of the Soviet Sublime.

Here is the abstract of my paper:

I examine the tensions in the everyday life of people who engage with the morally outdated and sometimes malfunctioning infrastructures in remote Siberian villages on the shore of the Angara River. These villages came to life in their current form as a consequence of the Bratsk dam construction in 1954-61. Although the villages emerged as the result of infrastructural development, the infrastructures locally have been lacking from the start. Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, their existence has drastically changed. How do people make decisions regarding their mobility in a place where the infrastructure is failing? Making use of what I call “affective infrastructures,” I connect the theories of affect (Deleuze and Guattari, Stewart) and the theories of infrastructure (Larkin, Simone) through the analysis of the intersecting points such as network-like structures, flow, exchange, and connection. I show how infrastructure generates affects as well as affects partake in the construction or repurposing of infrastructure.

The panel’s framework is as follows (Magdalena Stawkowski took part in polishing it):

How do tensions between new and old infrastructures throughout post-Soviet space, affect the ways in which people build and perform their identities and make everyday decisions? This panel brings together scholars of anthropology and regional studies (working in Crimea, Kazakhstan, and Siberia) doing interdisciplinary research on infrastructures and material objects in their production of hybrid identities, politics of belonging, and citizenship in the context of disparate and conflicting allegiances. Considering the Soviet period as a “lingering reverberation” that creates identities, sameness, and differences, we examine how old Soviet and new post-Soviet categories of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, age, health, and class, as well as generational divide, express themselves in practices of working through and reconstructing the narratives of living.

Taking into account the spatio-temporal phenomenon of the Soviet collapse allows us to not only concentrate on the peculiarities of performing hybrid identities in contested socio-cultural contexts, but also to speak to broader concerns of infrastructural development, ideas of progress and modernity, mobility, and precarity. The USSR-related experiences acquire a new importance in the today’s volatile political climate worldwide. The construction of infrastructural and architectural projects brought to life the affect of the Soviet sublime connected to a grand Soviet narrative. Today’s infrastructures are in disarray. Still, they are a part of the material and environmental settings where hybrid identities emerge and are performed. How people are making the everyday decisions in these material settings are the focus of this panel’s inquiries.

 

For the roundtable on literature and gender, I put together the final version of this talk just now; the talk is titled “‘I am a Little Poetess with a Huge Bow:’ Female Poets in Contemporary Russia.”

In this talk, I am reciting the originals of the poems by contemporary Russian poets Dana Kurskaya, Inga Kuznetsova, Irina Ysn, Alina Vitukhnovskaya, Luba Makarevskaya, as well as by Irina Odoyevtseva (1895-1990), alongside translations of these works by me and others. It is done in order to open the space to think through emergent poetics and points of imaginary cross-references. Imaginary, because these poets are from different groups; they are not connected to one another. What connects them then? A translator and reader’s arbitrary will. But is it arbitrary? Irina Odoyevtseva is a poet who foreshadowed some of the creative practices of the contemporary Russian poets by and large, and she is not as often spoken or widely read as Tsvetaeva or Akhmatova. Other poets all present different ways and tactics of navigating the cultural and “real” world; they build different universes of meaning and affect. I will analyze their creative practices (which are very different and include, for Kurskaya, a publishing project; for Kuznetsova, prose; for Ysn, jewelry making; for Vitukhnovskaya, political self-representation, and for Makarevskaya, art) in connection to their poetry. I will look at whether they position themselves as feminists, and if not or yes, why, and what does it tell us about positionality of female writer and poet in Russia, and why this positionality matters in regard to feminism. I will use the answers by the poets to the questions that arise in connection to their creative practices. My talk will enable other participants of the roundtable and the public to talk about different ways of navigating, expressing, or denying gender-related ideologies in poetry, but that will not be the center of it. The center of my talk will be poetry itself. I will show that all these poets are working with the aesthetics positioned on the edges of the respectability; in their writings, they consistently push the boundaries and limits of acceptable.

 

In the photo: an interior of a house in the village of Atalanka, Siberia. The picture is taken by the author in 2013

Great Expectations

Because I received the Global Research Fellowship, I am planning and actively preparing for my final fieldwork research for the dissertation during the summer of 2018 and possibly beyond. I am planning, as of yet, to depart the USA in the early May.

By that time, my new book Antropologia povsednevnosti (The Anthropology of the Everydayness), forthcoming from Noocratia (Noocracy) publishing house in Moscow, should be out. (I should still proofread it and to send the publisher my wishes regarding the cover.) The publisher, Stanislav Ivanov, known by the Russian reading public under the pseudonym Zoran Pitich, is planning a small presentation of the book in the Tsiolkovsky bookstore in Moscow.

I will go then, in June, to Siberia for my final round of fieldwork for the dissertation. I am going, from what it looks now, to linger in Siberia throughout the fall semester of 2018; I am very much looking forward to the extended period of fieldwork.

In December, I will be back to the States for the ASEEES 50th annual convention in Boston. I participate in a roundtable on Russian literature and gender that Olia Breininger and Susanna Weygandt organize. Additionally, or perhaps most importantly, I should say, I am going to present on a panel that Alexandra Simonova and I are putting together. Our panel is titled Politics of Belonging for Hybrid Identities: in the Shadow of the Soviet Sublime, and I am going to give a presentation titled “Affective Infrastructures and Mobility: the Soviet Sublime, post-Soviet Concrete, and post-post-Soviet Recursion.”

As for the American Anthropological Association gathering, I will likely record a video, as the AAA gathers in November, and to arrange a Skype presentation from a Siberian village… will be difficult. For the AAA, Rick Smith and I are currently putting together the panel The Apocalypse Я Us.

Let’s see if everything I am thinking about will come to fruition. I am currently working on several writing projects: one is a rest from the other, and the other is a rest from the third. I have to write and read all the time, and I discovered the way to be on top of each of these things. You cannot spend 12 hours a day on each of them anyway. Therefore, you can rotate them and refresh one of them with the ideas that come to you while you are working on another.

Meanwhile, I have updated my website with visual essays–please check them out; I have American Dream and Abandoned Mansion posted, the fruits of my restless roaming through Texas.

 

In the photo: a stream flowing into the Angara River that I snapped in 2006

Elizabeth de Marigny Asked Me Questions

Graduate Student Spotlight: Vasilina Orlova

Thu, February 8, 2018
Graduate Student Spotlight: Vasilina Orlova

The Department of Anthropology is excited to share the following interview with Graduate Student Vasilina Orlova, conducted by Elizabeth de Marigny. We will continue to highlight the amazing works our students are doing, in Austin and around the world, a few times each semester.

Your work in Siberia focuses on the lives of people living in settlements that you refer to as “stranded communities.” Can you tell us a little about these settlements, and the people who inhabit these places? Why call them “stranded communities?”

The term “stranded communities” is not mine, and I do not refer to the communities of my study as “stranded.” But this is a term in circulation; that is why I brought it up. The Economist discussed “stranded communities” in Scranton, Pennsylvania. I used this term, because it is illustrative of the “chronocentrism” that is a part of the discourse on territories of daily struggle. What I call “chronocentrism” is something that works in parallel with ethnocentrism- a notion that some places live in the present whereas others fall behind and maintain some version of the past. That there are countries, regions, and zones left behind as progress advances elsewhere. This is deeply embedded in the discourse of what progress means and its perception as an ultimate good. The term “stranded communities” demonstrates that in the U.S., not only are some foreign nations perceived to be some sort of backwater place left behind in the process of modernization, but also that within certain political imaginaries, portions of the U.S. are seen as left behind. These political imaginaries are imbued with all kinds of class-based feelings and resentments that are expressed in both subtle and obvious “othering” practices, or to put it another way, there is an idea that “we” are directed into the future, whereas “they” are stuck in the past and should be helped or taken into the future by force. My research works against these ideas and notions, against the brutal social evolutionism and fast-discourse approaches. My research draws parallels between the U.S. and certain Siberian communities, where in both cases, individuals lost their livelihood when places ceased to be economically productive. In the capitalist and post-Socialist worlds, the processes that result in community hardships are different. I refer to these differences as “developed-capitalism processes” that are characteristic of the U.S., and “restarted-after-the-Socialist-period-capitalist processes” that are unique to Russia.

For example, the villages along the Angara River lost a significant portion of the state-provided support that they received during the Soviet period. They also lost or are on the brink of losing the natural resources that provided a way of life for a much longer period than the Soviet Era. The Siberian villages in my study are situated in the taiga, a dense pine forest. Russian settlements began there in the seventeenth century. Whether settlers from Russia had a state-building task or not, they worked towards the establishment of the Russian Empire. The taiga was an endless source of productive resources that provided for the livelihoods of a diverse population. These resources included animals for furs and meat, medicinal plants and edible mushrooms, the wood that can be used in the development of the timber industry and for the construction of homes. But these resources were not endless, and in 2008 the lespromkhoz (a timber enterprise) in the village of Anosovo was disbanded. By that time the forest as people knew it was also gone, although for my eye, as a city dweller, the forest is still dense. An old hunter described to me that the realization of the change came when he realized that the birds that once inhabited the taiga were no longer waking him up at the early morning when he was away from the village for hunting and sleeping in his hut.

The places that I am working are the places of hard living. Right now, two of the three diesel generators in the village of Anosovo are out of order. And yet, life goes on. This illustrates how what would typically be considered an emergency situation is actually an ordinary occurrence within these places. So, my question is how- how does life go on? What directions and forms does it take?

This research is interesting because it uses the day-to-day lives and decisions made by individuals living in these settlements as a lens to try and understand how attachments to place make people stay. How are you conducting your fieldwork, and what have you learned or encountered thus far?

My project explores the fates of the people who continue to live in settlements devoid of state support, industrial settlements in Siberia. I ask how people navigate the disrupted infrastructures of the Soviet period, and how the material world and environment facilitate making decisions, particularly the decisions regarding mobility-moving in and out of places. My methodology employs participant observation, open-ended interviews, and documenting oral histories. My research uses visual anthropology methods such as photo-aided elicitation of narratives. My interest in this topic really began when I first visited the village of Anosovo in the Irkutsk District in 2006, but I did not know at the time that it would become the focus of my research. Historically, Anosovo emerged in its present form with the construction of the Bratsk hydroelectric dam. The Bratsk dam was the most powerful dam in the world at the time of its construction in 1954-1961. Its construction displaced villages, which were relocated but left without electricity. My father was born in one of these villages, and he lived in Anosovo as a child. He and his mother, my grandmother, moved away after the death of her husband. So I have this intimate family connection to Anosovo, it was a Siberian place that would not let me go. In 2013 I revisited and found that the children I met in 2006 had become young adults, that some people stayed, but many had left or died. During the 2016 and 2017 summers I again returned to Anosovo to conduct fieldwork supported by the McWilliams Fellowship and several professional development awards from the Center for Russian, Eastern European, and Eurasian Studies, and the Department of Anthropology.

What I expected to hear in the narratives was a strong nostalgic sense of the Soviet past. Its history during the Soviet era is complex, where prosperity and relocation are felt as layers of nostalgia for the lost world. What I have found is somewhat expected, but I also learned through the stories I heard in Anosovo and what I witnessed is that people reflect a lot on their prospects, on the future, on their plans. And a lot of these plans were connected to moving somewhere, but occasionally there were vows of never leaving this land- an expression of attachment. To me, Anosovo is a place of freedom. In all the hardships that people face, a remote Siberian village is also an image of a green future, of self-sustainability that people have been talking about for so long. People find their ways of belonging, of relating; they create, inhabit, and switch identities. One of the arguments that I am making in my work is that we need to quit thinking about the collapse of the USSR as an event that took place, and begin to take it as a dynamic process that goes on. This collapse will take about as much time as we can imagine. For the next hundred years we are going to be talking about it, returning to it. But it does not mean that we are going to be stuck with all the paradigms and beliefs that we now entertain. So, the question is: what is really going on? Where is the language to talk about it and name things?

Under the Global Research Fellowship, my goal for the 2018 summer is to collect narratives of mobility that I can then summarize and analyze. To get to Anosovo I will fly from Austin to Moscow, then fly to Irkutsk, which is a four-hour journey. From there I will travel for eight hours on a minibus and a river tram to Anosovo. This journey will take 24 hours, taking me to the opposite end of the world from Austin, when I fall asleep in Anosovo, Austin will be waking up. What I have learned from these travels is that some people go to Anosovo and to abandoned villages, like the village of Karda near Anosovo, to escape the relative comfort of city life. This is put into perspective when you realize that Karda formally ceased to exist in 2008, it is no longer shown on maps. But some people choose to live there, in the officially-non-existent village in the taiga.

One of your many interests as an anthropologist is digital self-representation through selfies. Have you noticed differences or patterns in the ways people present themselves? Are there specific forms of digital self-representation that are unique to one culture, but not others?

I think this is one of the advantages of the anthropological tool kit: once you have it, you can use it for many things. Some of the fieldwork that I am doing is also in the U.S. I have been living in the U.S. for 7 years, but everything is still strange for me here, as opposed to Siberia, where many things are intimately familiar even though I was born in the Russian Far East and grew up in Moscow. The anthropologist is in a position to occupy a space in two or more cultures and be socially fluent in every world they inhabit while retaining an inner distance from each. Selfie-taking practice is very gendered and is subjected to gendered critique. It is a global practice that, I believe, has more similarities across cultures than differences. A lot of content on social media is in the form of selfies, and a lot of selfies are taken in a way where you cannot even tell where the shot was snapped. It could be Irkutsk, or Moscow, or San Francisco. What becomes important is the body, telling of gender, race, age, sometimes, often pointedly, class and the ways the body signals many ways of belonging, affiliation, or affinity. But there are cultural differences for sure, Dress, hair, clothing- it is all important. Surroundings, as much as they are in the selfie, a landscape or an interior, become a context to read a person. A gym signals “I work out,” or a car says “look, I am mobile,” or a pet weaponized as a means of building trust on a dating site- “I have a dog, therefore, I am a nice guy.” The media theorist Theresa M. Senft offered the term “microcelebrity” describing such a phenomenon as the “instafamous”- people becoming famous for being known. Famous for being famous. Fame is an achievement in its own right and merits no further confirmations; fame could, in the “attention economy” exist on its own. You don’t have to write books to become famous or create music, or be a movie star. To take selfies is enough. While not everyone achieves this status, those who efficiently emulate celebrities, have a chance.

In Anosovo you would not be surprised to learn that there is no such infrastructure for a universally accessible Internet connection. There is one spot that gives Wi-Fi away for free, and in the evening around the spot, on a bench, you see people staring into their smartphones, as you would observe them any other place in the world. But the selfie-taking practice does not make sense in the absence of the environment that affords for an intermittent and ubiquitous interconnectedness. People do take selfies though. What I have learned is that essentially is you give a human a photo camera, they are going to snap a self portrait. Therefore, the cultural critique that is built around selfie practices as being superficial, vain- that Millennials indulge in because of their self-conceit, is in fact rather superficial and indulgent. On another note, but one that is relevant to make my point, I have a memorial of selfies from one girl who died in Anosovo at the age of 14. Her page on a Russian social media site is the only document she shared throughout her short life, and she shared it with the rest of the world. How is that not worthy of appreciation?

Part of your work in Siberia explores how people’s networks of social relations extend past their town. What are these social networks- are they made up of friends, family, employers? How are these relationships maintained, and is there any conflict?

One thing that I realized in thinking through this project and research is that remoteness does not mean the absence of mobility. On the contrary, people can live a sedentary life should they so desire, but there is a lot of travel and moving around. For everything, like buying wallpaper for your new home, or seeing a dentist, you have to travel- and in this case, travel becomes an adventure in its own right. For example, there is a mooring in Anosovo where people gather to meet their friends and relatives, or during their own departure and arrival. It is one of the most important places for community gatherings and exchange of news, greetings, rumors- things that need to be passed to someone, good, and so on. That Anosovo keeps diminishing in population means that the network of those who stayed has actually expanded. Some of the human connections are fleeting, and some are strong and are maintained over great distances for decades. The older generation tends to rely on paper correspondence, but this is also difficult. I learned that it is impossible to send a post card from Anosovo. The old building that was the post office burned down, so the post is now in a banya, and there are no post cards. It may seem trivial, and probably it has been awhile since you have sent or received one, but imagine a world where you are deprived of this simple possibility. So there is this clear divide between generations, and in the way that they maintain their connections, but the ability to communicate in either way is still difficult.

From what you have seen in your fieldwork, do forms of digital self-representation play a role in maintaining these networks of social relations?

Digital activities in Anosovo do not play as much of a role as they play in Austin or in Moscow. You’re definitely not going to be excluded from some events there if you don’t have a Facebook account. In Russia, the most popular social networks are Odoklassniki and Vkontakte. I am in connection with many of my younger interlocutors in the field through Vkontakte. They are all absent from Facebook, remarkably. But my Moscow friends are overwhelmingly using Facebook. There is a certain divide between how Russian villages, small towns, and big cities are represented on this social-network map. But you know how places like Anosovo may skip a moment of everyone’s connection via telephone. Technology is visceral and worked into a body, it is also an embodied practice. For example, the first thing that I and people who used spiral-cord telephone receivers do is press it to my ear, lift my shoulder and hold the receiver squeezed between my shoulder and head. It is a gesture that I do automatically. It allows you to free your hands and do something while you’re still talking on the phone. People who did not spend as much time as I did with this form of telephone that now belong to the past do not do this gesture automatically. Anosovo did not have a central telephony. They have satellite phones here and there, but not in every household. And because of the remittent Internet connection, where not everyone is initiated into it, you have to agree on things in person. I have found this to be strangely invigorating- you begin to suddenly plan your time, and you know you don’t have an option to drop out at the last second. The Internet made even short-term contracts impossible. But I have found that you have to learn and re-learn how to navigate these different ways of communication.

I imagine there is a tension between old and new (technologically, generationally, socially) in these towns. Is this true? How does this tension challenge an individual’s decision to remain or leave, and what are the effects it has on individual and community identity?

What constitutes such a big decision as whether to leave or stay (and the “stay” decision is also a decision which is reaffirmed every day) is a complex factoring out of many things. And these things are not easy to separate from one another.

I see two main tensions between generations in post-Soviet spaces in general: one of them is along the time divide related to the Soviet era. Those who were alive during the Soviet Era, who participated and were active in practices specific to that time, have a different set of bodily experiences. Those who were born in 1988 or later did not experience that world at an age when they could account for themselves. From one side the disruption of continuity was dramatic, with borders emerging all over the place- not only state borders, but social borders as well, no less policed or more penetrable. It was a process lived through by active individuals. It reverberated through their family relations and their relationships with their loved ones. It resulted in friendships ruined and new social circles acquired. Sets of beliefs collapsed, and new ideas emerged. But on the other side, it is not that the next day suddenly all the daycares in the Soviet Union had different people caring for the same children. A trajectory continued through multiple disruptions: ethic conflicts, family dramas, parents losing jobs, committing suicide, and so on. Life goes on. The shift in the state governance happened alongside the technological revolution. And in this case revolution is not too strong a word to call the advent of personal computers and mobile phones coming into almost everyone’s possession. We are talking about dramatic changes here. In fact, in 2012, the historian Donald Raleigh published a wonderful book titled The Soviet Baby Boomers: An Oral History of Russia’s Cold War Generation. Geographically, Moscow and Saratov “baby boomers” who were the subjects of Raleigh’s book do not represent the Soviet baby boomers as an entity (the USSR consisted of 15 Republics). But I wonder if there should be a book on The Post-Soviet Millennials– this would be a charming hybrid. Precisely because of this hybridity it makes perfect sense. We speak about social categories in the language that we think we understand, even if in the process of speaking many things are lost in translation not only cross-culturally, but also within the language. The translation is impossible, but it also happens all the time. Misunderstanding is a potentially productive way of understanding.

 

Source: The University of Texas at Austin, department of anthropology website. February 8, 2018.

My List of Books and Resources On How To Write

How does one write ethnographic notes? How does one write, and how does one produce a thing: an article, a book? This is what a scholar does: she writes. She writes, and, characteristically, not aimlessly, but with a clear purpose, goal, and structure in mind.

My first lessons on how to write were from the Russian books on the subject. Maxim Gorky’s fragments of letters to young writers were my first, at the age of 11, opening to the realization that writing might and must be perfected. Another book in Russian that I want to mention, I don’t think it is translated, is the Soviet journalist Valery Agranovsky’s book For the Sake of a Single Word (Radi edinogo slova).

Writing is the most potent instrument that you possess even if there are other tools at your disposal. With writing, you can do a lot. You can make people do what you want and to change immediate social reality. It may sound too good to be true, but Austin’s theory of performatives shows this. Word is an extremely powerful instrument. Moreover, it is the only instrument anyone has to make oneself understood.

I compiled a list of books and resources that will propel a writer to a greater precision and quality of their work. These are simple “how to” books. Ethnographic writing should move. It can be suspenseful, it can be creative, and it can be pretty much anything you want. Now that fiction has to compete with the web and social media, in addition to movies, it shrinks in sales and therefore, presumably, in numbers of books that people read. But nonfiction is going surprisingly strong. My guess is, it is promotional books (“how to take 10 steps in 10 steps”), and not prose-leaning narratives that seized the day. But it is also curious to observe how previously marginal genres, like memoirs and collections of short twitterlike notes, have been gaining prominence. Against this backdrop, ethnographic writing and anthropological theory of all sorts have a great opportunity to flourish. Anthropology has many things to offer to the world, particularly if it does not become esoteric but still retains its depth. There are books on how to write ethnography, but here I am going to list the books that simply teach how to write and how to publish. I have always been far less interested in the latter (perhaps not a good thing to admit), so I don’t comment on the soundness of publishing advice. Fiction, nonfiction, academic, and non-academic writing: ethnography can consume the best of all and will still remain hungry for more.

Stephen King, On Writing. A master of suspense-driven novels (not plot-driven, as you’ll learn from this book), King portrays his passion about writing though a personal story and shares the surprisingly not arcane secrets of his mastery. I found his idea of novel as a fossil that remains hidden until you write it, unearth it, compelling. The book is also invigorating because it is a story of success, and if there is something appealing to a broad audience, it is success. Stephen King could have written anything on the subject of writing and still end up with a bestseller after he wrote and sold so many bestselling novels, but he’s making a horror novel out of a how-to book, from the material of his own life. It is an autoethnography of the writer’s life, infused with reflections on writing. I found it funny that there are traces of, what do I call it, regrets or perhaps even shame that the author’s talent was spent on fast-reading, trade-literature books. There is a curious defensiveness about it. But this book is the one that positions Stephen King, if he wasn’t there already, among the classics of the American letters, makes him look very reasonable on a bookshelf somewhere between Kerouac and Joseph Heller.

William Strunk and E.B. White, The Elements of Style. It is one of the books that Stephen King recommends in his On Writing, and by far The Elements is probably most popular and well-known book on how to write in the American culture. It is an acclaimed (and short, like a stub) book that has the strangest history: co-authors, a professor and his student, did not work side by side on a manuscript, but with a distance in 40 years. It is a story behind this book that I find poignant (and also questionable from the point of view of the primate of the authorship) that makes it matter in addition to the quality of advice given there. The passage on the dangling participle made me exclaim: “Yes! Please, make every American / British /Canadian / Australian etc. writer read it!”:

“Sentences violating Rule 11 are often ludicrous: 

<…>

Wandering irresolutely what to do next, the clock struck twelve.”

Les Edgerton, Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One and Never Lets Them Go. This book makes an important argument: stories told today must accommodate to the quickness with which the reader switches attention. No one has time for lengthy introductions and background stories: throw your character (I’d add, all the more so if your character is a theoretic notion) into a density of events and see how they fare. Make them work around the clock trying to resolve an urgent conflict.

John Ciardi, Ciardi Himself: Fifteen Essays in the Reading, Writing, and Teaching of Poetry.  Ciardi Himself is a collection of essay on writing that will be slightly out of this “how to” list. But it is a book that does not concern itself with how to sell the writing, but rather with how to gain a metaphysical victory.

Chandler Bolt, Book Launch: How to Write, Market & Publish Your First Bestseller in Three Months or Less AND Use it to Start and Grow a Six Figure Business. The title of this book sounds shallow, and it makes no secret out of the fact that it is aimed to appeal to the widest audience of forever unsuccessful writers. But this is, surprisingly, one of the clearest and simplest books on the subject that I ever encountered.

 

Additionally, I want to offer you a list of resources on how to write.

Resources:

https://jerryjenkins.com/ – tips, in fact, a collection of instructions on how to write things of different genres. My favorite instruction is how to write a memoir, found on the website, downloaded for free, by Jerry Jenkins;

https://academicmuse.org/ – academic writing, explained by Alan Klima;

http://theprofessorisin.com/pearlsofwisdom/ – blog of Karen Kelsky, the author of the book with the same title, The Professor Is In. Karen Kelsky’s has written on a wide array of academic writing, including some of the most daunting ones, like grant proposals and research statements. A must-read for every student of academic writing out there.

The three writers mentioned above, in the Resources section, organize writing seminars providing schedule and systems of accountability, advise and support for those enrolled. These services are paid; I cannot tell if it is worth it because I do my writing on my own. I can write anywhere in any medium (and you can do it too), and I find agglomerations of writers distracting rather than helpful. But it can be a good idea to attend a writing seminar, for many reasons.

Finally, I have written on methods in socio-cultural anthropology, and should the subject be of interest to you, I invite you to read On Methods in Sociocultural Anthropology: Production of Ethnography Through Observation, Recollection, and, Occasionally, Forgetting.

In the photo: the author taking field notes on the shore of Lake Baikal in a company of fishermen in 2006

My New, Image-Centered, Website, and Other Events

Yielding to the ever-increasing pressure of taking care of the self-representation online, I have opened a website. The difference of this website from my other web-incarnations is that finally the photograph, the image, moves at the center of attention pushing the previously-reigning text to the margin. And although this shift is deceptive (since the text is still a leading figure in every image / word struggle), it, nonetheless, has happened there.

Here is the link: https://vasilinaorlova.weebly.com/ Please include it into your bookmarks; I am going to enrich the website, this blog, and the plenitude of my other projects, including articles and essays, with new and new images and episodes. I am writing my way towards telling a big story of the place and time.

I am particularly excited at finding a way to reflect on motherhood and how it affects one’s perception of the field: https://vasilinaorlova.weebly.com/research-assistant.html, but I also for the first time publish the portions of my CV and make public more details on my current project that I insofar did.

The Spring semester of 2018 I am a TA for the course Photographic Image. Professor Craig Campbell teaches it. All things visual anthropology happen to happen to me lately, and I greet them all.

Commisioned by a Russian publisher, I spent the winter break on putting together a book of my Siberian travelogues in Russian. The book is titled Antropologia povsednevnosti (Anthropology of the Everydayness), and it is a literary pursuit more than a “scientific” one. As I had an opportunity to argue already (here and here) the ethnography and the travelogue are literary genres, and, as such, a good execution of any of these forms is also a good literature.

In the photo: a fragment of the interior in Valentin Rasputin’s house in Atalanka. I visited the house in 2013, and was endlessly impressed with its supreme austerity

116th American Anthropological Association Meeting in Washington, D.C.

This year’s anthropological meeting was productive; I like big gatherings; usually, I receive there notes and feedbacks that I am able to incorporate in my work because they are dense, to the point, and affirmative. Anthropology and science in general, particularly social science, but also its humanitarian incarnation, the socio-cultural anthropology, tend to come to any fruition (if they do) as collaborative processes, despite their continual stressing of the role of the author. We’re still privileging the singular, sole author, as opposed to some other branches of anthropology that are more explicit in doing things collaboratively–the socio-cultural anthropology is no exception; it is also a 100% collaborative process.

I participated in the 116th AAA with two projects that are linked in ways more numerous that I will be able to articulate in this quick blog post. It will suffice to say for the time being that they should end up as parts of my dissertation. Both these projects emerge out of my Siberian explorations; my interests in the phenomenological side of the materialities of the world; my suspicion that such materialities are mutable and multiple; and also from my interest in people and from me asking and re-asking the questions: How do I tell stories? How do I convey things I saw? How do I transport this audience, this group of people, this listener, this reader, into my own world, which incidentally, at least in part, is an unequivocally Siberian world?

My first presentation came out of the episode which I had been hoping to run in a group of anthropologists for a while. I wrote it down almost entirely right after these episodes had transpired. Yet it took me two years to work through some theory pertaining to that day, to two episodes / two encounters. The theory is there to make it all make sense, as it were.

The piece is about a never-completed architectural project, the Palace of Pioneers in Bratsk, and fantasies and ideas unfolding around it and in proximity to it. Two years is not the end of thinking about one day; this piece continues to be a work in process.

The piece is titled In Proximity of Ruins: Haunted Space and the Mutant Fantasy.

Here is the link to an MP3 recording of the presentation.

(The first one minute and a half of the recording is a lovely murmur of papers and a little bit of commotion; I considered cutting this part but then decided to leave it as is for the sake of a sensorial affect of presence).

The panel where I gave this presentation, is the result of a much-cherished friendship of mine–of an intellectual partnership, a connection between my colleague, the anthropologist Rick Smith and me. The panel was titled Summoning the Past: Contestations of Matter, Space, and Time in the Reproduction of State Power. The concentration on summoning, bringing together matter, space, and time, all in a focus of how the state uses these parameters of the “reality” in view of the reproduction of state power, had allowed us to bring together scholars from different, sometimes perceived as far-flung, wings of the discipline. I find such get-togethers particularly generative in terms of ideas and in terms of acquiring the new angles on the same matters.

We were extremely lucky to have Doctor Eben Kirksey, whose presence as a discussant on our panel was very welcome. Dr. Kirksey was extremely generous in providing the much-needed feedback.

It was an honor to present alongside with Rick Smith, Magdalena Stawkowski (whose work I use in my piece), Mary J Weismantel, and also to have Joanna Radin on our panel, who regretfully could not grace us with her physical presence, but whose amazing presentation Dr. Kirksey delivered himself. I am looking forward to seeing, reading, learning always more about, as well as celebrating the works, of all the participants on our panel.

picturebyCraigCampbell

Craig Campbell took this snapshot, a photographic evidence of the (already) past. In the picture: Dr. Rick Smith and I

My second presentation at AAA 2017 was titled Life and Death in a Siberian Village, and this is one of my favorite projects.

Here is a link to an MP3 recording of this presentation.

I will not upload the visual component of this presentation as I am going to convert it into a photo essay.

This is a project of handwriting that my scientific advisor, anthropologist Craig Campbell, prompted and encouraged me to do.

The curatorial collective Writing With Light put together a two-part roundtable. A diverse group of artists, photographers, visual and multimedia scholars, and anthropologists presented their projects where text and photography, sound and image, language and… language–come together to generate a bunch of different, often complex and ripe with tensions, relationships. It is with great interest that I observed the photo-essays in progress by participants of the roundtable.

I am grateful to Kate Schneider and Camilo Leon-Quijano for their insightful comments on my essay.

To the Cultural Differences in Writing

In the book titled “Getting Your Writing Out of the Door: Strategies of Publishing in International Journals for European Social Scientists” (don’t ask; some books I read it will be even more embarrassing to admit I did) there is a universally familiar, palpable sense of superiority of the American thought in regard to any other thought.
 
“‘We’re different, we’re different, as you can clearly see,’ and just as clearly you can see that we’re better in every aspect.”
 
But, apart from it, there is one thing that I found curious: the author insists that there are major cultural differences in the ways scholarly writings are structured in “the West” and anywhere else.
 
In the Eastern cultures (the writer vaguely waves her hand towards “the East,” uniting it generously into one region), it is an affront to the reader’s intelligence to say everything you meant exactly like you meant it. There are beautiful digressions, anecdotes, and stories, and fragments that leave you genuinely puzzled by how they got there and what functions they bear. The reader is supposed to be an active participant in reconstructing the meaning of the text. The reader is supposed to put the book away and contemplate the universe gazing at the landscape framed by her window, slowly sipping tea with jasmine sitting on her straw mat, while cicadas around cool her forehead with paper fans.
 
In the West, says our writer, if you don’t explain at least three times what it is that you’re trying to say, exhaustively, first and foremost things that seem obvious to you, you’re not doing a good job as a writer. There are no digressions. Anecdotes and stories may be present, on occasion, but they know their place; they play the role of the evidence and illustrations to your main point. In the West, the reader has no time for tea. She is dressed in the robotic uniform and is too busy mopping the floor. The reader is supposed to put the book away and know exactly how to mop the floor, what instruments to use, and why she needs to mop the floor in the first place. She might be told how much more often those who mop the floor find themselves distracted by reading than they find themselves finishing their work on time, but that requires a separate article.
 
~
Interesting observation… I wonder where’s my green tea with jasmine. I think I had a tiny, beautiful octagonal tin box somewhere in this house.

Triggering Political Affect: Generating Identities

At the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies convention I presented the work “Triggering Political Affect: Generating Identities” (on the example of Pussy Riot). Chicago, 11/11/2017

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This is the screenshot of a snapshot taken by Olia Breininger, and it means to illustrate and support with undeniable visual evidence the claim made above.

The audio recording of my presentation is here (MP3).

Enjoy.