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.

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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.

 

Photographs Taken During the Partial Solar Eclipse 8/21/2017 in Austin, Texas

As solar eclipse approached, I was thinking about making an exit, an escape out of it, into the city, in hunt of the everydayness, the experience where the mundane collapses and coagulates with spectacular. There were gazers in Austin that did not make it into my objective; they were exchanging eclipse glasses, and one young pregnant woman stood with her swollen belly, bared, offering it to the sun obstructed by the moon, perhaps in search of some sort of connection for her unborn baby with the forces of the universe far exceeding the limits of our imagination and knowledge, with forces non-human, powerful and divine.

I was looking at the familiar space of the city that has been hosting me for the last six years, and these six years were a pinnacle in its existence: during this time Austin rapidly grew and skyrocketed to the first positions of all kinds of ratings, from most-desirable-cities-to-live in America to cities-that-offer-the-best-ratio-of-entertainment-fun-and-prices-for-rent, or so I’ve been told. Austin is continuing growing and will do so in the observable future, but it is no longer the pioneering city in terms of exchanging comfort for money or best prospects for young professionals. Austin is still one of the desirable place to live but its paradise-like attraction is nearing the end as it is gradually taken over by corporations and undergoes yet another after another wave of gentrification.

I am planning to document through photography several streets in Austin that encompass its spirit best, and I open this project with this series of photographs: Austin during the partial eclipse. The eclipse span nearly three hours, from 11:41 AM to 2:39 PM, with a pinnacle at 1:10 PM.

I enjoyed the light on this day, which seemed unusual to me–and finally I was able to free myself from the idea that I observed a partial solar eclipse before. If I observed the eclipse before, it was not during this earthly life (not that I believe in this shit).

Pink Girlhood (Stenography of the Itinerary 83)

Connection between the mother and the daughter is a special connection, full of warmth, hope, and care. In the pink room that Catherina created for her daughter with a rare, mellifluent name Evelina, all dreams should come true. Fairies, unicorns, barbies, princesses, and all the inhabitants of the world of wonder, world of fairy tales, would witness the growth and development of the happy Evelina’s life.

The girlhood. The desire that the happiness would come true, is so pronounced.

The soft light envelopes the tiny figure on a toy horse. And it seems like all the pink shine in the pink room emanates from this source of light.


The pictures are taken by the author in the village of Anosovo, Siberia

In Proximity of Ruins Talk

In Proximity of Ruins: the Generative Potential of Deteriorating Space and Utopian Visions. Presentation at the New Directions in Anthropology,  April 8, 2017, UT Austin: audio

NDIA

Photograph by Craig Campbell

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Visual material of my presentation (Academia.edu)

Punk Band Pussy Riot’s Story and Political Affect

The text of a project on Academia.edu.

I examine the performance of the feminist punk band Pussy Riot in the Christ the Savior Cathedral, Moscow, 2012, and the immediate political context of this performance. Three members of the group were arrested, accused of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred, and sentenced to two years in prison. One member was released on probation, the others were granted amnesty after they served nearly the full sentence. A relative harmlessness of the crime in comparison to the severity of the punishment was striking. Looking at the feminist activist group Pussy Riot and their most famous performance, I examine how political and civic activism can be read, interpreted, and practiced in the neoliberal context. I suggest that Pussy Riot is a telling story revealing the nature of Putinism as a Russian multicultural neoliberal project. By exercising state power over the female bodies of Pussy Riot protesters, the political imaginary of the Putin Modern strives not only to discipline the bodies of political activists, but also to perpetuate a patriarchal oligarchic regime maintaining a status of the second-class citizenship for women and sanctioning and condoning the genderization of those whom it deems fit. I argue that the reason Pussy Riot’s performance generated a political affect was that they, consciously or not, worked with Russian “cultural memory.” A spiritual practice and a tradition of the Orthodox sanctity called jurodstvo underpinned their actions in the given cultural context. The trial, in turn, evoked a specter of the show trials conducted by the Soviet state. The power dynamics at play during the performance followed by the trial, made many people co-participate by interpreting the events, articulating positions, and changing sides. The “meaning” of the action was, and still is, intensely contested.

Active Ruination (ISIS)

I uploaded my article on “active ruination” (namely ISIS’s affective ruining the space practices) on academia.edu. Years will pass before I get it published so it might as well just dwell there

ISIS: Active Ruination and Performativity of Public Execution

As atrocious actions, public executions and world-making endeavors of ISIS analyzed in terms of performativity open the space for questioning the dominant ideas of history and politics. ISIS released the video of the shooting of 25 Syrian soldiers at the Palmyra ruins in the beginning of June, 2014. On the video, the executioners, most of whom appear to be teenagers, parade the soldiers on the scene of the amphitheater, kneel them down and shoot. The Palmyra amphitheater is present as a visible two-fold reminder of spectacle: as arena of violence and the metaphor for the arena of violence. A crowd, children among them, watched the execution. I argue that the public executions serve several goals for ISIS: not only does ISIS compose propaganda messages, but the very lawlessness and atrociousness of the executions function as a powerful claim of the group’s legitimacy as a state in the ISIS imaginaries. Through the staged executions, ISIS seeks to create the world of power which is alternative to the Western world. In the process of creation of this world, ISIS generates landscapes of violence, and produces spaces haunted by killings. An attempt to redefine ancient ruins and to reenact medieval executions, is a claim to build a world of alternative historicism.

A Portrait of the City in the Uncertain World

What is city? How does it function? Is it a mirror of Utopia? Is it an agglomeration of infrastructure of different types? Is it a mythical space? Enchanted vision? An embodiment of precarity and uncertainty? A system where affect circulates? Perhaps everything above and more.

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People are infrastructure, according to AbdouMaliq Simone. Whereas “infrastructure is commonly understood in physical terms, as reticulated systems of highways, pipes, wires, or cables.” (Simone, 2004, 407), “infrastructure” might be read in broader terms. For instance, like interactions of city residents that “engage complex combinations of objects, spaces, persons, and practices. There conjunctions become an infrastructure—a platform providing for and reproducing life in the city.” (Ibid, 408).

However, when the talk is about people as infrastructure, I cannot shed the feeling that by nature of infrastructure (which does not generate itself, as it were, but is organized or at least repurposed, as repurposed ruins, for example), the subjects are exploited / used as infrastructure, rather than form infrastructure by interactions through their own volition.

But in Simone’s thought “people as infrastructure” construct themselves as such: “Such infrastructure remains largely invisible unless we reconceptualize the notion of belonging in terms other than those of a logic of group or territorial representation. People as infrastructure indicates residents’ needs to generate concrete acts and contexts of social collaboration inscribed with multiple identities rather than in overseeing and enforcing modulated transactions among discrete population groups.” (Ibid, 419). I wonder if another productive way of thinking about people as infrastructure would be, considering people’s relationships and interactions being structured in collaboration and negotiation with other agencies, not only them as acting subject. What happens to people as infrastructure when biopolitics is taken into account? How does that change our view of a city?

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Susan Buck-Morss in the chapter “Dream World of Mass Culture” of “Dialectics of Seeing” draws attention to the urban space as an enchanted space: “In the modern city, as in the ur-forests of another era, the “threatening and alluring face” of myth was alive and everywhere. It peered out of wall posters advertising “toothpaste for giants”…” (Buck-Morss, 254). City is an enchanted place where allegories and myths unfold. French poet Louis Aragon whose work Buck-Morss analyzes in connection with the dialog between Walter Benjamin and Surrealism, suggests that industrialism, at least on its early stage, is mythic: “He acknowledges that the new gas tank gods came into being because humans “delegated” their “activity to machines,” transferring to them “the faculty of thought”: “They do think, these machines. In the evolution of this thinking they have surpassed their anticipated use.”” (260).

Dream is a state of mind for Benjamin, and, it could be added, sleepwalking is a state of living. It is under the hypnosis of their desires, intentions, plans, and hopes, that citizens make everyday transactions.

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Zeiderman, Kaker, Silver, and Wood begin their “Uncertainty and Urban Life” with another vision of a city, a city as a site of constant precarity, city called Octavia, whose dystopian image belongs to Italian writer Italo Calvino. To quote the article, “It is a “spider-web city” hanging over a void between a pair of steep mountains, “bound to the two crests with ropes and chains and cat walks.” Getting from place to place requires great skill, for there’s nothing but clouds below for hundreds of feet until you hit the valley floor.” (Zeiderman et al, 2015, 281). Johannesburg, also the field site for the authors, could be characterized by “contingency, fluidity, and unpredictability,” like markets—and in this flux, “uncertainty has become internal to ways of analyzing and interpreting cities as well as to ideas of how to create the cities of tomorrow.” (Ibid, 300).

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Nagel Thrift introduces in the article “But Malice Afterthought: Cities and the Natural History of Hatred,” published in 2005, re-introduces the concept of misanthropy as the affect which circulates in the city spaces. Tracing the history of misanthropy, he remarks: “Thus, in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century England, misanthropy was understood as a problematic state, but certainly not a state that was mad, iniquitous or perverse.” (P.9 of a manuscript downloaded from the author’s website). “But by the middle of the nineteenth century, such sentiments were fast going out of fashion in the face of a more pious stance to life which valued a controlled and benevolent heroism of the everyday and which increasingly regarded people-hating as a psychological affliction (often, indeed, caused by unrequited love) which must needs be combated by social programmes and self-restraint, although in mid- and even late-Victorian literature a series of radical or maudlin haters still continue to crop up as characters and attitudes, as instanced by authors like Dickens, Bronte, Eliot, Browning, Hardy and Conrad.” (Ibid).

I think this conceptualizing of misanthropy is fascinating but the reason the concept, quite unlike “melancholy” or “nostalgia” went out of circulation (and would not be returned) is that it dispersed into many different kinds of hatred, such as misogyny, misandry, racism, homophobia, transphobia, sociopathy, xenophobia, etc.—directed at particular groups of people based on gender, race, social orientation, etc. Some of these “hatreds,” phobias, and dislikes, are pathologized and announced to be a mental disorder (sociopathy), while others tacitly (or publicly) approved.

Misanthropy thus indeed links to affects of the past, and evokes literature—thus, whole number of heroes in Russian literature: Onegin, Pechorin, Chatsky, Bazarov, etc.—those of Pushkin, Lermontov, Griboyedov, and Turgenev’s literary works—could be said to be misanthropes, romantic heroes full of disdain and contempt to the society for which they were excessive, which they knew all too well, and could, as deeply, in some sense, moral beings, although corrupted by cynicism and skepticism, no longer respect. It is not rare to encounter a young woman or a man in Russia now who would claim that they are misanthropes, but not unoften you would see the glint of life in their eyes, and a great interest and compassion to other people. In other words, misanthropy is more of a romantic pose taken on the way potions were drank for the purpose of making the face to appear paler.

Thrift criticizes the nonexistent understanding of what is affect: “I have been involved in investigations of urban affect or mood for a number of years now, but can say that touching this sphere remains an elusive task, not least because so many definitions of affect circulate, each with their own problematizations.” (Ibid, 6). Since 2005, there is not much of clarity in this regard, if not to the contrary the increasing complexity and bifurcation of what people mean by saying “affect.” On the one hand, it is great to have a notion in active discussion which everyone uses to the best of their capacity. On the other hand, the enigmatic and unagreed-upon nature of affect makes one think that when we are talking about affect, we are talking about a number of different things each of which deserves its own name. Thrift proceeds with giving his own curious definition, or rather a bunch of definitions, of affect—the definition perfectly working together with all the definitions of affect I had had insofar encountered, they all for some reason put incompatible and sometimes mutually exclusive characteristics together: “For example, affect can be understood as a simple or complex (cursive mine—V.O.) biological drive, a pragmatic effect of the pre-cognitive or cognitive interactions of bodies, a set of capacities for affecting or being affected by, the communicative power of faciality, and so on.” (Ibid). Of all those understanding only “a set of capacities for affecting or being affected by” links to Spinoza, who introduced affect as a philosophical category, rediscovered by Deleuze and Guattari, and redistributed henceforward.

 

 

References

Buck-Morss, Susan. The dialectics of seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project. Mit Press, 1991.

Simone, AbdouMaliq. “People as infrastructure: intersecting fragments in Johannesburg.” Public culture 16.3 (2004): 407-429.

Thrift, Nigel. “But malice aforethought: cities and the natural history of hatred.” Transactions of the institute of British Geographers 30.2 (2005): 133-150. (I quote this article here by the manuscript downloaded from the author’s website, hence different pagination and perhaps text discrepancies.)

Zeiderman, Austin, et al. “Uncertainty and urban life.” Public Culture 27.2 76 (2015): 281-304.

Death by Disgust

In Tristles Tropiques Claude Levi-Strauss mentions a questionable but symptomatic cause of death for native population during colonization:

“In was used to be called Hispaniola (today Haiti and Santo Domingo) the native population numbered about one hundred thousand in 1492, but had dropped to two hundred a century later, since people died of horror and disgust at European civilization even more than of smallpox and physical ill-treatment.” (Levi-Strauss, 1974, 75)

We would frame it today as death from depression and stress, probably, but this kind of claim does not sustain a critique for the reason that it could not be supported with hard scientific evidence: there is no way to create a chart comparing numbers of people who died from smallpox and physical ill-treatment, to sum it up, and compare to the numbers of those who died of horror and disgust.

The reason why I remembered it, however, is the passage in Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture which speaks to this Levi-Strauss’s fragment, even if in a roundabout way:

“War may be, as it was among the Aztecs, a way of getting captives for the religious sacrifices. Since the Spaniards fought to kill, according to Aztec standards they broke the rules of the game. The Aztecs fell back in dismay and Cortez walked as victor into the capital.” (Benedict, 1934, 31)

Unlike Levi-Strauss, Benedict does not ascribe here European white sensitivities to native populations, but her statement is questionable in a similar way because it seems to imply that Aztecs fell back in dismay not because they were overwhelmed with surpassing forces but because they encountered a fight which broke their warfare standards.

I have no doubt that the affects of the kind–such as disgust, dismay, repulsion, horror, contempt– took place and played a role in establishing a power balance in different regions, and in regard to those subjugated each of those affects was but another tool of obliteration.

Intimidation and fear are powerful weapons which lay at the core of terrorist strategies of conducting the war (and the word “terror” is fully embedded in “terrorism”).

I wonder what kind of research question might have been possible here. How exactly such affects shape social interactions and participate in the decline of native populations? This might be one way to look at it.

References

Benedict, Ruth. Patterns of Culture. Cambridge–Massachusetts, 1934.

Claude, Levi-Strauss. Tristles Tropiques. Translated from the French by John and Doreen Weightman. New York, 1975.