Anthro Notes

I kept these notes Spring semester of 2019–the semester I also taught Expressive Culture at the University of Texas-Austin, which was a profound and exciting experience for me. I decided to put them all together in one blogpost with the idea that perhaps later I will have some time for some of these embryos of texts.

 

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Anthro Notes

Whenever the conversation is about these overlappings of post-ness(es), it’s someone else, not us, who are postcolonial or post-Soviet, is it not so? Such was my impression. We, on the other hand, are all neo: neoliberal. Stoler warns about excessive stress on the “post” in postcolonial. Siberia is an agglomeration of overlapping territorialities from tsarist / colonial, Soviet / Post-Soviet, with a thin but noticeable layer of the vaguely-Western vogues and mores.

 

 

Friday, January 18, 2019

Anthro Notes

I had one of the most surreal experiences sitting, back to Texas, with my laptop with notes and fragmented descriptions of my Siberian travels. At my desk at a grad office, when no one was there. I could barely remember where I was myself. Being-in-the-place felt like a difficult action to perform.

 

 

Monday, February 4, 2019

Anthro Notes

Humans are beautiful animals.

And if they wore short fur all over their faces, they’d be even more beautiful.

 

 

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Anthro Notes

Last time we discussed humans’ dependency on social media and technology, there was a bit of info (in one of the videos I included) that human beings tend to interrupt themselves once they are interrupted. And according to some cognitive psychologists, it takes us on average 20 min to return to the concentration we maintained before being interrupted. Needless to say, the contemporary world is all about interruptions. The consistent concentration is a distant dream.

But I am thinking now what if the chain of these interruptions are simply a concentration of some sort. What if this condition of living is something we’ve been initiated into by “our” technology (that we didn’t invent and have no control over), and therefore requires adjustment–not the idea that somehow this technological turn could be undone and we can be back to long stretches of hours of uninterrupted reading (that I only remember by my childhood because it’s no longer a feasible option to read like that).

 

 

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Anthro Notes: Attention Economy

The anecdote encompasses paradoxes of the developed Socialism: there is no unemployment, but no one works; no one works, but everyone fulfills the plan; everyone fulfills the plan, but there is nothing in stores; there is nothing in stores, but everyone has everything.

Similarly, one could talk about the grand paradox of attention economy: attention is a scarce resource, but everyone gets plenty.

 

 

Saturday, February 9, 2019

When I met a Siberian recluse, I wrote (it’s now in my diss in a reworked form):

The human being who consumes solitude so avidly, devours it in such quantities, what kind of human being are they? What is there to know about the human being who decides to hide from the society of others?

Are they at all knowable, if knowledge presupposes the knowing subject as well as the object of knowledge?

I have a suspicion, a thought, that the human being in solitude is completely unknown. Not only the fantastical creatures of one’s mind appear to one’s eyes, ears, and for one’s consideration. But the essence of the human could be any: everything and anything imaginable and beyond.

As Foucault insists, anthropology emerged not sooner than the “man” emerged as the object of science, which in turn happened not sooner than life, language, and labor emerged as such objects simultaneously. (Foucault, The Order of Things, 1970, 340, 344).

And the beginning of the man’s existence as such object is Decartean cogito ergo sum, which both Foucault (Ibid, 324-325) and Derrida (___) criticize as naive ascribing of the self-sameness of the fact of thought and the thinking subject constituted by means and in the act of thought, whereas the thinking in itself does not consitute the sovereignty of being but merely registers its own existence as a process.

 

 

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Anthro Notes

I recently noticed, to my dismay, that I can’t help but analyze the structure of scholarly works where previously I’d just enjoy the read. “This opening is ethnographic vignette, then the author sets the problem, here she’s explaining why it’s relevant, that’s a nod to the urgency, here she’s bringing numbers, here she’s giving the second ethnographic example.” Can’t I just enjoy the ride? Apparently, not anymore. The enjoyment is irreversibly marred by the too-explicit understanding of how the thing is constructed.

 

 

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Anthro Notes: Four Fields

One physical anthropologist insulted socio-cultural anthropologists by complimenting them that if they tried they could become psychical anthropologists as well.

And then one socio-cultural anthropologist insulted archeologists by pretending to compliment them suggesting that they could become socio-cultural anthropologists.

But no one insulted linguists. Although, we should add, no one complimented or pretended to compliment linguists either. Most of the time no one spoke to linguists while they were documenting the aforementioned interactions.

 

 

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Anthro Notes: Artificial Emotional Intelligence

I am thinking about the concept of emotional intelligence in connection to “artificial intelligence.” It seems to me that the concept of emotional intelligence did not enjoy a heavy rotation as it does today when the conversation of AI began (Turing, Searle).

And if it did, the AI could’ve been imagined differently from the beginning. Now today AI—beginning with artificial life like Tamagotchi—performs a creature-like vulnerability just fine. But if we saw emotions as part of our intelligence, the whole discourse would be reconfigured.

 

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Anthro Notes: Turing test

Turing test (1950) is completely predicated on the idea that it is possible, for a human being, to distinguish between the man and the woman based on the content of their answers without seeing or hearing them. Then in Turing’s thought experiment, the computer replaces the man, and the man replaces the woman, and the interrogator is continuing asking them questions.

Some machines as of now already pass or would pass Turing rest, but then some humans no doubt wouldn’t.

If Turing test was permanent and required humanlike presence at every second to produce humanlike reaction, we would all fail it.

 

Friday, February 22, 2019

Anthro Notes: Theory and Praxis

It is not easy to make ethnography and theory work together. it’s a dance, a continuous back-and-forth. Just when theory is at place, ethnography breaks it. When ethnography is there, the theory that spawned it into existence in the first place no longer works and needs to be reimagined. And also requires new ethnography. When the new ethnography comes, again it sheds theory like a skin glove that no longer fits the living organism.

 

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Anthro Notes

Dominique was the first, I believe, who turned my attention to Halcyon. He included it in his writing. Even as I had visited the place before he read his fragment at a seminar (the writing was about meeting a stranger, something how he stumbled upon his community of study), and even as I mentioned a handful of different cafes in my own writings by that point, I was surprised at the thought that it is possible to include this place. Halcyon, like Spider House, is intentionally, Austin-like, erratically furnished (maybe here it wasn’t an intent).

There’s something special about its atmosphere. Its patrons will probably agree.

…But this is not about Halcyon so much as it is about the miraculous ways anthropologists stumble upon the subject of their strange research.

 

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Anthro Notes / Locus of Writing

Everything is about the locus of writing. The locus that does not belong to you – any “you” that you previously knew. That’s why people struggle so much with finding the right first line.

My father once told me a story. When he was a boy, he watched a movie with Vysotsky’s songs. The boy came home and had this feeling of a poet “if not for me, no one will ever know.” The thought was all the more strange since all these songs were already written, arranged, played, copied, listened to, promoted all over the Soviet Union (which was something!). These songs had reached the remotest corners of the empire, even the village where he actually had just heard them. The feeling was just like it is with any new emotion that a poor poet tries to convey even when they know perfectly well it that it has been felt and expressed for years and perhaps even centuries by everyone whose laziness was exceeded by the urge, the itch, to write.

Trying to recollect these songs, the boy climbed on a chair and stood, close to a dim lamp, and then was back to the table with an open school blank notebook. He repeated this maneuver over and over again, until he had all the songs written down.

The locus of writing is not that type of locus, not geographical or space-related one, obviously, but I still think that story has something to do with the locus of writing.

 

 

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Anthro Notes: Podmoskovie

Out of many places, I miss Podmoskovie the most, at least on some days. Towns near Moscow living off of Moscow. To be sure, a difficult life to live (long commute for many). Those towns are different. Quiet, industrial, ancient, recent, once-scientific centers, spiritual places.

If only I had more time travel, live, write about them. I used to spend in those towns my every free weekend—with friends, family, and alone, on “writing retreats” I gave myself. Oh, now I’d write a splendid travelogue—but I have my Siberian project demanding time and energy.

 

 

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Anthro Notes: To the Time Lost as a Woman

If all the time in a life of a woman that she’s selecting jewelry matching her attire and spent in cosmetics stores picking just the right shade of the lipstick was miraculously returned to her at the end of the year, like tax return…
How many hours do you spend in a woman’s body learning about body types, flattering colors, and alike nonsense, instead of learning about something else?

Colors are great… I’d rather learn about them less as a consumer of colors and more as a connoisseur of colors. Color learning as a woman is ultimately geared towards making oneself prettier as a woman and packaging oneself for the Great Customer, a man, not to any other end.

It starts early. In my Soviet elementary school, we were given presents for the 8th of March which at that late point was not as much the International Women’s Day as The Day of Spring and Our Dear Women. The book had a section on styles (I remember military) and colors.

I remember I was shocked and offended at how blatantly gendered it was, the rules of what a girl should and shouldn’t do, even considering that I was taught gendered rules from the early childhood. Girls were that, but boys were this. And even so, the book was blatant above all.

But then of course there were websites and websites of this, magazines, and TV shows. So much wasted time, thought, and energy at watching, selecting, buying, applying, choosing every day, having second thoughts, changing, looking in the mirror, asking others if that suits me.

And I prided myself as a girl altogether ungirly until my late teens. I was never “into it” to begin with, but gradually I was also initiated into everything there is. I know every context. Not only do I know my colors, but I know people’s colors probably better than most of them.

Am I a fashion designer or a beauty specialist? Nope. Do I need to know any of these? Nope. Was I specifically interested in learning any of this stuff? Nope.

 

 

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Anthro Notes: The USA Anthropological Tradition of Despising Quotes from Continental Philosophers and Thinking Them a Sign of Pretend Moral Superiority and What Not

American anthropologists hate it, HATE when the new writers quote so-called “Continental philosophers.” This anthropological scorn is a tradition; it runs from Renato Rosaldo to our days.
The quoting is happening and even considered to be chic, but it is only allowed starting from a certain point in one’s career. I can illustrate my every statement here with quotes and quotes, but you’ll have to wait until I’m older. 😉

In “Grief and a Headhunter’s Rage,” Rosaldo makes a passing deprecating comment of “trendy amalgams of continental philosophy” denouncing the autobiographical snippets in anthropology before embracing his own foray into autobiography.

Recently, I read the article “Tell the Story” about how to write for American Ethnologist, one of the flagman journals in anthropology, and the authors said: “Much of this obfuscation (of the overwrought prose—V.O.) comes in the form of quotations, usually from Continental philosophers and their contemporary interpreters, whether or not their ideas are relevant to the argument.” (2018, 166). While you can’t argue with that, because obviously, the quoted ideas should be relevant to the argument, I couldn’t help thinking of Rosaldo’s “trendy amalgams.”

 

 

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Anthro Notes: Travels

I miss Moscow in Austin and Irkutsk, I miss Irkutsk and Moscow in Austin, and I miss Austin and Irkutsk in Moscow. Balance. I miss the village of Dudarkov and the village of Anosovo everywhere, sometimes in Anosovo. I miss Kiev too. I miss Vladivostok, and I miss Dunay.

I miss London, Venice, and New York. I miss San Fransisco and Saint Petersburg. I miss Sergiyev Possad. I miss Candelaria that is in Tenerife. I miss Rome. I do not miss Madrid though. I do not miss Barcelona nor Helsinki.

I’m not a fan of traveling. Practically everywhere I traveled, I had to rather than wanted to. When I was younger, i enjoyed it more; that’s where my tourist explorations happened, but it’s been many years that I’ve been traveling only for fieldwork and conferences.

I’d like to live my life in one middle-sized place and often wonder what that’d be like, but this was not to be. Oh, but I miss Malgrat de Mar.

 

 

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Anthro Notes: Generational

Gen X must be one of those rare generations that somehow completely missed the moment when they (we) were no longer young. It happened overnight. A joystick switched. Or maybe “we” (it’s also a generation that hates us-ness of all kinds) were already born boring adults? Perhaps.

At least, it’s painful to me to see Millennials still thinking that they’re young, with every self-infantilization and entitlement that it entails, whereas the Gen Z are far from still sucking toes in baby chairs. They’re actually in college. Short is the time of the man on earth.

 

 

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Anthro Notes: Black Hole

Black hole took a selfie.

It carried its invisible hand to its absent face and photographed it.

Humanity is the black hole and the black hole is humanity.

 

 

Friday, April 12, 2019

Anthro Notes: Laughter

I have neighbors who, I suspect, are students, and every Friday, and sometimes on weekends, there are parties at their place, and what astonishes me is that there is always laughter. I forgot when was the time and where I heard so much laughter.

Probably when I was 16 and had parties in Moscow, but they, too, were tragic, everyone read poetry and thought of suicide. And these guys are not 16. Another land.

 

 

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Anthro Notes: April

Beautiful springtime in Texas. Heaps of flowers everywhere. A bit too hot for my tastes. Memories of the cold Moscow April, all that.

 

 

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Anthro Notes: Britney Spears

Idk about your taxonomies, but on the working outskirts of Moscow, in the nightmarish neighborhoods consisting of multistory buildings of the late 1990s, Britney Spears was the sexiest little thing on the planet.

There’s something depressing in the endlessness of the supply of young, aggressively energetic bodies that is humanity in general and mass media in particular.

She endeared herself to me, like to many others, because she had that legendary “mental breakdown” (a manic episode of the bipolar disorder, no doubt–no harm in me speculating about it; I know and wish to know nothing about it, I am fully guided by rumors and my own preconceived notions here).

When the world was at her feet, she went on to having that breakdown–isn’t this cool? There was something so real about it. It placed her immediately in a different category of singers, that later was to include Amy Winehouse.

Rewatching her videos now because she trended on Twitter recently, since she checked herself in a mental hospital again, I could not help but think that there is a place in the Western pantheon of goddesses: golden hair, big eyes (Britney was special because her eyes were brown, not blue), Barbie-like childish face and fully developed feminine figure: a lot of successful climbers of the Olympus were undoubtedly indebted of their triumphs to their agreeable exterior.

The divine place could never be empty, Russian saying goes: svyato mesto pusto ne bivayet. People inhabit this place with less and more certainty and right, they can be more and less talented. Public enviously accuses them of mediocrity with more and less ground, like Taylor Swift and other deities–but never ceases to reaffirm the agreeable candidates in these invisible but tangible positions.

 

 

Monday, April 15, 2019

Anthro Notes: Not All Men

Men are kind, warm, sensitive, sympathetic, strong, supportive, generous, ready to give you the last drop of their blood, smart, funny, smell beautifully, delightful, entrancing, exquisite, gorgeous, stunning, deep, powerful, and did I mention funny?

Not all men, of course. Not all men.

 

 

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Anthro Notes: Curling Hair

I’m mesmerized by the ad where several strange white American women curl their hair. Every time I see it, on Facebook and Instagram alike, I’m hypnotized. Sure I’m targeted because of my sex. There’s something sinister about the process of sitting there methodically curling hair.

I’m not wording it properly, but is this not a weird activity? I know many women do it, I did it too several times. I don’t know how to explain it, but suddenly it looks very weird to me. I guess the watching of the ad has the effect of weirding you out.

I suppose if that was an ad of a toothbrush, brushing teeth would also appear strange to me. When you pause your mind on ordinary procedures that we do to our bodies, the ordinariness trembles and gaps and opens an abyss beneath.

 

 

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Anthro Notes: Na Zdorovie

Whoever told your gullible ass that “na zdorovie” is a Russian toast, was clueless and cruelly deceived you.

The host says “Na zdorovie” after you eat and thank them: “Spasibo.” Never as a toast, like, literally not once in the entire Russian-speaking world. Only in America and alike places.

The alternative Russian language of people also believing that Russian has two different alphabets.

 

 

Friday, April 19, 2019

Anthro Notes: Classics

I am particularly lucky to give lectures on: Judith Butler, Renato Rosaldo, Bronislaw Malinowski, Clifford Geertz, and Benjamin Lee Whorf. I could only have hoped about such a privilege. I would like to give lectures on Deleuze and Guattari, Foucault, Barthes, and Derrida, too.

I could have included fewer contemporaneous writers and more classics in my course, but I feel like it’d be too boring. There needs to be a balance. Social sciences change quickly.

What was written in the last century is archaic.

 

 

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Anthro Notes: Show Don’t Tell

(From the excesses of the writing assignments I give students):

Paint a picture with words (It’s when instead of “he was very beautiful,” the author writes: “a young man in green slacks studied a menu, a lock falling on his forehead”).

 

 

Monday, April 22, 2019

Anthro Notes: Already Seen

Not to be surprised, but Facebook has the option of searching in posts that you’ve already seen, and it just showed me the post by someone from 2012. So this data was collected from back then. I can’t help but be impressed. So the browsers where you “delete” your history…

In the time immemorial, Zuckerberg expressed a sentiment that is shared by owners of some questionable website that, if one has multiple accounts to interact with one community (i.e. on one platform), one must be dishonest and/or has something to hide. Maybe so, maybe not, but it also makes it more difficult to make coherent sense out of one human identity for corporations, that is partially why (but not only) I’ve always had multiple accounts on all social media that I graced with my luminous presence.

 

 

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Anthro Notes: Uber Ride

Every Uber ride is a world in and of itself.

Today, I was riding with a driver who showed me her artwork. She was carving stone and produced a gigantic egg out of stone that she was showing me excitedly in a video on Instagram and missed the right turn. She was wearing dark eyeglasses,

introduced herself confidently as an artist, and was going to apply for residencies and workshops, but first had to build her website (because she was also art curator and an organizer of exhibitions), but that was in the future because she had to drive Uber full time

and that was ugly that capitalism makes artists to work like that instead of doing creative stuff that they really wanted to do, and didn’t I agree? I agreed wholeheartedly. Was I also an artist? I wasn’t; I didn’t have that much talent. A lot of people who didn’t think

that they had talent but who appreciated art were artists at heart, so how long was I living in Austin? I’d lived in Austin for something like seven years. I was from Russia. Actually, that was exactly what my driver intended to do with her life, meaning, she was going to go

to some other country, not the country of her origin, and live there because travel inspired artists and she would be in a position to trust herself in a totally different culture that spoke a different language, and wasn’t this my destination? This indeed was my destination, and I wished her best in her artistic pursuits.

 

 

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Anthro Notes: Ringing

Yesterday during a group conversation discussing serious issues my phone started dinging with messages and because it’s a new phone I had trouble diminishing the sound (the button silencing the phone did not produce, to my surprise, the desired effect). I asked them to keep quiet (well, truth be told I wrote, shut up I am dinging at a meeting), and they gleefully proceeded to send me joking messages after that. I momentarily plunged into a rage and finally was blessed with the idea to turn the phone off. Later, I apologized to the speaker, but I could feel the heat of humiliation in my face.

 

 

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Anthro Notes: Social Media and Affective Attachments

Imagine I’ve been writing on Facebook for the previous 8 years (2011-2019). What a damned joke. Zuckerberg owes the writers of my generation a reparation for making us write for our aunts and uncles (sure, I love mine). That was not the vision we had in the 1990s.

I’ve one of my biggest audiences on Facebook (*exasperated emoji*), and for the Russian-speaking audiences this is one of the still-indispensable social media outlet (*another exasperated emoji*).

The Groundhog Day forever. When I just came to the web, I quickly gained 500 followers on LiveJournal, and a lot of my professional contacts came with it. Yet now it’s 2019, and I still have 500 followers on Twitter. As Oushakine said about the Russian period of “transition,” achievements do not translate into a life-long success worthy of efforts.

Sure, I also changed the language of writing, a country of living, had a child meanwhile and wrote a number of books, but it’s still not satisfying at all, and some responsibility for it lies in the field of what is beyond my control (can be called “the politics of social media”)

The interesting thing about social media is that people get affectively attached to the platforms, despite having only several behemoth platforms, and you cannot really transpose your audience from one place to another at least until a certain point is reached.

Another thing about social media is that writing on social media is inevitably a metacommentary on writing on social media. But, if we are to consider centuries of writing on paper, we’ll be in a position to recall hundreds of examples of metacommentary on writing on paper.

(As well as the typewriter and so on and so on, the medium of writing was always a subject of writing).

Even though the social media are ephemeral (they lose relevance after a time), they still seem to be doing not worse and maybe better than plenty of more traditional outlets thanks to what any Western journalist would judgementally call a “regime” and to other circumstances.

Whatever; everything is going to be eaten by the silent darkness.

 

 

Friday, April 26, 2019

Anthro Notes: Atwood and Phones

I saw a company of people in the street. They all were staring in their phones. I was thinking about words by Margaret Atwood that over time people will stop looking at their phones just as they stopped (well…) gazing at the tv-screen and listening to portable transistors.

When I heard this, I was skeptical, and I remain skeptical now. How could one lost interest in what is a tv-screen, radio, a book, a writing table, a photo camera, and a lot of other different things? Unless something conceptually different and better (perhaps more immersive,

more encompassing) comes to substitute phones, phones are not going to go anywhere. It’s been years now we’ve been observing people staring in their phones intently. Margaret Atwood might be right about phones after all, but this is a remote futuristic vision.

 

 

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Anthro Notes: Star Wars

I wonder what role Star Wars play in the shit that unfolds today and every day in the USA.

Zizek had an interesting rant about it.

He offered to read Star Wars as if the opposite was true: bad guys were good guys and vice versa. For a mental exercise. Just in order to think a little outside of the box. I continue insisting that Star Wars was about the Cold War. But now it’s something else entirely.

Yet it is still a movie about the American exceptionalism. No exceptions to the rule according to which all the dreams produced by the corporation of imperialist dreams are just that.

 

 

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Anthro Notes: The Arcades Project

Imagine The Arcades project at the time when the computer and electronic libraries already existed though. Instead of just one several-hundred-page volume that manages to include a number of earlier versions, the reader would’ve had several-hundred-volume work at their disposal.

 

 

Monday, April 29, 2019

Anthro Notes: Author’s Prerogative in Interpretation

Why is everyone insisting on the tragic reading of the story “Baby shoes for sale never worn” just because the author said it is tragic? What prerogative in interpretation does he have? It’s a standard situation for many who ever had a baby.

Babies grow up so fast that shoes (that babies don’t need because they don’t walk and that parents buy for their own amusement) often end up being never worn, just tried on a couple of times at most.

 

 

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Anthro Notes: Being-in-the-World

Being-in-the-world beyond the “in and out” of slippages in language, beyond self-imposition of concepts, is hardly possible for us, language creatures. A tinge of speech always trembles at the periphery of one’s mind, nudging to stain even the ever-so-not-pristine soundscape of nature with an unneeded sign of admiration. Even in solitude, we are never but with ourselves–always in a continuation of the multiplicity of dialogs, always bearing in mind shreds and fragments of what has and has not been uttered.

 

 

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Anthro Notes: Time and Writing

The most important part of writing for me time, but not the tracking of the time spent writing or even time that you always try to find for writing and that is always lacking, but the time that passes in between the versions of the manuscript. It is so necessary for the time to pass in order for the author to see the flaws. I like forgetting my writing, but the constraints of time (again), the system of deadlines makes it so difficult to give yourself the most important time: the time between revisions when you do not, in fact, revise or revisit the text.

 

 

Thursday, May 3, 2019

Anthro Notes: Of Vanity

I need to stop being so vain. The later I get my English books out the better. Ideally, I would get them out after death. The second best option is in ten years, and not “now”—as I want—in a year or two. Realistically. I must prove that I have not been so patient for nothing, and I must work on the manuscripts as long as I can, instead of shortcutting and calling it a day. I should resist this culture demanding you to produce fruits before you can get your leaves unfolded.

~

These notes are more personal than professional, intimate rather than written for a collective, but it’s been a joy to compose them.

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Urbicide

Penski, Max. Three Kinds of Ruin: Heidegger, Benjamin, Sebald. Poligrafi, 2011.

Max Pensky analyzes “urbicide” of the European cities in the Second World War and the way urbicide was reflected in thinking of three key successive cultural figures: Heidegger, Benjamin, and Sebald. For Heidegger, it is a project of “re-pastoralization of Germany’s shattered cities,” Benjamin wrests “the power of the image of the ruin from the experience of the big city,” and Sebald seeks “to recuperate a discourse of the ruin as site of moral catechism.”

Angel of History / Benjamin on Ruins

Benjamin, writing about the Klee’s “Angelus Novus” painting, portrays the angel of history, as it were, caught by the wind of time and being carried away by the force that exceeds the angel’s capacity to resist it:

“The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.” (Benjamin, 1968, 258)

The angel that we see in Klee’s painting is indeed disheveled.

angelusnovus

In his curls one might even see something resembling of Benjamin himself.

benjamin-sm

What interests me here, however, is not an imaginary or real semblance of the work of art and the portrait of the thinker who muses upon it. Perhaps as much as it is possible to claim that the work of art is always to this or that degree a self-portrait of the author, the work of art appropriated for an analysis (especially this far-winged as Benjamin’s analysis is) is also reading in the work of art of something to which the work of art serves as merely a pretext, that is to say, a self-portrait of sorts as well.

The past, which is constantly re-evaluated, by everyone, and in particular by the state, with some moments summoned and some, erased, appears in the image of a bunch of debris, detritus, floating in the wind of history (of progress) in Benjamin’s vision. The past, moreover, does not “exist” but is summoned. Not only every summoning of the past is arbitrary, divergent, creative, and interpretive, but there is no way “it really was” either, contradictorily to, or, rather, additionally to Benjamin’s assessment “To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it “the way it really was” (Ranke)” (Benjamin, 1968, 255). History, written and re-written in the interest “of the ruling classes” (Marxist thesis), we see increasingly in the modern times, is but an agglomeration of myths. Public does sympathize with the victor, and will always be sympathetic of victors–however, from a metaphysical point of view, the true victor is the one who lost the fight, and in this case the sympathies are uncertain. However official propaganda would frame the events, there will always be a recalcitrant part of the society stubbornly empathizing with the “losers,” preparing the soil for the dragon’s teeth to grow into a new, tomorrow-victorious, army. (As an example might serve the Whites opposing the Reds in the Civil War in Russia. Despite the victory of the Red Army, the White cause was not entirely defeated, and although there is no point in history when it could win either, there were always sympathies during the Soviet times for the defeated, which is also connected perhaps with the Orthodox moral demanding mercy for the conquered.)

It is necessary to put “the pile of debris before” the angel–which are, despite that they are situated in front of his eyes, are the debris of the past, unequivocally, since he’s dragged by the wind into the future–in context with ruins Benjamin mentions in the “Exposé” of 1935 to The Arcades, the fragment that did not make it into the later, 1939 version of “Exposé”:

“Balzac was the first to speak of the ruins of the bourgeoisie. But it was Surrealism that first opened our eyes to them. The development of the forces of production shattered the wish symbols of the previous century, even before the monuments representing them has collapsed. With the destabilizing of the market economy, we begin to recognize the monumets of the bourgeoisie as ruins even before they have crumbled.” (Benjamin, 1999, 13).

To decode the Benjamin’s link onto Balzac, it is best to examine this piece by Balzac quoted in The Arcades Project under code C2a,8:

“The ruins of the Church and of the aristocracy, of feudalism, of the Middle Ages, are sublime–they fill the wide-eyed victors of today with admiration. But the ruins of the bourgeoisie will be an ignoble detritus of pasteboard, plaster, and coloring.”<Honoré de Balzac and other authors,>  Le Diable á Paris (Paris, 1845), vol. 2, p. 18 (Balzac, “Ce qui disparait de Paris”). ▯ Collector ▯                                  [C2a,8] (Benjamin, 1999, 87).

Here, regardless of how often the bourgeoisie’s palaces are seen in ruins, only for them, it seems, to be built anew with no regard to the proverbial past, Benjamin talks about the anticipated ruins, the ruins that are to be, the ruins that we can see in the future before they are ruins: about the material debris and traces of that present which is about to turn into the past.

Balzac is even more visceral in his description of these ruins: “ignoble detritus of pasteboard, plaster, and coloring.” One might expect decay and putrefaction in these amorphous piles that are indeed perhaps are better called rabble than ruins, in comparison to the ruins retaining form referring to the previous socio-political formation, that of feodalism. Like aristocracy is the ruling class of feodalism, bourgeoisie is the ruling class of the formation known as capitalism in the Marxist taxonomies. In the Balzacian detritus it is not difficult to see the Benjaminian pile of debris carried away from the face of the angel of history, also carried away by the supreme force of progress. But what it tells us beyond what it tells about unfulfilled dreams of progress and failed expectations? When does the production of these debris ends? In the impossible, ideal moment when the past is finally restored just “as it all was”, the dead resurrected, the mankind redeemed, and the final judgement of history has been irreversibly pronounced?

References

Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 1999.

Benjamin, Walter. “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Illuminations. Schoken Books, New York, 1968.

Map of Benjamin’s Moscow

Walter Benjamin visited Moscow in the winter of 1926. Here is a map of places he mentions in his diary as shown on the today Moscow’s map.

Interactive link to google.maps: https://www.google.com/maps/d/u/0/viewer?mid=1dVk5nX1H_0MyDt39L_m7HERYx60&ll=55.75893499535194%2C37.62163820000001&z=13 [retrieved 12/1/2016]

benjaminsmoscow

The same places marked on the map of Moscow as it appeared in 1925 (for the absence of a 1926th map available).

The link: http://retromap.ru/m.php#l=0619251&z=13&y=55.762394&x=37.617643&leftkml=https://sites.google.com/site/gdomnenko/benjamin_moscow.kml&lang=en [retrieved 12/1/2016]

benjaminmoscow1925

 

 

Queering Queer Beirut

I think Sofian Merabet’s book “Queer Beirut” was the only book that I encountered so far, which had a selfie of the anthropologist included in the narrative. I think that must be a feature of the new ethnography as a genre.

“Queer Beirut” is an intricate and brilliantly written account of queer bodies and queer stories functioning and circulating in city spaces—beach, downtown, different locations, architectural fantasies, and other culturally important localities where socialities happen, like cafes demanding tight on money people enjoy intricately concocted “overpriced cappuccino” (Merabet, 2014, 30). It is an analysis of “ever-so-intricate exclusions” (13), novel in methods—as new, I’d classify two things: flânerie along the roads which are not supposed to be traveled on foot, and “ethnographic montage,” which, the author argues, serves to “assemble anew disassociated, yet very much related, elements in an effort to cover the whole panoply of the metonymies that define the complexities entailed in the practice of inhabiting socio-cultural space” (246).

I was interested in flânerie (first problematized by Benjamin drawing from Badelaire) as a method, which in Merabet’s justification is a particularly important way to engage with “urban jungle”: “It is, therefore, only as a person on foot in a city that almost makes natural locomotion virtually impossible that the observing anthropologist can start to think about distinguishing many of the urban spaces in Lebanon that bear the potential of creating alternative, and perhaps queer, discourses.” (7). I think it is fascinating in what way exactly and why only as a person on foot does anthropologist penetrate the overlapping layers of the city which are simultaneously a space weirding, space queering, space domineering, and space escaping, and a space yielding to understanding. As a connoisseur of city spaces and an untiring flâner myself, I could not fail to appreciate the take.

“Participant objectifier,” which Merabet creates by adapting Bourdieu’s  “participant objectification,” becomes a welcome alternative to an overused anthropological figure of “participant observer.” Participant objectifier emerges as a gazer, explorer of one’s own enchantment. Merabet points out the readiness to flirt of a “queer stroller” as a social scientist conducting the field research—I could add, initially in Benjamin’s work, flâner was an easy buyer of a prostitute’s services. This is not a call to gleefully engage into participant objectification that we read here, but rather a call to participant objectification, that is to say, a fair assessment of the process already happening, the process which demands to be reflected upon rather than taken for granted.

On many staggering examples Merabet shows struggles of queer Beirut in which horror stories and funny episodes alternate, not omitting the pensive use of certain aspects of what might be called auto-ethnography, something which I think makes ethnographies deeper and richer.

These struggles are shown in their complexities—“Yet, by being a potential motivator, queer space and its production also function as a frustration device, namely in the shape of a catalyst that every so often reinforces the very social normativities it wants to defy.” (247).

Beirut, with its balconies and streets, protests and fights for prestige, little worlds which coincide and contest the space, visibly emerges, in all its glimmer and spectacular misery, out of this work.

 

Reference

Merabet, Sofian. Queer Beirut. Austin, University of Texas Press, 2014.

Space Generating Bodies and Vice Versa

According to Foucault, racism is an inevitable tool of the nation state, which it uses to stratify and modify its citizen. Racism is not occasional slippage of the system, it is a part of the system, its integral, system-generating part. (I’d say that the same is true in regard to misogyny.)

Biopolitics is concerned with great masses of people, as opposed to the old (pre-eighteenth century) sovereign power, which concentrated on attaining control over the individual bodies. The control over bodies did not disappear, but was permeated with new types of control, subtler, and more nuanced. If in the sovereign power was the right to let live and make die, in a new era, the era biopolitics, it was a power of ‘“make” live and “let” die.’ (241)

This new mode of power, the mode of ruling over the human-being-as-a-species, rather than human-being-as-an-individual, required new methods of control, care, and management. And such methods emerged—hygiene routines, insurance, safety trainings, mandatory medical service, and so on.

Foucault critics Socialism as being but another version of capitalism, because Socialism re-implemented all these methods and tools, and never offered any critique of them—to the contrary, embraced the new Leviathan of biopolitics, still more devoid of individual features than ever, and no any less horrifying than in the Hobbesian imagination.

It is in these settings that camps appear, according to Agamben. Agamben conducted a revolution in the understanding of camps. Rather than attempting to decipher the nature of camps from the events that took and are taking place there, he asked, to the contrary, what are the nature of things which happened as derived from what camp is (Agamben, 2003). In it, he follows Benjamin, who, and this is a Marxian insight, positioned “space” before the “events,” “space” before the “bodies” which it produced (and not vice versa). Agamben shows that camp is intrinsic to the new social order—the camp, where all laws are suspended, is a place inevitably resurfacing in the biopolitical mode of power, in a nation state which is busy with its endless purification and sustaining of its population.

Dehumanized “zoe” is both camp’s production and its first victim, whereas “bios,” political life, as long as it remains in power at least. Perhaps it is possible to think about “zoe” and “bios” as about a cast division of our times, and this division has class, racial, gender, sexuality, and mental health dimensions. There is always a possibility for “bios” to slip into “zoe,” but there is hardly any possibility for “zoe” to rise to “bios.”

 

References

Agamben, Georgio. Means Without End: Notes on Politics. University of Minnesota Press, 2000.

Foucault, Michel. Society Must Be Defended. Pikador, New York. 2003.

Landscapes of Dreams

The “remittance landscape,” the term explained by Sarah Lynn Lopez in the book of the same title, refers to the spaces created in the absence of their inspirators–“dream houses” and projects, such as restaurant buildings, subsided through the migrant money by the migrant, a figure of political transformation who work slowly at her own rate on creating “not the product of generic top-down “globalization” but of the enterpreneurial opportunism of remittance space “from below.” (264). He changes the face of the world, so that it even becomes a question, “To what extent is the American metropolis predicated on the rapid transformation of sending communities throughout the world?” (265). S/he is a figure fully endowed with agency, “influencing both what is possible and what is probable” (265) in a nicely observed by the author duality of the future as a bunch of possibilities and probabilities.

Lopez looks at buildings: “Buildings crystallize historic moments like no other artifact–technologies are required, desire is enacted, capital is expended, all to create objects that shape future life-worlds.” (11). Remittance buildings–in an analogue to “remittance landscape”–buildings constructed with remittance money in an evocation of often if not American than Americanized dream of migrants from Mexico, returning to their communities or having plans to return, either for aging and dying or for living. Migrants, simultaneously envied and despised by their own community, have contradicting desires which define the way they structure landscapes of their living both in the adopted country and in the home community, so there is a blurred distinction between “home” and something that is not home, as well as between “here” and “there.” They won’t to preserve the spaces of their childhood, but also to improve and modernize them, they want to create an image of American dream success but they keep allegiances to their markedly distinct way of living; they want to demonstrate their success, but they want to be accepted by their community. They want to improve their communities by bringing other ideas, as their ancestors brought wristwatches, sewing machines, and cars–but these other ideas do not always work on a different soil. Such position is fraught with paradoxes, ironies, promising failures, and devastating successes.

Plenty of remittance houses, dream houses, end up abandoned for various reasons, and so there is a creation of ruin, dreams unsustainable, economically questionable, demanding expenditures, and bringing not the results which were expected or hoped for.

In a Benjaminian understanding of architectural space in a way of, as Susan Buck-Morss reminded in her guide (1989), a space of collective dreaming, remittance landscapes are also collective dreams, even if not dreams of collective dwelling.

As I read Lopez, I thought about the house which Alina and Alexander (names changed) who lived in the village of Anosovo, have been building in Irkutsk with a thought of once living in the Irkutsk house, as Anosovo fits Lopez’s fomula “the necessary institutional, economic, and political support to bring infrastructure to such places did not exist” (19), unfortunately, all too well. How would one call such project? This is only one example of such projects, which Anosovians, those who have a job in timber industry, create and sponsor in Irkutsk, while for years remaining in their village. Muscovites were known at some point to buy houses in Bulgaria, Spain, Greece, to create some kind of vocational / retreat spaces with the same or even still more unpractical considerations, since Moscow apartments and houses answering their demands were not affordable even for those who could buy villa-like houses elsewhere. Such displaced landscapes could hardly be called the remittance landscapes, although in the technical sense of the term they perhaps are. But those are the landscapes of dreams, and dreams should not be fulfillable to persist.

A sense of indecisiveness befitting a dream, precarity of living, temporality of all solutions, becomes itself a feature of certainty, constancy, a very fixedness of things in flux: “While Taylor was researching migrant housing conditions in California, he approached a couple living in a self-built shack under a tree and asked the owners why they did not invest more in their housing. They replied that they did not know if they would stay and that they might return to Mexico. He then asked, “How long have you been here?” to which they responded, “Thirty years.”” (19) In an expression popular in Russia, there is nothing more constant than temporary.

References

Buck-Morss, Susan. The Dialectics of Seeing. The MIT Press, 1989.

Lopez, Sarah Lynn. The Remittance Landscape, University of Chicago Press, 2015.

Resurrection of Flâneur: Between the Figures of Player and Wanderer

To combine two things about Pokemon hunting so far–one, remark that Pokemon Go created a new kind of flâneur, and the other, observation that it might be dangerous for a Black person, especially male, to play the game because his seemingly goalless meanderings might look suspicious (Akil, 2016), we receive a picture of flânerie as of a social practice accessible to a limited population, an elitist and classist pastime.

To be sure, Baudelairian-Benjaminian flanerie was a privileged practice from the start: Flaneur is an urban journeyer and sojourner-taker who crosses streets and squares cutting corners, stopping at deadends, returning and advancing through the magnetic new and new corners, passing galleries of display windows, cars, blinking buses, people, cafes, in search of inspiration, distraction, and entertainment. He (he is a he back then, certainly; women are present in the urban space of his imagination almost exclusively as prostitutes, and then they are faceless and nameless–although in modern cities no doubt many females indulge in flanery by way of endless goalless walks) belongs to a certain class; he has time, money to satisfy hunger and thirst, a profession which does not require excessive investment of efforts; is able-bodied to endure hours of strolling, and, quite possibly, relatively young and good-looking, at least he is curious about fashion: the goal of goalless walk is not only to see and explore and return and discover, but also to show yourself, to look at your own reflection in sleek glass and steel surfaces, to meet old acquaintances and take a pleasure of adventure in serendipitous encounters.

To be a flâneur haunting (or haunted by) Pokemons, is to be, just as a Baudelairian flaneur, engrossed with oneself; only the search is less ambiguous and the goal is “visible” (to you); but there is a racial cut–even a high social positioning won’t make the Blackness of the actor unnoticeable or less suspicious in the eyes of voluntary neighborhood watchers–and also a technological cut, which will produce certain age- and again class-related social silhouette of the Player.

 

References

Akil, Omari. Warning: Pokemon GO is a Death Sentence if you are a Black Man. Medium.com. July 7, 2016
View at Medium.com

Bliss, Laura. Pokémon Go Has Created a New Kind of Flâneur. Citylab. July 12, 2016 http://www.citylab.com/navigator/2016/07/pokemon-go-flaneur-baudelaire/490796/

#anthropology #blacklivesmatter #flâneur #player

One Wishes