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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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).

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.

The Human in People-Altered Landscapes

Talk at “The Extra-Human” 13th Annual Graduate Conference in Comparative Literature, September, 25th, 2016; University of Texas in Austin

 

Repertoire of Stories

I have known long and well enough some of my acquaintances to get to know the repertoire of their stories, which they repeat on different occasions with slight alterations. These modifications tell more than the stories themselves. The storytellers know I know their stories, but it by no means prevent them from repeating them, and me from listening. I forget details too, and listening to them over and over again, I am involved in a process of recollecting and re-membering. With stories polished by the author to the point that their flow is never interrupted, it is sometimes difficult to tell if they adjust the details, or I mis- and dis-remember them. Either way, into these discrepancies, inconsistencies, and gaps, something important fells. Ideally I’d like to decipher several recordings of one story and analyze them. It could make a compendium, an ideal book of one story, perhaps a story not even significant itself, but acquiring meaning through attentive reading.

In detecting the repeated stories, timing, a personal timing, becomes of substance. Kathleen Stewart in her “A Space on the Side of the Road” describes her method as follows:

“The project has itself been a process of re-membering and retelling, and the resultant account stands as an allegory of the cultural processes it is trying to represent. In began with two years of fieldwork from August 1980 to September 1982 and continued through a dozen return visits in the years that followed and through the twists and turns of field notes, tape recordings, memories, photographs, phone calls, postcards, letters, telegrams, and professional papers. One time, it has become a process of long dwelling on things re-membered and retold, forgotten and imagined.” (Stewart, 1996, 7)

As she was forced to rely on memory on a number of occasions, she fell in the gaps by re-listening to the same stories time and again. (Stewart, 1996, 8)

I had long imagined a book which would envelop all variants of “Leaves of Grass,” for example, not only the first and the final versions of it, but all the intermediate versions. (And this is, too, not the first time I speak about such an edition. My second or perhaps even the third reiteration of this next to impossible for materialization, idea, adds a metapragmatic tinge to the project of collecting a compendium of one story; a collection of stories consisting of infinite repetitions of one episode.

Why people repeat stories, might be another question to ask. Does not life in its overabundance of stories offer us infinite possibilities to create and recreate themselves through different narrations, why focus on the same plot? What is in the repetition? Why we prefer to stick to the same stories, retelling them over and over again? Perhaps by way of repetition we create a space of certainty, a reliable narration, and, in the end of it, a reliable narrator–the narrator who could be believed precisely because she deviates and digresses, and her story forks into a bunch of stories, tale bifurcates into a spectrum of tales without losing its identity.

 

Reference

Stewart, Kathleen. A Space on the Side of the Road. Princeton University Press. Princeton, New Jersey, 1996.

Two Difficulties of My Summer Fieldwork

One of the main difficulties that I encountered during my summer fieldwork (mosquitoes aside), is the unified narrative which defeats the private accounts on all levels of information collections.

According to the Scientific and Collections Division worker E., in the museum’s collections, data that are related to the dislocation and dispossession of people living in the zone of the Bratsk dam flood, are absent because it was a matter of ideological choice. Only official propaganda documents relevant to the Bratsk dam construction, were carefully gathered; accounts of events that contradicted official narrative were avoided and excluded. It was noticeable for me throughout the museum spaces in Siberia. No complexity of events beyond the layering of the Soviet propaganda were ever introduced in the way the past was reconstructed in exhibitions and collections. Not only was the unified narrative held across different museums, but also little change is noticeable how events are narrated in regard to different dams’ constructions.

For instance, Ust-Ilimsk dam’s construction began in 1963, 9 years after the beginning of the Bratsk dam construction and two years after the first stationary generator of Bratsk dam, unit N18, started operating. Ust-Ilimsk dam, too, was magnificent in terms of amounts of energy it produced and also in numbers of the displaced and the dispossessed: 14.2 thousand of people in 61 settlements, were relocated. Nonetheless, Ust-Ilimsk dam was the product of the slightly shifted times, and people’s stories arguably received some more attention: Students of ethnographic laboratories recorded their narratives. The first piercing story of disenfranchised displacement which sounded loud and clear, was written by the writer who lived through what he, contradictorily to the established narrative, perceived as tragedy—it was the novel “Farewell to Matyora” by Valentin Rasputin, published in 1976.

There was a Science-Research Laboratory of Humanitarian Explorations (Nauchno-issledovatelskaya laboratoriya gumanitarnikh issledovaniy) in Bratsk State University, which collected oral narratives of the Bratsk relocation survivors, but according to the university official V., in connection to the crisis of 2008, the laboratory had lost the grant endorsements and ceased to exist in 2012. I tracked down the organizer of this laboratory, who now lives in Irkutsk, and also have a connection with a philologist who have been collecting stories, and I hope that both these lines would yield to results. A number of personal stories were published in the 1990s, and then some I am collecting myself in the village of Anosovo.

I sometimes think: Why do I do it? How could I make it matter, what these people felt and thought back then or are thinking now? Damage has already been done, my findings would not be incorporated by the state or private enterprises in their decision making process. Things about other dams have been written already, from the anthropological, ecological, sociological, geological, and a number of other perspectives. And that is the second of my main difficulties in the field. I feel powerless to justify this research, that has been a matter of my own inexplicable curiosity slowly fusing into the matter of… pain, I would say, if I wasn’t afraid of appearing too maudlin.

Austin Old-Timer and Newcomer

It is probably advisable that I reblog it

The End of Austin

Vasilina Orlova Austin 68 photo

I.

Austin is the capital of the American Renaissance of the beginning of the twenty-first century. The explosive construction of bridges, ramps, roads, buildings; the flow of creative, inventive, and resourceful people from all over the world—it all creates a space like no other.

When you live in a city like Austin for five years, it still feels longer than it does elsewhere because Austin in the 2010s grows faster than it is possible to comprehend. The projects, places, ideas, and people come and go. The city rapidly devours its empty spaces (parking lots in the center are suffering) and demolishes the small old enterprises, restaurants and stores, as it constructs in their place new, mirror-like skyscrapers for offices and apartments. By no means a veteran in Austin, I still remember the shining absence of the newest multistory buildings in the downtown area; now they are ingrained in the landscape…

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

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

They produced writings on:

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

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

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