Teaching Dreams

I’d love to teach a course on gender and sexuality leaning towards researching and questioning BDSM practices because they, in their turn, are exploring questions of power, violence, and gendered expectations. If I ever have such an opportunity, in this course I’d prompt students to read classical texts, such as Foucault’s The History of Sexuality and Butler’s Gender Trouble; ethnographic or historic accounts, like Chauncey’s Gay New York and Kulick’s Travesti, and some non-nonfictional literature too–memoirs, old and recent, written mainly by women, exploring their sexuality through writing.

“A Tale of a Young Woman”

“Everyday Life, Geoengineering, and the Industrial Spectacle in Soviet Siberia” talk at the AATSEEL meeting 2/4/2017, San Francisco
 
This is the first time I talked publicly in such detail about a story written down and titled by V. Gavriolov “Bratsk-54: A Tale of a Young Woman,” the story of a young female Bratsk dam construction worker.
 
It is my honor to make her lost, nameless, inevitably distorted through writing, through translation, voice sound. She was deemed disposable. She wasn’t.

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.

Mother in Academia

A question or remark every once in a while disrupting seamlessness, dropping as if from a ceiling–it might be even said, pleasantly diverting–still, it is difficult to spend time hour after hour in one room with a child being busy with anything but said child.

When he was younger, all my attention was concentrated on keeping him from harm that he was about to inflict on himself every other minute. I remember in London I leaped several meters catching my baby jumping from the journal table, noticing him already in flight from another room. (I am not particularly fast, nor do I have a good reaction generally).

Now it is a talk about Minecraft. Easier on me but still.

A child, as I discovered, is a small but potent generator of chaos.

Critique of the Social Justice Discourse

Funny that the only sustainable critique of “social justice discourse” comes from the but more radical social justice champions. I see two reasons: first, they are infinitely better educated than their opponents, and the second, that’s how things work, apparently.

In other words, if you want to critique feminism in an unlaughable way, be a non-compromising feminist; anti-racism movements, be radically anti-racist yourself, etc.

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 story 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

Packing to Fieldwork

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Lake Baikal

 

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

 

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A girl in pink in the village of Atalanka, Siberia

 

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Young men sitting near the house

 

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Watermelon

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

Beauty, Youth, and Aging

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

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

She was a model, and was never married.

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

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She was working hard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post Soviet Spaces: Women and Men

The North American culture has developed a special type of masculinity Russia apparently did not. I’d never met so many so assertive men in my life while in Russia. I cannot decide whether I like it or not but apparently you could not confuse the American man.

I don’t know how would a man feel about women there and here, are they different or not; but I expect he would. Naturally, he would.

There was never an idea of the Soviet woman as a housewife, waiting for her husband in a light dress, elegant shoes, and with a nice band in her accurate do. Not to mention pin-up pictures, not to mention journals for men directed solely for boosting their consumptive masculinity, and reconstructing women exclusively as decorated objects. It was not in existence in the Soviet universe.  There were no rubrics like “A beautiful woman tells us an anecdote; note that the anecdote told by a beautiful women might not be funny” as The Esquire in Russia now has. There was plenty of the objectification of women and assigning the secondary roles but it was aligned along different power arrows.

In the public Soviet imaginary, the Soviet man, of course, was very masculine. He was a worker with bulging muscles, a builder of the new world, a savior of comrades suffering under capitalism; a learner of Marxism, a peruser of Lenin, a sailor / soldier / geologist; a son, a husband, and a father; a loyal Communist, a pioneer of the remote places, a cosmonaut, an architect of and laborer at the constructions of the century. His sins were few and itself masculine. He might have been a drunkard in his degraded version, in which case he was also a smoker, and was ridiculed and punished by the gentle Soviet satire. As the result of his alcoholism he was also a wreaker of the family and a frail wheel in the production machine. Sometimes he was unfaithful, but his wife was willing to forgive him. And that was all. He could not even to be gay, in the public mythology, or a buyer of prostitute’s services (on a side note, it was prostitutes who were being ridiculed, not the client). In the late Soviet period, as a young and a pretty effeminate man, he might have had a set of sins labeled “the slavelike mimicking of the West”: loving Western music, wearing long hair, jeans; actually buying stuff and enjoying it (omg), like a type recorder or something.

The Soviet woman was also undeniably masculine, feminine though she was as well. Her femininity was not constructed for the consumption of a man, it was intended for the state. She was a mother, or a future mother, no exceptions. She was healthy, had an open smile and good teeth; was robust, strong, capable of playfully doing man’s work. She was also a soldier if needed, but she amounted to a solid, square girlfriend of a soldier too. She did not concern herself with her looks, dresses, or accessories at all; she was beautiful with her brimming youth and excellent health, always eager to play sports, run, swim, fly, and do a set of energizing exercises. Her children were safely fed, put to sleep, woken up, read Marxist books, in daycare; and later taught in schools, joyful, carefree, looking smilingly in the future that their parents were building for them and for the globe, the future that kids themselves were about to embark on building, happily.

The Soviet woman was predominantly white and European-looking; but she did have friends and comrades of color, as did the man. The friendship between the nations was an inevitable part of ubiquitous propaganda. The emblematic image: children united, a white golden-haired boy, a black boy with thick lips, and a vaguely yellow kid of an uncertain gender, with slant eyes.

As an old woman, the Soviet woman was a mournful widower, she lost her husband and likely one of her sons, or her only son, to one of the Wars, but not just any war the USSR led; mother of her grownup children, and grandmother of her grandchildren. She belonged to rurality rather than to urban space. She had her head covered with a kerchief, wore a skirt, and her wrinkled, hard-working hands with spelled veins were always in the objective.

In the last twenty years everything has changed; it was a carefully created and maintained set of myths anyway.

I did not look at the statistics but I would guess American men marry Russian women more often than Russian men marry American women. I don’t know whether Russia is on the leading positions of the list of the countries prostituted by the Americans (the document should include mail-order brides’ statistics). I would guess right after the USSR official collapse, Russia and other former USSR countries jumped high up on such a list, and then gradually dropped to some place in the first half but not in the beginning.

I would expect an American woman is more demanding than a Russian woman. Other stereotypes needn’t be articulated here but probably speak for some conventional truth.