ASEEES 2018 (December, Boston) Abstracts

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

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

Here is the abstract of my paper:

I examine the tensions in the everyday life of people who engage with the morally outdated and sometimes malfunctioning infrastructures in remote Siberian villages on the shore of the Angara River.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

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

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

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


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

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


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


To the Cultural Differences in Writing

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

Anthropology and Poetry: Different Languages (Or Not)

I am very excited for the today’s lecture in the Culture and Communication class at the University of Texas at Austin that I am going to give: “Anthropology and Poetry: Different Languages (Or Not).” 9/28/2017

I am going to upload the text of the lecture later on my page on the

Wish me luck!

Perpetual Nabokov

Writer’s Change of Language: Nabokov and Others

In the journal of proceedings of the linguistic anthropology symposium in 2016 at UT, my first writing on Nabokov out there.

He is at the interception of identities, which coincides for the writer with the interception of languages and ways of writing: English as opposed to Russian but also as opposed to American (as opposed to French).

Gendered Speech

Certain ways of speaking, not only in terms of content but also prosodywise, are gendered as feminine, and, accordingly, stigmatized as degrading, condemned, castigated, censured, disapproved, publicly subjected to improvement and extermination, and reprimanded.

“Schoolgirl speech” in Japan, as Miyako uncoveres, was reconstructed as having a number of characteristics polluting the purity of educated Japanese speech: “From approximately 1887 through World War I, a surge of commentaries were written and circulated in the Japanese print media about the “strange” and “unpleasant” (mimizawarina) sounds issuing from the mouths of schoolgirls. Male intellectuals of various affiliations located the source of their dismay in utterance-endings such as teyo, noyo, and dawa which schoolgirls used. They called such speech forms “schoolgirl speech” (jogakusei kotoba). It was jarring to their ears; it sounded vulgar and low class; its prosodic features were described as “fast,” “contracting,” and “bouncing with a rising intonation”; and it was condemned as “sugary and shallow.”” (Miyako, 2006, 37).

Such telling examples do not belong solely to the pre-WW 1st Japanese past, they also mark the Western present. The discussion around “uptalk” bears remarkably misoginystic overtones. “Uptalk,” the employment of rising intonation in statements, supposedly transforming statements into questions, is intensely gendered as characteristic to women’s speech. Highly gendered public spheres of modernity intensely police feminized ways of speaking.

A brief overview of youtube videos regarding uptalk would yield to “The Weird Way Women Downplay Their Success” (, a nameless video about “degradation of English language” (, and multiple videos of young women “uptalking” (for example, with comments as follows (numbers below the comment indicate “likes”):

“Tavor Runner 274 months ago
If you are contemplating suicide, this vid may very well push you over the edge.

echolot1 month ago
as annoying as they talk, i’d still love to be the meat in that sandwich.

væmpaɪər Lestat2 weeks ago
makes me wanna cut their fucking throat”

Women, on one hand, are socialized into presenting their opinions as ready to be retracted any moment, but on the other hand women are ridiculed exactly for that. Language ideologies of modernity require women to employ cadences of speech reconstructed as men’s cadences, as well as men’s manner of talking, in order to be construed and recognized as a confident, “successful” speaker.


Miyako, Inoue. Vicarious language: Gender and linguistic modernity in Japan. University of California Press. 2006

Genre and Power

The question of genre is, I believe, extremely important.

The piece "Genre, Intertextuality, and Social Power" Bauman and Briggs begin with delineation of the history of ethnographic writing in order to arrive to understanding how genre plays out in power relations. Evoking Vladimir Propp, who discovered that the structure of fairy tail is preserved albeit the content may vary, and engaging with Boasian writing (produced by Boas and his students; for them, the genre of ethnographic writing was primarily the means of organizing gathered material), they identify the differences between approaches to genre, among which "The most significant dimension of contrast among formal perspectives on genre distinguishes those approaches that identify the formal organization of genre as an immanent, normative, structuring property of texts from those that view generic form as a conventionalized but flexible and open-ended set of expectations concerning the organization of formal means and structures in discursive practice." (144).

This division seems to not necessarily be so contrastive in nature. Genre might be a structuring property of texts and simultaneously a flexible set of expectations. The lack of clarity of the defining genre is telling, in the authors’ consideration, of the fat that it is the under-theorized problem in linguistic anthropology. (The article is written in 1991 but the clarity of the issue, I’d suggest, has only diminished, if anything, since then.) For Bakhtin, genre was an important subject of constant writing. With the shift from text to performance, the question of genre has only increased in its significance. Bringing the discussion to the discourse of intertextuality and dialogism of creative forms, the written work begins to exist on the "intersection of textual surfaces" (Kristeva), that is to say, within multiple intersecting (competing, interchanging, contesting each other and supporting each other) contexts. 

Therefore, "We would argue, similarly, that genre cannot fruitfully be characterized as a facet of the immanent properties of particular texts or performances. Like reported speech, genre is quintessentially intertextual" (147), that is to say, does not exist "objectively," as given, but depends on context.

"When viewed diachronically or vertically, the fit between a particular text and its generic model—as well as other tokens of the same genre—is never perfect; to paraphrase Sapir, we might say that all genres leak. Generic frameworks thus never provide sufficient means of producing and receiving discourse. Some elements of contextualization creep in, fashioning indexical connections to the ongoing discourse, social interaction, broader social relations, and the particular historical juncture(s) at which the discourse is produced and received. […] The process of linking particular utterances to generic models thus necessarily
produces an intertextual gap." (149)

Ultimately the question of genre is political: "Invocations of genre provide powerful strategies for building what Anderson (1991(1983]) terms "imagined communities." (150) For example, "As in the Weyewa case, the
speech genres that comprise the "talk of the elders of bygone days"
among Spanish speakers in New Mexico play a key role in this process" (150).

The question of power, therefore, is a question of powerful narratives the production of which is structured around the axis of genre. "Intertextual gaps" are widened, narrowed, erased, deepened, and downplayed depending on goals of the ruling classes.

"Naturalizing the connection between genre, gender, and emotional experience can in turn rationalize the subordinate status of particular social groups or categories of persons; Lutz’s (1990) discussion of the association between "emotionality" and the female in Western society provides a case in point." (158)


Briggs, Charles and Richard Bauman (1991) "Genre, Intertextuality, and Social Power." Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 2(2):131-172

Individual Acts of Language Creativity and Grammar

I think Voloshinov expressed the pathos of the philosophy of language in one phrase:

“We addressed ourselves to the philosophy of language, the philosophy of the word. But what is language, and what is word? We do not, of course, have in mind anything like a conclusive definition of these concepts.” (Voloshinov, 1973, 45)

He, of course, does not end here, but proceeds with outlining the four basic principles of language:

1 . Language is activity, an unceasing process of creation (energeia) realized in individual speech acts;
2. The laws of language creativity are the laws of individual psychology;
3. Creativity of language is meaningful creativity, analogous to creative art;
4. Language as a ready-made product (ergon), as astable system (lexicon, grammar, phonetics), is, so to speak, the inert crust, the hardened lava of language creativity, of which linguistics makes an abstract construct in the interests of the practical teaching of language as a ready-made instrument.” (48, cursive is the author’s here and further unless otherwise noted.)

I find the idea of Vossler, in regard to grammar, particularly appealing. In Voloshinov’s formulation, it sounds as follows:

Everything that becomes a fact of grammar had once been a fact of style.” (51)

That speaks to the notion of grammar with which Becker is occupied, in a somewhat opposing manner. If for Becker (1995) grammar precedes the utterance (which it does in any given respect), Vossler brings us to the realization that grammar categories are malleable, and the forms of expressions particularly economical, practical, and efficient, emerge and become day-to-day choices of speakers’ self-expression over other grammatical constructions. Thus the “individual creative acts of speech” all play out in the societal language production, influencing the norms and changing grammatical structures which are considered to be normative, over time.


Voloshinov, V.N. Marxism and the Philosophy of Language. Harvard University Press, 1973.

Becker, Alton. Beyond Translation. 1995

Accented Speech

Agha Asif, by analyzing the emergence of a particularly privileged way of speaking British English, so-called “Received Pronunciation,” shows the close, indivisible relationship between the way language is performed and cultural value ascribed to this performance. Not only “received pronunciation” of the speaker marks her social, economic, and educational high status, but it also shapes discursive practices in which she participates.

The variety of versions of speaking English has always been my fascination, probably because it is a personal matter of an English speaker whose speech is marked with accent. My accent defines not only the way my interactions go in the English-speaking environments, but also the very content of these interactions, for instance requiring me to unfold a variation of a personal story providing my interlocutor with information he requests from a foreigner to define the character of emerging communication and to ascertain my identity.

Despite that Agha dismisses the term “accent” as a folk concept, accent marks the belonging of the speaker to “some other group” (a remarkably precise Agha’s formula); it organizes daily experiences in a variegated assortment of unprecedented ways within a continuity of discovering foreignness, otherness, and difference.

The accent is a heavily loaded marker of a social, national, cultural identity, and it comes with a system of assigned meanings “through the use of identifying labels” (Agha, 2007, 233). I would add, that the normality, or unaccented way of speaking, is unmarked in social imaginary, and therefore is taken as default. Speakers sharing the same accent (for example, in any class of second-language learners), would not construct hierarchy based on shared characteristic. The sorting property of any quality emerges in a group who do not share it. Among those who speak differently, some pronunciation would be marked as normal and some as deviating, accented, impaired.

The case of the British “Received Pronunciation” is unusual in this respect. It still marks the identity of the speaker, but in a favorable way. It marks her as different but belonging to a privileged class. RP is understood by everyone who lives in Britain, but “the competence to speak it” (Agha, 2007, 234, the cursive is the author’s) is a prerogative of a small powerful minority. The power of PR is evident not only in the fact that it is translated through media in Great Britain, but also that it is one of the best-studied accents.

As a marker of higher status, it is inevitably under the scrutiny of purification, of which the culmination is the doubt that the Queen herself could perform it properly, expressed rather funny in the quoted by Agha article which appeared in “The Independent” newspaper on 21 December, 2000:

“Her Majesty may not be so amused to find that a team of linguists has found her guilty of no longer speaking the Queen’s English. A group of Australian researchers analysed every Christmas message made by the Queen since 1952 and discovered that she now speaks with an intonation more Chelmsford than Windsor. . .” (226)
Agha, Asif. The Social Life of Cultural Value in “Language and Social Relations.” Cambridge University Press, 2007

Language as a System of Clichés

Becker provides us with a powerful description of language acquisition: “One learns these texts in action, by repetitions and corrections, starting with the simplest utterances of a baby. One learns to reshape these texts to new context, by imitation and by trial and error. One learns to interact with more and more people, in a greater and greater variety of environments.” (Becker, 1995, 144).

Grammar, therefore, is a set of rules not imposed on the speaker by books, but acquired as the structures of spoken, heard, and talked language.

The language is an intricately, infinitely complex system of clichés. To be understood, one has to rely on what has been already said billion times. There is a certain space for novelty but it is a regulated space.

Becker, Alton. Beyond Translation. 1995

All Communication Is Simultaneously a Miscommunication: Is That True?

The Spanish conquest of Tagalog society posed the questions, in Rafael’s rendition, of history and translation, memory and circulation, conversion and confession.

He starts with a curious observation on the poeticizing of colonialism which was so deeply ingrained into the mind of colonizers they never relinquished it: "The Real Academia’s Diccionario de la lengua española defines conquista not only as the forcible occupation of a territory but also as the act of winning someone’s voluntary submission and consequently attaining his or her love and affection." (Rafael, ix)

In this context, translation is a means of colonization and of establishing the power narrative. Catholicism, with its "ideas of indebtedness and hierarchy" (Rafael, x), seemed to be a perfect instrument of colonization. For it to be successful, the new language had to be invented, namely "the institution of the new vocabulary for the social comprehension of death" (Rafael, xi).

The parallel to Benedict Anderson’s "fatality of linguistic diversity": "The element of fatality is essential. For whatever superhuman feats capitalism was capable of, it found in death and languages two tenacious adversaries. Particular languages can die or be wiped out, but there was and is no possibility of humankind’s general linguistic unification." (Anderson, 1983, 56)

To juxtapose it with Rafael’s findings, one might paraphrase: "for whatever superhuman feats colonialism was capable of, it found in death and languages two tenacious adversaries."

However, inasmuch as languages made it a struggle for colonizers, to subjugate people and therefore territories and resources, languages also presented a redeemable challenge. 

"Natives" employ linguistic means of resistance: "A distinctive Tagalog strategy of decontexualizing the means by which colonial authority represents itself" (Rafael, 3). But their history, in turn, is written by the superseding power. And not only the history during the colonial rule, but also the history of colonialism, is written by the colonizers and their descendants, and not by the colonized.

The spirit of "natives" is unbroken, however, which is evident in the scene when the man recognizes the dead hero of resistance in a madman enclosed in the nearing cell.* 

What makes a translation successful? How spiritual texts of Catholicism could be translated? The tremendous difficulty of the Herculean task is afforded the glimpse if we recollect Laura Bohannan’s telling piece "Shakespear in the Bush" where she described the perils of explaining the vicissitudes of Hamlet to the Tiv people in West Africa (Bohannan, 1966). By any means, to explain the Bible to Tagalog, or any other people, was no easier, especially meaning that this explanation should ultimately lead to them fighting Spanish wars, paying tribute, building churches (some of the duties named by Rafael), and otherwise serving their overlords.

So how does translation emerges in this situation and how does it function? Not only its functions are to convert, but also to build the understanding. "Siegel claims that translation arises from the need to relate one’s interest to that of others and so to encode it appropriately. Translation in this case involves not simply the ability to speak in a language other than one’s own but the capacity to reshape one’s thoughts and actions in accordance with accepted forms." (Rafael, 210)

On this path, not so much translation as mistranslation is happening: "Christian conversion and colonial rule emerged through what appeared to be a series of mistranslations. But in fact, as I have tried to demonstrate, such mistranslations were ways to render the other understandable. Each group read into the other’s language and behavior possibilities that the original speaker had not intended or foreseen." (Rafael, 211)

I think unintendedness, or unforeseenness is relative in the situation of successful colonial subjugation, and should not be overstated. The miscommunications happened, but as Wilhelm von Humboldt famously claimed, "All understanding is at the same time a misunderstanding… and all agreement of feelings and thoughts is at the same time a means for growing apart." Similarly, all communication is at the same time simultaneously a miscommunication. But the Marxist thought requires to look closely at the practice, and ask, whether the translation/communication/understanding was practically effective, or not.  

*To digress, the trope of the undying hero, escaping either to lead a new, peaceful life, or impersonated by other people, is strangely evoking, given that we have many examples of its reenactment, such as a city legend of Michael Jackson, supposedly alive. Or, if we are seeking historic parallels, the figure of Yemelyan Pugachev in the Russian history and public imagination.


Anderson, Benedict. (1983) Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London: Verso. 

Rafael, Vicente. (1988) Contracting Colonialism: Translation and Christian Conversion in Tagalog Society Under Early Spanish Rule. Durham: Duke University Press.

Bohannan, Laura. (1966) "Shakespeare in the Bush." Natural History. August–Semptember.