Talks and Presentations in 2016

2016    “‘Village Prose,’ Propaganda, and ‘Human Document’: Contesting Representations of Environmental Transformation.” Talk. Cultures and Ecologies. UT. December 3.

2016    “Archeology of the Robotics: Remnants of Soviet Robots.” Presentation on the organized panel. 115th Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association. Minneapolis, Minnesota, November 17.

2016    “Methods in Socio-Cultural Anthropology: Fieldwork.” Invited talk. Center of Russian and East European Studies, UT. November 8.

2016    “Robot as a Subject (Object) of Ethnographic Study.” Invited lecture. Introduction to Cultural Anthropology. UT. October 14.

2016    “Russian Literature on Bratsk Dam: the Human in People-Altered Landscapes of Soviet Industrialization. Presentation. “The Extra-Human” 13th Annual Graduate Conference in Comparative Literature. UT. September 25.

2016    “Russia, USA, and the Islamic World: Multiplicity of Feminisms.” Talk. Feminist Society ONA (“She”). Moscow, August 14.

2016    “Writer’s Change of Language: Nabokov and Others.” Presentation. Symposium on Language and Society. UT, April 15.

2016    “ISIS: Use of Atrocity in State Formation.” Invited Lecture. Expressive Culture. UT. Austin, April, 6.

2016    “ISIS: Active Ruination and Performativity of Public Execution.” New Directions in Anthropology, UT, April 1.

2016    “Late Soviet Childhood.” Futures and Ruins Workshop at Duke University, March 25.

2016    “Pussy Riot: The Contest of Performances and Political Affect.” Utopia and Reality. Gender and Feminisms. UT, March 3.

American Anthropological Association Meeting, Minneapolis, 2016

On the 19th of November at the American Anthropological Association meeting (Minneapolis, Minnesota) I presented my work entitled “Archeology of the Robotics: Remnants of Soviet Robots” on the panel “Affect and the Materiality of Ruins: Radioactive Subjects, Contested Futures, and Evidence of Lost Worlds” that we put together with Magdalene Stawkowski and Kelly Alexander. They both presented their work, as well as Mark Gardiner. Alison Cool was the discussant. The panel enjoyed the attendance of anthropologists, and the discussion was so lively that questions and remarks went for five minutes beyond the time.

The key event of the AAA meeting in 2016 for me was a panel “Sleepwalking Into Extinction: Elaine Scarry’s S.O.S. to Anthropologists” on the same day.

I read Elaine Scarry’s book “The Body in Pain” and used her concept of the room of torture as a tool of torture to extend it to the landscape of torture as a tool of torture, in case of the ISIS performative executions, and was lucky to talk to her about it briefly after the panel.

Elaine Scarry’s S.O.S. is related to un-abolished nuclear weapons. I, as a child of the Cold War, did have nightmares and fears of the world dying in the nuclear catastrophe, which is a shared experience for my generation. It is true that the nuclear threat fell into the background (one of Scarry’s arguments). And it is reasonable to join Elaine Scarry in the statement that this should not be so. For indeed it was Foucault who first noted that the supreme new tool of biopolitics, nuclear weapon, could eliminate its creator. Elaine Scarry adds to that (or reminds)–not only its creator, but all the life on the earth.

I could not help but caught myself on the thought that, as much as the nuclear threat is important and real, there is also a tinge of nuclear nostalgia to the conversation about it. The question for me is: what kind of shared nightmares today’s children have?

Visual Representation of Things

I think that the interest to the Soviet past has been not very intense or deep, but steady. It is paired with the interest to visual representation of things, to black-and-white photography, movies. There is a certain political request of re-imagining the Soviet past. Which is more about adding a little bit of a gloss to it than about critical re-evaluation. It is nostalgic and lyrical, as Svetlana Boym noted on a number of occasions.

Abstract to Futures and Ruins Workshop at Duke University

What makes one think about ruins: broken objects, depopulated cities, devastated landscapes, obliterated social practices? Withering plants and wrinkled skin. What is the appeal of destruction? In my case, perhaps the fact that I am from a lost world, that I was brought in the alternative reality of the Soviet Socialism, which does not exist anymore, explains partially the allure devastation has for me. I was prepared to function, efficiently or not, in the Soviet system, a wheel in the humanless machinery and the greatest utopia at once.

The two processes constructing and contesting future happened simultaneously. Not only did I survive the collapse of the empire which is still unfolding and probably would take centuries, but I witnessed the technological change that my times witnessed. The fairy tales of my childhood were narrated by disembodied voices through vinyl records, and the songs of my youth were listened to, recorded and endlessly re-recorded on cassettes, whereas now I don’t even have a player to use a cassette or a vinyl record. Any other medium of information underwent similar revolutions. For instance, I remember floppy disks.

I was among those whose childhood knew no personal computer at the house, because the world knew no personal computers at houses. The idea of personal computers was debated. My project portrays the space at the time and its fragile feeling. What does it mean, to grow up in the USSR in the era of technological revolution and big social changes? What kind of new territories and edgelands emerge from the daily small economies now? How this lost world was constructed? How did it shape people? Some things the Soviet people shared with their Cold-War adversaries – the anticipation of the Nuclear war, and corresponding training in schools, and the usage of cotton wool by women during menstruation. Some were unique experiences, like buying a refreshing mug of kvas on the summer street or a gas water from ubiquitous automates and drinking it from the communal glasses. After twenty more than years have elapsed, many disquietudes, anxieties, and agonies of the Soviet life are covered with the gauze of sympathetic affects, nostalgia, melancholy, and regret. Only with exceptional attentiveness to details it is possible to come to understanding what this world meant and what it still means to the contemporary political, cultural, human realities; what ideals and utopias guarded it; what despairs and horrors swarmed there; how did all transform into the present, and what futures it brings.

Governmentality of Dental Care

The best exploration of the “at the dentist” sensibilities I’ve ever encountered is to be found in Ann Cvetkovich’s “Depression: A Public Feeling” book.

The repetitiveness of the experience, the mundane, the quotidian, the pain you are subjecting yourself to, sort of nice abrupt civil exchange of platitudes while you are in the chair, is the center of the visit to the dentist. Everything that forms this experience, what is never seen as worthy of reflecting, might be the subject of wonder.

Cvetkovich describes her battle with depression, stopping to examine attentively the episodes usually floating beyond the reach of our attention:

“In addition to his enthusiasm about my life, Dr. B was also very enthusiastic about the future of my mouth. My teeth were very worn down from a life-time of jaw clenching, that now much-publicized sign of stress that turns your dentist into your psychoanalyst (and sells another bite guard). The root canal involved multiple sessions of drilling, poking, and crown fitting, and my many hours in the dental chair that year were an experience of welcome submission. I was too bereft of agency to do more than simply show up for the appointments and let the doctor do as he deemed necessary. I would focus my gaze on his blue overhead light or beyond it to the holes of the acoustic time in the ceiling and go blank. Afterward I would return to work with my jaw completely numb,unable really to feel the difference between the frozen and unfrozen states, but with a sense that I was taking care of business.” (Cvetkovich, 2012, 48)

She shows how the routines, despite their un-noticeability, nevertheless, matter as one struggles to keep oneself afloat, sized by depression.

dentist

The experience with dentists that I had in my childhood almost exclude the possibility of viewing the dentist as a figure of familiar friendliness.

Soviet dentists were true Stoics. And so were their young patients. The children stomatological office was located right in the school. Kids were called there during the classes for regular check. Not a bad idea in itself. However, the slow drill; insufficient anesthesia; cheerful, laughing disregard and shaming in response to your complaints and moans of pain in the chair; the temporary filling with arsenic—everything was directed at developing stoicism, endurance, the resistance to hardships, and served as a clear warning about the future which awaited us. It was a tool of training for the reality into which we were born.

I received my first lesson in psychotechnics allowing to escape the thoughts about pain from my father, a military officer. The method deserves being stored in the Soviet secret agents’ golden rules collection. “Do not think about the drill, do not concentrate on your pain. Think like you are walking up and down the aisles in the toy store.” It was not uncommon that children were held by force, threatened to be treated for a cavernous tooth through their nose if they refuse to open their mouth. And, as a rule, someone among little patients cried vocally, getting in response exclusively irritated rebuffs.

As my light-eyed doctor her instruments, I thought–understanding all the petty-bourgeois commonality and incredibly oblivious privilege of even the possibility of these musings–that the drilling without anesthesia must be one of the worst torments imaginable, a Nazi-style, elaborate torture. The way dental care is institutionally structured, is definitely revealing of the type of governmentality and people-production functioning in the state.