I am going to devote this writing to claiming the existence of instances and procedures of summoning. People summon certain discourses in order to establish the narrative of everydayness. I offer this term, summoning, as defining the evocation, mobilization, or materialization of the past. Different actors conduct such evocations with a goal, whether conscious or not, of influencing the present and changing the delineation of the future. For instance, the state summons a “glorious past” to create a sense and feel of national unity at the face of some threat, oftentimes fictional. An example of such threat might serve a foreign influence which seeks to corrupt Russia through imposing the politics of acceptance of “homosexual body” (Somerville, 1994). An ethnographic center of this essay will be a case of “mutant sensibilities” in Bratsk, to which we will arrive shortly. This episode will be analyzed in connection to a sci-fi novelette by Ivan Yefremov “Nur-i-Desht Observatory,” first published in 1944 in the Noviy Mir literary journal and then republished several times; it was also translated. In this short story, a group of scientists, including an archeologist, a geologist, and a “professor,” are working on the remnants of an ancient observatory. There, people feel an unusual rise of energy in them; the ruins make them happy. Soon they find an explanation for their joy. Radium used in the details of ornamentations is what impacts the organisms in a positive manner and makes humans feel good. At the time, it was unclear whether the influence of radiation on humans is positive or negative. These “mutant sensibilities” summoned suddenly in 2017, are the examples of the use of a certain narrative that people create and uphold, for them to work around the pollution of the atmosphere. The literary story functions as an example and a counterpoint, providing a historical context to this particular way of summoning.
I uploaded my article on “active ruination” (namely ISIS’s affective ruining the space practices) on academia.edu. Years will pass before I get it published so it might as well just dwell there
As atrocious actions, public executions and world-making endeavors of ISIS analyzed in terms of performativity open the space for questioning the dominant ideas of history and politics. ISIS released the video of the shooting of 25 Syrian soldiers at the Palmyra ruins in the beginning of June, 2014. On the video, the executioners, most of whom appear to be teenagers, parade the soldiers on the scene of the amphitheater, kneel them down and shoot. The Palmyra amphitheater is present as a visible two-fold reminder of spectacle: as arena of violence and the metaphor for the arena of violence. A crowd, children among them, watched the execution. I argue that the public executions serve several goals for ISIS: not only does ISIS compose propaganda messages, but the very lawlessness and atrociousness of the executions function as a powerful claim of the group’s legitimacy as a state in the ISIS imaginaries. Through the staged executions, ISIS seeks to create the world of power which is alternative to the Western world. In the process of creation of this world, ISIS generates landscapes of violence, and produces spaces haunted by killings. An attempt to redefine ancient ruins and to reenact medieval executions, is a claim to build a world of alternative historicism.
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.
In his curls one might even see something resembling of Benjamin himself.
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?
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.
What is city? How does it function? Is it a mirror of Utopia? Is it an agglomeration of infrastructure of different types? Is it a mythical space? Enchanted vision? An embodiment of precarity and uncertainty? A system where affect circulates? Perhaps everything above and more.
People are infrastructure, according to AbdouMaliq Simone. Whereas “infrastructure is commonly understood in physical terms, as reticulated systems of highways, pipes, wires, or cables.” (Simone, 2004, 407), “infrastructure” might be read in broader terms. For instance, like interactions of city residents that “engage complex combinations of objects, spaces, persons, and practices. There conjunctions become an infrastructure—a platform providing for and reproducing life in the city.” (Ibid, 408).
However, when the talk is about people as infrastructure, I cannot shed the feeling that by nature of infrastructure (which does not generate itself, as it were, but is organized or at least repurposed, as repurposed ruins, for example), the subjects are exploited / used as infrastructure, rather than form infrastructure by interactions through their own volition.
But in Simone’s thought “people as infrastructure” construct themselves as such: “Such infrastructure remains largely invisible unless we reconceptualize the notion of belonging in terms other than those of a logic of group or territorial representation. People as infrastructure indicates residents’ needs to generate concrete acts and contexts of social collaboration inscribed with multiple identities rather than in overseeing and enforcing modulated transactions among discrete population groups.” (Ibid, 419). I wonder if another productive way of thinking about people as infrastructure would be, considering people’s relationships and interactions being structured in collaboration and negotiation with other agencies, not only them as acting subject. What happens to people as infrastructure when biopolitics is taken into account? How does that change our view of a city?
Susan Buck-Morss in the chapter “Dream World of Mass Culture” of “Dialectics of Seeing” draws attention to the urban space as an enchanted space: “In the modern city, as in the ur-forests of another era, the “threatening and alluring face” of myth was alive and everywhere. It peered out of wall posters advertising “toothpaste for giants”…” (Buck-Morss, 254). City is an enchanted place where allegories and myths unfold. French poet Louis Aragon whose work Buck-Morss analyzes in connection with the dialog between Walter Benjamin and Surrealism, suggests that industrialism, at least on its early stage, is mythic: “He acknowledges that the new gas tank gods came into being because humans “delegated” their “activity to machines,” transferring to them “the faculty of thought”: “They do think, these machines. In the evolution of this thinking they have surpassed their anticipated use.”” (260).
Dream is a state of mind for Benjamin, and, it could be added, sleepwalking is a state of living. It is under the hypnosis of their desires, intentions, plans, and hopes, that citizens make everyday transactions.
Zeiderman, Kaker, Silver, and Wood begin their “Uncertainty and Urban Life” with another vision of a city, a city as a site of constant precarity, city called Octavia, whose dystopian image belongs to Italian writer Italo Calvino. To quote the article, “It is a “spider-web city” hanging over a void between a pair of steep mountains, “bound to the two crests with ropes and chains and cat walks.” Getting from place to place requires great skill, for there’s nothing but clouds below for hundreds of feet until you hit the valley floor.” (Zeiderman et al, 2015, 281). Johannesburg, also the field site for the authors, could be characterized by “contingency, fluidity, and unpredictability,” like markets—and in this flux, “uncertainty has become internal to ways of analyzing and interpreting cities as well as to ideas of how to create the cities of tomorrow.” (Ibid, 300).
Nagel Thrift introduces in the article “But Malice Afterthought: Cities and the Natural History of Hatred,” published in 2005, re-introduces the concept of misanthropy as the affect which circulates in the city spaces. Tracing the history of misanthropy, he remarks: “Thus, in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century England, misanthropy was understood as a problematic state, but certainly not a state that was mad, iniquitous or perverse.” (P.9 of a manuscript downloaded from the author’s website). “But by the middle of the nineteenth century, such sentiments were fast going out of fashion in the face of a more pious stance to life which valued a controlled and benevolent heroism of the everyday and which increasingly regarded people-hating as a psychological affliction (often, indeed, caused by unrequited love) which must needs be combated by social programmes and self-restraint, although in mid- and even late-Victorian literature a series of radical or maudlin haters still continue to crop up as characters and attitudes, as instanced by authors like Dickens, Bronte, Eliot, Browning, Hardy and Conrad.” (Ibid).
I think this conceptualizing of misanthropy is fascinating but the reason the concept, quite unlike “melancholy” or “nostalgia” went out of circulation (and would not be returned) is that it dispersed into many different kinds of hatred, such as misogyny, misandry, racism, homophobia, transphobia, sociopathy, xenophobia, etc.—directed at particular groups of people based on gender, race, social orientation, etc. Some of these “hatreds,” phobias, and dislikes, are pathologized and announced to be a mental disorder (sociopathy), while others tacitly (or publicly) approved.
Misanthropy thus indeed links to affects of the past, and evokes literature—thus, whole number of heroes in Russian literature: Onegin, Pechorin, Chatsky, Bazarov, etc.—those of Pushkin, Lermontov, Griboyedov, and Turgenev’s literary works—could be said to be misanthropes, romantic heroes full of disdain and contempt to the society for which they were excessive, which they knew all too well, and could, as deeply, in some sense, moral beings, although corrupted by cynicism and skepticism, no longer respect. It is not rare to encounter a young woman or a man in Russia now who would claim that they are misanthropes, but not unoften you would see the glint of life in their eyes, and a great interest and compassion to other people. In other words, misanthropy is more of a romantic pose taken on the way potions were drank for the purpose of making the face to appear paler.
Thrift criticizes the nonexistent understanding of what is affect: “I have been involved in investigations of urban affect or mood for a number of years now, but can say that touching this sphere remains an elusive task, not least because so many definitions of affect circulate, each with their own problematizations.” (Ibid, 6). Since 2005, there is not much of clarity in this regard, if not to the contrary the increasing complexity and bifurcation of what people mean by saying “affect.” On the one hand, it is great to have a notion in active discussion which everyone uses to the best of their capacity. On the other hand, the enigmatic and unagreed-upon nature of affect makes one think that when we are talking about affect, we are talking about a number of different things each of which deserves its own name. Thrift proceeds with giving his own curious definition, or rather a bunch of definitions, of affect—the definition perfectly working together with all the definitions of affect I had had insofar encountered, they all for some reason put incompatible and sometimes mutually exclusive characteristics together: “For example, affect can be understood as a simple or complex (cursive mine—V.O.) biological drive, a pragmatic effect of the pre-cognitive or cognitive interactions of bodies, a set of capacities for affecting or being affected by, the communicative power of faciality, and so on.” (Ibid). Of all those understanding only “a set of capacities for affecting or being affected by” links to Spinoza, who introduced affect as a philosophical category, rediscovered by Deleuze and Guattari, and redistributed henceforward.
Buck-Morss, Susan. The dialectics of seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project. Mit Press, 1991.
Simone, AbdouMaliq. “People as infrastructure: intersecting fragments in Johannesburg.” Public culture 16.3 (2004): 407-429.
Thrift, Nigel. “But malice aforethought: cities and the natural history of hatred.” Transactions of the institute of British Geographers 30.2 (2005): 133-150. (I quote this article here by the manuscript downloaded from the author’s website, hence different pagination and perhaps text discrepancies.)
Zeiderman, Austin, et al. “Uncertainty and urban life.” Public Culture 27.2 76 (2015): 281-304.
In his book “The Politics of the Governed: Reflections on Popular Politics in Most of the World” (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), Partha Chatterjee rejects Benedict Anderson’s notion of a homogeneous time-space of modernity which politics inhabit, suggesting instead that such time is “the utopian time of capital” (6), and that time is heterogeneous, unevenly dense, since modernity is, in which he follows Foucault, heterotopia.
Foucault’s notion of heterotopia is evoked of describing the spacio-temporal characteristics of ambiguity, in which the subject finds herself in several places or points at once, for instance, looking at the mirror. To say that the modernity is heterotopic, is a productive way of speaking about modernity, in my opinion. Modernity is characterized by this ambiguity of positioning, when futurity and remnants of the past commingle and coincide, but also contradict one another and clash with one another.
Homi Bhabha, according to Chatterjee, formulated heterotopic ambiguity around the axes of nation in which “the people were an object of national pedagogy because they were always in the making, in a process of historical progress, not yet fully developed to fulfill the nation’s destiny” (6), yet at the same time, “the unity of the people, their permanent identification with the nation, had to be continually signified, repeated, and performed” (6). Chatterjee announces it to be an inherent feature of modernity, or “modern politics itself” (6)–and one might agree, but there is no big contradiction here, it appears. Both these statements describe the nation in becoming, in flux, in progress. What does contradict each other though, is that the people in the making and in process are simultaneously already perceived or framed as nation today, already–the nation which has a glorious history and bright future; which is a key feature of nation building. Apart from having the future, the past, and the present, nation is as a rule relates somehow, sanctioned by divine providence and blessed by God. To evoke the specter of Vl. Solovyev: “The idea of nation is not something that the nation itself thinks about itself in time, but something that God thinks about it in eternity.” (Соловьев, 1911, 3)–a standard motif of governmentality engaging into what might be called “narrativization of the nation.” (“efforts to narrativize,” as Chatterjee puts it, 8).
The analysis of the untouchables in India, affords for understanding that “Citizens inhabit the domain of theory, populations the domain of policy.” (34).
Chatterjee shows that Lockian idea of two types of citizens–sound-minded citizens who get to govern and those who should be governed because they could not be subjects of consensual politics–is deeply ingrained into structures of democracy; this is indeed modernity’s constitutive, foundational idea, and not some glitch or malfunction happening occasionally.
Chatterjee, Partha. The Politics of the Governed: Reflections on Popular Politics in Most of the World. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.
Соловьев Вл. Русская идея. М., 1911.
Whereas Locke establishes that all human beings are free, rational, and interested in protecting their property individuals, receiving the right of existing as such from birth, the whole clusters of people do not fit this definition, because they are “lunaticks,” “ideots,” do not own property, or are children; the question of whether women fit or not the Lockean figure of a citizen, is up to further consideration (Mehta, 59). Such individuals could not be considered independent agents of consensual politics, and belong to the sorts of people who should be guarded, their volition notwithstanding, in the process of taming. Some of them could not hope to achieve the destination of becoming citizens (“lunaticks,” “ideots,” and women), and for some, un-citizenship is a temporary state. Thus the complex play of exclusions and inclusions begins.
To the question of Mouffe, “Is it possible to disentangle political liberalism from the vocabulary that it has inherited from the rationalism of the Enlightenment on the one hand and from the connotations in has acquired by its long association with economic liberalism on the other?” (Mouffe, 1993, 41) there could be one reasonable answer: no, this is not possible. For whatever this is that ends up being disentangled, it could not be called “liberalism,” precisely for the reason that the very term liberalism is the term which originated and gained its history and weight within the contexts of the Enlightenment discourses. To disentangle liberalism from its origin and a very nature, means to deduct the liberalism from liberalism.
This is a debate related to the debates around the issues “Can the Subaltern speak?” (Spivak) and of “provincializing Europe” (Chakrabarty), which stumble upon the linguistic impossibility of having one’s own voice while navigating the political, philosophical, and scientific thought of a colonizer. To “provincialize” a geographico-political locale using the instruments which are imminent to the locale and reinforce its power by virtue of being used, is a task which too easily slips into further “metropolizing” of the metropole.
In the contesting modernities, the one modernity is privileged: that which is predicated on the Enlightenment ideals, largely Anglophone, grappling with its own colonial history and reluctantly renouncing positions.
In 1988, Partha Chatterjee wrote: “This is the task which, I think, faces non-Western political theorists: to find an adequate conceptual language to describe the non-Western career of the modern state not as a distortion or lack, which is what inevitably happens in a modernization narrative, but as the history of different modernities shaped by practices and institutions that the universalist claims of Western political theory have failed to encompass” (Chatterjee, 1998, 279). Whereas this magical language, the philosopher’s stone, has not been found to this days, hopefully, the task described is not only the concern for non-Western theorists. One wishes Western theorists should be also interested in completing this task, if they are loyal to the ideals of Enlightenment of freedom and equality in their best possible reduction, developed since Locke in corpuses of texts.
Empire is a governmental organization of the utopian thought. And the thought of Enlightenment is one of the most persistent utopian thoughts, generating dystopian worlds with a remarkable frequency and equanimity, on a great scale.
“The dynamism of empire is so thoroughly wedded to the betterment of the world that it is easy to see why the deployment of power despite its acknowledged and sustained abuses <…>, and the often wholesale erasure of extant life forms, could have been countenanced as justified by a higher purpose.” (Mehta, 87). I would argue that there is no need in countenancing or justifying abuse as a deed performed for a higher purpose while it was indeed performed for a higher purpose—the purpose of establishing of the universal freedom as a particular (imperial, colonial) power sees it. There is no deception going on, because the power deploying itself is genuine in its deployment. If there should be numbers of exclusions, sorting-outs, stratifications, standardizations, groupings, hierarchizations, and selections performed, for a better governing, so be it (in the imperial consciousness).
Still, as Taylor points out, it is remarkable that the world, which has only known the hierarchical structures of societies, begets the very idea of equality and that it is now so widespread (Taylor, 100). “Cosmos as a work of God’s providence” (Ibid), mimicked, in the medieval understandings, the kingdom with its orders of “oratores, bellatores, and laboratories—those who pray, those who fight, and those who work” (Taylor, 95).
Zoon politicon (Aristotle), political animal, continues its desperate search for endamonia—happiness, the intrinsic part of the fantasy of which, equality seems to be.
Chatterjee, Partha. Community in the East. Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 33, N.6 (Feb 7-13, 1998): 277-282
Mehta, Uday. “Strategies: Liberal Conventions and Imperial Exclusions.” Chapter 2 in Liberalism and Empire.
Mouffe, Chantal. The Return of the Political. Verso. London—New York. 1993.
Taylor, Charles. “Modern Social Imaginaries.” Public Culture 14 (1): 91-124
What could be learned by “learning from Lagos” (Gandy, 2005) a megalomaniac city stretched as a “continuous urban corridor” (Davis, 2004, 73), “the biggest continuous footprint of urban poverty on earth” (Davis, 2004, 76)?
First, that things are not what they appear to a Western eye, which vision is predicated on linguistic ideologies of post-Enlightenment ethnocentrism, privileging “a single conception of the good” (Scott, 1999, 220): what appears to be an agglomeration of squalor, dirt, debris, detritus, rubble, garbage, and ruins, turns out to be “heaps of similar materials and colors. The actuality taking place was actually not a process of sorting, dismantling, reassembling, and potentially recycling” (Koolhaas, 2002, 117)—the reality which merits two “actual” in the sentence, in a tautology perhaps subconsciously reflecting on the surprising quality of such discovery. Hence the inadequacy of habitual Western tools of dealing with the new worlds, emerging cities and futures, which resist being captured and described in categories and notions of “traditional” architecture as well as social thought. And therefore, there is a need of new lexical inasmuch as socio-political apparatus of cognition in order to dealing with the alternative reality of what Davis calls “urban poverty ‘Big Bang’” (Davis, 2004, 77). I am sympathetic with this claim, but I am unsure how we can say that our tools of thought are not applicable if for saying so we use these exact tools of thought—linguistically, politically, socially, culturally, and otherwise.
The practical approach to postcoloniality requires a new language, a new subject grappling with the legacy of the colonial, imperial world saturated with metropolia-periphery and colonizer-colonized dichotomies. New kind of figures emerge in the process of “self-fashioning,” to use Scott’s impression. It is not a Benjaminian flâneur who takes precedence over political imagination of bourgeoisie expurning out of its stratum a city dweller, but Fanonian ruud bwai (rude boy), as David Scott offers (Scott, 1999, 195)—young, black, impoverished, angry, armed with hand-made or illegally acquired armor. Ruud bwai is the masculine figure whose body, by very virtue of its untamed existence, becomes a site of violent struggle with the colonial implications in the process of confrontation of the new kind of selves: colonial versus post-colonial subject, rather than colonized versus colonizing subject. A native of the urbanity for the conversation of whom the current language and mindset of social science is dramatically lacking in precision, the inhabitant of the new loci of “collective dwellings” (to use Benjaminian expression for the lack of a better term), such as dancehall, in a seeming disorder of movement, rhythm, gesture, and movement, which, again, might turn out to be just a new type of order, a clandestine order of things.
The rapid post-industrial urbanization that the Third World lives through, was once a utopian project of Soviet empire. After the construction of Bratsk dam in Eastern Siberia in 1961, for the clearing of territories for the Bratsk reservoir (currently the second-largest people-created water reservoir on the planet), in the Bratsk district alone sixty-three settlements were consolidated into six towns (Chepel, 2014), as the state plans of consolidation were moving inhabitants of the villages into newly built urban-type settlements of what might be called “nascent urbanity,” the prospective cities of the future. Half a century later, with the dismantling of the Soviet project, these prospective cities represent the zones of abandonment. Not only the economic dream of prosperity was not fulfilled, but the transformation of environment in the absence of infrastructure led to revelation of the bare bones of Russian neoantiliberalism in a very literal sense. The level of water in the Bratsk reservoir have been lowering down for the last three years for reasons not altogether known. Aside from barren shore, of rock and stone, appearing from under the water, old cemeteries were being exposed, graves burst open. In a number of rural places, during the summer of 2016 one could see bucolic and Apocalyptic landscapes: children playing with skulls and bones on the shore of the retreating river.
Thus “rural-urban continuum” (Davis, 2004, 73) undergoing a social and ecological transformation, unfolds as a theater of a spectacularly uneven distribution of power, income, and rights. Which in different sense (that connected to a massive outburst of population and to a slow dwindling down of a community, respectively) is likewise apparent in slums of Lagos and streets of a Siberian village.
Davis, Mike. Planets of Slums. New Left Review, 26 March-April 2004.
Gandi, Mathew. Learning from Lagos. New Left Review, 33 May-June, 2005
Chepel, M. Preparing the Bed of Bratsk Hydro Power Plant Reservoir for Water-Flooding of a First Stage (1956 – 1961). Thesis. Bratsk, 2014.
Koolhas, Rem. “Fragments of a Lecture on Lagos” in Under Siege Four African Cities, 2002.
Scott, David. Refashioning Futures: Criticism after Postcoloniality, 1999.
In Tristles Tropiques Claude Levi-Strauss mentions a questionable but symptomatic cause of death for native population during colonization:
“In was used to be called Hispaniola (today Haiti and Santo Domingo) the native population numbered about one hundred thousand in 1492, but had dropped to two hundred a century later, since people died of horror and disgust at European civilization even more than of smallpox and physical ill-treatment.” (Levi-Strauss, 1974, 75)
We would frame it today as death from depression and stress, probably, but this kind of claim does not sustain a critique for the reason that it could not be supported with hard scientific evidence: there is no way to create a chart comparing numbers of people who died from smallpox and physical ill-treatment, to sum it up, and compare to the numbers of those who died of horror and disgust.
The reason why I remembered it, however, is the passage in Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture which speaks to this Levi-Strauss’s fragment, even if in a roundabout way:
“War may be, as it was among the Aztecs, a way of getting captives for the religious sacrifices. Since the Spaniards fought to kill, according to Aztec standards they broke the rules of the game. The Aztecs fell back in dismay and Cortez walked as victor into the capital.” (Benedict, 1934, 31)
Unlike Levi-Strauss, Benedict does not ascribe here European white sensitivities to native populations, but her statement is questionable in a similar way because it seems to imply that Aztecs fell back in dismay not because they were overwhelmed with surpassing forces but because they encountered a fight which broke their warfare standards.
I have no doubt that the affects of the kind–such as disgust, dismay, repulsion, horror, contempt– took place and played a role in establishing a power balance in different regions, and in regard to those subjugated each of those affects was but another tool of obliteration.
Intimidation and fear are powerful weapons which lay at the core of terrorist strategies of conducting the war (and the word “terror” is fully embedded in “terrorism”).
I wonder what kind of research question might have been possible here. How exactly such affects shape social interactions and participate in the decline of native populations? This might be one way to look at it.
Benedict, Ruth. Patterns of Culture. Cambridge–Massachusetts, 1934.
Claude, Levi-Strauss. Tristles Tropiques. Translated from the French by John and Doreen Weightman. New York, 1975.
Anthropology grappling with its history as a disciplinary tool of subjugation, produces amazing insights. As the science moved away from “ultimate other” as its subject, “primitive” and otherwise “salvage” societies, it questioned itself as it where could be situated its further legitimate interests? Joel Robbins suggested, it concentrated on “suffering subject” (Robbins, 2013, 448), since trauma is something on the one hand engaging and attracting, and on the other, ridiculously commonplace, a kind of experience that we all share. Thus it was capable of maintaining the unalleviated otherness of its subject and to establish, weirdly, a kind of commonality that would reach the humanistic pathos known from the times of Franz Boas as the claim of the equal humanity of all humans, no one of whom, regardless of what civilization, race, gender, sexuality etc. she belongs, is any less human than the privileged, “Western,” in the broader sense, individual who carries on the study.
While Robbins’s argument is appealing and he is careful enough to make it explicitly clear that “sufferer” does not describe the multifaceted subject of new anthropological construction of a discipline, I wonder if there is something else that could be brought into conversation and be more precise. That is correct that we are interested in trauma, but I want to resist the extension of the “suffering subject” on multiple subjectivities in which contemporary anthropology busies itself. Not only because to be interested in “suffering subject” would mean that the anthropologist is taking a precarious position of something between “psychoanalytic actor” and “curious actor” (and it’s unclear what is worse), not only because there are plenty of “subjects” that refuse to be put into this categorization (where do you put “anthropology of perpetrators,” for example?), but also because it brings unnecessary repercussions of further victimization of the “really suffering subject,” erasing their experience of resistance, survival, revolt, coping, and overcoming. How many activists fighting inequality in different societies would call themselves “suffering subjects”? What kind of hierarchies emerge out of building of this notion in its present form? Could not there be found some other grounds for the multiplicity of anthropological queries?
The historical move of the interest from “other” to the “suffering subject” would mean anthropology is not ready to relinquish its position as an instrument of re-establishing of power. And even if we forewent hopes that we ever could produce something close to “objective knowledge,” such trajectory might mean furthering of its exploitative tendencies and inquisitivenesses.
Robbins, Joel. Beyond the Suffering Subject: Toward an Anthropology of the Good. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 19(3): 447-462. 2013
In 1961-62 the Bratsk Hydroelectric dam was constructed, inundating thirty-thousand square kilometers of agricultural land. My fieldwork site, the village of Anosovo, was brought to life in the process of relocation. It is situated on the shore of the Angara River in the Irkutsk province of Siberia. In my research, I draw from theories of affect, ruination, infrastructure, and new materialism, as well as literature on the consequences of dam construction and histories of Siberian development. Using ethnographic methods (participant observation and interviews), I examine the day-to-day interactions and “everyday economies” (Humphrey) in this human-made landscape. I also plan to work in the regional archive. I am a native speaker of Russian and I visited Anosovo in 2006 and in 2013; my connections there, including the contact with the local administration, have been established.
What does everydayness look like? What is the mundane and the spectacular in these settings? How does ruined infrastructure shape social practices? What is rural, and how does it relate to the urban? What is nostalgia and what is the sense of belonging to “imagined community” (Anderson)? The singularity of Anosovo tells us a very particular story, one about living and struggling, which unfolds in hundreds of places scattered throughout Siberia. The vast territories of Siberia are populated with peoples of diverse ethnicities, religions, languages and cultures, who live on the margins of urban life, in the post-Soviet edgelands. These places provide models for understanding why the persistence of Soviet histories still matter and how they are summoned as a politically powerful nationalist discourse: life there is navigated among the ruins of socialism. The actual rubble of Soviet projects defines the structures of feeling in abandoned places.
Around two thousand people were living in Anosovo at its heyday in 1970s. In 2014 the population was around six hundred. According to statistics the number of deaths outstripped births, making depopulation even more critical. During Soviet times, the state-owned timber industry employed local people, but over the course of the last twenty years, since the collapse of the USSR, there is no job security. People make do by hunting, fishing, and scavenging for rusty tractors they can sell for scrap.
Currently, the village of Anosovo has no hospital, nor police station or post office, and a big part of the year it is an isolated, inaccessible place, because there is no road through the forest, and the Angara river is not always passable, either by ice or by water.
So how do global transformations affect a rural settlement in Siberia? What practices of healing spring up in the absence of accessible regular medical institutions? What kind of religion do people practice there? How has the positionality of women changed? How do people survive? Anosovo is one of numerous places in Siberia and in Russia today, which challenge our understanding of an increasingly globalized and networked world.