Anthro Notes

I kept these notes Spring semester of 2019–the semester I also taught Expressive Culture at the University of Texas-Austin, which was a profound and exciting experience for me. I decided to put them all together in one blogpost with the idea that perhaps later I will have some time for some of these embryos of texts.

 

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Anthro Notes

Whenever the conversation is about these overlappings of post-ness(es), it’s someone else, not us, who are postcolonial or post-Soviet, is it not so? Such was my impression. We, on the other hand, are all neo: neoliberal. Stoler warns about excessive stress on the “post” in postcolonial. Siberia is an agglomeration of overlapping territorialities from tsarist / colonial, Soviet / Post-Soviet, with a thin but noticeable layer of the vaguely-Western vogues and mores.

 

 

Friday, January 18, 2019

Anthro Notes

I had one of the most surreal experiences sitting, back to Texas, with my laptop with notes and fragmented descriptions of my Siberian travels. At my desk at a grad office, when no one was there. I could barely remember where I was myself. Being-in-the-place felt like a difficult action to perform.

 

 

Monday, February 4, 2019

Anthro Notes

Humans are beautiful animals.

And if they wore short fur all over their faces, they’d be even more beautiful.

 

 

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Anthro Notes

Last time we discussed humans’ dependency on social media and technology, there was a bit of info (in one of the videos I included) that human beings tend to interrupt themselves once they are interrupted. And according to some cognitive psychologists, it takes us on average 20 min to return to the concentration we maintained before being interrupted. Needless to say, the contemporary world is all about interruptions. The consistent concentration is a distant dream.

But I am thinking now what if the chain of these interruptions are simply a concentration of some sort. What if this condition of living is something we’ve been initiated into by “our” technology (that we didn’t invent and have no control over), and therefore requires adjustment–not the idea that somehow this technological turn could be undone and we can be back to long stretches of hours of uninterrupted reading (that I only remember by my childhood because it’s no longer a feasible option to read like that).

 

 

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Anthro Notes: Attention Economy

The anecdote encompasses paradoxes of the developed Socialism: there is no unemployment, but no one works; no one works, but everyone fulfills the plan; everyone fulfills the plan, but there is nothing in stores; there is nothing in stores, but everyone has everything.

Similarly, one could talk about the grand paradox of attention economy: attention is a scarce resource, but everyone gets plenty.

 

 

Saturday, February 9, 2019

When I met a Siberian recluse, I wrote (it’s now in my diss in a reworked form):

The human being who consumes solitude so avidly, devours it in such quantities, what kind of human being are they? What is there to know about the human being who decides to hide from the society of others?

Are they at all knowable, if knowledge presupposes the knowing subject as well as the object of knowledge?

I have a suspicion, a thought, that the human being in solitude is completely unknown. Not only the fantastical creatures of one’s mind appear to one’s eyes, ears, and for one’s consideration. But the essence of the human could be any: everything and anything imaginable and beyond.

As Foucault insists, anthropology emerged not sooner than the “man” emerged as the object of science, which in turn happened not sooner than life, language, and labor emerged as such objects simultaneously. (Foucault, The Order of Things, 1970, 340, 344).

And the beginning of the man’s existence as such object is Decartean cogito ergo sum, which both Foucault (Ibid, 324-325) and Derrida (___) criticize as naive ascribing of the self-sameness of the fact of thought and the thinking subject constituted by means and in the act of thought, whereas the thinking in itself does not consitute the sovereignty of being but merely registers its own existence as a process.

 

 

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Anthro Notes

I recently noticed, to my dismay, that I can’t help but analyze the structure of scholarly works where previously I’d just enjoy the read. “This opening is ethnographic vignette, then the author sets the problem, here she’s explaining why it’s relevant, that’s a nod to the urgency, here she’s bringing numbers, here she’s giving the second ethnographic example.” Can’t I just enjoy the ride? Apparently, not anymore. The enjoyment is irreversibly marred by the too-explicit understanding of how the thing is constructed.

 

 

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Anthro Notes: Four Fields

One physical anthropologist insulted socio-cultural anthropologists by complimenting them that if they tried they could become psychical anthropologists as well.

And then one socio-cultural anthropologist insulted archeologists by pretending to compliment them suggesting that they could become socio-cultural anthropologists.

But no one insulted linguists. Although, we should add, no one complimented or pretended to compliment linguists either. Most of the time no one spoke to linguists while they were documenting the aforementioned interactions.

 

 

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Anthro Notes: Artificial Emotional Intelligence

I am thinking about the concept of emotional intelligence in connection to “artificial intelligence.” It seems to me that the concept of emotional intelligence did not enjoy a heavy rotation as it does today when the conversation of AI began (Turing, Searle).

And if it did, the AI could’ve been imagined differently from the beginning. Now today AI—beginning with artificial life like Tamagotchi—performs a creature-like vulnerability just fine. But if we saw emotions as part of our intelligence, the whole discourse would be reconfigured.

 

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Anthro Notes: Turing test

Turing test (1950) is completely predicated on the idea that it is possible, for a human being, to distinguish between the man and the woman based on the content of their answers without seeing or hearing them. Then in Turing’s thought experiment, the computer replaces the man, and the man replaces the woman, and the interrogator is continuing asking them questions.

Some machines as of now already pass or would pass Turing rest, but then some humans no doubt wouldn’t.

If Turing test was permanent and required humanlike presence at every second to produce humanlike reaction, we would all fail it.

 

Friday, February 22, 2019

Anthro Notes: Theory and Praxis

It is not easy to make ethnography and theory work together. it’s a dance, a continuous back-and-forth. Just when theory is at place, ethnography breaks it. When ethnography is there, the theory that spawned it into existence in the first place no longer works and needs to be reimagined. And also requires new ethnography. When the new ethnography comes, again it sheds theory like a skin glove that no longer fits the living organism.

 

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Anthro Notes

Dominique was the first, I believe, who turned my attention to Halcyon. He included it in his writing. Even as I had visited the place before he read his fragment at a seminar (the writing was about meeting a stranger, something how he stumbled upon his community of study), and even as I mentioned a handful of different cafes in my own writings by that point, I was surprised at the thought that it is possible to include this place. Halcyon, like Spider House, is intentionally, Austin-like, erratically furnished (maybe here it wasn’t an intent).

There’s something special about its atmosphere. Its patrons will probably agree.

…But this is not about Halcyon so much as it is about the miraculous ways anthropologists stumble upon the subject of their strange research.

 

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Anthro Notes / Locus of Writing

Everything is about the locus of writing. The locus that does not belong to you – any “you” that you previously knew. That’s why people struggle so much with finding the right first line.

My father once told me a story. When he was a boy, he watched a movie with Vysotsky’s songs. The boy came home and had this feeling of a poet “if not for me, no one will ever know.” The thought was all the more strange since all these songs were already written, arranged, played, copied, listened to, promoted all over the Soviet Union (which was something!). These songs had reached the remotest corners of the empire, even the village where he actually had just heard them. The feeling was just like it is with any new emotion that a poor poet tries to convey even when they know perfectly well it that it has been felt and expressed for years and perhaps even centuries by everyone whose laziness was exceeded by the urge, the itch, to write.

Trying to recollect these songs, the boy climbed on a chair and stood, close to a dim lamp, and then was back to the table with an open school blank notebook. He repeated this maneuver over and over again, until he had all the songs written down.

The locus of writing is not that type of locus, not geographical or space-related one, obviously, but I still think that story has something to do with the locus of writing.

 

 

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Anthro Notes: Podmoskovie

Out of many places, I miss Podmoskovie the most, at least on some days. Towns near Moscow living off of Moscow. To be sure, a difficult life to live (long commute for many). Those towns are different. Quiet, industrial, ancient, recent, once-scientific centers, spiritual places.

If only I had more time travel, live, write about them. I used to spend in those towns my every free weekend—with friends, family, and alone, on “writing retreats” I gave myself. Oh, now I’d write a splendid travelogue—but I have my Siberian project demanding time and energy.

 

 

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Anthro Notes: To the Time Lost as a Woman

If all the time in a life of a woman that she’s selecting jewelry matching her attire and spent in cosmetics stores picking just the right shade of the lipstick was miraculously returned to her at the end of the year, like tax return…
How many hours do you spend in a woman’s body learning about body types, flattering colors, and alike nonsense, instead of learning about something else?

Colors are great… I’d rather learn about them less as a consumer of colors and more as a connoisseur of colors. Color learning as a woman is ultimately geared towards making oneself prettier as a woman and packaging oneself for the Great Customer, a man, not to any other end.

It starts early. In my Soviet elementary school, we were given presents for the 8th of March which at that late point was not as much the International Women’s Day as The Day of Spring and Our Dear Women. The book had a section on styles (I remember military) and colors.

I remember I was shocked and offended at how blatantly gendered it was, the rules of what a girl should and shouldn’t do, even considering that I was taught gendered rules from the early childhood. Girls were that, but boys were this. And even so, the book was blatant above all.

But then of course there were websites and websites of this, magazines, and TV shows. So much wasted time, thought, and energy at watching, selecting, buying, applying, choosing every day, having second thoughts, changing, looking in the mirror, asking others if that suits me.

And I prided myself as a girl altogether ungirly until my late teens. I was never “into it” to begin with, but gradually I was also initiated into everything there is. I know every context. Not only do I know my colors, but I know people’s colors probably better than most of them.

Am I a fashion designer or a beauty specialist? Nope. Do I need to know any of these? Nope. Was I specifically interested in learning any of this stuff? Nope.

 

 

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Anthro Notes: The USA Anthropological Tradition of Despising Quotes from Continental Philosophers and Thinking Them a Sign of Pretend Moral Superiority and What Not

American anthropologists hate it, HATE when the new writers quote so-called “Continental philosophers.” This anthropological scorn is a tradition; it runs from Renato Rosaldo to our days.
The quoting is happening and even considered to be chic, but it is only allowed starting from a certain point in one’s career. I can illustrate my every statement here with quotes and quotes, but you’ll have to wait until I’m older. 😉

In “Grief and a Headhunter’s Rage,” Rosaldo makes a passing deprecating comment of “trendy amalgams of continental philosophy” denouncing the autobiographical snippets in anthropology before embracing his own foray into autobiography.

Recently, I read the article “Tell the Story” about how to write for American Ethnologist, one of the flagman journals in anthropology, and the authors said: “Much of this obfuscation (of the overwrought prose—V.O.) comes in the form of quotations, usually from Continental philosophers and their contemporary interpreters, whether or not their ideas are relevant to the argument.” (2018, 166). While you can’t argue with that, because obviously, the quoted ideas should be relevant to the argument, I couldn’t help thinking of Rosaldo’s “trendy amalgams.”

 

 

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Anthro Notes: Travels

I miss Moscow in Austin and Irkutsk, I miss Irkutsk and Moscow in Austin, and I miss Austin and Irkutsk in Moscow. Balance. I miss the village of Dudarkov and the village of Anosovo everywhere, sometimes in Anosovo. I miss Kiev too. I miss Vladivostok, and I miss Dunay.

I miss London, Venice, and New York. I miss San Fransisco and Saint Petersburg. I miss Sergiyev Possad. I miss Candelaria that is in Tenerife. I miss Rome. I do not miss Madrid though. I do not miss Barcelona nor Helsinki.

I’m not a fan of traveling. Practically everywhere I traveled, I had to rather than wanted to. When I was younger, i enjoyed it more; that’s where my tourist explorations happened, but it’s been many years that I’ve been traveling only for fieldwork and conferences.

I’d like to live my life in one middle-sized place and often wonder what that’d be like, but this was not to be. Oh, but I miss Malgrat de Mar.

 

 

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Anthro Notes: Generational

Gen X must be one of those rare generations that somehow completely missed the moment when they (we) were no longer young. It happened overnight. A joystick switched. Or maybe “we” (it’s also a generation that hates us-ness of all kinds) were already born boring adults? Perhaps.

At least, it’s painful to me to see Millennials still thinking that they’re young, with every self-infantilization and entitlement that it entails, whereas the Gen Z are far from still sucking toes in baby chairs. They’re actually in college. Short is the time of the man on earth.

 

 

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Anthro Notes: Black Hole

Black hole took a selfie.

It carried its invisible hand to its absent face and photographed it.

Humanity is the black hole and the black hole is humanity.

 

 

Friday, April 12, 2019

Anthro Notes: Laughter

I have neighbors who, I suspect, are students, and every Friday, and sometimes on weekends, there are parties at their place, and what astonishes me is that there is always laughter. I forgot when was the time and where I heard so much laughter.

Probably when I was 16 and had parties in Moscow, but they, too, were tragic, everyone read poetry and thought of suicide. And these guys are not 16. Another land.

 

 

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Anthro Notes: April

Beautiful springtime in Texas. Heaps of flowers everywhere. A bit too hot for my tastes. Memories of the cold Moscow April, all that.

 

 

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Anthro Notes: Britney Spears

Idk about your taxonomies, but on the working outskirts of Moscow, in the nightmarish neighborhoods consisting of multistory buildings of the late 1990s, Britney Spears was the sexiest little thing on the planet.

There’s something depressing in the endlessness of the supply of young, aggressively energetic bodies that is humanity in general and mass media in particular.

She endeared herself to me, like to many others, because she had that legendary “mental breakdown” (a manic episode of the bipolar disorder, no doubt–no harm in me speculating about it; I know and wish to know nothing about it, I am fully guided by rumors and my own preconceived notions here).

When the world was at her feet, she went on to having that breakdown–isn’t this cool? There was something so real about it. It placed her immediately in a different category of singers, that later was to include Amy Winehouse.

Rewatching her videos now because she trended on Twitter recently, since she checked herself in a mental hospital again, I could not help but think that there is a place in the Western pantheon of goddesses: golden hair, big eyes (Britney was special because her eyes were brown, not blue), Barbie-like childish face and fully developed feminine figure: a lot of successful climbers of the Olympus were undoubtedly indebted of their triumphs to their agreeable exterior.

The divine place could never be empty, Russian saying goes: svyato mesto pusto ne bivayet. People inhabit this place with less and more certainty and right, they can be more and less talented. Public enviously accuses them of mediocrity with more and less ground, like Taylor Swift and other deities–but never ceases to reaffirm the agreeable candidates in these invisible but tangible positions.

 

 

Monday, April 15, 2019

Anthro Notes: Not All Men

Men are kind, warm, sensitive, sympathetic, strong, supportive, generous, ready to give you the last drop of their blood, smart, funny, smell beautifully, delightful, entrancing, exquisite, gorgeous, stunning, deep, powerful, and did I mention funny?

Not all men, of course. Not all men.

 

 

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Anthro Notes: Curling Hair

I’m mesmerized by the ad where several strange white American women curl their hair. Every time I see it, on Facebook and Instagram alike, I’m hypnotized. Sure I’m targeted because of my sex. There’s something sinister about the process of sitting there methodically curling hair.

I’m not wording it properly, but is this not a weird activity? I know many women do it, I did it too several times. I don’t know how to explain it, but suddenly it looks very weird to me. I guess the watching of the ad has the effect of weirding you out.

I suppose if that was an ad of a toothbrush, brushing teeth would also appear strange to me. When you pause your mind on ordinary procedures that we do to our bodies, the ordinariness trembles and gaps and opens an abyss beneath.

 

 

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Anthro Notes: Na Zdorovie

Whoever told your gullible ass that “na zdorovie” is a Russian toast, was clueless and cruelly deceived you.

The host says “Na zdorovie” after you eat and thank them: “Spasibo.” Never as a toast, like, literally not once in the entire Russian-speaking world. Only in America and alike places.

The alternative Russian language of people also believing that Russian has two different alphabets.

 

 

Friday, April 19, 2019

Anthro Notes: Classics

I am particularly lucky to give lectures on: Judith Butler, Renato Rosaldo, Bronislaw Malinowski, Clifford Geertz, and Benjamin Lee Whorf. I could only have hoped about such a privilege. I would like to give lectures on Deleuze and Guattari, Foucault, Barthes, and Derrida, too.

I could have included fewer contemporaneous writers and more classics in my course, but I feel like it’d be too boring. There needs to be a balance. Social sciences change quickly.

What was written in the last century is archaic.

 

 

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Anthro Notes: Show Don’t Tell

(From the excesses of the writing assignments I give students):

Paint a picture with words (It’s when instead of “he was very beautiful,” the author writes: “a young man in green slacks studied a menu, a lock falling on his forehead”).

 

 

Monday, April 22, 2019

Anthro Notes: Already Seen

Not to be surprised, but Facebook has the option of searching in posts that you’ve already seen, and it just showed me the post by someone from 2012. So this data was collected from back then. I can’t help but be impressed. So the browsers where you “delete” your history…

In the time immemorial, Zuckerberg expressed a sentiment that is shared by owners of some questionable website that, if one has multiple accounts to interact with one community (i.e. on one platform), one must be dishonest and/or has something to hide. Maybe so, maybe not, but it also makes it more difficult to make coherent sense out of one human identity for corporations, that is partially why (but not only) I’ve always had multiple accounts on all social media that I graced with my luminous presence.

 

 

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Anthro Notes: Uber Ride

Every Uber ride is a world in and of itself.

Today, I was riding with a driver who showed me her artwork. She was carving stone and produced a gigantic egg out of stone that she was showing me excitedly in a video on Instagram and missed the right turn. She was wearing dark eyeglasses,

introduced herself confidently as an artist, and was going to apply for residencies and workshops, but first had to build her website (because she was also art curator and an organizer of exhibitions), but that was in the future because she had to drive Uber full time

and that was ugly that capitalism makes artists to work like that instead of doing creative stuff that they really wanted to do, and didn’t I agree? I agreed wholeheartedly. Was I also an artist? I wasn’t; I didn’t have that much talent. A lot of people who didn’t think

that they had talent but who appreciated art were artists at heart, so how long was I living in Austin? I’d lived in Austin for something like seven years. I was from Russia. Actually, that was exactly what my driver intended to do with her life, meaning, she was going to go

to some other country, not the country of her origin, and live there because travel inspired artists and she would be in a position to trust herself in a totally different culture that spoke a different language, and wasn’t this my destination? This indeed was my destination, and I wished her best in her artistic pursuits.

 

 

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Anthro Notes: Ringing

Yesterday during a group conversation discussing serious issues my phone started dinging with messages and because it’s a new phone I had trouble diminishing the sound (the button silencing the phone did not produce, to my surprise, the desired effect). I asked them to keep quiet (well, truth be told I wrote, shut up I am dinging at a meeting), and they gleefully proceeded to send me joking messages after that. I momentarily plunged into a rage and finally was blessed with the idea to turn the phone off. Later, I apologized to the speaker, but I could feel the heat of humiliation in my face.

 

 

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Anthro Notes: Social Media and Affective Attachments

Imagine I’ve been writing on Facebook for the previous 8 years (2011-2019). What a damned joke. Zuckerberg owes the writers of my generation a reparation for making us write for our aunts and uncles (sure, I love mine). That was not the vision we had in the 1990s.

I’ve one of my biggest audiences on Facebook (*exasperated emoji*), and for the Russian-speaking audiences this is one of the still-indispensable social media outlet (*another exasperated emoji*).

The Groundhog Day forever. When I just came to the web, I quickly gained 500 followers on LiveJournal, and a lot of my professional contacts came with it. Yet now it’s 2019, and I still have 500 followers on Twitter. As Oushakine said about the Russian period of “transition,” achievements do not translate into a life-long success worthy of efforts.

Sure, I also changed the language of writing, a country of living, had a child meanwhile and wrote a number of books, but it’s still not satisfying at all, and some responsibility for it lies in the field of what is beyond my control (can be called “the politics of social media”)

The interesting thing about social media is that people get affectively attached to the platforms, despite having only several behemoth platforms, and you cannot really transpose your audience from one place to another at least until a certain point is reached.

Another thing about social media is that writing on social media is inevitably a metacommentary on writing on social media. But, if we are to consider centuries of writing on paper, we’ll be in a position to recall hundreds of examples of metacommentary on writing on paper.

(As well as the typewriter and so on and so on, the medium of writing was always a subject of writing).

Even though the social media are ephemeral (they lose relevance after a time), they still seem to be doing not worse and maybe better than plenty of more traditional outlets thanks to what any Western journalist would judgementally call a “regime” and to other circumstances.

Whatever; everything is going to be eaten by the silent darkness.

 

 

Friday, April 26, 2019

Anthro Notes: Atwood and Phones

I saw a company of people in the street. They all were staring in their phones. I was thinking about words by Margaret Atwood that over time people will stop looking at their phones just as they stopped (well…) gazing at the tv-screen and listening to portable transistors.

When I heard this, I was skeptical, and I remain skeptical now. How could one lost interest in what is a tv-screen, radio, a book, a writing table, a photo camera, and a lot of other different things? Unless something conceptually different and better (perhaps more immersive,

more encompassing) comes to substitute phones, phones are not going to go anywhere. It’s been years now we’ve been observing people staring in their phones intently. Margaret Atwood might be right about phones after all, but this is a remote futuristic vision.

 

 

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Anthro Notes: Star Wars

I wonder what role Star Wars play in the shit that unfolds today and every day in the USA.

Zizek had an interesting rant about it.

He offered to read Star Wars as if the opposite was true: bad guys were good guys and vice versa. For a mental exercise. Just in order to think a little outside of the box. I continue insisting that Star Wars was about the Cold War. But now it’s something else entirely.

Yet it is still a movie about the American exceptionalism. No exceptions to the rule according to which all the dreams produced by the corporation of imperialist dreams are just that.

 

 

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Anthro Notes: The Arcades Project

Imagine The Arcades project at the time when the computer and electronic libraries already existed though. Instead of just one several-hundred-page volume that manages to include a number of earlier versions, the reader would’ve had several-hundred-volume work at their disposal.

 

 

Monday, April 29, 2019

Anthro Notes: Author’s Prerogative in Interpretation

Why is everyone insisting on the tragic reading of the story “Baby shoes for sale never worn” just because the author said it is tragic? What prerogative in interpretation does he have? It’s a standard situation for many who ever had a baby.

Babies grow up so fast that shoes (that babies don’t need because they don’t walk and that parents buy for their own amusement) often end up being never worn, just tried on a couple of times at most.

 

 

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Anthro Notes: Being-in-the-World

Being-in-the-world beyond the “in and out” of slippages in language, beyond self-imposition of concepts, is hardly possible for us, language creatures. A tinge of speech always trembles at the periphery of one’s mind, nudging to stain even the ever-so-not-pristine soundscape of nature with an unneeded sign of admiration. Even in solitude, we are never but with ourselves–always in a continuation of the multiplicity of dialogs, always bearing in mind shreds and fragments of what has and has not been uttered.

 

 

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Anthro Notes: Time and Writing

The most important part of writing for me time, but not the tracking of the time spent writing or even time that you always try to find for writing and that is always lacking, but the time that passes in between the versions of the manuscript. It is so necessary for the time to pass in order for the author to see the flaws. I like forgetting my writing, but the constraints of time (again), the system of deadlines makes it so difficult to give yourself the most important time: the time between revisions when you do not, in fact, revise or revisit the text.

 

 

Thursday, May 3, 2019

Anthro Notes: Of Vanity

I need to stop being so vain. The later I get my English books out the better. Ideally, I would get them out after death. The second best option is in ten years, and not “now”—as I want—in a year or two. Realistically. I must prove that I have not been so patient for nothing, and I must work on the manuscripts as long as I can, instead of shortcutting and calling it a day. I should resist this culture demanding you to produce fruits before you can get your leaves unfolded.

~

These notes are more personal than professional, intimate rather than written for a collective, but it’s been a joy to compose them.

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Elizabeth de Marigny Asked Me Questions

Graduate Student Spotlight: Vasilina Orlova

Thu, February 8, 2018
Graduate Student Spotlight: Vasilina Orlova

The Department of Anthropology is excited to share the following interview with Graduate Student Vasilina Orlova, conducted by Elizabeth de Marigny. We will continue to highlight the amazing works our students are doing, in Austin and around the world, a few times each semester.

Your work in Siberia focuses on the lives of people living in settlements that you refer to as “stranded communities.” Can you tell us a little about these settlements, and the people who inhabit these places? Why call them “stranded communities?”

The term “stranded communities” is not mine, and I do not refer to the communities of my study as “stranded.” But this is a term in circulation; that is why I brought it up. The Economist discussed “stranded communities” in Scranton, Pennsylvania. I used this term, because it is illustrative of the “chronocentrism” that is a part of the discourse on territories of daily struggle. What I call “chronocentrism” is something that works in parallel with ethnocentrism- a notion that some places live in the present whereas others fall behind and maintain some version of the past. That there are countries, regions, and zones left behind as progress advances elsewhere. This is deeply embedded in the discourse of what progress means and its perception as an ultimate good. The term “stranded communities” demonstrates that in the U.S., not only are some foreign nations perceived to be some sort of backwater place left behind in the process of modernization, but also that within certain political imaginaries, portions of the U.S. are seen as left behind. These political imaginaries are imbued with all kinds of class-based feelings and resentments that are expressed in both subtle and obvious “othering” practices, or to put it another way, there is an idea that “we” are directed into the future, whereas “they” are stuck in the past and should be helped or taken into the future by force. My research works against these ideas and notions, against the brutal social evolutionism and fast-discourse approaches. My research draws parallels between the U.S. and certain Siberian communities, where in both cases, individuals lost their livelihood when places ceased to be economically productive. In the capitalist and post-Socialist worlds, the processes that result in community hardships are different. I refer to these differences as “developed-capitalism processes” that are characteristic of the U.S., and “restarted-after-the-Socialist-period-capitalist processes” that are unique to Russia.

For example, the villages along the Angara River lost a significant portion of the state-provided support that they received during the Soviet period. They also lost or are on the brink of losing the natural resources that provided a way of life for a much longer period than the Soviet Era. The Siberian villages in my study are situated in the taiga, a dense pine forest. Russian settlements began there in the seventeenth century. Whether settlers from Russia had a state-building task or not, they worked towards the establishment of the Russian Empire. The taiga was an endless source of productive resources that provided for the livelihoods of a diverse population. These resources included animals for furs and meat, medicinal plants and edible mushrooms, the wood that can be used in the development of the timber industry and for the construction of homes. But these resources were not endless, and in 2008 the lespromkhoz (a timber enterprise) in the village of Anosovo was disbanded. By that time the forest as people knew it was also gone, although for my eye, as a city dweller, the forest is still dense. An old hunter described to me that the realization of the change came when he realized that the birds that once inhabited the taiga were no longer waking him up at the early morning when he was away from the village for hunting and sleeping in his hut.

The places that I am working are the places of hard living. Right now, two of the three diesel generators in the village of Anosovo are out of order. And yet, life goes on. This illustrates how what would typically be considered an emergency situation is actually an ordinary occurrence within these places. So, my question is how- how does life go on? What directions and forms does it take?

This research is interesting because it uses the day-to-day lives and decisions made by individuals living in these settlements as a lens to try and understand how attachments to place make people stay. How are you conducting your fieldwork, and what have you learned or encountered thus far?

My project explores the fates of the people who continue to live in settlements devoid of state support, industrial settlements in Siberia. I ask how people navigate the disrupted infrastructures of the Soviet period, and how the material world and environment facilitate making decisions, particularly the decisions regarding mobility-moving in and out of places. My methodology employs participant observation, open-ended interviews, and documenting oral histories. My research uses visual anthropology methods such as photo-aided elicitation of narratives. My interest in this topic really began when I first visited the village of Anosovo in the Irkutsk District in 2006, but I did not know at the time that it would become the focus of my research. Historically, Anosovo emerged in its present form with the construction of the Bratsk hydroelectric dam. The Bratsk dam was the most powerful dam in the world at the time of its construction in 1954-1961. Its construction displaced villages, which were relocated but left without electricity. My father was born in one of these villages, and he lived in Anosovo as a child. He and his mother, my grandmother, moved away after the death of her husband. So I have this intimate family connection to Anosovo, it was a Siberian place that would not let me go. In 2013 I revisited and found that the children I met in 2006 had become young adults, that some people stayed, but many had left or died. During the 2016 and 2017 summers I again returned to Anosovo to conduct fieldwork supported by the McWilliams Fellowship and several professional development awards from the Center for Russian, Eastern European, and Eurasian Studies, and the Department of Anthropology.

What I expected to hear in the narratives was a strong nostalgic sense of the Soviet past. Its history during the Soviet era is complex, where prosperity and relocation are felt as layers of nostalgia for the lost world. What I have found is somewhat expected, but I also learned through the stories I heard in Anosovo and what I witnessed is that people reflect a lot on their prospects, on the future, on their plans. And a lot of these plans were connected to moving somewhere, but occasionally there were vows of never leaving this land- an expression of attachment. To me, Anosovo is a place of freedom. In all the hardships that people face, a remote Siberian village is also an image of a green future, of self-sustainability that people have been talking about for so long. People find their ways of belonging, of relating; they create, inhabit, and switch identities. One of the arguments that I am making in my work is that we need to quit thinking about the collapse of the USSR as an event that took place, and begin to take it as a dynamic process that goes on. This collapse will take about as much time as we can imagine. For the next hundred years we are going to be talking about it, returning to it. But it does not mean that we are going to be stuck with all the paradigms and beliefs that we now entertain. So, the question is: what is really going on? Where is the language to talk about it and name things?

Under the Global Research Fellowship, my goal for the 2018 summer is to collect narratives of mobility that I can then summarize and analyze. To get to Anosovo I will fly from Austin to Moscow, then fly to Irkutsk, which is a four-hour journey. From there I will travel for eight hours on a minibus and a river tram to Anosovo. This journey will take 24 hours, taking me to the opposite end of the world from Austin, when I fall asleep in Anosovo, Austin will be waking up. What I have learned from these travels is that some people go to Anosovo and to abandoned villages, like the village of Karda near Anosovo, to escape the relative comfort of city life. This is put into perspective when you realize that Karda formally ceased to exist in 2008, it is no longer shown on maps. But some people choose to live there, in the officially-non-existent village in the taiga.

One of your many interests as an anthropologist is digital self-representation through selfies. Have you noticed differences or patterns in the ways people present themselves? Are there specific forms of digital self-representation that are unique to one culture, but not others?

I think this is one of the advantages of the anthropological tool kit: once you have it, you can use it for many things. Some of the fieldwork that I am doing is also in the U.S. I have been living in the U.S. for 7 years, but everything is still strange for me here, as opposed to Siberia, where many things are intimately familiar even though I was born in the Russian Far East and grew up in Moscow. The anthropologist is in a position to occupy a space in two or more cultures and be socially fluent in every world they inhabit while retaining an inner distance from each. Selfie-taking practice is very gendered and is subjected to gendered critique. It is a global practice that, I believe, has more similarities across cultures than differences. A lot of content on social media is in the form of selfies, and a lot of selfies are taken in a way where you cannot even tell where the shot was snapped. It could be Irkutsk, or Moscow, or San Francisco. What becomes important is the body, telling of gender, race, age, sometimes, often pointedly, class and the ways the body signals many ways of belonging, affiliation, or affinity. But there are cultural differences for sure, Dress, hair, clothing- it is all important. Surroundings, as much as they are in the selfie, a landscape or an interior, become a context to read a person. A gym signals “I work out,” or a car says “look, I am mobile,” or a pet weaponized as a means of building trust on a dating site- “I have a dog, therefore, I am a nice guy.” The media theorist Theresa M. Senft offered the term “microcelebrity” describing such a phenomenon as the “instafamous”- people becoming famous for being known. Famous for being famous. Fame is an achievement in its own right and merits no further confirmations; fame could, in the “attention economy” exist on its own. You don’t have to write books to become famous or create music, or be a movie star. To take selfies is enough. While not everyone achieves this status, those who efficiently emulate celebrities, have a chance.

In Anosovo you would not be surprised to learn that there is no such infrastructure for a universally accessible Internet connection. There is one spot that gives Wi-Fi away for free, and in the evening around the spot, on a bench, you see people staring into their smartphones, as you would observe them any other place in the world. But the selfie-taking practice does not make sense in the absence of the environment that affords for an intermittent and ubiquitous interconnectedness. People do take selfies though. What I have learned is that essentially is you give a human a photo camera, they are going to snap a self portrait. Therefore, the cultural critique that is built around selfie practices as being superficial, vain- that Millennials indulge in because of their self-conceit, is in fact rather superficial and indulgent. On another note, but one that is relevant to make my point, I have a memorial of selfies from one girl who died in Anosovo at the age of 14. Her page on a Russian social media site is the only document she shared throughout her short life, and she shared it with the rest of the world. How is that not worthy of appreciation?

Part of your work in Siberia explores how people’s networks of social relations extend past their town. What are these social networks- are they made up of friends, family, employers? How are these relationships maintained, and is there any conflict?

One thing that I realized in thinking through this project and research is that remoteness does not mean the absence of mobility. On the contrary, people can live a sedentary life should they so desire, but there is a lot of travel and moving around. For everything, like buying wallpaper for your new home, or seeing a dentist, you have to travel- and in this case, travel becomes an adventure in its own right. For example, there is a mooring in Anosovo where people gather to meet their friends and relatives, or during their own departure and arrival. It is one of the most important places for community gatherings and exchange of news, greetings, rumors- things that need to be passed to someone, good, and so on. That Anosovo keeps diminishing in population means that the network of those who stayed has actually expanded. Some of the human connections are fleeting, and some are strong and are maintained over great distances for decades. The older generation tends to rely on paper correspondence, but this is also difficult. I learned that it is impossible to send a post card from Anosovo. The old building that was the post office burned down, so the post is now in a banya, and there are no post cards. It may seem trivial, and probably it has been awhile since you have sent or received one, but imagine a world where you are deprived of this simple possibility. So there is this clear divide between generations, and in the way that they maintain their connections, but the ability to communicate in either way is still difficult.

From what you have seen in your fieldwork, do forms of digital self-representation play a role in maintaining these networks of social relations?

Digital activities in Anosovo do not play as much of a role as they play in Austin or in Moscow. You’re definitely not going to be excluded from some events there if you don’t have a Facebook account. In Russia, the most popular social networks are Odoklassniki and Vkontakte. I am in connection with many of my younger interlocutors in the field through Vkontakte. They are all absent from Facebook, remarkably. But my Moscow friends are overwhelmingly using Facebook. There is a certain divide between how Russian villages, small towns, and big cities are represented on this social-network map. But you know how places like Anosovo may skip a moment of everyone’s connection via telephone. Technology is visceral and worked into a body, it is also an embodied practice. For example, the first thing that I and people who used spiral-cord telephone receivers do is press it to my ear, lift my shoulder and hold the receiver squeezed between my shoulder and head. It is a gesture that I do automatically. It allows you to free your hands and do something while you’re still talking on the phone. People who did not spend as much time as I did with this form of telephone that now belong to the past do not do this gesture automatically. Anosovo did not have a central telephony. They have satellite phones here and there, but not in every household. And because of the remittent Internet connection, where not everyone is initiated into it, you have to agree on things in person. I have found this to be strangely invigorating- you begin to suddenly plan your time, and you know you don’t have an option to drop out at the last second. The Internet made even short-term contracts impossible. But I have found that you have to learn and re-learn how to navigate these different ways of communication.

I imagine there is a tension between old and new (technologically, generationally, socially) in these towns. Is this true? How does this tension challenge an individual’s decision to remain or leave, and what are the effects it has on individual and community identity?

What constitutes such a big decision as whether to leave or stay (and the “stay” decision is also a decision which is reaffirmed every day) is a complex factoring out of many things. And these things are not easy to separate from one another.

I see two main tensions between generations in post-Soviet spaces in general: one of them is along the time divide related to the Soviet era. Those who were alive during the Soviet Era, who participated and were active in practices specific to that time, have a different set of bodily experiences. Those who were born in 1988 or later did not experience that world at an age when they could account for themselves. From one side the disruption of continuity was dramatic, with borders emerging all over the place- not only state borders, but social borders as well, no less policed or more penetrable. It was a process lived through by active individuals. It reverberated through their family relations and their relationships with their loved ones. It resulted in friendships ruined and new social circles acquired. Sets of beliefs collapsed, and new ideas emerged. But on the other side, it is not that the next day suddenly all the daycares in the Soviet Union had different people caring for the same children. A trajectory continued through multiple disruptions: ethic conflicts, family dramas, parents losing jobs, committing suicide, and so on. Life goes on. The shift in the state governance happened alongside the technological revolution. And in this case revolution is not too strong a word to call the advent of personal computers and mobile phones coming into almost everyone’s possession. We are talking about dramatic changes here. In fact, in 2012, the historian Donald Raleigh published a wonderful book titled The Soviet Baby Boomers: An Oral History of Russia’s Cold War Generation. Geographically, Moscow and Saratov “baby boomers” who were the subjects of Raleigh’s book do not represent the Soviet baby boomers as an entity (the USSR consisted of 15 Republics). But I wonder if there should be a book on The Post-Soviet Millennials– this would be a charming hybrid. Precisely because of this hybridity it makes perfect sense. We speak about social categories in the language that we think we understand, even if in the process of speaking many things are lost in translation not only cross-culturally, but also within the language. The translation is impossible, but it also happens all the time. Misunderstanding is a potentially productive way of understanding.

 

Source: The University of Texas at Austin, department of anthropology website. February 8, 2018.

Narcissus Taking a Selfie

I posted on academia.edu my short playful writing on selfies. it is currently under consideration in one new anthropological internet venue; I have not heard from them for a while. I first presented my selfie project at John Hartigan’s class last year as a talk, and here is finally a writing:

Selfie in the Interior: Narcissism and Its Cultural Critique

“Persistency of mirrors is known to everyone as a quality of re-demonstrating a looker, always, to the looker. Narcissism, “destined to oneself” (Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, 1968, 249, quoted by Derrida, Memoirs of the Blind, University of Chicago Press, 1993), is the plague of the modern times, critics fear. Self-portrait in the time of proliferation and ubiquity of technology emerges on a verge of narcissism and cultural critique of narcissism, as [that] what appears to be a result of the collaborative struggle between two discourses, disproving and supporting each other. The cultural critique of narcissism is a Narcissus itself: it is undetachable from the object at which it looks. Whenever Narcissus turns, it is always Narcissus that he sees. Whenever the conversation about selfies starts, inevitably someone points out or implies that it’s a morally questionable enterprise. (“Self portrait of NN knows it,” Derrida would have said.) Yet… What is there to be painted except for self-portrait? What is there to be taken if not selfie?”

Selfie is an ideal ruin. For tomorrow self is dead.

Archeology of the Robotic

The archeology of robots unfolds robotic creatures as an object traversing spaces and time; humanoid robots are nostalgic objects. Employing Donna Haraway’s (1991) notion of cyborg, I ask where is the division between human and non-human, alive and dead, animate and inanimate, is situated now, in the anthropocene eschatologies? Where do we transgress these digressions, with our fascination with phones, which create the affect of interconnectedness with the world but simultaneously alienate us from what might be called “real” experiences of presence? How do we interact with robots?

The phones and other devices, starting with electronic pet prosthesically standing for the figure of lack and allowing to become a caregiver of nonbiological entity, like Tamagotchi (Allison, 2006, 2013), account for our fascination with self-representation online, including the practices of selfie-taking and checking-in-ing in the places visited and consumed. By constructing identity through the means of sharing and reblogging and thus co-authoring of the content, we are thoroughly less (or more) or rather otherly human than we were but twenty years ago.

However, robots already existed at the time, if not constructed, than envisioned. They went through the epochs changing appearances, gender, and sexuality: androgynous, manifestly feminine, like early “maids,” and exageratedly masculine, like transformers from the planet Cybotron. Racially, contemporary robots are overwhelmingly “white,” which corresponds with the politics of racializations and power dynamics.

Cyborgs emerge as a response to disability in cases of the transplantation of artificial heart or employing prostheses. Robots still belong to the future, yet they visibly mark our presence. The transformative power of the machines, toys, gadgets, tools, has been long employed by humans in order to enhance the capacities of the body and increase production of goods. Humanoid robots were envisioned as forms intendedly anthropomorphic, and pet robots are often caninomorhic (see BigDog).

The feeling of mysterious horror, which robots excessively resembling humans, trigger, is known as uncanny valley; a poetic and space-related metaphor. This is the affective state where curiosity, fear, dread, and denial are mixed together.

Robots challenge our understanding of moral and become the subjects in courts, changing practices of law and producing precedents (Calo, 2016). Robotic disembodied voices, like Siri, are interrogated by users to fulfill erotic fantasies, and become the absolute geisha in the frustrated dreamworlds of unattainable desires.

Robots explore the surfaces of planets and depths of the oceans, are used in military actions, droids become the ideal apparatus of surveillance embodying state sovereignty, driverless cars and planes provoke fear, spell checkers influence writing, ubiquitous video cameras entice paranoia, agglomeration of devices serve as the machinery of collective memory and archives. This is the nascent world we are inhabiting, technology creating infrastructure and shaping interactions merging public and private into what I would call pubvate. As is often the case, while science, computational and engineering technologies build towards creation of the anthropomorphic robot, the quick, liquid imagination of mass culture generated tremendous amounts of multifarious robotic creatures.

Robots are hypothesized to replace the whole clusters of human laborers which were previously considered within the realm of human creative genius, such as doctors (Cohn, 2013) and translators, and even writers, lately, with a program having written a novel metapragmatically called “The Day A Computer Writes A Novel.” As during the industrialization the machines had replaced the weavers, dispossessing human workers, the new wave of technologization might dispossess the new clusters of workers. Additionally, biomimicking robots start replacing animal agents in scientific research, including medicinal. What does the world of the future look like, with the the increasing presence of robots and humans’ drift towards becoming more cyborgian, and how this vision of the future influences and shapes our presence?

References

Haraway, Donna. A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late 20th Century. Springer Netherlands, 2006.

Allison, Anne. Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination. University of California Press, 2006

Allison, Anne. Precarious Japan. Durham and London, Duke University Press, 2013

Calo, Ryan. Robots in American Law. Talk at the University of Texas in Austin, 3/22/2016

Cohn, Jonathan. “The Robot Will See You Now.” The Atlantic, March 2013. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2013/03/the-robot-will-see-you-now/309216/ [retrieved 4/2/2016]

Selfie: Politics and Poetics of Self-Representation