Great Expectations

Because I received the Global Research Fellowship, I am planning and actively preparing for my final fieldwork research for the dissertation during the summer of 2018 and possibly beyond. I am planning, as of yet, to depart the USA in the early May.

By that time, my new book Antropologia povsednevnosti (The Anthropology of the Everydayness), forthcoming from Noocratia (Noocracy) publishing house in Moscow, should be out. (I should still proofread it and to send the publisher my wishes regarding the cover.) The publisher, Stanislav Ivanov, known by the Russian reading public under the pseudonym Zoran Pitich, is planning a small presentation of the book in the Tsiolkovsky bookstore in Moscow.

I will go then, in June, to Siberia for my final round of fieldwork for the dissertation. I am going, from what it looks now, to linger in Siberia throughout the fall semester of 2018; I am very much looking forward to the extended period of fieldwork.

In December, I will be back to the States for the ASEEES 50th annual convention in Boston. I participate in a roundtable on Russian literature and gender that Olia Breininger and Susanna Weygandt organize. Additionally, or perhaps most importantly, I should say, I am going to present on a panel that Alexandra Simonova and I are putting together. Our panel is titled Politics of Belonging for Hybrid Identities: in the Shadow of the Soviet Sublime, and I am going to give a presentation titled “Affective Infrastructures and Mobility: the Soviet Sublime, post-Soviet Concrete, and post-post-Soviet Recursion.”

As for the American Anthropological Association gathering, I will likely record a video, as the AAA gathers in November, and to arrange a Skype presentation from a Siberian village… will be difficult. For the AAA, Rick Smith and I are currently putting together the panel The Apocalypse Я Us.

Let’s see if everything I am thinking about will come to fruition. I am currently working on several writing projects: one is a rest from the other, and the other is a rest from the third. I have to write and read all the time, and I discovered the way to be on top of each of these things. You cannot spend 12 hours a day on each of them anyway. Therefore, you can rotate them and refresh one of them with the ideas that come to you while you are working on another.

Meanwhile, I have updated my website with visual essays–please check them out; I have American Dream and Abandoned Mansion posted, the fruits of my restless roaming through Texas.

 

In the photo: a stream flowing into the Angara River that I snapped in 2006

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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.

My New, Image-Centered, Website, and Other Events

Yielding to the ever-increasing pressure of taking care of the self-representation online, I have opened a website. The difference of this website from my other web-incarnations is that finally the photograph, the image, moves at the center of attention pushing the previously-reigning text to the margin. And although this shift is deceptive (since the text is still a leading figure in every image / word struggle), it, nonetheless, has happened there.

Here is the link: https://vasilinaorlova.weebly.com/ Please include it into your bookmarks; I am going to enrich the website, this blog, and the plenitude of my other projects, including articles and essays, with new and new images and episodes. I am writing my way towards telling a big story of the place and time.

I am particularly excited at finding a way to reflect on motherhood and how it affects one’s perception of the field: https://vasilinaorlova.weebly.com/research-assistant.html, but I also for the first time publish the portions of my CV and make public more details on my current project that I insofar did.

The Spring semester of 2018 I am a TA for the course Photographic Image. Professor Craig Campbell teaches it. All things visual anthropology happen to happen to me lately, and I greet them all.

Commisioned by a Russian publisher, I spent the winter break on putting together a book of my Siberian travelogues in Russian. The book is titled Antropologia povsednevnosti (Anthropology of the Everydayness), and it is a literary pursuit more than a “scientific” one. As I had an opportunity to argue already (here and here) the ethnography and the travelogue are literary genres, and, as such, a good execution of any of these forms is also a good literature.

In the photo: a fragment of the interior in Valentin Rasputin’s house in Atalanka. I visited the house in 2013, and was endlessly impressed with its supreme austerity

116th American Anthropological Association Meeting in Washington, D.C.

This year’s anthropological meeting was productive; I like big gatherings; usually, I receive there notes and feedbacks that I am able to incorporate in my work because they are dense, to the point, and affirmative. Anthropology and science in general, particularly social science, but also its humanitarian incarnation, the socio-cultural anthropology, tend to come to any fruition (if they do) as collaborative processes, despite their continual stressing of the role of the author. We’re still privileging the singular, sole author, as opposed to some other branches of anthropology that are more explicit in doing things collaboratively–the socio-cultural anthropology is no exception; it is also a 100% collaborative process.

I participated in the 116th AAA with two projects that are linked in ways more numerous that I will be able to articulate in this quick blog post. It will suffice to say for the time being that they should end up as parts of my dissertation. Both these projects emerge out of my Siberian explorations; my interests in the phenomenological side of the materialities of the world; my suspicion that such materialities are mutable and multiple; and also from my interest in people and from me asking and re-asking the questions: How do I tell stories? How do I convey things I saw? How do I transport this audience, this group of people, this listener, this reader, into my own world, which incidentally, at least in part, is an unequivocally Siberian world?

My first presentation came out of the episode which I had been hoping to run in a group of anthropologists for a while. I wrote it down almost entirely right after these episodes had transpired. Yet it took me two years to work through some theory pertaining to that day, to two episodes / two encounters. The theory is there to make it all make sense, as it were.

The piece is about a never-completed architectural project, the Palace of Pioneers in Bratsk, and fantasies and ideas unfolding around it and in proximity to it. Two years is not the end of thinking about one day; this piece continues to be a work in process.

The piece is titled In Proximity of Ruins: Haunted Space and the Mutant Fantasy.

Here is the link to an MP3 recording of the presentation.

(The first one minute and a half of the recording is a lovely murmur of papers and a little bit of commotion; I considered cutting this part but then decided to leave it as is for the sake of a sensorial affect of presence).

The panel where I gave this presentation, is the result of a much-cherished friendship of mine–of an intellectual partnership, a connection between my colleague, the anthropologist Rick Smith and me. The panel was titled Summoning the Past: Contestations of Matter, Space, and Time in the Reproduction of State Power. The concentration on summoning, bringing together matter, space, and time, all in a focus of how the state uses these parameters of the “reality” in view of the reproduction of state power, had allowed us to bring together scholars from different, sometimes perceived as far-flung, wings of the discipline. I find such get-togethers particularly generative in terms of ideas and in terms of acquiring the new angles on the same matters.

We were extremely lucky to have Doctor Eben Kirksey, whose presence as a discussant on our panel was very welcome. Dr. Kirksey was extremely generous in providing the much-needed feedback.

It was an honor to present alongside with Rick Smith, Magdalena Stawkowski (whose work I use in my piece), Mary J Weismantel, and also to have Joanna Radin on our panel, who regretfully could not grace us with her physical presence, but whose amazing presentation Dr. Kirksey delivered himself. I am looking forward to seeing, reading, learning always more about, as well as celebrating the works, of all the participants on our panel.

picturebyCraigCampbell

Craig Campbell took this snapshot, a photographic evidence of the (already) past. In the picture: Dr. Rick Smith and I

My second presentation at AAA 2017 was titled Life and Death in a Siberian Village, and this is one of my favorite projects.

Here is a link to an MP3 recording of this presentation.

I will not upload the visual component of this presentation as I am going to convert it into a photo essay.

This is a project of handwriting that my scientific advisor, anthropologist Craig Campbell, prompted and encouraged me to do.

The curatorial collective Writing With Light put together a two-part roundtable. A diverse group of artists, photographers, visual and multimedia scholars, and anthropologists presented their projects where text and photography, sound and image, language and… language–come together to generate a bunch of different, often complex and ripe with tensions, relationships. It is with great interest that I observed the photo-essays in progress by participants of the roundtable.

I am grateful to Kate Schneider and Camilo Leon-Quijano for their insightful comments on my essay.

Writing With Light

I am presenting a photo essay at the Writing With Light event at the American Anthropological Association meeting. I selected photographs. It’s only an eight-minute presentation. Photos will switch by themselves every 10 seconds. 48 photos in total.

These pictures I’ve been collecting over one decade. I’ve been to the village of Anosovo in 2006, 2013, 2016, and 2017. I collected a visual archive.

Some of these pictures are profound. Not because I am a photographer; I am not. But because of what is in them. They are grand, for the sake of their subjects. And some of the people in the pictures are no longer among the living.

There will never be a text that will match and do justice to the amazing world I was lucky to witness. I am humbled by the grandeur of the transience, evident in every “now,” and the future of Siberia is sublime.

I called the collection “Life and Death in a Siberian Village.” And the simpler will be the words, the better.

Field Notes, Summer of 2017 in Siberia

During this summer I spent as much time as it was possible in Siberia. I brought notes from there, that I now offer to your attention. I hope to work on the photographs that I took; some of my best shots were taken there this year.

Without further ado, Stenography of the Itinerary on the Academia.edu.

“Suddenly (and I have to fly tomorrow) I am not excited to go to “the field,” which is also “home.” The distance is never a stable measure. The distance grows. With time, it deepens. I am clinging to things: a kerchief that I have not been wearing for months, I definitely need to take it with me. All the colorful pens. All these books I have not finished. The pages of handwriting I did not have time to type; I am spending the last day before the departure trying to determine what I might be missing the next day. A futile wonder. I will miss nothing in particular and everything at once, but I probably will also be too occupied with what immediately arises in my sight to ponder over anything that I have left.

My phone is suddenly broken, of all things–my phone, which prosthetic qualities are never as evident as they are now, when it is not “here,” out of order. I suspect that I inhabit the screen: Evernote, messengers, colorful icons of familiar apps–icons and anchors of familiarity itself. To go without the phone, a false body member, is to be derived of the instrument, of techne, of the possibility of art, which is only available through technology. To have a new phone on the eve of flying from one country of another is more like changing planets. Now I will have to spend at least two hours and likely more recalling all the passwords that open myself to myself.

Derrida doubtlessly did not anticipate the development of technology which by a peculiar twist favors writing–for the first time in human history writing seems ubiquitous, everyone is writing, it is not going to last long, I think, when the advance of video will take over. Derrida issues old-fashionable laments on the death of love letters (as a genre) that he predicts tirelessly in his own love letters–little did he know. He would have been thrilled by sexting.

Itineraries deprive one of that little sense of home which one might possibly have after having moved from one hemisphere to the other. Every travel is a little bit of death, death foreshadowed, half-disclosed, hinted, promised–a rehearsal of how you’ll leave everything at once on a certain day to come. The inevitability of it is monotonous: it is not the event itself but the inescapability of it which is gruesome. To think about all the orphaned objects you will leave, and of the facelessness, the indiscernibility of these objects.”

~

read the rest here: https://www.academia.edu/34156517/Stenography_of_the_Itinerary

Pink Girlhood (Stenography of the Itinerary 83)

Connection between the mother and the daughter is a special connection, full of warmth, hope, and care. In the pink room that Catherina created for her daughter with a rare, mellifluent name Evelina, all dreams should come true. Fairies, unicorns, barbies, princesses, and all the inhabitants of the world of wonder, world of fairy tales, would witness the growth and development of the happy Evelina’s life.

The girlhood. The desire that the happiness would come true, is so pronounced.

The soft light envelopes the tiny figure on a toy horse. And it seems like all the pink shine in the pink room emanates from this source of light.


The pictures are taken by the author in the village of Anosovo, Siberia

“A Tale of a Young Woman”

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

Siberia 2006, 2013, 2016 (a selection of fieldwork photographs)

Landscapes of Dreams

The “remittance landscape,” the term explained by Sarah Lynn Lopez in the book of the same title, refers to the spaces created in the absence of their inspirators–“dream houses” and projects, such as restaurant buildings, subsided through the migrant money by the migrant, a figure of political transformation who work slowly at her own rate on creating “not the product of generic top-down “globalization” but of the enterpreneurial opportunism of remittance space “from below.” (264). He changes the face of the world, so that it even becomes a question, “To what extent is the American metropolis predicated on the rapid transformation of sending communities throughout the world?” (265). S/he is a figure fully endowed with agency, “influencing both what is possible and what is probable” (265) in a nicely observed by the author duality of the future as a bunch of possibilities and probabilities.

Lopez looks at buildings: “Buildings crystallize historic moments like no other artifact–technologies are required, desire is enacted, capital is expended, all to create objects that shape future life-worlds.” (11). Remittance buildings–in an analogue to “remittance landscape”–buildings constructed with remittance money in an evocation of often if not American than Americanized dream of migrants from Mexico, returning to their communities or having plans to return, either for aging and dying or for living. Migrants, simultaneously envied and despised by their own community, have contradicting desires which define the way they structure landscapes of their living both in the adopted country and in the home community, so there is a blurred distinction between “home” and something that is not home, as well as between “here” and “there.” They won’t to preserve the spaces of their childhood, but also to improve and modernize them, they want to create an image of American dream success but they keep allegiances to their markedly distinct way of living; they want to demonstrate their success, but they want to be accepted by their community. They want to improve their communities by bringing other ideas, as their ancestors brought wristwatches, sewing machines, and cars–but these other ideas do not always work on a different soil. Such position is fraught with paradoxes, ironies, promising failures, and devastating successes.

Plenty of remittance houses, dream houses, end up abandoned for various reasons, and so there is a creation of ruin, dreams unsustainable, economically questionable, demanding expenditures, and bringing not the results which were expected or hoped for.

In a Benjaminian understanding of architectural space in a way of, as Susan Buck-Morss reminded in her guide (1989), a space of collective dreaming, remittance landscapes are also collective dreams, even if not dreams of collective dwelling.

As I read Lopez, I thought about the house which Alina and Alexander (names changed) who lived in the village of Anosovo, have been building in Irkutsk with a thought of once living in the Irkutsk house, as Anosovo fits Lopez’s fomula “the necessary institutional, economic, and political support to bring infrastructure to such places did not exist” (19), unfortunately, all too well. How would one call such project? This is only one example of such projects, which Anosovians, those who have a job in timber industry, create and sponsor in Irkutsk, while for years remaining in their village. Muscovites were known at some point to buy houses in Bulgaria, Spain, Greece, to create some kind of vocational / retreat spaces with the same or even still more unpractical considerations, since Moscow apartments and houses answering their demands were not affordable even for those who could buy villa-like houses elsewhere. Such displaced landscapes could hardly be called the remittance landscapes, although in the technical sense of the term they perhaps are. But those are the landscapes of dreams, and dreams should not be fulfillable to persist.

A sense of indecisiveness befitting a dream, precarity of living, temporality of all solutions, becomes itself a feature of certainty, constancy, a very fixedness of things in flux: “While Taylor was researching migrant housing conditions in California, he approached a couple living in a self-built shack under a tree and asked the owners why they did not invest more in their housing. They replied that they did not know if they would stay and that they might return to Mexico. He then asked, “How long have you been here?” to which they responded, “Thirty years.”” (19) In an expression popular in Russia, there is nothing more constant than temporary.

References

Buck-Morss, Susan. The Dialectics of Seeing. The MIT Press, 1989.

Lopez, Sarah Lynn. The Remittance Landscape, University of Chicago Press, 2015.