Active Ruination (ISIS)

I uploaded my article on “active ruination” (namely ISIS’s affective ruining the space practices) on academia.edu. Years will pass before I get it published so it might as well just dwell there

ISIS: Active Ruination and Performativity of Public Execution

As atrocious actions, public executions and world-making endeavors of ISIS analyzed in terms of performativity open the space for questioning the dominant ideas of history and politics. ISIS released the video of the shooting of 25 Syrian soldiers at the Palmyra ruins in the beginning of June, 2014. On the video, the executioners, most of whom appear to be teenagers, parade the soldiers on the scene of the amphitheater, kneel them down and shoot. The Palmyra amphitheater is present as a visible two-fold reminder of spectacle: as arena of violence and the metaphor for the arena of violence. A crowd, children among them, watched the execution. I argue that the public executions serve several goals for ISIS: not only does ISIS compose propaganda messages, but the very lawlessness and atrociousness of the executions function as a powerful claim of the group’s legitimacy as a state in the ISIS imaginaries. Through the staged executions, ISIS seeks to create the world of power which is alternative to the Western world. In the process of creation of this world, ISIS generates landscapes of violence, and produces spaces haunted by killings. An attempt to redefine ancient ruins and to reenact medieval executions, is a claim to build a world of alternative historicism.

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Angel of History / Benjamin on Ruins

Benjamin, writing about the Klee’s “Angelus Novus” painting, portrays the angel of history, as it were, caught by the wind of time and being carried away by the force that exceeds the angel’s capacity to resist it:

“The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.” (Benjamin, 1968, 258)

The angel that we see in Klee’s painting is indeed disheveled.

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In his curls one might even see something resembling of Benjamin himself.

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What interests me here, however, is not an imaginary or real semblance of the work of art and the portrait of the thinker who muses upon it. Perhaps as much as it is possible to claim that the work of art is always to this or that degree a self-portrait of the author, the work of art appropriated for an analysis (especially this far-winged as Benjamin’s analysis is) is also reading in the work of art of something to which the work of art serves as merely a pretext, that is to say, a self-portrait of sorts as well.

The past, which is constantly re-evaluated, by everyone, and in particular by the state, with some moments summoned and some, erased, appears in the image of a bunch of debris, detritus, floating in the wind of history (of progress) in Benjamin’s vision. The past, moreover, does not “exist” but is summoned. Not only every summoning of the past is arbitrary, divergent, creative, and interpretive, but there is no way “it really was” either, contradictorily to, or, rather, additionally to Benjamin’s assessment “To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it “the way it really was” (Ranke)” (Benjamin, 1968, 255). History, written and re-written in the interest “of the ruling classes” (Marxist thesis), we see increasingly in the modern times, is but an agglomeration of myths. Public does sympathize with the victor, and will always be sympathetic of victors–however, from a metaphysical point of view, the true victor is the one who lost the fight, and in this case the sympathies are uncertain. However official propaganda would frame the events, there will always be a recalcitrant part of the society stubbornly empathizing with the “losers,” preparing the soil for the dragon’s teeth to grow into a new, tomorrow-victorious, army. (As an example might serve the Whites opposing the Reds in the Civil War in Russia. Despite the victory of the Red Army, the White cause was not entirely defeated, and although there is no point in history when it could win either, there were always sympathies during the Soviet times for the defeated, which is also connected perhaps with the Orthodox moral demanding mercy for the conquered.)

It is necessary to put “the pile of debris before” the angel–which are, despite that they are situated in front of his eyes, are the debris of the past, unequivocally, since he’s dragged by the wind into the future–in context with ruins Benjamin mentions in the “Exposé” of 1935 to The Arcades, the fragment that did not make it into the later, 1939 version of “Exposé”:

“Balzac was the first to speak of the ruins of the bourgeoisie. But it was Surrealism that first opened our eyes to them. The development of the forces of production shattered the wish symbols of the previous century, even before the monuments representing them has collapsed. With the destabilizing of the market economy, we begin to recognize the monumets of the bourgeoisie as ruins even before they have crumbled.” (Benjamin, 1999, 13).

To decode the Benjamin’s link onto Balzac, it is best to examine this piece by Balzac quoted in The Arcades Project under code C2a,8:

“The ruins of the Church and of the aristocracy, of feudalism, of the Middle Ages, are sublime–they fill the wide-eyed victors of today with admiration. But the ruins of the bourgeoisie will be an ignoble detritus of pasteboard, plaster, and coloring.”<Honoré de Balzac and other authors,>  Le Diable á Paris (Paris, 1845), vol. 2, p. 18 (Balzac, “Ce qui disparait de Paris”). ▯ Collector ▯                                  [C2a,8] (Benjamin, 1999, 87).

Here, regardless of how often the bourgeoisie’s palaces are seen in ruins, only for them, it seems, to be built anew with no regard to the proverbial past, Benjamin talks about the anticipated ruins, the ruins that are to be, the ruins that we can see in the future before they are ruins: about the material debris and traces of that present which is about to turn into the past.

Balzac is even more visceral in his description of these ruins: “ignoble detritus of pasteboard, plaster, and coloring.” One might expect decay and putrefaction in these amorphous piles that are indeed perhaps are better called rabble than ruins, in comparison to the ruins retaining form referring to the previous socio-political formation, that of feodalism. Like aristocracy is the ruling class of feodalism, bourgeoisie is the ruling class of the formation known as capitalism in the Marxist taxonomies. In the Balzacian detritus it is not difficult to see the Benjaminian pile of debris carried away from the face of the angel of history, also carried away by the supreme force of progress. But what it tells us beyond what it tells about unfulfilled dreams of progress and failed expectations? When does the production of these debris ends? In the impossible, ideal moment when the past is finally restored just “as it all was”, the dead resurrected, the mankind redeemed, and the final judgement of history has been irreversibly pronounced?

References

Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 1999.

Benjamin, Walter. “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Illuminations. Schoken Books, New York, 1968.

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

The 1st of September

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The 1st of September is the beginning of the school year in Russia. This is a precious piece of ethnographic evidence, a fascinating photographic fragment of the epoch, which I obtained during my fieldwork in Siberia during the summer of 2016. It has not been shown before.

Here the opening of a new school in 1957 is set in the photograph for eternity.

Craig pointed out today that it goes along well with the 1st September celebration, so I have it, reluctantly, out for your I’m sure utter enjoyment.

Several Fieldwork Photographs

I have to return the photo camera that I used during the field work, tomorrow, and so, downloaded the last series of photographs that I took in Siberia during the endless, shiny, everlasting summer of 2016.

Mostly, these pictures are taken in the town of Ust Uda, but some, in the village of Anosovo. I did not process the photographs; they are in their rough initial form.

 

 

The Only Poem Mentioning “Grant” in Existence

Preface of the Publisher (That is to Say, Me)

A while ago I had a project, called Poems by Famous Anthropologists They Were Unaware They Wrote. “Poems” consist of broken into lines passages from anthropologists’ works, which the authors themselves never had an intention–a wild idea–to break into lines.

Also recently, I got on Skype, which I do not do that often. And this is not a remarkable event worth mentioning by itself, but only in connection to the poem, which I found there to my amazement. This poem was written by my scientific advisor, Professor Campbell, during our conversation when for reasons of unstable internet-connection he could hear me but I could not hear him. Which made it a one-side communication poetry often is. The text is already broken into lines, and, although it was not intended as poetry, in this it shares the feature of many pieces of poetry. Even more, perhaps poetry written with an intention to write poetry is not poetry. And perhaps poetry is only poetry when it is written by chance and without intention. Without further ado, here is the piece (with the title I gave it):

 

Skype Poem

there are many
visual documents
photoessays
on soviet ruins

a grant
I received to copy
many slides
this is a good idea
it seems to me a strong visual component would be good for this project.

your photographs
plus archival documents
it is important because of
a very strong contemporary record of ‘ruin porn’

this is your response.

Packing to Fieldwork

As I already had a chance to mention elsewhere, this summer I am going to do a preliminary fieldwork at my fieldsite, in the village of Anosovo in Siberia. I am packing, and have already collected my books. I decided to take all of the books I initially wanted, despite that “Anosovo has a library!” argument from my worrying parents. Now it is the time to collect clothes, which I delayed for as long as I could because, like all necessary actions, it is boring.

Extracting one by one things out of the depths of my wardrobe full of skeletons, and putting them side by side on a bed, I am trying to decide what to take with me and what to leave. What do they wear now in Moscow, I don’t know, but certainly not pajamas, as is Austinites’ nice habit. But that is not my concern.

What do they wear in Siberia, is more important. If I take my camouflage pants–Russian and NATO-style, for I own both varieties–would it be okay? I was wearing them alright there, but women certainly dress in beautiful skirts and pretty cardigans in Anosovo, not in NATO camouflage (I wonder why). For a woman, fieldwork experience might be different than for men, and perhaps it starts early on. In fact our gender defines us in all kinds of imperceptible ways, on which we barely reflect.

Would my clothing affect the way they would perceive me? Most likely, yes. I never thought about it before. I am going to blend in, as much as it is possible for a Muscovite, which means perhaps my uniform should be different. I imagine the anthropologist arriving to a country in Africa clad in sand-dune camouflage and wearing a pith helmet–well, probably, no anthropologist today submits easily to the colonial style of dress, do they?

This might be more important than I thought before, for in my camouflage I would certainly look like a Muscovite tourist. Not that it means I could start wearing skits all of a sudden. That would be too much of an effort: I rarely wear skirts, I simply do not like them, I guess. It is certainly fine for a man to wear camouflage pants there. Ah, anyway. I am throwing them in.

Several photographs out of the archive of my previous visit, summer 2013:

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Ded Gosha (“Grandpa” Gosha) drinking his tea. Photo on Nexus phone

 

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Lake Baikal

 

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One of my favorite pictures of that summer, also taken felicitously on Nexus. I call it “Reading”

 

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A girl in pink in the village of Atalanka, Siberia

 

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Young men sitting near the house

 

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Watermelon

(All pictures are taken on Canon 400D unless otherwise noted)

Beauty, Youth, and Aging

I met a beautiful woman, L., on Congress Avenue in Austin, in a bright morning hour in 2014. I noticed her from afar: she was wearing a wide-brimmed hat and a billowing, long, black and white dress. We stopped on the red light crossing the street concurrently. She noticed that I look at her, and casually started a conversation. She was walking to her favorite cafe and invited me with her. I ordered a cup of coffee, she bought a latte and a doughnut, and in several phrases she told me her story.

“From the early childhood I was into makeup and fashion.” She said. “I never did heroine, that was not my time, but I drank and I did cocaine, that was my time.”

She was a model, and was never married.

“I just did not want to live with a man.”

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She was working hard.

“Girls from rich families do not have to, but we, we had to.”

This very morning she picked a number of photographs from her archive to send them to her sister, who asked her about this favor. She showed the pictures to me, extracting them one by one from a huge brown envelope. She kindly permitted me to photograph them.

“Do you like Sex in the City?” She asked. “I look like Carrie Bradshow, and you–you look like Charlotte York. Yes, you will be Charlotte. We already have Miranda and Samantha.” (She was referring to her friends.)

I was looking at her, at her photos, and I caught myself wondering back then as I think about it now: What does it mean for a woman, to age?

I am a woman myself, and over time I am gradually gaining understanding how women age. I encountered men explaining to me that I am about to lose my beauty. One moment was particularly striking. When I was in my twenties, on a plane a man going down the aisle, whom I did not know, twice my age, told me out of the blue that I was beautiful, and added: “But it will soon pass. The corners of your mouths would turn down.”

Once I took a selfie with my child’s toy: a mustache on a stick. Looking at the picture, I was struck by how young my face was looking in this momentary, fleeting, playful assumption of masculinity. In my 36, I am barely a young woman any more, but I am definitely quite a young man.

Am I beautiful? A dreadful question which defines us so profoundly at certain stages of life. The answer to this question is, always, yes of course you are, because beauty is in motion and in the movement of your mind, in thought that your eyes reflect, and in the kindness of your heart.

Am I beautiful? The irony of it, we never know just how beautiful we are, even if we are aware of our beauty, much less when we are unaware–but then we look at our own photographs and remark that we were beautiful.

Am I beautiful? What does it matter if I am not? What does it matter if I am? All too young, one is irreparably made aware that her appearance is favorable (or not, or, more often, both). And it is a highly racialized process, not to mention other complexities.

It so happens that men compliment me a lot these days, far more often than they complimented me a decade ago–although I must say I am in a very privileged position to be, there was never a lack of it. I don’t know what to connect a sudden increase of praise to though, many factors, I guess. A red lipstick is definitely one of them. But perhaps most importantly, I owe these compliments to the very fact that I am older now and paradoxically my kind interlocutors are being somewhat more generous if they tell me how good-looking I am, now that I am older.

And a lot of these compliments, too many, assess my young looks. As if being young should be my desire, and being younger-looking is a thing I need to know about myself, and cherish. As if there is an all-too-evident way of making me happier: just tell me how young I look (if I do not, just say it anyway).

And I am expected to be pleased with these assessments, for which I did not ask, and take pride in looking supposedly younger than my age. Which brings a lot of difficult questions. Is it really a good thing for a person to appear, even if this is by way of a not-fully-sincere compliment, younger than they are? Does not a phrase “you look young(er)” robs you of your experience? Does not it erase who you are, diminishes your wins and losses? Does not it attempt not to notice who you have become and are becoming by this time of your age? Does not it suggest another, better you, in which you are somehow in a competition–and to whom you would lose in a face-to-face confrontation?

I am interested in how women’s magazines address aging, for they do, from time to time. Often in light how nobly age certain beautiful women, and how badly lose their battle with time other women. As a rule, noble aging means successful plastic surgery, and ugly aging means plastic surgery gone awry. Either way, you are fighting a battle, and either way you are about to lose it–if not next year, then soon enough. But you have to be or to appear young, and if magazines are to be believed, in doing so you also have to wear clothes and make up which suit primarily young women.

To age, and to lose brightness of your eyes, to lose tightness, elasticity, and evenness of your skin; to acquire wrinkles; to have a changed, further changing face, on which a sleepless night leaves its inexorable trace; to lose the precision of your vision; to lose agility, is no fun for any gender. But it is a high demand for a woman to be not just successful, not just married, not just a mother in a certain timeline, but also to remain young and pleasing to the eye, attractive, beautiful. Beautiful but beautiful in a specific way. It is not thoughts, nor philosophical studies, nor the sharpness of her mind–which are evident in her face–that matters, but how how closely she is identifiable with a generalized image of a beautiful woman, in other words, how well she conforms to standards. The generalized images of how a beautiful woman looks, in the West are very few, and closely resemble each other. But the list of conditions you have to satisfy to be considered a beautiful woman, is long and wearisome.

For a model, the face and the body are instruments. They are her tools of earning her living, but also they are used as tools by forces greater than her. They are employed and exploited to replicate the standards of beauty by expressing them in a living being’s polished, altered, improved appearance. Women use these standards in their turn to navigate these spaces to their advantage.

The temporality is tragic. Every story of aging is tragic. Aging is a world-altering experience. Is there a way out, towards the universe where appearance in general, and younger looks in particular, do not matter that much? I don’t know.

But when I look at the photographs of my exceptional interlocutor, both in her maturity, in her ripeness, and in her blooming, her blossoming, her nascent, fledgling beauty, I see her story as a film — and a very short film at that, for I do not know many things about her. It is as if her whole lifetime was sped up in a quick video clip, reminding me of those videos which people sometimes create, putting their images of themselves, taken day by day for years, together. The film of a bold, creative exploration of temporality and ephemerality and endurance and inner and outward beauty. Of a manifest beauty piercing years. The film about the world and our brief and aggrieved, and still fascinating, act of living in it.