Sunday, October 21, 2007
This weekend I found myself listening to the Police while working to finish up a section of my dissertation proposal that attempts to put Jacques Derrida into a productive dialogue with Pierre Bourdieu -- something that the two had difficulty accomplishing in life. In the midst of this task, I was more than a bit horrified to discover that I was quietly singing to myself:
That's all I want to say to you.
They're meaningless and all that's true.
In case you need to wash out the bitter aftertaste of these butchered lyrics, you can enjoy the original here.
Tuesday, October 9, 2007
Monday, September 24, 2007
Anyway, the conference ended with a discussion about the state of "free speech" in Eastern Europe. One of the panelists was a Russian journalist named Anna Politkovskaya. I remember very little of her talk, except that she seemed to me to be a remarkably thoughtful and powerful speaker. To be honest, though, I was fatigued from a week of papers, round-tables, and hobnobbing with strange academics, and I was far more concerned with heading back to my hotel than I was with listening to the dreary and dubious subject at hand.
Less than one month later, on October 7, 2006, Anna Politkovskaya was shot and killed in the elevator of her Moscow apartment complex. Reports of her murder described her coverage of Chechnya, her work as a human rights activist... and how mourners had left CDs of Vysotsky's music at a makeshift memorial for her at newspaper's offices. But that was all: no elaboration, to remarks about how Russians might find a connection between Vysotsky and Politkovskaya, no reflection... as though CDs spoke for themselves.
Wednesday, September 12, 2007
Thursday, August 23, 2007
Well, the short answer is that we're moving. Yes, we are currently in the process of relocating The Moscow Diaries' official
I don't want to give away the master plan and spoil the surprise, but I will say that I'm going to try to restructure the blog so that it reflects the broader range of interests that motivate my research. So, for example, you may not have gathered from some of my ramblings that sound recording technologies and recording "aesthetics" figure prominently in my research. But since this blog has been limited to vague discussions of my ethnographic research in Moscow, I've felt that it would be inappropriate to link to really interesting and relevant stories about trends in recording aesthetics like this:
Anyway, the point is: watch this space. Good things are coming.
Saturday, June 23, 2007
That said, I've become increasingly aware of and interested by cultural images of Africa and Africa-ness in Russia and America. For example, on one warm spring day in Moscow I encountered a group of musicians at Chistye Prudy, dressed as crocodiles, lions, and bears, performing for a crowd of children and parents. They were singing this popular children's song, which is, from what I can gather, a kind of Russian Jabberwocky:
When I returned to the U.S., I decided it would be nice to spend some time doing something totally unrelated to my research and to my visit to Africa. I eventually settled on what seemed to be the furthest possible thing from my travels: installing Linux on an old laptop.
(I'll wait for you to stop chuckling before I continue. Yes, I know. Linux. The supremely nerdy but cost-free operating system. I try very hard to hide it, but at heart I really am an ultratechnogeek.)It turns out, though, that I was wrong. While searching for which "flavor" of Linux would best suit my aging Hewlett-Packard, I came across a popular version called Ubuntu. What does Ubuntu mean? Here's what the makers of this version of Linux have to say:
Ubuntu is an African concept of 'humanity towards others'. It is 'the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity'. The same ideas are central to the way the Ubuntu community collaborates. Members of the Ubuntu community need to work together effectively, and this code of conduct lays down the "ground rules" for our cooperation.Where to begin, huh? I mean, there's nothing terribly extraordinary about the cultural image of Africa -- not a country, nor a nation, nor even really an actual continent, but an ideal of Africanness -- used in the service of marketing a product, even in the case of computer software. Rhetoric by non-Africans about African knowledge, rituals, legends and proverbs has a long and rather distasteful history. Suffice it to say that whenever I hear someone talk about "African concepts", I'm immediately reminded of Calgon's "Ancient Chinese Secret."
And maybe this is just more of the same, with these Linux programmers and users casting themselves as more than mere nerds but ethical and socially conscious nerds undertaking a revival of the Ancient Chinese Secret... excuse me... the African Concept of fairness, sharing, and humanity that is Ubuntu. But I must admit that even after installing Ubuntu on my computer, I was not prepared to discover that the system came preloaded with a video file about the relationship between Ubuntu the software and Ubuntu the concept... featuring Nelson Mandela!!!
Friday, May 25, 2007
Monday, May 21, 2007
Saturday, May 12, 2007
Allow me to provide some translation and commentary. The commercial opens with a hand sweeping over a bookshelf and pulling out a collection of poems by the late 19th / early 20th century Russian symbolist, Aleksandr Blok. The next shot reveals the man who picked out the book and is now speaking to someone on a mobile phone. The man says, "I'll dictate, you take this down," and then proceeds to read Blok's rather well-known 1912 poem, "Night, Street, Lamp, Drugstore".
As he reads, the words of the poem appear in white letters and drift out of the apartment window, wandering across Moscow. Here's the original text with my translation:
|Ночь, улица, фонарь, аптека,|
Бессмысленный и тусклый свет.
Живи еще хоть четверть века -
Все будет так. Исхода нет.
Умрешь - начнешь опять сначала
И повторится все, как встарь:
Ночь, ледяная рябь канала,
Аптека, улица, фонарь.
|Night, street, lamp, drugstore.|
Meaningless and dull light.
Live on for another quarter century -
All will be as such. No outcome.
You'll die - start again from the beginning
And everything will repeat, as long ago.
Night, a canal's icy ripples,
Drugstore, street, lamp.
We watch as the text of the poem sails up into the window of a classroom, and it's at this point that the ad's "punchline" emerges. We see a student copying down the poem as he listens through a cellphone headset. An announcer explains, "We're doing everything so that not one word is lost," as the cheating student finishes, stands up triumphantly, and hides his cellphone headset. The ad concludes with the company's slogan, "МТС: People Talk."
Considering the esteemed position of Russian poetry and poets here, I was more than a little surprised to see a cellphone company advertising--even in jest--that their network's clarity and fidelity is so good that it could help students from having to learn the great Russian poems of the past by heart. (It would be a bit like T-Mobile running an ad in which they say, "Thanks to our advanced network, you kids will never need to memorize another Robert Frost poem ever again!")
The second thing that stood out to me was the ad's soundtrack, which is a so-called "sound-alike" imitation of The Verve's "Bittersweet Symphony." The song used in the commercial is nearly identical to the original in rhythm, structure, and instrumentation, but dissimilar enough to avoid the cost of licensing the song. The choice to use a sound-alike of "Bittersweet Symphony" is, if not ironic, certainly noteworthy, since that song in particular is famous for violating copyright laws by using a longer-than-approved sample of an orchestral recording of the Rolling Stones' "The Last Time." And "The Last Time," in turn, is said to be an uncredited adaptation of a gospel song by the Staples Sisters. All of this for an ad about how the sonic fidelity of a cellphone company's network is so good that it can be used to copy a poem word for word and cheat the system.
Tuesday, May 8, 2007
Suffice it to say that this week there really is nothing important to report from Moscow. I think I burned through the bulk of my enthusiasm in my first couple of weeks here, and now I find myself frustrated with my inability to communicate fluently and wondering how I make the best use of my remaining time in Moscow.
Thursday, April 26, 2007
After another round of e-mails between the director of the museum and myself, I decided to go visit the museum in person yesterday to drop off a form and to repeat, politely, that I would be leaving soon, and therefore I would like to start my research sooner rather than later. I decided to bring along a fellow student from my class as linguistic back-up. He's a young guy from the States who decided to spend a year learning Russian in Moscow and living with a Russian host family before returning to the U.S. and entering college. He arrived here last year without knowledge of a single Russian word, but he's a fast student. I probably read and write better than he does, but his conversational skills tower above mine.
To make a long story short, the museum director met me and quickly agreed to give me a research permit and to let me start working in their archives in two weeks. Woohoo! My fellow student and I spent the next hour touring the museum, during which time my ethnographic dreams came true and I had a chance to observe an argument between a Russian museum visitor and a museum guide about the cultural value of one of the people featured in the photographs on display.
Better still, this morning I received some confirmation that I'm conducting research on the right subject and in the right institution. The young student who came along with me told me that his host mother, who had previously thought of him as someone with no interest in Russian culture, was shocked to learn that he had visited this particular museum. "I never would have expected YOU to go there? What could YOU know about that music?" she asked him. Her mood then changed, and she began to invite him to listen to old recordings and watch movies about this genre with her. Right on.
One other bit of encouragement I've received has been less pleasant: I'm beginning to feel comfortable enough to argue about Russia and Russians in Russian. Allow me to explain:
A rather, shall we say, stubbornly nationalist foreign student has joined my class. 'G' has lived in Moscow for several years with her husband and children since immigrating from her native country, but has been a wee bit resistant to learn the Russian language, read Russian literature, or accept what she thinks of as Russian culture. When I first met her, she seemed friendly, eager to talk with English speakers and compare experiences of Moscow, and a little insecure about being a non-Russian speaking resident of Moscow for so long.
After a few days, though, I began to notice that at some point in each class, she made a point of criticizing Russians in general. On the first day it was a benign comment about how Moscow is a particularly dusty city. During our next class, she mentioned how dangerous it is that a driver's license can be 'purchased' if one has enough money, rather than earned. The following day, she mentioned that Russians seemed a rather cold people to her.
Fine. Whatever. Then the comments became more pointed. When our teacher was reflecting on how life in Moscow has changed, G somewhat angrily remarked: "Why do you talk about your childhood during Soviet times as if it was good?" My teacher, puzzled, asked what G meant. G explained, "It was terrible! Communism! Socialism! Bread lines! No choice!" At this point, I began to feel like G was crossing a line between forgivable national pride and crude chauvinism. We talked a bit about how the Soviet era, though certainly worthy of criticism, shouldn't be judged solely on the basis of its Cold War-era representations in America and Western Europe. She agreed, grudgingly, and moved on.
Today she bulldozed through the limits of my tolerance. Out of nowhere, she explained that Russians don't like non-Russians, that Russians don't or can't speak other languages, that they certainly don't speak English, that they lack any curiosity about the rest of the world, and that the grammar of their language is deviously designed to express complex ideas in as few words as possible so as to deter people from having nice long conversations and getting to know one another. I don't even remember consciously deciding to argue with her, and I certainly didn't plan to give her a mini-lecture on linguistic ideology and nationalism. Nor did I plan to tell her that perhaps the reason Russians seemed cold and terse with her was because she was meeting Russians exclusively in commercial contexts. It just sort of happened. Within seconds the conversation transformed into a heated, three-person debate among my teacher, G, and myself, about the history of censorship, public and private discursive practices during the Soviet period, economic transformations, and the effect of social life on "the Russian soul". In what felt like a matter of seconds, the next hour of class flew past me at supersonic speeds.
It seems somewhat perverse to feel good about fighting with someone... but in this case, I can't help but feel more than a little proud.
Thursday, April 19, 2007
- Meeting an American graduate student who is working on a research project that parallels my own, but is dissimilar enough not to make me uncomfortable. This fellow scholar -- let's call her 'Vera' -- invited me to come with her to a club where she planned to record a concert and conduct some honest-to-goodness microethnographic investigation.
It sounded like fun to me at the time, but by the end of the night, I started to question whether or not doing research on music in Russia was such a bright idea after all. For starters, Vera has been studying Russian and living in Russia way longer than I have. So while she had no problems getting past the guys at the door, ordering drinks and mingling in the crowd, I found myself totally overwhelmed by the loud music and fast talking. I was unable to figure out how much the cover was or how to check my coat on my own, and apparently I said something to piss off the bartender within the first three seconds of my attempt to order beers for Vera and myself.
Then there was the smoke. Let me try to give you an idea of how thick the cigarette smoke in this club was. Vera had brought along a couple of high-end digital video cameras to record the concert, and I had volunteered to record the show using one of them. Unfortunately for Vera, her tapes aren't going to reveal much detail of the performance, because the autofocus couldn't get a lock on the people on stage through the blankets of smoke in the air. By the end of the night, my lungs were screaming for fresh air, and part of my brain was shouting at the other that doing research on music in Russia probably wasn't the best idea considering that I sound to most Russians like a dimwitted preschooler. (-5 points.)
- On the other hand, three days later, Vera introduced me to her adviser at Moscow State University: a professor who happens to be extremely knowledgeable about the kind of music I work on, and who was more than happy to talk with me for half an hour about my project in English. The guy was encouraging, generous, and best of all, seemed to be one of the first Russians I've met who thinks my project has merit. (+10 points)
One of my big goals for last week was to get a university library card so I could check out a book on the genre that I study which is unavailable in the U.S.. The library card turned out to be the easy part: I filled out a form, gave the librarian a passport photo, let her photocopy a page from my passport, paid 50 rubles, and presto! (+1 point) Then I tried to get the book. Turns out that the card catalog is wrong, and the book I want isn't in library #10, it's actually in #18. (-1 point) No problem, since #18 is right around the corner from #10... and, oh dear, it's the library that has a half-hour long line of students waiting to give their book request slips to the librarian. (-1 point) After waiting for half an hour, I give the librarian my request slip and my brand new library card. She glances at the card, shakes her head, and says "No." I'm confused. No? Why? She says something too quickly for me to understand, gestures at my library card, and then calls for the next person in line to come up. I'm still not sure what went wrong, but I have a feeling that as a visiting student, I might be entitled to reading books but not to checking them out from the library. Or something like that. (-3 points)
The other big goal was to get a letter of affiliation from Moscow State University that I could bring to the museum where I want to conduct research so that I can get a research permit. To this end, I decided to write the letter for the folks at the university myself so that they wouldn't have to do anything but print it and stamp it with the university's official seal. How long could it possibly take to print and stamp the letter? 15 minutes? An hour? A day? Two days? Do I hear one week? Sold! (-1 points)
The moment the letter is printed and stamped, I take it from the university and deliver it by hand to the museum. By the time I arrive at the museum, though, the building is closing and my contact at the museum has already left. Fortunately, a friendly-seeming guard offers to take the letter and give it to my contact. Great! I'm on my way to getting a museum research permit. (+10 points)
Wait a minute... that was too easy. After all, the librarian needed my passport and a photograph just to give a library card, so surely a state museum would need something like that. Well, I'm sure that if they need anything they'll call me. I mean, I did put my phone number in the letter, didn't I? Or at least my e-mail address? As it turns out, I did indeed put my contact information on the letter... but the university employee who edited, printed, and stamped my letter of affiliation for me kindly took the liberty of deleting my phone number and e-mail address before hitting 'print'. Grand. (-5 points)
So I spent today writing an e-mail to my contact at the museum, explaining that if there's anything else I need to give them for my research permit, I'll be happy to supply it. The problem: I have no idea whether or not this person will get this e-mail, since my contact has less than a stellar track record when it comes to answering my e-mails. (Uncertain score, but provisionally: 0 points)
- Today I wake up feeling like someone has emptied a can of silly string down my windpipe. Yesterday I had a little case of the sniffles, so I was prepared to feel crappy today. But this? This is unlike any cold I've ever had: I'm sharp mentally, my ability to communicate in a foreign language is better than it's ever been. my mood is good and I've got energy... but someone has replaced my sinuses with an open spigot. And who did this to me? When I get to class, I'm greeted by my teacher and one other student in my group, and both of them are sniffling and coughing. My teacher explains that one of the Thai students in her other group 'got sick' in front of her last week, and she's afraid she's passed some sort of Thai virus to us. (-5)
Monday, April 9, 2007
Sunday, April 8, 2007
Monday, April 2, 2007
A few minutes later he came by my table with a Coke and I handed him a hundred ruble note -- which, thanks to the dollar's decline, is worth about $4 USD. He takes the bill and walks away, and I flip open my laptop to check on rumors that the cafe has a free wireless internet connection. Two minutes later the guy appears at my table, holding a bill with a missing corner. He says, "Sorry, but this bill is no good. The bank won't take it. Do you have another?"
Immediately I recognize that I'm being played. I didn't get a good look at the bill I gave him, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't missing any pieces. Even if it was, he's heard me speak with a limited vocabulary and knows that I don't have the linguistic capital to spend on an argument about this. And any lingering doubts I have about whether or not this is a scam are erased when the young man's face contorts into a wide, mischievous grin. Now I know that instead of getting change for me, he's spent the last minute swapping my 100 ruble note for this invalid bill. As best as I can reason, somebody must have pawned this bill off on the student cafe earlier in the day, and ever since the wait staff has been looking for an easy mark who won't protest when the exchange is made. I look him in the face, promise myself that I'm going to find a way to make him pay sometime in the next two months, and hand him another hundred.
I'm left with one question about this little scam, though. Maybe one of my dear readers, experienced travelers that they are, can explain to me why somebody tore off the corner of this bill to begin with. The bill is older than most now in circulation, but it doesn't look like a fake: it's got all the watermarks and microprinting that appear on authentic currency. What I don't understand is how someone would profit by ripping the corner off of this thing, whether it's the real deal or not. Any ideas?
Saturday, March 31, 2007
So, a few words of introduction and explanation are in order. I’ve decided to start blogging for a couple of reasons: 1) it seems a good way to let people in my life know what I’m up to without sending out annoying mass e-mails; and 2) I might as well start getting into the habit of recording my ethnographic impressions of and reactions to Moscow before I need to keep formal research notes. I plan to begin this blog with some very informal ramblings and sprawling notes to myself. But even though this is only a blog, in the interests of protecting my career, I’ll be changing names and obscuring the details of my research.
The title of this blog, “The Moscow Diaries,” is a tip of my cap to Walter Benjamin. Unfortunately, “The Moscow Diary” was already taken by someone in a position that resembles mine uncannily: a visiting scholar living at Moscow State University (MGU) and logging onto the internet at “CafeMax,” a 24-hour café with banks of computer terminals, a new wi-fi system, and seriously overpriced food.
I arrived in
In the nearly two years since my last trip to
I’m now working up the courage to call the head hacker and arrange for an appointment so I can get online this week. I’m more than a little nervous about my linguistic competence at this point. Actually, the word “competence” seems inappropriate. We’re talking about simple brute force utility for now. In the last two years, I haven’t taken Russian classes at my university in the
Surprisingly, this seems to make me a more effective speaker of Russian. In previous trips, I would try to say, “Excuse me, but if you have bliny with ham and cheese, I would very much like one” only to be met with puzzled looks and angry shouts. Now I say, “Bliny with ham and cheese,” and seconds later I have lunch. Getting my cellphone’s SIM card took an hour when I tried two years ago. This time I said something like, “Hi. I want a MegaFon SIM card. How much?” and five minutes later I was taking calls and sending text messages.
I mentioned this to another American student today over lunch, and she replied that in
Anyway, there is much more to say, but in my attempt to adapt to local customs, perhaps I should just keep this entry short and sweet…