Saturday, December 27, 2008


I study a kind of music that is variously labeled "authorial song", "bard(ic) song", and/or "guitar poetry depending on the context and the person doing the labeling.  Usually I just call it "бардовская песня (bardovskaya pesnya)" because that combination of words seems to generate the least confusion in conversations with people about the music in which I'm interested.  Somehow I never once considered abbreviating any of these names for the topic of my research.

An acquaintance here in Moscow recently gave me a book that describes itself as a "Russian-English Cultural Dictionary."  She thought that perhaps this handy guide would help me acculturate.  I thanked her, flipped open the cover, and was immediately confronted by a one-paragraph definition of authorial song on page 17:

АВТОРСКАЯ ПЕСНЯ ж (бардовская песня) bard song.  A special musical-poetic genre that appeared in the USSR in the 1950s and has developed ever since.  B.s. is a socio-cultural phenomenon especially typical of the Soviet period...

B. s.?  Wait a second... what are you calling b.s.?

B. s. has its own 'sacred places': the Vostok Club in St. Petersberg (founded in 1961) and the Grushin Festival in Samara (since 1968). Their purpose has been to popularize b.s. in the best traditions.
This certainly isn't the first time I've worried that I might be writing my dissertation about b.s..  I just wasn't expecting a reference book to say so.

Wise Words

Whether I achieve the secondary purpose of my journey—to escape the deadly melancholy of the Christmas season—remains to be seen.
Walter Benjamin, Moscow Diary, 20 December

Friday, December 26, 2008


Merry Christmas to me.  I'm told that these shoes make me look more Russian...

Monday, December 22, 2008

Get Real

It's been a few weeks since I posted anything to this blog, and for my own sake as much as yours, gentle reader, I should summarize what's been happening since my last entry.

I should mention, by the way, that I haven't been avoiding my blogging responsibilities by choice. Things were going just wonderfully here, and I was all set to write a big blog entry about how I had somehow dodged all the small pitfalls that other anthropologists complain of when they begin their fieldwork.  What luck! 

But then, a little over a week ago, without any warning whatsoever, my brand new laptop died. Remember that laptop that I was sent by a certain company as a replacement for the machine that they lost failed to repair over the course of a month? Yeah. I'm not kidding either. This company's flagship machine--loaded with their state-of-the-art technology--, this beautiful baby computer suffered the microelectronic equivalent of SIDS after just one month.

To be clear, we're not talking about some minor inconvenience like, say, a hard drive failure, or a screen that stops working. This is more like a bad motherboard. I've talked with the company's tech support staff via e-mail and long-distance/Skype/conference-call, and after describing the computer's symptoms they replied that it sounded like a serious hardware failure and asked if I could please send it in for repair... from Russia... at my expense.


So there I was, an academic in Moscow without a computer (which for 21st century scholars is kind of like being a drug addict without a fix). But I realized that most anthropologists don't have the luxury of computers and gadgets in their fieldsites, so why was I complaining? Who was I to wimper about a stupid computer when I've got the things that really matter: a roof over my head, a great research project, and my health?

And of course, as soon as I felt thankful for these things, I saw them each crumple before my eyes. The apartment in which I'm living suffered a minor flood when the upstairs neighbors left the water running in their bathroom tub, filling the air with vapour that smells suspiciously like the twelve inches or so of late Soviet-era flooring, insulation, dirt, dust, and mold that you might find between two levels of an apartment building in Moscow.  No big deal, I thought.  I mean, after all, the same sort of thing happened to me in my apartment not long ago in the states.  This stuff happens. And then a couple of days later, I started to feel as though a sheet of fabric softener had somehow been stuffed down my windpipe without my notice. At first I didn't think much about it, but after about 24 hours I was coughing violently and feeling as if my sinuses were attempting to escape their captivity behind my face through my eye sockets. Naturally, my optimism about my research began to take a tumble at this point as well.

That was about a week ago.  Things are a bit better now: I've got a new computer (thanks to ridiculously generous support from two readers of this blog who will go unnamed); I was able to get all my notes off of the old machine's hard drive; I'll be sending my old computer back home with an American I met recently; my health is improving thanks to lots of Russian soup; and as for my research, well, it's at least interesting.

After all, how can you NOT find this interesting?

This is a spot on the Old Arbat, a fairly famous Moscow street and tourist destination.  It's not insignificant as cultural real estate.  The Arbat is a great place to take a stroll.  There are some lovely buildings, there are no cars, you'll find artists and musicians and performers everywhere... And here we have, on the right, a statue dedicated to Bulat Okudzhava, one of the pioneers (if you'll excuse the term) of Russian bardic song.  And on the left, standing only a few feet from the revered Mr. Okudzhava, is a large cow.  Not just any cow, actually: this is the mascot (or the mas-cow?... the Mos-cow?...) for a chain of restaurants called "Mu-Mu".

I can't quite explain how well this image represents my impression of contemporary Moscow.  It's not just that the ridiculous and sublime live side by side -- that could be said about the world in general.  Nor is it just that the artifacts of the Soviet past and the post-Soviet present stand side by side.   It's something more about how the past and present don't seem to be able to take one another seriously, despite genuine efforts to the contrary.  This goes beyond nostalgia or irony.  This is... this is...

This is a statue of a cow standing next to a statue of Bulat Okudzhava.  

I feel like at this point, a real ethnographer would know how to read such an image. I don't.  But I'm hoping that since I'm experiencing some of the problems that real ethnographers encounter, perhaps soon I'll begin to think like one as well.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

One Week

One week.  I've been here one week.  Since I've managed to accomplish more or less all I could have hoped to accomplish in my first seven days, I suppose that this bodes well for the next fifty one weeks of real honest-to-goodness ethnographci field research to come.  On the other hand, every day I am reminded that my Russian is nowhere near adequate to the task of capturing a shred of nuance about anything, and that I am playing the socioculturally equivalent role of a character from some bad sci-fi about an interdimensional traveler who has just made the jump from life with only three physical dimensions to live with five dimensions within the same universe.  This is a long and confusing way of saying that this time in Moscow, I'm haunted by the strange feeling that everything is the same and yet everything is different.

The same: my favorite foods and places are still here; my everyday survival Russian is slowly coming back to me and seems to be serving me well enough that I don't get too many weird looks when I ask people for directions or talk to store clerks; and Moscow is still a wonderfully busy, strangely beautiful and intimidating place.

Different: I've arrived at a time when one cannot turn on a radio, open a newspaper, or walk five paces without encountering the word "кризис (crisis)"; the sky is grey grey grey all the time; and for some reason people seem to understand the theme of my research even though I feel more detached from my project than ever.  

There's a lot that could be said about all of this... but I've got work to do.  

More to come...

Sunday, November 23, 2008


For everyone who keeps telling me that I need to prepare for the coldest weather of my life, consider this:

Friday, November 21, 2008

Shaken, Not Heard

For those following the aurality/perception/aesthetics/media angle of my research, you may find interesting this story of a woman unable to identify any voice other than Sean Connery's:

Maybe things aren't so bad...

Huh.  OK, maybe I don't need to freak out about the transition from Chicago to Moscow just yet...

Friday, November 7, 2008

Хоyли Крап!!!

After months of haggling with the agency that will be funding my researcher, the broker who is managing my visa, and the Russian university that will vouch for my status as a student during the next year, I woke up this morning to find one of these in the mail:

Technically, this is good news. This means I'm going to Russia to do my dissertation fieldwork. Why, in that case, am I feeling so terrified?

Sunday, October 26, 2008


Yeah, I know, it's not May 9th. But I'm celebrating a few victories of sorts right now, so let's call this a personal Victory Day.

First and foremost: I've finally cleared the hurdles that kept me from getting a 1-year Russian visa. Doing so required me to enroll as a student in a Moscow university, which is not especially cheap. This in turn required me to request additional funds from the organization that's given me a grant for my research. Much to my surprise, the additional funds were approved, and I'm now making final preparations before leaving for Russia. If my current run of luck continues, I'll find housing in Moscow and get final approval from my university to begin carrying out my formal dissertation research in the next few weeks. (I never thought I would be quite so alarmed to see myself weeks away from fieldwork rather than months, years, or an indefinite wait.)

Meanwhile, I'm also celebrating victory over the customer service department of a computer manufacturer that shall go unnamed. To protect myself and this company, I'll skip most of the details and just share that I've been trying to get a stuck key on my laptop repaired since April. I was finally able to send the computer to this company for repair in mid September, and after another month of waiting I was then told that they weren't sure when they would start repairs, nor why they had not already started repairs, nor when I would see my computer again, and by the way, they couldn't do anything at all at the moment because they'd been experiencing some computer problems of their own with their customer service database.

It was at this point, more than five months since this stupid key became stuck, that I began to talk about going to the Better Business Bureau or to the local TV stations' consumer affairs reporters or to a lawyer in my family. Within a week, I received a call asking me if I would be satisfied if they just replaced my old computer with a new top-of-the-line notebook. I asked about the computer's specs, and was told it would have...

  • a dual-core, Intel Placation Class Processor, with a unique Class-Action-Lawsuit-Preventing subprocessor
  • a 14 inch anti-glare widescreen display, with a state-of-the-art coating that prevents the user from seeing red
  • 4 gigabytes of ultra-fast memory, capable of remembering just about anything except for bad customer service experiences
  • an innovative CYA graphics card
  • and much much more!

I'm not entirely sure that it was worth this much trouble, but I'm certainly overjoyed that this company is saving me the cost of upgrading my three-year old computer, and that I'll be going to the field with a brand new machine. Let's hear it for customer service!

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Far Away, So Close...

The good news: I have funding for a year of ethnographic research in Moscow. Woohoo!
The bad news: Russia's visa policies have made it ridiculously difficult to stay in
Russia for more than 3-months out of every 6-months.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

A Belated "Happy 142nd Birthday" To Erik Satie

I'd like to give a shout out to a composer who died about 72 years, 10 months, and 16 days ago. Erik Satie haunted me when I was a child, because one of his melodies appears twice on a 1969 Blood, Sweat and Tears album for which one of my sisters had a great fondness. Before I can remember anything visual, I can remember hearing their variations on Satie's "Gymnopedies No. 1" -- a song with which I've been more or less obsessed all my life.

Бардовской хип-хоп

The last time I was in Moscow I had the pleasure of accompanying a friend to a hiphop concert. Little did I know that the concert was actually only half hiphop, and that the other half would be devoted to "authorial" or "bardic" song, which is the genre I study. The emcee for the evening explained at the start of the show that authorial song and hiphop were "twin brothers -- two forms, one content."

This was more than a little astonishing to me because, despite their shared focus on narrative, many people would say that there are no two genres that are more different than bardovskaya pesnya and hiphop. Indeed, even I had my doubts... until I saw this:

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Vova poked you. Do you want to return Vova's poke?

I'm seriously considering joining the Russian Facebook clone, ВКонтакте.ру . The only thing keeping me back at this point is the fear that this would mean that I'd be procrastinating in two languages.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Old School Lo-Fi

I've mentioned here previously that I'm somewhat preoccupied with sound, music, and noise. For this reason, even though it's been mentioned in several venues and at length, I feel like adding my own voice to the chorus of audiotechnogeeks who are singing the praises of a team of researchers who managed to reconstruct a ten-second audiorecording from the year 1860.

It sounds marvelously, marvelously awful:

There was an internet rumor (and a pretty funny episode of The X Files) a few years ago about how the voice of Jesus Christ had been captured in the soft clay of a spinning dish on a potter's wheel near Jesus. This is, of course, ridiculous... in its details. But the general idea that sound s could be recorded prior to the advent of sound playback technologies is actually not so far fetched.

Enter this ingenious little creation, the phonautograph:

If you want the whole story behind the phonautograph, you should really pick up a copy of Jonathan Sterne's brilliant book The Audible Past. In a nutshell, though, this invention recorded sound waves as scratches on a membrane. I know, it doesn't seem all that big a deal these days, but in the middle of the 19th century, it was no small feat to document sound visually.

As it happens, one day the phonautograph was used to record a person singing "Au Clair de la Lune." About one hundred and fifty years later, some very smart people with computers realized that they could reconstruct the sound of that voice by carefully reading that phonautograph recording and cleverly compensating for the uneven speed of the hand that cranked the machine. The result is ten seconds of almost unrecognizable singing... and it's music to my ears.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Where Is My Mind?

(Today's blog entry has a soundtrack.)

Hi there again. It's been a while since I last posted anything to this blog. Come to think of it, the last time I posted anything was just prior to my doctoral proposal hearing, which seemed at the time like the sort of thing over which I should get really stressed out and melodramatic. In retrospect it really wasn't that big a deal, but it did provide me with a wonderful excuse for relaxing and turning off my brain afterwards.

Admittedly, I haven't completely slacked since then. In between episodes of Battlestar Galactica, I filed a bunch of grant applications to fund my field research, I've kept up with my various side jobs at my university, I've been working as a teaching assistant... but sheesh, I really feel like my brain has been in sleep mode for the past couple of months. Shouldn't I be a little more excited and confident about my career path now that I've cleared this major hurdle?

It's strange. I've been thinking a lot lately about why I decided to go to grad school and what I hoped to get out of it at the time. I really don't think I had any idea what I was getting into, but then again, I suspect that few 23 year-olds have much clarity about major career choices in general. At the time I just knew that I liked what I had been studying in college and I thought it would be nice to get a degree that would allow me to contribute to public discussions about media and society with some academic credibility. I know: what was I thinking?

Maybe it's because I've been thinking lately about my initial goal of becoming a "public intellectual" that I've become strangely fascinated by Jonah Goldberg's most recent book, "Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning.". Jonah Goldberg, to the best of my knowledge, doesn't hold a PhD or any degree higher than a bachelor's from Goucher College, so I don't think it's unfair to say that he doesn't have the traditional qualifications of what would usually be considered a "public intellectual." From what I can tell, he's best known for being the son of Lewinsky Scandal veteran Lucianne Goldberg, and only incidentally recognized as a pundit, columnist and contributing editor for the National Review and its online publication.

What interests me about Goldberg's book isn't its outlandish cover art depicting a smiley face with a Hitler mustache or the losing arguments Golberg has offered on his promotional tour in support of the book. Instead, what captured my interest in "Liberal Fascism's" was the book's previous working subtitles. Over the last year, had listed the book as "Liberal Fascism: The Totalitarian Temptation From Mussolini to Hillary Clinton" and then as "Liberal Fascism: The Totalitarian Temptation From Hegel to Whole Foods" before eventually settling on the comparitively benign title about "Mussolini and the Politics of Meaning".

Now, I haven't read the book yet (though I'm eagerly awaiting its arrival at my library), but from what I've gathered it seems that Golberg's argument is that contemporary American liberalism is an offshoot of the same ideological lineage as Italy's National Fascist Party and Germany's Nationalist Socialist Party, better known as the Nazi Party. Goldberg is quick to point out that the word "Socialist" appears in the title of Hitler's political party, and therefore proves a common ideological foundation with American liberals because they are branded "socialists" by their political opponents. Brilliant, huh? I mean, you have to overlook his logical fallacy that the same word always implies the same meaning regardless of context, and then you have to ignore the fact that Hitler denounced most socialist and communist political movements because he saw them as the perverse ideological products of Jewish intellectuals, but once you do that...

Hmm. Alright, maybe I'm not giving the guy a fair shake. Here, let me offer you Golberg's own explanation of his argument in his own words in an interview with

To sort of start the story, the reason why we see fascism as a thing of the right is because fascism was originally a form of right-wing socialism. Mussolini was born a socialist, he died a socialist, he never abandoned his love of socialism, he was one of the most important socialist intellectuals in Europe and was one of the most important socialist activists in Italy, and the only reason he got dubbed a fascist and therefore a right-winger is because he supported World War I.

Wow! Call me crazy, but all this time I thought that Mussolini was labeled a fascist because of his role in creating the Partito Nazionale Fascista!...

OK, so Goldberg's book is probably a laughably weak attempt to smear his political opponents masquerading as rigorously researched intellectual historiography. But here's what gets me: at one point, Goldberg conceived of this book as one that would critically engage with Hegel. How often do you see THAT kind of intellectual ambition from American political pundits? Call me crazy, but I actually want to applaud that kind of chutzpa. I know I'm going to regret saying this in the morning, but right now I actually feel like this kind of crap is actually healthier for the public sphere than the usual political dumbfuckery that I see on the shelves of Borders and Barnes and Noble.