ԲԱՑԱ(ՀԱՅ)ՏՈՒՄ In Flight: Singing Tricksters, Imposters, Masqueraders

This conversation was conducted by email correspondence over the period between December 15, 2016 and January 8, 2017. In the past, it was Nelli Sargsyan, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Marlboro College in Vermont, who initiated and conducted the interview-conversations with Queering Yerevan Collective (QYC), a loose network of artists, writers, cultural critics and activists queering and using Yerevan as an experimental space. This time the conversation was initiated and conducted by QYC. In common (academic) practice, the initiators (interviewers) get credited as authors of the text. In this case, however, since we are also interested in creating new modes of inquiry (methodology?) and meaning-making, we want to disrupt that and take flight into collective authorship.

Arpi Adamyan, “White Sun,” 2017. Image courtesy of QYC.

Queering Yerevan Collective: Let’s begin with a simple question and complicate things as we go. How did you first hear about Queering Yerevan Collective and why were you interested in our work?

Nelli Sargsyan: It was September of 2009 when I came across an article that Vahan Ishkhanyan wrote for ArmeniaNow. The voice of the author in that article struck me as brash but there was a link at the end of the article. And I clicked on it. It was your blog! And I distinctly remember my amazement (later by extension my lack of knowledge). I was so struck by the depth of creativity and thinking, and theoretical knowledge that was being created and generated in Armenia. So I started reading. Every. Single. Entry on the blog. And the more I read the more I became interested in what you were doing. I decided to do research so I could share it with my peers at other institutions. So in early 2010 I submitted my application to the Institutional Review Board (IRB) at the institution with which I was affiliated at the time to see if I needed to contact the then Women-Oriented Women (WOW) Collective to request permission for my research. The IRB determined that because it was a publicly accessible blog I did not need to request permission to analyze the blog entries. At the time it seemed like a relief because the thought of contacting the Collective seemed intimidating. I felt like I was learning so much in terms of brave creative possibilities, interesting and radical thinkers and theorists from the WOW Collective’s work on the blog that I thought if I had to contact you my questions might have come across as simplistic and uninteresting.

QYC: You were perhaps one of the first people who were interested in our work at a time when we were super active but utterly new and unknown. We were a bit anxious that our activities were some kind of a hot topic for you and that you would simply project your own interests on our work. But the coming years proved the opposite. What changed in your analysis or process of work after getting in touch with us?

NS: In March of 2010 I shared with Nancy [Agabian] a conference presentation I had prepared to talk about the then WOW Collective blog. Since she was a Collective member I was wondering what she thought of my analysis of the blog. She read it and thought it was accurate. She also told me that Shushan was going to present at the same conference at which I was going to present. So I met Shushan in April of 2010 in New Orleans. I went to Shushan’s presentation; Shushan came to mine. We also met in between and after our presentations. And I asked Shushan before and after my presentation if my understanding of what the Collective was doing (at least as far as the blog was concerned) was accurate. And Shushan said that it was. So I left the conference elated and happy. Then the next morning I went onto the Collective blog and saw an exchange between Arpi and Shushan about my presentation and how I seemed to overemphasize the role of the diaspora. I am mentioning these details because they revealed my own limitations to me in terms of certain assumptions I had made around shared understanding. When I read the exchange on the blog I was at first extremely surprised. So I reached out to Shushan and we started an electronic exchange on the way that I had understood the Collective’s work, the word choices I had made to examine things. It was so, so illuminating that in fact it changed everything about the way I saw myself in my research process as well as the way I approached my research participants. I got to experience viscerally what was a theoretical abstraction to me up to that point, namely actively learning as one does research and co-creating meaning together. I wrote a short reflection on this learning experience in Anthropology News in early 2011.(Nelli Sargsyan-Pittman, “Contributing to the Synergistic Circulation of Knowledge,” in Anthropology News 52 (2011): 11.) My exchange with Shushan also revealed the limitations of doing research without directly engaging with and talking to the people about whose work one does research. I applied again to the IRB in 2011 so that I could interview the Collective members. By this time the WOW Collective had its current name Queering Yerevan (QY) Collective and we had already started the collaboration on the book Queered: What’s To Be Done with xCentric Art. So my meaningful engagement and subsequent friendships with the QY Collective members became an intellectually nourishing and transforming experience of collective meaning-making.

QYC: We see the present conversation as a common platform rooted in feminism where we share with each other methods of work and production. American feminist art historians such as Griselda Pollock and Linda Nochlin have worked in parallel with feminist groups such as the Guerrilla Girls, deconstructing and problematizing the mute and motionless model, the nude, or the muse in art who reflects the so-called creator’s imagination. As a feminist anthropologist how have you critiqued the methods of your own discipline? Could you also please talk about the methods of other feminist anthropologists? If we were to draw parallels between art and anthropology, could we say that anthropological studies have often been conducted with those whose language the researchers have not understood?

NS: I really appreciate this question, because the question of methods of work and struggle are ongoing for me: changing and constantly emerging. Maybe we can have a separate thread where we specifically discuss productive methods across genres and disciplines, and line of work. But there are a couple of things that have always been important for me and have become more explicitly so after I started paying attention to the work of QYC, more specifically since we (the QYC members and I) started conversing and collaborating. The two things that have stood out to me from your work have been (1) your commitment to disrupting the habitual and (2) creating new realities which often becomes possible by pointing to the constructedness of the reality that many take for granted (and in the singular). So the scholars-writers-thinkers in whose work and methods I have been interested all hone in on some aspect of the above two. For example, Donna Haraway’s insistence, in “Situated Knowledges” (1988), on the importance of feminist objectivity being partial and rooted in networks of connections and embodied experiences (rather than disembodied knowledge hovering over us) is a key starting point for me.(Donna Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective,” in Feminist Studies 14 (1988): 575-599.)  In “Entering into the Serpent” I am also moved by Gloria Anzaldúa’s (1987) la facultad, which, in her words, is an instant “sensing” of the deep structures of surface phenomena.(Gloria Anzaldúa, “Entering into the Serpent,” in Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (San Francisco: Aunt Lute, 2007), 38.) In Thousand Plateaus I am interested in Deleuze and Guattari’s (1987) rhizome that avoids reduction to one or even multiple units, instead consists of directions in motion.(Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 21.) I am deeply interested in all things Arendt. These days I am also interested in Muñoz’s (2009) queer futurity from his Cruising Utopia (as the present doesn’t seem to be enough)(José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York and London: New York University Press, 2009).) and affect theory and the “stickiness” of affect as Sara Ahmed (2010) puts it in her Happy Objects, and its shifting intensities.(Sara Ahmed, “Happy Objects,” in The Affect Theory Reader. Eds. Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010).) I have to pause here before I can continue, as parenting seems to call for more immediate and embodied attention-action.

[electr(on)ic pause]

In other words, I am more interested in thinking and methods that shift a perspective and experience and allow for imagining different ways of imagining, thinking, and living than in disciplinary commitments. And I often find myself on the seams and in many directions.

But in the meantime I want to briefly talk about the part of your question regarding anthropologists working with people whose language they do not understand. Part of the “classical” Western (at least in the US) anthropological training has been that if one does fieldwork in a society (community, place) the language of which they do not speak they have to learn the language, live with the people with whom they are doing their fieldwork. But oftentimes even if anthropologists spoke (speak) the language of the people involved in their research, people involved in the research often (still) can’t read what the researcher wrote about them. This also, of course, involves a lot of social, political, cultural asymmetries. My research has involved people who not only can and do read what I write about them, but they can critique my work not only from their experiential position but also from their theoretical and academic positions. And I deeply appreciate this (even if at the beginning it seemed paralyzing and terrifying). I also recognize the asymmetry still present in the knowledge production (e.g. if I am the sole author of a piece I make decisions about what to include and what not, how to develop a point, and so on). The fact that people involved in my research can read my work and give me feedback enriches my research and makes it more meaningful for me. This dynamic also often results in collaborations across disciplines. Take for example our conversation here (and our collaborations over the years), or a presentation I had a few years ago with a colleague, who had been involved in my research before, or an upcoming conference for which a colleague (and a former research participant) and I have jointly submitted an abstract.

I wanted to mention a couple of things that have been important for me that I forgot to mention earlier. One of them is the QYC approach to working together by allowing room for different approaches, viewpoints, as it develops a productive process of collaboration through the creative power of difference and multiplicity. I saw this in ?????????? ??????, Aregnazan, ????’ ????????????? (Arendt’s translation), and other projects. And the other is that being attuned to the QYC work helps me not to reproduce different patriarchal system-fed habits (keeps me alert). So I try to apply these in my own research and teaching.

I had a student last year in my Introduction to Cultural Anthropology class (intro!), Anna Loucka, a talented artist who did an autoethnography in which she engaged Ana Mendieta and Hélène Cixous. Since then Mendieta and Cixous’s insistence on involving one’s own body in their art and writing has also moved me. Thinking and creating from an embodied and visceral location has become an important locus of experimentation for me this past year.

QYC: Being “a topic” is quite an experience, especially in the sense of Margaret Atwood’s essay “The Female Body.” We’ve had different interviews with different scholars and critics who’d expressed interest in our work, including the curators Elke Krasny and Mirjam Westen, as well as Barbara Eder, Corina Oprea, Chantal Partamian (Bekhsoos) and yourself, among others. We have met them personally, engaging directly, as you put it, and developed different kinds of relationships, which is how it ought to be. We’d never been some kind of a “phantom” subject as we turned out to be in an inept article written by Madina Tlostanova et al titled “Border Thinking and Disidentification: Postcolonial and Postsocialist Feminist Dialogues,” where even the name of the Collective is misspelled.(Madina Tlostanova, Suruchi Thapar-Björkert and Redi Koobak, “Border Thinking and Disidentification: Postcolonial and Postsocialist Feminist Dialogues,” in Feminist Theory 17 (2016): 218-219.)

In this article where they cite QYC (copying many things from your unpublished article for Feminist Formations), Tlostanova et al. position one of the authors, Madina Tlostanova, and QYC as tricksters, in the sense of the African and African diasporic folkloric tradition of double-talk and trickery as a significant act of resistance and being (Henry Louis Gates, Jr.). There is nomention of these conceptual roots, of course, as they unproblematically copy/paste these concepts onto QYC; their approach is superficial, unethical (because they do not refer to the sources) and arbitrary. Arbitrary, because they have not made the effort to really engage with us and analyze our manifold roots and problematics in the Armenian context. Finally, and what is the most perverse is the fact that they reserve the right to rename us. Naming or defining ourselves as a right, as a chance to (re)invent and (re)present ourselves is taken away from the Collective, as in Tlostanova et al’s minds “definitions belong to the definers—not the defined” (to quote Toni Morrison from her brilliant novel Beloved).(Toni Morrison, Beloved (New York: Vintage, 1987), 225.) What is behind the authors’ “trickster” move when they rename us “Yerevan Queering Collective”? Could you please comment on this colonial “disidentification”; how does it (or does it at all) “subvert” the always already existing colonial relationship of the Russian “gaze” and the Armenian “corpus”? (By “Russian” we mean anyone raised in Soviet or post-Soviet Russia, even if descending from non-Russian minorities, who cannot escape the power relations that exist between Russia and its satellite states.)

NS: This is a hard one for me (and took the longest). I find myself struggling to respond to this question. What is an adequate feminist response in which I am not reproducing the violence of patriarchy that has saturated the many realities I have inhabited? At the same time, how do I respond feministly, having unlearned the burden of respectability? I procrastinate. I read Sara Ahmed’s (2017) upcoming book Living a Feminist Life. And she talks to me about feminists writing on feminist theory yet not acting in feminist ways. Feminism can’t be put down, she says, nor can challenging and fighting everyday sexism be optional for feminism.(Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2017), 14-15.) And I am thinking that for me (mis)naming cannot be optional for feminisms either (I intentionally pluralize the term here). I take flight in procrastination again and keep reading more of Ahmed. Then she talks to me about “sweaty concepts” that we generate when we are struggling to describe certain things difficult to ??????? at the moment.(Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life, 12.) So I pause and mentally work on my sweaty concepts in relation to your question and this situation. I am still struggling so I read more of Ahmed. And she explains to me how describing a situation is conceptual work. And as I read Ahmed, she reminds me how “[c]itation is feminist memory” and how it affects the kind of houses (she refers to feminism as a building project) we build.(Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life, 15-16.) She talks about how citations are feminist straw that gives you shelter, exposing you at the same time by leaving you vulnerable. So I am wondering if the authors of the article to which you are referring are building a house not with feminist straw but timber frame (Ahmed will explain this further). I know from experience how learning to recognize one’s privilege in the face of intersecting othering oppressions can be tricky. The ?????? treatment of QYC strikes me more as a convenient plugin, reproducing the status quo of who can gaze at whom and how. I think your observation regarding the excerpt from Viktor Shklovsky’s “??????????? ????” (1928) is absolutely perfect here:

? ?????? ????? ? ????????? ? ????????. “??, ??????? ???????????,” — ????????? ????????? ??????? ?????? ???????, — “?????????? ?????? ??????????? ? ????? ? ?????? ?????????????” . . .
(I went to the Women’s Department of the Communist Party (Zhenotdel) in Batum with a comrade. “We, the women of Adjaristan,” a blond woman was dictating to another woman, “protest against the intervention in China and against the betrayal” . . .)(Viktor Shklovsky, The Hamburg Score, trans. S. Avagyan (Victoria: Dalkey Archive Press, 2017), 173.)

Thinking alongside Ahmed from where I sit straining and sweating through this response, in Tlostanova et al.’s article (at least in the part on QYC) I see an attempt to colonize the “knowledge generators in the global South” as the authors discuss their decoloniality of thinking, even if coming from different ethnic locations colonized and minoritized by various imperial and colonial projects. “How to dismantle the world that is built to accommodate only some bodies?” Ahmed asks.(Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life, 14.) How to dismantle the feminist-titled worlds that are built to accommodate only colonizing bodies? I ask.

Going back to your question about methods or critiquing disciplinary methods, I often walk away from Euro- and Anglo-American-centric authors and thinkers, and creators in my reading, writing, and teaching, but not always. So as practice (and practice of solidarity), following Ahmed’s example who in her upcoming book is not citing white men, as an intellectual horizon rather than cultural material, citing, instead, authors writing on feminism and antiracism, I am going to pay more active attention to my own practice.

QYC: But do you think the problem resides in whom you cite or rather with what intention or motive you cite (or don’t cite)?

NS: You know, intentionality has always informed my citations. And Ahmed (2017) herself describes (conceptualizes) her policy (of moving away from citing the institution of white men) as blunt, rather than precise (herself at one point citing a Grimm story). She talks about the messiness and debatability of who’s considered part of the institution and who is not. But she says she is primarily citing feminists of color who have dismantled “institutions of patriarchal whiteness.”(Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life, 16.)

I really like this idea of “generating sweaty concepts” that Ahmed (2017) proposes, as my interest in this exercise is to pay attention to the worlds that become possible rather than denounce poignant experiences and ideas. After all, I too readily referred to the excerpt from Shklovsky (1928) you pointed out to me. I want to use this exercise as an opportunity to more actively and continually shift the center for intellectual nourishment from the male-centric, the Euro, the Anglo, the Euro-Anglo American, the (neo)colonial, and the (neo)imperial.

Ahmed (2017) talks about citation as a way to express indebtedness to those who lay and clarified important paths before us. But for me citation is also about resonance, about ???? ?? ???, about flying together, and trusting each other in flight. It is about moving over, making room for others so the room is brighter and deeper with their ?? ???? ?????. So not citing can be about unwillingness to move over, hesitating to put trust in the light (the shimmer? the flicker? the ????) of (an)other(s). So for me citation is not only about tying the past to the present and future, it is also about expanding and amplifying Muñoz’s (2009) desired future in the present with different voices as they come to fly in parallel and elsewhere rather than before. In other words, citation is not necessarily linear for me, rather multi-temporal and in concert. Someone need not come before me for me to cite them, they can come at the same time elsewhere, and together we might have a more moving resonance, so I cite. Take for example, Willa Chandra (2016), who was working on a tutorial with me on creating narratives that do not reproduce Anglo, Euro male-centric forms. So we read a variety of writing by women of color (primarily). She was interested in forms of narrative that would allow her to make sense (describe = conceptualize, in Ahmed’s terms) her worlds as a white-passing woman of color who found her voice (light) often curtailed at different race-class-gender intersections in her life, then presence of her silence (of processing) misrecognized as absence. When in her work she talks about her ground body as a seismograph for pain for other bodies elsewhere, this is such a perceptive and resonant and moving and powerful image for me that citing her sends me flying with plentiful of oxygen. So, to paraphrase Willa Chandra, citation is a seismograph for attunement (to others elsewhere).

QYC: But Shklovsky reveals a really interesting moment in the above passage where someone invested in power (representing the Soviet rule), someone who is there to modernize through instruction, dictates, speaks, is actively engaged, while the anecdotal scribe is rendered voiceless, passive, devoid of agency. (A few lines later Shklovsky writes: “They often tell anecdotes about Adjaristan. Lodged in the mountains and standing in opposition to the local way of life, the Soviet rule as if invokes the telling of such anecdotes.”) So we should leave this in, as it relates to our conversation in a number of ways.

NS: Yes, I would like us to leave Shklovsky (I am not yet ready to give up Deleuze and Guattari either: unlearning takes time). Perhaps, the messy process of working towards dismantling patriarchal whiteness needs to be done in bursts and in flight (didn’t Cixous already say this part about flight, if in a more poetic way?).

QYC: If “border thinking”—the pivotal concept around which the article by Tlostanova et al is constructed—is an elixir for Western feminist theory (which we think is still very useful and productive in many regards), how does the article fail in its engagement with “collaborative praxis as a methodological and theoretical intervention”? In other words, the article is about forms of intervention: What intervention does the article itself bring to the discourse of feminist theory in terms of its form? How impactful or effective is an article on “decolonizing knowledge” as it critiques “dominant modes of thinking” in a form (or a mode) that follows the standard Western article form?

NS: To be honest, I am not so keen on this term intervention, although I do understand its thrust. I am more interested in stretching, disrupting, confusing, disorienting, and queering, than intervening. And I have to say, I find your observation regarding standard forms very helpful for me as a researcher, as it reminds me that form is methodologically crucial, which I find myself overlooking at times (or taking given forms for granted and focusing on ideas). This is what I meant when I was mentioning earlier how working with QYC keeps me alert or pulls me out of automatized habits, ?? ? ????? to deepen my understanding and methodological approach. Coming back to the article, since I am most familiar with the context of QYC, that’s the part I am focusing on. So in this regard, the form of the article itself is not shifting a mode of thinking. Initially, when I was thinking of collaborative praxis I was thinking that directly engaging the people with whom we work within a familiar form allows us to shift power asymmetries. But after reflecting on your observation about the form being part of the shift, I think it is important to find, develop, and create other forms and modes. And I am wondering if shifting the form could be a way to get at the collaborative praxis more effectively by directly engaging those with whom we are working, about whom and to whom we are writing. Do you think, then, that our conversation is one creative alternative calibrated towards a more collaborative praxis?

QYC: Well, traditional genres, including the academic article, are always rigid and exclusive: they impose a certain tone (authoritative, distant, omniscient, etc.), a certain stance (the more “objective” the better), a certain direction from which one cannot swerve, retreat or digress. Hannah Arendt writes in her essay “Society and Culture” (1960) about the vigilantes of genre, the “digesters, re-writers, and changers of culture whom we find in every publishing house” (she refers to those in the United States), “often well read and well informed, whose sole function is to organize, disseminate, and change cultural objects in order to make them palatable to those who want to be entertained or—and this is worse—to be ‘educated,’ that is, to acquire as cheaply as possible some kind of cultural knowledge to improve their social status.”(Hannah Arendt, “Society and Culture,” Daedalus 89 (1960): 284.) Our conversation, of course, depending on where it appears, in which context, could potentially be a creative alternative within a discourse on collaborative praxis. It could potentially offer trust in what George Steiner has called in After Babel (1975) “the ‘other’ as yet untried, unmapped alterity of statement.”(George Steiner, After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation (Oxford University Press, 1975), 296.) The conversational genre is a hybrid form, call-and-response style, and unprescribed, you never know where the questions might take you. There is always an element of surprise, room for improvisation in a conversation. Our conversation is like a bridge suspended in midair, it’s constructed halfway and it can easily break. One of its points of departure is, let’s say, the infamous article by Tlostanova et al, but it is aimed at new, un-engineered points of arrival: those involved in building this bridge can either mishandle and break it, or they can extend it to other (new) realms where discoveries are possible not at the expense of the local informants but . . . what? Is it possible to build a bridge without exploitation (having in the back of our minds the writings by radical women of color in the feminist anthology edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa This Bridge Called My Back)?

NS: ??, as I read your question, I feel this need in my body to type slow-silently, this need in my body to type with intention. I                                                                                                                     pause                                                                                                                                   (I am not procrastinating, I am processing. With intention). And it is difficult (at least for me) to tangibly birth the presence of intention-silence (of processing). As I type, I am thinking of Ahmed’s building project with feminist material, as well as the importance of not hierarchizing suffering in order to amplify resonance that Moraga perceived viscerally. It had to get into her body. The knowledge (of the importance not to hierarchize. Suffering). Is it possible? I echo your question. What does a bridge do in this case? I am asking myself. Is it to be walked on? Driven on? That huuuuuuuurts me into cou . . . no . . . rage. Dreamt through? I want to dream-travel into new imaginariescutting across linearity of disciplines, time, worlds, and realities through the bridge. I am reworking this bridge into ????????????-????????? that are nerve-muscles: resilient, flexible, perceptive, full of cou(rage) singing the kind of knowledges that breathe and oxygen (this is an intentional verb) in all directions, singing and merging with other nerve-muscles: resilient, flexible, perceptive, full of cou(rage). There are many pulsing nodes that we sing into to honor them, to sit with them, to embrace them, not to smooth them out. I harness my nerve-muscles and sing my way in all soundcloud directions in(to) the embodied worlds of ????????????:

The Queering Yerevan Collective has been active in Yerevan, the capital city of Armenia, since 2007. It is a loose network of artists, writers, cultural critics and activists queering and using Yerevan as an experimental space. QYC has published several books including Queered: What’s To Be Done with xCentric Art (2011) and In and Between the (Re)public (2014).

SargsyanA native of Yerevan, Armenia, Nelli Sargsyan received ?? PhD in cultural and linguistic anthropology from the State University of New York at Albany in 2013. ?? is currently assistant professor of anthropology at Marlboro College in Vermont, where ?? often team teaches multidisciplinary courses with colleagues from a variety of disciplines, such as visual and performing arts, religion, and politics. ??? research interests include identity discourses (gender, race, sexuality, class), transnational gender studies, queer studies, affect theory, feminisms, social change, and contemporary art activism. ??? most recent research focuses on civic and artistic activisms and social movements in post-Soviet societies and their diasporas. In collaboration with a civic and environmental feminist activist from Armenia ?? is currently working on a research project that aims to understand what calls people to action against oppressive regimes. Their findings will later inform the capacity-building training programs of feminist activists in Armenia.

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