Oral Presentation Session
Reviewed by: American Ethnological Society
Of interest to: Practicing and Applied Anthropologists, Teachers of Anthropology in Community Colleges, Students
Primary Theme: Resilience
Secondary Theme: Inequality
Our panel begins with the observation that progress, development, and modernization, as pervasive discursive frameworks in post-socialist nations, cannot exist or be told without an idea of backwardness—an idea linked to notions of the past, lack, and shame. What are the means through which these frameworks attain their spread and power? How and why do certain “backward” practices persist? What is the relationship between their persistence and the post-socialist discourses of progress, development, and modernity? In pursuing these questions, we seek new approaches to post-socialist biopolitics that reach beyond the Eurocentric model of state-society relations, and by extension a more precise language with which to consider various kinds of inequality and stigmatization that occur in post-socialist contexts.
In considering the peculiar juxtaposition of dominant discursive frameworks, in part reminiscent of Marxist-Leninist modes of history-telling, and the perpetuation of forms of backwardness, our panel focuses on specific discursive events and speakers. By what means do “backward” people construct lives and contexts for themselves? How does the notion of backwardness become implicated in the aspirations of a rising middle class? And how do educated urbanites—the apparent pinnacles of modern life—make sense of their own “backward” habits, practices, and relationships? Ultimately, how might particular orientations to backwardness give shape to intimate and communal relations (Steinmüller 2013), and how, through these emergent relations, are larger social histories remembered, forgotten, retold (Anagnost 1997; Khalid 2007; Adams 2010; Beyer 2016; Bovingdon 2002)?
The common thread in this concerns the dissolution of collectives, an event that crosscuts socialist societies, when the certainties of early socialism began to fall apart. But this moment of rupture has coincided with a recovery or reinvention of many aspects of prerevolutionary ways of life. From the re-emergence of patrilineal kin groups, popular religious temples, death ritual, and Buddhist practice in China (Aisha & Wank 2009; Brandstädter & Santos 2009; Chau 2006; Goossaert & Palmer 2011; Liu 2000; Jing 1996; Oxfeld 2010; Osburg 2017; Mueggler 2017), to the explosion of mosque building, ritual observance, supernatural healing, public discourse about clan politics, and the image of women as the carriers of authentic culture in Central Asia (Privratsky 2001; Jessa 2006; Rasanayagam 2011; Louw 2007; Montgomery 2016; Dubuisson 2017; Ilkhamov 2007; Schatz 2004; Gullette 2010; Harris 2004; Megoran 1999), these reconceptualizations of formerly suppressed social forms seem linked to new strategies for coping with the curtailment of social contracts governing the redistribution of rights and responsibilities between states and citizens, the privatization of the market, the liberalization of consumer choice and growing economic inequalities, and the reduction of welfare provisions. Yet, these strategies risk being seen as backward and shameful—and threaten what are, or were once, central narratives of national history and development. Embracing the full spectrum of backwardness, we ask what it means, and how it feels, to live within, through, against these stories.