Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Post-Socialism and Notions of Context in St Petersburg./Post-Socialisme et Contextes a Saint-Petersbourg

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Post-Socialism and Notions of Context in St Petersburg./Post-Socialisme et Contextes a Saint-Petersbourg

Article excerpt

Post-socialist anthropology has taken a turn for the particular. The diversity found in particular responses to the collapse of socialist states, from agriculture to dance music, from shamanism to architecture, provided a necessary corrective to the bluntly technologistic and prescriptive accounts that fetishize 'capitalism' as the only possible end-game. Particularities showed up uncertainties in post-socialist transformations (Burawoy & Verdery 1999). Similar turns have been important for anthropologists working outside the region, too. James Ferguson's work in Zambia (1999) likewise emphasizes the contingent and situated responses to the rollback of 'modernity' and also refuses to answer the question 'what comes next?' so famously asked about the end of state socialism (Verdery 1996). As Mertz argues, in situations of profound instability and uncertainty, 'we see anthropology pressed to its core, as the women and men who perform the ethnography find themselves ... side-by-side with their subjects, digging down to examine the very constitution of selves, agency and society as it occurs from minute to minute in action and interaction' (2002: 359). This, however, is to raise the question of what certainty is; there is a danger in normalizing 'stable' systems by lumping uncertainty together with events that 'fit poorly with models of progressive rationalisation' (Mertz 2002: 360). Post-socialist anthropology rejected the notion of a pre-given capitalist trajectory in an effort to avoid normalizing models of progressive rationalization, but it has done so by taking the uncertainty of social change as its starting point. This starting point is increasingly being called into question (Hann, Humphrey & Verdery 2002), in part because there is now an entire generation entering adulthood with only the earliest memories of a Soviet childhood.

Mertz's insight, however, leads away from questions of generation and the passage of time, and asks anthropology to address how informants themselves imagine social context as it happens. Context, then, is more than a series of transformations of 'wider' overarching systems, but also a situated view on contingencies and diversities. My fieldwork in St Petersburg (2000/1) suggests rather clearly that people there have already formulated some ideas about 'context'. At the time of the fieldwork, talk of liminality had an almost nostalgic feel to it. People reported to me the disorientation they felt of not knowing whether it was worthwhile going to work or school during the days of the 1991 coup. They also talked about the simultaneous freedoms that enabled, which had less to do with rights and 'expression' than the most immediate exercising of agency, often reported as copious drinking. Some sense of context now makes these activities of going to work or school possible (and these carnivalesque freedoms less so), and places this discourse in the past tense. Yet, as we shall see, my informants also rejected any notion of an unproblematic capitalist future. This is cause for exploring ways in which we might come to understand context as itself locally situated knowledge(s) rather than as a genre of academic assessment (see Dilley 1999 for a problematization of this genre). Indeed, while examples of discourses about transformation can be found--gappy and contradictory though they are--practices without verbose commentary are equally revealing. The challenge, then, is to find a way to interpret social models that not only sit uncomfortably with notions of progressive rationalization, but also work against the scholarly urge to find discursive representations and untangle other people's claims.

In this article I explore some aspects of how people in St Petersburg understand context through the prism of pretence. Pretence seems at first an antiquated point of entry. Questions of authenticity and pretence have been historically associated with questions of whether people really 'believed' in the Soviet system and the way in which the state had a hegemonic role in the production of meaning. …

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