Interview by Kamala Russell
Kamala Russell: In reading this engaging historical ethnography, there were two major themes that stood out to me, in its content, your approach tohistorical work, and in writing a ‘teaching ethnography’: 1) self and ethics in practices involving sex, desire, and courtship, and 2) doing historical ethnography with texts about sexuality that looks at how these texts circulate.
You detail the interactive and poetic genres that support a particular form of sexual relations among the Khevsurs, today a storied poetry-spinning, horse-riding, honor-wielding people from the mountains of Georgia. You begin by describing two kind of relationships: the sts’orproba, which both is and isn’t sex, and dzmobiloba, which is both romantic and familial, but definitely not marriage. How would you characterize the difference between these and other physically restrained forms of courtship like arranged marriage or chastity promises?
Paul Manning: The wording is important here, the Khevsurs really don’t have courtship. Sts’orproba is definitely sexuality pursued in restrained form for its own sake, people believe it’s better to engage in it than the alternative. A Myth in the earlier chapter says: Before, boys and girls could only look at each other and pine, their desire was too strong and there was no way for them to express it, so they died. God did two things: he took some desire away from sexuality (desire for persons) and displaced it onto desire for things. The other thing he did was institute a limited expression for sexual desire: sts’orproba. So, I’ve called that “sociable sexuality”, sociable in Simmel’s sense: it is the “play form” of sexuality. Dzmobiloba is the dangerous development of sts’orproba: sts’orproba gets serious, stops being playful, becomes something permanent that can only exist between one boy and one girl. Dzmobiloba is rivalrous with sts’orproba AND marriage, and hence is pursued with the greatest secrecy, and with great restraint. It’s not that Khevsurs never had the idea that they might like to combine sexuality with marriage, but as it stands marriage is opposed to sexuality (if by sexuality we mean expressions of desire), even though it involves what we would call sex. Generally speaking sts’orproba is opposed to sex, but only in the sense of procreation. So, our categories (courtship, sex) all mislead. If we are talking about other cultural forms of sexuality, I suppose courtship is understood to be preparatory to marriage, in a way that sts’orproba isn’t. But frankly I think courtship is only one factor in our society, for example, I think it’s pretty clear that people engage in sexual relations similar to sts’orproba and dzmobiloba without really taking seriously the idea that this is going to lead to marriage, just as we engage in sexual relations without necessarily believing commitment (something like dzmobiloba) will result. Naturally, people might have different ideas within a single relationship. I think our conflation of sexuality with projections of long term relationships is itself ambivalent to a desire to marry. On the other hand, there are plenty of interesting ethnographies of how people manage to try to introduce courtship-like agency into situations where marriage is generally arranged, and so on (here I’m thinking in particular of the use of emergent literacy and love letters in Nepal (Laura Ahearn) or the use of internet cafes in Jordan (Laura Kaya))[i] as affordances to produce possibilities of agency in situations like this). But I’m not aware of many ethnographies that deal with a form of sexuality or desire so clearly pursued for its own sake, that can’t be reduced to premarital courtship and can’t be reduced to procreative alliances. It is strange, but also familiar even if it is in an unfamiliar form –the destructive drama, betrayal, pining. .
Kamala Russell: Khevsur romantic encounters all involve individual restraint, anonymity, secrecy, privacy, public disavowal, and intimacy without the fantasy of being chosen.. Yet some partners speak of deep love. So here does sexuality walk a line between encounters kept private but that may be sites of ethical contemplation/practice (projecting an image of oneself to the world through another), and relations that are much more socially on-the-record?
Paul Manning: That is two questions in one. Desire isn’t anonymous, but all its public expressions are anonymous (poetry) or secretive, furtive, guarded, restrained, all the more so when the desire becomes so serious that it is no longer elective and playful, and becomes potentially consequential for serious adult relationships. Dzmobiloba is the most secretive in its practices, because it is the most intense and serious expression of desire, and yet the most publicly expressed through anonymous poetry. The restraint of desire, the restraint of open expression, secrecy, are all of a piece with the Khevsur notions of self, which revolve around freedom, autonomy, and the ethical category namusi (for both men and women, obviously related to Arabic namus [I thank my colleague Anne Meneley for explaining the ethical content of namus to me andits relations to the Khevsur ideas of self). The poet displays her love by hiding it in plain sight, disguising egocentric desire as sociocentric praise for the lover, by suppressing her open expression of desire with her namusi. The ability to form elective relationships formed through desire and consent are obviously emblematic of this freedom and autonomy, somewhat wilful, as long as you obey the rules, you don’t care what people say. However, with this desire other desires are born, the desire to marry one’s beloved, this is where it becomes dangerous and possibly means an end to all these freedoms. The system is unstable, and challenges appear. Concealment and self-regulation are all aspects of the same Khevsur notion of self, freedom and autonomy based on self-restraint and namusi, as well as being able to express one’s desire and showing respect for the other through consent. They cannot be told not to engage in these things, they must be persuaded. Khevsur sexuality is part of Khevsur notions of a Khevsur person as someone with concerns about their “name and shame”, with namusi, and hence freedom and autonomy, one who cannot be ordered around, particularly in areas that are free from obligation. In effect, their expressions of desire are an ethical system. Even when they are playing pretty fast and loose with the rules, all these disagreements unfold within the antinomies and possibilities of this ethical/sexual ethos.
Marriage is contracted through intermediaries, and intermediaries can spoil a marriage contract, the same intermediaries who pair up boys and girls who don’t know each other. Because no one with proper restraint can make a move unless these intermediaries intervene. The fact that intermediaries both create the conditions of possibility of desire and also destroy potential marriage contracts makes them the wild cards, the jokers, of the system. The two systems are related, but the basic idea is that desire is foremost in sts’orproba, and obligation foremost in marriage, and they have to be kept apart or the whole thing goes out of control.
Kamala Russell: So, can you say something about subjectivity or personhood in these pairs, when their concealment and regulation are not a question of restricting freedom? It strikes me there is something interesting here compared to how sexuality is usually positioned in (maybe otherwise political) discussions of subjectivity or love.
Paul Manning: So Georgians often compared these relationships to the medieval category of love called Mijnuroba, often glossed as the same as “courtly love”. The love pictured in ghazals was illicit in its character, for the member of the purdah society there existed only three possibilities to experience love, and all three of them were socially not allowed: love for a woman betrothed or married to another man, love for a courtesan, and homosexual love for a young and beautiful boy.”[ii]
This particular kind of love is much more typical of Georgian urban poetry which is heavily influenced by these traditions, where there is a different category of love, eshkhi, which is clearly borrowed from Arabic ishq, probably via Persian, a burning but unrequited desire which is both an attribute of the lover, typically likened to a nightingale, and the beloved, liked to a rose, in what is obviously a completely hackneyed trope. The Khevsur tradition is a bit different from all these antecedents, and the crucial difference is that Khevsur sexual practices do not require that desire be completely unrequited, but they do limit its expression in every field.
The popular reception of Khevsur love in Georgia, as I show later in the book, varies between two extremes, treating it as platonic, unrequited, chivalric, what have you unrequited love, and something so libertine that it seems to include every imaginable sex act other than the one act that is imagined to be impossible: vaginal intercourse. Georgians often talk about a sword being placed between the lovers, and that part of the mythology of Khevsur sex hangs on a narrow thread. One ethnographer mentions it, once, and I think he made it up. It gets blown into a canonical thing, but it’s clearly from Western chivalric romance. But Khevsur love was neither of these two things, the expressions range from spending the night talking and maybe a kiss or two, and apparently, what we would call sex and what Khevsurs call “fornication”. So, it wasn’t unrequited, the whole point of the myth is that God wanted it to be requited in a limited way. We know it expresses desire, and does so directly. But there are enough gaps in the standard account that people can read into it what they like. So the two most important things about it, other than it being opposed to marriage (which is what makes it sociable, there is no consequential relationship that hangs on it), is that it is self-limiting desire, desire is given expression, but also limited by self-control, by namusi, so it is an expression of desire, which is destabilizing, but also an expression of a kind of Khevsur temperament, self-control, namusi, which constitutes the Khevsur ethically and ethnically as a person. Khevsurs are wilful individualists, free, proud, men and women, but also they are restrained, they have namusi, they are tempered like steel, as Baliauri might have put it. Stsorproba as an ethical practice constitutes the Khevsurs as Khevsurs, rather than being some kind of weird deviant thing they engage in. It becomes a central expression of their understanding of why they are Khevsurs, and not Pshavs, not Russians; the tension between individual desire and social norms as an ethical tension is what makes a Khevsur a Khevsur and also explains their freedom and so on.
Kamala Russell: The last sections of the book are devoted to how narratives about and representations of the Khevsurs and sts’orproba circulate in film, advertising and even online message boards, a lot of which invoke sexual freedom. What do you make of the difference between the way Khevsur desire is discussed and represented in some of the mass media you detail and in the genres of love poetry you discuss in the beginning (the poetry that itself makes up part of the sts’orproba relationship)? Do you think it is significant in the contemporary moment that anonymized expressions of love and desire come to stand for a particularly feminine object that is either overwhelmingly hot and exotic, or unattainable, playing hard-to-get, and frustrating? Is there something lost in the remobilization of these stories?
Paul Manning: Yeah, that’s really important, and it has some tie ins with how the Russians imagined Georgia as an exotic, unattainable languid, possibly treacherous Oriental woman. It lies near the centre of Russian and European orientalist representations of Georgia. I’d say that Georgians often read sts’orproba as courtly love, but it surely isn’t that, just as they misread the context of the medieval poetry of love as being European courtly love avant la lettre when it is just really ordinary stuff in the Arabo-Persian ghazal tradition. The main difference between Khevsur love and all these other kinds is that all these other kinds are always completely unrequited and unrequitable. Unrequited love is basically what love poetry is about in most times and places. Khevsurs allowed some requiting, and they sang a bit about that, but mostly they sang about break ups, betrayals and pining, because let’s face it, the best stories and love songs are not ones that are happily ever after. The best poems are the poison poems. The other aspect is that contemporary teenagers don’t read it necessarily as being completely depraved lust nor completely courtly, but as a kind of moderate “European boyfriend-girlfriend” relationship, something else absent from Georgia. So, there is this reading of it as a kind of sexual freedom poised between absolute libertinism and absolute courtly restraint, but there is also this reading that reads it as being basically a Georgian version of something really rather tame, a license for Georgian to be allowed to have boyfriend-girlfriend relationships and give them moderate forms of expression like kissing in public.
When I gave this stuff as an off the cuff public lecture, really an ambush lecture because I was not warned by my colleague Tamta Khalvashi I would be doing any such thing and it was in front of her students in a public museum, they displayed a visible excitement and fascination that girls could exert this kind of agency over romantic matters. Very unlike my own students, who met this material as they do all other material, with a deadening blasé attitude. Since they misheard some of what I was saying, and posted some things that weren’t strictly true on Facebook, a Georgian traditionalist extremist, who was an aficionado of the made-up Georgian “Khevsur martial art” of khridoli, accused me immediately of being a paid agent of the Soros foundation who was tasked with the destruction of Georgian culture. So the reception of this stuff in Georgian culture, including my own book, is always complicated.
Kamala Russell: Because it’s a historical ethnography, you’re not working with your own fieldwork, rather with ethnographers’ accounts, and otherwise mediated text. How did this influence your analytical work, and how do you think this affects how the book can be taught?
Paul Manning: I did do some fieldwork with Pshavians, but frankly, there’s no real way I would have been able to “do fieldwork” on it had I been born generations earlier. There are public forms of knowledge about it that everyone knows, but like any sexual practice, a greater degree of secrecy is involved than, say a public ritual. Someone suggested that this is a problem with all ethnography but let’s face it, that’s just wrong. You can’t plunk yourself down in a circle of teenagers and ask them to talk about their sexual experiences. Ethically you will be burned at the stake, and they won’t tell you much anyway, particularly not a 50 year old man. That’s why ethnography of sexuality is largely about public expressions of sexual identity and not sexuality in the strictest sense (I take it for granted that logically speaking sexuality involves desire before identity). That was a problem faced by Georgian ethnographers too, and even members of the same communities don’t know what other people are doing. The only person who could write that ethnography or do that ethnography would have to have been a member of that community, and even such a person would have problems knowing anything: it would be all gossip, inference, and that’s why poetry plays such a huge role for members and analysts alike, as the ethnomethodologists would say. The same problems confront the ethnographer that confront any member, but they have additional problems.
It is a historical ethnography but also a linguistic anthropology ethnography that could be used in the classroom, because there aren’t a lot of those. Obviously what I keep learning as a professor is “never teach your own stuff” because it never seems to work. I subtitled the film I discuss in the book, I’ve published the whole thing in fragments (for some reason I couldn’t save it in large chunks, but if downloaded using downloadhelper and played end to end on VLC playlist, it comes out as one film) on youtube (the first part is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bXpNaNDAqb8). There is obviously an irony in creating a book and materials to teach it and finding that you personally don’t really like to teach it, though I think that’s just part of the general rule “never teach your own stuff”.
Ahearn, L.M., 2003. Writing desire in Nepali love letters. Language & Communication, 23(2), pp.107-122.
Kaya, L.P., 2009. Dating in a sexually segregated society: Embodied practices of online romance in Irbid, Jordan. Anthropological Quarterly, 82 (1), pp.251-278.
Kuczkiewicz-Fraś, A., 2010. The beloved and the lover–love in classical Urdu ghazal. Cracow Indological Studies, 12.