Eva-Marie Dubuisson on her new book, Living Language in Kazahkstan

Living Language in Kazakhstan


Interview by Meghanne Barker

Meghanne Barker: Your initial fieldwork on aitys — a performed genre of Kazakh poetry — looked at issues of politics and performance within this form that you describe as inherently dialogic. Living Language expands your study to examine Kazakhs’ relationships with ancestors not only through this poetic performance but also through other everyday blessings, bata. How did you decide that “dialogic” was the best analytic term to caption the phenomena you examine here, as opposed to, say, “intertextuality,” since both bata and aitys seem to get framed through enxtextualizing re-contextualizing processes?

Eva-Marie Dubuisson: We are always writing against a silent strawman in a way, and for me that was the presumed immutability of a conscribed or repressive environment – where overt political opposition is often met with jailing or death. In terms of my engagement with a notion of power, I want to understand not ‘how repression works,’ but ‘how change is actually possible,’ and how worlds function outside the apparatus of the state.  I wanted to write about alternative sources of authority, and in how they become present or enacted, and in that sense, it is the idea of coming into being which is singly most important for me, and that led me to a focus on dialogic emergence, which was most compelling and the best fit for what I wanted to express.

If we look at generic reproduction in the case of any one single tradition, we could certainly say that what I describe in my ethnography are instances of “intersubjective entextualization” with all its constituent uncertainty (see Silverstein and Urban 1996).  But in my analysis I am ultimately concerned not so much with the existence or  content of any one given text, but in the emergence of a particular role across a variety of contexts, traditions, and speech genres.  I am focused on the way in which ancestors are not just available for interaction, but actually moving into that space – my concern is not with the particular content of any one message, but on the quality and position of those interacting, and in roles and the emergence of ancestors as participants in interaction.  For example, in conversations, how is it that ancestors might actually participate – in what moments, in what modes and mediums of communication, in and through which interlocutors, in which contexts?  In other words, how are they ratified as participants in interaction (see Goffman 1981)?

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Meghanne Barker: What contribution do you see this focus on ancestry making to our understanding of dialogism?

Eva-Marie Dubuisson: The answer to the questions you have posed here also lies not only in the temporal and spatial dimensions, but also in the representative capacity or potential of a voice, and in its constituent parts (heteroglossia). In my work, we see a variety of speakers and collaborators bringing to life the invocation, words, and presence of ancestors in a variety of ways, and for me there are two related theoretical questions here.  First, when exactly could we say that an ancestor becomes present in those forms of social dialoguing? I examine this in the case of everyday blessings (bata, explained above), the miracle stories and prayers at shrine sites, and the performance of public poetry. But second, given the obviously multivocalic nature of various oral traditions (like bata, prayer, miracle stories, public poetry, and even statist rhetoric), what is the political work being done in any claim to monologism?

Consider the difference between the ethnographic examples of Jane Hill’s ‘Voices of Don Gabriel’ in Mexicano narrative (1995) and Lila Abu-Lughod’s work on ghinnāwa poetry among Bedoin women (1986) – in one case, we are parsing out the different voices present in one narrator’s stream of talk, and in the capacity for critical social analysis accomplished by bringing these voices into a single speech. In another we are considering how the historical experiences of many different women are present in any single voice in a moment in time, and in the capacity of poetic song to invoke and instantiate both the affective dimensions and the moral lessons of a shared unfolding social history.  In these two examples, ultimately there is a shared ethnographic question:  both are modes of ‘voice-ing,’ and both call attention not just to the presence of a voice, or voices, but in the social work done by their being, in their pragmatic effects.

As a student of linguistic anthropology, I was heavily impacted by both of these ethnographies, and in my own work I have also tried to bring together these modes of analysis in a dialogic framework in order to help us to understand why ancestry is not only a worldview but a powerful (rhetorical and real) framework of interaction. I believe that the stakes are very high for this kind of argumentation – if we could take seriously an ancestral worldview as a basis for the unfolding of everything from human/nonhuman relationships to land rights, we could better engage indigenous struggles in a global perspective, which I think is one of the most critical political projects of our times.  Ultimately, we are trying to connect to global dialogues of indigenous land rights and anti-capitalist, anti-resource extraction, alternative energy and forms of sovereign legitimacy; this is work very much in a decolonial mode.

Meghanne Barker: This monograph really brings to life particular scenes and individuals who played key roles as interlocutors during your fieldwork. Could you explain to what extent your theoretical interest in dialogism shaped your approach to fieldwork and to writing?

Eva-Marie Dubuisson: Linguistic anthropology allows us to combine our theoretical and methodological approaches, to make clearer that these are actually always part and parcel of one epistemological stance in our research. Over the course of my fieldwork, a number of issues led me quite obviously to the question of my own participant role in the research process: the fact that I work with poetry and oral traditions, the fact that I have linguistic anthropological training and a specific theoretical interest in dialogism and voice, and the fact that I always worked in a collaborative manner. There was also an ethical desire to make more obvious my own position and involvement in the processes of conversation, translation, and the negotiation of meaning.  Linguistic anthropology has been very powerful in its critique of social institutions of power, and we need to turn that lens not only toward ‘the talk of others’ but to the relationships and encounters of the ‘fields’ we inhabit in research ourselves.  In so doing, we return to classical sets of theoretical questions: how do we ourselves, as fieldworkers, contribute to the creation of ‘contexts’ of communication (see Duranti and Goodwin 1992), or to the (perceived) attribution of responsibility for talk in interaction (see Hill and Irvine 1992)? In the introduction to my book I outline my own reflections and experience, and in particular note the realization that neither fieldwork nor analysis is not something I can ever do ‘alone’ (see Fabian 1990). Like the rest of our theoretical community, I have work to do to become more theoretically and ethically accountable for the structural conditions that make our research possible.

Meghanne Barker: When reading about the prayers to ancestors you describe in Living Language, I was reminded a bit of Tanya Luhrmann’s accounts of American Evangelicals’ conversations with God. When writing about ongoing dialogues with ancestors, did you see this as a kind of anthropology of religion and of kinship?

Eva-Marie Dubuisson: Yes – I would describe dialoguing with ancestors as a worldview because there is no question that in Central Eurasia religion and culture are not separate – most people would describe this as simply being themselves (see Privratsky 2001).  But this becomes a critical claim and a pressing analytic question in the face of the history and current context of Islamic expansion across the region – ranging from the meeting of Sufisms and Shamanisms, to overblown notions of Islamic terrorism threatening the region today.  Local populations and states alike are both invested in developing communal forms of religious life as well as in utilizing kinship as a mode of moral authority and leadership in contexts ranging from local adjudication and conflict resolution to national stewardship (see Beyer 2016; Ismailbekova 2016).  There is no question that a worldview at once spiritual and grounded becomes a mode of coping with the precarity of the postsocialist present.  In that sense, the comparison to Luhrmann’s work is quite apt: in explaining how and why people “experience God as real” as she puts it, her ethnography is working to explain not only forms of connection to the supernatural, but also the need for guidance and care in the struggles of the ‘real world’ present.  Such an approach, which I believe I share, lifts us out of questions of orthodoxy and truth, toward the pragmatic realization of a religious life, whatever that might be; it forces readers to suspend our disbelief, in order to understand how a worldview structures understanding and action.

Meghanne Barker: Can you say a bit more about the relationship between these ancestor relations and national politics in Kazakhstan? It seems at times that ancestors get taken up as responsible leaders that help mitigate the uncertainties of post-independence economic life in Kazakhstan. In the large performance competitions of aitys, meanwhile, performing poets have to balance a fine line between upholding the mission of the genre as speaking for the people while also not upsetting their sponsors by criticizing government leaders too explicitly. What role, then, do you see ancestors playing in all of this, or are people appealing to ancestors and ancestry for different purposes, in different situations?

Eva-Marie Dubuisson: I think that across a wide variety of contexts, people invoke and communicate with ancestors and within an ancestral perspective in order to seek guidance and care.  This simple pretext remains coherent despite shifting circumstances. When we move away from daily context, to the level of a national poetry competition, I argue that poets speak as and for ancestors by naming and claiming them in performance. This is not merely a rhetorical frame, but a way of calling guardians into being, as ratified participants in a broader public interaction: when an ancestor is invoked in spoken poetry, an ancestor actually becomes present.   Any one performance does not matter as much as the tradition as a whole over time does. In that long view, poets represent a conduit, whereby the Kazakh people can communicate with their leaders – seated government representatives – and use the support of their ancestors to speak truth to power.  While there may be some limitations on the direct critiques poets make of politicians, and while their patronage relations do at times form a constraint on performance, there is no limit to the ways in which poets can speak metaphorically as, through, and with ancestors to make the point they wish to make, which is typically that we need to take care of the people with social welfare, to support Kazakh language and culture, and to demand accountability from leaders.

My goal in the book was to explain how particular linguistic practices and premises enable and substantiate the emergence of an ancestral worldview, and while this view overlaps heavily with the field of Kazakh nationalism, it is not irreducible as such. The politicians who sponsor such an event do so most likely because they, like many poets, operate in the sphere of Kazakh nationalism at a personal or professional level. But the kinds of critique enabled by this format are more wide-ranging and inclusive, actually, and I believe that many people in Kazakhstan (and elsewhere across Eurasia) would be able to find themselves within the picture I have drawn. I’ve tried to show in my conclusion that within in many different nationalisms the same work is actually being done, similar claims are made. This is a mode of sovereignty in broader political-economic conditions of (post) socialism across Eurasia. If the processes of identity and community building with ancestors is successful, and can avoid the trap of a romantic xenophobia, it is also a basis for separation from a Russian and Soviet past, and neo-imperialist present, a means of claiming territorial integrity and staving off the foreign investment and control of other countries like the U.S. or China.

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Meghanne Barker: Can you tell us about the book cover?

Eva-Marie Dubuisson: Although this book represents a total of over a decade of fieldwork and research, relationships and conversation, and writing and reflection, when the final text object finally came into being it was actually the image gracing the cover that somehow seemed most meaningful.  The image of older women receiving an ancestral blessing (bata) against the urban landscape of the city was achieved with archival photography and painting by the amazing artist Saule Suleimenova, whom I met through a mutual friend and colleague, Zhanara Nauruzbayeva.  I received permission to use a copy of the painting from its current owners, Dosym Satpaev and Gaukhar Satpaeva, caring young social leaders in the fields of politics and art.  There was something of a full circle effect when I found this painting toward the end of my research, not only in the visual content that so beautifully represents everything I might try to express in words, but also in the years of building relationships and worldview it took, to reach the point where I could truly understand its meaning.  I am very thankful to Saule and to the team at the University of Pittsburgh Press for allowing this vision to come to life; there are many layers of dialogue here, too.

References cited:

Abu-Lughod, Lila.  1986.  Veiled Sentiments:  Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society.  Berkeley: University of California Press.

Beyer, Judith.  2016.  The Force of Custom: Law and the Ordering of Everyday Life in Kyrgyzstan.  Pittsburgh: The University of Pittsburgh Press.

Duranti, Alessandro and Charles Goodwin, eds. 1992. Rethinking Context: Language as an Interactive Phenomenon.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Fabian, Johannes.  1990.  “Reflections on Ethnography” in Power and Performance: Ethnographic Explorations through Proverbial Wisdom and Theater in Shaba, Zaire. Madison, WI:  The University of Wisconsin Press.

Goffman, Erving. 1981. “Footing” in Forms of Talk. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Hill, Jane.  Year.  1995.  “The Voices of Don Gabriel:  Responsibility and Self in a Modern Mexicano Narrative” in Bruce Mannheim and Dennis Tedlock, eds., The Dialogic Emergence of Culture. Chicago and Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Hill, Jane and Judith T. Irvine, eds.  1993. Responsibility and Evidence in Oral Discourse.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ismailbekova, Aksana.  2016.  Blood Ties and the Native Son: Poetics of Patronage in Kyrgyzstan.  Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Luhrmann, Tanya.  2012.  When God Talks Back.  New York: Vintage Books.

Privratsky, Bruce. 2001.  Muslim Turkistan: Kazakh Religion and Collective Memory.  London: Routledge.

Silverstein, Michael and Greg Urban, eds. 1996. Natural Histories of Discourse.  Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

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