Tomas Matza on his book, Shock Therapy

Interview by Natalja Czarnecki

Tomas Matza on his book,

Natalja Czarnecki: In your ethnography of the popular “psychotherapeutic turn” in post-Soviet Russia, you write, quoting Foucault, that “subjectivity … ‘is the way in which the subject experiences himself in a game of truth’” (121). What are game(s) of truth in Putin’s Russia?

Tomas Matza: What is truth? And why the metaphor of a game? And in what contexts do such games take place? Addressing these questions is a good starting place for making a connection between psychotherapy and the sociopolitical contexts in Russia at the time I did my research (intensively from 2005-6 and then periodically until 2014).

About “truth”: My reading of Foucault’s phrase is that it reframes what truth is from a matter of empirical validity to a “grid of intelligibility”—a way of seeing that conditions perspectives on what is valid and invalid not only in terms of observation but also in terms of what is desirable or undesirable, and what is allowed and prohibited. The game that unfolds is very similar to my own understanding of politics, meaning that “games,” here, refer to the terrain, practice, and nature of struggle around legibility. Political struggle often orbits around contestations about what is true or not true.

The reason that the psychotherapeutic has been a venue for power is that it has emerged as a set of knowledge and practices by which influential definitions of personhood, of normalcy, of healthy social relations, of the non-human, and of healing (or hopelessness) circulate. These definitions are organized by experts, are founded on research infrastructures, reimbursed conditionally, and so on. When I turn to particular therapies as a way to understand who I am, what my problems are, what is important, and what I can do about it, I am engaging in a game of truth—in this case, a game of truth about a putatively healthy personhood.

In my book, I focus a lot on this connection between power and therapy. I found several important forces shaping the emergent “games of truth” about the self in Russia. I saw an interesting tension between the drift of Putin’s politics of self—which were then (and continue to be) organized around heteropatriarchal gender relations and patriotism—and those associated with market capitalism, entrepreneurialism, and middle-class self-cultivation. That is, Putin, and through his affiliation with the Orthodox Church, was generally not supportive of the kinds of liberal individualism and loosely feminist orientations that one finds in many contemporary Western ethnopsychologies (see, for example, Lynn Layton’s work). For this reason, I saw a political tension between Putinism and what these psychologists working in Saint Petersburg in the first decade of the 2000s were espousing. While not necessarily feminist, they were certainly transgressing a traditional gendering around emotionality in Russia. Through the investment in a humanistic psychological self-inquiry, they were also developing, to build on Julia Lerner’s work, a postsocialist emotional style. So that would be one game of truth, whose touchstones were: nation; a binary sex-gender system; (de)pathologization of homosexuality; the pro-natalism; and the moral panic around children to stem the demographic crisis.

The conservative values of Putinism were also accompanied by the ongoing corruption of the ruling class (see Schimpfössl), and a diminution of social supports seen in many neoliberalizing contexts. In that sense, there was a close alliance between conservative values, social disinvestment, and capitalist accumulation.

Turning to the role of market society played in the games of truth: capitalist culture contains many ideas about selfhood: life is a career; time is money; invest in your future; be your best self; it’s up to you; change starts with yourself. Such phrases were circulating in Russia in the early 2000s with relative novelty. And they are not exactly homologous with the politics of self and the social under Putin. Crucially, as therapists looking to start their own services in commercial contexts tried to advertise services, they oriented towards what kinds of services they thought the client population would want, or what the client population in fact did want. As one of my most helpful research participants, Tatiana Georgievna, told a group of psychology graduate students, “We are creating a market [for services] where one does not exist.” It was really interesting to move ethnographically around these commercial contexts. The range of things many psychologists were doing were certainly articulated with forms of capitalist individualism. But—and here is the tension I mentioned above—they were also playing a range of other “games,” to extend Foucault’s metaphor—including thinking critically about what kind of society they wanted to live in, how to (re)build sociality and what kind of a society a future Russia would be.

Natalja Czarnecki: In your interlocutors’ idealization of democratic sociality and belonging, what are some of their models of success, if any? Are these models geopolitical in definition and scale? Secular? Otherwise imagined?

Tomas Matza: The first thing that the phrase “models of success” prompts in my mind is that success for all the folks I got to know was not really very concretized. At least it would not rise to the level of a model. Let me use here a couple of examples of their seminars (which were being offered at the time of my research). One, which I talked a lot about in the book, was “managing [one’s own] emotions and behavior.” In this case, the model would be a specific kind of self-reflection and emotional awareness (or intelligence) that would manifest in a few ways. One, it would help young people to become more emotionally mature, to understand their reactions, and, in a kind of CBT sort of way, therefore learn how to mitigate their reactions to the world in supposedly more healthful ways. For example, a key selling point of ReGeneration was to tell parent/clients that they would be able to help their children to be “better”—along the same lines as, say, a Knowles course in the U.S. where, through character development, behavior is improved. If we think of models of success in socio-scalar terms, then the scale in this example is the person and the family. But they also had other programs that were a bit less family-centric and more focused on the child-client’s social milieu. Another camp was centered on friendship: how to make lasting, authentic friendships; and, again, what kinds of self-work might lead to better social relationships.

Your question is probing at something that I would say I was also really interested in—which is what broader sociopolitical significance might these kinds of programs have had? What sorts of visions of a good Russian society did these efforts, even if implicitly, indicate? Or, in your terms, what sorts of models did this “idealization of democratic sociality and belonging” imply? Perhaps I wasn’t asking (or listening) in the right ways, but I did not find this very clearly articulated. (Or, perhaps my wrong turn was to have expected my interlocutors to speak of their work in terms of a well-articulated political platform!) There may be something possibly specific to postsocialist Russia about this sort of “political indeterminacy” (see Yurchak), but there is also something that may be more generally true about people anywhere on the planet working in the mental health fields: their purview is more likely to be the personal and the inter-personal, not the political-economic.

Nonetheless, it is possible for anthropologists like me to draw out political implications of particular practices. One that I found pertained to the game of truth mentioned earlier. Even if only implicit, the work they were doing on selfhood and sociality were in some ways generatively critical of Putinist social tendencies such as heteropatriarchy, selfishness, corruption, intolerance. In that sense, I found in their work a kind of liberal-progressive kernel.

Natalja Czarnecki: Energiia (energy), dusha (soul), and garmoniia (harmony) are elements that your interlocutors invoke as “idioms of psychosociality.” You write that these idioms are politico-ethical in practice (194). In this politico-ethical work, did psychologists consider psychosociality a potential site of scalable norm-making or as something else?

Tomas Matza: I think this one depends on which person you asked. For instance, one psychotherapist whom I call Vitya Markov in the book would probably agree with the idea that psychosociality at least aspires to be a scalable form of norm-making. So, the more people you encounter as clients and help both with personal issues and with social relationships, the more people you reach. It also wasn’t just a one-person-at-a-time thing. Vitya’s organization had also set up a hotline (telefonnoe doverie) where anybody could call in and get confidential psychological advice. Others, like Tatiana, were towards the end of my fieldwork in negotiations with the federal government to organize trainings on tolerance. And staffers from ReGeneration went on to do trainings in team building for Russians working for multi-national corporations. Finally, probably the most visible site for “scalable norm-making” would have to be the psychologist and lawyer, Mikhail Labkovsky. At the time of my research, Labkovsky’s show, For Adults About Adults (Vzroslym o vzroslykh) on the radio station Echo of Moscow was being broadcast across the country. Labkovsky was especially interesting because of the creative and interesting ways that he articulated self-work with a wide range of social norms, ranging from the mundane (pick up the garbage in the dvor (shared courtyard); restore collective concern about shared spaces such as apartment entryways), to the more expansively political (participate as citizens in the political process; organize to cooperatively manage housing).

On the municipal side of things, other colleagues were working to establish a holistic care system comprised of in-school psychologists along with a central organizing institution (the PPMS network). So here PPMS staff would make rounds around the municipality to hold trainings for teachers on psychological counseling/diagnostics, as well as to collect information about children who were really struggling at school or at home and needed the extra attention of PPMS’ psychology staff. The idea of “scalable norm-making” in municipal services isn’t quite the right phrase, but it isn’t wrong either. I say this because, like a lot of clinical social workers in places like the US, the effort is reparative more so than prospective. Put in other terms, these professionals are largely playing defense in the face of the wide range of suffering that is produced by economic inequity, discrimination, domestic abuse, and other sorts of issues that, in the case of my fieldwork, young people in X region were encountering. I remember a phrase that Olya, a social worker in a psychoneurological clinic (PND) told me. She said that she and others at the PND were working with those “needed by nobody” (nikomu ne nuzhnyi). Olya was referring to the clientele of the PND, many of whom were experiencing severe kinds of mental illness. But the phrase is also apt for describing the many small tragedies of those living on the margins of gentrification. What is the scalable norm-making here? I suppose the restoration of a kind of basic humanity to young people neglected or caught up in the public housing cycle of the Dedski dom, as well as the provision of some basic level of care and concern.

Natalja Czarnecki: Callers to Labkovsky’s radio show ask him, for help with problems related to family life and/or personal issues. You write that there is something distinctly post-Soviet about these mass-mediated personal disclosures (198). Can you say more about the post-Soviet nature of this desire for publicized self-help? What might the post-Soviet turn to psychotherapeutic expertise tell us about democratic be(long)ing and authority in an age of authoritarian politics and precarious care in neoliberal states?

Tomas Matza: I think, first, about a person I call Inna, who described to me the feeling of being in the first psychological training in the 1990s. She talked about switching from the formal you when addressing non-intimates in the training to the informal you. And she described a feeling that sounded, to me, almost like intoxication that related to experiencing that kind of intense, fast-tracked stranger intimacy. Having myself participated in a lot of group therapy contexts, I could really identify with what Inna told me. It is exciting to find that level of authenticity in a social milieu when otherwise often we are going through our days, making chit-chat, and just getting by under a mask. There is something that is certainly beyond just Russia with this “desire for publicized ‘self-help.’” So I am speculating that many participants in the therapeutic process share a desire for self-work in the company of others. And in the U.S., too, we find lots of examples of mass mediated expressions of self-work in the company of (many) others. Think about all the radio and TV shows devoted to self-help, the giant Tony Robbins seminars of the 1990s and early 2000s. Drawing on a bit of Durkheim here, this kind of collective effervescence is an extremely powerful social force that certainly exists all around the world.

Historical context matters, too, though. What I tried to listen closely to in my research is how people having these early therapeutic encounters in the company of others described the significance of the experience. For Inna it was the shift from formality to informality, and the possibility to speak about herself in intimate terms with people she didn’t know well—things that she felt were not available to her in the late-Soviet period. For Vitya it was the problem of late-Soviet surveillance of therapeutic settings. For Tatiana it meant the creation of a context in which psychological work with children could happen in non-governmental contexts. What I detected in these statements were expressions of frustration with the constraints of the Soviet past when it came to practicing or consuming psychology. So I would explain the desire for stranger sociality, for self-help in the company of others (at least among particular groups), in very distinctly historical terms as well as a more general desire for collective effervescence. As I try to write in the book, this is what makes this form of care postsocialist.

I am currently struggling through a longer meditation on what I am calling “care in the gap” and in that piece I am making the case that there is also a politics to my interpretive move. I would say that it reflects my ambivalent embrace of liberal progressivism, as well as an interest in figuring out how people “make do” politically in their daily lives; how they work to do something beneficial, but don’t always succeed; how they work to balance livelihood and self-interest with care for others. I say ambivalent because I think that the liberal progressive politics of incrementalism is also often the politics of stasis, or worse, a sly reproduction of social inequities. I see that. But I also see the way that the hermeneutics of suspicion as articulated in a lot of critical anthropology risks committing forms of analytic violence against interlocutors; proposes textually a kind of political purity that is probably inconsistent with the way that most people live; and ultimately produces a kind of future pessimism. In the context of Russian sociality and the process of personal growth, I always come back to the psychologists I got to know. They strove to care for others in less-than-ideal circumstances. They worked to, and in many cases, did provide people looking to survive and thrive in a changing society some measure of support. If we are thinking about the problems of authoritarianism and precarity under austerity, then these efforts of mutuality are certainly an important counterforce, and worth taking seriously in our work.

Melissa Caldwell on her book, Living Faithfully in an Unjust World

Interview by Natalja Czarnecki

Natalja Czarnecki: You write that inter-faith food aid organizations occupy a “border zone” in the Moscow assistance world; they do not completely self-identify as “religious” or “secular,” for example.  Actors thus find it difficult to put their actions into words (Are we a business? Are we a religious organization? Do we “do” charity? Care? Public service?).  How does this ambiguous kind of self-identification affect these organizations’ “messaging” and self-promotion, if at all?

Melissa Caldwell: One of the things I struggled with was trying to figure out what was “religious” and what wasn’t.  My starting point was always within religious organizations, religious congregations. And yet, so many of the people I encountered, whether they were volunteers or staff who were running programs, or recipients themselves, were very quick to say there’s nothing religious about this.  And it seems to me that the idea is really more about “spirituality” as connected to morals and ethics and “religious” being the institutional practices:  the going to services and wearing certain things, crosses or scarves, you know, going through particular rituals. And so somehow even though religious institutions become spaces where all this other work happens, there doesn’t have to be an absolute connection between, a critical and skeptical stance toward organized religion and these religious organizations.

And so, I would encounter people who would go to church fairly regularly, that was their personal religious activity, but then participate in these other activities, these other social assistance activities with completely different religious organizations. What they were trying to do was reconcile both whatever their personal religious identity affiliation might be with their own moral ethical beliefs about how to fix problems and change the world.

It was often funny; when I would interview staff at some of these religiously affiliated, social work organizations, the staff themselves would criticize the very denominations that were employing them.  In terms of, you know, the beliefs of the priests, the patriarch, the nuns, you know, whoever they were.  These were criticisms about their kind of religious activities, but also praise for the social work that were happening within these denominations.  And to some extent, I think this is part of a longer Russian history, where identity and faith and practice have always been kind of confused; they’re not the same things. And so people can move around, picking up the beliefs and the practices that make sense to them.  And those may or may not align with the identity that they’re “supposed” to have.

Natalja Czarnecki: You describe how the Russian Orthodox Church has long constituted a mass-mediated source of ethno-nationalist authority, ideology, and identification in Russia.  Does the call to “personal acts of genuine care, kindness, and compassion” constitute a response to Russian ethno-nationalism as a communicated through, say, popular sermons of the Patriarch, if at all?  Does a gendered labor within these organizations factor into this?

Melissa Caldwell: I think the gender dimensions are really interesting and complicated. And I think that’s part of it.  Yes, there are some visible gender differences. But no, I don’t think they play out in the way we might expect them to, that it’s just women providing care and men being the officials who get criticized.  Yes, the vast majority of the clergy I encountered were male, just by virtue of the fact that when I was working with Orthodox denominations, the clergy were men and when I was working with Catholic communities, the clergy were men.  And then in the Protestant or Anglican communities, it was mixed.  And so some of the denominational differences reflected who was working in what capacity.

But in terms of staff, it was much more balanced. And in terms of volunteers, it was more balanced as well. Often women in this aid world work the direct lines of provisioning; it was more women doing that kind of work.  And also, that was partly, I think, a reflection of the Russian side of it all, where more women are in social work profession.  But on the foreigner side, at a certain point, many of the expatriates who were providing direct lines of assistance were the unemployed wives of foreign professionals. Behind the scenes, though, in other sorts of activities, there were more men.  So if their work commitments prevented them from going to the soup kitchen every day, or the clothing handout every day, behind the scenes, they were providing money and using their networks.  And on Saturdays, they were driving goods all over town.  It was much more mixed than I thought it would be. 

Do gender differences play out in the critiques?  Yes and no.  There were implicit gender critiques of Orthodoxy, such as: “The priests don’t know anything, they just go in and do their work and they don’t actually talk to the people who do know.  And they’re making all the decisions.”  So by virtue of just saying “the priests,” it was clear that it was men making decisions. And then it would be, “Well, you know, so and so who’s running the program actually knows what’s going on.”  And then usually those people were women.  But in the other denominations, the critiques were more about institutional practice versus theological interpretation.  I would have long conversations with clergy who would say, “Well, you know, the Anglican Church or the Catholic Church — These are the practices they use. But if we actually go and look at scripture, we interpret it in this way,” or “if we go to the theologians, we have something else.”  So the critiques weren’t necessarily about the person in charge so much as the institutions.  I think there’s individual clergy and volunteers who have their own ideas about whether they’re doing politically sensitive work, and whether they could be in danger of harassment from the political authorities or from their own denominational authorities.  You know, at what point are they speaking for the denomination and what point are they speaking as individuals who belong to that denomination?  And that’s where that I think it got really interesting; there were individual clergy engaging in philosophical debates that were really more about themselves and how they fit within a denomination’s structure.

My interlocutors were trying to navigate all of this.  Much of this research was done in 2012 to 2015 and at that moment, the Russian state was trying to figure out what to do with foreign people in foreign organizations.  And some of these organizations, these religious denominations and their social service organizations, were in conflict with the Russian state, either officially or unofficially.  This was in terms of how the Russian authorities were viewing their activities; you know, whether they were interpreting them as the dissidents, or the activities as destructive to the Russian nation, while other organizations had full sponsorship from the Russian state or from Moscow city authorities; they were getting funding, they were getting meetings with politicians.  There were also some organizations very much under the radar, and some definitely over the radar.

All of these interfaith organizations are working with one another, and they’re all trying to navigate who’s going to be public and who’s going to be invisible or  who’s afraid and who’s not afraid.  It often came down to whether individual organizations, the clergy who were affiliated with them, and the denominations themselves were willing to take a public stand.  Or if they felt they needed to be invisible.  So I think that was part of it; some of the clergy were much more willing to be out with whatever they were saying.  And others did not want to go on record at all.  I think part of it also had to do with, and I don’t have confirmation from anybody in the Russian government about this, but my sense is that some organizations were doing service work that was essential to the stability of Moscow as a city and to the Russian state. Because they were doing this work and weren’t causing other problems, they were allowed to exist.

Natalja Czarnecki: One of the main arguments in your book is that in contrast to stereotypes of religious organizations, the actors within faith-based groups are not doctrinal or particularly religious necessarily.  Rather, what you call a “secular theology of compassion” is what informs your interlocutors’ sense of purpose.  How does this secular theology scale itself, if at all? Is this a Russian and/or post-Soviet mode of humanitarian networking? Does it see itself as translate-able into other worlds of need and uncertainty?

Melissa Caldwell: For my fieldwork interlocutors in Moscow, many of the things they were pointing to get lumped together by anthropologists and sociologists under this category of social problems — homelessness and hunger and addiction, domestic violence, unemployment — all of those things.  And for the people with whom I worked, these were problems of everyday life: why life is not fair, and why people are working so hard.  In order to think about those problems, I found inspiration in the literature on social justice.  I wanted to think about these as not just social problems, but in terms of social justice and social action.  Of course, this was also in a particular political context in Russia, where people were starting to demonstrate against political repression from the government. 

What seemed to be most consistent was a claim that these questions of inequality and justice actually precede political systems and are somehow bigger than political ideologies. These are moral and ethical questions that go to the root of fundamentally being a good human.  That’s how they would ground those debates.  In something like neutral, abstract, moral, ethical terms, they would make reference to, “Well, the Bible says that Jesus did x and y,” or, you know, “The Catholic Church has always done X, Y, and Z to help people because that’s what you do to be a good moral person.”  My sense was that for many of my interlocutors, they were skeptical of political ideologies to a great extent as an explanatory framework.  That politics was too much tied to particular people trying to be strategic, whereas these broader moral ethical values could transcend any one political person.

In the food aid community, there did seem to be this sense that the state isn’t providing; it’s a collapse of the welfare system or the retrenchment of the welfare state.  And so social workers really felt like they had to do what the state wasn’t doing, a kind of supplementary work.  By the time I was doing this project, there was still that attitude.  I also heard people more explicitly saying, you know, “We live in the twenty-first century;  there shouldn’t be these problems anymore.”  These are bigger issues.  These aren’t just issues of socio-economic inequality in an unstable welfare system.

Natalja Czarnecki: In your chapter, “The Business of Being Kind,” you discuss some of the “compassion commodities” produced by these organizations.  You write that “Russia’s commercially oriented modes of compassion have not so much emerged alongside the country’s post-socialist capitalist economy as they have developed a critical niche within it” (159).  Can you talk about the political and communicative composition of this critical niche?  For example, is this about addressing consumers and if so, who are they?

Melissa Caldwell: I think there are several different things going on.  One is that there’s a particular sub-niche within the niche, or whatever you want to call it, that emerged with the idea of targeting a particular type of ethical consumer.  Those goods seem to be coming out of particular “development” movements, wherein many of the development organizations that went into Russia, like many other parts of the world, would ask “How do you get small businesses off the ground,” and “People need to create things to sell.”  And often those are things like arts and crafts.  And so then those get marketed and targeted for certain consumers.  Then it almost becomes that kind of fair trade sort of commodity that pops up in all the markets all around the world.  You know, you want to help the small business person, or you want to help the elderly babushka, going blind, who isselling little doilies in her apartment.  So I think that part of it definitely was targeted at a consumer who was responsive to that sort of compassion assistance, “help somebody out.”

On the other end, there was a more strategic angle.  Some goods were from corporations that had goods and needed to get rid of, for example, expired products or close-to-expired products.  A lot of the food donations would come from companies that had lots of yogurt that was going to expire within a week.  One of the big furniture companies discontinued an entire line of cribs and needed to move them.  And there were different moments in which companies could get tax benefits, or at least do something where they weren’t losing money on that stock.  

I think someplace in between that there was just the more general sense that there’s this big formal capitalist market where anything goes.  And whether people were selling as part of another sort of larger business entity or as private entrepreneurs, or not even necessarily selling, trading, and moving things through, I think that was where most of this compassion economy really existed.  I think much of that was still grounded in the socialist era informal networks where you simply circulate things; you might not need them, but somebody else does.  And so it will eventually get to where it is needed.  And likewise, you will eventually get what you need through these systems.  And I think within that particular niche, most of the people I encountered didn’t explicitly think of that as being compassion.  That was simply informal exchange or the normal way that people move things.  And so in trying to put all of these things together, that’s how I started thinking about this compassion economy.

Natalia Knoblock on her book, Language of Conflict

Language of Conflict cover

Interview by Sofiya Asher

Sofiya Asher: What inspired this particular book?

Natalia Knoblock: What inspired this book? The inspiration came from speakers of the Russian and Ukrainian languages as they were destroying each other on social networks. Because of my heritage and my connection to both Russia and Ukraine, I started following the events after the revolution of 2014. I am originally Russian, and while I never lived in Ukraine, I have very close relatives there. I have visited my aunt and my cousins many times, and I have really good memories, so I feel connected not only to Russia, but also to Ukraine, at least partially. So, when the war started, I was terrified here, across the ocean, far away from the action, and really lost, not knowing what to do, trying to understand what was happening and trying to find information that seemed reliable and correct. I could not really find that because whatever I saw on official Russian channels was insane, and whatever I saw on official American channels did not make any sense either. So, I made a mistake! Now, looking back, I think it was really, really (what’s the polite word?) not smart to look for accurate information on social networks. But I thought, well, that’s what the people say, right? I would go and read what people write about the conflict. I was spending an insane amount of time following social networks, trying to figure out what was going on. Then, being a linguist, I started copying and pasting examples of crazy metaphors, neologisms, and creative language use that I saw there. I eventually accumulated a quite large collection and began thinking, wow, look at that! The topic and the content of the messages were awful, but the linguistic creativity was very impressive. Well, if you have this great material, you should do something with it, right? So, I made a few presentations at conferences, found other people who were researching similar things, and that’s how the idea for the book was born.

Sofiya Asher: The volume includes work by fifteen various authors with different academic and linguistic backgrounds, what were the challenges with working with such a diverse group? Based on that experience, what would your recommendation be to an editor working with a similar group of contributors?

Natalia Knoblock: Thank you. I think that’s a really good question. I’ll probably want to break it into two parts. One is recruiting people and the other is working with them during the editorial process. The recruiting stage was slightly challenging because this topic was not something that I had worked on before. I did not have a professional network where you just contact your previous collaborators, or your contacts from conferences, or specialists in the field.  I had to rely on the LinguistList. Thank goodness for that great resource! First, I advertised there and invited people to participate in a conference panel. After a successful panel at the Conference on Discourse Analysis Across Disciplines, I negotiated with a publisher and started looking for more contributors. Because the topic is so complex, I wanted a book to represent a variety of methods, a variety of [language] uses, a variety of topics. I didn’t want to have just a few chapters, so I needed to recruit more people. Then there was a lot of searching for names and programs and emailing strangers, who were really good at helping me. If they were not interested in contributing to the volume themselves, they would recommend other people. Eventually, we ended up with the group that collaborated on the book. It was a good linguistic community effort.

The second challenge was to keep it professional. Because the topic is so painful, it is not easy to write about. People should never take it lightly when they write about a country torn by war. And I feel that it was important to keep politics as far away as possible. We couldn’t leave it out completely, but my goal was to keep the volume professional and language-focused as much as possible. Linguists are people, and they have opinions, obviously. There is nothing wrong with that. We were not able to leave ideological views out completely because it’s impossible, but we tried to keep them under control. That was a big challenge.

Sofiya Asher: In the introduction (p. 7), you mentioned that the volume was created with “a goal of remaining ideologically neutral and focusing exclusively on the linguistic side of the happenings.” On the surface, it seems like an impossible task, separating language and ideology. Do you think the volume succeeded in remaining ideologically neutral while focusing on language?

Natalia Knoblock: (Smiles) I think I failed. It was a challenge to keep different people with different perspectives focused exclusively on the language and to leave ideology out. We’re studying discourse, which is interconnected with social reality, so completely disconnecting it from the war and the antagonism was not possible, even though we tried to do the best we could under the circumstances. There were times when I asked contributors to resist the urge to generalize about the population of one country or the other based on the statements of one individual or a handful of people, and external reviewers expressed the same concern. But the authors insisted on keeping their text as it was. There was a lot of back-and-forth because of that. There was also an unexpected case at the very end, when the chapters had gone through internal and external review, were revised several times, all the information was finalized, and we were in copy-editing already. There was a disagreement about the transliteration system to represent Ukrainian and Russian examples in the English-language text. Two authors objected very strongly to the suggested transliteration systems and wouldn’t agree with each other, with at least one of the objections ideologically motivated. We did find some kind of compromise. I don’t remember what we used, but we made sure that everybody was okay with whatever system we were going with.

Sofiya Asher: You mention in the introduction (p. 8) that “different authors use different terms” and that “contributors to this volume were free to choose the term they felt most fitting.”  Do you think this decision worked well based on the feedback you have received so far from the readers or reviewers?

Natalia Knoblock: Well, we have not generated much interest. I have not received either positive or negative feedback about the book and its terminology. The most loaded terms are, of course, the war, crisis, conflict, whether it’s a civil war or it is an international conflict between the two countries? I’m not sure even anthropologists and political scientists have agreed on that unanimously till this point. I felt that it would be out of my position to tell people which term to use. That is not a linguistic decision but more of an ideological decision. I didn’t feel like I could dictate to people what they should or should not believe about the situation in Ukraine.

Sofiya Asher: Now I’d like to talk about the particular chapter you have contributed to the volume. Why did you find blended names an interesting a subject of study?

Natalia Knoblock: Well, that was one of the things that I noticed during the initial stages of the conflict. I mentioned in the beginning of the interview that the inspiration for the book came from the time spent on reading insulting comments on social networks. That was one of the noticeable tendencies that I had seen there. People would take someone’s name and would blend it with an insulting word. So, I contacted a great specialist on morphological blending, Natalia Beliaeva, and asked her if she would be interested in collaborating on this. Luckily for me, she was, and we had a great time working on the chapter even though we were on different continents.

A lot of the blends are really new in the language. At least I, as a native speaker, had never heard them before. There is a wave, a pretty noticeable wave of publications on the discourse of hatred or hate speech in the Russian and Ukrainian conflict devoted to neologisms. One of the publications that we cite in this chapter is by S.A. Zabotinskaya. She compiled a ‘thesaurus of the Russian Ukrainian conflict’ that lists a whole lot of new words that supposedly have entered the language after the conflict started. However, if we start examining whether either of the populations use any of those words, we might find that they don’t. For example, there was a large-scale computerized analysis of textual data collected over an extended period of time by Radchenko and Arhipova, I believe. Their research question was whether verbal aggression precedes or follows major traumatic events, such as fighting outbreaks, but one of the things that they found was that a lot of the terms that have been listed in linguistic publications on the Ukrainian conflict are barely used by the population. It looks like a political figure may use a word on a website, a bot might write it on a social network, or a journalist may mention it in an article, but the words didn’t really enter the language since the population did not pick them up. So, I am not surprised that you have never read or heard ‘Potroshenko’ and some of the other blends we analyze. ‘Putler’ might be the only one in our chapter that seems to be somewhat popular. The rest could be just creations of a blogger or an activist. The fact that they did not take root in the language kind of gives me hope. If there is no deeply rooted hatred in the people, I think then there is hope for this world. I don’t know. It is still worth studying such neologisms, I believe, since they highlight the morphological resources the language affords its users.

Sofiya Asher: The corpus created for the study was based on Ukrainian and Russian media using WebBootCat by SketchEngine.   Does the tool have any adjustments for potential selection bias, such as content created by bots, frequent posters, or trolls?

Natalia Knoblock:  No, unfortunately, we had no way to distinguish quality sources from junk sources. My coauthor and I relied on this software because we ourselves could not scrape the Internet for our content, and we had to use the tool that was available. We thought that we were quite lucky that we were able to collect the datasets large enough to allow statistical analysis, even though we could not control source quality. The thing is, many users of online content lack digital literacy and critical thinking skills that would allow them to differentiate good sources from bad anyway. So, studying all the content that comes up in searches related to the conflict makes sense. It reflects what non-researchers are exposed to online, the good, the bad, and the ugly. We might have deleted some repetitions, and I think we manually cleaned the Ukrainian corpus from some of the Russian texts. But even that was not completely possible because there was a lot of code-switching. Other than that, we kept everything we found.

Sofiya Asher: Your findings in this chapter indicate that blended names are used colloquially and more negatively in Russian and Ukrainian media. Do you see any similarities in American media with regards to the use of blended names?

Natalia Knoblock:  No, I haven’t. Not because they are not there, but because I never looked. Thank you for a good idea. I might do that now. It’s possible that, you know, you find what you look for. When I was examining Trump’s Facebook comments, I studied the most frequent terms. I went with frequencies, and that may have caused me to overlook some words that were there and could have been interesting. That would be a different study and would require additional digging, but it’s a great idea.

Sofiya Asher: Let’s return to the volume. What would you like the volume’s readers to keep in mind while engaging with this work?

Natalia Knoblock: That’s a difficult question. I would like people to be sensitive to the situation that the authors describe. I would like people to give the authors slack because everybody tried to do their best whether or not it turned out as well as we hoped. I’d like the war to end. I would like people to use their creative powers for something more productive than name calling. You know, there was an old slogan, something about using energy for peaceful purposes. I wish people used their creative linguistic energy for better purposes than insulting each other. We don’t need verbal aggression; there’s too much aggression in this world already. So, let’s concentrate on something better than insults. But, of course, language specialists just record and analyze what is going on, and we should keep that in mind.

Sofiya Asher: What do you hope this volume’s contribution to the scholarship of discursive practices of conflict will be?

Natalia Knoblock: I think this volume shows a little more variety in verbal aggression strategies and techniques. I wouldn’t claim that nobody has done what we’ve done in this book, but I think some of our studies are quite innovative. For example, the attention to the use of personal names is something that scholars can continue exploring. It came up in a different book I’m working on right now. It’s also an edited collection, and it talks about morphosyntactic features of verbal aggression. One of the contributions focuses on diminutive suffixes, and it shows that diminution in reference to a person is often derogatory, unlike references to inanimate objects or animals. That could be something worthy of further research. Another point that the volume emphasizes is the interconnection of linguistic and extralinguistic factors. Language does not exist detached from society. This is not a new idea, but given some of the claims that language is some kind of special unit in your brain and it is not related to social factors – yeah, no! Overall, the main contribution is probably the variety of topics and aspects that were discussed and covered in the volume.

Sofiya Asher: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Natalia Knoblock:  I want to thank the contributors because, as I’ve mentioned, the topic is painful and not easy to work with. The authors felt the need to study the way language was evolving and to share their research. They were also understanding of my role as the editor, as the person who keeps everything together, not pushing people anywhere ideologically but just trying to ensure that the quality is there. I think it was great how the authors went through this pretty long process. Going from the initial announcement to the publication in two years is not very long for an academic publication, but still is a long time. It was two years of our lives. We were in multiple negotiations over ‘do you change this paragraph or do you not change it’ or ‘I like this paragraph, but the reviewer does not’. Well, you know what it is like with academic publications, and people were great to work with, patient and cooperative.

I would also call for caution in reacting to aggressive discourse. We all tend to remember nasty verbal attacks and to overgeneralize “that’s what Russians say”, “that’s what Ukrainians say”. In reality, it is often just one person, and the loudest voices are not always the most representative ones. So, I would encourage people to question whether the speaker talks for him/herself or for a large group, and to keep in mind that online squabbles are dominated by a small number of most radical people. I guess, that’s what I think after engaging with this content for the past several years.

Jenanne Ferguson on her book, Words Like Birds

Words Like Birds

Interview by Laura Siragusa

Laura Siragusa: In your rich ethnography about language practices in the Sakha Republic, Russia, you introduce the concept of  ‘ontologies of language.’ Could you expand on its significance and what does this add to current linguistic anthropological debates?

Jenanne Ferguson: Language in many speech communities is entwined with what we might call ‘spirituality’ but perhaps is more accurately ‘ontology’, in terms of how language is conceptualized as part of broader reality. Ideologies are very often rooted in deep-seated beliefs about human differences that go beyond language and extend—as other scholars have noted—to assessments and judgments about the speaker as a person, or speakers as groups of people sharing certain characteristics that their language usage is purported to index. Understanding ontologies of language means apprehending the ways that we have ‘ways of being’ in language. Ontologies of language include how ideas and beliefs regarding different aspects of human experience are linked together. It is a similar concept to what Kroskrity (2018) has recently called “language ideological assemblages”—the idea that we cannot look simply at one language ideology (like purism, or variationism) in isolation. Instead of only looking at how different language-related beliefs are interconnected, I want to try to use the “ontologies of language” to remind people that language beliefs are rhizomatic and inseparable from beliefs about other aspects of life and the nature of reality.

Laura Siragusa: In your work, you often mention the need to incorporate more the notion of ‘belief’ when discussing ‘language ideologies’. This was fascinating, as you seem to focus on a concept, which had long been put into shade. Given the complexities of the present global socio-political and economic situation, I wondered to what extent talking about ‘belief’ facilitates communication, mutual understanding, and an acceptance of difference. Could you expand on that?

Jenanne Ferguson: The study of language ideologies is absolutely essential to better understanding communication more broadly—they are, I feel, often more than ‘opinions, ideas and attitudes,’ and acknowledging the element of ‘belief’ allows us to go a little deeper in understanding why so many people unconsciously take them as fact. As mentioned above, often beliefs about language connect in constellations to so many other beliefs about the world and how it works, and who lives in that world; they are not easily separated. Remembering “belief” gives us a place to start when we want to highlight how a language ideology may be harmful, but also how much work it might take to change or shift that belief. In the U.S. right now, work is being done on raciolinguistics by scholars like Jonathan Rosa, Samy Alim, and Nelson Flores, among others, that reveals the ways that beliefs about language are inseparable from constructions of race and also how deeply-held, hierarchical beliefs about race influence the reception and judgment of language. In the Sakha context, I see how ontologies of language make strong connections between Sakha ancestry, the ije tyl (mother language)/törööbüt tyl (birth language), and speaking Sakha, which do good in that they validate the Sakha language and encourage people to learn Sakha or maintain it. However, these beliefs can also be detrimental to people who are ethnically Sakha but are Russian-dominant or Russian-only speakers. These beliefs that link language, ethnolinguistic identity and personhood go deeper than attitudes or preference, but speak to ‘being in the world,’ and often alienate Sakha who don’t speak the language—I have heard individuals state that there is ‘no such thing as a russkoiazychnyi (Russian-speaking) Sakha,’ invalidating and erasing the identities of the many who do, indeed, speak only/predominantly Russian but identify ethnically as Sakha. Understanding how these beliefs about language connect and influence aspects of people’s social and public lives is essential—as well as the fact that they are beliefs—is essential, as they can often lead to significant inequality and speaker marginalization, and also harm the broader projects of language maintenance and revitalization. Identifying these beliefs and acknowledging their entanglements as well as their reach and power is the first step in alleviating the marginalization of groups of speakers.

Laura Siragusa: I was intrigued by noticing that in your work you talk about ‘the power of language’, which is not uncommon in other contexts. In the Finnish and Karelian folkloric traditions, for example, väki is seen as a ‘power charge’ that belongs to all beings, categories of entities, and phenomena (Stark-Arola 1998). Could you tell us more about what language can do, according to Sakha speakers, and if speakers use specific strategies to avoid negative consequences?

Jenanne Ferguson: As in many speech communities, some ‘kinds’ or genres of language are more highly charged, such as the blessing poems, algys, or kes tyl ‘magic words.’ However, no word should be used lightly (tyl tyalga byraghyllybat – ‘do not throw words to the wind’), because words are seen as direct vehicles for the intent of the speaker. There’s also the general communicative norm of not wasting words—not ‘throwing them to the wind’ unless you really must say them. “Sakha do not boltat’” (chatter, in Russian), I am often told, as an explanation for communicative differences between Sakha-Russian bilinguals and solely Russian speakers. Brevity in communication is positively valued—it’s safer. By voicing something, you have let your intent out into the world—you have already made something happen, and there is now the possibility that the meaning of your words will be realized. Because many Sakha ontologies of language hold that words possess a spirit (tyl ichchite) unto themselves as well as possessing something of the speaker’s spirit, letting them out into the world is seen as something to be especially cautious about, especially when discussing negative hypotheticals. I want to stress that this is not something people treat as ‘just’ a superstition; even if people do not also profess their sincere belief in tyl ichchite, this ontology of language has been normalized in the daily lives of many urban Sakha speakers, shaping their reactions to others’ words. Once I was discussing issues of environmental damage with a friend in light of a proposed chemical plant on the Lena River. Being from a Canadian region where pollution from the oil industry was affecting fish, I was telling her about the lesions on their gills and faces. “Big growths, like this, as if their jaws extended outward an extra length,” gesturing to my own neck and face, making the shape of a large lump. My friend stopped me suddenly, eyes wide. “Don’t say that, don’t do that! Kihi tyl – okh. Ymnuom suogha!” A person’s word is an arrow—don’t forget. Don’t make those gestures, directing the words to your body like tiny arrows. Interestingly, though, if you say something negative and you do not want it to come to pass, you can use the Russian-language expression of ‘t’fu-t’fu-t’fu’ to ‘cancel’ the words, or if you have positive hopes you do not want to jinx.

Laura Siragusa To what extent are ‘language trajectories’ among Sakha speakers driven by the broader ecology or the individual’s own agency and intentionality?

Jenanne Ferguson: I think they are too deeply intertwined to really separate them out; however, I want to focus on that broader ecology for a moment. If we take agency simply as the socially mediated capacity to act (Ahearn 1999) we can only exert so much influence within a socially structured language ecology. As I discuss, many times those trajectories are shaped by the specific language ecology that a speaker finds themselves in—specific friendship groups and the dominant norms surrounding code choice within them led to certain new patterns of language acquisition or use in a speaker. Of course, their own agency to either adhere or not to those language ecological patterns makes a difference, but the specific milieu and the practices of those other speakers in those micro-ecologies also played a central role in shaping the decisions. And of course, much broader ecologies are also present—as I discuss in the book, the massive shift in the linguistic ecology of Yakutsk in the years following the end of the Soviet Union set in place new structures that shaped the urban revitalization of the language, which continue to have an effect today. Moving to Yakutsk from a Sakha-speaking village may mean you will speak Russian more often than you did within rural linguistic ecologies, but you will now have more spaces, more domains, and more people with whom to continue speaking Sakha. And you may be more likely to choose to do so now than thirty years ago, due to the way the urban linguistic ecology has developed. However, I feel it’s essential to remember that ecologies also develop the way they do as a result of speakers shaping them through ideological (or ontological) and discursive practices. Therefore, both elements—ecology and speaker agency—are deeply entwined, making it difficult to even separate which influences the other more.

Laura Siragusa: Given the strong connections between language and land that you mention, I wonder how the recent fires in the Sakha Republic are narrated by online Sakha users and if there is any specific reference to the language as endangered.

Jenanne Ferguson: I haven’t noticed a specific patterns in news coverage or social media discourse yet, though now I will analyze more closely going forward! To my knowledge, there are no linked discourses that expressly see the fate of land as affecting language; conversely, where I now live and work in Northern Nevada, there is a direct connection expressed between the fate of Numu, the Northern Paiute language, and the cui-ui (Chasmistes cujus) fish endemic to Pyramid Lake. In the late 1990s a Numu elder reflected on the diminishing fish populations and number of speakers of the language and stated that when the cui-ui disappeared so would the language (both are now seeing a resurgence)! With Sakha the ‘endangerment’ connection is not that direct. I have heard, though, that losing connection to land definitely affect specific language domains, and vice versa. This was expressed to me by several herbal healers in the Amga region, who mentioned that when young people aren’t out on the land, they don’t learn the (Sakha) names for plants. At the same time, not speaking Sakha may make it more difficult, in their opinion, to engage with the land; Sakha plant names, they said, are often much more specific than those in Russian, or Latin, as they are highly descriptive (so that a plant’s appearance becomes more distinctive and thus easy to locate). For instance, a name like kyhyl sobo tyla (‘red carp’s tongue’) for Pyrola incarnata (grushanka in Russian) is said to make the plant easier to find and remember, as it so vividly evokes the deep pink of the flower’s style sticking out like a tongue below the petals!