Thursday, February 11, 2010

Georgia, Ever?

"The institutions and cultures of liberal democracies are sufficiently complex, supple, and decentered so as to allow the expression of difference without fracturing the identity of the body politic or subverting existing forms of political sovereignty."

From the brilliant Seyla Benhabib (1996).

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Between Exhibit and Talk

The reception for Holiday Moments was a success! Like a big party in which one can both be and watch the wallflowers, an exhibition reception is a public experience with intellectual aspirations. But if I could have shadowed each visitor to find out what their true thoughts were on each photograph, I would have. Alas, I was needed to explain the show and to acknowledge the many friends, old and new, who arrived to show their support.

I took the time to return to the exhibition space a few days later and looked at photo essays with a more sober eye. I can honestly say that this was an original endeavor for Georgians. Students here either pursue art and photography where they can produce visual works based on their aesthetic merit or they specialize in culture or social analysis through the medium of this or that social science. But my project aimed to combine the two and I can confidently say that these students excelled in their charge. In various degrees and through different approaches, each essay and its accompanying text sought to explain the relationship between images as vivid recollections of a moment and the knowledge that anchors these images in the certain social and cultural reality.

I was particularly impressed with the creativity of Kristine Bebia, who in her quiet steadfast way refused to take my advice and limit her "capture" metaphor to two installed items.
Instead she presented each of her stunning photographs (one is to Qvara Guledani's credit) as caught through some form of human intervention, be it a fishing hook, netting, mouse trap, cage, or butterfly net.
The explanation in her accompanying written text was a poetic exegesis on the ambiguity of the private self who cannot escape the gaze of the observer. Bravo to Kristine whom you see in the photograph on the right.

There were many Georgian journalists taking interviews and a solid crowd peaking at about 70 people. Academics, friends, family, and the merely curious were all present. I will talk about the project within the greater context of my dissertation on Tuesday, February 2nd (5:30) at the offices of Caucasus Research Resource Centers (CRRC) at 16 Zandukeli Street in Tbilisi. This event is co-sponsored by the American Research Institute of the South Caucasus (ARISC) which also partially funded my exhibition.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Poster for Show

This is the poster for my upcoming show of photographic essays and installations by Tbilisi State University students from the Humanities Faculty. I'm very excited to be curating a show and as far as I know it is the first time that visual anthropological methods have been used in a conscientious way in Georgia. This image is hot off the press so I welcome your comments. It is a slightly adapted version of a photograph by Nino Chkhutiashvili. These are female members of a Jewish dance group, one of many different ethnic performances during the city festival of Tbilisoba.

So, in case you might happen to be in Tbilisi on the 21st of January, the show is hosted by the Georgian National Museum at the illustrious "Karvasla" or Ioseb Grishashvili Tbilisi History Museum at 5:00. It is next to Sioni Church in the old district (8 Sioni Street), a great location near Chardin, where "cafe/bar life" is defined in Tbilisi. The exhibit will continue until February 1st.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010


A short and belated note on the title of this blog... A reoccurring and always interesting debate in Anthropology concerns the tension between the universal and the particular and I use language here as an illustration. As you see by the title of the blog, there is more than one way to refer to the geographical area in which I presently reside, the Caucasus. I'm sure one could find even more ways if one were to conduct a search, as these mountains have figured largely in the lives of many societies and populations. Mt. Elbruz, for example, is just one example. It has passed down to us through the mythical world of the Greeks, as a backdrop for the famous torture of Prometheus, the human who was too wily for his own good.

But the one reference of which I am familiar is Kafdagh (or Kafdagi). In a way, it neatly indexes the wider relationship between peoples and histories that forms the backdrop of my interest in anthropology. I came to understand the connection between "Kafdagi" - a mythical mountain to which my mother would refer as a place of mischief - and the Caucasus much later. For me it was merely a quirky reference of my mother's, a way to make light of something ridiculous, as in "Surely you quip? or "It must come from Kafdagi." Here is where lay the beauty of place names. The individuals using the terms often have no idea that theirs is not the only way to refer to a place, but merely an illustration of this or that societies' particular relationship to the land. Adding more interest to the Turkish case is that an actual term exists for the geographical area, the "Kafkas" mountains. And so the mythical reference exists in addition and, for most purposes separately, from the political reference which indexes a real place. In both cases, "kaf" or what in ancient Turkish referred to the "whiteness" links them to their common reference of the snow-capped mountains (with dagh or dag merely meaning mountain).

Place names thus are the link that discloses history and the meetings of peoples, who sometimes accurately and sometimes not come to "name" places and people in their own ways. Language is a muse for all who wonder about the world's peoples, about their differences yet links to eachother. I am quite sure that in Turkish story-telling "Kafdagi" came to be passed down from generation to generation as a borrowed idea, a land where monsters and mischief occurred. This is probably what real-life Caucasians were telling their Turkish neighbors or new family members, as many Caucasians were brought into the Turkish fold as young servants, wives, or military conscripts. Over the course of time, their own myths, of Narts and other giants, merged and were translated into a general idea of a mountain in which the unimaginable could happen. That these were for thousands of years impenetrable mountains, unparalleled in height but for the Alps and the Himalayas, added to this impression of awe and mystery. Thus how geography has come to tie Turks and Caucasians not just as a space of social and political confrontation, but through shared symbols, ideas, story-telling, and the general processes of social conviviality.

I implied how language could perhaps clarify the debate between the universal and particular. Communication experts have always been curious about finding a universal language, hence the great efforts that had been put forth to create Esperanto, that universal language with its supposed democratic features. This is why I could not decide on just one reference to the Caucasus for this blog, but opted them all, mythical and real. They are all true and all real, for this is a unique place in the world and meaningful for all who behold it, each in his or her own way. I believe that comprehending this diversity will reveal the overlapping and common interests that often pave these meetings.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Crossroads It Is

"miuxedavad mravalsaukunovani arsebobisa, Tavganwiruli brdolisa Tavis gadarCenisaTvis, radganac maT upirispirdebodnen mZlavri imperiebi qavqasiis geopoliTikuri mniSvnelobis gamo, qarTvelebma SeinarCunes, da rac mTavaria, SeinarCunes originaluri, mravalmxriv gamorCeuli qultura. qarTvelebma TavianTi ofliTa da sisxliT Seqmnes sakuTari yveyana. arc erTi goji, sxvisi micisa, ar miuTvisebiaT da dRemda inarCuneben enas, tradiciebs da yvelafer imas, rasac kulTura hqvia.(Shengelia 2007)
[Despite a many-centuries existence and selfless suffering in the pursuit of survival, which also brought them face to face with incredibly strong empires due to the geopolitical importance of the Caucasus, Georgians have survived, and most importantly created an original and multi-faceted culture. With their blood and sweat they created their country. Without appropriating an inch of land that was not theirs, they have retained today a language and all traditions which one calls culture.]

It seems that “crossroads” is an increasingly popular way to bring the hybridity of the past into a 21st century context. Like the Mumbai mega mall you see above, the crossroads theme heroicizes the ethnic struggles behind many a social history, recognizing the diversity without bringing up the messy details. In this entry, I call up the use of crossroads to describe Georgia, from the conference circuit to the media, the crossroads theme brings to Georgia a comprehensibility for Western onlookers. The crossroads I reference here is not the sense of juncture where one is forced to make a decision but rather the juncture where peoples meet and interact. This is the kind of juncture that is taught to young Americans in order to understand early European encounters in North America. As for Georgia, this latter sense of crossroads is entirely apt as the country indeed lays between two world areas, grossly overgeneralized though they are, the East and the West. One could even argue that Georgia is the liminal point between East and West, neither here nor there but somewhere in between. But I will not venture in this particular direction here but rather clear the grounds between crossroads as a reality and the use of the term as a strategem of representation.

The urban center of Georgia, the capital Tbilisi, is set in a river valley between two mountain ranges. Its name - “place of warm[th] or warm water” – refers to the sulphurous hot springs that rise up from subterranean water table, adding to the city an allure of invitation and comfort. The importance of locale is undeniably important. As stated in the above-mentioned passage from a child’s history book, geopolitics is Georgia’s achilles heel, a weakness as well as an opportunity to create an “original and multi-faceted” culture. For centuries Tbilisi, or Tiflis as it was referred prior to the Soviet period, was a lively center of trade, the seat of Eastern Georgian authority, and eventually the place where intellectuals met to craft the idea of a modern Georgia. Tbilisi was also a place from which one could also easily retreat into higher lands and thus escape whichever enemy or inconvenient political condition was at hand.

Physically, to the north the Caucasus Mountains with their immense altitude were made reasonably passable only with the upgrading of the Georgian military pass with Russian imperial interventions in the 19th century. The mountains had for millenia meant refuge as well as isolation for the various tribes and peoples of the Caucasus, resulting in tremendous linguistic variety in the Northern Caucasus. Even today, one sees a kind of highland-lowland cyclicity in the Georgian preference to leave Tbilisi and even if it is just for a few weeks to give their children a short respite from the heat and go to cooler mountain areas (although this seems to be changing with the advent of cheap airline tickets and eased travel restrictions to the Mediterranean). To the South, the lower Caucasus mountains are the more traversible range but they still represent the cultural divide between Georgia and its longstanding others: Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan or in earlier times the ominous force and influence of the Ottoman and Persian Empires.

By moving through the lands which represent modern-day Georgia today one could in effect go from Eurasia to the gates of the West. This was was the culminating thread of the famous “Silk Road.” In this last leg, one met with fertile highland plains where wine had been produced for several centuries by the people of this area, the “comely” Georgians, who in their own language refer to themselves as Kartvelians. One could bed down in the city of Tiflis - staying in a caravansaray while unloading and/or adding to one’s goods - and then continue on to West Georgia and thence to the Black Sea. Here merchants of many origins waited to trade and/or faciliate the continued movement of these goods to the Western worlds beyond.

What kinds of social meanings accrue over time due to the multiple and various kinds of cross-cultural encounters that occurred in the Southern Caucasus? This issue of interculturalism can be approached from at least a few directions and depends on what area of the world and thus what sociopolitical context you are looking at. There is a power approach, especially apt where contact involves a stronger and weaker group, as in imperial or colonial contexts. Another approach looks at the longstanding interactions between otherwise equal but territorially or culturally distinct groups. This approach acknowledges a group-based interest which makes distinctions between the self and “the other” rather having these meanings imposed from above (Barth 1969). Much theorizing over the past quarter century assumes the constructed aspect of community identity. In other words, whether initiating from within or outside the group, moves are made which construct the character of a group, community, or nation. These moves can be works that represent the group, behaviors, and social conditioning that occur at many levels of social contact.

Suffice it to say, this is quite a dense subject and much of my work will be devoted to making sense of the relationship between behavior as I witness it in everyday life and memory, history, and the social stereotypes that come handed down with these histories. For instance, it is significant to note that “appropriative” as you can see in the Georgian history quote above is not the way Georgians see themselves but rather how they view the communities around them, the always encroaching Turks, the acquisitive Russian Empire, the mercantile Armenians, etc. They are the sedentary ones, the ones who stayed in their place, selflessly and bravely fighting tyranny from outside yet a people whose creative and practical energies maintained an essential Georgianness despite the absorption of foreign characteristics. Some photos I have taken in and around Tbilisi capture those aspects of past and present that make it a kind of cultural catchment zone, a repository of tastes and sensibilities that can make it attractive to many people.

This is an aspect of my research that I find the most interesting, developing an observational eye for the phenomenological grounds in which people meet and communicate. I want to observe these interactions in their very basic components, the direct apperception of one being for the other whether . through various mediums of social life, interpersonal, educational, media-based, recreational, family-based, and so on. At this level, the human being functions at one of the most basic levels of the intellect, that of recognition.

As French theorist, Merleau-Ponty states:

"The self sees the other through the body: Since I cannot have direct access to the psyche of another, for the reasons just give, I must grant that I seize the other's psyche only indirectly , mediated by its bodily appearances. I see you in flesh and bone; you are there. ...Here one wants to speak of the notion of cenesthesia, meaning a mass of sensations that would express to the subject the state of his different organs and different bodily functions. Thus my body for me, and your body for you, could be reached and be knowable, by means of a cenesthesic sense." (Merleau-Ponty 1964: 114)

References Cited:
Barth, Frederik (1969). Ethnic Groups and Their Boundaries. Little Brown & Company.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (1964). The Primacy of Perceptions. Northwestern University Press.
Shengelia, Lamara (2007). Our Georgia [Cveni saqarTvelo]. Elf Publishing, Tbilisi, Georgia.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Late Night Conference Abstracting

In June, I was contacted by another researcher doing similar work to mine in Tbilisi about a conference in September. The deadline for conference abstracts was May 20th, but I was told I could send something by the 20th of August. Tomorrow!

I'm exhausted but here is my abstract. The theme of the conference, co-organized by Tbilisi State University and Humboldt University in Berlin, Germany is "Changing Representations of Social Orders."

Tbilisi’s Cultural Heritage as Resource in the Global Era

Hülya Sakarya / Temple University

Georgia is uniquely positioned to advance the idea of the modern global city. Cultural heritage programming in Tbilisi – the reorganization of the Georgian National Museum against the contemporary European and American model, the promotion of Abanotubani as a historic haven, and the maintenance of diverse places of worship – promises Georgia’s compliance with global standards and understandings of civil society practice and inclusion. But what are the prospects for such an orientation in the cultural heritage industries of Tbilisi? What are its political and social implications for the country? This paper will address the interstitial nature of cultural heritage programming in Tbilisi today and the domestic and international role it plays with respect to recent military conflicts. While the culture industries remain an impotant way in which Georgians assert their identity and cultural pride, Georgia’s management of this potent technology is linked to the idea of culture as resource, or as George Yudice states, the uses of culture in the global era (Yudice 2003). Put in this perspective, nationhood is less understood as a yardstick of a community’s authenticity, territoriality, or historicity than its strategic position within the global ecumene.


I figure that by the date of the conference (end of September) I can make some preliminary observations. There is plenty to observe. Although anthropologically speaking, I have not spoken to enough "average Giorgi's or Nana's on the street" to understand the people's own perception of heritage as it is presented through the technologies and industries of the state.

One of my preliminary observations is of the "peopling" of Georgia through street sculpture like the one shown above. They seem to be creeping into every avenue, square, and bridge in Tbilisi. The one above is from the Ethnographic Museum.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Stage Behind the Stage

I am a writer and observer as well as a student who is conducting her dissertation research in Tbilisi, the capital of the Republic of Georgia. The next seven months promise a wealth of information as I troll the collections of Tbilisi's museums, visit exhibits and festivals, patronize thousands of years old sulphur baths, and with growing expertise talk to Georgians in their bafflingly complex Kartvelian language. Although this work contributes to the study of the Caucasus as a world area, it is also very much about the impact of the West on how we perceive the nation. It is about those human constituents that make up the modern nation-state, who deserve to lay claim to the nation as their “own” and whom the nation itself must determine as its own.

Places like Georgia are directly linked to West through their acceptance of aid, but they are also impacted through the symbolic forces of style, film, television, and marketing. My goal is to understand how in this current atmosphere the Georgian heritage industry is at a crossroads, caught between the desire to authenticate the Georgian idea of itself as a continuous and ancient society and the Western liberal idea of the modern democracy. This area of the world is a natural laboratory, an exciting place to be and one of the most culturally pluralistic locations in the world, but foremost it is an excellent opportunity to encourage the asking of questions, the fountainhead of greater wisdom (see my footnote below on my academic and funding status).

Like many an anthropology student, I am enamored with difference. I want differences to persist and I think the world is a better world for it. Just as we may mourn the passing of a species of animal or organism, we may mourn the loss to a community when its mother tongue is no longer spoken. This was how the last Ubykh speaker was mourned in 1992. But I also acknowledge critical late 19th and 20th c. philosophical insights that demand we recognize reality as a constructed thing. As the post-struturalist thinker Homi Bhabha once said, “Nations, like narrative, lose their origins in the myths of time and only fully realize their horizon in the mind’s eye” (Bhabha 1990).

I belong to the visual ilk of the cultural branch of anthropology. We take a lot of pictures, look at other societies' aesthetic and expressive products, and use these tools to present stories and bridge gaps between ourselves and the people we observe. I often use pictures in the classroom as a literal and figurative demonstration of the limits of pictorial representation. Pictures, like Bhabha’s definition of the nation, convey the ambiguity of any attempt to construct or preserve reality. Nonetheless, writing and elucidating upon these ambiguities is very productive, especially in such controversial social settings as the Caucasus, and I have written a short essay on this subject in a professional newsletter (Sakarya 2008). For further reading, the Society for Cultural Anthropology provides interesting essays, links, and teaching materials on the Caucasus, visual anthropology and many other topics.

I inaugurate this blog by submitting a pair of images meant to convey the rapid changes underway in Georgia. The first picture, the "before" photo, conveys the remoteness of the Soviet past for the Western observer, its fixed monumentality and militant associations as soldiers practice formation in front of this Andropov-era sculpture (this photo was in fact taken in 1996, seven years after the fall of the Soviet Union but visually the association is still intact). The second picture nine years later conveys a 21st century spirit of reform and rebuilding. Together the images show the profound effects of collapse and the ensuing state of uncertainty and anticipation.

* I am funded by the American Councils for International Education: ACTR/ACCELS and research for this blog was supported in part by the program it administers - the Title VIII Combined Research and Language Training Program, which is funded by the U.S. State Department, Program for Research and Training on Eastern Europe and the Independent States of the Former Soviet Union. The opinions expressed herein are my own and do not necessarily express the views of either the U.S. Department of State or American Councils.

References Cited

Bhaba, Homi (1990). Nation and Narration. Routledge and Kegan.

Sakarya, Hulya (2008). “Research in a Politically Changing Caucasus”, Anthropology News, Society for Visual Anthropology Column, April 2008.