Yuliya Yurchuk: Contemplating the Academy

yurchukAt the winter academy “Beyond History and Identity. New Perspectives on Aesthetics, Politics and Society” most of our discussions, presentations and talks were exactly on the topics related to history and identity. It might seem paradoxical, but it is in fact quite logical as we tried to understand and evaluate what we really mean when we are speaking about identity and history as if they bare agency of their own. Many of our conversations were about the relation between structural conditions, local contexts and global underpinnings that influence the subjects of our studies, but also ourselves as scholars. Without understanding all these impacts we cannot adequately understand what is going on in each given situation we focus on.
I also learnt a lot in more practical and more specific terms that I can schematically put in five main topics.

1. The relation between politics and fashion is much closer than I imagined. Change in fashion can be connected to the imposition of political regime. Fashion as both the everyday and spectacular phenomenon can bind everyday practices to ideology of the regime. Through mere everyday clothes people are (re)(dis)connecting to the overarching ideas propagated by authorities. This is especially relevant for dictatorial regimes.

2. There is the connection between fantasy (imagined worlds in the works of literature) and democratic equality. As Aristotle wrote, history writes about what happened while literature shows what might have happened and what can happen. This quality of fanciness, of imagining, is what makes people think of the impossible and make this impossible happen. Reading Martha Nussbaum on the topic of poetic justice made me think about the role of literature in shaping our societies. Why is literature and writers/poets in general so important in East European countries? Why “a poet in Russia is always more than just a poet”? Does it relate to genre, to a writer, or to the readership? As there cannot be one possible answer to these questions, it is important to keep in mind the specific role of actors we often address in our studies. Furthermore, this role is not given, it is not rigid, it changes in time depending on the changing contexts.

3. There is difference between milieux de memoire and lieux de mémoire (as called by Peirre Nora) whereas the former are sites of memory which are connected to living lives, to spontaneous remembering of the past and the latter is connected to orchestrated ways of remembering. The term “lieux de mémoire” is quite known and widely used in memory studies while “milieux de memoire” is understudied and definitely needs more attention.

4. There are different levels of untranslatability: political and linguistic. After our enriching conversation with Ukrainian writers and poets I made conclusion that both these levels of untranslatability can be overcome although it may be almost impossible to overcome some of them if there is no will in struggling against boundaries both in politics and in language.

5. While studying violence one should step aside the misleading sociology of causes and try to concentrate on the “how” question: how people become violent? What does violence do on people? Who is committing violence? The question of “how”, though, can elicit the “why” questions.

As the focus of winter academy was on Eastern Europe, many discussions circled around recent events in Ukraine which is understandable as it drew wide attention as a place where tectonic transformations involving wide-range violence have taken place since the last two years. The academy made me, though, think not only about things related to Ukraine but also globally. How a historian can speak and write about events which he or she is witnessing? How can a historian analyze events, which to a greater degree condition one’s understanding of these events. In case of turbulent changes we witness now globally, we cannot know their results yet still we are expected to evaluate them and write histories. This question of the role of a historian in contemporary history was the one that provoked most of the thoughts during my time at the academy.

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