What is ordinary life in an exceptional space, or transnational space beyond normative markers of ordinariness? How do individuals negotiate the exceptional in their everyday lives?
The Ordinary Times workshop – a collaborative project developed by Ulrike Ziemer (University of Winchester), Jo Laycock (Sheffield Hallam University) and Laurence Broers (Editor, Caucasus Survey) – took place at the University of Winchester last month. The purpose of this workshop was to shift the current focus on the geopolitical analysis of post-Soviet conflicts and share new research on everyday life and social change in the South Caucasus.
Bringing together scholars from the UK, Europe, the South Caucasus and the USA, the workshop was designed to facilitate positive interactions between postgraduate students, early career researchers and senior scholars and to provide a forum for interdisciplinary dialogue. Participants included anthropologists, historians, geographers, anthropologists, sociologists and political scientists.
The workshop was structured around three thematic panels: Ordinary Places and Unique Journeys, Ordinary Times in Exceptional Spaces, and Ordinary Futures: Transformative Protests and Processes.
All of the panels provided timely reminders that even in the context of apparently 'extraordinary' periods of conflict, or in the 'exceptional' spaces of de-facto states, societies and individuals in the South Caucasus do not remain in stasis.
A number of inter-connected themes emerged. Firstly space, place and displacement. Forced displacement, as well as extensive internal migration and emigration, have been a defining feature of societies across the South Caucasus. Shushan Ghazarian Pelketian's research on Armenians displaced during the Nagorno-Karabagh war and Laura Luciani's presentation on Internally Displaced Persons in Georgia illustrated the importance of hearing refugees' voices and considering refugees as individuals and agents as well as recipients of aid or 'problem' populations. Other papers, like Evelina Gambino's paper on the protests at Vake Park in Tbilisi, revealed how even those who have remained, geographically-speaking, 'in place' have frequently had to renegotiate their relationship to urban public space.
Closely linked to the question of place and space were questions of belonging and authenticity.
In the context of rapid change, the desire to define 'authentic' members of local, national or other communities has become both more pronounced and increasingly contested. In both the early Soviet period and the post-Soviet period language, as both Jeremy Johnson and Melanie Krebs demonstrated, has functioned as an indicator of belonging, conferring rights or privileges or status on those fluent in particular tongues. The relative cultural and political value conferred upon the various languages of the regions however, continues to shift.
Conformity to gendered traditions was also identified a key means of defining 'authentic' members of the nation state and a powerful means of perpetuating inequalities and exclusions. In Constanza Curro's paper on the gendering of the Georgian supra ('feast') the constructed nature of such 'traditions' became clear, while Helin Anahit examined the realities and limitations of radical protest and critiques of the status quo through public art-based projects such as 'Queering Yerevan'.
Borders and neighbours emerged as a third theme.
South Caucasus is frequently regarded as a fundamentally fragmented region, and sometimes caricatured as a region divided by 'ancient ethnic hatreds'. The papers presented at this conference suggested that a more nuanced approach to the internal and external boundaries of the region is required. The question of Russia's relationship with the region loomed large in many of the papers and Andrea Peinhof's use of post-colonial theorisations of hybridity to approach Abkhazia offered a more nuanced approach than binaries of Russia as protector or enemy.
Zabanova and Weiss' papers prompted a reconsideration of relations with another powerful 'neighbour' – Turkey, and highlighted the semi-porous nature of national and regional boundaries. Gevork Oskanian's paper shifted the focus to Armenia and Azerbaijan, examining how 'enmities' between these neighbouring states are in no way innate or inevitable but are actively produced and reproduced in everyday practices and encounters in online spaces.
A final unifying theme was history and memory.
The influence of nationalism on history-writing in the South Caucasus and the instrumentalisation of historical narratives in order to perpetuate contemporary conflicts is well known. However, the papers demonstrated more complex ways in which the region's Soviet and imperial pasts resonate in the present. For example, how past displacements shape not only the dynamics of current refugee crises but also the ways in which local populations make sense of these crises. A number of papers also addressed the multiple meanings of Soviet 'nostalgia'. This raised broader questions regarding the intersections between history and memory and the possibilities for exchange between archival research, ethnography and theory for examining them.
The Ordinary Times workshop demonstrated the rich potential for further research and collaborative work in our field.
Scholars of the South Caucasus in the UK are currently spread across a wide range of disciplines and institutions, and frequently work in an isolated or fragmented manner. The workshop thus provided a much-needed platform from which to develop stronger networks of scholars and more sustained international connections between scholars and institutions in the UK and in the South Caucasus region.
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About the author
Dr Ulrike Ziemer, Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Winchester, and Dr Jo Laycock, Senior Lecturer in History at Sheffield Hallam University.