A Conversation with Kristen Ghodsee

Maryna Bazylevych interviews Kristen Ghodsee about ethnographic writing, mentorship, and being a “critical humanist.”

In From Notes to Narrative you note it is ironic that “scholars who research the intimate experiences of ordinary people cannot write for them.” Although people in academia talk about teaching philosophy, they rarely discuss research philosophy. Your work suggests that you are guided by a particular kind of research philosophy. Could you speak to that a bit?

Back when I was writing my dissertation, I read Laura Nader’s short historical essay on the political history of American anthropology: “The Phantom Factor: Impact of the Cold War on Anthropology.” It made a huge impression on me. She wrote about how Cold War fears and pervasive red-baiting led to a “silencing of open intellectual debate” and a “sanitizing of concepts like materialism.” Nader talks at length about the weaponization of anthropological knowledge and the marginalization (and sometimes the persecution) of left intellectuals in the academy. For instance, anthropologists who supported civil rights or protested against nuclear weapons and foreign wars were often lumped in with communists as a way to undermine domestic dissent. Nader describes how grants, fellowships, research positions, and tenure track jobs flowed to those who didn’t rock the boat, which created an atmosphere of “self-censorship” that undermined critical inquiry.

I was in graduate school in the mid-1990s when the ubiquity of post-modernist theory inflected much scholarly writing: the I/eye; lots of (ran)dom paren(theses); philographic neologisms; the suffix “ity” [i.e. strategic ambidextrousities], and “lots” of “scare quotes.” It seemed like a secret code to me. Somewhere in that essay, Nader asserts that American anthropologists took the “writing culture” turn because they wanted to avoid politics, whether consciously or not. But what had drawn me to ethnography was its methodological focus on the material conditions of ordinary people’s lives, the ability to explore the intricate choreography of those maneuvering between the base and superstructure. I don’t think I would have called it a research philosophy, but I suppose that’s what it was. I think every ethnographer must read Nader’s essay, as well as David Price’s 2016 book on Cold War Anthropology, to understand the intellectual stakes of what we are doing and the real ethical choices we have to make when we choose our research topics and decide how to write up our results.

In my current Commodity Chains class we read Hernández-Reguant’s “Copyrighting Che: Art and Authorship under Cuban Late Socialism.” My students are serious and insightful thinkers, but the only thing they knew about Che Guevara was his stern face adorning their friends’ t-shirts. One student recollected Che being involved in Cuban firing squads, but that’s about it. It seems that at least two of your book projects target exactly this type of reader—the one not familiar with either Cold War geopolitics or Cold War fallout. Why is this something that your scholarship has pursued?

Neoliberalism itself is a product of postsocialism, and you cannot understand current geopolitics unless you understand what happened in the world immediately after the collapse of communism.
I am utterly astounded at how little some Millennials seem to know about recent history. Back in 2003, I asked an undergraduate research assistant to help me read through about a thousand pages of congressional testimonies on “The theory and practice of communism.” I was looking for specific references to women and women’s issues. When she finished the project, we were chatting about the documents and she told me that she was surprised to learn that the KGB was “a real thing.” At that time, J. J. Abrams had a TV series called “Alias.” (starring Jennifer Garner), and my student thought that the KGB was something they made up for the protagonist’s back story. That was only 14 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, but when I asked my other students, I realized that young, college-educated Americans didn’t know the most basic facts of the Cold War.

Today, after the rise of Bernie Sanders in the US, Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, and other left politicians in Western Europe, young people are hungry for information about the experiences of 20th century state socialism. But most scholars aren’t writing for them. There are a lot of popular anti-communist books circulating, but a lot of young people now reject these as propaganda and have begun to romanticize that past. It’s like a generational war with the Baby Boomers screaming about the gulag and the Millennials demanding “full communism now.” I feel like there is an important place in between where scholars of socialism and postsocialism can provide a more nuanced view of this past: pointing out both the good and the bad. The problem of course is that the field is so polarized. If you try to say anything good about the communist past you are immediately castigated as an apologist for Stalin and a hopeless ideologue. On this matter, some of my scholarly colleagues have been less forgiving than Fox News, which is disheartening.

You served as a president of the Society for Humanistic Anthropology and produced work in a wide range of genres, including ethnographic fiction, autoethnography, photoethnography, and even a kind of science fiction! Do you remember what drew you to these different formats once upon a time, and what sustained your continuing interest in writing in different keys? What is the significance of these genres for ethnographic endeavor more broadly?

In genre-conforming ethnographic writing, you can’t write about interiority and subjectivity, but other genres allow you to go inside and try to understand people’s hopes, dreams, and motivations. I loved João Biehl and Peter Locke’s 2010 article in Current Anthropology, “Deleuze and the Anthropology of Becoming.” I particularly like their idea of anthropology as art, as something that can approximate literature’s ability to unpack the complexities of ordinary lives. This anthropology of becoming endeavors to explore the intimate inner worlds of individuals as they struggle against structural constraints. The unfinished, always-adapting, ever-changing human being is the focus.

Ghodsee’s books are notable for their striking covers. The memorable image on the cover of Lost in Transtion was a last-minute find: “I landed in Sofia the day after the Soviet Army Monument had been vandalized and managed to get that photo into Duke just before the cover design was finalized.” Kristen Ghodsee

I’m not really attracted to post-humanism and theories of vibrant materialism, even though I know they are very fashionable right now. They’re cool as theories, and I agree that it can be interesting and productive to examine human/nonhuman assemblages and to occasionally step outside of our anthropocentric bubbles. But I worry that the study of these assemblages is another distraction from the real human suffering that persists in the world today, another way of avoiding the political. I think of myself as a critical humanist.

You have been generous in mentoring junior scholars in multiple ways, including two career guide books: Professor Mommy (with Rachel Connelly) and From Notes to Narrative. What compels you to share?

As a feminist, I was horrified to see how the old boys’ club worked in academia, but I was also disheartened by the vast amount of “secret knowledge” required to successfully pursue an academic career. Secret knowledge perpetuates systemic inequalities. My grandmother had a third-grade education, my mother only finished high school, and my father (who had a BA) took off when I was thirteen. In graduate school, I was at a distinct disadvantage compared to those whose parents had doctoral degrees. I spent a lot of time doing research on the habitus I needed to cultivate if I wanted to earn my PhD, find a tenure-track job, and get tenure. Once I became an associate professor, I wanted to write it all down so that I could share the information I learned. The same thing happened with my learning to write ethnography. I felt compelled to share what I knew. So I wrote the books I wished I’d had.

Your work suggests that studying the lives of ordinary people experiencing social upheaval is valuable not only for humanistic reasons, but for theoretical reasons as well. Could you speak to the significance of the region(s) broadly thought of as “postsocialist” in anthropological theory?

In terms of the value of postsocialism to broader debates, I think Nancy Fraser’s introduction to Justice Interruptus: Critical Reflections on the “Postsocialist” Condition is a great framework for understanding how the whole world became postsocialist after 1989 and 1991. Neoliberalism itself is a product of postsocialism, and you cannot understand current geopolitics unless you understand what happened in the world immediately after the collapse of communism. Western triumphalism blinded politicians to the human costs of regime change and led to ill-fated attempts to spread the democracy gospel around the world. I discuss these processes at length in my latest book, Red Hangover: Legacies of Twentieth-Century Communism. I also think that Katherine Verdery and Sharad Chari’s 2009 article “Thinking between the Posts” is essential reading for understanding how the world is still grappling with being “post-Cold War.”

Maryna Bazylevych, Soyuz’s book reviews digest editor, is associate professor of anthropology and women and gender studies at Luther College in Iowa.

Kristen Ghodsee is professor of Russian and East European studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of seven books, most recently Red Hangover: Legacies of 20th Century Communism.

Deborah Jones is contributing editor for the Soyuz Postsocialist Studies Network’s AN column. She is seeking suggestions for additional author conversations that might interest Soyuz members.

Cite as: Bazylevych, Maryna,  and Kristen Ghodsee. 2018. “A Conversation with Kristen Ghodsee.” Anthropology News website, April 23, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.836

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