Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Old Belief, Sex and the Modern Divergence

One of the sublime (hint- massive sarcasm here) joys of working on a graduate portfolio lies with the painstaking production, in around 250 words or less, of individual entries into the master annotated bibliography.  It would definitely border on busy work were it not for the curious fact that it sometimes takes the tedium of summation in order to see the linkages between seemingly disparate works.  Such was the case as I prepared to take Roy Robson's Old Believers in Modern Russia and Eve Levin's Sex and Society in the World of the Orthodox Slavs, 900-1700 and condense their cogent and well argued points into a paragraph.  

As some may know, I'm currently conducting research on Old Believer communities that immigrated to Oregon in the 1960's.  Even though I spent several evenings in the Fall semester of 2007 learning about Russian Orthodox history, Old Belief is sufficiently varied and highly dependent on the experiences of the local that I knew I would need to 'remind' myself as to the origin and nature of these asynchronous Orthodox beliefs.  Roy Robson's work, specifically addressing Old Believer groups at the turn of the twentieth century, provided a well-informed foundation of knowledge from which my initial inquires could take form.  

Two observations made by Robson in his first chapter are particularly enlightening.  The first:
Because symbols and rituals are experienced (emphasis in text) by the faithful, not simply understood in an intellectual way, scholars need to break down the distinction between symbolic and concrete structures, between the 'signs' of the old ritual and the 'real' issues at stake in the Old Belief. (7)
and the second:
Consequently, we can understand the Old Belief as an ongoing relationship between the symbols of pre-Nikonian Orthodoxy and the lives of the old ritualist faithful. (9)
The key observation in both statements is that one cannot analyze Old Belief solely on the basis of ritual practice, as the faiths very makeup and execution is directly tied to the circumstances and experiences of the practicing community.  A scholar must look to the community itself for deeper understanding, recognizing that the rituals encountered do not tie their practitioners to the past but rather grounds the practice of Old Believers in the lived presence of today.  This especially strong linkage between Old Belief and and the community not only helps explain the ability of the faith to endure under various forms of persecution but also why the Nikonian reforms of the mid-17th century provoked the Russian religious schism in the first place.

How so?  Interestingly enough, the answer lies with sex.  And this is where summation becomes suddenly less tedious.

Enter the work of Eve Levin (who, in all candor, is my advisor).  Sex and Society of the Orthodox Slavs, 900-1700 is her exhaustive and well-informed work utilizing ecclesiastical and other documentary sources from the various the slavic populations in Eastern Europe and Russia.  Her main argument is that sexual behavioral norms and attitudes espoused by the Orthodox Church largely correlated to the norms and attitudes of the people themselves.  Looking at the issues and debates surrounding topics of marriage, illicit sex, rape, incest, as well as sex and the clergy, Levin asserts that because the Church held such close contact with Orthodox believers in the period surveyed, 900-1700, regulation of their sexual behavior was largely free from acrimony and actually enforced by the community itself.  (There are other, larger points made in the work, but the community aspect is what interests me here.)

Yet towards the end of the 17th century, the traditional medieval relationship and cooperation between the people and the church, at least in the area of sexual behavior regulation, underwent a reconfiguration.  Two points will help illustrate the nature of this reconfiguration; the Nikonian reforms and the rise of the centralized, secular state.  

As the power of the tsar began to grow into a more modernist form, shedding the aging ancient regime skin, it sought to extend its influence in areas previously reserved for the ecclesiastical.  As Levin points out, regulation of sexual behavior was one such area increasingly transferred to the purview of the state at the end of the 17th century.  Suddenly, the close relationship between community and church was replaced by a bureaucratically distant relationship between community and state.  Whereas the community members once had a greater roll in the determination and enforcement of behavioral norms, under the new arrangement their voice increasingly diminished until it was hardly considered at all.  The reform of the secular promised radical change in the way society and the state interacted.  This alone would have been disconcerting to those who cherished the community centered aspect of their lives- yet the 17th century would also see reform of the sacred, and this transformation provoked an intense reaction.

I briefly discussed the Nikonian reforms here- essentially, Patriarch Nikon sought standardization of both text and ritual used in the practice of Russian Orthodoxy.  He modeled his standardizations on Greek Orthodox forms, believing that such efforts would help to strengthen the faith by eliminating the inconsistancy that crept in over the past six centuries.  During the same period, the Church also sought to improve the standing of their parish clergymen thought minimal education requirements and cultivating a more dignified, elitist position in the society they served.  It was a quest never completed- but the undertaking produced unintended consequences.  The combined effect of both movements described above was that the Church effectively took itself out of the close contact it possessed with the community faithful, instead preferring to create a far more formalized and structured relationship that placed the tsar and the church hierarchy before that of the community.  

As Robson point out in his analysis of the differences between the liturgy and rituals of Old Belief and Russian Orthodoxy, the former made little room for the role of secular power but contained a diverse set of interactions between clergy and faithful, while the latter de-emphasized the community in favor of promoting the health and well-being of the tsar and church clergy, eliminating much of the interaction elements between clergy and faithful.  This would prove to be the main grievance stemming from the progenitors of Old Belief, namely that the Russian Orthodox reforms abandoned the established and stabilizing relationship between community and church that existed for centuries during the medieval era in favor of a more modern form that used dictation instead of cooperation in establishing and enforcing norms.  Hence, the Russian Orthodox schism.

In effect, Old Believers faced a changing relationship with their authorities in the sacred and secular realms in which both significantly modified existence of traditional ties and commitments to the community faithful.  To see the Russian Orthodox schism as a religious issue alone misses the point- changes in the configuration of the state no doubt provided an additional source of unease among those who saw value in the more traditional methods of governance.  

Robson informs us that the community and the lived experience of Orthodoxy is what characterizes Old Belief, while Levin states that, at least in the arena of sex, the 17th century saw the divergence of medieval models of synchronicity with the community in favor of modern forms influenced by the West.  Probing deeper, one can distinguish the link between the two scholar's works and provide greater depth and meaning to larger cultural trends within Russian history.  At least, that's what I attempted to roughly outline above.
And I owe it all to the bibliography.  Thanks.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

A Look At Abstract Investigations

A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure to become completely immersed in a work of non-fiction on a topic seemingly ubiquitous in our present day- Information.  Written by James Gleick, The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood attempts to provide a history of how the West first defined and then applied conceptions of information in realms both analog and digital.  I say 'the West' because, outside of the first chapter on West African communicative drumming, the core of the book looks at noted personalities in the U.K. and United States.  Specifically, giants like Charles Babbage, Ada Lovelace, Alan Turing and Claude Shannon form the biographical focus.  While the subjects of biography are limited, the scope of the work is not- Gleick should be commended for his tackling of a subject both omnipresent and etherial.  The Information reminded me of another work on a similar abstract topic, that being Adrian Johns in-depth and far reaching work Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars From Gutenberg To Gates.  Utilizing the same biographical-narrative approach as Gleick, Johns looks over a much wider scope of history- roughly 400 years- probing the intertwined complexities surrounding the conception, evolution and use of the terms 'copyright' and 'piracy'.  Johns states that development of what we now term 'intellectual property' often lagged behind piratical practices and that distinct revisions of history occurred with the rise of each 'new' conception of the term.

I throughly enjoyed and highly recommend both of the above works.  On one level, I became so engaged due to the superb writing of both authors on the subjects they address.  Yet on another level, one beyond that of technical appreciation, I found both works to be superb illustrations and examinations of a process I encounter frequently when analyzing the behaviors of Russian peasants- that being the reconfiguration of knowledge, often at the local level.  In the case of information theory, the star concept highlighted in Gleick's work, the key development came when Claude Shannon proved that the total informative content of an object (a message, or a picture for example) could be mathematically calculated, so long as one accepted the basic premises that predictable change (knowing that the next number in the series 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 is probably 6) does not constitute 'information', and that any 'meaning' of information an object contains is irrelevant, as this was beyond the scope of mathematical inquiry.  At first glance, this definition of 'information' and the stipulations on its analytical content appears counter-intuitive.  Why would one analyze a letter, or a film, and specifically avoid the question of meaning?  Information, as many now conceive of it, would cease to be if voided of meaning.  Yet Shannon realized, and this was the true genus of his idea, that only by stripping away the subjective nature of information could one objectively measure its content.  He dubbed his objective unit of information a bit, and his later work and ideas would form the foundation of our digital era today.  Several disciplines outside of engineering, biology for one, took inspiration from Shannon's work and reconfigured his ideas to help them analyze their research.  But in order for it all to happen, Shannon had to first take the ill-conceived yet established notion of information and redefine it in a way that could make it mathematically interpretable.      

Johns' work analyzes the shifting definition of a similarly abstract idea akin to 'information'; Piracy.  The crux of his argument lies in the effects reconfiguration of the definition of piracy spurred equal reconfiguration of the definition of intellectual property.  Each new technological innovation that allowed for the greater distribution, or novel distribution, of information prompted new questions as to the nature of ideas and creativity.  When debates on the meaning of piracy began in the early 17th century, many questioned if ideas alone were worthy of protection.  Today, if one looks at the United States alone, not only have the concepts of piracy and intellectual property taken up copious amounts of legal thinking and articulation but they also are undergoing continuing expansion and redefinition as to their breadth.  For example, in the United States one may patent software- in the E.U. one cannot.  In Brazil, HIV/AIDS drugs used for treatment of the disease are 'pirated' via purchase or local production of generic substitutes of currently patented medicines.  Merck sees this as infringement of its intellectual property rights- Brazilian officials see it differently.  How each nation, each locale, reconfigures the definition of 'piracy' impacts on a wide range of issues, software and medical treatments being only a few fields touched.  

Lewis Hyde's work, Common As Air, also addresses this subject- indeed, many people see the current debates over the role digital technologies play in our use, consumption and generation of creative works as the dawn of a new relationship between people and the cultural artifacts that surround them.  What form that relationship will take has yet to be seen, but as Hyde mentions and Johns confirms our current notions and understanding on cultural production stems from debates cemented during the industrial revolution.  Would it be inconceivable that the digital revolution would prompt a similar reevaluation in our present day?

Perhaps the ultimate reason I appreciate these works is that they both take their subjects of inquiry and appreciate the fact that 'Piracy' and 'Information' are results of an intertwined and complex circulating process; the interplay between profesional disciplines and among histories men and women of letters, not to mention the average person and their relations, produces striking results not anchored in the moment of their conception but instead in a variance of motion across time and space.  This is an approach I endeavor to bring to my own work.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

A Quick Thought On My Changing Computing Habits

TechCrunch, as some of you may know, is definitely a place where you will find assertive and pointed remarks regarding developments in the technology world.  It is one of several tech websites I visit almost every day, in that period just after the first cup of coffee and before I actually feel inspired to work on my various academic projects.  Today I found this post whilst imbibing my morning sips of  roasted bean, 'The iPad Has Broken My Brain; OS X Lion Will Help Fix It'.  MG Siegler, the author, laments that his frequent use of the iPad makes him want for a similar user interface on his laptop:
On a deeper level, I’m realizing something else: the iPad (and iPhone) is changing the fundamentals of computing for me. 
Since I’ve been back from my trip, I’ve started using my traditional computers extensively again because I have to for work. (There’s still no denying that a laptop or desktop are far better for typing than an iPad.) But I’m finding myself continually confused when I go to use the trackpad. I swipe my fingers up expecting a page to scroll down and yet it doesn’t. 
I’m trying to interact with a Mac as if it’s an iPad. 
It’s actually pretty frustrating. I keep doing it. It’s like my brain is locked in. I’m someone who has had an iPad for a year, but I’ve never used it for days in a row without touching a computer like I just did this weekend. And it seems to have re-wired my brain.
For Siegler, the iPad proved more than capable of handeling his daily 'computing' tasks and switching back to his laptop turned out to be a disjointed experience.  He missed the simplicity of manipulating the system with a flick of a finger, instead of a mouse click.  This fundamental shift in user interface is arguably why the iPad commands the attention and use it receives today.  No doubt many people, like Siegler, upon using an iPad for any length of time realize that they simply don't need to consult their desktop or laptop for once common tasks.  

As a corollary, look at this story on how Neil Augenstein abandoned his bulky audio and video equipment in favor of the iPhone 4 for conducting his daily reporting.  It's pretty incredible that a smartphone could replace dedicated recording equipment, or that an iPad could make someone like MG Siegler realize he no longer needs to use his laptop for the majority of computing he requires.  

Photo by yoggy0
In my own life, I've found that my Galaxy S 'Epic 4G' phone allows me to detach from my laptop in ways that would have seemed impractical, for me, even a year ago.  One of the biggest changes is that I use Twitter almost exclusively on my phone to keep up on news and interesting things happening in the tubes of the internet.  A year ago I would have done the same thing by scanning my bookmarked pages in Chrome.  Now, I wouldn't even fire up the quad-colored beach ball unless the website in question has Flash- and even that is becoming less and less of a problem.  I use Tweetdeck, which means I can keep tabs on my Facebook account in addition to the 140 or so people I follow on Twitter.  This combo attack that Tweetdeck facilitates- news aggregation and Facebook interaction- means that I have significantly less need to consult my laptop when I have an interest in any of the two items listed above.  The mobility of my phone has trumped the once 'superior' mobility of my laptop.

As much as Siegler is impressed that his iPad could supplant his use of the laptop, I am amazed how my phone and Twitter have dramatically changed not only the way I interact with information, but also how I interact with my laptop.  As more and more people begin to use smartphones and interact with new information streams, like Twitter, I wonder what impact these shifts in 'computing' use will bring upon the form factor and design of laptops and other information devices.