BOYER AND YURCHAK, 2010
Dominic Boyer and Alexei Yurchak
In the May 2010 issue of Cultural Anthropology, Dominic Boyer and Alexei Yurchak examine a certain "uncanny kinship" between modes of parody that flourished in the late socialist period in the Soviet Union and the modes of parody which are becoming increasingly mainstream in the United States today. Stiob [pronounced: stee-YOP], as seen during the 1970's and 1980's in the Soviet Union, was a form of parody characterized by "a degree of overidentification with the object, person, or idea at which [it] was directed [so] that it was often impossible to tell whether it was a form of sincere support, subtle ridicule, or a peculiar mixture of the two." The authors see the same form of parody becoming increasingly visible in the United States. Examples of "American stiob" include The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert's The Colbert Report, The Onion, and Sasha Baron Cohen's characters. Boyer and Yurchak show how American stiob is defined by "a parodic overidentification with the predictable and repeatable forms of authroitative discourse...in which political and social issues are represented in media and political culture."
Through their analysis of both Soviet late-socialist and American late-liberal forms of stiob, the authors point to the "hypernormalization" of political and social discourse that allow stiob to flourish. By viewing contemporary Western political culture through the lens of late-socialist aesthetics and practices of parody, the authors offer a powerful critique of late-liberal hypernormalized mass media and political discourse while asking what the study of socialism can offer to an anthropology of the contemporary world.
Cultural Anthropology has published a number of essays on U.S. political culture. See, for example Joseph Masco's “"Survival is Your Business": Engineering Ruins and Affect in Nuclear America” (2008), George Lipsitz's “Learning from New Orleans: The Social Warrant of Hostile Privatism and Competitive Consumer Citizenship” (2006), Casey Nelson Blake's “The Usable Past, the Comfortable Past, and the Civic Past: Memory in Contemporary America” (1999) and Gary Downey's “Risk in Culture: The American Conflict over Nuclear Power” (1986).
Cultural Anthropology has also published extensively on the dynamics, cultures and legacies of socialism. See, for example, Tomas Matza's “Moscow's Echo: Technologies of the Self, Publics, and Politics on the Russian Talk Show” (2009), Nancy Ries' “Potato Ontology: Surviving Postsocialism in Russia” (2009), Karolina Szmagalska-Follis' “Repossession: Notes on Restoration and Redemption in Ukraine's Western Borderland” (2008), and Paul Manning's “Rose-Colored Glasses? Color Revolutions and Cartoon Chaos in Postsocialist Georgia” (2007).
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Dominic Boyer is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Rice University and a Visiting Professor at the Goethe University Frankfurt. He is the author of Spirit and System: Media, Intellectuals, and the Dialectic in Modern German Culture (University of Chicago Press, 2005) and Understanding Media: A Popular Philosophy (Prickly Paradigm Press, 2007) and has written widely on the intersections of media and knowledge. In addition to his interest in American stiob and svoi, he is currently engaged in two parallel research projects. The first focuses on digital media and the transformation of news journalism in Europe and the United States. The second is a collaborative project with Cymene Howe that investigates the politics of wind power development in southern Mexico and that explores energopolitics as an alternative genealogy of modern state formation to biopolitics.
Alexei Yurchak is Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology and core faculty member in the Department of Performance Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation (Princeton, 2006), which won the “AAASS Vucinich Book Prize for the most important contribution to Russian, Eurasian, and East European studies in any discipline of the humanities or social sciences.” He is working on a book about the history and present of the embalmed Lenin’s body, the peculiar biomedical science that developed around this project, and the concept of Leninist sovereignty that gave it impetus. He is also working on a book about experimental artistic scenes in Russia at the time the Soviet Union was imploding, between the late 1980s and the early 1990s.
INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHORS
Click here to view the transcript of an interview with Dominic Boyer and Alexei Yurchak.
LATE SOCIALIST STIOB
On April 5, 1987, an article was published in Leningrad's main newspaper, an organ of the Communist Party Committee of Leningrad, criticizing the informal subculture of rock musicians as being ideological enemies who advocate bourgeois morality and cultural degradation. It took officials a few days to realize that the author of the article was a member of the subculture. The authors cite the article as an example of hypernormalized parody in late socialism. Below is an image of the article:
The authors' second example of late-socialist stiob comes from communist Yugoslavia. In 1987, a group of artists known as Novi Kolektivizem (New Collectivism), part of the Slovenian art movement NSK (Neue Slowenische Kunst), won a large national poster competition to commemorate The Day of the Communist Yugoslav Youth and the birthday of President Tito. The poster was distributed widely throughout Yugoslavia and printed in the central Yugoslav daily Politika. A few days later, the Politika was informed that the poster was a close replica, with only a few symbols changed, of a 1937 Nazi propaganda poster. Below is an image of the Yugoslav poster (left) next to the Nazi original (middle and right):
Boyer and Yurchak's third example of stiob from the socialist context involves Sergei Kuyokhin, posing as an historian and political figure, lecturing on Lenin's life on a popular tv program. After a 1.5 hour lecture, in an earnest and serious tone, Kuryokhin stated: "In other words, I simply want to say that Lenin was a mushroom."
Click on the links below to see clips mentioned in the essay:
Stephen Colbert on the O'Reilly Factor:
One of The Yes Men acts as a spokesperson for Dow Chemicals on BBC and takes responsibility for the Bhopal disaster:
The Yes Men Andy Bichlbaum is interviewed after the media finds out about his Dow Chemicals impersonation:
Jon Stewart on Crossfire:
CNN discusses Tina Fey's parody of the Sarah Palin interview:
Charlie Brooker on how to report the news:
The Yes Men had set up a website that mimicked the WTO's website in its aesthetics, ideology, and discursive style at the plausible addess www.gatt.org. As a result, they were invited to speaking addresses and, later, received news coverage when they declared that the WTO was to be disbanded and replaced by an organization that would have "human rather than business interests as its bottom line." Here is a screen shot of the stiob-esque website:
Berkeley-based UCMeP movement (UC Movement for Efficient Privatization) uses the strategy of stiob to subvert the attempts of the University of California board of regents to dramatically increase the price of tuition starting in fall 2010 and effectively privatize the university. While UC Berkeley has had many protests, UCMeP has chosen the approach of the parody of overidentification. UCMeP has created a hoax site based on UC Berkeley's daily newspaper, the Daily Californian.
LINKS FROM THE ESSAY
Steven Colbert's Studio: http://www.colbertnation.com/home
Tina Fey on SNL: http://images.eonline.com
Leningrad Newspaper: Leningradskaia pravda, April 5, 1987
NSK Poster: (image in the public domain)
Yes Men Screen Shot: courtesy of Alexei Yurchak